Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Future is Here!

Bruce Tiffney shares this cool Smithsonian video with us.   

It features Paleobotanist Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History & an old friend of Bruce’s.  Johnson has studied the effects of the dinosaur-killing asteroid and led expeditions that resulted in the discovery of more than 1,400 fossil sites on all continents. His work has been featured in NOVA documentaries, including “Ice Age Death Trap” and the upcoming “Making of North America”. Most recently, Johnson has overseen the acquisition of the Nation’s T. rex, a 66 million-year-old skeleton that will be the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s new dinosaur hall that will open in 2019.  Bruce notes, “It is good in that he questions the use of commonly applied words like apocalypse and Armageddon, as he looks at global change.

Check it out!
The Future is Here: Science meets Science Fiction| Imagination, Inspiration and Invention (15:54) “My Four Apocalypses

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some Pinnipeds on the UCSB Beach

 A picture of a Harbor Seal I saw resting on a rock in the intertidal zone.

 An Elephant Seal weaner.

Here the Elephant Seal is yawning. It seemed very sleepy and was oblivious to joggers and dogs.

I wanted to show some happier pictures of pinnipeds on the beach rather than sea lion pups that were starving. When I went out to see if I could find some more stranded sea lion pups, I ended up finding a Harbor Seal and an Elephant Seal on the UCSB beach. The Harbor Seal was in the intertidal area where we went walking in class. It was resting on one of the rocks offshore. The next day, I came back to check to see if the Harbor Seal was still there, and it was.  On another occasion, I came across an Elephant Seal weaner on the UCSB beach bordering the Goleta beach. At first I was not even sure it was alive because it was sleeping so soundly. It was even able to sleep through a Golden Retriever barking at it from a few feet away! All the Elephant Seal wanted to do was sleep. When the tide started to come in, the Elephant Seal was forced to move and I was able to get a picture of it yawning. In its new spot, it started to throw sand on itself and every once in a while it made snorting sounds. It was a really neat experience to watch the Elephant Seal and Harbor Seal and I am glad that they were both healthy and doing okay. I just hope that they were not too affected by the oil spill.

Monday, June 8, 2015


Journal of Visualized Experiments

Here's the link! (You just have to go through the library webpage to log in--there's Biology and Neuroscience)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

CHIMPANZEE CHEFS! (This isn’t a joke, it’s actually quite scientific)

            I was just skimming over the headlines for Top Science News, and read, “Chimps: Smart Enough to Cook their Own Food?” I immediately knew this would be the subject of my third blog post.
            We share an astonishing amount of our genome with chimpanzees, and research is still uncovering genetic overlap. A recent study proposed that our cognitive capacity for cooking is shared by chimps. This includes an inclination towards cooked food, the ability to distinguish between cooked and raw food, and the discipline to save and transport food for cooking purposes. These therefore appeared early in evolution. Earlier studies on this focused more on the role of fire in cooking and the evolution of the human ability to cook, but these researchers took a different angle.
            The authors focused on aspects of cooking we don’t think about, because they are so inherently human. The first series of experiments replicated previous experiments, showing that chimpanzees were willing to wait extra time to receive cooked food instead of raw food. In the second experiment, chimps were given two devices, a cooking device and a device that left a sweet potato unchanged. The use of both devices was demonstrated, and the chimps quickly understood the transformation at work and chose food from the cooked device. The last procedure tested the chimps’ discipline. They were given pieces of raw sweet potato and a cooking device, and consistently cooked the sweet potato, instead of eating it right away. This contradicted a lot of well-respected research regarding animal difficulty with self-control regarding food consumption. Chimps did the same with other foods, and distinguished edible from non-edible. They consistently were willing to transport food for cooking opportunities. Food was given at one side of the enclosure, while the cooking device was at the opposite side. The chimps consistently transported the food and cooked it, instead of eating it immediately.
            This raises fascinating questions. Why do chimpanzees not cook in the wild? Although the control of fire is a critical cooking element they don’t have, other factors are involved. How does their diet play a role? How does social context affect the expression of these cognitive abilities in chimpanzees? Was it the first adoption of fire that sparked the development of cooking in ancestral humans? Clearly, much more research is necessary to flush out the details of this chimpanzee chef story.

The link to the study the ScienceDaily article corresponds to:

Friday, June 5, 2015

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

I briefly spoke about my grant proposal in my presentation for Dr. Clegg's stem cell course. I thought it'd be cool to share this video, which is a TED talk by Dr. Clegg about Age-related macular degeneration and his lab's solution to the problem. In the video, he mentions that their therapy, which is basically inserting a new layer of retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) into the eye, is expected to start clinical trials by 2015 (note: the video is from 2012). This is pretty exciting because, if I remember correctly, they are actually awaiting the results from their clinical trials which are expected to come in any time now.

The Brain and the Immune System

I presented on a recent paper that described new findings of lymphatic vessels going into the meninges, and unfortunately I feel that I didn't fully convey the significance / excitement of the finding. There were also a lot of smaller details that I was unable to cover, such as the various analytical techniques used to find the immune cells.

This is the press reiease? from the University of Virginia; it's even titled "Researchers Find Textbook-Altering Link Between Brain, Immune System." Additionally, these are the papers that are behind the post (I described the second paper mostly in my talk):

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mites infiltrating bee colonies

I read a really interesting page on Discovery about how mites are infiltrating bee colonies. With the rapid decline of bee populations that is occurring, I like to be updated on the possible causes and consequences. The mites infiltrate the colonies by imitating the scent of bees. It then proceeds to suck out the bees' blood and spread viruses throughout the bees. This is one of the plethora of causes that accounts for the 42% decimation of bee populations. Here is the page.

Incipient Speciation of the Island Scrub-Jay

A picture of the acorn eating island scrub-jay.

A picture of the pine nut eating island scrub-jay.

I found an interesting article about the divergence of beak characteristics in the island scrub-jay found on Santa Cruz island. Katie Langin earned her Ph.D. studying the island scrub-jay and found that there were two types of populations of scrub-jay based on their beaks. One group has long, shallow beaks that allow them to remove food from pine cones while the other group has shorter, stouter beaks that are good at hammering open acorns. The first group lives mostly in the pine forests on the island and the second group lives in the neighboring oak forests. There is no physical barrier which separates the two groups but they tend to breed with the birds found in the area they live in so birds with long, shallow beaks will tend to mate with other birds that have long, shallow beaks, etc. The evolution of the island scrub-jay has been going on for a million years on Santa Cruz island. There are less than 3,000 scrub-jays that live on Santa Cruz island which doesn’t seem like a large population to me. It is impressive how these birds can evolve such distinct subgroups while confined to an island.

Katie Langin “Evolution Works in Fast, Localized, Mysterious Ways” WildThings Slate’s Animal Blog, Feb. 6 2015.

Vitamin Names

The other day I saw a really interesting video regarding vitamins and naming. There were a lot of interesting history tidbits in there that explains why the naming system of vitamins can get confusing at times.

Sheldon and Somatotypes

The other day in class the point was brought up about body types, under the umbrella theory of morphology. Currently, I am in Psych 1 and we briefly discussed this in lecture. Basically the idea was brought up in response to phrenology, the theory by Gall that you can determine a person's personality types by feeling the bumps on their heads (if you're interested, you can read more about phrenology here).
The idea is there are three different body types - ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. Each of these body types have specific physical traits that greatly affects the personality of the individual. In essence, you can determine what a person's traits are simply by looking at them.
Endomorphs are short and stout and tend to be very carefree, fun loving people. Ectomorphs are tall and skinny and usually are very closed off and reserved. Mesomorphs have an athletic, muscular build and are competitive and adventurous. More details about these traits are here.
Obviously, we have moved on a great deal from these initial theories about the brain and body. I personally feel that there is no way we can judge a person simply on how they physically appear, everyone should be proud of their bodies. Regardless, I still think it's interesting to read up on these earlier theories of psychology and biology. It might give us some insight on ideas we have today.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

HIV and Vaccines

It seems like every week there is some news about an HIV vaccine. There was back in January 1, February with 123,  April that had 123, 4,  May has had 123. There are probably many more that can be found outside of a quick search, but the point is that an HIV vaccine has become one of those science topics that is easy to make a story out of. There are always vaccines in development (even a crowdfunded one) and a vaccine against HIV is something the world needs, so it makes sense that these articles are always being written and read. But like the mouse that has been cured of Alzheimer's you have to wonder if these articles help the public understand anything other than a vaccine is under development. It's interesting to look at science news and how it's presented to the public.

Talking heads - 3minutes (2009)

Ted talk - 20 minutes (2013)

Controversy Surrounding Biological and Environmental Effects of low-level Nuclear Radiation

           I am enrolled in a freshman seminar this quarter titled, “Nuclear Futures: Understanding Global Energy Choices in a Post-Fukushima World.” We met once this past week, and we are going on all-day excursion to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant on Tuesday, in Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo (the only nuclear power plant in California). Before our first meeting, we were instructed to watch a few debates between “experts” for and against nuclear power as a reasonable energy alternative. The debates were extremely polarized, and there was one key aspect that sparked my interest. There were massive disagreements about the adverse health effects of “low levels” of nuclear radiation, like the levels of radiation that surround Chernobyl today. I think it’s especially interesting to understand more about the potential adverse health effects from nuclear disasters, because we have a nuclear power plant essentially in our backyard.
            A lengthy report on the catastrophic health and environmental effects of the Chernobyl disaster was published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2012, and it is quite controversial amidst the nuclear debate. The main controversy surrounds the danger of “low levels” of radiation. According to this report and other anti-nuclear advocates, inhaling such small amounts as one millionth of a gram of plutonium can be devastating. It kills most cells surrounding the area, because it’s an alpha emitter. The surrounding cells that survive mutate, their regulatory genes are destroyed, and years later the exposure can cause all sorts of cancers. This report attributes enormous cancer rates in the regions surrounding Chernobyl to the 1986 disaster, due to the massive incubation time of internal emitters (2 to 60 years). However, nuclear advocates cite the study as an outlier paper and just another fear-mongering fallacy. I think it’s really interesting to try to delve beneath the polarization to the actual scientific truth surrounding this issue. It’s hard to attribute such massive cancer rates to one disaster, because there are so many other factors that can contribute, but the study still seems quite legitimate.
This NY Times article is a good example of the arguments against such studies like the NY Academy of Sciences report:

This is the link to the massive NY Academy of Sciences report on Chernobyl:

A shorter more concise overview of biological and environmental effects of Chernobyl radiation is linked below.

This overview is really interesting and pertains to a lot of topics we’ve covered in CS 20 and CS 30, especially the ecological effects of nuclear radiation. The ecological and evolutionary implications of Chernobyl radiation is a very under-studied issue, but there are all sorts of fascinating evolutionary and ecological questions to be asked about the consequences of low-level radiation on surrounding ecosystems and populations.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Genetic study on the difference between worker, queen and male bees

I stumbled across the article "From Worker to Queen at the drop of a gene" today while searching Science daily and found this pretty interesting.

The article and study discuss how the genome for male, worker, and queen bees are extremely similar and the differentiation between the roles depends on which genes are activated thought the bee's lifetime. ("The findings suggest that differentiation is not caused by inherited genetic difference, as is typical of most species of animal, meaning that males, which hatch from unfertilized eggs, are genetically very similar to their sisters.") Although the bees are hatched with some slight determination of what their role will be, the events in the lives can change this predisposition and cause certain genes to activate. The behavior and physiology of the male and queen bees hardly overlap. What I found interesting was "the differentiation between the castes in bees is similar to cell differentiation in humans."

the buff tailed bumblebee (used in the study)

Effects of E-cigarrette Vapor on Immune Response

        I found our lecture discussion of the increased prevalence of vaping and its possibly awful health effects very intriguing. I remembered reading a controversial article about vaping causing impairment of various aspects of our immune response, and wanted to know if it was actually true. People naturally think there’s no problem with vaping, because there is no inhalation of smoke involved, but is that really the whole story?
            Despite the lack of smoke and the toxins associated with combustion, E-cigarrette vapor still produces significant effects on the lungs, including inflammation and damage of vital proteins. Though the amount of toxic chemicals in the vapor is over a hundred times less than found in normal cigarettes, the toxins still contain large amounts of free radicals that damage cells, harm DNA, and can be cancer-causing. Some of the potentially toxic chemicals revealed upon analysis of the vapor include formaldehyde, nitrosamines, metals, carbonyls, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The levels of these compounds always increase after vaporization, due to heat and/or the voltage from the vaporizer.
            In a study published a few months ago, several groups of mice were extensively tested with exposure to E-cigarrette vapor. They were separated into two groups, one exposed to fresh air for two weeks, and the other exposed to E-cigarrette vapor for the time period. Each group was then separated into two subgroups; one was then exposed to influenza A and the other exposed to Streptococcus pneumoniae (the bacterium that causes pneumonia). Not only did the mice exposed to the vapor experience much more severe infections, but they also revealed physiological changes from the vapor exposure. More specifically, the ability of the mice to rid their lungs of the harmful bacterium was immensely impaired, due to reduced phagocytic capability by macrophages in the alveoli. The main impairment involved with the viral infections was the reduction in several crucial cytokines for immune response, along with the inhibition of pulmonary T-cells that are also crucial to fighting viral infections.
            Not surprisingly, this study was criticized by Tom Pruen, the chief scientific officer for the Electronic Cigarette Trade Industry Association. He claimed that the doses given to the mice didn’t make sense, because they were doses fit for humans. Obviously there are economic motives at play here, but it still does seem that the effects of E-cigarrette vapor on the human immune system remain relatively uncertain.

Two interesting articles from secondary sources are linked below:

One of the main papers that is the source of a lot of the controversy between E-cigarrete companies and health professionals is linked below.