Study Suggests Only 14% Of Earth’s Species Have Been Identified

A recent study suggests that despite hundreds of years worth of scientific research dedicated to identifying our planet’s species, only 14% of them have been cataloged. The study predicts that Earth is home to 8.7 million species, only 1.2 million of which are currently known to scientists.

The study was conducted to determine how close scientists are to identifying and cataloging all of Earth’s species. The findings of the study have confirmed that “we are way off” from becoming familiar with every species, says Boris Worm, a co-author of the study.

Worm has noted that several classes of living things, such as mammals and birds, are close to being completely identified. Other classes, however, such as fungi, are still a long way from being completely identified. The study mentions that only seven percent of the world’s fungi have been identified, and less than 10% of the ocean’s life forms have been identified.

The extensive knowledge of mammals and other prominent life forms is due in large part to the physical characteristics they possess. In the study, Worm notes that life forms that are “conspicuous” and “relatively large” have been identified primarily because they are “easy to find”; conversely, microscopic forms of life such as fungi are much harder to identify. The ocean’s life forms present another challenge, as the study of the depths of the ocean is much more difficult to conduct than the study of life on land.

Before this most recent study was published, many other attempts have been made to predict the amount of species living on Earth. Previous estimates have ranged between three million and one hundred million species. Of the 8.7 million species currently estimated, Worm states that “there is an age of discovery ahead of us when we could find out so much more of what lives with us on this planet.”

To determine the percentage of undiscovered species, the authors of the study had to group species into several different categories. First, similar species were divided into a group known as a genus, then were divided into a broader group known as a family. The subdivisions are, in order: genera, families, order, classes, and phyla. Broader groupings continued until all species were divided into one of five kingdoms- animals, plants, fungi, chromists, and protozoa. Then, using statistics derived from the groupings, researchers were able to predict the number of species on Earth. The method used to determine the number of species is called linear regression.

One of the most difficult part of the study is dealing with the rate of extinction that continues to wipe out species at an alarming rate. Worm stated that rates of extinction have climbed to ten to a hundred times their natural level, which challenges the process of identifying new species. Worm described the process as discovering “nature’s library, and we’ve only begun to decipher the first ten books…we’re throwing out entire books without having a look at them.”

The study has drawn criticism from some researchers, who have called the study unreliable. Critics of the study have noted that instead of using linear regression to determine the amount of species, the authors of the study should have used a different technique called ordinal regression. Using ordinal regression, critics say, would have provided a much more accurate number, which could have been either much higher or much lower than 8.7 million.

The results of the study have indicated that it is crucial to continue to study and discover new species so that we might get a better look at the biodiversity of the planet. With the current rate of extinction, however, species are being wiped out even before they are discovered, highlighting the importance of preserving our environment before even more species have gone extinct.

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Science Behind “Munchies”

Hang onto your Poptarts, everybody.

Studies recently completed have shown that eating fattier foods may be yet another reason causing a person’s brain and body to seek out those midnight munchies.  What has largely been seen as a sure sign of marijuana related euphoria may not just be a one-trick pony.  Instead it may be a different beast causing the feeding frenzy—unrelated to the drug, but rather to poor quality eating habits

To get a better idea of how this all works, first a word on how marijuana triggers the “munchies”: when cannabis enters the body, it heads to the brain.  Once there, a endocannabinoid receptor (CB1) is activated; this tells the body (namely, the stomach) that it is time to eat.  At this point, the effected person is well on their way to Candyland.

But, depending on the lifestyle, this can be either good or not-so-good news.

Daniele Piomelle, a professor of pharmacology, with his team at the University of California (UCI), School of Medicine, found that the body could trigger its own built-in high.

Through the research him and his team performed on rats, they found that the same CB1 receptors (formerly linked with marijuana) are set in motion by the consumption of fatty foods.

The experiment involved feeding the rats a variety of foods that were heavy in different solutions: protein, sugar, and fat, respectively.  By canceling out the stomach as a possible trigger for the cravings  (this was possible with a valve placed within the rat to drain the liquid before it reached the stomach), the aim was to see if any of these foods would have a cannabis-like effect on the brain. 

But while the effects were still present, the source was not.  When the fatty compound was presented to the rats, they could simply not resist: unlike the other compounds in which they could easily stop eating.  So this must have been a sign that the fatty compounds triggered the CB1 receptors in the brain, right? Nope.

However, they instead found that nowhere in the brain were the CB1 receptors activated.  This left them puzzled and wondering: why?

As Piomelli explains: “The fat hits the tongue, the cannabinoids kick in and more hunger follows.”  And it makes sense when we think about humans from an evolutionary standpoint.  Filling humans with a drive  to eat fats when they are available, would help to ensure survival when the threat of food scarcity could be looming close at hand.

But the truth is that for a lot of people (especially those where obscenity rates run high), famine is not as much a problem.  Food is available but the control over its consumption is not.

And this could mean big news for the future fight against obesity.  By looking at the gut as if it were operating like it had a mind of its own, drugs can be manufactured to target the receptors in the gut instead of those in the brain. 

Already there is a drug, Rimonabant (Acomplia), that is not currently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which targets the receptors in the brain.  However, according to Jonathan Farrimond, a researcher studying cannabinoids and feeding at the University of Reading, this particular drug “induced bad side effects like suicidal thoughts due to its activity [in the brain].”

Since this new study now shows that binge eating can be a product of events outside of the goings-on within the brain, the goal is to now refurbish a drug that does not interact with the brain’s activity but rather the gut.  By targeting the CB1 receptors in the gut, the future may see a change in how we can fight against the growing obesity problem. 

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Teen Brains Predict Music Hits

We’ve all been there—snapping our fingers to a tune in our head, unable to get passed that one snippet of melody no matter how hard we try. Researchers now feel that the link between popular songs and brain function may be stronger than what was previously believed.

What if your brain knew more about what songs could be potential hits, over your personal feelings for that song?

Researchers headed by Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, believe that they have found a connection between teenage brain functions and popular music. In a sense, they suppose that teenage brain activity can predict (perhaps, subconsciously) what songs, from a relatively unknown list, are more likely to become hits.

“I want to know where ideas come from,” Berns explains, “and why some of them become popular and others don’t.  It’s ideas and the way that we think that determines the course of human history.”

In the study which first began in 2006, 27 teens with ages ranging from 12 to 17 were asked to listen to 60 15-second song clips found on the MySpace pages of unknown artists. The sound clips encompassed a variety of musical styles like country, rock, indie, hip hop, metal, and blues to avoid circumstantial snags.  The teen’s brains were then monitored by using brain image scanning technology. Functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI) was also put into use to help measure the teens’ neurological responses.  As if this were not enough, the teens were also asked to rate these songs by providing a simple score of 1-5 stars per song.

At first, the test was to show the effectiveness of peer pressure among teens, however, years later that focus would change.

Three years after the initial tests, Berns was surprised when he heard that one of the tested songs (“Apologize” by the band OneRepublic) was a hit being belted on the show American Idol. Seeing how the craze grew around a relatively unknown artist (at the time when the study commenced), Berns decided to hit his research once again

What he found was that activity in both the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum of the brain (which is the “reward” center of the brain) rose much higher for songs that would eventually have higher sales down the road.  Other unknown songs that would eventually catch on were country songs—“Don’t Laugh at Me” by Mark Wills and “Drink, Swear, Steal, and Lie” by Michael Peterson.

About one-third of the brain images were correct in “choosing” what songs would eventually do well in sales. But as it turns out, the teen’s subconscious response was much more accurate in picking what songs would not do well. Of all the teens and songs tested, there was an astounding 90% success rate in finding the songs that would not pick up in popularity, and were to become—excuse the term—“misses.”

As a side note, the teens 1-5 ranking had no real connection to either brain activity or music sales. Instead, it acted as a way to show that the brain was acting almost as a separate entity, being more accurate with its predictions, without the teen’s knowledge.

Although this evidence is not definitive, Berns and company believe that the results shown are still incredible. “The fact that there was any predictive power at all was surprising,” states Berns, “There are so many songs released each year and so few hits, that the odds were stacked against us.”

And even though the odds may have been against him, Berns is still overcome with the feeling that this is just a beginning step. With more tests and surveys like this one, he hopes that patterns in cultural popularity will begin to emerge.  

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Chemist Discovers New Use for Banana Peels

March 16, 2011 – Jen Noelken

Bananas have long been known for health benefits ranging from healthy bones to reducing stress.  More recently, a Brazilian scientist discovered another way the yellow skinned fruit can keep humans and the environment healthy.  A Sao Paulo researcher found banana peels can help extract heavy metal water pollutants. 

Lead, copper and other heavy metals can contaminate waterways from agricultural runoff and industrial waste.  With no surprise, heavy metals can cause health risks for both humans and other species including affects on the brain and nervous system.  Current trends of removing water pollutants rely on silica, cellulose and aluminum oxide to remove heavy metals from water.  However, these techniques carry potential toxic side affects of their own due to the presence of acids.   

Dr. Milena Boniolo, a chemist and recent PhD graduate from Federal University of Sao Carlos, Brazil received the distinct honor of discovering banana peels ability to help purify dirty water.  In an interview with Bloomberg Business Weekly in February 2010, Dr. Boniolo said she loves the idea of green chemistry.  She said giving importance to items before pitching them (such as fruit skins) is vital to solve environmental issues.  With that mind-set, Dr. Boniolo acquired the idea for banana skins after watching a television documentary about the amount of banana peels food industries discard.

Brazilian fast food industries pitch at least four tons of banana peels a week in Sao Paolo alone.  The massive amount of waste got Dr. Boniolo thinking about potential, practical uses for the peels.  With a PhD dissertation looming, she decided to focus her efforts into saving thousands of banana peels from landing in the garbage.  

Bananas are not indigenous to Brazil, but the country is the second largest banana producers after India.  Portuguese settlers brought the fruit to Brazil and since that time banana production has flourished.  A majority of the commercial crop of bananas come from the northeast region of Brazil, followed by the north.  Bananas are the most widely eaten fruit in the country with several varieties offered at local markets.  Banana selections in Brazil are compared to apple selections in North America or Europe. 

Dr. Boniolo experimented with the peels eventually developing a three step formula.  First, the banana skins were placed in pans and left in the sun to dry for about a week.  Next, the dried skins were ground into a fine powder.  After ground, the skins were passed through a sieve to keep particles the same size.  When the banana peels finished processing, the ground peel formula was mixed with contaminated water.  The results proved basic chemistry principles. 

Basic principle of chemistry states that opposites attract.  Banana peels are rich in negatively charged molecules which attract the heavy metal, positively charged water pollutants.  Dr. Boniolo found 5 mg of banana skin powder could clean 100 ml of heavily polluted water.  Her technique worked on removing metals such as cadmium, lead and nickel.  Around 65% of the tested water was decontaminated after 40 minutes.  Repeating the process could purify the water to almost 100%.  The same peel can be used several times and when the peel purification life is over, metals and peels can be separated for recycling.

The research process found the use of banana peels was “20 times more effective than other substances.”  The technique is also much cheaper than traditional methods because of bananas low costs and high availability.  Not to mention the process is much safer for humans and the environment.  Dr. Boniolo stated the use of bananas offer a very cheap and efficient way of removing heavy metal pollution.  Currently, she is looking for partners to expand the process to an industrial scale.  

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