Discovered: The functions of 'junk' DNA; time slows for athletes; tigers go nocturnal to live alongside humans; and, no, we can't see the future.
Huge discoveries from the DNA 'junk' heap. When researchers study DNA, they're usually limiting their inquiry to a very small percentage of the genome. Their research typically ignores the vast majority of genetic information as "junk" DNA. But now, in what The New York Times is calling a "major medical and scientific breakthrough," research from the Encode project has shown that at least 80 percent of this "junk" DNA plays an active, crucial role in determining whether or not someone develops conditions like multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, lupus, celiac disease and many others. Our genomes come bundled with millions of gene switches that may be the root cause of many diseases. Hundreds of scientists and dozens of labs participated in the federally funded project. President of Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute Eric Lander says that Encode's predecessor, the Human Genome Project, "was like getting a picture from space," whereas Encode is like a more detailed and useful "Google maps." There's a lot more research to be done before we fully understand this previously investigated DNA, but experts are already saying that the findings are "a really big deal" and that they "will definitely have an impact on our medical research on cancer." [The New York Times]
Athletes may experience time differently. You know how in those shoot-out scenes from The Matrix everything suddenly slows down, giving Neo more time to perceive and dodge the bullets whizzing towards him? It's a neat special effect, but it's also a useful way of describing what happens in our brains when we get ready to make important physical movements. Researchers at the University College of London have found that getting ready to hit a home run or make an endzone catch may affect the way athletes' minds process information. In these situations, the brain can slow down its perception of time. "Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced," says UCL neuroscientist Nobuhiro Hagura. "So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower." [BBC]
ESP debunked. Two years ago, a Cornell University researcher named Daryl Bem released a study which suggested that people tailor their behavior to events that haven't yet occurred. Put simply, Bem purported to have discovered a scientific basis for seeing into the future. But one lone study isn't sufficient to establish a scientifically accepted truth. The findings have to be replicable, and by that standard Bem's ESP research doesn't pass muster. A team led by Carnegie Mellon University's Jeff Galak ran a meta-analysis on the Cornell study and sought to duplicate it. They also ran simple psychological tests (such as improving typing speed through repetition) in reverse, but failed to find any evidence of precognition. "An effect is not an effect unless it is replicable," Galak says. He still finds Bem's work interesting and encourages him to continue it. [New Scientist]
How tigers and humans can coexist. There's a scene in Sunset Boulevard where down-on-his-heels screenwriter Joe Gillis and eager script reader Betty Schaefer brainstorm a plot about two people who devise an elaborate apartment-sharing scheme. One works days, the other works nights, and they're never in the apartment at the same time. That's pretty close to how tigers and humans manage to share the same environment, according to field research from Nepal. Neil Carter, a conservation scientist from Michigan State University, studied tigers in Chitwan National Park and found that the animals will adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle in order to live near humans. Carter believes that the survival of many endangered species depends on animals' and humans' ability to alter their behavior and "timeshare" the same territory. [Science Now]