Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tough Talking Apes

Science vs. Hollywood is always good for a laugh, but it's often a chance to learn some very interesting tidbits as well. Today, let’s take on the talking apes of the new movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Sure, the apes with whom Charlton Heston discussed Baconian philosophy over a nice plate of bananas were capable of talking. They had been afforded many generations of possible evolution. But Dawn takes place only 10 years after the previous film, when Cesar and his cohorts escaped to live in the woods.


Cesar speaks in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This is
amazing and impossible. But what may be worse – he’s a
face painter! He would fit in at a hockey game or a
Seinfeld episode.
Is it possible that they could learn speech within one decade? Are apes just not trying right now? The grand question would be, why is it that humans are the only animals that use spoken language to communicate?

To begin to answer our questions, one first must decide what a language is. Linguists have four criteria for sounds to be a language. One, each vocalization has a certain order – the short "i" sound always precedes the "en" sound in the word “in.” Second, there must be an order to vocalizations – this is syntax. Third, the vocalizations cannot be tied to or defined by a specific emotional state – you can yell the word “Hey,” either to let someone know a bus is driving at them, or to say hi a friend you meet for coffee. And fourth, novel vocalizations are understood – you can say something that has never been said before, but those people listening to you will understand its meaning.

If sounds follow those four rules, then they’re an oral language. So humans have spoken language and other animals don't - although the majority of people don’t use the gift very well. But the question remains, why are humans so much better at making sounds and language than primates? We share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, but they can make only three dozen or so vocalizations. Humans can make hundreds of different sounds – every noise required for every language on Earth. Where did we separate from apes in terms of vocalization?

Current hypotheses focus on two areas; brain molecular biology and body anatomy.  Let’s focus on the anatomy – we can make more vocalizations because of how our throats and chests have evolved.


The hyoid is the only human bone that is attached
to only muscles, not to another bone. Our hyoid is attached to 
tongue muscles, throat muscles, and jaw muscles. They all
work together to help us produce thousands of vocalizations.
To make sounds, you must be able to expel air in a controlled manner, this requires rib muscles and innervation to allow controlled exhalation – we got it, apes don’t. The air that is expelled passes over the vocal folds and vibrates them – this produces sound waves. The wave that is produced is based on the way your muscles change the shape of the vocal fold cartilage, and one way to alter the laryngeal muscle tone and shape is by moving your tongue.

The tongue is a muscle, and ours goes further back in our throat as compared to that of apes. Theirs is housed completely within their mouth, but we can change the shape of our voice box by using our tongue. You can stick out your tongue and move it side to side and feel your Adam’s apple move. Your adam's apple is NOT the same thing as your hyoid bone; the adam's apple is the laryngeal prominence associated with your voice box, but you can see that moving your tongue can modulate the vocal folds.

The other characteristic of the tongue that makes a difference is that it is our most sensitive touch appendage. We can make small and discrete moves with the tongue, and sense where it is in relation to our teeth and cheeks. This is another reason we can make so many different sounds, and is also why babies put everything in their mouths.

Another anatomical difference is that humans have a free-floating hyoid bone; it is the only bone in the human body that is not anchored to another bone. By attaching to the pharyngeal and tongue muscles, our hyoid helps us to make more than hoots and grunts. While apes do have a hyoid bone, it is not located as deep in their throat as is ours. In fact, infant (human) larynx and hyoid bone anatomy looks a lot like ape anatomy, but as we grow, our voice box and hyoid bone descend in our throat, while those of the apes do not. This is one reason it takes babies a while to learn to speak, muscle tone being another.


The intercostal muscles between the ribs are arranged
in several diagonal layers. The external muscles help with
inspiration, while the internal intercostals help with forced
exhalation. Humans have much more innervation of these
muscles (see the nerve traveling with the artery and vein in
Fig. B), so we can control exhalation for vocalization. It is
said that the human thoracic nerves allow for as much
control as the innervation of the hand and fingers.
Your rib muscles, your tongue attachment and your hyoid bone are all good reasons why humans can make more vocalizations as compared to nonhuman animals, but our brains matter too. The shear size of our brain means that we can devote more neurons to abstract thought, assigning meanings to vocalizations – this is the basis of a large dynamic language. But there is a molecular issue as well.

The Foxp2 protein is involved in vocalization and in understanding language. In songbirds with a mutated foxp2, their song is incomplete and inaccurate. In humans, defects in foxp2 activity lead to severe language impairments in both speaking and in understanding. Two small mutations in the human foxp2 are much of what separates our language ability from that of the apes.

A 2014 commentary takes the idea of bird song further, hypothesizing that human speech evolution was a reawakening of avian constructs in the basal ganglia of the brain, with the “tinkering” afforded by time, pressure, and mutation.


Terrence McKenna put forth a wild hypothesis in his 1992
book, Food of the Gods. His “stoned ape” theory stated that
early primates used psychedelic mushrooms to expand their
consciousness and that this led to fast evolution and
development of speech. If we follow this hypothesis, then just
what was growing in the woods where Cesar and his ape
mates have been living for the last 10 years?
Cesar of the Apes movies was genetically modified for intelligence, so maybe he had the foxp2 necessary to grasp speech. But do you think part of his genetic modification was to alter his ribs, hyoid, mouth, and tongue? The foxp2 does work in vocal fold, soft palate and tongue function, but it doesn't move your hyoid around!

If not, then maybe he understands our language, but he won’t be speaking it. And what about his cohorts? They speak too, although nobody played molecular hanky panky with them. And all this takes place within the lives of this single generation! The 1968 movie had time on its side, the evolution through generations was at least plausible. (but why did they speak English?)

For the new movie, it isn't evolution they so, it isn’t even evolution on steroids. The talking apes toss out Darwin completely and smell of Lamarckian evolution meets the Hulk (see this post). Come on Hollywood, give us a little credit – if you want us to buy in to a world we recognize, then stick to the natural laws we know.


Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
As Many Exceptions As Rules 



Ackermann H, Hage SR, & Ziegler W (2014). Brain mechanisms of acoustic communication in humans and nonhuman primates: An evolutionary perspective. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 1-84 PMID: 24827156



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is homosexuality "natural"?

Gay marriage. Strangely, this opportunity to celebrate a loving unity has emerged as one of the most divisive issues of our time. While most people against gay marriage cite religious reasons, some have argued that homosexuality “ain’t natural”, implying that this sort of behavior does not exist in nature. We will leave it to others to debate the religious arguments, but science has made it abundantly clear that homosexuality is perfectly natural.

In the beginning, there was no sex. That’s because in the beginning, there was no Barry White. Actually, our most ancient, single-celled progenitors simply had no need for sex since they could just split right down the middle to make a daughter cell. Aside from an occasional mistake during DNA replication, asexual reproduction results in a veritable clone of the parent cell. While no fun, it is an efficient system on an individual level – so efficient that asexual organisms like bacteria continue to dominate this world in terms of abundance.

It’s only love doing its thing.
But if everyone were a literal “chip off the ol’ block”, it leaves little room for diversity to appear rapidly within the species. Sex may have evolved because it is a powerful means to diversify the species’ portfolio; the more diverse the members of a species are, the more likely that some could survive a catastrophic event, such as a viral infection that wipes out 90% of the population, or the release of The Matrix sequels, which bored countless moviegoers to death. Sex creates diversity among the species because instead of generating clones, the offspring are a blend of two genomes. Thus, there is a greater chance that the children will possess unique characteristics, some of which may have never been seen before in that population. This diversity can give sexual organisms an advantage when battling parasites or predators, an idea known as “The Red Queen Hypothesis”.


If sex is such an advantage for a species, than why is there homosexuality? Scientists do not yet know the definitive answer to this question, but some plausible ideas have been put forth. First, we are a product of our genes. Our genes largely govern the types and amounts of hormones and hormone receptors coursing through our veins. Our genes contain the blueprint to build brain structures such as the hypothalamus, which is known to control sex hormone release and behavior. Variations in these genes could conceivably alter a person’s biochemistry of attraction – they could be attracted to members of the same sex, both sexes, or have no attraction to either sex (asexual). It is also highly likely that epigenetic factors from the environment interplay with our genes to create sexual preference. Whatever the case may be, we do not get to pick our genes or our biochemistry. Just like eye color or the ability to curl one’s tongue, people have absolutely no choice in their sexual orientation.



One thing that is undeniably certain is that homosexuality is not exclusive to humans. In fact, it is EVERYWHERE. All sorts of animals across different kingdoms – from insects to primates – exhibit homosexual behavior. Let's review some examples.

As any sheepherder will tell you, as many as one in ten rams are gay.

Sorry, wrong "Rams"!

How about penguins? Yes! There was even a famous story a couple years ago about two gay penguin males in a zoo, Buddy and Pedro, who became “gay penguin parents”. Proving that two gay dads can successfully raise a family, these king penguins teamed up to incubate an egg and bonded as any heterosexual family would have done.
A children’s book based on the two penguin dads is available.
Homosexual behavior is in the air. A variety of birds, such as the Laysan Albatross, and insects, such as flour beetles, have been observed in same-sex pairings. Finally, come with me to the sea of love and you’ll find homosexual activity in bottlenose dolphins. 

As mentioned before, homosexuality is also observed in other primates such as our close cousin, the bonobo. Bonobos are so into free love that they have even been referred to as “the hippie ape”. Both males and females are bisexual and use sex as a greeting and to resolve conflict. This is also why they make “Planet of the Apes” movies and not “Planet of the Bonobos”.


Why would species do this? Isn’t the emergence of homosexuality akin to draining the gene pool since reproduction will be reduced? The answer may be all about balance. Sometimes a species proliferates faster than resources can be replenished, which could lead to extinction. Homosexuality has been postulated by the Pulitzer Prize winner sociobiologist E.O. Wilson to be a means of population control, bringing the species into biological balance with the resources in its environment. While there is evidence that homosexuality has a biologic or sociobiologic component, the degree to which these play a role is still being defined.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Van Houdenhove E, Gijs L, T'sjoen G, & Enzlin P (2014). Asexuality: A Multidimensional Approach. Journal of sex research, 1-10 PMID: 24750031

Rice WR, Friberg U, & Gavrilets S (2012). Homosexuality as a consequence of epigenetically canalized sexual development. The Quarterly review of biology, 87 (4), 343-68 PMID: 23397798

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Friday Five

Highlighting some of the coolest science news we’ve seen lately.

1. Summer is the time for BBQ. Learn the science of BBQ in this video by It’s Okay To Be Smart.



2. Ever wonder how they get the caffeine out of coffee? Ever wonder what they do with it once it is extracted?



3. Want to know how Tylenol works? Well, so do scientists!



4. The hills might have eyes, but plants have ears! Scientists claim that plants can even hear themselves being eaten alive…much like a graduate student at a thesis defense.


5. How do you turn someone on (or off)? Stimulate their claustrum. Their what?!

 


Science quote of the week:

"The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science." --Jawaharlal Nehru 


Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter: @wjsullivan


Koubeissi, M., Bartolomei, F., Beltagy, A., & Picard, F. (2014). Electrical stimulation of a small brain area reversibly disrupts consciousness Epilepsy & Behavior, 37, 32-35 DOI: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2014.05.027

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Might you like a water mite named after you?

It is estimated that nearly 9 million species share the Earth but only 2 million of them have been named. In scientific parlance, organisms are named using binomial nomenclature with the first word referring to the genus and the second word the species (e.g., humans = Homo sapiens). Typically, the scientists who discover the new species get the pleasure of naming it. Often, the species’ name refers to the location where it was found, or it refers to a peculiar trait the organism possesses. Or, it may simply be the music that was playing at the time of the discovery.

Famed singer/actress/dancer Jennifer Lopez provided the inspiration for the name of a newly discovered species of water mite found near Puerto Rico, Litarachna lopezae. Some have speculated that this is due to an uncanny resemblance between their posteriors, but the scientists claim that they were listening to her music while analyzing the mites (nothing like a little “Booty” piping through the lab to stimulate the intellectual rigor that goes into experimental design). But biologist Vladimiar Pesic, who made the discovery, contends, "The reason behind the unusual choice of name for the new species is simple: J Lo's songs and videos kept the team in a continuous good mood when writing the manuscript and watching World Cup Soccer 2014”.

Litarachna lopezae, also known as "L.Lo".
Why the extra “ae” at the end of “lopez”? To make it sound more science-y, of course.
In the scientific world, it is considered an honor to have a species named after you. Think about having your name forever linked to a beautiful flower or a majestic beast that rules the jungle – that would be pretty awesome. But as noted above, not all creatures are pleasant to look at or even possible to look at without a microscope. Some creatures make us sick or even kill us. Who’d want to be named after such a critter?

Well, President Barack Obama was the motivation behind the naming of Paragordius obamai, a newly described parasitic worm. I’m sure there are many people chomping at the bit to crack a joke about this, but the researchers claim that the name stems from the fact that they discovered the worm in Kenya, the native country of Obama’s father. There is also a trapdoor spider, Aptostichus barackobamai, named after our current president, presumably in recognition of his confessed love of Spiderman comics. Well on his way to having the most species named after him than any other president, Barack Obama’s namesake has also been used for a lichen (Caloplaca obamae) and an extinct lizard (Obamadon gracilis). Oh, and who can forget about the “Obamafish” (Etheostoma obama)?

A politician named after a worm. And not just any worm – a parasitic worm. Live bait for any comedian.
The names of other presidents and politicians have been adapted for binomial nomenclature, although surprisingly, no species of newt has been named after Newt Gingrich yet. George W. Bush, along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, all have a species of the Agathidium slime-mold beetle named after them (Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi, and A. rumsfeldi). Both Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as Thomas Jefferson, have multiple species named after them. Clinton, Gore, and Carter have each been named after a species of Etheostoma (a genus of freshwater fish). And last but not least, George Washington served as the inspiration behind the name of Washingtonia, a genus of palm trees.
Let’s see if you can guess which celebrity is associated with the following species pictured below (answers at the bottom).


One




Two




Three



Four

Five


Six




The answers:

1. Echiniscus madonnae, a microscopic waterbear named after Madonna. These critters are virtually indestructible and have lived forever.
2. Gnathia marleyi, a fish parasite named after Bob Marley that is only found in the Caribbean Sea.
3. Eristalis gatesi, a flower fly named after Bill Gates. Yes, it crashes a lot.
4. Kootenichela deppi, a pre-historic arthropod that reminded the scientist of Edward Scissorhands, so he named it after Johnny Depp. Ironically, the scientist who discovered this many footed creature is named Dr. Legg!
5. Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp from Thailand named after Lady Gaga.
6. Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, a marsh rabbit named after the founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner (Playboy bunny, get it?).

So where did we get this system to name all of the life on Earth (a science known as taxonomy)? Some say it formally started with Aristotle's classification scheme as early as 300 BC. First, an organism was divided into the plant or animal group. Second, animals were subdivided into those that had blood and those that did not. Third, animals were further divided into things that walked, flew, or swam. Aristotle's system gets confusing because a duck can do all of these things, but his scheme was good enough to last 2000 years.

In the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus revised this system to include more categories that grouped organisms based on their morphology (body form). He was also the one who perfected the binomial nomenclature with the genus and species names. Written properly, the genus is always capitalized and the species always in lower case, and the entire name should be in italics or underlined. Latin is used because it is a universal and "dead" language, meaning it is no longer in use and therefore immutable. Plus, it sounds very scholarly. The Linnaeus system is so elegant and effective, it is still used today.


Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter: @wjsullivan

Hanelt, B., Bolek, M., & Schmidt-Rhaesa, A. (2012). Going Solo: Discovery of the First Parthenogenetic Gordiid (Nematomorpha: Gordiida) PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034472

Monday, July 21, 2014

Quick, Somebody Get The Name Of That Shark!

On Saturday morning, July 5, 2014, Steve Robles was out for a long distance swim. It was much like his usual Saturday swims, except something about this swim tasted different. Oh, yeah - it was him! A great white shark took a bite out of Steve off Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles, California.


Steven Spielberg was given a stinker when he signed on to
direct Jaws. The script wasn’t finished, Richard Dreyfus hated
his character’s development, and the first mechanical shark
sank as soon as it was put in water. But because of the movie’s
success, he became powerful enough to make any movie he
wanted. Jaws is the reason we were given Schindler’s List and
Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The movie Jaws was released in 1975, and great white attacks have been on our collective mind ever since. Robles’ wasn’t the first great white attack this year, and it won’t be the last. Other recent news stories have discussed the sightings of great whites off Cape Cod (July 3), and the third sighting of them off of the New York, New Jersey shore (July 3).

Every time there is a sighting or an attack, the media goes out of its way to tell us how rare the attacks are. Every news report includes a disclaimer that attacks occur once in a blue moon. They usually make some comparisons: you’re more likely to be killed by a cow than by a great white shark; you’re more likely to be bitten by Luis Suarez – you know, things like that.

But is it true? Are sightings and attacks by great white sharks rare and staying rare? Or has the faster news cycle led to the need for more sensational stories and therefore more coverage? It may be a bit of both.

More people swim in the oceans now than in the 1700’s or 1800’s. The reasons are many – more leisure time, more information about open water (lack of sea monsters), and a big increase in world population. So maybe the attacks reflect an increase in pruny people.

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida states that attacks have been increasing each decade since the early 1900’s, although there was a dip in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The ISAF says because they had a lapse in their record keeping, but I think it was due to the Jaws effect.


People used to sail within sight of land because they feared
falling off the Earth and the sea monsters that lived in open
water. They weren’t going to swim out there! It wasn’t until
1875 that someone swam the English Channel, and it didn’t
happen again for 31 years. Of course sea bathing, or wading,
was popular, but most often the sea water was
brought to pools on land.
Another reason for more unprovoked attacks may be that there are more sharks. Recent studies indicate that there are more great white sharks than previously counted off the coast of California and New York.

On the west coast of North America, an older study severely underestimated the number of great whites because of sampling biases, so a 2014 study re-evaluated this study and generated a number of more than 2000 for just those around California. Another 2014 study on the east coast of North America showed a dip in 1970’s but a steady increase in the number of great whites since the 1980’s.

A third 2014 study in Australia linked bite risk to increased shark numbers and suggested that this increase was due to an increase in whale numbers. Add to this upshot in population a study that used radiocarbon dating of vertebral columns. The authors showed that male great white sharks can live up to 73 years, much longer than previously assumed. More great whites living longer lives than we thought? Sounds like a recipe for more attacks.

The reason for this –  humans probably. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. This made the killing of any marine mammal (dolphins, seals, whales, etc.) illegal. This was joined by the international moratorium on commercial whaling passed in 1982. As a consequence, marine mammal numbers have been on a steady rise. Yum, more food for sharks. More food means more surviving sharks; more adult sharks means more baby sharks.

Helping this survival rate was a 1997 ban on the hunting of great white sharks. I don’t know a better way to increase the number of sharks than to stop killing them. So – there are more sharks, is it too weird to think that there might be more attacks?

But there are problems in counting attacks. The perpetrators eat the evidence in most cases. We may be significantly underestimating the number of fatal attacks just because we don’t have bodies to count.

The great white shark (1, Carcharodon carcharias), the bull shark
(2, Carcharhinus leucas), and the tiger shark (3, Galeocerdo cuvier)
are responsible for the majority of unprovoked attacks on humans
in open water. The great white swims in temperate and tropical
water around the world. The bull is in coastal water and rivers
around the world, but the tiger shark lives in tropical and
subtropical waters. Tigers only come about halfway north in the
US. Could you tell which one was gnawing your leg off?
Another problem with the ISAF; they list attacks by various species of shark. I can’t believe that a person can tell you what kind of shark attacked them, and physical evidence such as a tooth is very rare. Am I going to take the time to ID the species of shark that is gnawing my leg off? Shark scientists often argue about what species they’re looking at – you expect John Q. to know the difference between a nurse shark and a reef shark?

Get hit by a car – sure, try to get the license plate number and you might be able to get some satisfaction. But unless it’s a really unusual looking shark, I don’t think you’re going to get a call saying the private detective you hired has found him. Moby Dick, maybe, but a shark that looks like every other shark – nope.

But there’s an exception. Were you chewed on in a coastal river or river-fed lake? Then it was probably a bull shark.   Bull sharks are exceptions amongst sharks. Most sharks are able to live in saltwater because they have a way of stopping the loss of cellular water to the high salt environment they live in. Most sharks accomplish this by storing a huge amount of chemical called urea. See this post for more information.


There are very rare sharks of the Glyphis genus that can
live in brackish waters as well. They live in southeast Asia
and Australia, but they are very mysterious and aren’t
sighted often. This is a bull shark found in a golf course
lake in Australia. If bitten while in a river or lake, think
bull shark, not Glyphis.
Having cells with a lot of urea keeps the water from moving out of their cells and into the saltwater. In this way, sharks don’t dry up in saltwater. But bull sharks go one better, they have kidneys that can ramp up urea and salt elimination if they swim into freshwater, so they can survive in both low salt and high salt environments. Good for them, bad for rubber tubers and swimmers in rivers near the oceans.

This is important because bull shark attacks are the most likely to be fatal -if you can believe the statistics. So the coastal rivers aren’t as safe as you thought, but at least you’ll know who’s gnawing your leg off.


Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
Mark is writer and educator in the areas of science and history



Burgess GH, Bruce BD, Cailliet GM, Goldman KJ, Grubbs RD, Lowe CG, MacNeil MA, Mollet HF, Weng KC, & O'Sullivan JB (2014). A Re-Evaluation of the Size of the White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) Population off California, USA. PloS one, 9 (6) PMID: 24932483

Curtis TH, McCandless CT, Carlson JK, Skomal GB, Kohler NE, Natanson LJ, Burgess GH, Hoey JJ, & Pratt HL Jr (2014). Seasonal Distribution and Historic Trends in Abundance of White Sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, in the Western North Atlantic Ocean. PloS one, 9 (6) PMID: 24918579

Sprivulis P (2014). Western Australia coastal shark bites: A risk assessment. The Australasian medical journal, 7 (2), 137-42 PMID: 24611078

Hamady LL, Natanson LJ, Skomal GB, & Thorrold SR (2014). Vertebral bomb radiocarbon suggests extreme longevity in white sharks. PloS one, 9 (1) PMID: 24416189


Thursday, July 17, 2014

The DNA of The Price of Darkness

If you could study the DNA of anyone on Earth to learn what made him or her tick, who would you choose? Noam Chomsky, Bill Gates, Serena Williams, Madonna? It is probably safe to say that not many people would have chosen Ozzy Osbourne, the founder of the heavy metal pioneers, Black Sabbath. But scientists couldn’t wait to put Ozzy under the microscope…and for good reason.


I only have black genes!

Also known as The Prince of Darkness, Ozzy is a remarkable human specimen. It is no secret that he has constantly struggled with addiction, toured for nearly half a century, bit off the head of a bat, survived reality television, and, on top of all that, has kids. His wife and manager, Sharon, once compared his resilience to that of a cockroach. Ah, love and marriage.

What powerful forces were finally able to put the Prince of Darkness in his place? Wife and kids.

When scientists sequence a genome, they basically get to read the DNA of that organism, which is analogous to learning the ingredients of a recipe. In heavy metal parlance, Ozzy’s genome is the biological version of “Diary of a Madman”. Doctors, and even Ozzy himself, have long been bewildered at his continued existence…most people who climb aboard a crazy train and live the Ozzy lifestyle would have been dead long ago!

Ozzy once considered that he was like a cat with nine lives, but there were no feline genes detected in his genome. In fact, like most scientific results, more questions were raised than answered. Among some of the more intriguing things spotted in his DNA was a never-before-seen mutation in his ADH4 gene. ADH4 encodes a protein called alcohol dehydrogenase 4 that processes alcohol and has been linked to alcohol and drug dependence. However, we need to learn a lot more about ADH4 and other metabolic genes if we are to make sense of the results.

Researchers also found traces of Neanderthal genes in Ozzy’s DNA. However, this probably has nothing to do with his wild life or ability to howl all night long since a large number of people also possess Neanderthal DNA. Recent research indicates that ~20% of the Neanderthal genome still exists in modern humans of non-African ancestry.

So what does all of this tell us and should we be knocking on Bob Dylan’s door for a DNA sample? Frankly, the data is just a ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ at the moment. There is no “Ozzy Osbourne” gene, nor anything concrete that explains why he is who he is. There is nothing that will be of immediate benefit to substance abusers or help Justin Bieber write better songs. We still have a lot to learn about the complexities of gene expression regulation. For example, you can’t make a cake if you only know the ingredients. We need to know how and when those ingredients are used and in what proportions. Similarly, we can’t understand Ozzy Osbourne just from a list of his genes.

Genes are kind of like different musical instruments, but other factors that are “epigenetic” in nature (epigenetic meaning “above the gene”) control the level of each instrument, tell it when to play, or when to rest. Scientists are discovering that many factors from our environment can influence epigenetic factors, which in turn regulate the amount of a gene’s activity. Nevertheless, Ozzy’s genome has provided some clues into what genes we might want to explore further, and that kind of knowledge is power. The more genomes that are sequenced, the more confidence we can have in the correlations that arise between gene and phenotype.

For more, check out this TEDMED talk where the Ozzman and Sharon discuss his genome.


You can also read more about Ozzy’s genome results, and his hilarious medical advice (which has greater credibility than that discharged by another “Dr. Oz” we know!), in his book, “Trust Me, I’m Dr. Ozzy”.

Contributed by: Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter: @wjsullivan

Sankararaman, S., Mallick, S., Dannemann, M., Prüfer, K., Kelso, J., Pääbo, S., Patterson, N., & Reich, D. (2014). The genomic landscape of Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans Nature, 507 (7492), 354-357 DOI: 10.1038/nature12961

Luo X, Kranzler HR, Zuo L, Lappalainen J, Yang BZ, & Gelernter J (2006). ADH4 gene variation is associated with alcohol dependence and drug dependence in European Americans: results from HWD tests and case-control association studies. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 31 (5), 1085-95 PMID: 16237392

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Pressure of the World Cup Penalty Kick

Tim Howard was brilliant in goal for the United States at the 2014 World Cup. Flying all over the place, catching, punching, kicking – he looked like he was protecting his family home from post-apocalyptic cannibals. It was very impressive, but the US went out against Belgium 2-1 in extra time, despite Howard’s 17 saves, the most in a single World Cup game in 50 years.


Tim Howard had a great game for the US, heck, a great 
tournament. So great in fact, that Wikipedia temporarily 
changed the name of the US Secretary of Defense to 
Tim Howard. The true SOD, Chuck Hagel, called to 
congratulate Howard. Hagel stated that with some
training, Howard could be the real secretary of 
defense. One, he called after a loss – reminds too many 
people of Vietnam, and two, what few things does 
Howard lack to be SOD?
In the whole of Team USA’s tournament, Howard didn’t face one penalty kick. This was good for him, since it’s so hard for a goalie to look invincible against a lone player kicking a small ball into a 24 foot (7.3 m) wide goal from only 12 yards (10.9 m) away.

In World Cup competition, most penalty kicks are successful, to the tune of about 86%. But penalty kicks come in two flavors, and that percentage only reflects the scoring rate for penalty kicks (PK) that occur during the game. There are also PKs that come when the two teams are still tied after extra time (we Americans call it overtime, but of course we call it soccer too).

About 70% of penalty kicks find the back of the net in that situation. Why is there a difference? It’s the same distance, it’s still striker against goalie. The ball is still roughly round with those funny geometric shapes stitched into it. Why does the scoring rate go down so significantly?

Billy Joel told us why many years ago – Pressure! The kicker is expected to make the shot – he has such a big advantage. Joe Bag–O-Donuts on his couch is screaming that he could make that shot, and he gets out of breath just opening the chip bag! Let’s investigate how big an advantage the striker actually has, and then we can figure out why it shrinks when it’s time to line up for PKs.


Billy Joe’s song has some poignant lines that could apply
to penalty kicks. “So far so good but you will come to a
place where the only thing you feel are loaded guns in
your face and you'll have to deal with pressure.” Or how
about, “Don't ask for help you're all alone. Pressure.
You'll have to answer to your own pressure.”
A good college or professional football player will kick the ball so it reaches a speed of 80 mph (128 kph, or 117 feet per second/35.7 meters per second). At a distance of 12 yards, this means the whole event is over in roughly 0.3 seconds. It takes a goalie about 0.6 seconds to move so that one hand or foot can get to either edge of the goal! You don’t have to be a math magician to see that if the striker can kick the ball on target, it’s going to go in.

That’s why most PKs are aimed at the edges of the goal, either up top, in the middle, or on the ground. Most PKs that are missed are aimed up high, so maybe the goalie has a slight advantage there, but still, there’s 192 square feet (17.9 square meters) of space that must be defended in the blink of an eye. Yes, it takes 0.3-0.35 seconds to blink – let’s hope the goalie’s eyes don’t have bad timing.

FIFA changed the rule in 1997 so that the goalie can move before the ball is struck, but it doesn’t help that much. He still isn’t allowed to move forward. This would help him narrow the angles and reduce the square footage he has to defend. And if he does move before the ball is kicked, he’s really just guessing. A study of previous World Cups says that goalies only guess correctly about 41% of the time, and guessing right still doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have enough time to get a hand on the ball.


Some goalies say that they can watch the striker to get a
sense of where he is going to kick the ball. They contend
that the kick usually goes the same direction that the plant
foot is pointed. Of course, strikers know this. So what do
you think they do? And of course, they can hesitate in their
run up to see which way the goalie is leaning.
Research at Brunel University in London suggests that World Class goalkeepers can anticipate a striker direction about 80 milliseconds (0.08 s) before he kicks it. Is this enough of an advantage to stop a well placed shot? Maybe, but probably not.

But goalies do have some recourse. A study by Noel and Vander Kamp (2012) suggests that focus is the key. By making large movements or sudden moves, a goalie might just be able to distract the striker and send the shot errantly wide or high. The study for International Journal of Sports Psychology showed that strikers that spent slightly more time looking at the goalkeeper as opposed to the ball or target area were stopped more often.

Their research suggested that taking a goalkeeper-independent strategy (ignore him/her completely) was better for making goal kicks. So the more a goalie can make you look at him, the better. Maybe that’s why they wear bright colors.

Greg Woods’ PhD thesis for the University of Exeter also points to a focus issue. He used 18 college football players fitted with eye tracking software. If the striker looked at the goalie, the penalty kick was stopped 40.6% of the time, while if he ignored the goalie, the shot was only stopped 20% of the time.


Eye tracking is important in sport science, but also in business
marketing. People trying to sell you things you don’t need want
to draw your eye to the things they want, so they need to know
where you look and when during commercials. The camera that
faces forward  shows what you are looking at, and the camera
facing your eye tracks your pupil. The two can be coordinated
so they can see what portion of your field of vision your pupils
are focused on. They are accurate to about 0.1 in (2.5 mm) at 30
inches away from the screen.
But is this enough to explain the big decrease in PK success at the end of games? The added pressure of having no time to make up for mistakes increases the anxiety level of the strikers and helps the goalie even out some of their disadvantage.

The statistics bear out the pressure angle. The coin flip is important before PKs because 80% of the time, the team that kicks first, wins. Every time the first team is successful, the pressure ramps up on the second team, because now they’re playing from behind. Statistics also show that the first team that misses will lose about 81.2% of the time. The added pressure of being behind is too much to overcome.

The added pressure results in a breaking of rhythm that overcomes the muscle memory that should control a striker’s kick. It may also increase the time that a striker is unfocused, and may look at the goalie more. Woods’ study, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2009) showed that as anxiety increased, the striker was more likely to spend time looking at the goalkeeper, and this tended to send PKs more centrally in the net and therefore easier to stop.


You can see by the look on his face, Andres Escobar knew
something bad just happened. His block ended up in his country’s
goal. He returned home to Colombia only to be shot a couple of
days later. ESPN made a documentary about the two Escobars,
Andres and Pablo, and suggested that Andres would not have
been killed if the drug lord, Pablo, had not died a few months
previous. Pablo was a soccer fan, and many of the national team
players were his friends.
The pressure of playing for your country in the World Cup may also be an added bonus; some countrymen just won’t let a guy forget a World Cup gaffe. Andres Escobar was shot dead in Colombia just days after returning home from the World Cup in 1994. His own goal (hit the ball into his team’s net) sent the Colombian team home after group play.

Another Colombian player was murdered in 2006 in a bar shooting. He had missed a penalty kick in the Copas Libertadores tournament a few years earlier, of course the motive for the shooting might have been something else. The moral of the story – ignore the goalie and don’t forget your bullet-proof vest.


Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
Mark is writer and educator in the areas of science and history
As Many Exceptions As Rules




Wilson MR, Wood G, & Vine SJ (2009). Anxiety, attentional control, and performance impairment in penalty kicks. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31 (6), 761-75 PMID: 20384011

BENJAMIN NOËL and JOHN VAN DER KAMP (2012). Gaze behaviour during the soccer penalty kick: An investigation of the effects of strategy and anxiety Int. J. Sport Psychol., 41, 1-20