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