6+ animals that defy laws of nature


1. Walking fish


Shuttles hopfish and its son (Image by Alpsdake/Wikimedia Commons)

Remember that  Guinness ad where the evolution goes back: men devolve into cavemen, birds into dinosaurs? It ends with two little fish walking to water and expressing disgust at its taste. These fish do exist. The fish from the advert is close to mudskipper – an Australian fish.

2. Living on land fish

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Nutricosmetics: snake oil now in a pill form


Nutricosmetics: ingest before breakfast, repeat twice during the day. Pay $60+ per month.  (Image by Iryna Ilkavets, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, CC-BY)

In The Stylist beauty issue, there is a feature article about nutricosmetics, defined as “beauty products you ingest rather than apply”. The rationale – skin/hair/nail are growing things, which you can supplement from outside (the usual “beauty products” – lotions and creams) or from an inside  – in a pill form. Sort of spray on the leaves fertiliser vs. fertiliser in the soil for your plants.

Sounds good if you don’t pay attention to the caveats mentioned in the article:

A)  As the skin is outside of the body, whatever product you are eating, you need to saturate the body from within to get to the skin.

B) The air conditioner argument. Your body is like an air conditioner – when it overshoots the set temperature, it compensates by cooling, sometimes overshooting in the other direction but eventually returning to the balance. So if you try to increase the concentration of say, vitamin A by eating a lot of it in one go, after a short spike the excess is removed via urine, and there is an actual drop in its concentration. And if it accumulates, you skin turns orange and it becomes toxic.

Let’s have a look at the products mentioned in the article about nutricosmetics:

Lumity – £90 ($135) per month for a cocktail of lysine, arginine, and glutamine. These are aminoacids,  building blocks of protein. I don’t have a problem with this, except that you should be getting enough aminoacids from you food. And if you want to top up just in case, you can buy aminoacids in any health shop for 1/10 of the Lumity  price. Continue reading

Why do we bury our dead: transmissible Alzheimer’s revisited

A protein molecule is like an origami: it folds and folds in mysterious ways until you have a 3D structure. But beware of incorrect folding, it gives your aggregation and diseases . Image by OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

In my earlier post, I wrote about a finding that transfusion of a contaminated protein, growth hormone, led to the patients developing “mad cow disease” (CJD) but – more unexpectedly – Alzheimer’s disease.

The good news is that the finding, as it often happens with much-publicized results, is not a fluke. It’s been confirmed by an independent study. The bad news  – there’s a new way of Alzheimer’s disease transmission in town.

The Swiss scientists studied people who were transplanted tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord, called dura. Seven of dura recipients died from CJD. Their brains were studied postmortem – the only way to diagnose CJD – and five of them had signs of Alzheimer’s. The patients were too young to acquire this disease of old age.

This finding can be confirmed by a third independent group in Japan, although it’s as  yet unpublished.

There’s need to panic. Just as HIV is not transmitted by touch and cuddle and kiss, short of injecting or transplanting the diseased matter, there is no way you will be infected by interaction with an Alzheimer’s patient. The doctors do not use hormones or dura purified from cadavers anymore. They were replaced by synthetic replacements, which don’t have diseases seeds.

On the other hand, surgical procedures are not designed with CJD and Alzheimer’s ‘seeds’ in mind. The seeds are very resistant to the usual sterilisation treatments, which kill bacteria and viruses. They are just incorrectly folded protein and don’t need DNA for reproduction. With the number of old patients who have more chance of having Alzheimer’s rising the chances of seeds, transmission raises as well, unless the doctors do something about it.

Men’s Skincare: The Unusual Suspects

A stinging nettle plant. Image By Júlio Reis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Men have it easy if you consider the volume and degree of bullcrap associated with products targeted to women. Maybe the marketers think that men are less inclined to believe bull or they are more critical or more scientifically minded. Or afraid to scare off men, who for centuries survived without skin products beyond hair grooming. But as the number of men’s grooming products increases to include eye creams and moisturisers the bullshitters are moving into the new territory.

Take the Autumn/Winter Style Issue of  British  ShortList magazine. One its features were about men’s grooming products, which contain unusual ingredients.  Some of the ingredients don’t raise my eyebrow – I know about the vast spectrum of biologically active compounds, which plants accumulate. I would never argue that, for example,  Camomile extract does not soothe skin irritation, or that tea tree oil inhibits blemishes.

But let’s have a look at the list, assuming that the title ingredients are not present in “homoeopathic”  e.g. “name only, no substance” quantities.

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Dissecting skincare, Part II – the strangest of the rest

Following my previous post about  one of the winners of Stylist’s best skincare products awards.

Best body lotion

Dove purely Pampering Nourishing Lotion

..this is packed with nourishing shea butter and collagen amino acids to improve skin elasticity.



A model of a collagen molecule. Good looking but too big to get into your skin cells.  Image  By Nevit Dilmen CC-BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

As I’ve written my previous post, collagen is the protein that provides skin elasticity. The previous generation of potions contained collagen with exactly the same claim as applied now to its amino acids.

So why the shift from the collagen to its amino acids? Maybe the common/scientific sense that collagen’s molecule is too big to filter down through the skin and – even if it gets inside the skin cells – they’ll break protein  down to its building blocks, amino acids, won.

But more likely,  a never ending cycle of producing, whipping up the interest and selling new (= better) products required  new entities. Amino acids from collagen sounded like a valid idea. Amino acids are small molecules and can be taken up by skin cells. Except that there no guarantee that they will be used to make specifically collagen and not randomly incorporated into whatever proteins cells synthesizing right now.

Slathering skin with amino acids from collagen is like giving an average adult some money and expecting that he’ll spend it on fruits and vegetables and not on burgers and alcohol.

Best exfoliator

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Dissecting skincare – No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum



Fibroblasts under a microscope. They produce collagen, a protein that makes your skin plump. Image by SubtleGuest via Wikimedia Commons,  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Skincare products remain the only area where you can advertise snake oil, an eye of the newt, and toe of frog not only as legitimate ingredients but as something desirable. Anything goes if it’s either “natural” (wisdom of ages) or highly technological (science rules).

But before we start let’s define some terminology. You can skip it and come back later:

* amino acid – a building block of peptides and proteins;

* peptide – a short chain of joined amino acids, consists of  50 or fewer  individual amino acids;

* protein – a long peptide, above 50 amino acids;

* collagen – protein, which maintains skin elasticity. Young people have more of it; old people use various potions trying to get more of it.

The Stylist named  “No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum” the best serum second year in a row, describing it

Rich in plumping matrixyl, there’s a raft of advanced science in play

Science! The Express wrote about Matrixyl that it’s

…a peptide found in some high street anti-wrinkle creams. Research from the University of Reading proves this powerful ingredient does help fight wrinkles.

I found the original scientific article about Matryxyl  written by Roanne Jones et al. It shows that at the highest tested concentration, 0.008% of Matryxyl cell culture of producing collagen fibroblasts increases collagen production three times. Hooray? Yes, but with two caveats:

*we don’t know if the Matrixyl works on the intact skin, which contains lots of cell types, not just isolated fibroblasts;

*nobody but the manufacturer knows the concentration of the Matrixyl in the cream, which can be less than 0.008%  even before it has to filter through the skin.

To be fair, “No7 Protect and Perfect Cream” is famous as the product that works, so there is a good chance that Boots didn’t scrimp on the acting ingredient in a case of serum as well.

Aside: The Express article by Lesley Reynolds is confusing in the industry tradition where the scientific terms invoked as magic spells, for their magic sound rather than meaning. After calling Matrixyl  “a peptide”, the author writes (emphasis by me)

Matrixyl is part of the pentapeptide family. It is an amino acid

“Penta” in  “pentapeptide” means five amino acids linked togther. In any case, a peptide cannot be an amino acid, it’s like calling one person a Conga line. Ms. Reynold continues:

Many other pentapeptides work, including myristoyl, a protein in the same family as matryxyl.



Human skin cross-section. There is much more to it than  just fibroblasts located in the pink layer. Image by Kibald, via Wikimedia Commons

I thought that Matrixyl  was a part of a peptide, not protein family as proteins are longer than 50 amino acids and  Matrixyl consists from only five of them? But that’s a minor quibble.

Despite the similarly  sounding name,  “myristoyl” is not a protein at all. It’s a long-chain fatty acid composed 17 carbon atoms (C17).  As far as I can see from the Matrixyl  formula, the Reading researchers used Matrixyl  pentapeptide connected to a different compound, palmitoyl  (C16) to get their encouraging results on the collagen production. The naked pentapeptide works even worse.

Now, this is a confusion around a product that works. In my next post, I’ll look at other skin products, their confusing descriptions and allegedly miraculous properties.


Humanity: a Sexual History or Make Love, Not War

Apart from the obvious “pass the gene” role sex had a crucial role in the modern humans history. At some point, the old chimpanzee-like strategy  (an alpha male had sex with any female he wanted and a new leader killed the old leader’s babies) was replaced by more or less monogamous society structure. Thus allowing for the long childhood under the protection of both parents.

A scheme  of modern humans movements according to the single origin hypothesis. The resident species different from H. sapiens shown in different colours. Note that the denisovan a not on the map, as the scheme predates their discovery.  Looking at human evolution is like guessing the picture on 1000-pieces jigsaw puzzle when you have parts of 10 random pieces. Image by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.

There are  two competing theories about the modern humans (Homo sapiens) origin:  the single origin vs multiregional theory. The mainstream, single origin theory postulates that the modern humans originated in Africa and spread to the other continents. It means that  despite our morphological differences such as skin colour we are a single species. This theory is confirmed by successful cross-breeding of humans everywhere – from Australia to North America.

The multiple origin theory postulates that  “H. sapiens” is not just one species, but  rather a composite, which originated in several places, so different human races have independent origins. While there wasn’t much evidence to support this hypothesis,  recent  human genomes sequencing shows that, as it often happens in natural sciences, the marginal, multiple origin theory had some merit.

Human evolutionary tree according to multiregional theory. By Fred the Oyster via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been known for a while that migration of H. sapiens brought it in contact with other, resident Homo species, such as H. heidelbergensis.  As we are the only modern Homo species, you know who won. So the question is not who but how.

Given our propensity to kill everything in sight, including our closest surviving relatives, chimpanzees, for a while the prevailing theory was that we killed them all, including “the Northern cousin”, the neanderthal (H. neanderthalis). But the neanderthal genome sequencing brought an interesting discovery: modern European humans have a couple of percent of the same DNA as the extinct species. Neandertals did not vanish without a genetic trace, they  crossbred with us.

Discovering new humanoid species, such as Denisovans, allowed us to realise, that  “sapiens x  neanderthalis” wasn’t the only hybrid”. Apparently, people in South Asia who don’t have neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup, have  DNA of yet another hominid species, denisovan (H.denisovan), instead.  The resident African humans, such as pygmies, which stayed put, do not have an admixture of  either neanderthal or denisovan, but some other archaic hominid species. So different races are bit different, although nowhere as much as much as the multiple origin theory postulated.

A current version of human evolutionary tree. Note links between sapiens, denisovans, helderbengensian, and neanderthals in the upper right corner. The tree looks more fluid than the very straight “no alternatives allowed” multiorigin hypothesis tree. By Homo-Stammbaum, Version Stringer.jpg: Chris Stringer derivative work: Conquistador [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The other question of course how did hybridisation happen? In chimpanzees,  to prevent excessive crossbreeding young males leave the family group and travel,  eventually settling with an unrelated female. This has a parallel in pre-industrial human societies, where males had more freedom to travel. Also, unlike males, “foreign” females were considered non-threatening and even desirable.

 Bible: Ezra 9:1-2

…The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.

I’d like to speculate that prehistoric human males probably didn’t mind shaking up with some neanderthalian or denisovan maidens.


*Modern human genomes reveal our inner Neanderthal

*New DNA analysis shows ancient humans interbred with Denisovans

*Evolutionary History and Adaptation from  High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers