When we come into this world, we usually emerge whole. Not everyone is as fortunate though. There are a variety of rare afflictions that push the embryo to develop in a haphazard way, causing damage most of us would turn our heads away from. Such damage can be the result of the slightest of changes in a gene that affects downstream biological processes in an infant's development, for instance. Frontonasal dysplasia is just one of these afflictions. A protein known as ALX1 is at the heart of this disease characterised by a face that is not only incomplete but, in the most extreme cases, split up the middle. Now imagine if humans had beaks... Then surely ALX1 would have an effect on a beak's development. This seems to be so. Recently, scientists discovered the ALX1 protein in finches known as Darwin's finches. These particular finches live on the Galápagos Islands and were originally described by Charles Darwin during his voyage on The Beagle. And it could well be that what characterises each species best - i.e. the shape of their beak - is the hallmark of ALX1.
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Tales From A Small World is a collection of the first hundred articles which originally appeared on this site. Published in September 2009, the book is enriched by poems from the Dublin poet, Pat Ingoldsby. Learn more and order your copy online.
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Snapshot : Contulakin-G protein
In the summer of 1935, a young man was enjoying a stroll along the shores of Haymen Island off the coast of Australia when he tripped over an attractive – but live – cone shell which would have made an excellent paperweight back home. Such a destiny, however, was not to the shell’s taste and it retorted by stinging the man’s hand. Numbness, stiffness and soon paralysis of the victim’s limbs occurred before he became unconscious and dropped into a deep coma followed by death within the space of five hours. As for the cone shell, despite its rather strong protest, it didn’t gain its hoped-for freedom and was shipped back to the mainland.
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