Thursday, December 18, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

As I close out the year and enjoy some great food, long-time friends, and family gatherings, I wanted to share one last post with you.  Surprisingly, it is an interdisciplinary look at a holiday classic--peppermint--with a USC twist (no pun intended).

The video below covers peppermint in art, history, neurobiology, botany and more all highlighting different facts, discoveries and applications in the marketplace.  Frequently, on Sci-Curious, I remind you that the world is a very big place, with many perspectives.  The environment provides so much to enjoy and to spark our curiousity.  We only have to engage in the wonder and details of it all to satisfy the child-like thirst for new experiences we can explore.

So as you enter this time of year, try to see it from a new perspective and engage your mind in the questions or details that you notice.  See it today, not through the lens of the past or the future.  Rather notice what it is.  Then follow the nuances that you have never seen before.  This may indeed be the way that professors from the University of Southern California initiated their study of the many facets of peppermint.
USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences

Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and stay Sci-Curious!

Friday, December 5, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Image credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
Not many weeks ago, I blogged about a probe that landed on a comet and sent footage to Earth.  While that probe sits in the dark unable to recharge its batteries, we, still benefiting from the sun's rays, consider a larger subject--the universe.  Centuries of humans have stared into space marveling at the stars, the moon or distant planets.

European, US and Canadian scientists looked together into space using Planck (European Space Agency mission) instruments to measure the oldest light in our universe.   What they discovered was unexpected--the universe is older than they thought by 100 million years at 13.8 billion year old.

One of the US scientists participating in the project, Charles Lawrence from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, "As that ancient light travels to us, matter acts like an obstacle course getting in its way and changing the patterns slightly. "

A map of a patch of sky showing the temperature and polarization of microwave radiation emitted by dust swirling in the magnetic field of the Milky Way. Credit European Space Agency
Many links, photos, and videos on the project are housed on the NASA site and a new analysis outlined in the New York Times,  New Images Refine View of Infant Universe, by Dennis Overbye gives the vital statistics of the universe at birth--in essence the universe's baby picture. 

Fascinating how pictures of the universe can capture our imagination and fill us with awe like the ancients watching a flaming comet speed across the sky.  Whether your curiosity guides you to study the universe or the depths of the ocean or perhaps the intricacies of cell biology, human problem solving skills guided by inquiry and diverse perspectives are essential.  But not only in the field of science.  We need their application in our daily lives to inform how we see each other--we all matter.   So stay Sci-Curious and be continually surprise by what you'll learn and how you'll grow!
Credit: Walter Miles

Friday, November 21, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

I've often said to students that scientific knowledging is expanding by looking at smaller and smaller scales while at the same time considering larger, more expansive questions.  Last week's blog about the probe landing on a comet was an example of a larger question being investigated through technology off-planet.  Today, we will focus the opposite direction by considering a biochemical process at the cellular level exploited by cancer.

Assistant Professor, Matthew Pratt, USC (USC/Susan Bell)
Dr. Pratt has received funding for studying the process of glycosylation or the modification of proteins by sugars.  This process is linked to glycolysis--how the body breaks down sugars that provide fuel to the cell.

What we know:  Cancer cells have found a way to live under extreme oxidative stress, they can slow down glycosylation, and they can turn off the cellular "self-destruct" switch to extend their life. 

What Dr. Pratt hopes to discover:  How to interrupt this process through biochemical mechanisms and potentially block their success.

Today's blog not only shows the fine scales of scientific investigation, but it also illustrates the process by which new knowledge is generated.  If you'd like to be a part of new knowledge generation, consider participating in a hands-on science course or lab research.  Being a student of science is not simply learning what we already know, but finding ways to participate in the discovery process.

Where should you explore such opportunities?  Try the Institute for Broadening Participation's web site.  Select your appropriate educational cohort and then search by topic, institution or browse by geographic region.  Many of these programs are offered free of charge and provide financial support for you to participate.

Whether studying processes close to home or across the expanse of the universe, 
remember to stay Sci-Curious!

Friday, November 14, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Some radio data suggests the probe 
may be about 1km from the intended landing site
The European Space Agency (Esa) launched the Rosetta satellite in 2004 hoping to learn more about the origins of our Solar System by landing a probe on a comet.  Ten years, 4 billion miles later their probe, Philae, landed on the icy comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

I was on my way to work when the signal from the probe finally reached the scientists at the agency and saw their faces beam as the relief and ecstasy of success flooded their bodies.  A well earned moment in all of their struggles. 

Now according to the BBC News in an article entitled Battery will limit life of Philae comet lander the agency is concerned about the small number of hours that the probe will receive light from the sun--a mere 1.5 hours out of every 12 hours of the comet's rotation.  Because the batteries will not top off their charge, the primary charge on them will diminish.  A new article, Comet lander:  Future of Philae probe 'uncertain', reports that the probe has drilled into the comet's surface and that scientists fear that the signal may not reach earth due to the batteries shortened life.

Body fluids and poor sanitation in and around homes in Monrovia 
make caring for relatives with Ebola perilous for families.  
Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
For some, the questions of life's origin or problems concerning a remote probe named Philae are so far removed from life's struggles that they may seem irrelevant.  I read a story today in the New York Times by Norimitsu Onishi, "For a Liberian Family, Ebola Turns Loving Care Into Deadly Risk"  about a family in Liberia destroyed by Ebola, the virus affecting West Africa.  People died in this story which was tragic, but it was the way it happened that was heart breaking.  Without facilities, training, information, medical care, supplies or help, families, the foundational institution of all of humanity, bear the horror. 

Life presents many challenges and circumstances.  Science plays a role in sparking our imaginations and in helping those we love.  As you live and learn, think on this--there is one planet we all call home.  It's the place that Philae sends the signal to help us understand what lies beyond.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Last week's blog focused on undergraduate opportunities for doing science through programs offered across the country.  This week, I want to shift to another group of students who are looking for ways to engage in learning by doing--high school students.  I'm on a list serve that focuses on Marine Science education and a question was posed about what students could do this coming summer.  It seemed that a blog was a good way to spread the word and to stir up some ideas for this next summer.
Credit:  Boston College

I'll begin by highlighting an NSF (National Science Foundation) and STEM Garden Institute funded project that teaches students about science, business, communication, customer service and energy through the growing and selling of vegetables.  Boston College Professor Mike Barrett got high school students involved in hydrofarming through hydroponics (the process of growing food with nutrient-rich water instead of soil in a green house) and then selling the food at a local farmers market.  Why?  Because when students engage in science as such an action, they are taking part in an emerging market that blends scientific knowledge, business savvy, alternative energy applications, healthy food choices, and local, urban food production and realizing that science is not only relevant but available to them as a career choice.

Banner for LA Maker Space web page
Jumping coasts, I want to shift to citizen science or involving people in scientific questions.  "LA Maker Space is a non-profit, family-friendly, community-driven organization committed to exploring new ideas in a creative, collaborative environment, always exploring the age-old idea of the community coming together to explore, create, invent, and learn."  To be involved, you can organize a workshop, participate in a project, develop a project, donate, or volunteer.  The space facilitates the gathering of a community of people who are curious and actively seeking to share their ideas and expertise with students and adults. 

There are also many projects, camps or activities that students can participate in during the summer.  I'm going to highlight a few, but first I want to mention Pathways to Science, a national clearinghouse of programs for K-8, high school, K-12 teachers, undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctorals/early career scientists, faculty and administration and science centers or partnerships.  While many programs have not yet listed their upcoming summer activities, there past program descriptions can provide potential details.

C-DEBI HS Camp (L. Chilton)
The Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations funded by NSF sponsors a 1 week marine science camp for high school students on Catalina Island, CA (20 miles off the coast of LA) in the summer teaching through hands-on activities.  We pay travel, room and board and for all activities. 

Summer camp Deep Green Wilderness programs are explore different parts of the Salish Sea (coastal waterways between the southwestern tip of Canada and the northwestern tip of the US) on board a sailboat. Scholarships are available.

The Lawrence Hall of Science offers a residential marine biology camp in the summer for high school students, anticipated dates are June 13-18th, 2015. It is held at Bodega Marine Labs (UC Davis).

The Center for STEM Education at Bradley University lists both local and national summer opportunities in medicine, NASA, engineering, and chemistry.
California MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Academy) School Programs reach middle and high school students with STEM activities, study skills, college campus visits and more.

Whether you're an educator, parent, sibling or high school student, this blog was meant to spark your imagination.  What are you interested in?  How can you engage yourself, your family, your students in the intersection of science and life?  How can you be, Sci-Curious!?!

Friday, October 24, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

I'm blogging!  For those of you who read last week's blog, my microchange is working (confused...last weeks blog will clarify!).

Today's post features Science 360, a site showing funded National Science Foundation research that will be sure to engage the Sci-Curious!  The site is packed with information and contagious excitement.  The daily highlights include a video, a news story, a picture of the day, science radio, headlines, and featured articles from journals like Science.

I'm going to pick my personal favorite for today that features a brain in a dish (their words, not mine) as it is an example of how knowledge from one discipline in science is creatively applied in another.  First, skin cells from an individual are taken and chemically coaxed into stem cells that another set of chemicals develop into neurons.  As if this were not imaginative enough, the scientists wanted to "watch" the brain cells fire. 

Can you think of how this was done?  Environmental microbiology is key to this process.  A gene from bacteria that makes a light-sensitive protein is given to the neurons so that when the cells fire, they fluoresce.  Scientists such as Dr. Adam Cohen of Harvard University can film the neurons at up to 100,000 frames a second and distill their patterns and pathways.

If nothing I've said so far has made you curious, allow me to close with some topics from today's home page that may catch your attention:  Can general anesthesia trigger dementia?  Peering through the sun at the Halloween monster sun spot.  Researchers break through nano barrier to engineer the first protein microfiber.  And the picture of the day--Blue footed boobies. 

It seems I've found a great place to remain Sci-Curious!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Of Blogging, Wolves, and Conferences!

I've been away from blogging for a while, and I must say I miss it!  Perhaps you've missed it, too.  I certainly hope so!

In catching up, I wanted to highlight a session that I am co-chairing for the 2014 SACNAS National Conference "Creativity, Vision and Drive: Toward Full Representation in STEM" to be held October 16-18, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  Before you read any further, watch this 4 minute video.

A trophic cascade is a change at the top of the ecological system that causes many changes throughout the system.  The session, "The Power of Microactions:  Active Preparation for Advanced Degrees" is similar--looking at the impact of small scale changes on larger scale outcomes.

An article, Evidence-Based (Simple but Effective) Advice for College Students:  Microaction and Macrochange prompted the session.  According to the author, Dr. Sung Hee Kim, individuals struggle to make the changes they desire in part because they aim too high.  What you need is a significant, doable change that can be incorporated into your lifestyle on a daily basis.  For example, if you want to walk more, commit to parking in the back of the parking lot instead of the closest space.  The benefits most immediately--you're not fighting for a space and more steps for your wristband pedometer--and in the longer term--walking may improve your body's overall health!  

The real strength in a microchange is that it becomes habit with minimal effort, and it allows macrochange in the longer term.

Sci-curious?  Here's a few suggestions for your classroom experience.   
  • Keep a planner
  • Bring both a pen and a highlighter to class
  • Exchange emails with someone in your class
  • Get on a list serve for interships, research experiences or jobs
  • Say thank you to the professor when you leave class
Having long-term goals is key to success, but microaction enables you to take the small steps needed to reach those goals.  Here's a small step for me--I'm on several list serves that send me science news.  Let's see if that can prompt me to blog every Friday!   

Stay Sci-Curious!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Computer generated image of human chromosomes
Source: Guardian Liberty Voice

Since the sequencing of the human genome, the regions known to be protein coding have been steadily decreasing. When Craig Venter first sequenced the human genome in 2001, it was estimated that there were anywhere from 26,000-30,000 protein coding genes. Recent data from seven different studies, including tests carried out by the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, suggests otherwise. As summarized in the article Human Gene Set Shrinks Again by Jyoti Madhusoodanan, the number of predicted coding genes has decreased by 17,000 making the overall number of protein coding genes 19,000! This discovery is especially astonishing because it reveals how little we understand about the human genome - an area worth investigating further.

These stunning results were gathered from proteomic experiments - experiments designed to look at the entire set of proteins being expressed - from 50 different tissue samples. From looking at the expressed proteins, researchers were able to better estimate how many protein coding genes exist in the human genome. Scientists then compared the human coding region genome to other animals. As reported in an article titled Human Genome Found to have Fewer Genes Again by Margaret Lutze, no proteins were identified that differentiated humans from primates. Additionally, co-author of the study David Juan stated "the number of new genes that separate humans from mice [those genes that have evolved since the split from primates] may even be fewer than ten."

If this has got you sci-curious, click the link to see how many genes humans have compared to worms, you may be surprised!

Written by Jacob Steenwyk

Sunday, June 22, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

A key component of being sci-curious is contemplating the unknown. To be sci-curious, you can revisit answered questions where details were forgotten, delve into unanswered questions or ask novel questions. Developing techniques and systems to answer these questions is, in essence, the mission of a scientist. Among the sci-curious pioneers is a team led by a Penn State University research associate, Bodo Linz. Bodo Linz and her colleagues characterized the interaction between the human immune system and invading bacteria to uncover how the bacteria were able to elude the immune system in the article Burst of Mutations During Initial Infection Allows Bacteria To Evade Human Immune Response.

Electron Microscopic image of H. pylori. H. pylori was recently 
discovered to have a high rate of mutation during the initial phase of infection. 
Credit: Yutaka Tsutsumi, Fujita Health University School of Medicine

During the chronic phase of infection, the mutation rate of Helicobacter pylori, a common stomach bacteria, had previously been established. Though this data has proved useful for understanding infection, no one had yet to investigate the rate of mutation during the initial acute phase of infection due to experimental difficulty. The research team took two different approaches to characterize H. pylori's mutation rate during infection. One method involved isolated bacteria from volunteers and sequencing its genome - this genome served as a baseline. After removing all H. pylori from the volunteers via antibiotics, they were re-infected with the same H. pylori that was removed from them. After 20 days and 44 days of infection, the bacteria was isolated and its genome was sequenced again. The bacteria was then removed from the volunteers using another antibiotic treatment. From this, the genomes could be compared. It was found that the rate of mutation during the acute phase of infection was 30 to 50 times greater than during the chronic phase of infection. Researchers surmised that H. pylori used the higher rate of mutation to promote speedy evolution and avoid the immune system all together. 

If this article has got you sci-curious, find out the other method the researchers used to characterize the rate of mutations during the acute phase of infection by clicking the link! 

Written by Jacob Steenwyk

Friday, May 30, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

I found myself in the dentist's chair not long ago, subjected to needles, drills and controlled jets of water.  I didn't use to be very concerned with my teeth, until somewhere in my twenties it really sunk in that I was stuck with the teeth I had and their health for the rest of my life!  This is when I decided to keep those 6 month cleaning checkups regularly.  But today's research may relieve me of my regret over not brushing my teeth more diligently as a child.  Curious?  Read on!

Chart detailing adult human tooth anatomy.
Credit: Bite Point Dental Blog
Since the 1960s, the medical laser has been a part of a doctor's medical repertoire. Low-level light therapy, or photobiomodulation has been used to trigger biologic processes including hair growth and skin rejuvenation. Oddly enough, that same therapy has been used to eradicate unwanted tissues such as laser hair removal. These contrasting results for the same therapy is partly due to a poorly characterized molecular mechanism. However, recent work published in Science Translational Medicine details a technique and mechanism for the use of photobiomodulation to stimulate the growth of a tooth tissue known as dentin.

A team of Harvard researchers, led by David J. Mooney, developed this noninvasive laser treatment to promot the regeneration of human dental cells. As summarized in the article by Kristen Kusek, Researchers use light to coax stem cells to repair teeth, Mooney's team of researchers took laboratory rodents, drilled holes in their molars, treated the vessel containing adult dental stem cells with a low-dose laser treatment, applied a temporary dental cap, and waited twelve weeks to assess the affect of the laser treatment. After the twelve week period, Mooney was able to confirm that the laser treatment stimulated greater dentin tissue formation.

Are you curious?  Wanting to understand more about how this takes place?  Read the article to learn about the key regulatory cell protein in this biologic signaling cascade! 

This is how you stay, "Sci-Curious!"

Written by Jacob Steenwyk & Cynthia Joseph
Edited by Cynthia Joseph

Friday, May 9, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

With the United States experiencing a colder than normal winter, vicious tornadoes ripping throughout the South, drought conditions plaguing the West and South West, and the North East soaked with flooding downpours, the topic of climate change filled the airwaves this week as President Obama sat down with Al Roker of NBC News' TODAY.

While climate change affects the planet, this SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) web page focuses on the research being done by indigenous and minority cultures to address the problems of climate change. 

Plug into the pod casts and electronic magazines at the SACNAS website and see what you can learn!

Friday, April 18, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

High-speed time-lapse photos of a fruit fly banking away from a shadow threat coming from the bottom right and outside of the frame. Photograph credit: F. Muijres, University of Washington

Last week's Sci-Light was about the evolutionary development of Zebra stripes. To recap, Zebra stripes have evolved as a response to annoying biting flies. And just like Zebra's, we have developed our own technology to deter flies. For those of us who choose swatting away flies, have you ever been curious how a fly is able to dodge our efforts so well? Well you are not the only one, a bioengineer of Washington University was sci-curious too! Dr. Michael Dickinson has detailed the aerial movements flies employ to avoid our, and other animals, swatting. The characterized agile fly movements were published on April 10th in a paper entitled Flies Evade Looming Targets by Executing Rapid Visually Directed Banked Turns.

By recording Drosophila hydei (fruit flies) movements with a high speed camera capable of capturing 7,500 frames per second, Dickinson and his team of scientists could understand the 'blink of an eye' maneuvers these flies use in flight. To discover what Dickinson observed read about his research in the National Geographic article Mystery Solved: Why Flies Are So Hard to Swat

After that article, click the next link and discover what else you can learn!  

Friday, April 11, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Credit: University of California, Davis campus
Tim Caro believes he and his team of researchers have discovered the reason Zebras have stripes.

I believe we can all agree zebra stripes are a peculiar phenomenon. What advantage would an animal ever have with such crazy stripes? What could ever be responsible for Zebra's avant-garde fashion sense?! Such a question has puzzled scientist's since Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin's era. Though many have pondered the curious stripes, little has been done to find answer. On April 1st, Tim Caro of UC Davis has published results that suggest he and his team of researcher's have figured out the mystery of zebra stripes.

In an article entitled The Function of Zebra Stripes published in Nature Communications, Tim Caro was able to approach the evolutionary question by utilizing multifactor models. Prior to Caro's publication, the leading hypotheses were as follows: zebra stripes may have developed as a means of camouflage, a method for disrupting predatory attack, a means of controlling temperature, a social function or a system to avoid parasitic attack from biting flies. Caro and his team could test the leading hypotheses according to a set of variables. The two part analysis started with testing how the five hypotheses correlated to thickness, location and intensity of stripes. The second part matched the five hypotheses and stripes to geographic ranges such as woodland areas, predator types, temperature and the distribution of two biting flies: horseflies and tsetse flies. As UC Davis reports in their News and Information column, Caro was amazed by their results - zebra stripes are the result of biting flies! Caro states, "again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies.” Even more intriguing is that Caro's discovery makes one curious as to why flies are deterred from striped patterns. 

It is amazing how answers to questions can make new questions.  What are your new questions today?  They may not be about zebras, but rather closer to home.  Perhaps you're curious about what flowers or trees are blooming or delayed or maybe you're tracking the recent earthquakes.  Whatever is surrounding you or catching your attention, ask questions and seek answers.  Be Sci-Curious!

Written by Jacob Steenwyk
Edited by Cynthia Joseph

Friday, March 28, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

Ever since we could look up to the heavenly stars, one question has persisted: does life exist outside of Earth?  If life does exist, would alien lifeforms look like us, behave like us, have similar technologies, similar anatomy and physiology, would we be able to communicate? Would they be complex organisms living off of carbon based systems? Or perhaps silicon? As we continue to ask these questions, others are dreaming up answers.
Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR image
This image shows one of the four largest moons orbiting Jupiter named Europa. 
NASA wants to send a mission to Europa because of it has an icy outer layer with liquid water plumes.
Craig Venter, founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, CA, aims to change the search for life on Mars as summarized in the Los Angeles Times article entitled: In the Mojave, a scientist-entrepreneur works to 're-create' Martians'. Venter believes his novel DNA sequencing invention will be able to remotely decode DNA found in soil or water samples and send back the DNA code to a biosafety compliant laboratory just like a fax machine. From there, Venter and his team of researchers can rebuild the Martian utilizing the most advance scientific techniques of computational genomics, oligonucleotide synthesis and genome transplantation. Though Venter's idea sounds like science fiction, NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley have assisted Venter in trail experiments conducted in the Mojave desert. Are you Sci-Curious?  Click to article for more!

Not only is the Venter Institute reaching to the stars, NASA has also announced that they will soon be requesting ideas for a mission to Europa as reported in the SpaceNews article NASA To Seek Ideas for $1 Billion Mission to Europa. NASA's California based Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be working in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to engineer the next Europa Mission.  Using the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have taken notice to possible liquid-water plumes on the surface of the icy moon. The idea being put forth is to probe these liquid-water plumes for organic compounds.  In reading the article NASA outlines past, current and future plans; the lesson is don't be afraid to think big and change your mind!

Written by Jacob Steenwyk
Edited by Cynthia Joseph

Friday, March 14, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

This photo shows the new cardiac device ― a thin, elastic membrane ― fitted over a rabbit's heart.
University of Illinois and Washington University

On February 25th, groundbreaking research utilizing 3D printers was published by John Rogers of University of Illinois in Nature Communications. The article, 3D-printed 'electronic glove' could help keep your heart beating forever, summarizes how researchers have use computer modeling technology in tandem with a 3D printer to create a synthetic membrane capable of sustaining a heart beat indefinitely. A membrane custom made to fit around a heart is outfitted with a series of sensors and electrodes able to detect and measure the heart's electrical activity.

This technology has come a long way since it was first introduced as the 'cardiac sock' in the 1980's. From the once crude sleeves, Roger's has revamped the 'cardiac sock' concept by exploiting bends, turns and curls in his lay out design of electronics giving them elastic-like properties. With a tight fit achieved through 3D printing, Roger's has created what he compares to the naturally occurring pericardium or double walled membrane surrounding the heart.

For now, the 'electronic glove' will be used as a research tool to better understand how the heart reacts to different variables. In the future, one could imagine that such technology could replace pacemakers, deliver electric shocks in cardiac arrest events, or prevent heart attacks all together by regulating the heart beat of at-risk individuals.

For you, this innovation could become a career search looking into the pathways into materials science, computer modeling, biomedical engineering, and 3D computer generated imaging and printing.  Don't stop with the act of gaining information.  Let the new information guide you to the next steps.  In case you need some support moving from inspiration to perspiration, let an article on the SACNAS website entitled Building your Individual Development Plan (IDP):  A Guide for Undergraduate Students guide you through the process!   

Written by Jacob Steenwyk
Edited by Cynthia Joseph

Friday, March 7, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

A National Geographic article, The Lurker: How a Virus Hid in our Genome for Six Million Years, discusses Dr. David Markovitz's work at the University of Michigan investigating the blood of people infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) that weakens the host's immune system making the host susceptible to other pathogens. By investigating what other viruses could have attacked the host, Markovitz and colleagues found a virus that seems to have originated in a common ancestor of chimps and humans!

First, let's review a little background, and then move on to the discovery.  HIV is a type of retrovirus. A retrovirus is a virus that integrates it’s RNA genetic code into the host genome after being reverse transcribed into DNA - amazing! Within the human genome, researchers have identified 100,000 sequences of retrovirus DNA across over fifteen chromosomes. These sequences comprise nearly 8% of the human genome. 

Dr. Markovitz and his colleagues analyzed the DNA of HIV patients and found an endogenous retrovirus called HERV-K in a form previously undiscovered.  They wondered if this virus could have been lurking in the human genome and checked the human genome sequence, which is about 95% compiled.  With no luck, they turned to the completed chimpanzee genome and found once copy of HERV-K which they named K111.

The researchers came back to the human genome and discovered K111 was indeed hidden there!  The data suggests that "the virus infected our ancestors not long before the split between humans and chimpanzees roughly six million years ago."

To follow the details of their discovery and its implications, check out the article.  This story calls me to remember there's so much to learn and understand and calls us all to be Sci-Curious!

Written by Jacob Steenwyk
Edited by Cynthia Joseph

Friday, February 21, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Let's have some fun.  After all, it's Friday!  Take a quiz testing your knowledge of science and technology sponsored by Pew Research Center.  The quiz was set up to measure the public's knowledge of current scientific topics and some fundamental science concepts. 

Here's the catch, if you score well, you don't get to gloat.  Your mission is to become a teacher.  After all, exploration is fun, but telling someone what you discovered doubles the satisfaction.  That's all part of being Sci-Curious!

Friday, February 7, 2014

This Week's Sci-Light!

Garden of Fugitives (plaster casts)
Pompeii!  The very word brings chills and soon 3D visuals to the big screen with the film Pompeii  directed by Paul W.S. Anderson releasing in just a couple of weeks. 

The history of this Roman city is well embedded in popular culture through tales of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, the BBC dramas series Doctor Who, named "The Fires of Pompeii," Pink Floyd's live concert Pink Floyd:  Live at Pompeii and countless theatrical productions, an opera, films and a mini series. 

While we have been fascinated with our own species' violent demise, Baoyu Jiang of Nanjing University in China and his scientific research team from have proposed that humans weren't the only ones who were part of this kind of mass distinction event.  In fact, thousands of well-preserved fossils have been discovered in the northeast of China at the Yixian and Jiufotang formations.  They include plants, birds, dinosaurs and mammals.  Many of the fossils are so intact that researchers can determine what that dinosaur had for breakfast the day it died. 

Deborah Netburn writes for the Los Angeles Times that scientists have evidence that these "mass mortality events were pyrocalstic flows from nearby volcanoes--the same phenomenon that destroyed and preserved the ancient civilization of Pompeii." 
These photos show the typical entombing poses of the Jehol terrestrial vertebrate fossils (a., Psittacosaurus; b.-c., Confuciusornis). Their boxer-like poses are typical of victims of pyroclastic density currents, resulting from postmortem tendons and muscles shortening. (Photo: Baoyu Jiang)
Understanding the effects of blasts of volcanic ash and poisonous gases help us understand not only the dangers but how these events affected and changed large ecosystems.  Studying earth's geological history gives us clues to how the planet and subsequently life evolved.  

If you're curious, check out these tips on the paleontology career and do some investigating of your own!  After all, acting on your curiosity is what Sci-Curious is all about!

Friday, January 31, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

Most of you already know the central dogma of Biology--DNA makes RNA makes protein.  Today's blog highlights a related discovery that according to author Monte Morin in an article published January 29, 2014 in the LA Times, "caught many experts off guard."


A stem cell, I'm sure, is familiar to you.  For review, stem cells are the undifferentiated cells of a multicellular organism that are capable of giving rise to other kinds of cell.  Miriam Webster's dictionary says it this way, "a simple cell in the body that is able to develop into any one of various kinds of cells (such as blood cells, skin cells, etc.)" 

The cells from which the beating heart above were grown are called STAP cells.  They are produced by taking the blood cells of newborn mice and soaking them for 30 minutes in a mildly acidic solution.  This procedure reprograms the cell to become capable of producing any cell in the body or a pluripotent cell.  STAP stands for stimulus triggered acquisition of pluripotency. 

According to Dr. Haruko Obakata, a biochemistry researcher at the RIKEN research institute in Japan and lead study author of Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells“It was really surprising to see that such a remarkable transformation could be triggered simply by stimuli from outside of the cell."  Why does this work?  Dr. Obakata and her colleagues stated simply that remains a mystery.

The implications for medical research are endless.  According to the LA Times article, "pluripotent stem cells are considered the basic building blocks of biology."  There are many controversies surrounding the use of stem cells, but if STAP cells can be created from a patient's own mature cells this could transform medical science.  

Do you want to be part of these kinds of discoveries?  Hurry for summer experiences, then.  
Here's a step in the right direction--Pathways to Science

Friday, January 10, 2014

This Week's Sci-light!

January is a time of new beginnings, fresh starts, and New Year's resolutions.  Perhaps the idea of a making a resolution that you anticipate breaking in just a few days has soured you on the fundamental idea of a clean slate.  It is true that you can change at any time, but there is something to the power of collectively bringing in the new.

An article on e Science News! (a great source for breaking science news) celebrated a discovery that could pave the way for a new chapter in world energy needs.  The burning of fuels derived from organic materials, commonly called fossil fuels, meets many of our energy needs today.  (If you take for granted electricity, try a day without it and see how much work you get done and fun you have.)  But meeting the needs of a world that is increasingly becoming electricity dependent, is no small matter.

Vertum Partners &
Alternative energy sources are one of the avenues being explored for just such a purpose.  Researchers are experimenting with energy produced by wind, sun and water.  A book I recently found, Gust or Bust, by Hannah Flynn and Ljiljana Grubisic takes readers through the benefits and challenges of windmills in the context of climate science and energy production.  One of the problems with using wind energy, for example, is that the energy produced varies.  To compensate for low wind, the energy generated during high wind has to be stored in batteries.  The cost of the batteries is high and reduces the cost-effectiveness of this form of energy...  

Photo credit Eliza Grinnell
...but there is a new solution!  Scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in collaboration with colleagues from Chemistry, Materials Science and Chemical Biology have developed a "metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals."

Photo credit Eliza Grinnell
The article adeptly outlines the current challenges of energy storage with traditional batteries and presents the clear economic and efficiency advantages of their battery comprised of electrochemical conversion hardware and a separate chemical storage tank.

The application of such a invention gives me hope.  But what really strikes me is all the interdisciplinary work that was done to invent the battery.  Such work cannot be done by solitary individuals but through shared ideas and actions.

At any rate, here's to the the New Year--may it be filled with new imaginations, new collaborations, new actions and new discoveries!