Saturday, October 15, 2011

Covering The Wisconsin Science Festival

In my integrated media and storytelling class this semester our first project was to cover an event using pictures and audio, and combine it into a slideshow. I chose the first Wisconsin Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

I had some upload problems trying to convert from a SoundSlides project into something uploadable but I finally got there. I edited the pictures in Photoshop and iPhoto, and edited the audio using Audacity. I lost a lot of photo quality in the conversion, but please watch and let me know what you think. This was my first foray into multi-media so any feedback would be much appreciated.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Sugar Maple Trees

This post is part of a recurring segment here on Science Decoded where I blog for the first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School about the various units in their science program.

Sugar Maple leaves. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hello First Graders!

I hear you are studying trees in your science class, and I wanted to share with you some of the special aspects of a certain type of tree: The Sugar Maple.

The Sugar Maple (scientific name: Acer saccharum) is a deciduous tree. Deciduous means that its leaves change color and fall off during the Fall. A Sugar Maple tree can grow as tall as 82-115 feet, but it takes a long time to get that big. After ten years (thats older than all of you!) a Sugar Maple tree will usually only be about 16 feet tall. The leaves on a Sugar Maple tree are usually around 7-8 inches long, and have five lobes. Take a look at the picture of the leaves, do they look familiar? Do any of you have Sugar Maple trees in your backyard? What about at the school?

Sugar Maple Range. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Sugar Maple is a tree that can be found in hardwood forests throughout northeastern North America, which includes Canada and the United States. Take a look at this map, the green part is where Sugar Maple trees grow. Do you see New Jersey? How about Wisconsin? Sugar Maple trees grow in New Jersey where you are, and Wisconsin where I am.

Sugar Maples are very important because they are able to grow really well in shady areas and also provide habitat (places to live) for animals in the forest. This species of tree isn't rare or endangered, but it is a special part of these forest ecosystems. An ecosystem is a biological (natural) area made of all the living and non-living parts of the environment, this means all the plants (like Sugar Maples!) animals, water, sunlight, and even soil. All of these things need to be healthy to make the environment strong. In addition to being important for the forest ecosystem, Sugar Maples also have a special ability. These trees can also be useful for people to make products like Maple Syrup.
Sap collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sugar Maple trees have a sugary sap inside them that people can harvest in the Spring by making a hole in the trunk and collecting the sap that runs out. When the sap is heated, some of the water evaporates, leaving behind syrup. Here is an example of what collecting the sap looks like, it is being drained into those buckets attached to the trees.

Now I have a surprise for you! We have a special Farmer's Market here in Wisconsin, that is one of the biggest Farmer's Markets in the country. Have any of you ever gone to the Farmer's Market where you live? It is a place where local farmer's bring their fruits, vegetables, and other products to sell. Here in Wisconsin you can buy some of the products people make from Sugar Maple trees at the Farmer's Market.

I filled up a little package for you with information about the Wisconsin Farmer's Market, some Sugar Maple products, and even a little surprise from the University of Wisconsin's mascot Bucky Badger. I hope you like it!
Let me know if you have any questions about Sugar Maple trees!

Friday, October 7, 2011

BioTechnology Patents: Kyoto Claims iPSCs

Can you patent a gene? What about a cell? When it comes to the components of life, and more importantly the ideas, processes, and procedures developed to manipulate these components, what belongs to who? This is a question that is certainly going to be fought out from the patent office to the courts as more and more biomedical discoveries are made.

iPS cell cluster. Source:
One discovery that has recently (meaning August) been in the news for patent applications is Shinya Yamanaka's 2006 discovery of the combination of genes that can be used to reprogram adult cells to a pluripotent (capable of becoming any kind of cell) state. With these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) lies the hope of a suitable answer to the debate over the need for pluripotency, but the social and religious controversy over using human embryonic stem cells (which are naturally pluripotent).

While working at Kyoto University in Japan, Yamanaka found that the genes Oct3/4, SOX2, c-Myc, and Klf4 are key to pluripotency. This discovery led to the creation of the first iPSCs. Now, five years and millions of dollars in research later, Kyoto University has obtained patent rights for iPSC technology in six nations and two regions, including the United States. This development leads me back to the question I started with, can you patent a gene? What about the ideas or technology based on those genes? Apparently, you can because Kyoto University has. But, I'm still quite curious about how this will play out functionally.

The discovery of iPSCs was huge news. It prompted researchers around the world to start working with iPSCs, many of whom have subsequently made their own discoveries, published their own research in peer reviewed journals (just type pluripotent into PubMed you'll see what I mean), and expanded greatly on the existing body of knowledge about pluripotency. This includes the discovery of numerous variations of gene combinations that play a role in pluripotency. So if Kyoto University owns the original idea, do they own everyone elses' work too? According to university spokeswoman Akemi Nakamura, they do. Nakamura says the patent broadly covers variations of the technology developed since 2006 in laboratories around the world.

In a press release the University stated:
"The US patent covers combinations of nuclear reprogramming family factors comprising an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and Myc family gene; or an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and a cytokine. This means that if companies use a combination of the nuclear reprogramming genes and generate iPSCs, regardless of the kinds of vectors, they need to get the patent license."
So if Kyoto University owns the right to the genes, and the subsequent developments based on the genes what does that mean for iPSC researchers? Right now the university says it will not restrict research using iPSCs for non-profit purposes, so that would mean research whose end goal isn't the marketing of a specific product based on iPSC technology will be able to continue unhindered. Companies that want to work with iPSCs for profit may have to pay a licensing fee. Although, it is important to note that not all iPSC research is based on these genes - there are other combinations of genes that can induce pluripotency, and thus lines of inquiry in this field that don't belong to Kyoto University.

How important all of this will be, and when it will be important is a bit murky. iPSCs have their own problems (namely, teratomas) and haven't yet been developed for widespread, let alone commercial, use. Though, with all of the resources being poured into iPSC development, I think it is only a matter of time until the cells become more useable. This is a story to watch, it is hard to say exactly how it will work out but it is sure to be an issue that continues to come up.

As for me, I'm not really sure where I fall on this issue. I can see the need to protect intellectual achievements and make sure that the wrong people don't profit, but at the same time I wish it wasn't necessary and open inquiries could be pursued without people having to worry about others cashing in on their ideas. If only it could be that way.