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!