January 29 Good Science News #3 The coolness factor.
Science is cool, witness the Mammoth Project. There is a group of scientists (reviverestore.org) that is working on bringing the Woolly Mammoth back to life.
In a manner of speaking.
They have been able to retrieve mammoth DNA from frozen Woolly Mammoth's that have been found in northern Russia. DNA from those animals is being injected into living Asian elephant cells, to see if they can create mammoth like hair and fat cells in the laboratory using cell culture. Eventually, they hope to create an Asian Elephant with hair and fat and, well, an Asian elephant that acts like a mammoth! Now here is the interesting part. When asked why they were doing this, the co-investigators were quoted in an article in Science magazine saying that: “the last benefit (of the Mammoth project) might be called “wonder,” or, more colloquially “coolness.” This may be the biggest attraction, and possibly the biggest benefit, of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living Woolly Mammoth. And while this is rarely viewed as a substantial benefit, much of what we do as individuals—even many aspects of science—we do because it's “cool.” Ask any six-year-old what they think of living Woolly Mammoths and half of them will say, “Wow, that would be really cool!” Humans are in awe of nature and natural phenomena. Whether it be the night sky or the rhythmic patterns of oc
ean waves or the smell of a pine forest. It is awesome and the feeling of nature tugs at something deep within us. There is no wonder that Jurassic Park was one of the leading money-making franchises in cinematic history. Dinosaurs, like Woolly Mammoths, inspire awe. And that brings us to a recent finding from the world of "cool science." Spinosaurus. The dinosaur Spinosaurus lived 99 million year ago, stalking the river deltas of North Africa and Spinosaurus loved the water.
“Really, every part of the body we looked at has ‘water-loving’ written all over it,” Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, one of the authors of the recent paper said, describing the work. But the animal, unlike a seal or a whale, had spines and projections, and even a sail-like fin on its back, that would cause considerable drag in water. Furthermore, its tail muscles were small, so unlike an alligator it didn’t use its tail to swim. So how do you live as an animal dedicated to the water, if you don’t swim? Well, Spinosaurus had broad feet like a heron, and head and neck adapted to strong downward thrusts. Like a heron. And if it walks like a heron and eats like a heron. Well, then isn’t it just a giant heron? “The heron model at this point in time is the simplest explanation that fits the available data, and in our science, that’s often the best route to follow,” said Serjoscha Evers, a spinosaur specialist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland who reviewed the paper. So imagine, 55 million years ago, a giant animal wading in the water, easily catching massive, human-sized fish in its crocodile-like jaws. That might not be stuff of a movie like Jurassic Park, nor might it not be the science of Woolly Mammoths ranging across the Siberian tundra. But a giant stork wading the banks of Africa 55 million years ago. How totally cool is that?