Friday, June 28, 2013

This Week's Sci-light

"Nature is far more imaginative than we are.

Stamatios M. Krimigis, scientist at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Image obtained from NASA 2002 shows one of twin Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977.

  "We were planning, and it really paid off."

Dr. Edward C. Stone, NASA 

These quotes seemingly contradict each other and yet are offered by fellow scientists following a 35-year project into our solar system and hoping the beyond. 

Voyager spacecrafts (there were two) were launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  Today, both crafts are still going with key instruments on board still functional.  Voyager 1 traveling at 38,000 miles per hour is reaching the outermost boundaries of the solar system, the last frontier for the empire of our Sun (heliosphere), as called by NY Times writer Kenneth Chang in his article Going, Going, Still Going?  Voyager 1 at Solar System's Edge.

Scientists expected that two things would happen once the Voyager 1 reached the heliopause, the actual boundary of the solar system.  First they anticipated that the solar wind would cease--a stream of charged particles blown out by the sun.  The second sign of the solar system's edge would be a shift in the magnetic field.

As I was reading the story told by the data sent back from Voyager 1, I realized two things--how much we know and how much we are surprised by what we didn't know.  To think that scientists from the 1970's could have built instruments to survive in space for 35 years and counting, far longer than they anticipated, is amazing.  Those instruments are collecting data that we are using to expand our understanding.  And as the article explains, those instruments are recording data that we never anticipated.  

So, both quotes by the scientists involved in various parts of this process are descriptive of the process of science and, in a larger sense, the process of life.  Planning and amazement are all part of the act of living.  

Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best, 

"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination."


Friday, June 21, 2013

This Week's Sci-light

Photo courtesy of Don Arnold
If you've been following this blog, you may wonder if I'm becoming obsessed with glowing green.  If you're confused, scroll down to last week's Sci-light and you'll understand.  I'm not going to ask you what you see.  I'll just tell you instead--this is a neuron actively engaged in making memories.

Let's consider the picture.  The large yellow and green sphere is a brain cell called a neuron.  From it you see branches stretching out called dendrites.  Signals pass between neurons by electrochemicals that pass between the dendrites at junctions called synapses.  So what are the small bright spots?  They are the synapses that excite as electrochemical signals pass between the dendrites.  What Drs. Arnold and Roberts observe is the change of those spots that indicate how "synaptic structures in the brain have been altered by the new data," according to author Robert Perkins.

Scientists Don Arnold and Richard Roberts at the University of Southern California have been researching how memories form in our brains using mice as model organisms.  Robert Perkins author of "Memories Illuminated", describes how "the team has engineered microscopic probes that light up synapses in a living neuron in real time by attaching fluorescent markers onto synaptic proteins."  This process doesn't inhibit the cell's ability to function; it does enable the scientist to observe the physical changes in the brain.

The article goes on to talk about how the proteins that fluoresce are selected and used as well as the implications of this research for the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. 

This Sci-light is almost a memory and I can now imagine my synapses firing away and altering the synaptic structures of my brain.  What about yours?  My guess is that you, too, are restructuring.  After all, you're Sci-Curious!

Friday, June 14, 2013

This Week's Sci-light


Ryoko Ando and Atsushi Miyawaki

I started with this picture by by Dr. Ando and Dr. Miyawaki to get you curious.  What is this?  In some ways it looks like a beetle to me--those kind that have brown colored stripes on their body and show up when you're playing in the dirt.  Of course, it's not.  Rather, pictured is a transverse section of a muscle in a fresh water eel with a activated protein that is glowing green.

Let me explain.  In the article, "An eel's glow could illuminate liver disease," Rachel Ehrenberg describes the discovery of the scientists working for the RIKEN research institute in Japan.  They were trying to understand the mechanism that turned on the protein in the eel and it's importance.  

Let's switch gears for a minute.  When hemoglobin in human red blood cells breaks down it produces bilirubin.  Perhaps you've had a blood test done where this was measured and was reported to you along with your cholesterol, triglycerides, and potassium levels.  What you may not have understood is that bilirubin levels indicate liver function.  Why?  It's part of the liver's job to keep those levels in normal ranges.  

What scientists at the RIKEN research institute discovered was bilirubin had the ability to turn on the protein causing the eel to glow.  While the application to human health is still a ways off, it's not hard to imagine a use for this protein to indicate an increase of bilirubin in a blood sample. 

Before you click on the link to the article to understand more about this discovery and perhaps even read the scholarly article linked to the bottom of the webpage, I want to focus your attention on the cross over from fundamental questions (what turns on the protein) to applied science (liver functioning).  For this to take place, scientists from different disciplines collaborate.  

One more thing before you go, in looking for today's Sci-light, I stumbled across an NIH sponsored site called, "Team Science Toolkit."  The opening paragraph of What is Team Science states, "Team science is a collaborative effort to address a scientific challenge that leverages the strengths and expertise of professionals trained in different fields. Although traditional single-investigator driven approaches are ideal for many scientific endeavors, coordinated teams of investigators with diverse skills and knowledge may be especially helpful for studies of complex social problems with multiple causes."

Learning across disciplines and working collaboratively is the path of many scientists.  Don't you want to be a part of the team?

Friday, June 7, 2013

This Week's Sci-light

I must confess, this week's Sci-light made me do a double take.  Gold as a delivery mechanism for medicine or as the article put it 'drug-delivery vehicle?'  I'm curious.

First, look at this picture.  These are gold nanoparticles.  To refresh, nanoparticles are 10-9 in size.  Another way of saying it--there are 1,000,000 nanometers in 1 millimeter.  What's this size in the natural world?  The width of a strand of DNA is 2.5 nanometers according to The International Society for Optical Engineering. (link downloads a poster)
But let's get back to the concept of 'drug-delivery vehicles.'  A team of scientists from the Institut Laue-Langevin in France, the University of Chicago in the US and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization have been working on how gold nanoparticles affect the cell membrane and possible biomedical applications. 

What have they discovered?  Author Belle Dume tells us in her article, "Positive or negative?  Nanoparticle surface charge affects cell membrane interactions" that "positively charged particles can penetrate deep into cell membranes while negatively charged particles do not enter the cell wall at all, but instead prevent it breaking down under certain conditions."  That means that positively charged gold nanoparticles can get inside the cell membrane--the cell's powerful line of defense. -->

Curious?  Good!  That's what this blog is suppose to encourage.  Click the link and learn more. 

Just a closing thought.  What we understand about our world takes us both to macro level and the micro level of discovery.  Where do you want to discover!?!