Thursday, December 30, 2010

Editor's Pick

BioTechniques has compiled a list of the top five methods newsletters of 2010 as chosen by their editorial staff. My article from August, Ending Cell Line Contamination by Cutting Off Researchers made the cut for their cell culture category.

Methods newsletters were a new endeavor for BioTechniques in 2010, and they were such a big hit that in 2011 the topics (currently microscopy, sequencing, cell culture, antibodies, and PCR) will expand to include cell biology, DNA sequencing, epigenetics, proteomics, and translational research. You can sign up to receive them as an email blast on the BioTechniques website.

Polar Bear Officially Not On the Brink

The status of the Polar Bear under the Endangered Species Act was up for review this past week, and despite campaigning by environmental groups the Polar Bear retained its designation of threatened, instead of being bumped up to endangered.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The article, Polar bears not endangered, US confirms in the BBC is interesting because it very much takes the view that the ruling is incorrect and that the polar bear should have an endangered ranking. The tone of the article puts a lot of stress on the fact that the Bush administration had the polar bear listed as threatened, and makes a point of saying that the Obama administration is keeping in line with Bush-era policies.

Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are a big part of the arctic melting that has caused the destruction of polar bear habitat. If the polar bear was listed as an endangered species, the US would have to assess the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on polar bear habitat. The BBC's article explicitly states that environmental groups believe the government doesn't want to have to assess emissions and that is why they didn't bump up the polar bear's status to endangered.

The article doesn't give much voice to the government perspective, or explain what kind of analysis was done to arrive at the conclusion that the polar bear is only threatened. Because of this, the article is one sided and I think takes too biased a point of view. This is surprising from the BBC, because in general I think they do a good job staying balanced in their reporting.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Results Are In

Well my first semester of Grad School is officially closed. Grades came out today, and for the first time in my 17 years of schooling, I managed to pull off a 4.0!

When my Dad retired he went back to school to get his Master's degree and he graduated with a 4.0, so I made a bet with him that I could pull off grades like that too.

I'm glad I didn't fail at our bet in my first semester, that would have been a disappointment. I still have three to go, but at least I'm starting off in great shape to have a GPA I can be proud of. Now I can turn my attention to getting ready for school to start again in mid-January.

Food Printing

Whenever I think about the food of the future, I think about Star Trek (I know, I know... I'm a nerd in a sorority girl shell) and how in the show their food is created by a machine that assembles the molecular composition of whatever food you order right in front of you. Needless to say like my hover car and robot maid, such things are still far in the future, but an interesting new way to prepare food is channeling this type of future food.

Food printing is a new technology that follows a recipe all on its own to come up with different meals, all you need to input are the ingredients. The technology is being developed by a team of researchers at Cornell University's Computations Synthesis Lab as part of the Fab@home project. The 3D food printer only requires users to put in the ingredients and program the recipe, and the machine will do the rest. It can even be adjusted for picky eaters -- making food moister or crispier, depending on the tastes of the consumer.

The technology would be especially beneficial for people won't don't either know how to cook or who don't have the time to prepare big meals. It could also cut down on costs by limiting production waste during food preparation.

I'm pretty amazed by the creativity that researchers have shown in utilizing printing technology for new applications. In addition to 3D food assembly, printers can also be used for 3D cell culture. I wrote and article about 3D cell printers for BioTechniques last year, and I was amazed by the machines' capabilities.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eight Year Olds Under Peer Review

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A group of elementary school children from the UK have achieved a world's first by having the research they conducted for their school science project accepted into the peer reviewed journal Biology Letters. The group of 8-10 year olds was investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns.

The kids worked on their science project with Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientists at University College London's Institute of Opthamology. Under his supervision the kids discovered that bumblebees learn and remember based on color and pattern cues.

The kids' paper successfully made it through peer review, and so was eligible for publication in Biology Letters. Unlike other papers featured in the journal, it doesn't include citations to other relevant work because knowledge of the other scientific literature aren't available to 8-10 year olds so they couldn't have used them.

The kids' work was published accompanied by a commentary by Laurence T. Maloney from New York University's Center for Neural Science and Natalie Hempel de Ibarra from Exeter University's Center for Research in Animal Behavior.

Solar Powered Surveillance

A solar airplane built in the UK recently set a new record for the longest unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) flight. The Zephyr, built by Qinetiq stayed aloft for 336 hours, 22 minutes, and eight seconds. The previous record was established in 2001 by the Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman. Zephyr bested the Hawk by eleven times, making it a big success.

The advantage that solar planes have is that they have the ability to hover over a location without having to orbit like a satellite or return to base for refueling like another plane. According to Qinetiq, solar airplanes are exciting because they have a variety of uses, including monitoring forrest fires, military communications, and tracking (locating pirates off the coast of Africa maybe?)

Even though this is unrelated to the concept of solar planes, I have to admit that what drew my attention to this article was the fact that the winning airplane was named Zephyr. I love that word, so for those who don't know a Zephyr (noun) is 1 poetic/literary a soft gentle breeze. 2 historical a very light article of clothing. Its origin is late old english zefferus, denoting a personification of the west wind, via Latin from Greek zephuros (god of) the west wind.

It also happens to be in the title of one of my favorite songs. So here's the Zephyr Song, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

What Is The What?

While I was snowbound I read Dave Eggers' What is the What. I'd read his book Zeitoun for J669 this past semester, and I'd heard a lot of good things about What is the What so I decided to check it out for myself. Ultimately I liked Zeitoun more, but I do think that What is the What is a great read, especially for someone who knows little about the civil war in the Sudan.

The novel tells the story of Valentino Archak Deng's life, (note: he is a real person) from the years before Sudan's civil war reached the southern region where he lived - which were prosperous and happy, to his experiences after he fled his village and left his family (whom he believed were dead) to seek refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya, before being chosen to be resettled in America.

What is the What is a novel, because Eggers was forced to reconstruct scenes based on Deng's memory of events that began when he was only 7 years old when he fled his home in the Sudan and became one of the Lost Boys. The book flips back and forth between Deng's present life (at 27) and his childhood. Having to go back 20 years, Deng couldn't remember all the details that would have been necessary to write the book as is. But don't let the novel status fool you, What is the What is a true story. I have a lot of faith in Eggers as a writer, so I'm confident that the events described are as close as can be to the real events experienced by Deng.

I learned a lot about African history and the civil wars and conflicts that have plagued the continent in my J620 international communication class, but I still wouldn't say I'm well informed. Reading What is the What solidified my opinion that the majority of conflicts are incredibly complex politically, economically, and socially, which few clear cut solutions.

The writing is clear cut and easy to understand, because Eggers does a really good job at explaining complex situations in a concise and comprehendible way. The sheer volume of death and violence witnessed by Deng and the other children of southern Sudan is rattling and reading this book has certainly made me want to find out more about what the current situation is in Sudan.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Technology Takes A Look At A Pliosaur Skull

Source: Flickr
The article "Colossal pliosaur fossil secrets revealed by CT scanner," caught my attention because it describes an interesting new use for existing technology. Researchers took the skull of a pliosaur, a creature that lived in the oceans during the Jurassic period, and scanned it to learn more about the fossil remains - which may belong to the largest pliosaur yet to be discovered.

The creature is estimated between 10-16m, based on the skull which is 2.4m long. By comparison, a killer whale is 5-8m and a human is only 1.5m. Needless to say, these things were big. According to the BBC article, a pliosaur would have had the jaw strength to bite a car in half.

The CT scanner used for the research belongs to the University of Southampton in the UK. The machine is one of the largest of its kind, which was necessary to beam through the dense fossil to form a 3D image of what the inside of it looks like. The findings may be able to help researchers establish if their fossil is a different species, or just an abnormally big example of a pliosaur. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elephant Species

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographer: Johnny Liunggren.
Researchers have put an end to debate about whether the African Elephant is one species, or two. New findings published in the journal Public Library of Science Biology show that the African Elephants that dwell in the savannah are a distinct species from those that dwell in the forests.

Loxodonta africana, the savannah dwellers, are much larger and in some cases twice as heavy as Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest dwellers. The debate about whether the elephants were separate species has been going on for at least a decade. The research shows that the two species diverged from their common ancestor around the same time that humans and chimpanzees evolved. How long ago the species split was a surprise for the researchers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Bones found on an island in the South Pacific are being tested against surviving members of Amelia Earhart's family to see if the remains could belong to the famous aviator. Earhart disappeared in 1937 during an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. Her mysterious disappearance has been the topic of books, movies, and enough speculation to make her a household name - even today.

Along with other artifacts found on the island including makeup and glass bottles, a DNA confirmation that the bones belong to Earhart would finally put to rest the mystery of what happened to her. If the bones are Earhart it would be valid to conclude that her plane crashed, and that she survived as a castaway for some time before dying on the island.

If DNA can give an ending to the story of Amelia Earhart, it will definitely be a win for genetics, and scientific research in general. The question that would be left (at least for me) is what happened to her plane (or her navigator for that matter)?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Woodpeckers From Space

The article Space Laser Spies for Woodpeckers by Jonathan Amos for the BBC caught my eye today due to the way that I woke up this morning. I'm home in New Jersey for the holidays, and the back side of my parents house is wood so we've had a few woodpeckers stop by in the past.

Source: New Jersey
This morning I fell out of bed, startled by what sounded like an attack from robotic woodpeckers. I stumbled out into the hall, only to figure out in my half-asleep state that the noise was radiating from the inside of the house, from the plumbing. Following the noise, I found my Mom in the basement doing laundry. Apparently the noise the sink next to the washer makes is very similar to a robotic woodpecker attack. I know you all appreciated that little anecdote, but now on to the scientific side of woodpeckers.

Researchers at the University of Idaho are developing lasers that can be attached to satellites to woodpeckers in the state to determine which parts of the forests they favor. The researchers hope the satellite guided lasers will be a better way to track the woodpecker, which is an indicator species. Being an indicator species means that if the woodpecker is healthy and thriving in different parts of the forest, then it is likely that the forest itself is healthy and doing well.

If the laser-satellites prove to be a successful way of surveying for a species, it could eliminate more labor-intensive and costly means of surveying like sending people into the forest on foot to assess the environment's health. This is an instance where I have to say, even though we still don't have flying cars, we are definitely living in the future.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do Flies Exercise Free Will?

The question of whether or not organisms with less brain power than humans can exercise free will, essentially the ability to think for themselves, has long been a scientific curiosity. New research out of Berlin Free University suggests that fruit flies may have some level of free will.

Drosophila melanogaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The idea is that an organism that doesn't have free will, always reacts in the same way to stimuli due to the way their brain has programmed them to react. Yet, experiments with fruit flies show some unpredictability to the way that fruit flies react. This suggests that fruit flies "think" on a different level that previously believed.

Now the ability to react differently to stimuli, does not mean that organisms with less brain power than humans are sentient. Sentience is the ability to be self aware, and to understand and think critically about yourself and what goes on around you. Whether or not organisms are sentient - and to what extent they may be so, remains a controversial topic.

Flying left instead of right when poked isn't the same thing -- at all. But it does suggest that we still have a lot to learn about the brain, even in teeny tiny organisms, because researchers have only scratched the surface of understanding the ability to make choices, and what it means about the capabilities of the brain.

Glow in the Dark Snails

Bioluminescence is such a cool natural phenomenon. Victoria Gill's article for the BBC, Snails flash a green alarm light, discusses the newest organism to be discovered with bioluminescent abilities. Basically, bioluminescence is the ability to glow neon colors like a living glow-stick.

Organisms use their glow to scare off predators, and when that doesn't work, to put the spotlight on the organism that is attacking them so that perhaps another predator will come after it.

The bioluminescent snail are interesting because the actual part of the snail that glows is located inside the shell. The opaque nature of the shell amplifies the color so that its glow is increased and the glow spreads to the entire shell.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Ever Important Role of Facebook

Given that I check my Facebook at least a dozen times a day, I think its safe to say that I'm an addict. The more Facebook changes and expands, the more addictive it seems to become - especially with the evolution of the news feed.

This week my professors and colleagues pointed out several examples of social media, particularly Facebook, playing a role in how hard news stories are reported. I think it is definitely safe to say that Facebook is another tool in a reporter's arsenal to get the scoop on a story, or even just to get a good feel for a situation.

One article that I found particularly jarring because of the way it used Facebook is Ian Shapira's article for The Washington Post, A Facebook story: A mother's joy and a family's sorrow.

In addition to seriously pulling on the heartstrings, I think Shapira's article also dances around the issue of what happens to your online presence after you die. The issue of "digital death" was raised by my colleague in the UW pro-track program, Marianne English in the article: Madison startup Entrustet helps people control their digital assets from The Isthmus.

Things to think about.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide

Every year BioTechniques publishes a list of holiday gifts for scientists, or just science lovers. From the 2010 Holiday Gift Guide my favorite is definitely the microbe ornaments! But check out all the options, there are definitely some cute ideas for either your own little scientists or your co-workers.

Source: GIANTmicrobes.

Leaving the Solar System

There was an interesting story today in the BBC about the NASA space probe Voyager 1, and how it is nearing the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has traveled the farthest of all the vessel to be launched from Earth. It will be the first space probe to ever leave our solar system.

Launch of Voyager 1.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
What I found so interesting about the Voyager 1 probe is that it was launched in 1977, making it 33 years old. This machine has been collecting and transmitting data about space back to Earth for longer than I have been alive. I think that is pretty amazing, and it is a testament to engineering that NASA's scientists were able to make a machine that could still function properly after all this time.

Voyager 1 and its partner Voyager 2 were initially launched to survey the outermost planets in our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Voyager 2 is nowhere near the edge of the solar system however, because after it was finished with the outer planets in 1989 it was put on a much slower course than Voyager 1.

According to researchers, Voyager 1 should cross the threshold outside of our solar system sometime in the next five years, so this story will definitely be coming up in the news again in the future.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advantages to Being on the Left

As a left handed person I found this article: 'Left handed' coiling snails survive more snake attacks by the BBC's Victoria Gill, pretty interesting. I love hearing stories of left handed superiority. According to this article, a certain species of snail that has shells that coil either clockwise or counterclockwise is experiencing natural selection due to their shell orientation.

Due to the way snakes suck a snail out of its shell, and the way snakes jaws are formed, only snails that have shells that coil to the right are susceptible to predation. Snakes just can't suck a snail out of a shell that coils to the left. Ha! Left handed dominance! According to researchers, the snails are starting to branch off into their own species, because eliminating the threat from snakes has been really beneficial for their population.

I'd also like to take a moment to point out that the idea that left handed people are sadistic is a myth. The word sinistrality is used to refer to left handed people because it is derived from the Latin word sinestra which means left handedness. Nothing to do with demons, sorry.

I take pride in being left handed but it can be a pain at times (like when I was learning how to write). Apparently left handed people have a shorter life span than right handed people based on accidents caused by using tools, and equipment designed for right handed people. I guess I better watch out.

But I do have good company in my left handed ways: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (the likable Presidents!) Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Paul McCartney, Charlie Chaplin, Robert DeNiro, Cary Grant, and Marilyn Monroe (lots of others too I just found these the most interesting.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Diamond Planet

New research using NASA's Spritzer Space Telescope has shown that planets in our galaxy may be more carbon based than others meaning that the ground would be made of diamonds instead of sand (rocks, dirt, essentially what our soil is made of.)
The new planetary discovery, Wasp12b, is a gas giant like Jupiter, and wouldn't have the water necessary to sustain life. But, just the idea that a planet made of diamonds could exist is definitely fun. Its strange how something that is such a hot commodity on Earth could be so ordinary somewhere else with just a few changes in chemical composition.

I couldn't do a post about diamonds and not include a little Marilyn Monroe, after all Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Devil in the White City

Yesterday I spend five hours writing my final paper for J669. It still needs some work but I'm very happy to have a first draft, at 12 pages (3,955 words) it is a relief that all I have left to do is edit it. The assignment was to read a literary journalism book and then write a report on it, critiquing its success.

I chose to read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Although it came out in 2004, I actually hadn't heard of it until I moved out to Wisconsin. I guess because the book is set in Chicago and Madison has a close proximity to the Windy City it is more popular out here. Overall I really liked the book, but I did sort of question whether or not it should fit into the category of journalism.

The book brings together two stories, the architects designing the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer H. H. Holmes who lured women away from the fair and killed them in his hotel just outside of Chicago. The stories do go together, but there is far more factual evidence for the actions of the architects and the events leading up to the fair, than there is a record of Holmes actions, because after all what kind of killer would leave evidence of his crimes to public record.

The reason that I'm not sure Devil in the White City should count as journalism is because Larson recreates some of the murders committed by Holmes in great detail, including what the victims were thinking at the time. There is no way Larson could have known what they were thinking, certainly not in a way that could be backed up by concrete evidence like letters or a journal. The recreation of scenes in this way is my biggest problem with the book.

Other than that, I enjoyed the book. I thought the amount of detail that Larson was able to dig up regarding the fair was pretty incredible. I loved learning the background to things that I hadn't known before, like that Walt Disney's father was a carpenter at the fair (which probably inspired Disney World,) or that the Ferris Wheel was developed to trump the Eiffel Tower.

I thought it was very compelling for a historical account, but then again adding a few gristly murders can go a long way to sucking in a reader (especially one like me who loves a good murder mystery.)

Fun fact: the book is going to be made into a movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio as Holmes, which I think has the potential to be a pretty good film (if it actually gets made that is.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Titanic Rusticles Home to New Species

An example of rusticles. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
I pretty much picked this story to highlight as today's science find because I like the word rusticles, also the history of the Titanic. A rusticle is an icicle-like formation made by rust that forms on iron. Researchers have discovered a new type of bacteria in the rusticles that were formed by the wreckage of the Titanic.

New species of bacteria found in Titanic 'rusticles' explains that the Halomonas titanicae bacterium actually feeds off the rust formations. The bacteria are of interest because they could help researchers understand how bacteria participate in the breakdown of metal, which could have an impact on the safety of offshore oil drilling rigs and pipelines. After the BP Gulf Oil spill that was in the headlines all Summer, I'm sure we all want safer drilling mechanisms.

The story is also notable because the researchers sequenced the bacteria's genome to establish that it is in fact a new species. Genome sequencing is a relatively new tool for establishing taxonomy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Who Doesn't Like Baby Pandas?

I'm really not sure who reads this thing anymore, but I know at least one person (my mom) is unhappy with my lack of posting in the last week. Sorry friends, I promised I would pick up my posting, so here is a little science fix for you from the BBC.

Source: Telegraph UK
Giant Panda Breeding Breakthrough in China by Ella Davies, is a good short news piece about recent success breeding giant pandas in captivity. Pandas are endangered largely due to destruction of their habitat, but the complex factors that have to fall into place in order for them to reproduce haven't done their population any favors either. Researchers have struggled to induce pandas to breed in captivity, but a new understanding of panda lovin' (pregnancy and childcare as well) has led to increased rates of panda baby survival.

Most pandas give birth to two cubs at once, but abandon one and only care for the other. After observing this behavior in panda mothers, researchers started stepping in to put abandoned cubs in an incubator and swap the babies in and out of the mother's care so that she unwittingly cares for both of her cubs. This has led to a significant increase in panda baby survival, and who doesn't like a baby panda, they're just too damn cute.