Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bacteria Bubble!

According to the article, "Bacteria Live at 33,000 Feet" , which is apparently also in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science, scientists found bacteria living at extremely high elevations in our atmosphere. A lot of what was previously regarded as just dust turned out to be microbial organisms.

It seems like life is found in weirder and cooler spots every day! It also raises a lot of interesting questions about what effect these organisms have on the Earth.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paleo-pathology, the Medici children and rickets: They needed to play outside more!

Rickets in the news....   We think of vitamin deficiency as being a problem in the developing world, not a disease of the wealthy.  But according to a story I heard today on PRI's: The World, rickets affected the wealthy aristocratic family of the Renaissance - the Medici's whose children suffered from this disease and died young.

1586 portrait of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her son don Filippino de’ Medici (Photo:Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze)

From the PRI website: "there’s a new insight into what life was like during the Italian Renaissance.  The insight comes from a team of Italian researchers that examined the skeletons of nine children of the Medici family who died in the 16th century."  Interestingly, "it turns out that serious malnutrition in the form of a Vitamin D deficiency was an unintended consequence of the Medicis privileged 16th century upbringing."  Weird, right?  Can you think of how a privileged lifestyle might PROMOTE rickets?  Read the article to see if you are right...

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Limb Regeneration

We can now add limb regeneration to the list of things that immune systems are responsible for.  Axolotls (such as the one pictured above) have been known to easily regenerate lost limbs, but the mechanisms for limb reproduction have largely been a mystery.  
Researchers have found that when Axolotls  depleted of macrophages loose a limb, they grow stumps and scars; but when immune cells are replenished and the wound re-opened, a complex signaling process begins between the macrophages and the surrounding tissue and the limb begins to regrow.  While the exact process of limb regeneration is far from determined, we now know that immune cells are key to limb regeneration. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Rat Park

With the amazing presentation that I gave on thursday, I'd like to introduce to everyone the comic that inspired my talk:

Though a bit sensational and lengthy, I think it shows a more human side of research and the struggles that researchers face.  Take the time to read it, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, June 7, 2013


I know, it sounds ridiculous, I even thought it was a joke when I heard it from my History teacher (as did many of you when I told you at the Museum), but the wholphin is a very real thing (or at least nbc news thinks so). Here is the source Apparently, a chance mating between a female False Killer Whale and a male Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin produced an offspring together. Even more incredibly, the offspring has given birth twice.

Who knows? Maybe the story is false, maybe it's real, either way, it's interesting, and it never hurts to look at biology from another angle.

Laser Controlled Flies

     In response to Jimmy's presentation on Thursday, I thought I'd mention another interesting control mechanism used on insects. It turns out that in addition to remote controlled cockroaches, laser controlled flies have also been created. 
     This fly control system functions through the genetic modification of specific neuron cells in the flies brain. These cells are engineered to have a different ion channel than the one that is normally present. The final key to building a laser controlled fly was the injection of ATP in molecular cages, which will open up and release ATP into the flies brain when struck with UV light. This whole system was engineered into the giant fiber system of the flies brain, the center responsible for behavior such as jumping and flight. These behaviors are triggered when the flies is struck with UV light which releases ATP and triggers the genetically modified ion channel. This flow of events causes the fly to perform the desired behavior as much as 80% of the time. These laser controlled flies are being used to study many different components of neuron functioning.        

Here's a link to the paper:

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Yoga Makes You Smarter!

Its a little off topic, but I stumbled across this article and I thought I could relate it to our discussion of the brain on Tuesday. The University of Illinois recently did a study that tested subjects on their memory and mental control after a 20 minute yoga session and after a 20 minute cardio session. They were surprised to find that subjects performed significantly better after the yoga session than the cardio session. So here's to even more reasons to take some time every day to relax, stretch, and do something good for your body! Here's the citation for the article; its a pdf so you'll have to download it off google scholar but its definitely worth reading!

Gothe N, Pontefex MB, Hillman C, McAuley E. The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Approval for Blood Grown from Culture

Synthetic blood has been approved for clinical trials in the Scottish Center for Regenerative Medicine.  While getting blood from culture (instead of donations) may prove to be a lot of work in developed countries, it could be a godsend for developing countries which lack the networks required to reliably gather blood from donations.  This source of blood will also have the advantage being easily controlled so it will always be O-negative and pathogen free.
The entire article can be found here.

Organ Donations

During our discussion of the human immune system, a couple comments about organ donation were brought up. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 118,228 people are waiting for an organ, and 18 people will die everyday waiting for an organ. I did some more research on the topic and found some interesting points regarding the more legislative side of it. As briefly mentioned in class, there are two main ways countries deal with consent for organ donation: opt-in vs. opt-out. In the opt-in method, donors give explicit consent, while in the opt-out method citizens will be
on the list unless they choose to be removed. As would be expected the opt-out system dramatically increases the percentage of the population that gives consent. For example Austria uses the opt-out system and has 99.98% consent rate, while one of its neighboring countries, Germany uses the opt-in system and only has a rate consent of 12%. In the US, citizens and residents, have the option to opt-in when they get or renewal a driver's license as well as register online. The two main agencies that  govern Organ Procurement Organizations are in the US are the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN). UNOS uses a computer program that generates matches based on criteria including distance, blood type and status. Lives of people around the world have been saved through organ donations, so the next time you go to the DMV remember that one organ donor can save up to 8 lives. 

Speaking of Brain Size.....

Where Are All My Friends?

I was very dismayed to hear from my parents that Brood II of Magicicada septendecim, the 17-year periodical cicada, has almost completely bypassed New York City. I've been trying to talk them into catching some for weeks now, and apart from these few my sister saw on a college tour of Bard, they've apparently been scarce:

Just be glad that our campus isn't overrun with these majestic, 2-inch long insects, which were apparently getting stepped on by all the students. I've been following several cicada-tracking websites, hoping to find an emergence that isn't 3 hours away by car. Here is the most recent disappointing image:

As you can see, New York is pretty devoid of interesting bugs, and has been since the last cicada emergence in 1996. Apparently they brood underground and their eggs are laid in old-growth trees that haven't been disturbed, a rarity in a city whose infrastructure changes almost daily.

The two other species of cicada with 17-year life cycles are markedly different: M. septendecula has a smaller body with thinner orange markings, and M. cassini is all black. From what I've learned in EEMB 116, a class you should not take unless you enjoy handling things with lots of legs, these species and several others that emerge every 13 years have synchronized their life cycle to prime numbers to prevent the prediction of their next emergence by predators, of which they have many. Brood II, one of 17 Northeastern populations and one of 12 broods synchronized to a 17-year cycle, is the most NYC-centric; Brood X covers the largest geographic range in the U.S. and Brood IV is known for the densest outbreaks: up to 1,000 individuals per square meter in Kansas!

Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History (where I'm working this summer) bravely answered the questions of many an anxious city slicker:

"The eggs are deposited by the females by slicing into smaller branches with the ovipositor. Eggs require 6 to 10 weeks of incubation. The newly hatched nymphs are smaller than the size of a grain of rice. These fall to the ground. I suppose if you stayed under trees at the time of hatching, you could be pelted by these nymphs. Other than that, their activity will mostly go unnoticed. Emergence of nymphs and progression to mature adults with chorusing and mating continues for a few weeks. The adults have to feed on tree fluids, too. So probably 4 to 6 weeks, but is temperature dependent, so cooler conditions slow things down and warmer conditions speed things up. I'm not sure how long it takes for the shed skins or exuviae to decompose completely, but they are quite resilient. Bodies of dead cicadas also take time to decompose. Foraging ants will probably cut them up to bring back to the nest to feed the larvae. You can use the dead cicada bodies for plant fertilizer."

How practical. Cicadas neither bite nor sting, and belong to the suborder Auchenorrhyncha along with leafhoppers and spittlebugs. As Sorkin said, they feed by tapping into plant xylem, and on rare occasion have been known to mistake a particularly beefy human arm for a branch if they are allowed to remain there for an extended period of time. The long, sharp stylet that they usually use to pierce through bark is said to be quite painful.

Here is an interesting article on the museum's restored cicada display if you're interested in further reading.

Breasts and Antibiotics

Due to the modern overuse of synthetic antibiotics many nasty bugs have developed antibiotic resistant strains causing us to search for unique innovations to stop pesky bacteria from infecting our body. It turns out that human milk contains a unique and natural protein currently named Hamlet.  This protein has shown its effectiveness as an antibacterial agent which not only effectively kills the bacteria but does so without severe side effects.  The bacteria also seems unable or significantly slower at evolving a resistance to this protein
compared to synthetic antibiotics.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cicadas Annoy Everyone Except the US Navy

You know those super annoying insects that sit around and buzz with that un-ending hum that slowly eats away at your brain? They're called Cicadas, and every 17 years the Brood II Cicada digs its way out of the earth under the East Coast to drive everyone nuts in a scattered attempt to attract mates.

Lawrence Woodworth Jr & Wikimedia Commons

The insect has an air-filled cavity in its thorax that is sided by two large plates. It alternates the contraction of the two plates at a rapid pace to produce two distinct clicking patterns against the underlying ribs. both of these patterns resonate within the hollow cavity and amplify each other to produce the dreaded cicada hum.

The US Navy has taken an interest in the insect in an effort to use this mating call as a sound producing mechanism for a new active sonar system. As it is now, these sonar systems are too large and complicated to be incorporated into most of the navy's vessels, so passive systems are used instead, which can only detect moving objects louder (and usually bigger) than the vessel collecting sound. The active system would project sound and collect it as it bounces off of objects, regardless of their sizes, and should be more compact.

Feel free to read more:
Popular Science
LA Times

A Fairly Annoynig Example of Evolution

Cockroaches are a versatile group of insects.  They can go weeks without food, tolerate 15 times the radiation that humans can and are resistant to many pesticides.
  Cockroaches have historically relied heavily on glucose as a food source but in the span of the last few decades, many cockroaches have evolved  to reject glucose because it is so commonly used as a bait in insect traps.  Researchers have found that in many modern cockroaches it stimulates the neurons that sense bitter foods, making glucose unattractive as a food. Because these glucose-averse cockroaches have become so common, traps that use glucose as a bait have become ineffective.

An article about this topic can be found here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

GMO Wheat Found in Oregon Field... Wait What?!?!?

Not quite 'amber waves of grain' anymore
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) have taken center-stage on many debate fronts. A couple of days ago, an article came up called GMO Wheat Found in Oregon Field. How Did It Get There? The article focuses on a biotech company called Monsanto who has already created Roundup-resistant corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Monsanto proposed Roundup-resistant wheat to U.S Wheat Associates but were turned down and their field trials were discontinued. "'We are not in favor of commercializing any biotech trait unless it's gone through regulatory approvals in the U.S. and in other countries.' says Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates." Basically, U.S. Wheat Associates were not interested in the GMO wheat because of the possibility of wheat exports to decrease with the addition of GMO wheat to their exports. Eight months later, a farmer noticed a patch of wheat that was apart from his acreage of wheat and when sprayed with Roundup, it didn't die. Samples of the wheat were sent to a scientist at Oregon State University, who found that the wheat was genetically engineered, later confirmed by the USDA. So, how did the wheat get there in the first place? Was the wheat leftover from Monsanto's field trials even though trials in Oregon ended in 2001? Nobody knows for sure where the wheat came from. But wheat farmers are afraid of wheat prices dropping because of this case. So, who's to blame?