All for a Pail of Water: This touching photograph shows tribal women in India risking their lives in a human chain to reach water from an agricultural well. Did you know that 1 in 6 people on our planet lack access to clean drinking water? New research offers an elegantly simple solution: sun, lime juice and salt . No, it's not the recipe for a margarita! :)
• What is SODIS? When water in a clear plastic bottle is placed in direct sunlight for 6 hours, the heat and ultraviolet light destroys most viruses, bacteria and parasites. This technique of Solar Disinfection reduces diarrhea and cholera by 70-80%, diseases that claim 4000+ childhood deaths per day in Africa. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently showed that adding juice from half a lime per bottle significantly reduced bacterial load and speeded up the process to just 30 minutes, comparable to boiling or other methods of disinfection. Lime juice contains psoralens which form covalent crosslinks between DNA strands in the presence of sunlight, a reaction that prevents DNA replication in the pathogens.
• Lurking in the Murk: When the water drawn from rivers and boreholes is turbid, SODIS does not work well, since the microbes hide out under suspended particles of clay and silt. A study showed that adding a quarter teaspoon of table salt to the water neutralized charges on colloidal clay so that it sedimented out easily. Seeding the water with a little clay (of the type known as bentonite) actually hastens the clarification!
Smallest rotary motor in biology, the ATP synthase. All the work done in your body is fueled by breaking a chemical bond in ATP, the “currency of energy”. Did you know that you convert your body weight (or an estimated 50 kg) of ATP per day?!
Where does this ATP come from? It is synthesized by an incredibly sophisticated molecular machine, the ATP synthase, embedded in the inner membrane of our mitochondria. Energy from the oxidation of food results in protons being pumped across the membrane to create a proton gradient. The protons drive the rotation of a circular ring of proteins in the membrane that in turn move a central shaft. The shaft interacts sequentially with one of 3 catalytic sites within a hexamer, making ATP (little butterflies in the movie!). The ATP synthase rotates about 150 times/second
Notice the rotation is slower with longer rods. The rotor produces a torque of 40 pN nm (40 pico Newtons x nanometer), irrespective of the load. This would be the force you would need to rotate a 500 m long rod while standing at the bottom of a large swimming pool at the rate shown in the movie.
How did this amazing rotor evolve? The hexameric structure is related to DNA helicases that rotate along the DNA double helix, using ATP to unzip the two strands apart. The H+ motor has precedence in flagella motors that use proton gradients to drive rotation of long filaments, allowing bacteria to tumble through their surroundings. At some point, a H+ driven motor came together with a helicase like hexamer to create a rotor driving the hexamer in reverse, to synthesize ATP.
The 1997 Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded to John Walker and Paul Boyer for solving the structure and cyclical mechanism of the ATP synthase, respectively. This amazing enzyme was also the subject of my own Ph.D. thesis, and my first love!
SURREAL CIRCLES: In his series Alternative Perspectives, photographer Randy Scott Slavin portrays a 360 degree view of our world by seamlessly stitching together hundreds of shots. The result is surreal art, grounded in reality. He inspires us to "go out and explore the world and take a look at the monuments and reimagine them in a different way".
Destination: Lítla Dímun This cloud covered muffin top is in the Faroe Islands, Kingdom of Denmark. Population: humans (0), European Storm Petrels (5000 pairs) and Atlantic Puffins (10,000 pairs). There are also herds of sheep that are rounded up each fall and lowered using nets to waiting skiffs below.
Spiders on Speed: NASA scientists inexplicably investigated web spinning by stoned spiders. Turns out that the geometrical structure of a web provides a good measure of the condition of its central nervous system.
• LSD: Webs took on a minimalist structure.
• Marijuana: Spiders made a reasonable stab at spinning webs but appeared to lose concentration about half-way through.
• Amphetamine ("speed"): Webs retained their size but showed an increase in spiral spacing and radius irregularity, as well as a decrease in building efficiency. Spiders spin their webs "with great gusto, but apparently without much planning leaving large holes", according to New Scientist magazine.
• Caffeine: makes spiders incapable of spinning anything better than a few threads strung together at random.
• Chloral hydrate (an ingredient of sleeping pills): spiders "drop off before they even get started".
In slightly more relevant work, spiders were shown to spin perfectly good webs in microgravity ▶ http://goo.gl/0T7lK
☼ The images on the left are night views of brightly lit metropolitan cities taken from the International Space Station. On the right, are fluorescent images of neurons. Like a neuron, the city seems to have a cell body, branching dendrites and a main axon like highway extending out.
☼ The ancient Greeks of the Neo-Platonic school of philosophy saw the same patterns reproduced in all levels of the cosmos, from the largest scale (macrocosm or universe-level) all the way down to the smallest scale (microcosm or sub-sub-atomic or even metaphysical-level). In their philosophy, Man is in the middle.
☼ Did you know that the word cosmos (Greek, κόσμος) means "order" and is the conceptual opposite of "chaos"? In Mandarin Chinese, cosmos and universe are both translated as 宇宙 yǔzhòu, which means "space-time".
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”
☼ Fire in the Sky: On December 29, 2012 a fireball exploded in the skies above Sri Lanka, followed by a meteorite that fell near the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. A sample was sent to the Buckingham Institute of Astrobiology and Cardiff University. Researchers now report in the Journal of Cosmology of finding fossils of diatoms enmeshed within the meteorite. Because of the way the microfossils were distributed within the rock, they rule out surface contamination.
☼ Panspermia (from the Greek "all" and "sperm") is the idea that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids. So, is this compelling evidence of Panspermia or life in outer space?
☼ Red Rain: The researchers claim that the mysterious red rain that fell in the area within days of the meteorite, reported by our own +Siromi Samarasinghe (http://goo.gl/dq7Jq), was seeded from the meteorite. Reports of red rain were first made in Homer's Iliad and may simply be from airborne algal spores. Is this red rain a red herring?
☼ Earthly Origin? Could it be that this rock was initially blasted off from earth, by the Mesozoic-ending impact on the Yucatan Peninsula, and is now falling back to earth after a grand journey? The article does mention that similar fossils have been found that date back to the time of the dinosaurs.
☼ Hasty Science? The meteorite only just landed, less than 3 weeks ago! How much of a review did this paper get? The authors make the grand statement that "identification of fossilised diatoms in the Polonnaruwa meteorite is firmly established and unimpeachable" and with several self-citations, that "the idea of microbial life carried within comets and the theory of cometary panspermia is thus vindicated". Their final sentence is a WIN, in my opinion: The universe, not humans, must have the final say to declare what the world is really like. What do you think?
• I’ve never been able to get past the mental block of eating meat. I like to think that I’m logical enough that should I be stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but cadavers, the will to live would rule supreme. I once proffered this opinion to an evangelistic vegetarian convert and she never spoke to me again. This pragmatism served me well on a recent trip to South Korea where the concept of vegetarianism is not exactly clear. “It’s just soybean”, +Thomas Kang assured me, as I spread the homogenized paste on a cabbage leaf and took a bite, “with only a bit of shrimp”. Oops, sorry! He was all apologies as he guided me to fried and battered zucchini rounds. I savored the humble vegetable with relief and reached for a second one. Too bad it was battered fish.
• What’s a vegetarian to do, but cook up decidedly unauthentic alternatives guaranteed to have no fish sauce (shakes fist at Thai restaurants ) or errant morsels of meat that find their way into the wok? I know I’ve looked down my sharpish nose at those generic “curries” while guiltily making my own transgressions into a foreign cuisine. So I offer abject apologies to authentic Asian cooks everywhere, while serving up my favorite non-denominational “Asian” dinner…fast, flavorful and free of flesh.
No Recipe Tofu: The tofu is delicate, not deep fried, in this dish. Perfect for soaking up the complex flavors in the spicy sauce.
Baby Bok Choy Stir Fry: This is a recipe adapted from +David Crowley 's blog Cooking Chat. A feast for the eye, it combines the fresh crunch of stir fried vegetables with the roasted richness of cashew.
Ginger Noodle Salad: From +Shinae Choi Robinson 's recipe, tossed with baby greens, sesame oil and juliened ginger. I didn't have sushi ginger ("gari") on hand so she suggested I make my own.
Art or Alcohol? Scientist Michael Davidson began taking photomicrographs of alcohol in the 1990's to raise funds for his lab. He crystallized samples of beer, tequila, vodka and other liquors on a slide, then imaged them under polarized light to reveal these gorgeous colors. You can purchase them as prints for your wall from bevshots.com.
Note: I've not been able to post science-y stuff all week as I am carousing (er, conferencing) with 5000+ biophysicists in sunny San Diego. This collection of photographs seems particularly appropriate ;)
First Women in STEM: A Tribute to International Women’s Day. Here is a celebration of some of the brilliant women who changed the course of history for the better. Women of G+ , do you have stories of your own to share? What personal achievement are you proud of, whether in your family, community or profession?
• Marie Curie: First woman to receive a Nobel Prize, once for Physics (1903) and then again for Chemistry (1911), she pioneered the study of radioactivity. She died of aplastic anemia brought on by lethal exposure to radiation. Despite her two Nobels, she was not elected to the French Academy of Sciences by two votes.
• Mary Kies. Hats off to the First woman granted a US patent (1809) for a process to weave straw with silk or thread in hat making. This was a time when women could not legally own property independent of their husbands. Her patent is credited with boosting American industry at a time when Napoleon imposed a blockade on export of European goods.
• Ada Lovelace: Charles Babbage called her Enchantress of Numbers, History calls her First Programmer. Daughter of Lord Byron, in 1843, her notes on the Analytical Engine are credited as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine.
• Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: physician and feminist, first woman qualified to practice in England (1865), created a medical school for women, first Dean of a medical school, first woman to be elected to a school board and first woman mayor and magistrate in Britain. The day she passed the licensing exam, with highest marks, the Society of Apothecaries immediately amended their rules to prevent other women from obtaining a license.
• Florence Sabin: First woman faculty at Johns Hopkins medical school (MD, 1900 from the first batch of female medical students admitted), she was also first woman to achieve Professorship there (1917), to be elected to the National Academy of Science, and head a department at Rockefeller Institute (she was passed over for Department Head at Hopkins, in favor of her own student, a male).
• Valentina Tereshkova: Russian cosmonaut who was the First woman in space, in 1963, aboard Vostok 6. She completed 48 orbits in 71 hours. Her call sign was Chaika (seagull), a nickname that she carries to this day. She turned 75 two days ago.
Whom did I leave out of this very short and inadequate list?
WHEN EINSTEIN MET TAGORE: An attempt to explain Truth and Beauty at the intersection of Science and Spirituality. It was July 14, 1930 when Einstein met Rabindranath Tagore- poet, polymath and first non-European to win the Nobel for Literature (for Gitanjali).
Regardless of your philosophy, religion or lack thereof, the following conversation will blow your mind. Excerpt:
EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man? TAGORE: No. EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful. TAGORE: No. EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this conception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth. TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through man.
✿ Making fresh Indian cheese, or paneer, used to be a bit of a production in my home. My mother would start with not-so-fresh milk (why “waste” good milk, was her reasoning), bring it to a boil and then add lemon juice. In fascination, I watched the rapid separation of flocculant white curd from transparently greenish whey. That was my first encounter with the biochemistry of protein denaturation, although I would go on to ruin perfectly good batches of enzymes during my graduate career.
✿ Proteins must be folded properly – into elegant ribbons, twisted helices, graceful loops and tight turns – not only to function properly but also to stay in solution (image 2). Too much heat, salt, acid or any number of adverse conditions cause proteins to unfold just enough to get their sticky inside parts to glom together. In a concerted show of protest, they leave the solution as a precipitate. Which brings us back to cheese. The curd is gathered into cheesecloth and suspended over a bowl to drain, before being packed into a brick under some heavy pots and pans. These days, one just reaches into the freezer of the local Patel Brothers for a perfectly rectangular brick of paneer.
✿ This quintessential Punjabi dish of peas and paneer is called Mattar Paneer. The gravy is vegan, with richness of cashew nuts in place of dairy cream. You can make this dish entirely vegan by replacing the paneer with baby potatoes boiled in their jackets (Alu Mattar..mmm!) or a cheese substitute of your choice.
Are you ready to solve this week's science mystery picture and pick up the latest in research along the way? If you know the identity of this object, don't give it away , but share some interesting (or obscure!) fact about it. Don't be shy, let your imagination fly.
Hint: This object has the fastest response to light in the biological world.
Why is this cool? A recent study revealed the unexpected finding that the initial response to light was mechanical: light triggered tiny (less than one micrometer) synchronized contractions in this array that then opened mechano-sensitive ion channels to change distribution of electric charge across the surface. This form of signaling is known as mechanotransduction and is faster than more conventional chemical signaling. Do you know of a human sense that uses mechanical signaling?
Image Detail: False colored scanning electron micrograph that is magnified 2,500 times if printed at 10 cm.
WHO declares India polio-free! An incredible feat for a nation once the polio epicenter with 200,000 cases in 1988. As recently as 2009, India accounted for half of all cases in the world, but infections plummeted to 42 in 2010 and none in the last 12 months. The Indian government has spent $2 billion over the last 10-15 years to eradicate this crippling disease, which strikes children under the age of 5. However, 3 other countries (Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan) have reported a massive increase in new polio cases.
• The Science of Tea: For 4,700 years, this infusion from the tender leaves of Camellia sinensis has been delivering a cupful of healthy antioxidants and good cheer. Did you know that tea is the most widely consumed beverage, after water? To celebrate the birthday of +Siromi Samarasinghe , who has a PhD in tea chemistry, here is some chemis-tea.
• Caffeine : Did you know that weight for weight, dry tea has more caffeine than coffee? But because more coffee is used per cup than tea, brewed tea has significantly less caffeine (~90 mg/250 ml).
• L-Theanine: A rare amino acid (γ-glutamylethylamide), found almost exclusively in tea, it has a calming effect on the brain. Theanine suppresses the stimulation by caffeine of brain excitability, reduces blood pressure and protects against neuronal cell death. It is a structural analog of glutamine, which is a byproduct of glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. Theanine inhibits the transport of glutamine and dampens neurotransmission.
• Catechins: Up to 30% of dry weight in tea, catechins are a type of antioxidant also found in chocolate and wine (Mmm..). Catechins are classified as flavonoids and have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke and cancer.
There are many other antioxidants and polyphenols found in tea. Tea is best drunk in company, but if you are alone, you can still have a tea party:
I had a little tea party This afternoon at three. 'Twas very small- Three guest in all- Just I, myself and me.
Myself ate all the sandwiches, While I drank up the tea; 'Twas also I who ate the pie And passed the cake to me. -Jessica Nelson North
Gluten Be Gone: Synthetic Biology Solution for Celiac Disease
What is Celiac Disease? Celiac disease or gluten allergy comes from eating wheat, rye or barley. Most common in people of N. European descent, the symptoms include diarrhea, weight loss and an increased risk of cancer.
Why is gluten allergenic? Gluten contains an unusual protein called alpha gliadin, which has many repeats of the amino acids Proline and Glutamine (PQ motifs) that are resistant to the digestive enzymes in our stomach. In some people, these PQ-rich fragments cause severe allergy and inflammation.
Clinical trials: A natural bacterial enzyme from Sphingomonas capsulata that can break down PQ motifs is in clinical trials as an Oral Enzyme Therapeutic. But it works poorly in the acidic compartment of our stomach, and attempts to engineer it to become acid tolerant have not worked.
Trial by Acid: Univ. Washington undergraduates tackled the problem from the opposite direction. They found an enzyme called Kumamolysin-AS in a heat and acid loving bacterium Alicyclobacillus sendaiensis that was already acid tolerant. They tinkered with it, using the Fold-It protein folding game, until they found variants predicted to change the enzyme’s preference from Proline Arginine (PR) to Proline Glutamine (PQ). When they made and tested ~260 engineered enzymes, they found one that had a 116-fold increase in ability to digest the gluten peptide in acidic conditions, with a switch in preference of 800-fold! The new enzyme, KumaMAX, could be used in oral therapy or engineered into common bacteria found in yogurt to make probiotics.
So Much Win!: This work (1) could help millions of gluten allergy sufferers world wide, (2) was done by undergraduates competing in iGEM, an annual synthetic biology competition originally founded at MIT, (3) using gaming software, (4) built on basic research done on an obscure bacterial enzyme, and (5) published with student authors in a peer-reviewed journal.
Images: Normal catalytic triad of protease enyzmes (left) and acid tolerant substitution (right) found in bacteria growing in acid, hot springs (middle).
Paper: Computational Design of an α‑Gliadin Peptidase; Gordon et al., (2012) JACS 134, 20513−20520
Would you give up sex for eternal life? This little invertebrate, a bdelloid rotifer, has lived a celibate life for ~80 million years. The males have disappeared and the females reproduce by parthenogenesis. A drawback to this convenient scheme is that our DNA is usually repaired during meiosis, when we form gametes or germ cells.
• Scientists bombarded these little creatures with gamma rays that would typically shatter DNA into little bits. To their astonishment, the rotifers kept reproducing even at levels of radiation five times more than other animals can endure. Their secret lies in genetic redundancy: their genomes have duplicated, so that each gene is in 4 copies. When one is damaged, the others serve as template to copy off a new version (gene conversion).
• How did this resistance to radiation damage evolve? These animals live in fresh water pools that can dry up at any time. The rotifers can go dormant for weeks to years, springing back to life with water. Dessication has the same effect on DNA as radiation so the rotifers must have evolved to survive in their ephemeral habitats. "There could be some benefit to millions of years without sex after all", says Dr. Alan Tunnacliffe, University of Cambridge :)
Contrary to popular belief (and Jenny McCarthy), autism is the most genetic and inheritable of all neurodevelopmental disorders. Identical twins have >80% chance of shared diagnosis, versus a much lower ~10% chance in fraternal twins, a classic indication of underlying common genetic cause.
What is autism? Classical autism is part of a broader group of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) characterized by (i) impaired social communication and interaction, (ii) absence or delay in language and (iii) restricted, repetitive behavior. These features vary hugely, from severe intellectual disability to mild personality traits. Intellectual delays occur in 30-60%, and 30% also suffer seizures. Current rates of diagnosis are 1 in 88 children. This is partly due to a broadening of the diagnosis but could also reflect impact of changing environment on genetic susceptibility.
Monogenic cases of autism are known as syndromes. About 10% of children diagnosed with ASD have mutations in a single gene. The most common is Fragile X syndrome (FXS), which accounts for 5% of autism cases with as many as 50% of individuals with FXS meeting criteria for autistic disorder. Other syndromes that present with ASD are Tuberous Sclerosis, Retts, and Neurofibromatosis. Although the primary diagnosis is not ASD, the symptoms include ASD.
Polygenic disorders are caused by additive effects of multiple genes. Because inheritance patterns of autism are not Mendelian, it was initially thought to be polygenic, like traits of hypertension, height or skin color. Austism superficially fits this definition because of the continuous spectrum of characteristics. But, it’s a lot more complex because no single gene appears to account for more than 1% of the non-syndromic cases.
Heterogenic disorders occur when mutations at any of a number of different genes can give rise to the same phenotype. In autism, many of the mutations are unique, rare and arise de novo, not being found in parents or recent ancestry. Most mutations occur on only one allele (one of two copies of the gene). Many are copy number variations, affecting gene dosage, caused by insertions and deletions in the chromosome. The emerging theory is that many different mutations converge on a common function: synaptic transmission.
The synapse: Information transfer occurs at the synapse or junction between neurons. The first synapses in human cortex appear 40 days after conception. The most dramatic change takes place around birth. During the first three years of life, more synaptic contacts are formed, but only some will be stabilized. Many genes implicated in autism (image) function at the synapse, and the timing of appearance of autistic characteristics coincides with synapse maturation.
THE KING OF FRUITS: Making Green Mango Rice. It has been said that India has only two seasons: Monsoon season and Mango season. While the monsoon replenishes Indian soil, mangoes are food for the soul. Did you know that India holds 40% share of the world mango production?
• Having to forgo Indian mangoes was definitely a downside of emigration to the US. I don’t count Mexican mangoes: sorry Bobby Flay, I’m sure your mango salsas are nicely fibrous and vaguely sweet ;) but these mangoes are unfit for consumption unless cooked. I brightened momentarily when President GW visited India, fell in love with the most regal of mangoes, the Alphonso, and granted special import permit for this variety, only to be foiled by the competitive Indian shopper who snaps up crates of mangoes at the going rate for gold. I recall a friend attempting to smuggle import a crate of mangoes from Toronto. At being stopped at the border and asked to throw them away, she refused indignantly. Instead, the family pulled over for an impromptu mango feast with the Customs officers joining in with gusto.
My green mango rice was inspired by a photograph shared by +Feisal Kamil taken in his mother-in-law’s garden in Terengganu. The rice tastes even better after the flavors have had time to blend: delicately tangy and slightly sweet, sharply astringent with mustard, balanced out by creamy richness of coconut, all topped with crunchy peanuts and little pops of roasted mustard seeds. Enjoy!
Rattler! Did you know that the western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox can rattle its tail continuously for hours at frequencies approaching 90 Hz (90 times per sec)? This is twice as fast as a hummingbird's wings.
● Nailing the Noise: The tail-end of the rattlesnake has a series of hollow "buttons" linked together, each made of keratin (found in our nails) and modified from the snake's scales. At birth, there is only one pre-button, but each time a snake sheds its skin, another button emerges at the end. It's a myth that one can tell the age of a rattlesnake from the number of buttons, because a snake may molt variably in a year and the buttons do break off with use.
● Sound production in animals, is energetically expensive. But the rattler is an evolutionary marvel, optimized for minimal cost and maximal efficiency (for the aficionados, only 0.015 micromoles ATP consumed per gram muscle per twitch). Surprisingly, energy use is independent of temperature and rate of rattling. There are six sets of tailshaker muscles, arranged at 45 degree angles to the axis of the tail. All six are active during rattling, with muscles on one side contracting while those on the other side relax. This out of phase contraction generates an oscillating motion seen in the gif image.
● Once you've heard a live rattler, you'll never forget it, says +Gnotic Pasta, who has plenty of snake stories to share. Do you have any cool facts or anecdotes about rattlers? Also check out +Buddhini Samarasinghe scary post on Bite Reflex of a Snake here: http://goo.gl/Lz7oBN
Bug Eyes are Beautiful! If the eyes are a window to our souls, then these gorgeous compound eyes will surely win you over.
• Each tiny facet (ommatidium) has a lens leading into a crystalline cone with light sensitive cells arranged like the segments of an orange. Individual eyes are insulated from others by a lining of pigment. The final image is a mosaic of light and dark dots, like the halftone illustrations in a newspaper. More ommatidia give a finer pattern of dots and a better resolution. Even so, the resolution of insect eyes is nowhere near that of ours: images we can separate at 60 feet would have to be one foot away to be distinguished by a honey bee.
• The big advantage to compound eyes is that they pick up movements very well because ommatidia can quickly turn on and off to give a flicker effect. Ever tried to swat a fly? Insects can see ultraviolet too.
Bizarre and Beautiful: More than a third of the world's population is infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. We pick it up from uncooked meat or from changing a cat's litter box. Although apparently harmless to healthy adults, "Toxo" is dangerous to the human fetus and to immuno-compromised people. This is why pregnant women and people with vulnerable immune systems are advised to avoid cats.
Mind Control: The parasite infects the limbic areas of the brain near the fear and sexual attraction regions. Because it carries a gene that codes for an enzyme crucial in dopamine production, it can alter levels of this neurotransmitter. Infected rats become oddly fearless of cats but not of anything else, making it likely that they end up in a cat's intestine, the only place where the parasite can reproduce! They also make more testosterone and mate more, ensuring the spread of the parasite to other rats. The ability of parasites to manipulate host behavior for their own benefit is extremely rare in mammals because our blood brain barrier is so effective in keeping most pathogens out. But not this one.
Why Cats Rule the Internetz: If this parasite can profoundly affect rats, what about people? Studies have shown that infected men have altered behavior and personality including a tendency to disregard rules, higher suspiciousness and jealousy. Schizophrenics are more likely to be infected with Toxoplasma, and there are disturbing links to suicide as well. A 2006 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that antipsychotic drugs, commonly used to treat schizophrenia, reverse the fearlessness effects of T. gondii in the brain. This is why the CDC classifies toxoplasmosis as a neglected parasitic disease.
Image: A rosette of Toxoplasma gondii cells by Markus Meissner (University of Glasgow, UK) from Nature Methods http://goo.gl/E825h
Shaken, Not Stirred: The Science behind Bond's Martini
Moderate alcohol consumption reduces risks of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cataracts. As Mr Bond enjoys perennial robust health, scientists investigated whether the mode of preparing martinis has an influence on their antioxidant capacity. Reporting in the British Medical Journal, they concluded that 007 was not only astute in matters of clandestine affairs both personal and international, he also had keen scientific and medical insights.
Anti-Aging Antioxidants: Wonder why 007 looks so young? Shaken martinis were more effective in deactivating hydrogen peroxide than the stirred variety, and both were more effective than gin or vermouth alone (0.072% of peroxide remaining for shaken martini, 0.157% for stirred vs. 58.3% for gin and 1.90% for vermouth). More data: http://goo.gl/N44xc
Daddy Cool? When the martini is shaken, not stirred, tiny bits of ice flake into the drink, and as they melt, the drink is distinctly colder. It's also more dilute, so perhaps Bond was going easy on the alcohol to keep his head clear?
Vespers to Esters: Water, in the form of ice, breaks down the esters to release aromatics. "Shaking will better remove very volatile organic compounds from the liquid" explains George Christou of the University of Florida, "and air oxidizes some of the other organic compounds present, affecting its taste." This is akin to letting red wine breathe before you serve it.
Recipe: Vesper Cocktail, from James Bond in Ian Fleming's 1953 book Casino Royale. "Shake it very well, until it's ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
- 3 oz Gordon's Gin - 1 oz Stoli Vodka - 1/2 oz Kina Lillet
Do you use the Oxford Comma? Also known as the serial or Harvard comma, it is added after before the last conjunction in a series of three or more items.
"I thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God" versus "I thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God". Proponents argue that not only is the latter absurd, Ayn Rand would have rejected such a collaborative arrangement with God of all people ;)
Whatever your thoughts on this, I do hope you don't use a double space after a period?
Brendan Marrocco was on patrol in Iraq 3 years ago when an explosion claimed all four of his limbs. He was the first Army soldier to survive a quadruple amputation. Now, he is the first soldier to receive a very rare double arm transplant at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is 26 years old.
• Logistics: The surgeons practiced four times on cadavers before the real thing. There were 4 teams of 3 surgeons each: one for each arm from donor and recipient. The deceased donor and living recipient do not need to match in gender, but in size, skin color, tissue and blood type.
• How They Did it: First, the skin is peeled back and bones are sawed at an angle to dovetail into each other when attached by metal plates- good carpentry, in essence. Next, the muscles and tendons are tagged with pieces of light blue sterile bandage that are sewn in place and labeled in permanent black marker, before being connected. The arteries and veins are painstakingly attached under a microscope, and finally the skin is sewn together.
• What was New: Brendan was given an infusion of bone marrow from vertebrae in the donor’s lower spine. This lowered the chance of rejection and cut back on the use of potentially dangerous drugs.
• Two Thumbs Up: Brendan's nerves will grow into his new arms at a rate of an inch a month. In the one month since his landmark surgery, he can already move one arm around. Eventually, patients are expected to be able to "tie shoes, use chopsticks and put their hair in ponytails". Brendan might consider growing his hair longer for that :)
Today, 3/21, is World Down Syndrome Day. Also known as Trisomy 21, because it involves three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two (see image), Down syndrome is the most complex of genetic disorders that is compatible with survival (other trisomies are more common, but are lethal). Even Down syndrome is associated with ~50% lethality of embryos. In the US, 1 in 691 babies is born with Down syndrome.
Too much of a good thing: Anywhere from 300 to 500 genes have altered levels and function, resulting 80 or 90 possible symptoms and an instantly recognizable phenotype (physical appearance). For example, patients have a 1 in 5 chance of developing a hole in the heart, compared to an incidence of 1:10,000 in the normal population. Down syndrome is extraordinarily complex, and my friend and colleague Roger Reeves has dedicated his career to helping patients with his research.
Cerebellar size: Dr. Reeves showed that the reduced size of the cerebellum in patients was due to defects in the sonic hedgehog signaling pathway. Using a drug that activated this pathway, he was able to restore the number of cerebellar cells to normalcy in a mouse model of Down syndrome, pointing to a therapeutic potential for the central nervous system deficits in patients.
Tweaking circuits: In the hippocampus—that part of the brain that’s used to navigate landmarks and fix memories, Down syndrome patients show an excess of inhibitory pathways compared to excitatory ones. A drug that is already FDA-approved works wonders on mice with the equivalent of Down syndrome, restoring balance to their brain. This drug is now in clinical trials for Down syndrome patients.
It's not all bad: Research on Down syndrome has broad impact. For example, having three copies of a tumor suppressor gene means that patients have a 93% lower incidence of developing certain cancers. This insight could help treat cancers in the general population. Plus, as Roger likes to say, if you know anyone with Down syndrome, they tend to be pretty interesting individuals in their own right.
• You may have seen the competing headlines. Shock findings in new GMO study: Rats fed lifetime of GM corn grow horrifying tumors, 70% of females die early! Contrast this to a more critical response, Monsanto's GM Corn And Cancer In Rats: Real Scientists Deeply Unimpressed. Politics Not Science Perhaps ?
• Confused by the Controversy? Watch the +ScienceSunday team dig into the dirt to get to the bottom of the issue, along with guest +Alan McHughen , UC Davis Professor of Plant Sciences and author of the book, Pandora's Picnic Basket; The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods.
Chameleons are among the slowest moving reptiles. But their protruding eyes swivel independently for a 360 degree range, so they can look for prey in different directions at the same time. When a hapless insect victim is detected, both eyes focus on it to judge range and distance with superb accuracy.
• Ballistic Brilliance! The chameleon then launches its tongue, which is 1.5 times its body length, at speeds of 26 body lengths per second. That works out to 13.4 miles per hour or 6 meters per second . The initial acceleration is enormous: 500 m s−2 or 51g. For comparison, the space shuttle launches at 3g and humans pass out at accelerations approaching 10g. It takes less than a tenth of a second for the chameleon to snag its prey!
• Corkscrew Collagen: This impressive performance exceeds the capability of any muscle in biology by an order of magnitude. So what’s the secret behind the ballistics? The chameleon’s tongue has energy stored in concentric layers of a springy fiber, called collagen, wrapped around a stiff cartilage core. The powerful tongue muscle initially primes the spring by compressing it, to the same effect as a bow being pulled taut. When the tongue is launched, the spring uncoils explosively, slipping off the cartilage core. Once the sticky end snares the prey, the muscles work more slowly to reel it back in. This gives chameleons a competitive edge over lizards and other reptiles. Watch ▶ http://goo.gl/EBFty
• Breakfast at Dawn: Another advantage to this strategy is that the chameleon can catch its prey even at chilly temperatures when its muscles slow down drastically: unlike birds and mammals, reptiles are cold blooded and at the mercy of their ambient temperature. Watch how only the retraction of the tongue is slowed at low temperatures ▶ http://goo.gl/gT2hd
Scarecrows and Wreaths: Genetic Secrets of Efficient Food Crops
• Ancient plants, like rice, wheat and barley, originating in the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras, still form 95% of the Earth’s plant biomass. They use an enzyme known as RuBisCo (the most abundant protein on the planet!) to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide on to a 5-carbon sugar (ribulose bis-phosphate) to make 2 molecules of a 3-carbon sugar that eventually becomes sucrose. This is the C3 pathway, but it's not too efficient: the enzyme RuBisCo also catalyzes a competing reaction called "photorespiration" that adds oxygen to the 5-carbon sugar making a byproduct that takes many tedious and expensive steps to convert back to the useful sugar. These plants can also lose 97% of the water absorbed by the roots through stomata or pores on the underside of the leaves. If they close their stomata, they limit the diffusion of CO2 into leaves, so they have limited growth in hot, dry areas.
• Fortunately, in the last 6-7 million years, another group of plants (sugarcane, maize, grasses) began to flourish that bypassed this problem. They evolved from the C3 plants independently, more than 60 times- a spectacular example of convergent evolution. In these plants, a different enzyme is used to fix CO2 to make a 4-carbon sugar in the leaf cells, that is then shuttled into special wreath-like layer around the veins, known as Kranz sheath (German for wreath). Kranz cells release CO2 from this intermediate, insulating and concentrating it around the Rubisco enzyme so that the wasteful side reaction does not occur. This highly effective C4 pathway boosts productivity by 50%. Even though C4 plants make up only 3% of plant species, they account for 30% of all carbon fixation on land.
• How does one coax C3 plants to follow C4 pathways and boost food production in hot, dry areas, while removing more CO2 from the atmosphere? C3 plants have all the enzymes needed, but lack the specialized anatomy of the wreaths and the tight spacing between veins. It was assumed that engineering Kranz anatomy would be exceptionally difficult. In a breakthrough study, scientists noted common features of the Kranz sheath with root and stem bundles, suggesting a common developmental pathway. Working on a hunch, they showed that a gene called Scarecrow, regulates the special anatomy in both roots and leaves. “Recapitulating the evolution of C4 structure in C3 plants is likely to be a much more manageable goal if the underlying regulatory components are already in place in roots and stems”.
A Vaccine for Addiction: For the 1.9 million cocaine users in the US alone, addiction is a problem for which no FDA-approved therapy exists. Now, a vaccine effective on primates is ready for human trials.
● Cocaine blocks the recycling of dopamine so that it accumulates in the brain, prolonging and amplifying signaling in reward centers to generate that pleasurable "high". Over time, dopamine receptors (pink buckets in image) decrease, requiring higher doses of cocaine and causing a vicious cycle of dependence. There are drugs that interfere with cocaine's action but they alter these important signaling pathways and have side effects.
● The Cocaine Vaccine triggers an immune response to the drug, that "eats up the cocaine in the blood like a little Pac-Man before it can reach the brain,” says Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, of Weill Cornell Medical College. The trick is to chemically link a cocaine analog to the common cold virus so that the body is tricked into making antibodies. The virus is crippled and cannot cause an infection. To feel the drug high that cocaine users seek to achieve, at least 47 percent of the dopamine transporter needs to be occupied by cocaine. The vaccine reduces this occupancy to 20% so the user fails to achieve the cocaine high.
● Image: Left, Mechanism of Cocaine at the Synapse (http://goo.gl/ZCk4K), Right, Effect of anti-cocaine vaccine on non-human primate brain, taken from Maoz et al., Neuropsychopharmacology. 2013 May 10. doi: 10.1038/npp.2013.114. Epub ahead of print)
• Sounds of Laughter, Shades of Life The birds do it. The bees do it too and so do you. An amazing range of animals generate sound: pressure waves caused by displacing the medium in which they travel.
• Tiny Noisemaker You may think that's the screaming baby across the airplane aisle, but human speech is at a comfortable 60 dB. The decibel, named after Alexander Graham Bell, is logarithmic in scale: an increase of 10 dB is actually ten times as loud. Anything above 85 dB is dangerously painful and the loudest sound tolerated by the human ear is 120 dB. The loudest animal is the sperm whale at an ear-splitting 236 dB! But the prize for the biggest bang for buck goes to the lesser water boatman: perhaps in protest of its diminutive size and name, it is the loudest animal for its body size (see graph; listen here: http://goo.gl/BHKhl). Fortunately, the surrounding water dissipates 99% of its mating call or it would sound like a freight train hurtling by. Shakespeare may dismiss life as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing , but to a female water boatman, the call of her mate is irresistible. Especially since he generates the sound by rubbing his…ahem.. sexual appendage against his abdomen. The lesser water boatman's call is an example of runaway evolution since there is apparently no penalty paid for the price of loudness in his case.
• Cheers to your Ears Astonishingly, the actual displacement of molecules in the air is tiny- about 11μm or 1/7th the thickness of a piece of paper at 120 dB! Did you know that the faintest sound the human ear can detect corresponds to a displacement of air molecules by ~1.1 x 10-11 m, or 11 picometers– about 1/10 the radius of a mid-sized atom? Not only can the human ear detect vibrations with a sensitivity that spans six orders of magnitude, it can also detect sounds across nearly a 10 octave range of frequencies.
Trypophobia: Intense fear of holes, resulting in itching and uneasiness.
While admiring this lovely image of lotus seed pods, I stumbled across this strange phobia, also triggered by "crumpets, pumice, cavities in teeth, the Ampullae of Lorenzini in sharks, holes in concrete, bug tunnels in wood, enlarged pores of the skin, Aero Bars, holes in walls caused by bullets, bone marrow, wasps' nest, honeycomb, bubbles in dough, ant holes, veins in meat, clusters of holes". One cannot make this stuff up. It's in Urban Dictionary :) Did you know that 1 in 10 people suffers from a phobia? Do you have one?
The Road to Mussoorie: Imagine if you will, a town at the foothills of the Himalayas. Blooming trees of orange Gul Mohar, aptly named "Flame of the Forest", intermix with the softer purples of the Jacaranda tree. A rickety school bus drives us across dry river beds to town, which unexpectedly boasts an eminent collection of historic schools: the Doon School, Welhams, Convent of Jesus and Mary, and my alma mater, St. Thomas Day School. Some days, snow melting in the mountains sends unpredictable torrents of cold and clear water across the roads, forcing the bus driver to turn back- to the raucous cheers of those incarcerated inside!
In a corner of the dusty school ground, is a little cafeteria selling toffee, gum and the delectable "bun samosa". This consisted of a soft round bun, sliced only partway through, stuffed with a pea and potato samosa and served with a messy helping of Channa Masala dribbled over the open top. How I envied those with both parental blessing and pocket money to indulge in this warm and spicy comfort food! Instead, I had my buttered sandwich (albeit cut into pretty triangles) and my mother's paranoia of school yard germs as cold consolation.
PULP FICTION? The clementine on the left was peeled, dissected to remove the pith and separate the segments, then neatly stitched back together by a laparoscopic surgeon. The sorry mess on the right was the artistry of a medical student. The trick was to do the entire "surgery" inside a closed opaque box fitted with cameras, scissors and surgical tools. Orange you glad they get to practice first?
• Pamela Andreatta is an educator, not a surgeon, at U Michigan. She noticed that residents and interns struggled at laparoscopic surgery, to the detriment of the patient. So she came up with a low cost training alternative. Surgeons say that the exercise is a remarkable simulation of the pelvic anatomy.
• The fruit of their labor can now be transplanted in any country (it is being field tested in Ghana). Students who cannot concentrate will be canned.
Uncork the Muse! Is creativity sparked by altered cognitive states brought on by insanity, sleep state, mood, or substance use? Alcohol, in particular, has been credited with inspiring creative geniuses from Socrates to Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, Coleridge, and Pollock. In contrast to analytical problem solving, which requires high attention span and working memory capacity, creative problem solving involves flashes of intuition. A recent study tested the effect of moderate alcohol consumption on creative thinking.
The Experiment: Male social drinkers were administered alcohol to a blood alcohol level of 0.07 (just below the drinking limit for driving) then given the RAT (Remote Associates Test). For example, participants were given three target words such as PEACH, ARM, and TAR, and were tasked with finding a fourth word, such as PIT, that forms a good two-word phrase with each of the target words. This type of word association involves out of the box, creative thinking. They were also asked if they came by the association intuitively (as in an Aha! moment).
The Results: As seen in the figure, intoxicated participants reported significantly more insightful solutions than sober participants. Even better, they solved significantly more RAT problems (M = .58, SD = .13) than their sober counterparts (M = .42,SD = .16). They also solved them faster (M = 11.54 s, SD = 3.75) compared to sober controls (M = 15.24 s, SD = 5.57). The study concluded that moderate alcohol consumption improved creative memory tasks. Cheers!
Extra Credit: How was the alcohol administered? Why did they choose men and not women? What did the men do while they consumed their drinks?
Science Mystery Photo: Are these the pages of an ancient book? Flaming rivulets of lava? Go ahead and take a wild guess.
Hint: These are extraordinarily efficient assembly lines producing up to 31,000 "products" per second or 2.7 billion per day! The special arrangement seen in the photos increases the surface area of the "factories" by 20 fold, with optimum spacing for maximum efficiency.
Cool Fact: The products of this factory are released by a mechanism known as surface tension catapult, achieving speeds of 1.8 m per sec, although they only need to be ejected about 1 mm or so.
Shhh! Do you already know what this is? Don't be a spoilsport, be a fun guy (or gal!). Share an interesting fact about it in the comments. We'll all be wiser in the end.
Photo credits: Brian J. Kelly, Kip Taylor-Brown and Claudio Pia
How to Write Good: I'm working on a research paper and I have to remind myself of these golden rules. :)
• Avoid Alliteration. Always. • Eschew obfuscation. • One word sentences? Eliminate. • Don't repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before. • The passive voice is to be avoided. • Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.) • Foreign words and phrases are not apropos. • Poofread carefully to see if you any words out. • Don't overuse exclamation marks!!! • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. • Be more or less specific. • Understatement is always best. • Who needs rhetorical questions? • And always be sure to finish what
Memories of Moosewood and Enchanted Broccoli Forest Soup
When I arrived in the US at age 21, more years ago than all the digits on your hands and feet, I was in for a culinary disappointment, if not a culture shock. Indeed, the shock was on the other foot, if weak puns are permitted.
After an entire week of eating raw cauliflower and broccoli in salads at one memorable Gordon Conference in New Hampshire (notwithstanding the awesome science!), I finally informed the chef that the difference between a vegetarian and a goat was that only the latter did not need their food cooked.
In the midst of this culinary calamity, my housemate Catherine (a lovely British-American transplant) gave me the Moosewood cookbook. Inspired to spread my fledgling wings in our tiny apartment kitchen, I worked through the recipes. Yesterday, I recreated this soup.
Oh, if you were curious: Catherine’s inscription on my book (last picture) ends with the Bengali words “Ami Tumarke Bhalo bashe”. Google Translate is not needed for those universal words of affection, “I love you”. Much comfort and sustenance to all!
✿ A heavenly scent: Do you love the smell of soil after a fresh bout of rain? Are you a fan of the earthy smell of beets? There is a word for that: petrichor. It comes from the Greek petros, meaning stone and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods. It is defined as "the distinctive scent which accompanies the first rain after a long warm dry spell".
✿ Geosmin: After puzzling over the smell of soil for over a hundred years, scientists have pinned the source to Streptomyces, the soil bacterium that also gifts us with the most antibiotics. The bacteria release volatile compounds when disturbed, like the bicyclic alcohol, geosmin (named for "earthy smell"). Did you know that the human nose is incredibly sensitive to geosmin? We can detect as little as ten parts per trillion!
✿ One hump or two?: Bactrian camels are reputed to detect water from 50 miles away. The signature smell of Streptomyces is easily carried across the desert and picked up by the camel's sensitive nose. In return, the bacterium probably benefits from having its spores spread around. The musty earth scent of some Cactus flowers is also due to a derivative of geosmin. It lures pollinating insects by a promise of water. This is known as floral mimicry. Unfortunately, fish that absorb minute amounts of geosmin from water don't taste that great.
1. Chickpeas: If you are using dry chickpeas (garbanzo beans), soak overnight and cook with plenty of water until softened. I like to add some flavoring during cooking (a bay leaf, a dash of oil, salt to taste, a clove of garlic,3-4 whole peppercorns and cloves). If using canned, drain and set aside.
2. Potatoes: Boil 3-4 potatoes in their skin. Peel (or leave the skin on), cut into big cubes, and set aside.
3. Spice Blend: Using a spice mill, clean coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, coarsely grind 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1 tsp fennel seeds, 1 tbsp coriander seeds, 3-4 peppercorns, 2 cloves. You can use more or less of each, just keep the proportions similar.
Substitute with powdered spices (milder flavor): 1 tsp garam masala, 1 tbsp coriander powder and 1 tsp cumin powder.
4.Finely mince: 2 small onions, 2 green chillies (optional), 1 inch piece of fresh ginger root, 2 cloves of garlic. I like to use a food processor to chop them all together.
5. Caramelize onions: To make the gravy, begin by heating a couple tbsp vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the minced onion mixture and cook on high for a few minutes, stirring, while the onions lose water. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking for about 10 minutes or until the onions turn light brown and pull away from the sides of the pan. Stir occasionally, don't let it burn.
6. Tomatoes: Chop 2-3 tomatoes, add to the onion mixture and continue cooking.
7. Spices: Add the freshly ground or powdered spices. Add a tsp of turmeric powder and a quarter tsp of chilli powder/cayenne pepper (optional). Also add salt to taste and a good pinch of sugar to balance flavor. Mix in the spices while on low heat.
8. Potatoes: Add the cubed potatoes, and mix them in.
9. Chickpeas: Add the cooked chickpeas in their water. If using canned, add drained chickpeas and then add a cup or more of water to make a gravy of your choice of thickness (it will continue to thicken).
10. Garnish: After the chickpeas have simmered in their tomato-spice broth, squeeze in half a lemon (or lime) and garnish with chopped cilantro/coriander leaves. If it seems too spicy, you can add a dash of cream or a dollop of yogurt just before taking it off the heat.
Serve hot, with the _pulao rice, cucumber raita and optional store bought naan (Indian bread).
Eeek!: The Smithsonian Store offers this acrylic, Glow-in-the-Dark computer mouse with a real spider for $28. Arachnophobic? Try their beetle version (http://goo.gl/sludF) for half the price. Pros: USB compatible, creeps out co-workers, purple Cons: Not wireless, creeps out co-workers, purple H/T HuffPo
ƵƵƶƶ Why do we feel sleepy after a big meal? You've probably blamed the Thanksgiving turkey for having too much tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts to serotonin and melatonin, two sleep-inducing compounds. But it turns out that tryptophan has to be consumed on an empty stomach and not with gourmandish excess of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, to be effectively blamed for your soporific state. Did you know that even oat bran and soybeans contain more tryptophan than turkey? Check out this infographic ▶ http://goo.gl/pQtLTp .
ƵƵƶƶ Another popular theory is that after a big meal, our body diverts blood supply to the gut, and away from the brain, to help digestion. While this seems logical, it turns out that cerebral blood flow and oxygenation are kept stable through autoregulation mechanisms even when blood flow to the gut or muscles increase after a meal or during exercise. Blood vessels in the brain expand or contract in response to changes in blood pressure to keep flow constant. Another myth debunked!
ƵƵƶƶ The most likely culprits are gut-brain hormones that regulate both feeding and sleep. Orexin is one such example: it promotes hunger and alertness, but is inhibited by gastric distention and satiety. The ability of hunger to promote alertness is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that keeps us motivated to search for food. Interestingly, mutations in orexin were recently linked to narcolepsy, a pathological form of sleepiness. Finally, it has been argued that sleep allows for "cognitive reinforcement" of the circumstances that led to your energy acquisition, an important survival skill! So when postprandial somnolence hits you after your big Thanksgiving meal, you're actually learning an age-old survival mechanism :)
It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood - Shakespeare.
• Blood is thicker than water, but it sure does die young. Did you know that the average red blood cell lives not more than 120 days, and 2 million of them die every second?
• Old age and the passage of time teach all things - Sophocles The oldest intact human red blood cells were discovered in May 2012 in Ötzi the Iceman, a natural mummy of a man who died around 3255 BCE.
• My love is like a red, red rose - Robert Burns Blood is red because of the spectral properties of iron, four of which are attached to each of ~270 million molecules of hemoglobin in each red blood cell. Each iron in heme ferries one molecule of oxygen.
• She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon - Groucho Marx Plastinated blood vessels of the human face are seen at the Human Body exhibition in Ostend, Belgium. Plastination is a technique that replaces water and fat with plastic, to preserve detailed anatomy. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
CHASING A CHEETAH: The cheetah is the Bugatti Veyron of the animal world, achieving speeds of 29 ms-1 (65 mph), almost twice as fast as their nearest rival, the greyhound. Yet, both have a similar build and use a rotary gallup as opposed to the transverse gallop used by a horse.
• To chase down the cheetah's secret, researchers buried 8 force plates in an enclosure of UK's ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and tempted the big cats to sprint after a piece of chicken attached to a truck starter motor. Filming at 1000 frames s-1, they measured the forces exerted on the animals' limbs, their body motion and footfall patterns. They did the same with trained greyhounds.
• The cheetah's stride was slightly longer than the grayhound's. But a striking difference was their ability to change gears: increasing stride frequency from 2.4 strides s–1 at a leisurely 9 m s–1, rising to 3.2 strides s–1 at 17 m s–1. In the wild, they probably reach 4 strides s-1! In contrast, greyhounds maintained a constant stride rate around 3.5 strides s–1 across their entire speed range. Cheetahs also had a longer stance time (length of time the foot stayed on the ground), which is thought to translate to greater acceleration.
• The Cars ~ Dream Away
"You better take it on the run, there's a cheetah walking high Liquid whispers dragonfly, charleston booties on painted toes"
REF: Hudson, P. E., Corr, S. A. and Wilson, A. M. (2012). High speed galloping in the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the racing greyhound (Canis familiaris): spatio-temporal and kinetic characteristics. J. Exp. Biol. 215, 2425-2434.
• If you've ever seen a face on a piece of toast, or an animal in the clouds, you've experienced pareidolia (from the Greek para for other and eidos for shape). Carl Sagan proposed that this is a survival technique: humans are hardwired to instantly recognize faces or familiar objects from seemingly random patterns. Less credible, was the claim by Japanese paleontologist Chonosuke Okamura that fossils from the Silurian period were in fact tiny humans, dinosaurs and other animals. He was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for his imagination.
• Does this collection of seed pods trigger a playful pareidolia?
This week, several hundred scientists - astronomers, chemists, biologists and engineers from across the nation, descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for science. We asked for sustained and predictable federal funds for scientific research. We voiced our worry that deep cuts in grants would destroy a generation of scientists: that research is not a faucet that can be turned on and off, because the well at the source dries up. We brought a personal face to the projects we were working on.
What did I learn? Our visit began with a briefing at the AAAS auditorium in Washington, DC. The Office of Science and Technology from the White House gave us the executive branch perspective by breaking down the budget into entitlements and discretionary spending, and showing us the thin slice of pie that went to Federal R&D. Then we got a Congressional perspective from both the House and Senate committees on Science, Space and Technology. These career administrators were scientists themselves, very much "on our side". The next day was a blur of individual visits to offices of senators and congressmen from our states, efficiently organized by the +Biophysical Society whom I was representing. The deal was that we spoke to staffers, and the staffers spoke to the elected members of Congress. We handed out folders full of statistics, talking points and projections. We shook hands, took pictures and exchanged cards.
Was it worth it? In the long run, yes. Maybe. Like the democratic process, visiting Congress is both our right and responsibility. I left with a better understanding of how Congress runs, and hopefully, made some contacts. It's going to be easier to write to my elected representative the next time I'm called upon to lobby for science.
Was it fun? Definitely, this was an unforgettable experience. Senate offices are posh! Marbled halls, deep carpeting, brass-studded heavy doors. The House? Not so much. Congress is run by 20-30 somethings: smart but poorly paid, staffers put in long hours and typically don't last more than a year. It was fun to spot faces: there was Sen. Barbara Boxer rushing past us, Rep. John Dingell leaning heavily on his cane, while another senator saw off some fund raisers at his door.
• Although birthday girl +Kimberly Chapman will think of +Hugh Jackman, I must reluctantly clarify that the title refers to the Y chromosome. Yes, that stump of chromosomal appendage endowed with the SRY gene (http://goo.gl/829he). So why the change of heart?
• Alpha Male: Because the Y chromosome carries much less variation than any other chromosome, it was theorized that only a few alpha males (one male for every four females) passed on their genes. This would mean that men have fewer ancestors than women. How does one test this theory?
• Not so skewed: Scientists looked at genetic variations in eight African and eight European men. Then they ran computer simulations with various models of skewed ratios of reproducing males to females over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. The best fit of data was four females to three males. So why the limited variation in Y chromosome DNA?
• No junk in this trunk: The models showed that evolution weeded out the variation, reducing much of the Y chromosome to highly repetitive strings of letters. One possibility is that this is a clever way of making repairs and preventing the Y from becoming lost altogether. Time will tell.
Śravaṇa Beḷagoḷa (Kannada: ಶ್ರವಣಬೆಳಗೊಳ): First stop on our three-day trip out of Bangalore, India, this ancient Indian town wedged between two rocky hills, gets its name from a tranquil reservoir (literally, "white tank of the monk"). A barefoot climb up ~650 steps hewn into the granite took us to a 57 foot monolithic statue, carved from a single stone, said to be the tallest of its kind.
• Nearly 1,800 years old, the statue of the naked Gomateshwara (a Jain monk) is symbolic of renunciation of worldly pleasures. According to legend, the prince Bahubali threw down his weapons after a hollow victory over his brother Bharatha for the throne. Meditating in penance, anthills grew at his feet and vines coiled around his limbs, as seen in the statue. Inscriptions dating back prior to 10th century AD include texts in Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Marwari and Mahajani languages. They describe the rise of dynasties of Gangas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas and other empires. More on the beautiful carvings of the Hoysala dynasty in my next post.
• From the hilltop, where a cool breeze rewarded our exertions, we watched school children march in a straggly Independence Day parade with their youthful voices singing the national anthem. A few naked monks strolled nonchalantly past us while my 13 year old remarked that a _namaskara_ (lying prostate at the feet of elders or holy people) might be a "bit dicey" given the view.
I wish I was DNA Helicase so I can unzip your Genes: This perfectly legitimate video has been sacrificed to bad internet puns to "celebrate" the trolling of a friend who paid the price of a "What's Hot" post with this come-on, "hello how are you doing today..well i will like to know you more okay so do you have yahoo or msn so we can talk there now okay".
We were all a-Twitter and played gamely along ("You can come in MySpace anytime", "Do you send HotMail?, "ICQ all the time because you Pinterest me"). So, the next time you get a lame, "HI HOW R U?" (http://goo.gl/DMYZI), feel free to have some pun:
• Hi, my name's Vista. Can I crash at your place tonight? • If I FlickR your YouTube will you Twitter my Yahoo? • Can I Ascii you out? • I was hoping you wouldn't block my pop-up. • Want to see my Red Hat? • Mind if I run a sniffer to see if your ports are open? • How about we go home and you handle my exception? • Hey Baby, let me hack your kernel. • You can put a Trojan on my Hard Drive anytime. • I wish I was your derivative so I could lie tangent to your curves.
Keep up the good fight, folks and here's to trolling the trolls! Use #trollhelp to call for backup.
Real Science: Researchers find gold nanoparticles, coated with positive charge, can unzip the two strands of negatively charged DNA. These findings have implications for DNA based electronics or gene therapy. Read more at http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/wms-melechko-dna/
Animal, mineral or vegetable? If you can guess the identity of the object in this image, leave a hint or a cool fact in the comments (but try not to give the game away)!
Story (and Hint): It was January, 1862 when Charles Darwin first laid eyes on a specimen of the Madagascar orchid Angraecum sesquipedale and exclaimed, "Good Heavens". He went on to predict that an object like the one in this photo would be found. A few years later, Alfred Wallace agreed with Darwin's hypothesis, saying of the orchid, "I maintain...that the laws of multiplication, variation, and survival of the fittest, already referred to, would under certain conditions necessarily lead to the production of this extraordinary XXX". Wallace made a drawing of his prediction, and was proved correct a few decades later.
Going Rogue : How does a cancer spread to become metastatic? Why do cells that are tightly packed or neatly arranged in rows (epithelia), come loose and become insidiously mobile? The answer lies in a basic developmental process known as EMT, short for epithelial to mesenchymal transition.
❑ During EMT, cells no longer know which way is up (i.e., lose their polarity), break off their cell-cell junctions and extend pseudopodia or foot-like processes that help them move. In the image below, colon cancer cells were caught in the act of rearranging their junctional proteins (in red and green) to become amorphous, drug-resistant and invasive. Even more dangerous, these cells acquire stem cell properties, allowing them to seed new cancers. In short, cells lose their mature, differentiated form and recapitulate their origins.
❑ But EMT, and its reverse process MET, are normal features of embryo development, leading to formation of the neural tube, heart valve and other organs. Also, during wound healing, skin cells at the edge of the wound undergo EMT, reverting back by MET after the wound is closed. Understanding what triggers these changes, and how they may be controlled, is key to cancer therapy.
❑ This explanation is in response to the more sensationalistic title, New theory uncovers cancer's deep evolutionary roots , shared on G+. The theory "promises to transform the approach to cancer therapy, and to link the origin of cancer to the origin of life and the developmental processes of embryos". Choose between breathless science (http://goo.gl/yDsys) or the rational explanation here :)
The Dose makes the Poison. A principal concept of Toxicology, first expressed by Paracelcus, an early 16th century physician and alchemist. Did you know that many of your favorite foods naturally contain incredibly potent toxins that can, and have been known, to kill? Not to put you off your potatoes, but here are some infamous poisons found in edible plants.
• Solanine: Never eat potatoes that have turned green because that indicates the presence of solanine, a toxic glycoalkaloid. Although the green color is caused by harmless chlorophyll, solanine is also produced in response to light and is highest just under the skin and in the “eyes” or sprouts. Symptoms range from nausea to death. Although one would need to pig out on green potatoes to die from it, people have been poisoned drinking potato leaf tea. In fact, the Solanaceae family that has also given us our beloved tomatoes, eggplants and tobacco, is chock full of deadly poisons. They include nicotine, atropine and scopolamine. Let’s just say that the genus Atropa (deadly nightshade) is named after the Greek Fate, Atropos, who cut the thread of life.
• Cyanide: More than 500 million people rely on cassava as a source of food, the third most consumed source of starch in the world. Yet, it contains a cyanogen named linamarin, that converts to cyanic acid when eaten. If not processed properly, cassava causes neurological disease and death. On a positive note, the combination of the enzyme linamarase with linamarin could be used to treat cancer in a strategy dubbed suicide gene therapy. Most of the cyanide is produced outside the cells, resulting in a "bystander effect" that kills off the tumor.
• Myrisitin: A psychoactive drug chemically similar to mescaline and amphetamine found in nutmeg and mace. It binds to the brain’s serotonin receptors and causes hallucinations, along with other less pleasant effects. Getting high on nutmeg is teen fad that can be dangerous.
• Phytohaemagglutinin: Causes red blood cells to clump. Found in highest concentrations in raw red kidney beans (also white/cannellini beans), a single bean can have 70,000 haemagglutinating units. As few as five raw beans can bring on nausea, vomiting and worse within a few hours of consumption. This can be reduced by boiling for at least 10 min. However, slow cooking actually increases the toxin levels up to five times! On the bright side, these compounds are useful in research for tracing the connections between neurons, and in medicine, for activating cell division in T-lymphocytes.
Images: Idaho native +Gnotic Pasta posed for these pictures with the world famous spuds and inspired this post. Many thanks, Dan!
◑ Beige, Brite, Brown or White: If you thought all fat was white and wobbly, think again. Some fat depots are colored brown because they are rich in mitochondria- powerhouses of energy loaded with iron-containing cytochrome proteins (bottom panel in image). Beige/Brite fat cells are in between white and brown fat. Human infants have stores of this brown adipose tissue (BAT), up to 5% of their body weight, between their shoulder blades and in their neck, colored green in the MRI scan (top image). Hibernating animals stock up on brown fat too. Why? Because brown fat generates heat.
◑ The Heat is On: Our mitochondria are factories that extract energy from food and store it in the form of a proton (Hydrogen ion) gradient across their borders. Like water cascading down a fall turns a turbine to generate electricity, this gradient of protons can run downhill through the ATP synthase, propelling it like a motor to capture energy from food by making a chemical compound called ATP. But if these protons ran downhill without doing any work, their potential energy would be lost as heat. The mitochondria in brown fat do just that. They make an uncoupling protein that short circuits the proton gradient to generate heat instead of ATP. This form of thermogenesis is important to newborns and hibernating animals who can't use the shiver reflex to give off heat from their muscles.
◑ Better with BAT: Since brown fat burns calories, more BAT could counter obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. But adult humans lose most brown fat during adolescence. Fortunately, new studies show that we do have some, mostly deep inside our neck (lower image). One approach to increasing BAT is exposure to cold! Brrr ... if that sounds uncomfortable, stem cells may boost your BAT. Curiously, brown fat cells share a common lineage, not with white fat cells, but with muscle cells. Recent research has revealed the presence of adult stem cells that can be coaxed into active BAT. The hope is to induce these cells to form calorie-burning brown fat in humans. Now that's a healthier browning than a tan!
⌘ Picture a little girl, shaken awake in the pre-dawn darkness by her mother, shivering before a "head bath" with a pail of steaming hot water from the big copper water heater in the kitchen. Squeaky clean, her hair dried and braided into long mogra flower-laden plaits, she puts on some pretty gold bangles (from an ever-expanding stash of jewelry destined for her future bridal finery) and dresses in a brand new, long skirt of Kanchipuram silk, the traditional and sacred fabric of southern India. After excitedly holding a little sparkler on the balcony, she joins her family for a Diwali feast, full of sweets and special treats that last all day long, while explosions of crackers and the acrid smell of smoke fill the city air.
⌘ Fast-forward many decades later, and the little girl has given up the silks and bracelets for a disciplined life of an academic scientist, transplanted into a distant western land. It may be Diwali, but she must fly from one coast to another, evangelical in her passion, poring over 200-page reports on the plane and happily rolling polysyllabic words into hour-long lectures. But wait: just before leaving, there is time to whip together a simple family breakfast of beaten rice ("poha") with crunchy, tangy, comforting and colorful notes. Today, the sweetness comes from dimly-recalled memories of childhood and the sparklers are in the bright eyes of the family who will welcome "madamescientist" back home :) To all those who celebrate, Happy Diwali!
▶ Assortive Mating: The diversity of lifeforms on our planet is central to evolution. But how do new species form? A key step is assortive mating, when individuals use physical or vocal cues to choose mates that resemble themselves. Perhaps natural selection favors offspring from similar matings. Eventually, the populations diverge genetically to the extent that the hybrids are unfit, and separate species emerge.
▶ Caught in the act? Take the curious case of the Australian Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). There are black and red head color morphs (see image) that prefer to mate with like types. This preference is genetic, as chicks reared by foster parents of different type still prefer to mate with their own head color morph. In fact, the head color and mating preference are tightly linked on the sex chromosome Z (males are ZZ and females are ZW in birds). This lack of "sexual imprinting" is unusual, since most birds get their cues from rearing parents.
▶ Hybrid drama: Both head color types coexist in the same geographical area. Shrinking and unequal populations mean that mates of the same type can be hard to find (the bird is endangered). The birds seem to "make the best of a bad situation" and breed with different head color morphs anyway. But there is a steep price to pay : more than a third of the offspring die. The mortality rate is worse in female chicks, nearly half fail to survive. Curiously, the mothers seem to control for this by producing broods with more males. So, if they are tricked into thinking that their mate is of a different head color (using bird make-up!) they produce biased broods! All of this suggests that the Gouldian finch may be in the process of splitting into species, unless it becomes extinct before then :(
◐ What is the largest organ in your body? Not your brain, heart or ..would you have guessed skin? Weighing in at ~3.5 kg, with an area of 2 square meters, your skin accounts for 16% of body weight. About 11 miles of blood vessels and 45 miles of nerves travel through the dermis!
◐ Love the Skin You're In: Of your 300 million skin cells, roughly 40,000 are shed every minute. This adds up to ~4 kg/year. The good news is that if you don't like the skin you're in, you'll have a new one in 4 weeks.
◐ Don't be Squamish: Skin is layered on as polygonal cells tightly connected into a sheet, known as squamous epithelium. The left image shows the typical cobblestone pattern, with nuclei in blue.
◐ Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Mammals have a lot of hair, up to 100,000 follicles on our head. The right image is a section through skin showing hair emerging from follicles in the dermis. The dark blue bulge at the base of the follicle is filled with stem cells.
Gender Bender: How do you tell a man from a woman? The International Olympic Committee has decided to use testosterone levels to decide who can compete as a woman. But it’s not that simple: testosterone levels of elite athletes, both male and female, spread out over a range and overlap as seen in this scatter plot: http://goo.gl/YIKFQ
• Besides, there are no studies showing that athletes with higher testosterone compete better in sports. Neither is there evidence that response to hormone is the same between individuals. An extreme case is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. These individuals are chromosomally XY, the normal makeup for men, but their bodies don’t respond to testosterone. So they develop female genitals, but have testes, not ovaries. South African powerhouse runner Caster Semenya is thought to be one such person. She was banned from competing and then, mysteriously, brought back this year (http://goo.gl/cGyIb).
• Half a century ago, the IOC subjected women athletes to “nude parades” before a panel of judges. After realizing that outward appearance can be confounding (as a result of adrenal gland abnormality, for example), they tested for Barr bodies, characteristic of XX chromosomes. But females can have a single X chromosome. This was followed by testing for the SRY gene thought to determine male gender (See my Men! Why U So SRY? post http://goo.gl/VPF0J). But the Atlanta Olympics revealed 8 female athletes who carried this gene, all of whom were eventually allowed to complete.
• Naturally high testosterone in women is a genetic trait, no different from having more efficient muscles or acromegaly (tallness). So why should some athletes be penalized for this particular trait? Clearly, the goal is to prevent unfair advantage in sports. But it's complicated....
Butterflies are beautiful: Their eggs rival Faberge’s for sheer art. The migration of the Monarch butterfly holds navigational secrets still beyond our ken. But the wings are truly remarkable for their mimicry, polymorphism (variation) and aposematism (warning coloration). Like tiny shingles on a roof, microscopic overlapping scales cover the wings with brilliant, iridescent colors.
Structural Coloration: Black and brown colors are from melanin, but the blues, greens and reds are created by the microstructure of the scales and not by pigments. Originally observed by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, the principle of wave interference was described by Thomas Young a century later. Surfaces scored with fine parallel lines or thin layers on the same scale as the wavelength of light reflect multiple sets of waves. These can interfere with one another by adding or subtracting, to give rise to iridescence. For more, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_coloration
A Quick Getaway: The scales of a butterfly wing readily detach, allowing for quick escape from a spider’s web or predator’s grasp. Thomas Eisner experimented by dropping various insects on a spider web. Of the butterflies and moths, he noted, “They all left impact marks on the webs where scales became detached to the viscid strands. Moth scars we came to call such telltale sites, and soon learned that they were common." Most birds largely ignore butterflies. It turns out they are rather difficult to catch, without a large net, due to their erratic flying trajectories. Read Thomas Eisner’s essay on Butterfly Wings: http://goo.gl/5Sfon
RESHARE: Feast and Famine: Fasting once or twice a week has a beneficial impact on ageing and neurodegeneration.
Congratulations to +Chris Robinson on getting a science post to the top of "What's Hot" list!
Reshared text: Scientists have known for some time that a low-calorie diet is a recipe for longer life. Rats and mice reared on restricted amounts of food increase their lifespan by up to 40%. A similar effect has been noted in humans. But Mattson and his team have taken this notion further. They argue that starving yourself occasionally can stave off not just ill-health and early death but delay the onset of conditions affecting the brain, including strokes. "Our animal experiments clearly suggest this," said Mattson.
He and his colleagues have also worked out a specific mechanism by which the growth of neurones in the brain could be affected by reduced energy intakes. Amounts of two cellular messaging chemicals are boosted when calorie intake is sharply reduced, said Mattson. These chemical messengers play an important role in boosting the growth of neurones in the brain, a process that would counteract the impact of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. _________________________________________________ Science Circles and Helpful Google+ Links: http://goo.gl/i604C
• Fish eyes continue to grow larger throughout their lives because of stem cells that are concentrated at the ends of the red arcs (nerve tissue) seen in this zebrafish eye. This allows the visual cells of the retina to be repaired and regenerated continuously. The retina is seen wrapped around the lens (green circle with black center) in this cross-section.
• The eye is really an outgrowth of the brain formed during embryo development. Take a look at the orange cells in the eyefield (inset A; ef) pushed to form two lateral bulges by the advancing midline (A-B; blue).
• Humans (and other mammals) lack stem cells in the adult eye although research is focusing on Müller cells, a type of glial cell that may be able to regenerate neurons and photoreceptors lost to disease and injury.
Happy Birthday, Ernst Haeckel! German biologist and artist, Haeckel (1834-1919) left his mark in thousands of beautiful, accurate and intricate drawings of life forms at a time before microscopes could take pictures. Did you know that he coined many terms that we take for granted today including ecology , phylum , stem cell and Protista? He is even credited for the first use of the phrase "First World War" to describe the "Great European War" in 1914.
Flamboyant and passionate, Haeckel was both spectacularly right and completely wrong! He sent his students to Indonesia to look for the remains of ancient humans, resulting in the first human fossil of Pithecanthropus (Homo erectus). He also believed that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: that embryos go through stages in development where they resemble lower orders of life. Although junior looked a bit like a fish at one time, but not literally, right? ;)
✦ Nature's Gyroscope: Your ear does much more than hear. While the snail shaped cochlea of the inner ear (pictured below) is superbly adapted for picking up sound vibrations (by deflections of hair cells described in last week's post), the rest of the inner ear is a complex labyrinth of tubes and chambers that keeps our lives in balance.
✦ Up, Side and Down: Since we live in a three dimensional world, we have three fluid-filled semicircular canals arranged at right angles to each other, along the x, y and z planes. Each semicircular canal senses a different movement of our head: up and down, side to side, and tilt. When we move our head, the fluid inside the canal moves and presses on a tear shaped bulb at one end. The bulb (ampulla) has a collection of mechanically sensitive hair cells embedded in a jelly like matrix. Deflection of the "hairs" triggers a message to the balance center of our brain that is interpreted as a deflection of the head. Because we have a pair of ears, the deflections are mirror images so that when one side is stimulated the other is simultaneously inhibited by the movement.
✦ Rolling Stones: Two other chambers sense horizontal and vertical accelerations of your body. The saccule detects changes in vertical movement (when you are in an elevator), and the utricle monitors horizontal movement (as when a car suddenly moves forward or stops). While these organs also have mechanically sensitive hair cells, what is different is a special overlaying membrane weighted down with tiny stones of calcium carbonate, around a protein core, called otoconia. A shearing effect of the membrane against the hair cells detects vertical and linear accelerations of your body. Sometimes, the otoconia fall into one of the semicircular canals (see image) sending conflicting signals to the brain, resulting in vertigo. Fortunately, a series of head maneuvers can restore the rolling stones back into place. Ménière's Disease is a common cause of vertigo, accompanied by hearing loss and tinnitus. It is thought to be caused by disturbances in the fluid volume filling the inner ear. Future relief from vertigo may come from prosthetic devices, similar to a cochlear implant in the inner ear. See Physician Inventors Discuss First Device to Combat Vertigo
✦ Space Jellies: Did you know that NASA has been sending jelly fish out to space since the 90's for microgravity research? Jellies born in space have trouble orienting and swimming back on Earth because their gravity sensors, crystals of calcium sulfate much like our otoconia, fail to develop properly. Read more: http://goo.gl/Jtj00N
• Camelid Nanobodies for Therapy: Circulating in the healthy immune system of llamas, camels and alpacas is an unusually small version of antibody- proteins that are key to fighting infection. In contrast to our antibodies that are large and cumbersome (120-150 kilo Daltons in size), single domain antibodies made from the Camelid family are only 12-15 kDa or 4 x 2.5 nanometers in diameter.
• Potent and penetrant, these little proteins (right image) are more soluble and stable than their larger counterparts. They can get deep into tissues or cross the blood brain barrier where they have the potential to neutralize viruses, deliver toxins to cancer cells or even fight fungi in formulations of anti-dandruff shampoo. Concerned about alpaca abuse? No worries, they can be produced in bacterial factories.
Beauty of the Butterfly Egg: Insects have been around for at least 300 million years. There are over a million species representing more than half of all known living organisms. In fact, they may account for 90% of all multicellular animals on earth.
• Yet insects abandon their young just about anywhere, leaving them to survive on their own. The secret may be hidden in their eggs: tough, yet varied, insect eggs are camouflaged or flamboyant, colorful or embellished with spines, stripes and helices. This gallery represents just one tiny fraction of diversity in the eggs: they are all butterfly eggs.
• Who knew that a butterfly egg less than 2 mm in size could be so beautiful?
The lady at the checkout line of the local grocer stared at the stout-bulbed feathery fronds with a mixture of perplexion and annoyance. Guiltily, I explained, "It's fennel". "What do you do with it?", she countered. She really ought to be on G+, I thought.
Of course, try out +David Crowley 's hearty winter soup, what else? The goodness of potatoes, cabbage and carrots taken to a higher plane with the fragrance of fennel. I substituted a vegetable broth, allowed my husband to add his secret ingredient (psst, a few drops of Angostura bitters) and topped it off with sundried tomatoes, slivers of jalapeno, ribboned sage from the garden, dashes of pepper (red chilli and black) and grated Parmesan.
I am incredibly sad that +Kevin Staff , my long time collaborator in generating science posts on G+ has passed away. Kevin was much too young to leave us. He was an extraordinarily creative artist who specialized in unique styles of gif conversion. Although we never met, I often emailed him with a link to a movie or YouTube video that caught my eye, asking if he could convert it to a gif for a science post. He unfailingly responded with generosity and patience, often redoing them until I was happy. I used to joke that his turnaround time was so rapid that it put pressure on me to write the darn text!
Please join me in celebrating his art and his generous spirit. And in conveying our condolences to his friends and family.
Here is just a small sampling of Kevin's work, there are too many for me to pick favorites:
• My recent junket to South Korea, purportedly on the invitation of the International Plant Biology conference, took me to Jeju Island. Dominated by the central Halla-san volcano, this temperate island has waterfalls plunging into the glittering ocean, skates drying in the wind, and tangerine groves galore. I spotted these geological formations of columnar basalt along the southern coast of Jeju island at Jusangjeolli (주상절리), and at the three-tiered Cheonjeyeon Waterfall.
• Basalt is volcanic rock formed from cooling lava. As thick lava flow cools, it fractures- more easily in the horizontal direction than vertical. This results in columnar basalt, with amazingly regular hexagonal shapes. The slower the cooling, the larger the columns. The ones on Jeju-do were formed between 250,000 and 140,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene period. Another famous example is the Giant’s Causeway of Ireland, where the geometric perfection seems artificial or photoshopped!
Thanks to +Thomas Kang for exhorting me to check these out. HIRL account with Thomas coming up; sorry, no pictures of the Korean spa ;)
Fiddle-de-dee: The male fiddler crab is a fine example of how evolutionary pressure can select an exaggerated physical trait: while one claw is small and used for feeding, the other is grossly enlarged, reaching up to 2/3 of his body weight! The female has symmetrical, small claws. So, does size matter?
✤ Ornament vs. Armament: The large claw of the male fiddler crab is a sexual ornament, like the feathers of a peacock. With it, he waves flirtatiously at the susceptible female, enticing her to his sand burrow. The larger and more conspicuous his claw, the greater his chance at mating success. It is also an effective weapon, used to threaten and wage battles with competing males. But these are competing demands: large and light claws may be waved at lower energy costs, whereas heavy claws with powerful muscles are better in fights. Studies show that claws evolved to optimize fitness in both mating and fighting (REF: http://goo.gl/n00sZa)
✤ Keeping Up Appearances: In a study performed upon a beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania, scientists tethered a female crab by super-glueing a thread to her carapace and anchoring it to a spike in the sand. If she was viewed by a solo male, a friendly waving at a leisurely pace of 11.5 waves/min ensued. But in the presence of male competition, his waving became more urgent, at 16.5 waves/min! (REF: http://goo.gl/ME1wW5). Watch this little guy seemingly inspired by the Village People :) YMCA crab dance with music
✤ Honesty is Not the Best Policy: When a male fiddler loses his major claw, he regenerates a new one of similar size but much weaker fighting ability. Studies have shown that the male can bluff his way through fights with the weaker claw, in a form of dishonest signaling. This unfair advantage presumably makes up for the costs of claw regeneration. (REF: http://goo.gl/OQNfB7)
✤ A Cool Tool: If you think you now know all there is about the fiddler crab claw, consider this. Scientists measured body temperature of fiddler crabs subjected to a heat lamp and showed that the large claw actually acts as a heat sink, allowing the male to cool off more quickly with it. On a hot beach, this advantage may help offset the high energy costs of his exaggerated "male ornament". (REF: http://goo.gl/EpxrUq )
Gordon Research Conference, Les Diablerets: In the late 1920's, the Chemistry department at Johns Hopkins, pioneered by Neil Gordon, held a series of summer conferences. Located off site on Gibson island, Maryland, these unique conferences tackled "frontier topics" with animated discussions in an intimate environment.
• Wildly successful, the Gordon conferences now encompass hundreds of topics in pure and applied sciences. Talks are "off the record" to encourage communication of unpublished data. Nobel laureates rub shoulders with graduate students. Locations are remote and typically quite spartan (New England prep schools are a favorite!). Wifi is usually spotty. Afternoons are free for hiking and exploration, but the science schedule is intense and grueling: see http://www.grc.org/programs.aspx?year=2012&program=membtransp . The conference covered membrane transport proteins from plants to neuroscience, structure to mechanism and disease. I was elected Chair of the 2016 conference, so wish me luck with fund raising!
• I hope you enjoy my photos of the Swiss Alps in lieu of my usual #sciencesunday post. I wish I had my camera when a cat walked in on the talks, jumped on to the podium and watched the laser pointer intently for the next half hour! That would have been great for Caturday :)
THE FASTEST FLIGHT IN NATURE: Set to the joyful crescendo of Verdi’s Anvil Chorus.
• High-Speed Spore Discharge Mechanisms among Fungi: The fungus Pilobolus kleinii, lives a shitty life. Literally growing on dung, it must fling its spores as far out as possible to land on fresh grass where it can get eaten by a herbivore to complete its life cycle.
• Researchers used ultra-high-speed video cameras running at maximum frame rates of 250,000 fps to analyze the launch process. Launch speeds ranged from 2 to 25 m s−1 and corresponding accelerations of 20,000 to 180,000 g propelled spores over distances of up to 2.5 meters.
• Squirt Guns: Spores sit atop long fluid filled stalks that are pressurized by osmosis. Hydrostatic pressure was generated by the combined osmolality of sugar alcohols and inorganic ions. Up to 100 mM of these osmolytes generate a turgor pressure of0.44 MPa or 4.4 atm. These are not unusual pressures for fungi, but the remarkable engineering ensures controlled and rapid rupture of the pressurized squirt guns that allow the nearly instantaneous release of energy and discharge of the spores.
• This video shows a montage of the fungus's amazing launches set to Verdi's Anvil Chorus.
☼ A quadriplegic woman, paralyzed from the neck down from a neurodegenerative disorder, was able to feed herself chocolate and give high-fives thanks to the most sophisticated prosthetic arm yet, with 7 degrees of freedom. Within the second day of training, she was able to perform basic tasks, with a 92% success rate of controlling the robotic arm. This study is the first to demonstrate feasibility of human brain implants to control an external device .
☼ Brain-Machine Interfaces convert brain signals into movement. The researchers first mapped the signals generated in the patient's brain when she thought of moving her arm and programmed the response of the prosthetic arm accordingly. Two small computer 4mm chips were implanted into the patient’s left motor cortex. The chips were 96 channel microchips designed to detect and record small electrical potentials that motor cortex brain cells produce when executing a movement. "The result is a prosthetic hand, which can be moved far more accurately and naturalistically than previous efforts."
☼ Future Scenarios include tactile feedback using sensors to feed into the patient's sensory cortex, wireless communication, and possibly activation of the patient's own muscles with implants.
Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett (6 January 1946 – 7 July 2006): Founding member of Pink Floyd, and all round "crazy diamond" died on this day after a self-imposed exile in his Cambridge home for more than 30 years. Syd only recorded four singles with Pink Floyd, the band's debut album (Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and contributed to A Saucerful of Secrets. Octopus is his solo single, recorded in 1969.
• Palynology is the study of pollen and spores. Pollen grains have characteristic patterns of ridges, spines, and knobs that are so diverse that plants can be identified by the appearance of their pollen. Pollen is used as a tool in forensic palynology to trace activity at mass graves in Bosnia, catch a burglar who brushed against a Hypericum bush at the crime scene, and has even been proposed as an additive to track bullets.
• Pollination in the words of Emily Dickinson: "Come slowly—Eden Lips unused to Thee— Bashful—sip thy Jessamines As the fainting Bee— Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums— Counts his nectars— Enters—and is lost in Balms."
Viral Payload: A rhabdovirus may be 150,000 times smaller than a 9 mm bullet, but it is just as deadly. A single strand of RNA self-assembles with a helical array of proteins, viewed in this 3D animation set to Mozart's piano sonata in C-Major http://goo.gl/sRiwx. These viruses infect both plants and animals, and include the rabies causing virus that is transmitted to humans by bites. Watch a 3D model of a Rabies virus: http://goo.gl/z3Qx1
Silver Bullet? Researchers hope to exploit the cell-invading ability of viruses to destroy cancer cells. One favorite is the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) that infects horses and cattle, but causes only mild flu like symptoms in humans. Genetically crippled ("attenuated") forms of VSV are safer to use and preferentially infect cancer cells by exploiting their altered signaling pathways. These oncolytic viruses hold the promise of a self-replicating biotherapy.
Image: Cryo-electron microscope image of a rhabdovirus. Ref: Self-organization of the vesicular stomatitis virus nucleocapsid into a bullet shape. Desfosses et al., 2013 Nat. Commun . http://goo.gl/xULA0
Living Photonic Crystals: These scanning electron microscope images of tiny diatoms have been digitally colored. But in real life, their glass-like skeletons have a special property of interfering with light waves, reflecting light in different colors depending on the viewer's angle, much like an oil slick on water. This is because the array of tiny holes studding the diatom surface match the wavelength of visible light and behave as photonic crystals.
• Photonic crystals are optical nanostructures which affect the path of photons just as semiconductors affect electrons. They have periodic (repeating) changes in dielectric constant. Photons pass through this structure - or not - depending on their wavelength. The repeating pattern of solid and water filled holes on diatoms make them natural photonic crystals.
• Diatoms could be used to make iridescent cosmetics, paints and fabrics and even credit card holograms. They are cost-effective and biodegradable. Up to 1 tonne of diatoms can be made per day, starting with only a few cells. Diatoms are microscopic, photosynthesizing single celled microorganisms. Did you know that they produce a quarter of the oxygen that we breathe?
RESHARE: Asking for Help: If you have experience with Bi-Polar Disorder or know of someone who can help, could you please contact our friend Greg? Please get the word out. Thanks so much.
Reshared text: G+ and Glia Community We Need Your Help
This is a challenging post to write. My brother, +Brad Esau , suffers immensely from Bi-Polar disorder. The 'traditional' pharmaceutical approach is slowly killing him. We need to find a different approach, and a different approach very soon.
Here is what I am asking and proposing. Brad needs a support community, a circle of professionals and fellow BP suffers that he can connect to here in G+. I know that there is a vast wealth of resources here, and much better alternatives than the drugs he is now on.
If any of you could help us connect to the kind of professionals, or those who have deep experience, or anybody that can understand, or support, or connect to Brad in a meaningful way, this would be fantastic.
Brad, while not desperate, is in dire need of radical change. He has gone off much of his medication, which means he will be hospitalized within a week. He is doing this because he cannot continue living as he has, like a walking zombie full of drugs. He will tell his story here in time, but we need to find the right circle of people he can share that story with.
I hope you can help us. Thank you so much in advance
● The vermiform appendix is the poster child of vestigial organs leading to the joke that, "Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession." Like the wings of an ostrich or the eyes of the blind cave-dwelling catfish, the appendix no longer supports the function that it was designed to do: digest tough cell walls of plants. In herbivores, this function resides in the caecum, an off shoot of the large intestine, that houses symbiotic bacteria, producing enzymes (cellulases) by fermentation. Did you know that in the koala, the caecum is longer than the animal itself?! But, as Darwin noted, in hominids -apes and humans, the switch from a leafy to predominantly fruit diet made the caecum redundant and eventually, it degenerated into the finger-like appendix. Although we still eat plants, our vestigial organ does not house enough cellulase-secreting bacteria to digest more than a few grams of cellulose per day.
● So why do we still have an appendix? It is notoriously prone to infection, commonly in children 8-13 years old. Before modern surgical methods, acute appendicitis was often fatal. What a poor design! But there is evidence that the appendix has useful functions. Like the tonsils, the appendix houses lymphoid tissue, or white cells, important for immunity. It has been compared to a "safe house", lodging beneficial bacteria that can repopulate our gut after an infection wipes out existing microbial flora.
● A new study by a group at Duke University has concluded that the appendix has arisen independently more than 30 times in the evolution of mammals. By plotting diet on the evolutionary tree of mammals, researchers found that the appearance of the appendix did not correlate with a change away from herbivorous diets. Species with an appendix were scattered so widely on the evolutionary tree that they concluded that the appendix evolved separately along distinct branches. Also, they found that the larger the caecum, the larger the appendix: opposite to what one would expect for a vestigial remnant of the caecum. But naysayers argue, if it is so useful, why don't all mammals have an appendix? We'll have to wait until Science adds another Chapter to the Appendix!
Ref: Multiple independent appearances of the cecal appendix in mammalian evolution and an investigation of related ecological and anatomical factors. Smith et al. (2013) http://goo.gl/zJyviw
Counterpoint: The vestigiality of the human vermiform appendix. A modern reappraisal. http://goo.gl/v9Qvm0
☼ Pictures from my spring garden (and bunny!), although we have leap-frogged into summer. The iris and azalea I shared last spring are not out yet ▶ http://goo.gl/sMmFU
"Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream Upon the silver lake or crystal stream; But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth, And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee. Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring In triumph to the world the youthful spring. The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May".
Blowing in the Wind: Ever wonder how a pollinating insect clings to flower petals even in the face of a stiff wind? A close look would show their feet firmly grasped by velcro like surface of conical cells (left image). Since the cells are about the same size as the tiny claws on bees' feet, the claws slide in between the cones for a tight grip. This special doormat is only found in flower petals and nowhere else on the plant.
• University of Cambridge scientist Beverly Glover offered bees Petunias either with conical cells on their petals, or a mutant flat variety. At first, the bees showed only a slight preference for the flowers with conical cells. But when she simulated a wind by placing the flowers on a laboratory shaker (nicely covered in green tissue paper, right image), the bees clearly preferred the conical cells. Even if they had a choice of preferred color (they like the lighter Petunias better), they chose the grippy petals. This is an extraordinarily subtle interaction between a flower and pollinator!
• Why is it that some 20% of flowers (tulips, magnolias, lilies) have smooth, flat petals? Scientists speculate this may be because they are pollinated by hummingbirds or hovering insects that have no use for the sticky landing pad.
REF: Alcorn, K., Whitney, H., & Glover, B. (2012). Flower movement increases pollinator preference for flowers with better grip Functional Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2012.02009.x
THE VISIBLE HUMAN: a complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional scan of the male and female human body.
How was this done? The male cadaver was frozen in gelatin and cut horizontally at 1 mm intervals into 1,871 slices and photographed to give 65 GB of high resolution images. The female was cut at 0.3 mm intervals resulting in ~40 GB of data. In addition, the bodies were scanned by CT (computer assisted tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
If that wasn’t macabre enough: Both bodies were donated to science but because the donors did not know their specific use and the male died by lethal injection, ethical issues have been raised. Also, these are not perfect bodies. The male lacks one testicle. The female shows signs of cardiovascular disease.
✿ My postdoctoral advisor, Carolyn Slayman, could strike fear into us by the deceptively mild statement..”Wouldn’t it be nice..?” We all knew what that meant. At least another couple of months of experiments, if we were lucky. Twenty years later, I will confess to pumping up science. Just when my lab folk think they have a story neatly wrapped up, topped with a colorful title and shiny journal to target, I have no qualms in raising the bar on expectations up another notch. It’s the same with recipes. Who can resist the urge to dress up a nice but bland sauce, sneak in more spices or fiddle with the fixings? So when a collection of 50 canned pumpkin recipes came my way, I considered it only the start of a culinary excursion.
✿ Take for example, the Pumpkin Alfredo sauce: whisk together a cup each of pumpkin puree and light cream, season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, and heat through. Nice, but surely there’s more? It needed some tang: in went a quick puree of sundried tomatoes in olive oil, with a sparse bunch of rosemary and sage scavenged from my fast fading fall garden. The little specks of deep red and bright green were a lovely addition. What, no vegetables? I folded in roasted florets of cauliflower to the penne with the pumpkin sauce. Topped it with crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. Next time, I might try layering the pumpkin cream with no boil lasagne, fresh mozzarella and something yet to be determined. Consumed before digital capture, this one is worth repeating.
✿ Now that I was on a pumpkin quest, pie loomed on the next horizon. I am not a pie person, however. So I settled for prudence and a recipe on the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree. It sounded easy enough, besides it’s been on the label since 1950! I used my trusty crusty Graham Cracker base and decorated the top with walnut bits and pecan halves (to dress up the wound I made when I tested for doneness!). Although my prudence was rewarded with a perfectly pleasing pumpkin pie, I have a hankering to veer from the straight and narrow next time. Do you have suggestions to pump up my pumpkin pie? How about adding a dash of smoked paprika? Chocolate in the base?
❤ The heart is a symbol of love, and on this Mother's Day, let's consider the cardiovascular changes in a pregnant mother. As the sole provider of nourishment to the baby, the mother's cardiac output (blood volume) increases by 50% during pregnancy...that's an extra liter and half. Her heart will enlarge and beat faster, by about 15 beats/min. The growing fetus pushes her heart upwards and to the left. She will need more red blood cells to carry extra oxygen, although the increased numbers do not keep up with the blood volume. The higher requirement for iron and the dilution of red cells in blood can make mama-to-be tired and anemic.
❤ A pregnant woman is hypercoagulable: more likely to form clots. This is thought to be an evolutionary precaution against hemorrhaging after delivery, but it puts the mother at risk for dangerous embolisms. In scanning electron microscope images of blood smears from non-pregnant and pregnant women, clot-forming platelets were never associated with red cells in non-pregnant women (A) but invariably found attached to red cells through early (B) and late (C) pregnancy and 6-8 week postpartum (D). These platelets developed long processes (pseudopodia) that link the red cells together, making it easier to form clots.
❤ A Biologist's Mother's Day Song Just like two strands of DNA are spirally entwined Your nature and your nurture are inspiringly combined Scientists remind me and I find that it is true Slightly more than half of everything I am is thanks to you
• Tagine. The very word conjured up a magical mirage of Marrakesh and Casablanca, dashing Berbers and belly dancers, hookahs and saffron-laced spicy stews. I gazed at the overpriced albeit charming hand painted glazed clay artifact in the Williams Sonoma store, and in a fit of self-indulgence, bought it. My children were less impressed. “It’s a pot”, explained the world weary, newly minted college graduate. The beatnik teenager sniffed the air hopefully, “Mom bought pot?”
• Online, opinions and advice flew in, fast and furious. You’ll need a heat diffuser for the stove top. Don’t place it in a preheated oven. You have to temper it first. Just use it as a serving dish. The clay will leach heavy metals. Never wash it until completely cooled. Intimidated, but determined, I applied the same (lack of) logic I use to call upon divine spirits to bless our laboratory research. I soaked the tagine overnight, then rubbed in some olive oil, and baked it for an hour despite a strong suspicion that the glazing on the pot made this exercise unnecessary. I sent my husband to the store for some tagine spices. Prudently, he purchased every exotic mix he could find: Harissa, Za’atar, Ras-el-hanout. The aromas were all-too familiar though: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon. “Mom, you’ve been had”, the 14 year old wisely concluded, “It’s Garam Masala”.
• Clean up was a breeze! My husband dug into his plate, saying “Mmm…all it needs is some lamb”. He was assigned dish washing duty for making mischief.
Bromance: Sperm Heads Cluster to Get Ahead. In the race towards fertilization, speed matters. And you thought it was size? Researchers found that sperm of many mammals, including the deer mouse Peromyscus, come supplied with hooks so they can literally put their heads together (see image) and swim faster (127.4 μm s−1 ± 3.8 s.e.m. versus 109.8 μm s−1 ± 3.7 s.e.m.). In rats (Rattus norvegicus) for example, ‘trains’ of up to hundreds of sperm link up and boogie together. Yet, only one sperm can fertilize the egg. There is also a hidden danger to this altruism: contact could accidentally trigger the “acrosome” reaction prematurely, and take the sperm out of running altogether. So why do sperm indulge in this risky behavior?
• Polygamy Rules: Did you know that 95% of all mammals are promiscuous? Humans (mostly!) fall in the 5% minority. It is scandalous but true that the female mouse P. maniculatus will mate with successive males as quickly as one minute apart. Scientists reasoned that sperm clustering within a species or within individual males could give a selective evolutionary advantage. They tested this by labeling sperm from different sources red or green. As seen in the image, kinship prevails: so, sperm of a feather flock together. This distinction was even seen between sperm from siblings! Boringly, human sperm do not cluster.
• It’s in your jeans genes: Given that social amoebae like Dictyostelium can aggregate, scientists believe that simple genetics underlie this interesting behavior. New research shows that genetic differences in the immune system distinguish promiscuous species of mice from closely related monogamous species. Other social behavior, that make some animals loners while others to live in groups, is now being studied. Read more: http://goo.gl/kt1Tg
FRACTAL GIRAFFE: Reminded me of Lamarck's much reviled theory of soft inheritance, or the ability to inherit characteristics acquired in one's lifetime. The classic example was that of a giraffe stretching it's neck to reach the top of an acacia tree, so that with every generation, the neck grew a little longer. Like our fractal giraffe :)
• Although Lamarck's idea was discarded in favor of Mendelian genetics ("natural selection"), inheritance of acquired traits is now supported by the branch of epigenetics. DNA can be chemically modified ("methylation") to alter the expression of genes, and not only is this process influenced by our environment, we can even pass it on to our offspring.
• The famous example is of human populations who experience starvation and pass altered gene function to their children. An isolated community in northern Sweden went through several famine and feast cycles in the past century. Combing through detailed records, it was found that kids who went from normal eating to gluttony in a single season produced sons and grandsons who lived an average of at least six years less. So the choices you make in your lifetime will leave a genetic imprint!
• Clockwork Orange: Like clockwork, each fall millions of fragile monarch butterflies from northeastern America journey 4000 km to a small area of central Mexico, to winter amidst the sacred fir groves. In the spring, the butterflies mate and begin their fluttering journey back north.While individual butterflies complete the southward journey, a succession of short lived generations make their way back north.
• Treasure trove of Navigation:This marathon is unparalleled in the insect world and approaches the sophistication of vertebrate animals, like birds. Yet, the brain of a monarch butterfly is no larger than a pinhead! They cannot learn this behavior because migrant butterflies are separated by at least two non-migrant generations. So how do they do it?
• Built in GPS: Butterflies use the sun as compass. As the sun moves east to west over the course of the day, they use an internal circadian clock to make adjustments. The clock resides in their antennae and in the brain. (If the antennae are dissected out, they continue to show cyclical changes that can be entrained to light.) Special cryptochrome proteins control these cycles. They also use magnetic fields for navigation: magnetite (iron oxide particles) that may sense magnetic fields have been found in butterflies, or they may use “light-dependent magnetoreception”.
• Genome for a King: Recently, the genome of the monarch butterfly was completely sequenced, revealing 16,866 genes spread out over 273 megabases of DNA. Genetic regulation pauses the reproduction of migrating monarchs, greatly increases life span, abdominal fat stores, cold tolerance and wanderlust! Despite being the same species, interim generations do not make the long trip. A subset of regulatory molecules (microRNAs), buried in the genetic map, are expressed differently in migratory monarchs relative to the nonimmigrant generations.
• Milkweed Specialization: Larvae feed exclusively on poisonous milkweed (Asclepias) which contain cardioactive glycosides (used to treat heart failure). The chemicals inhibit the sodium pump found in all animal cell membranes but monarch butterflies are resistant because they carry two mutations in the drug binding site of the pump. This makes them highly unpalatable to predators and lets them flaunt their gaudy colors with impunity!
• ... try, try, try again. ~William Hickson • ....do it like your mother told you. ~Author Unknown • ....destroy all evidence that you tried. ~ Steven Wright • ....then skydiving definitely isn't for you. ~Steven Wright • ... find out if the loser gets anything. ~Bill Lyon • ....before you try again, stop to figure out what you did wrong. ~Leo Rosten • ....redefine success. ~Author unknown. • ....failure may be your style.~Author unknown. • ....try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it. ~W. C. Fields
Source: Photographer Christopher Tomas captured this shot of a Qantas Dash 8 plane flying across the surface of the moon after many, many tries. No tricks, no Photoshop.
Connection-Junction: The Synapse. It’s all about networking. Synapses connect nerve cells to each other, or to muscles and glands.
• The word synapse is derived from the Greek syn (together) and haptein (to clasp).
• There are an estimated 100-500 trillion (that’s 10^14) synapses in the human brain.
• The space (synaptic cleft) at the junction is narrow, only 20 nanometers wide.
• Messages travel down the nerve fiber in the form of an electric pulse known as the action potential. When they get to the synaptic terminal, these messages must be converted to a chemical signal that crosses the narrow cleft (within microseconds) to trigger a new electrical signal at the connecting nerve or muscle cell. The chemical signal is the neurotransmitter (glycine, acetylcholine, etc.).
• These chemicals are packaged into small vesicles that lie just under the nerve membrane, docked and ready to fuse. When the action potential arrives, the vesicles execute a quick “kiss and run” to release the neurotransmitter into the cleft.
• Here is a beautiful scanning electron microscope image of a nerve ending in which the membrane has been sheared away, revealing hundreds of spherical vesicles ready to release their neurotransmitter cargo into the synaptic cleft.
• Synapses are targets for hundreds of toxins, psychoactive drugs and poisons including curare, cocaine, LSD and morphine. Botox is a formulation of botulinus toxin, and works by cleaving the proteins that allow the vesicles to fuse. By blocking neurotransmitter release, the nerve cannot signal the muscle to contract. Voila, no wrinkles!
Hoysala Temples: Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Hoysala kings in southern India built distinctive temples characterized by a star shaped base built up with a complex profusion of images intricately carved from soapstone (chloritic schist) running in parallel lines along zig-zag walls.
We first visited Halebid, in the Hassan district of Karnataka. After this ancient city was sacked twice by the Delhi sultanate, the capital was moved to Belur where the carvings appeared even finer in detail. One dancing figure has a bangle that moves up her arm. My favorite is the figure of Arjuna, the Pandava prince, aiming an arrow accurately into the eye of a spinning fish overhead, by looking into its reflection in a pool of water -my son's name is Arjun :) The big Nandi, or bull, is carved out of a single stone. The temples have been proposed to be UNESCO heritage sites..I'm surprised that they are not already.
FRIDAY FUNNIES: SCIENCE MYTHS : Why do novelists, filmmakers and newspaper journalists get science so wrong? Perhaps, scientists don't communicate too well. Writing for Science, Adam Ruben imagines this conversation:
MICHAEL CRICHTON: What if mosquitoes drank dinosaur blood before being encased in amber? Would it theoretically be possible to extract that blood and clone dinosaurs from the DNA? A SCIENTIST: No. MICHAEL CRICHTON: So, yes?
Perhaps, the truth had better not be told? :P Myth: Scientists follow the scientific method as it was taught in high school: Observation, Question, Research, Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion . Truth: In reality, the way scientists work is more like: Fiddle Around, Find Something Weird, Retest It, It Doesn’t Happen a Second Time, Get Distracted Trying to Make It Happen Again, Go to Chipotle, Recall the Original Purpose of Your Research, Start Over, Apply for Funding for a Better Instrument, Publish Some Interim Fluff, Learn That Someone Has Scooped You, Take Your Lab in a New Direction, Apply for Funding for the New Direction, Collaborate With an Icelandic Poet, Eat Chipotle With an Icelandic Poet, Co-Write Scientifically Accurate Ode to Walrus, Get Interested in Something Unrelated, Apply for Funding for Something Unrelated, Notice That 20 Years Have Passed.
Any Icelandic Poets out there? Madame Scientist would love to collaborate.