Congo bound!

I’m heading out tomorrow to begin a month-long research trip in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though our focus is on the monkeys, they share their forest with bonobos and we should have a small (but real!) chance of catching a glimpse. There’s also a bonobo sanctuary outside of the capital, Kinshasa, called Lola Ya Bonobo. The Daily Mail just posted the following image in a larger piece with many more adorable photos. I think it’s a fitting last blog post before I shove off.

Bonobo image copyright Cyril Ruoso/Minden/Solent.

Freezer Full of Brains Dies

A freezer containing a priceless collection of autistic brain samples failed, destroying the collection. As a veteran of many freezer failures, I felt the pain of this research group’s loss. I’ve been woken on many a Saturday morning by our lab’s freezer alarm, forced to come in and shuffle endless boxes of decades-old samples. As my friend said upon hearing of the loss, “good thing we only store [poop] and rotten monkeys.” Here’s a report via the Boston Globe article:

A freezer malfunction at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital has severely damaged one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples, potentially setting back research on the disorder by years, scientists say.

An official at the renowned brain bank in Belmont discovered that the freezer had shut down in late May, without triggering two alarms. Inside, they found 150 thawed brains that had turned dark from decay; about a third of them were part of a collection of autism brains.

“This was a priceless collection,” said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where the brains were housed. “You can’t express its value in dollar amounts,” said Benes, who is leading one of two internal investigations into the freezer failure.

Via my friend Meredith.

The Incredible Naked Mole-Rat

Naked mole-rats grace the most recent cover of The Scientist, and the magazine’s summary of their weirdness tempts me to stray from primatology, though they make aye-ayes look cute:

Naked Mole-Rat 20th Anniversary at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

In the 1980s, scientists made the remarkable discovery that naked mole-rats live like termites with a single, dominant breeding queen and scores of nonbreeding adult helpers that never leave their natal colony. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Naked mole-rats, unlike other mammals, tolerate variable body temperatures, attributed to their lack of an insulatory layer of fur. Their pink skin is hairless except for sparse, whisker-like strands that crisscross the body to form a sensitive sensory array that helps them navigate in the dark. Both the naked mole-rat’s skin and its upper respiratory tract are completely insensitive to chemical irritants such as acids and capsaicin, the spicy ingredient in chili peppers. Most surprisingly, they can survive periods of oxygen deprivation that would cause irreversible brain damage in other mammals, and they are also resistant to a broad spectrum of other stressors, such as the plant toxins and heavy metals found in the soils in which they live. Unlike other mammals, they never get cancer, and this maintenance of genomic integrity, even as elderly mole-rats, most likely contributes to their extraordinarily long life span. In contrast to similar-size mice that only live 2–4 years, naked mole-rats can survive and thrive, maintaining normal function and reproduction, into their 30s.

Naked mole-rat photo from the Flickr stream of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.