Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting skeletons to talk

During 15 years at Emory, as department chair and Goodrich C. White Professor, George Armelagos has helped solidify the University's reputation as a national leader in the interdisciplinary, bio-cultural approach to anthropology. On April 3, he will receive his second, national award for lifetime achievement, this time from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

"Every skeleton has a story to tell," says Armelagos, one of the main pioneers of bioarcheology.

Read more about his work in this Emory Report profile.

Putting teeth into the Barker hypothesis

A fish eye view of natural selection

Emory biologist Shozo Yokoyama's data on genes that control how fish see light at different depths have opened researchers' eyes about statistical analysis of natural selection. Read more in this Science Daily article: "Hundreds of Natural Selection Studies Could be Wrong."

Related story:
Fish vision makes waves in natural selection

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Financial advice can 'off load' decision process

A study using fMRI shows that expert financial advice may shut down areas of the brain responsible for decision-making processes. "The expert provided very conservative advice, which in our experiment did not lead to the highest earnings. But the brain activation results suggested that the offloading of decision making was driven by trust in the expert," said Monica Capra, assistant professor of economics and co-author of the study.

The study results were featured on CNN International, and in a New Scientist article: "Brain quirk could help explain financial crisis."

Monday, March 23, 2009

The secret lives of lemurs

Ask any new dad, and he’ll tell you — having a new baby in the house is no picnic.

Anthropology Professor Patricia Whitten recently uncovered evidence that, in communities of the earliest primates, newborns stress out the males. “I’m looking at different aspects of hormones and behavior in wild primates to understand humans better,” says Whitten, who specializes in the links between behavior, biology and reproduction.

Whitten began her career studying wild vervet monkeys in 1977, while she was a Harvard graduate student. She had grown up in a suburb of Chicago and had never even been camping when she headed to a remote reserve in northern Kenya for her solitary fieldwork.

“Months before I left, my mother would send me newspaper clippings with headlines like, ‘Africa Aflame!’ She was so worried,” Whitten recalls.

Whitten, however, enjoyed the adventure. “The reserve was full of lions, wild dogs, elephants and buffalo,” she says. “In the morning on my way to work, I’d pass all these wonderful beasts.”

The vervet monkey troops she observed were spread over varying habitats, from the thick forests along a riverbank to a seasonably drier area where vegetation was sparse. Giving birth right after the rains allowed a mother to indulge in handy meals of acacia seeds. If an infant was born just a few weeks later, however, the mother had to feed on the tiny, clover-like flowers of the acacia — a more labor-intensive task which required her to push away her clinging newborn so she could leap from limb to limb. After three years in the field, Whitten published groundbreaking data that showed the link between ecological factors, social status and reproductive rates in the vervets.

“Timing was important for these females,” she says. “Low-ranking females conceived late and gave birth late.”

In 1989, Whitten joined Emory, where she established a lab that has gained an international reputation for the analysis of steroid levels in fecal samples of wild primates. The data can help reveal all sorts of complex social dramas, from the emotional impact on baboons after a relative is killed by a lion, to the secrets of monkey mating strategies.

In 1998, she began collaborating with Diane Brockman of the University of North Carolina in a study of sifaka lemurs in Madagascar. Lemurs are prosimian primates — believed to be the forerunners of more advanced primates like apes and monkeys.

The sifaka particularly intrigued Whitten, since the females dominate the males. “A female will leap right behind a male while he’s feeding, reach over his shoulder and grab some leaves and start eating them, almost as if she is daring him to move,” Whitten says. “If he’s smart, he won’t.”

In addition to fieldwork, Whitten was responsible for the lab analysis in the sifaka study, along with Emory graduate student Amy Cobden. The study results, published February 25 by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that male sifaka become more anxious during the annual birthing season. Whitten initially thought that the rise in glucocorticoid levels in males could be tied to an environmental factor. She was surprised that the data pointed instead to the presence of a new infant.

Field observations revealed another surprise: male sifaka play a nurturing role with infants, grooming and caring for them. But the correlation between higher stress in males and the birthing season remains a mystery.

One hypothesis is that the males are worried about aggression by males from neighboring groups: Sifaka males roam and visit other groups of sifaka during the birthing season. Sometimes the visitors challenge the dominant male of a group. Occasionally, they will even kill infants.

For Whitten, the complex dramas revealed by the initial study raise more questions. For instance, why do the female sifaka sometimes allow visiting males to hold their newborns? “The females are dominant, so they are choosing which males are trustworthy — but sometimes they don’t seem to be choosing that well,” Whitten says.

While she is continuing to study vervets, the prosimian primates — believed to have originated 65 million years ago — offer her a glimpse further back. “In anthropology, we commonly talk about 1 million years of evolution, or 5 million,” Whitten says. “If we start looking at behavior going back 65 million years, think how much more deeply ingrained that may be.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

From cattle to cash: Money is on our minds

Cattle were the earliest version of money—not a highly portable form, granted, but a measure of wealth that was nearly universally valued.

Next came cowrie shells scooped from shallow ocean waters, metal coins, paper bills, and the gold standard. Cold, hard cash may have become more abstract, but our relationship to it—and to the idea of buying, selling, trading, and investing—is still highly emotionally charged.

“We did not evolve to sell derivatives,” says neuroscientist Dennis Choi, executive director of Emory's Neuroscience, Human Nature and Society Initiative. “That wasn’t a driving force in human evolution. Our system to weigh risks and rewards developed for different purposes.”

How and why we make such value decisions is at the core of an emerging discipline: neuroeconomics, which exists at the juncture of neurobiology, psychology, and economics. By mapping the brain activity of volunteers with technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) as they are asked to make controlled choices, scientists are able to peer beyond behavior into underlying thoughts and feelings.

Read more about Emory's pioneering efforts in neuroeconomics in the latest issue of Emory Magazine.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The science of sleep

“Who’s to say when you should be awake and when you should be asleep?” Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology and an expert in the sleep habits of different cultures, posed this question in a recent New York Times article.

Here's an excerpt:

In traditional societies where life revolves around herding, say, rather than scheduled paid labor, people sleep when they’re tired. And when they wake and find themselves in a 2 a.m. world?

“They go outside and look at the stars, and someone else who’s awake notices and comes out, too, and they sit with you and you end up gossiping,” Worthman said.

Click here to read the full article.

A holistic look at addiction

What roles do biology, politics, society, culture and history play in addiction? A project within Emory's Science and Society program is exploring creative ways to address addiction and depression in college students, by integrating academics and public programs.

"For instance, instead of just telling students not to smoke, we decided to engage them in learning the history of smoking, the biology of it, and the history of how it affects communities," explains Arri Eisen, senior lecturer in biology and director of the Science and Society program.

The project was featured in the Jan-Feb issue of the Journal of American College Health.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Family stories tied to well-being

Research by Robyn Fivush, chair of psychology, showing the link between children's abilities to tell family stories and lower rates of depression, was cited in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, "Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Epigeneticist to give 'Life of Mind' talk

The "nature versus nurture" debate has taken new twists and turns in recent years, as epigeneticists have started unraveling the mysteries of how genetic material is packaged. Chair of Biology Victor Corces, whose lab is working at the leading edge of epigenetics, will give a talk on Monday, March 16, entitled "Beyond the Genome: DNA is Not Destiny."

The free, public lecture begins at 4 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

For more about the work of Corces, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Biology, read his profile in Emory Report. He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, who used a $1 million grant to create RISE, a program that brings inner-city high school students to campus to work alongside Emory students in his lab.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Students rally for action on climate change

"Global warming is the issue of this generation, because we're probably going to be the first generation to be impacted heavily by its consequences," says Ryan Jones, president of the Emory Environmental Alliance, and a senior majoring in environmental studies and physics.

Jones and other EEA members recently helped lead Atlanta students in a call to action on global warming at the Georgia State Capitol.

Watch a video of the rally.

What is the chemical basis of love?

Mammalian moms are instantly bonded to their babies, and would do anything to protect them. Why? "There is an ancient brain chemical that is ubiquitous, and stimulates the bond," says Emory neuroscientist Larry Young.

In his latest paper, published in Nature, he explains that biologists may soon isolate the biochemical chain of events associated with love – and how that could shed light on everything from autism to marital relations.

The New York Times article on Young's work, "Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss," made it onto the "most read" articles list. He was also featured in an Associated Press story, "The Science of Romance."

Related stories:
'Orgasm Inc' takes on female Viagra
The science of love
How early nurturing affects adult love
How to make your Valentine last forever

James Taylor's Guide to the Galaxy

"As computer tools become more sophisticated, it's critical to provide every detail of how an analysis is done, in ways that are verifiable. If you can't reproduce the results, you can't really trust them," says James Taylor assistant professor of biology and math and computer science.

Taylor is the co-developer of Galaxy, an open-source software system that makes high-throughput data analysis reproducible and easily shared among experimental biologists and other researchers. Anyone with a web browser can analyze genomic or other complex data with Galaxy.

Contact Taylor to request a training session for your group. Better yet, enroll in one of his courses.

Genomic Technology recently named Taylor a rising star in genomics research. Read more about his work in this Emory Report profile.

Chemist seeks collaborators for CNS research

Huw Davies' organic chemistry lab is developing methods aimed at making drug production highly scalable and cost-effective. His group patented a rhodium catalyst that can selectively produce single mirror images of molecules. Like hands, many carbon-based drug compounds occur as mirror-image pairs. While the "left hand" of the compound may have a valuable pharmaceutical effect, the "right hand" could produce an unwanted side effect, making selectivity critical.

In his latest paper, Davies demonstrates how his group's methods can make a new class of compounds to selectively activate targets in the central nervous system, and serve as potent monoamine transporter inhibitors. "It's conceivable that we could apply this new chemistry to develop molecular probes to study the biology of these targets, or develop therapeutic agents for depression and cocaine addiction," says Davies, who hopes to find collaborators at Emory to expand this research.

For more about Davies research, read his profile in Emory Report

Pay a virtual visit to Huw Davies' lab.

How bad is the economy?

Anthony Martin, Environmental Studies' resident tracker and paleontologist, recently spent some time on the Georgia coast, doing field work for an upcoming book. While on Cumberland Island, he and his wife, Ruth, report that they dined on roasted 'possum. "It tasted pretty good," Martin says. The 'possum was caught and prepared by Carol Ruckdeschel, a naturalist who has been living on Cumberland for more than 30 years and knows how to live off the land. "It was a delight to spend four days in the field with her – we learned a lot!" Martin says. Be sure to ask him for the 'possum recipe next time you see him.

Why should we care about the lowly ant?

"Ants represent a form of social life so different from our own, so advanced, that it might be the kind we'd expect to find if we did find an advanced social system on another planet." Biologist E.O. Wilson backed up this statement with a startling array of insect facts in an informal conversation with students and faculty at Woodruff Library, during Emory's "Evolution Revolution" symposium. Video and audio highlights of the symposium are now available. Don't miss New York Times science writer Olivia Judson's lecture on "The Art of Seduction: Evolution, Sex and the Public."

Lab probes anti-malarial benefits of shrub

Simon Blakey's organic chemistry lab has received seed funding for its Malagashine Project: to investigate a molecule isolated from a Madagascar plant that has shown promise as an anti-malarial prophylaxis. "It's an exciting molecule, but it is only produced by the plant in small quantities," says Blakey, who hopes to learn more about how and why the molecule works.

In December, Blakey received an NSF CAREER grant. The major focus of his work is making carbon-nitrogen bonds that hold potential for developing and manufacturing new drugs. "Out of the 50 top-selling drugs, 47 of them contain carbon-nitrogen bonds, so they are extremely important to medicine," he says. "Our lab is trying to invent better, more efficient ways of creating them."

Read more about the work of Blakey's lab here