Sunday, July 31, 2011

Induced Hibernation In Ground Squirrels

As I sort through the news each day looking for things to cover in my posts on Geekosystem I come across a lot of science stories that are interesting to me, but that don't really fit within the confines of what we do on the site. I've been saving some of these stories to blog about here whenever I get a chance.

One of these tidbits was a study about ground squirrels and how researchers have figured out a way to induce hibernation. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks interested in studying the biological processes that cause animals to hibernate have found a way to make them go into this state. The research was conducted on arctic ground squirrels.

Source Wikipedia Commons
Now you might be asking yourself, what is a ground squirrel and is it any different than a regular old squirrel that you see in your backyard? Squirrels are part of a family of small rodents called Sciuridae, this includes your tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chimpmunks, marmots (woodchucks), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. A ground squirrel (not surprisingly) tends to live on the ground rather than in trees.

The University of Alaska researchers wanted to study a condition called torpor in ground squirrels. When an animal hibernates its heart rate and blood flow become reduced. In a human this would cause brain damage, but that doesn't happen in animals that hibernate. Animals that hibernate survive being in this state by reducing their metabolism - this is called torpor. When an animal is in torpor its oxygen consumption can fall to as low as one percent of its resting metabolic rate and its core body temperature can drop to near freezing. In hibernating animals a molecule called adenosine plays a role in entering this state by slowing down nerve cell activity.

The researchers discovered that if they administer a caffeine-like substance that stimulates the areas of the brain that are receptive to adenosine they could control the ground squirrels' hibernation. The researchers woke six ground squirrels in the middle of their hibernation season using this substance, and were able to then induce a torpor state by taking away the substance in all of the ground squirrels.

The researchers also tried this with six ground squirrels that were woken early in their hibernation season and were only able to induce torpor in two. During the summer season when ground squirrels are not hibernating, the researchers weren't able to induce them into a torpor state. The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

So why does the ability to wake up sleeping squirrels matter in the slightest? Well, understanding how animals survive the reduced blood flow, heart rate, and body temperatures that come along with being in hibernation could help scientists develop new ways to treat patients who have had a stroke or another traumatic incident where blood flow to the brain is reduced. That kind of an application is a long way off, but this research is still a significant step forward in understanding the biological mechanisms that underly hibernation.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

OK Go's New Video Is Everything It Should Be

So its not science, but I'm completely nerding out to OK Go's new video for the song "All Is Not Lost" and I had to share. Like all of their videos, it is pretty visually amazing, and really what's not to like about people dancing in seafoam green bodysuits. The answer is nothing. 

What is different about this video is that it is interactive. If you have Google Chrome (which you should have anyway because it is the best browser I've used to date) head over to this website, where you can personalize the video with your own message. Its a really interesting concept, and it makes the video a lot of fun, while pushing the envelope about what it means to connect with the music.

I'm a big fan of OK Go, and their most recent album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. I saw them in October 2010 at Madison's FreakFest on Halloween and it was one of the most entertaining concerts I've ever attended. So take a few minutes to watch the video and listen to the music it will be a great break from whatever else you have going on, and show you something new about what it means to be creative in the music industry.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Explaining All Of Human History Shouldn't Be Hard, Right?

So I'm about 15 years late hopping on the band wagon for this one, but I recently read Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was originally published in 1997 but at that time I was only 9 years old, and most certainly wasn't ready to ponder the question of why some societies were able to dominate others in the course of human history. But, for my birthday this year my good friend Cassi gave me a copy of Diamond's book because she'd heard good things about it from her Dad and she thought it was something I would like. For the most part, she was right.

Overall I liked the book a lot, it brought up some really interesting ideas about human history that I had never considered before. But I struggled a little to get through the whole book, reading with the amount of concentration it deserved. Most of my difficulty stemmed from the way I read, which is particularly disjointed and distracted on the train. There are some parts of Diamond's book that are just really dry, but I don't think the book would work without these dry patches because explanations are necessary. There are also plenty of anecdotes and more narrative portions to keep the book moving forward.

Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to answer Yali's question, and comes back to this concept repeatedly throughout the book. Yali is a member of a native tribe in New Guinea where Diamond did field work. He asks Diamond, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had so little cargo of our own?" There is no single easy answer to this question. It takes Diamond 19 chapters and 465 pages to explain it and even then as he says that only gives him an average of one page per continent per 150 years to compress 13,000 years of history.

So then how do you go about answering a question like Yali's? When a lot of the context, detail, and narrative is stripped away the main reason Diamond gives is that there are biogeographical differences between the areas of the world where societies developed and where they didn't. These biogeographical differences include things like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, variations in climate, and differences in the navigability of different continents. Additionally, Diamond talks a lot about intellectual growth through the spread of information, in addition to the spread of more dangerous components of human interaction like weapons and disease.

When you put the context, detail and narrative back in, there are a few points that Diamond makes that hit me pretty hard. One point is the way that contact between developing societies was critical to helping them succeed. For me when I think about societies that are just starting, I assume that the longer they have to develop on their own the better off they would be. But the exact opposite is true. Societies need to develop alongside each other.

Areas like Eurasia that were way better suited for an exchange of information and ideas are the areas that advanced fastest. On the other side, areas like southern Africa and Mesoamerica struggled because their climates (desert and jungles) weren't suitable for traveling. People weren't able to connect and because of this not only could they not learn from each other (agriculture, language, etc.) they also didn't develop important immunities to disease. I feel like I've always assumed that a disproportionate amount of resources like food and animals was the reason why some cultures flourished over others. In part the lack of resources in some areas was certainly a factor, but I was really surprised by the idea that the continent itself could have a huge impact.

I think my favorite chapters by far dealt with the Aztec, Inca, and Maya societies and how they were able to be conquered. I think I've always been quick to write their fall off as being caused by disease and the superior weapons of the Spanish. I had never really thought about how the isolation of each of these societies also led them to be more trusting - and that this more than anything else is what led to their downfall.

Another point Diamond makes that I found really interesting is that there are so many factors that need to align properly for a society to succeed, and it often comes down to which societies have the best balance. I always think of competition between countries as a bad thing, but Diamond shows that competition is exactly what gave Europe an edge over China when it came to dominating the colonial world. A unified China struggled with implementing new technology because if the rulers didn't approve then changes didn't happen. Whereas in Europe with so many small societies competing with each other if one group rejected an idea, another was sure to adopt it and help it spread. But competition also has obvious drawbacks like fighting and wars that cause widespread casualties. It really comes down to having the right amount of competition and conflict, that magical balance that allows a nation to surge ahead.

These are just a few of the ideas that Diamond discusses. I found this book to be very informative, so much so that it was almost difficult to digest sometimes. There is also a ton of background and set up so that the reader will be able to understand his analysis. One place where for me this was tedious was animal domestication. I already knew a lot about animal domestication from my class with animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell last semester, but if I didn't I am certainly well informed for having read Diamond's book.

There is a lot of information to be had here, and if you have the stamina and the attention span you could learn a significant amount from Diamond's book. I do recommend it because it definitely got me thinking about history in a new way. I also think its important to point out that the book stands the test of time. My version has a 2003 update with a new afterward and an additional chapter about Japan, but even so the original text has held up well. I never felt like I was reading something out of date.

So to sum it up, its a good read, but you have to really want to read it. This isn't a beach book or something to read on the train (like I did) it deserves your full attention, and if you can't give it I'm not sure you'll make it through. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Polar Bears Have The Luck Of The Irish

I recently learned that I share a trait with my absolute favorite animal, the polar bear, in that we can both trace our ancestry back to Ireland. For people who follow this blog, or have at least looked back through the archives a bit, you'll see that I find it impossible to pass up a good polar bear story. I've written about animal healthcaremysterious death, and the polar bear's status (or lack thereof) as an endangered species. So it should come as no surprise that I can't pass up the opportunity to talk about this new research that shows an ancient Irish connection to modern day polar bears.

via Wikimedia Commons
A team of researchers led by Beth Shapiro of Penn State University and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College (Dublin) has identified a common ancestor of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and brown bears  (Ursus arctos) that lived in Ireland before the peak of the last ice age some 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that all modern day polar bears can trace their lineage back to this ancient female brown bear. The specific lineage of the brown bear that shared their mitochondrial DNA with polar bears went extinct around 9,000 years ago, but the research still shows that the modern species are related.

Despite significant differences between polar bears and brown bears (size, coloring, fur type, tooth shape, swimming ability vs. climbing ability, etc.) scientists have suspected for some time that the species have closely connected histories. The polar bear is known to have mitochondrial DNA (the part of the genome contributed by the mother) that traces back to the brown bear. But how modern polar bears acquired this brown bear DNA was a bit of a mystery.

via Wikimedia Commons
The two species are known to interbreed, and have been studied in captivity in addition to being spotted in the wild. An example of a polar bear/brown bear hybrid, jokingly nicknamed grolar bear or pizzly, was found in the wild Canada in 2006. But, even with the knowledge that the two species can co-mingle scientists were still perplexed about the history of these different species. The long standing theory about how polar bears evolved from brown bears had their history traced to the ABC Islands (the Alaskan Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) around 14,000 years ago. But the bears' genomes tell us a different story.

The research team led by Shapiro and Bradley found that the hybridization of polar bears occurred much earlier than would have been possible on the ABC Islands through a genetic analysis of the bears. The study analyzed 242 samples from polar bear and brown bear mitochondrial DNA spanning 120,000 years and several different geographical regions. The researchers found that the fixation of the mitochondrial genome in polar bears likely occurred closer to 50,000 years ago in the area of present-day Ireland.

According to Shapiro, in addition to genetic evidence, the interconnected history of the polar bear and brown bear is also supported by climate events. One example of this is the British-Irish ice sheet, which reached its maximum range around 20,000 years ago. At this time parts of Ireland would have been difficult to inhabit, pushing bears from the warmer areas toward ice shelves and land exposed by lower sea levels. This would have brought the bears into close contact with their northern neighbors, showing how the animals that became two different bear species could have started out in the similar location, sharing their genes.

The polar bear is currently considered a threatened species, and future conservation efforts may be aided by this new understanding of its genetic history and its ability to hybridize with the brown bear. The research is described in the paper, "Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline" in the journal Current Biology.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part II)

I am blogging over at Geekosystem for the summer, and while I've been writing about some pretty different things than what I would post about here (like the official religious hat of the Pastafarian movement) I've also written a few posts about some interesting science topics. So, here is another link round-up of the interesting science stuff I've been covering for Geekosystem, and as a bonus here's a cute video of corgi's (yes, this was a post too).

New Monkey Adenovirus Jumps Into Humans: This post is about a virus discovered in Titi Monkeys at California's National Primate Research Center during a recent outbreak that killed several monkeys and infected a few humans. This is the first example of an adenovirus jumping into humans, and could have important impacts on viral gene therapy.

Parrot Parents Name Their Babies: Did you know that in the wild, parrots have "names" which are specific calls that their parents and other birds use to address them? I didn't, but this shows a pretty sophisticated social life among these birds, in addition to having a potential impact on future language studies.

Rainbow Toad Rediscovered After 87 Years Missing: The title of this post pretty much says it all, but click the link, I promise you won't be disappointed by how totally awesome this animal looks.

Stem Cells Grow Functional Mouse Teeth: This is the first time that researchers have grown the bone and enamel of a tooth strictly from stem cells and successfully implanted it into a mouse's mouth. Kind of gross, but also a very cool application of stem cell technology.

Quantum Dots Make Self-Assembling Nanoantenna: This was a really cool technology development that combined knowledge of nanomaterials and DNA to make a super-powered antenna that is more efficient and can assemble itself.

Battle of the Bugs: California To Launch Moth Killing Wasp Campaign: This was a really fun post to write because it deals with the controversial issue of using one insect species to attack another. There were some good comments on this one, including one from a representative of the California agency in charge of the wasp killers, who worked with me to find a more accurate picture for the post. It was cool to have that kind of interaction come out of the comments.

New Printable Solar Cells Are Easy But Not Efficient: Imagine solar panels that you could completely bend and twist while still having them work. You could make a solar dress or solar wallpaper! If only they were actually efficient...

First Photos Of Fish Using Tools, But Do They Really? Doing this post all I could think about was how much my first grade science buddies over at Lincoln-Hubbard School would have loved to see the pictures of this fish using a rock to help it eat. I did a series of posts for them about how animals use tools, and this would have been a great addition.

Diamonds Are A Quantum Computer's Best Friend: You should read this post just because it took me all day to teach myself the basics of quantum computing to put together a post that made sense. I bit off a little more than I could chew with this one, but with the help of Max (one of my editors) it came together.

Urine Recycling Experiment Will Be Conducted On Last Shuttle Mission: The title pretty much says it all, but if the idea of drinking pee doesn't completely gross you out, there is some really interesting technology at work in this experiment.

NASA Takes Huge Hit In Proposed Congressional Budget: I try hard not to weigh in on politics, but how funding gets allotted for government agencies is something that I find very interesting and have written about before. Right now NASA stands to lose about $2 billion in funding and lose the James Webb Space Telescope, which is a pretty devastating blow.

Forget Arsenic Life, Now We Have Chlorine Life: Arsenic life was a huge controversy in the science community last year. In this post I give a run down of the problems with that study, and how a new chlorine life study shows much more promise.

Fossil Of Largest Wombat Ever Discovered: One of Australia's great ancient mammals is the diprotodon a huge rhino-like animal. Researchers recently unearthed the fossil of the largest diprotodon ever found, and its the size of a small vehicle!

Massive Dust Storm Descends On Phoenix: I promise, you need to see this video. The footage of this dust storm is amazing, plus it is called a haboob and I will never get tired of saying that.

Dresden Laboratory Creates World Record Magnetic Field: World Records are world records and they are interesting just because, but this is actually important because the stronger magnetic field could be useful for a variety of scientific experiments.

Emotion Reading Technology May Soon Become Big Business: Say goodbye to awkward social encounters. Researchers are developing technology that can help you pick up on social cues and let you know when a conversation is going well, and when its time to abandon ship.

NASA Sues Astronaut For Selling Camera From Apollo 14: One of the astronauts that went to space with the Apollo 14 mission has tried to sell what he says is personal memorabilia, but NASA has intervened saying he never had the right to take the camera. This is becoming a pattern for NASA and it would seem like they either have a record keeping problem, or a theft problem.

The Fuel of the Future? Researchers Look To Aneutronic Fusion: I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably don't know what aneutronic fusion is. Don't worry, I didn't either but it seems like it could be a highly effective fuel to power longer/faster space flights.

Water Wrinkles On Fingers May Actually Have A Purpose: You are now dying to know why your fingers get so pruney when they get wet. Check out the post to find out why, its actually a pretty interesting evolutionary adaptation.

Tasmanian Devil Genome Sequenced: The Tasmanian Devil population has been ravaged by a cancer that can be spread by fighting/biting and it is nearing dangerously low population rates. The genome sequence could help researchers come up with a better plan to preserve the species by ensuring a higher rate of genetic diversity.

Whew, thats a lot of science, happy reading!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Godspeed, Atlantis

via Geekosystem
I wanted to make sure to post some pictures and the video of the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. This past Friday July 8th at 11:29 am the last American space shuttle to travel to space left on its final journey. The 135 shuttle flight, and the 33rd for Atlantis, the flight marks the end of the entire space shuttle program. The YouTube video can't be embedded, but you can watch it here on the NASA YouTube channel and here are also a few pictures to highlight some of the great moments:

Getting ready! via Geekosystem
Firing up the engines! via Geekosystem
Liftoff! via Geekosystem
There she goes! via Geekosystem
Atlantis, flight STS-135, is commanded by Chris Ferguson, and will take fellow crewmates Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim to the International Space Station. The launch took place at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The 12-day mission will bring the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module with more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and space parts to the space station to sustain it after the last space shuttle is retired.

On a personal level I find it amazing that the space shuttle program is over. I have never known a time in my life where Americans were not traveling to space. When I was little the first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. It shocks me that astronaut isn't really a job anymore, at least not at NASA. Sure, there are other countries that will still be traveling to and from the International Space Station (Russia and China) but its just not the same as having an American space program. 

I appreciate the need to focus on new frontiers in space and wanting to move in a new direction, but I am pretty disappointed that there isn't a successor to the space shuttle program already lined up. I think its dangerous to give up our hold on space travel and research to focus on programs and initiatives that don't really exist yet. I'm worried that space exploration will become another casualty of a lack of vision, appreciation, and long term planning that seems to plague this country. Especially if the proposed budget for NASA which I wrote about over on Geekosystem ($2 billion in cuts!) is any indication of what the future holds. 

I wish that I had appreciated the space shuttle program more while it was running. How many shuttle launches have you watched? How much do you know about what the shuttle program accomplished? Honestly, I can hang my head in shame and say not many and not much. Its too late to lament what we've already lost, but I think we can see the end of the space shuttle program as a warning to take more interest in some of the amazing research programs the government funds. If we don't show the government that these things matter to us, we're going to lose them all. 

So Godspeed Atlantis, the launch was amazing and as an American I am so proud of the shuttle program  and our astronauts. I've felt for a long time that there are simply no heroes anymore, but for the six-year-old in me that wanted nothing more than to go to outer space I think our astronauts are the real deal.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

South Sudan Gets Its Independence

I know it isn't really a science topic, but I have to have a follow-up post about what happened this week in Sudan. I've written before about the conflict in Sudan and the efforts to split the region into two distinct countries, but it has finally happened. The South Sudan has been recognized globally as its own independent country. This is a huge deal.

via Carleton University
I became interested (or at least more informed) about the Sudan after reading and blogging about Dave Eggers' What Is The What, and I started following the movement for independence, which became another post. Last I wrote about the Sudan, the people in the south were being polled to see if they would favor a split into two countries. They needed a 60% turn out for the vote to count. They got 99%.

The new country is roughly the size of Texas, and will become the U.N.'s 193 country. The capital is the city of Juba, which is where ceremonies formally recognizing the country were held last week. The new nation has significant oil resources, which in a previous post I said were something to watch. Revenues from oil could greatly help the country get off the ground, however the south is still reliant on the north to transport oil, and conflicts over this resource could still occur.

Independence for South Sudan comes on the heels of a civil war that took over two million lives and raged for more than two decades between the north (including the region of Darfur) and the south. The regions have distinct religious ties with the north mainly Muslim, and the south Christian. I think a moment like this, where so many people have a renewed hope of having peaceful prosperous lives is so important to stop and think about.

If you want to know more about the South Sudan, this is a useful website. Here are also some links to media coverage of the split in Sudan:
U.S. Welcomes Birth of New Nation, South Sudan (CBS News)
Let's Celebrate The South Sudan and Nurture A New Country (The Guardian)
In Southern Sudan, New National Begins From Scratch (NPR)
South Sudanese Celebrate The Birth Of Their Nation (CNN)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Skinny On Sunscreen: Understanding the Regulations

I haven't always loved sitting out in the sun, and I've been a very reluctant convert to the beach. But I've slowly come around to loving the time I get to spend relaxing in the sunshine with a good book. Particularly this summer after the long winter where I would go days without even venturing outside I'm loving the warm weather. But I'm also the kind of person that turns lobster red after more than a few minutes of soaking in the sun's rays.

Being so fair comes at a cost, and I'm in the dermatologist's office almost every six months. I would say I'm pretty vigilant about getting my moles checked and watching out for any signs of skin cancer.  I've had maybe a dozen moles removed, many of which had to be re-done after coming back with questionable test results. Being so aware of the risks that I'm taking when I step out in the sun has made me the self-proclaimed queen of sunscreen. My friends love their SPF 4, and mock me and my SPF 55 quite a lot - but aside from choosing the high numbers, I've realized that I don't actually know all that much about sunscreen.

Ocean City, MD on my summer vacation!
New regulations released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month, explain a lot about what sunscreen can, and even more important what it can not do. Sunscreen regulations in the US hadn't been updated in more than 30 years, so we were long overdue for an overhaul. Starting next year, sunscreens will be broken into two categories, those that protect against skin cancer and those that don't. My friends with their SPF 4... they aren't getting any protection against skin cancer with an SPF that low. The new regulations will also require companies to cut out advertising and claims that promote longer durability (waterproof of sweatproof) or that make inflated claims about their ability to protect users from sun damage.

According to this article in Scientific American, the new regulations (if they are followed accurately) have the potential to reduce skin cancer rates in the US. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is responsible for 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers, which affect one out of every five Americans. UV radiation is also responsible for 65% of melanoma, which kills approximately 8,700 people a year. Skin cancer is such a prevalent problem, but will the new regulations actually make a difference?

I think as long as people know what to look for, they'll be able to choose the right sunscreen. The FDA's new regulations really focus on how sunscreen products are labelled, and I think that they will make it easier for people to make the right choices. The thing to look for on sunscreen bottles is "broad spectrum". Under the new rules the only products that can claim to be broad spectrum will protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen that can not be called broad spectrum, or that has an SPF lower than 15 will have to carry a warning label that says explicitly that it does not protect against skin cancer or premature skin aging from skin cancer.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause long term skin damage, but UVB rays are the main culprit when it comes to that lobster red sunburn. SPF is a reflection of a sunscreens' ability to protect against UVB rays which is really just a reflection of sunburn protection. Currently, lotions that only protect against UVB rays can have a very high SPF, but that doesn't mean they are any better at protecting you from skin cancer because the UVA rays are still not being blocked. Under the new regulations it will be much clearer what really protects you against both UVA and UVB rays.

More of the beach in Ocean City, MD
Under the new regulations, sunscreen manufacturers will be required to be more specific with their claims. For instance the term sunblock, won't be allowed because there is NO sunscreen that can block the sun's rays completely. There is also NO sunscreen that stays completely on the body when exposed to water, so none of them are waterproof or sweatproof.

The other big news in the FDA's sunscreen regulations? My SPF 55 is no better than SPF 50. In fact, any number higher than 50 is just making a trumped up claim. So that SPF 100 is not actually doing more for you than lower numbered sunscreens. This is because there is no evidence that suggests that SPF's higher than 50 actually protect people more. But that doesn't mean that all SPF's are the same. Different SPF's protect you in the sun for different amounts of time. So say I start to burn after 10 minutes with no sunscreen, and I put on SPF 15, the time it takes me to burn will be extended by a 15, so I'll have 150 minutes before I turn into a tomato.

After getting several bad sunburns while wearing sunscreen, I became aware of the need to re-apply. Even if you don't go in water, the chemical components in sunscreen break down over time and lose their efficiency. Putting on sunscreen at the beginning of the day just doesn't cut it. So, under the new regulations, the FDA recommends re-applying sunscreen every two hours, and after going in the water or toweling off.

Basically the new regulations make it easier to enjoy a day in the sun without the painful sunburn and dangerous skin damage that can go hand in hand with summer vacations by making it easier to choose an effective sunscreen. The things to look for? Broad spectrum, between SPF 15 and 50, and that all sunscreens have to be re-applied every two hours. If you keep these things in mind you can greatly reduce your risk of dangerous skin cancers.

Sunscreen regulations were greatly in need of a revision, and I for one (speaking for the fair people of the word) am very glad to finally know exactly what I need to do to protect myself in the sun.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Scientists Can Be Thought Provoking AND Fun

Scientists can use the knowledge they have to be both moving and thought provoking, but also be charming and clever, getting a few chuckles out of whoever is listening. Case in point: Neil deGrasse Tyson. For those who don't know, Tyson is an astrophysicist and he is awesome. 

On the intersection of science and religion:

On why the Onion deserves a Pulitzer Prize: