We’re all hosts on a viral planet: Meet Luca, the ancestor of all living things

Some people look to the stars. Some look to themselves. I’ve always been interested in the cosmic goings on of DNA and RNA and their minuscule hosts.

dogma-jesusAccording to science writer legend Nicholas Wade of The New York Times life first emerged on Earth via a single-cell, bacterium-like organism, known as Luca, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, and is estimated to have lived some four billion years ago, when Earth was a mere 560 million years old.

The new finding sharpens the debate between those who believe life began in some extreme environment, such as in deep sea vents or the flanks of volcanoes, and others who favor more normal settings, such as the “warm little pond” proposed by Darwin.

The nature of the earliest ancestor of all living things has long been uncertain because the three great domains of life seemed to have no common point of origin. The domains are those of the bacteria, the archaea and the eukaryotes. Archaea are bacteria-like organisms but with a different metabolism, and the eukaryotes include all plants and animals.

Specialists have recently come to believe that the bacteria and archaea were the two earliest domains, with the eukaryotes emerging later. That opened the way for a group of evolutionary biologists, led by William F. Martin of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, to try to discern the nature of the organism from which the bacterial and archaeal domains emerged.

Their starting point was the known protein-coding genes of bacteria and archaea. Some six million such genes have accumulated over the last 20 years in DNA databanks as scientists with the new decoding machines have deposited gene sequences from thousands of microbes.

Genes that do the same thing in a human and a mouse are generally related by common descent from an ancestral gene in the first mammal. So by comparing their sequence of DNA letters, genes can be arranged in evolutionary family trees, a property that enabled Dr. Martin and his colleagues to assign the six million genes to a much smaller number of gene families. Of these, only 355 met their criteria for having probably originated in Luca, the joint ancestor of bacteria and archaea.

Genes are adapted to an organism’s environment. So Dr. Martin hoped that by pinpointing the genes likely to have been present in Luca, he would also get a glimpse of where and how Luca lived. “I was flabbergasted at the result, I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The 355 genes pointed quite precisely to an organism that lived in the conditions found in deep sea vents, the gassy, metal-laden, intensely hot plumes caused by seawater interacting with magma erupting through the ocean floor.

Food Safety Talk 105, I’m Level 8, John

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University. Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.8dfe2-53230-so-youve-downloaded-pokemon-go-want-capture-banner.jpg

They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.

Episode 105 can be found here and on iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Sydney restaurant curing meat outdoors on clothes hangers

A Chinese restaurant in Sydney has been filmed curing their meat on clothes hangers outdoors near garbage bins and a busy major road.

meat.cloths.lineHung Cheung Restaurant sits underneath Sydney Airport’s flight path at Marrickville, in the city’s Inner West.

The restaurant’s methods of curing pork belly came to A Current Affair’s attention after several nearby residents sent pictures to the show’s producers.

When A Current Affair travelled to the restaurant, the pork could be seen hanging on clothes hangers in the rear of the premises.

The restaurant’s manager attempted to deny that the meat belonged to them, instead claiming it was a tenant who lived above the restaurant curing their pork.

However, hearing what was happening, the restaurant’s upstairs tenant came outside and denied the meat was his.

“No man, it’s theirs,” the tenant said.

Tipped off by A Current Affair, food inspectors from the newly-formed Inner West Council arrived.

One minute later, the meat was removed from the clothes hangers.

Inner West Council had identified issues that were non-compliant with food safety standards. Air drying food outside was not one of the offences.

“Breaches of the Food Act were identified and enforcement action including issuing an on the spot fine and serving an improvement notice have been undertaken, on issues identified as non-compliant with food safety standards,” a spokesperson for Inner West Council told A Current Affair.

“These however were not related to the allegation of air drying food.”

Can’t we just enjoy food? Poop dessert café to open in Toronto

Torstar News Service reports Toronto is joining the (bowel) movement: a poop-themed café is coming to Koreatown.

Poop Café Dessert BarPoop Café Dessert Bar, which will be located at 706 Bloor St. W., is set to open mid-August.

“I’m trying to make poop cute,” said owner Lien Nguyen, who first came across the concept while visiting her mother in Taiwan a couple years ago.

“We checked out a toilet-themed restaurant and I just loved it. It’s funny to put food and poop together; it’s a great comparison,” she added. “It stayed in my mind for a long time. As soon as I finished school, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to bring the restaurant to Toronto.’”

The recent George Brown College graduate earned her credentials in culinary management. She plans to focus her menu around traditional Asian desserts like patbingsoo (red beans with ice) and is hoping that, through this enterprise, “people will change their minds about poo.”

“[It’s] considered very disgusting, [something] you can’t talk about when you’re eating,” she said … until now.

All of the poo-ticular items available at the café will be brown, formed like a stool and served in toilet-shaped dishes, said Nguyen, who plans to seasonally change up the menu to reflect customer feedback.

While the “latest lavatorial trend” might be new to Toronto, restaurants around the world have already embraced the bowl.

Urine included: Virgin boy eggs a delicacy in China

In spring, residents of Dongyang, in coastal Zhejiang Province, China, according to the N.Y. Times, chow down on eggs simmered in steaming pots of boys’ urine.

virgin.boy.eggsSold since ancient times as “virgin boy eggs,” the local delicacy was officially listed as “intangible cultural heritage” in Dongyang in 2008. Many residents believe they energize the body, improve blood circulation and prevent heat stroke. They are also a bargain at around 25 cents an egg, urine included.

Across Dongyang, a bustling city of nearly one million people, fresh urine is collected every day from buckets placed in elementary school hallways, where boys under the age of 10 are instructed to answer nature’s call — as long as they are not sick, out of concern for, um, food safety. Some vendors even carry around empty bottles and wait in parks or public bathrooms until they find a parent who is willing to let their prepubescent son participate in the custom.

Chinese medicine practitioners are divided on the supposed benefits of ingesting urine, which modern science has shown to have no nutritional value. But the locals in Dongyang are happy to shower praise on the eggs they call “the taste of spring.”

To prepare the eggs, chefs generally stick to a time-tested recipe: First, soak the eggs in pots of urine and bring to a boil. Remove the eggs, crack the shells, then return the eggs to the pot and simmer for about a day, adding more urine as necessary, sometimes with herbs. The marinade gives the egg whites a pale golden hue, while the yolks turn green. They are also quite salty, according to Wu Bei, 39, an employee at the Zhang Yuming Chinese Medicine Clinic in Dongyang.

“They taste a bit like urine, but not too much,” she said. “It’s delicious, you should try one sometime!”

THC found in Colorado town water well

Residents of a small farming community in eastern Colorado have been warned to avoid drinking the town’s water after THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana, was found in one of its feeder wells, authorities said on Thursday.

cheechandchongA public works employee in Hugo, a town of about 800 people 90 miles southeast of Denver, detected the chemical and health officials believe it is “marijuana THC-related,” the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook posting.

“At this time, investigators are assessing the situation with state and federal authorities,” the sheriff’s office said. “Bathroom usage is still safe, but until more information is known to us, out of an abundance of caution, avoid drinking Town of Hugo water.”

Peter Perrone, a chemist and owner of the state-licensed cannabis testing facility, Gobi Analytical in suburban Denver, said he was skeptical of the reports.

“It’s virtually impossible to find THC in water in concentrated levels because cannabinoids are not water soluble,” Perrone told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Captain Michael Yowell of the sheriff’s office said he understands that some are questioning how THC could be found in the water, but that does not explain why the tests came up positive for the chemical.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job for the community if we just wrote this off,” he said.

See ya on the ice, eh: Canada waves goodbye to a national treasure

“There’s this fucking band you got to see

“They used to scare the living shit out of me”

gorddownieThat was written about Nirvana by Kingston, Ontario’s own Tragically Hip.

But it could equally apply to the Hip (this has nothing to do with food safety).

The first time I saw the Hip was in 1990 in a Waterloo, Ontario bar (that’s in Canada, the place where all those tech innovations come from) with my first wife who was pregnant with our second daughter.

From 1989-2000, the Hip was my soundtrack. I ran thousands of kilometers to Up to Here.

Jared Lindzon of Rolling Stone writes that countless better-known acts have come out of Canada, but if the nation ever had a true musical spokesperson, it might be Gord Downie, frontman and primary songwriter of the Tragically Hip. During their 32-year history, the band has notched countless hits – including 11 Top 10 Canadian singles – that many in the country can recite by heart.

But on May 24th, Canadians awoke to tragic news; the front page of every news site coast-to-coast announced that the singer’s days were numbered. “A few months ago, in December, Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer,” the band wrote on its Facebook page. 

Later that day Downie’s neuro-oncologist, Dr. James Perry, announced that Downie had undergone surgery to remove the bulk of the tumor, followed by six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, but a complete recovery was unlikely. “Unfortunately, one day it will come back,” he said at a Toronto press conference.

With the news of Downie’s diagnosis came one final opportunity to celebrate a cultural institution. On July 22nd the band will embark on a final Canadian tour to promote its 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem, which came out in June.

59854aSuperstars at home, the Tragically Hip have never achieved fame beyond Canada’s borders. Nine of their albums have reached the top spot on Canadian music charts, but in the United States, the band has never broken the Top 100. “This band could have been U2, if not for some unlucky breaks,” Barenaked Ladies singer-guitarist Ed Robertson told Rolling Stone. “The quality and the appreciation of this band is not unique to its Canadian-ness. It’s just happenstance that they’re not as big as the biggest bands in the world.”

In 2014 Rolling Stone listed the band as one of 20 Hugely Popular Musicians Who Haven’t Gotten Famous in America (Yet), and in a 2011 cover story featuring the Sheepdogs, the then-unsigned Canadian winners of RS’ “Choose the Cover” contest, author Austin Scaggs drew ire with his mention of the “awful yet extremely popular Canadian band, the Tragically Hip.”

“Having met them, none of them have ever [struck] me as people who wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine,” says Dallas Green, a Canadian musician who performs under the alias City and Colour, and was previously the lead singer and guitarist of Alexisonfire. “I think they’re just happy to be able to [continue performing], and that’s another reason why I love them.”

“[Interviewers] always ask us about our success or lack of success in the States, which I find absurd,” Downie once said. “While that is a story of the band, there are so many other stories.”

The more significant story of the Tragically Hip is one of mutual respect and appreciation between a country and one of its most prolific rock bands. The group’s lyrics often portray long-forgotten moments from the nation’s shared history, familiar scenes of Canadian life and, of course, hockey. The 1992 hit “Fifty Mission Cap” tells the story of Bill Barilko, the Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman who scored the 1951 Stanley Cup-winning goal before perishing in a plane crash. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” is dedicated to a mid-20th-century Canadian novelist, and “Wheat Kings” tells the story of David Milgaard, a Canadian wrongfully accused of murder.

As the Tragically Hip have paid tribute to their native country, Canada has celebrated them right back. In 2002 they earned a place on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and in 2012 their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, renamed the block outside of its downtown music venue Tragically Hip Way. In 2005 they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in 2013 the band was featured on a Canada Post stamp. A change.org petition with nearly 70,000 signatures seeks to award the band with the Order of Canada, considered among the highest honors in the land, and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has declared the date of the band’s final show in the city, July 26th, as Tragically Hip Day.

maxresdefaultAs news began to spread about Downie’s medical condition, many took to social media to pay their respects. Fellow Canadian musicians Sloan, Billy Talent, Nickelback, Death From Above 1979, Arkells, Hey Rosetta! and Matthew Good offered tributes and well-wishes to Downie. Even the Trailer Park Boys, who starred in the music video for the Tragically Hip’s “The Darkest One,” tweeted that they were “sending all our love and best wishes to the magnificent Gord Downie.”

“Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years,” tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I am lucky enough to have seen many Tragically Hip concerts throughout my life, and Gord Downie is someone I have an extraordinary amount of respect for,” the Prime Minister later elaborated at a press conference. “His status as an extraordinary Canadian creative force and icon is not to be understated. Mostly, he’s just a great guy, and I know I speak for all Canadians when I say, ‘We’re with you, Gord.'”

Downie’s generosity is often cited by those who know him personally, including Green, who met the singer in 2008. Struggling to finish a song he began writing in high school, Green found inspiration while listening to the Tragically Hip’s music, and after completing the track, he got in touch with Downie to ask if he would be interested in singing on the 2008 single “Sleeping Sickness.”

“One morning I got to the studio and he was already there,” he tells RS. “He had gotten up at six in the morning and drove from Kingston to Hamilton [Ontario] to sing and hang out with me at the studio. I’ll never forget sitting there with my headphones on, right beside him, watching him sing words that I wrote on one of my songs. It was one of the most surreal, magical experiences I have ever and will ever have. And then he just got in his car and drove back.”

The Tragically Hip’s final, 15-performance cross-Canada tour will begin in Victoria, British Columbia, and make its way east before concluding in Kingston on August 20th.

The nation’s public broadcaster, the CBC, will air that final show live. Small towns and major cities across the country have already announced public viewing parties, giving their citizens one final opportunity to celebrate their national treasure together.

Though Downie’s future is uncertain, Green and Robertson take some solace in knowing that the music will live on.

“This is one of the greatest bands of all time,” Green says. “And I don’t mean Canadian band – I mean they’re one of the greatest bands of all time. Their history speaks for itself. And Gord, specifically, he’s one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever heard.”

“They’re a fucking amazing band, with one of the greatest frontmen ever in rock & roll,” adds Robertson. “It doesn’t go away after the last Hip tour. It’s not diminished at all by the fact that they’re bigger in Canada than anywhere else. The music stands for itself. It’s there, ready to be discovered and appreciated by anyone around the world.” 

“An Inch An Hour”

I want a book that’ll make me drunk

Full of freaks and disenfranchised punks

No amount of hate, no load of junk

No bag of words, no costume trunk

Could make me feel the same way

An inch an hour, two feet a day

To move through night in this most fashionable way

There’s this fucking band you got to see

They used to scare the living shit out of me

No frothing dog, no cool insanity

No rock and roll, no christianity

Makes me feel the same way

An inch an hour, two feet a day

To move through night with very little else to say

But I’m helpless less with the people than the space

No struggle town, no bemused Trudeau

No solitary walks through vacant lots in moon glow

Tonight the winter may have missed its mark

You can see your breath in springside park

Coffee coloured ice and peeling birch bark

The sound of rushing water in the dark

Makes me feel the same way

An inch an hour, two feet a day

To move through life with very little else to say

But I’m helpless more with the people than the space

I mean I’m helpless less with the people than the space

You see, I don’t know Neil, I don’t know Neil

From the duh files: Slow lorises and aye-aye lemurs prefer alcohol over water

Biologists at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire discovered that when faced with the choice of various sugary substances laced with different alcohol concentrations, the loris and aye-ayes repeatedly chose the most alcoholic solution.

drunk.lemursIn fact the researchers report in the Royal Society Open Science, the aye-ayes loved the concoction so much they enthusiastically searched for more, while the slow loris displayed “a relative aversion to tap water”.

Interestingly, the alcohol did not seem to affect the creatures.

Samuel Gochman, a biology student at Dartmouth, said: “No signs of inebriation were observed,” reports The Guardian.

The aye-aye’s tolerance to alcohol may be explained by a genetic mutation, which speeds up the rate alcohol is broken down.

“The results indicate that the mutation might (have) a preference for alcohol,” Gochman said.

Australian bloggers demanding free meals for reviews: You have ‘as much right to review my restaurant as I have to review your menstrual cycle’

(Disclaimer: the only free samples we get are barf and shit: literally and lyrically.)

Rebecca Sullivan of News.com reports that both traditional food critics and restaurant owners have started naming and shaming bloggers who contact venues asking for a meal on the house, in exchange for a review.

free.products.blogEarlier this month, the owner of a Sydney restaurant made headlines for his scathing response to a food blogger who requested a free meal.

Tim Philips, the bartender and co-owner at Dead Ringer in Surry Hills, told a “foodie instagrammer” she had “as much right to review my restaurant as I have to review your menstrual cycle”.

The woman explained her usual arrangement with restaurants is “that you give my friend and I a meal on the house in exchange for Instagram coverage and reviews”.

Mr Philips posted screenshots of the interaction on his Instagram page and was praised for “standing up to what’s right and having balls.”

“I called her out because her business is what’s ruining my industry,” he wrote on Instagram, in response to some commenters who said his response was nasty.

“You missed the irony that I, as a man, am ill-qualified to ‘review’ female menstrual cycles. And this person is equally unqualified to review places they’ve been, with the predetermined obligation of a free meal for nice comments.”

While professional reviewers “always pay for their meals”, he said, “this happens A LOT”.

Food writers who work for traditional media publications cannot accept free meals in exchange for a review.

The Australian’s food critic John Lethlean has started using Instagram to name and shame food bloggers who ask for free meals.

All the food bloggers news.com.au spoke to said they had never contacted a restaurant and asked for a free meal, mostly because they don’t need to.

“I get approached by restaurants and PRs maybe 30 or 40 times a week,” said Michael Shen, who blogs at I’m Still Hungry and has 31,000 Instagram followers.

“I’m pretty strict with transparency. If I’m reviewing a place and I’ve eaten for free I say it at the top of the review so my readers know straight away. My friends told me they feel jibbed when they spend time reading a post and they get to the end and they find out it’s sponsored,” he said.

“I don’t write for a restaurant or a chef, in the end it’s all about your readers. The promise of free food is quite alluring. But to me, it’s like, would you rather risk alienating your audience just for a free meal every now and then?”

Adam Scarf is a photographer with 225,000 Instagram followers and is one of Sydney’s most popular food accounts. He’s offered free meals at least once a day.