Humans have always been in awe of birds: their beautiful feathers, their graceful flight, and their sweet songs. These are just some of the features that distinguish them from other animals. Birds are extremely diverse—with over 10,000 living species on Earth—and are found in all kinds of environments, from extremely hot and dry deserts, to the frigid Antarctic.
Penguins are particularly interesting for scientists as they are flightless birds that can swim and have evolved to thrive in the hostile Antarctic environment where few animals can survive. Now, we are a step closer to understanding their evolutionary history, population sizes in response to historical climate change, as well as the genes involved in their ability to adapt to such extreme climates, with an exciting new study published last month in GigaScience, an online open-access BGI-BioMed Central journal.
Scientists have known that cleft palate—a birth defect where the baby’s roof of the mouth does not form properly—is caused by certain genes and environmental factors. Maternal smoking during pregnancy has been implicated with cleft palate in babies. Recently, Wu and colleagues discovered two genes from chromosome 4 among Asians—predominantly East Asians—result in a higher risk of nonsyndromic cleft palate when mothers were exposed to tobacco smoke three months prior to pregnancy until the first trimester.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Our population now is the highest it has ever been, thanks to huge advancements in healthcare. There are more mouths to feed now than ever before. But the amount of land and resources available on earth for farming and cultivation is limited – and despite our immense progress, millions of people across the globe still go to bed hungry. Even worse, climate change is further straining our environment and threatening our food supply. In 2011 alone, tens of thousands of people – not to mention livestock – perished in the East African famine caused by crop failure due to a devastating drought.
What if we can grow crops that are resistant to extreme cold and dry weather? Sound like a good way to solve the hunger crises in poor nations? Well it might just be possible. Researchers have discovered a gene from a grass that when inserted into other plants and overexpressed, results in dramatic improvements in their survival under stressful environmental conditions. What’s more, their growth rate and seed yield is also boosted under non-stressful conditions.