Friday, May 3, 2013

The Honey Trap

Most of us have been prescribed antibiotics at some point in our lives. The simple reality of communal species, such as humans, is that bacteria will thrive on our need for social interaction, and thus antibiotics are a common occurrence in modern life. The growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria has gained a lot of attention, and rightly so, since widespread use of antibiotics has given rise to deadly strains like MRSA. Scientists across the globe are focusing on the interactions between bacteria and antibiotics to figure out how drugs are causing bacterial genomes to evolve.
But how does antibiotic use affect the people taking them? A study out of Japan made an interesting connection between antibiotic use and human behavior. Minocycline, a tetracycline, was shown to alter male behavior by reducing their risk to fall into the “honey trap” The “honey trap” is when males tend to trust a physically attractive female without evaluating her trustworthiness. Males who were not taking minocycline were found to be increasingly trusting of women as attractiveness of the women increased.  Males on minocycline seemed to be immune to the females’ attractiveness; they did not become more trusting of more attractive women.
Since minocycline inhibits microglial activities, the role of these cells in behavior has been given further weight, but the reason for the behavioral effects of minocycline are not yet clear. The drug may be interacting with glutamate and dopamine neurotransmission, for example, or the suppression of microglial cells may reduce stress response. It may have effects on the amygdala, which is activated during judgments of trustworthiness in human faces and also appears to be one of the most affect regions during minocycline use.
It’s amazing how commonly prescribed drugs can have side effects that we are only now discovering.  You can’t help but wonder how many decisions or actions or any type of behavior has been affected by antibiotics or some other commonly used drug, without the knowledge of the user!

Posted by Joseph Starrett(3)

All images used under creative commons license:

Antibiotics: Flickr user michaelll (
Honey: Wikimedia (Commons

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Killer Whales are Causing a Trophic Cascade

Killer whales are causing a tropic cascade in the Northern Pacific ocean. A tropic cascade is when a top carnivore decreases the abundance of a lower carnivore, which leads to an increase in herbivores and then a decrease in primary producers.  

Over the past two decades, Alaskan Sea Otter populations have been steadily declining.  This decline is caused by killer whales.  Normally killer whales feed on fish, seals, sea lions, and walruses.  In the past two decades, sea otters have been added to the list of killer whale prey.

Sea otters live among the kelp forests in the North Pacific. They are considered a keystone species in kelp forests. They prey on sea urchins.  Sea urchins are herbivores and eat kelp, but the presence of sea otters control the sea urchin populations, which allows the kelp forests to grow. Now since sea otters are declining, it is allowing an overgrowth of sea urchins, which is causing the destruction of kelp forests.  The destruction of the kelp forests is also affecting bald eagles, as they feed on kelp forest fish.

Scientists are unsure what is causing killer whales to prey on sea otters. There are many different theories about the cause. Some scientists have speculated that killer whales used to feed on whales, but stopped because of overexploitation cause be commercial whalers.  With whale populations low, killer whales turned to smaller mammals such as seals and sea lions. However, seal and sea lion populations have decreased. They believe that this decrease has led to sea otters becoming prey to killer whales. Other scientists believe that killer whales would eat the harpooned whales left by commercial whalers, but did not actively seek out live whales. When commercial whaling stopped, they believe that killer whales turned to smaller mammals as food, which in turn started the tropic cascade.

Sarah Tebo (3)

Pepper Spray - Like Seasoning For Your Face!

                Pepper spray is a common tool used for defense by millions of people in this country, but how does it work? Massachusetts' heavy regulation on the item, requiring a license, and the university campuses outright ban (for innocent people only) would lead one to believe this a is a dangerous mysterious substance, but that is far from the case. Most pepper spray on the market is merely a highly concentrated mixture of capsaicin, or the chemical in peppers that makes them taste hot, though there are some other variants on the market which use synthetic active ingredients.
                So how do these mysterious substances work on the human body as a deterrent? Most people I know say getting pepper sprayed was one of the worst experiences of their lives, though none of them bear any lasting effects. In fact all of these people were exposed to the agent as a regular part of law enforcement or military training. Capsaicin based defensive sprays work by immediately agitating  exposed skin and membrane through activation of the TRPV1 channel, intended for thermoregulation and temperature sensing. Plants likely evolved capsaicin to take advantage of this channel as a defense mechanism… and it clearly does that quite well.

                Once these channels are activated the body responds as it would if there were an actual burn to the affected area through swelling and mucous production. This results in a perpetrators eyes swelling shut, as well as difficulty breathing, all in addition to a good amount of pain and discomfort. The effects usually begin to subside within 5 minutes to an hour. Pepper spray is used very frequently both in real life situations and training with no lasting effects. There are, however, a handful of cases where a death has had pepper spray listed as a contributing factor, this is often in the case of someone already under respiratory distress, or with a pre-existing heart condition that is not able to withstand the additional stress.  Generally speaking, however, it is a safe substance with no known lasting effects after a single exposure.
                                                                (language warning)

                So next time you are at a Umass party that gets broken up by the police, and you find yourself getting sprayed with pepper spray, just remember no actual damage has been done to your body, and make sure you ask them to pass the nachos, as you've got some prime seasoning right there!

Michael Ball (1)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Social conformity; almost everyone does it.  When you go to class, do you usually sit in the same desk every day?  When all of your friends are going out to the bar and they ask you to join them, do you?  If a teacher asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, do you raise your hand with everyone else?  Why do you say certain phrases or wear certain clothes or do the things that you do?

The reason is conformity; people are influenced socially whether it’s conscious or not.  Social norms are implicit, unspoken “rules” that a group follows in society.  Those that fail or refuse to conform will be labeled an “outcast” and is independent and separate from society, i.e. a “loner”.  There are two types of conformity: informational and normative.  Informational social influence occurs when one wants to obtain accurate information, for example, if they are uncertain about what to do in a certain situation.  Normative social influence occurs when someone wants to be accepted by a certain group of people.  

It is human nature to be socially accepted and liked, like the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

This need for social acceptance has been found in non-human primates by researchers from the University of St. Andrews.  They related the behavior of wild vervet monkeys in South Africa to the human desire to seek ‘local knowledge’ and conform to cultural norms when visiting a new place.  They observed migrating male vervet monkeys quickly and willingly conforming to the local norms, which may seem strange, but the behaviors adopted are usually optimal for survival in their environment.  The experiment even showed a new generation of infant monkeys conforming the same as the adult monkeys. 

The study that led to the discovery of social conformity in non-human primates was described as “rare experimental proof of ‘cultural transmission’ in wild primates to date.”  The next step could be to research which part of the brain allows the capacity for this behavior.  Who knows what will be discovered next.  

Posted by Jessica Westover (3)

Dinosaur discoveries.

It seems everyday something new about dinosaurs are being discovered. Those thing include, but are not limited to, the parental care by looking at fossilized nests, dinosaurs having feathers determined by different old to newly discovered fossils, and now that terrestrial dinosaurs could and did swim.

Claw marks on a 100-million-year-old riverbed in China suggest that there were plenty of dinosaurs using the method of swimming to get from point A to point B. The markings show a coordinated left-right, left-right swimming style which stretch over 50 meters. The scientist studying this remarkable discovery have hypothesized that it is a carnivorous theropod which stood three feet at the hip.

The area in which these marks were found is a dried up river in China's Szechuan Province. This area contains numerous footprints from other Cretaceous era theropods and long-necked, four-legged sauropods. No wonder people consider this the "dinosaur superhighway."

It is very interesting to learn these are not the first swimming tracks discovered and there are always new things to discover about dinosaurs. The sad part is knowing that there are characteristics and behaviors that will never be discovered or 100% finalized because it is a time long lost and we do not have the technology to go back and live in that era.

Sunni-Lynn Farias (1)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Who Were the First Australians, and How Many Were There?

Some of the successes in science are being able to interpret when humans first inhabited certain areas of the world to comprise the first ancestors, when population spurts occurred and why population spurts occurred.  It is important to know these kinds of facts so that we can learn cause- effect relationships in order to modify our environment or make preparations for dealing with environmental phenomena to induced desired outcomes for our future environment. When archaeologists and historians try to piece the parts of the puzzle together to understand the people of the past, their lands, and how they changed through time, it is important to note the tools used to elucidate such findings. In this sense, we must be cognizant of the assumptions we make based on the accuracy of our conclusions in relation to the observations and questions involved in scientific studies and research.  Well new research has been conducted to specify the question of just how many adventurers endured the trip to become the original Aussies, when, and why the aboriginal population grew to hundreds of thousands of people. The methodology and conclusions of the study however raise uncertainty as to its accuracy.
                The research encompassing studies conducted by author and archaeologist Alan Williams who used several techniques to answer various questions.  He used shell, heaps, charcoal deposits, human burials, and a database of 5,000 cooking pits in conjunction with radiocarbon dating methods as his source of information. Since the number of archaeological sites grows with a growing human population, the artifacts available for radiocarbon dating also grow.  Thus the more artifacts found during certain periods of time correlates to a greater human population at that time.  This technique has some ambiguities though as archaeological sites are more readily preserved in some landscapes than in others, which could lead to a high number of radio carbon dates at a site with good preservation and low numbers of dates at a site with poor preservation. Another ambiguity of the study was that because Williams data relied on a low number of data points from the early years of human occupation, there was no way to distinguish between a founding population of 5,000 that grew little and a founding population of 100 that quickly multiplied to 5,000
                Why the population spurt happened somewhere between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago could be answered by looking at the behavior of the environment.  It is likely that the warming climate during this period allowed more plant life which therefore fostered a population growth.  Furthermore, possible reasons why people immigrated to Australia in the first place could have been due to the desire to explore new lands or to escape from competition for resources. These conclusions are reasonable seeing as having the proper watercraft to make such a perilous journey across the sea would have taken more than just a makeshift boat and instead would require intentional effort towards building a suitable ship.
                Although there is some disagreement about the conclusions drawn by Williams from other archaeologists (James O’Connell), radiocarbon method analysts (Simon Holdaway) and Barry Brooks, there are still strong points to the conclusions drawn by the results in terms of the data collected for the more recent years.  This study relates to many other undertakings that involve dancing around the uncertainties given from data and making up for them with new and improved techniques, methods, and tools for discovering more accurate conclusions.  In the eyes of Williams though, he doesn’t consider this paper the last word on the subject.  However, he believes there are still a lot more questions than answers.

Posted by Marshall Moini (2)

The Famous Amnesiacs in Neuroscience

Resection of epileptic focus

            In the field of neurobiology, patient HM is probably one of the most recognized cases of amnesia. Patient HM had suffered from severe epileptic seizures so he was given a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy. This removed the region of the brain, which includes the hippocampus, that is important for declarative memory storage. Declarative memory can be classified as semantic memory, memory of facts, or episodic memory, memory of events.
The surgery was a success but patient HM suffered from anterograde amnesia because he no longer had the capacity to store new long-term memories. Anterograde amnesia is the incapability of remembering events that occurred after brain damage. Patient HM could remember all the memories of his life that happened before the surgery, like who his wife was and where they lived, but he could not store any long-term memories after this point. He still had his short term memory intact so he could carry on conversations, but after a few hours he would not remember that he had that conversation. The loss of long-term memory made patient HM only live in the moment and he described the feeling as “like waking from a dream. I just don’t remember.”
            The second most famous amnesiac patient would probably be a patient named EP. The case of patient EP included radical memory loss due to viral encephalitis which caused large lesions in the patient’s medial temporal lobe leading to the loss of his amygdala and hippocampus. The memory loss from patient EP not only affected his ability to store new memories, but it also damaged his old semantic memories. The loss of semantic memory was because the lesions were large enough that it disrupted connectivity in the adjacent brain tissue.
Retrograde amnesiacs usually cannot remember things from a few months to years prior to the brain damage, but patient EP could not remember any memories dating all the way back to 50 years prior to the brain encephalitis. Researchers believe that this is because of connections in the lateral temporal lobe were damaged. Although these two amnesiac cases are tragic, they have been able to help researcher better understand how memories are storied in the human brain.

Posted by Poya Jafari (2)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Smartest Dogs EVER!


It is stated that Charles Darwin meant the term “survival of the fittest” to be a metaphor that represents certain organisms that adapt to their existing conditions and are best able to survive. Stray dogs located in Moscow, Russia have learned to use the subway system to commute to and from the city centre to feed off food scraps.  Every morning among the human rush hour dogs too board the subway and travel to the city for a hard day of scavenging. After a long day of foraging and filling their bellies they board the subways again and head back to the suburban areas of Moscow to rest their heads for the night.

Researchers studying the stray dogs and their behavior suggest that the dogs have learned the length of time needed to be aboard the subway car to reach their desired destination. Dr. Andrew Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute states “the best scavenging for food is in the city centre, the dogs had to learn how to travel on the subway-to get to the centre in the mornings, then back home in the evening, just like people”. The dogs have adapted to the city/suburban environment and use the subway system as a survival tactic.

Another behavior displayed by many of the local stray dogs is what they call “the hunt for shawarna”. Shawarna is a popular cuisine in Moscow among humans as well as stray dogs. After a human has purchased their shawarna from a street vendor the dog quietly approaches them from behind and barks-forcing the human to drop their tasty dish. The dog then snatches the yummy treat and fills his belly with the popular Russian cuisine. Dr. Poiarkov states “this method of ambushing people is widely exercised by Moscow dogs suggesting it is an adaptive measure the dogs have learned and is needed for their survival”.

These modern stray dogs have learned a new urban way of hunting by adapting to existing conditions. Once Russia became more commercialized garbage scraps became scarce and new attempts at survival such as “the hunt for shawarna” were created. The stray dogs of Moscow may be the smartest dogs ever!

Angeline Latsch (2)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How Snakes Lost Their Legs

Have you ever wondered why snakes have no limbs? Research in the U.K. may be able to shed some light on this age old question. Evidence taken from the fossil record has long shown that the ancestor of snakes possessed limbs like modern lizards. Limb loss in snakes is thought to have been caused by changes in expression of several “toolkit” genes during development.  Alterations in these gene networks prevent formation of the forelimb and hindlimbs during development in snake embryos. One of the families of genes affected are Hox genes. In almost all animals, the overall body plan is based on a pattern of repeated segmentation along the anterior/posterior axis. Just think of vertebrae in chordates or body segments in insects. Combinations of Hox genes expressed along the anterior/posterior axis determine the identity of the different segments. For example, Hox gene expression boundaries determine the placement of the wing segments, antenna segments, and abdominal segments in fruit flies. Consequently, changing the expression patterns of Hox genes can cause aberrations, such as a fruit fly growing legs out of it’s head.

The researchers in this study looked at the expression patterns of the Hox genes HoxC6, HoxC8, and HoxB5 in python embryos. In other tetrapods and fish, the anterior expression boundaries of these proteins specify placement of forelimb developmental fields. In snakes, the anterior expression boundaries of HoxC8 and HoxB5 are shifted more anterior as compared to other tetrapods, which seems to completely eliminate the python’s ability to generate forelimbs. In contrast, these python embryos had normal posterior expression boundaries of these genes as compared to other tetrapods. This is consistent with existing morphological information. In ancient species of snakes such as pythons and boa constrictors, elimination of the hindlimb developmental field is not as complete as the forelimb field. Pythons actually do posses small outgrowths near the end of their bodies that are vestigial structures left over from when they possessed fully formed hindlimbs (Fig.1). This indicates that separate mechanisms are responsible for loss of the hindlimbs as compared to the forelimbs, and maybe even that the developmental programs necessary to specify hindlimb outgrowth in pythons are still present. The researchers set out to test this. Outgrowth of limbs depends on a layer of embryonic tissue known as the apical ectodermal ridge (AER) and a set of genes including fgf2 and msx that are normally expressed in it. Upon examination, the researchers found no evidence of an AER or the associated genes in python embryos. This could explain the lack of hindlimb development in pythons. In other organisms, fibroblast growth factors (fgfs) are responsible for formation of an AER. The researchers tested whether they could induce AER formation in python embryos by grafting fgf2 laced beads into the embryos. One day after grafting, this resulted in a 31% increase in hindlimb bud outgrowth in these python embryos, indicating that fgf signaling can induce hindlimb formation in pythons.

                                         Fig.1: spurs on python tail, vestigial structures left over from hindlimbs

The findings of these researchers illustrate a common trend that is emerging in the new field of evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo, which seeks to determine the developmental genetic mechanisms that underlie evolutionary change. Large changes in organismic morphology can occur through changes in a small number of developmentally important genes. This principle is shown by the ability to partially rescue growth of hindlimbs in python embryos by introduction of a single gene. Another important finding in this field is that the developmental programs necessary to generate novel morphological structures are often present in organisms that don’t even yet have those structures. For example, the pythons in this study maintained all of the genetic machinery necessary to develop hindlimbs. All they needed was the right genetic switch at the right place and time in developmental to kick off the whole program. And just like that, you get a snake with legs.

Posted by Sean McDougall (2)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Das Boobies

Boobies, Big Ones, Small Ones, Colorful Ones.

Boobies are friendly, interesting and eye-catching things and normally live as long as 15 to 20 years. They commonly get as big as 32 to 34 inches and can boast a weight of about 3 and a half pounds per Booby, (with female Boobies being larger than male Boobies). Boobies tend to nestle off the western coasts of Central and South America, including the Galapagos Islands which are home to about half of all breeding boobies. These fellas nest on land at night and seek out food in the day, usually pertaining to seafood.

The mating season for the Booby is general from June to August and includes the Boobies performing an elaborate, extravagant, and unique mating dance which lasts for quite a while and includes many, intricate steps. When a pair of Boobies finds one another interesting, they settle down and lay about two or three eggs, taking around 45 days for hatching (during which the adult Boobies incubate the Booby embryos). Baby Boobies then hatch and stay with their parents for a couple months until they are ready to leave and fend for themselves waiting for full plumage and growth in about 2 to 3 years.

The Blue Footed Booby, yes the bird, has other relatives like the Nazca Booby and the Red Footed Booby, which is the smallest of the Boobies and nests in trees instead of on land. The birds make for excellent divers, with permanently closed nostrils and the ability of reaching speeds of up to 60mph. They also have small air sacs in their heads to act as shock absorbers towards high impact from a steep dive. For the male Blue Footed Boobies, the more blue their feet are, the more females tend to be attracted to them.

And if you’re curious about the name, it originally came from the Spanish word “Bobo” which means clown, because these birds tend to be very clumsy and comical whilst walking on land.

Nick Mulone

The Komodo Dragon's Fiery Bite: Now With Venom

     The infamous Komodo Dragon (Varanus Komodoensis) is notorious for taking down prey with a toxic cocktail of bacteria in it's saliva. The Komodo dragon has an infamous reputation for not only being the largest living lizard, but having such a dirty mouth that anything it bites will surely die of sepsis. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, says this may not be the case.
     A team of biologists has dissected every aspect of Komodo Dragon prey prehension, from bite strength, jaw movement, and teeth, to the final kill. They studied the bacteria in it's mouth, and took MRIs of the head of a Komodo which died of natural causes. These researchers demonstrated that there are in fact venom glands in the mouths of Komodo Dragons, and that they have a means to deliver that venom to the prey with an ample ability to incapacitate that prey. Furthermore, they claim that the bacteria in the mouths of Komodo Dragons is nothing special compared to that in the mouths of other lizards, and bodies of other animals.
     The MRI showed glands capable of holding what they determined to be enough venom to incapacitate even large prey. The chemical makeup of the venom suggests it functions by dropping blood pressure and inducing shock. Indeed when Komodo Dragons bite their prey they stalk them as they get weaker, before ultimately consuming them. The method of venom deposit is thought to be through introduction to the bite wound, as ducts were visible dumping between the teeth. 

      This discovery is so significant as it is direct evidence that there is so much more to know about even well researched wild life. The Komodo Dragon, which almost everyone knows about for its size and famous saliva, has actually had venom that has only recently been discovered! With huge advances in technology I would expect to see more cool discoveries throughout the flora and fauna of our natural world.

Michael Ball (1)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Misconceptions About the Human Brain

One of the reasons I love biology is because it teaches me so much about the way our bodies function. The way the human body works is a miracle in itself, and the brain is such an amazing, incredibly complex, constituent of it. The human brain is the largest of all mammals in comparison to our bodies, and it is the most important aspect to how humans evolved to rule the world. Our brains allow us to not only carry out basic organismic functions, but it has the capacity to carry out a variety of high-level cognitive functions with nearly 100 billion neurons. There are several fields that focus on the study of our brain- from medicine to psychology. Even so, there are so many facets of the human brain that remain mysterious; there is still a lot to learn about this intricate organ. The information we do know about our brains can sometimes be misconstrued or mistaken, however. 

As someone who loves to debunk myths and learn more about common misconceptions, I was interested to learn about some common myths of the human brain. It proved how much there is to know about the brain, and how I had still barely grasped the source of all this information. For instance, many people are unaware of the color of the brain. Is it grey or yellow like you see in the jars of a laboratory? Is it pink like you see in animations or pictures? Actually, it is a multitude of colors. There is a black component of our brain called the substantia nigra, which is part of the basal ganglia. It is also red, due to the large amount of blood vessels. The brain is mostly made up of grey matter- but the nerve fibers which connect the grey matter are white! So what gives a brain the bland color you see when observing it in a lab? Its color is due to the formaldehyde used to preserve it!

Another common misconception about the brain is that recreational drugs such as ecstasy will put holes in it. I've heard someone say that taking ecstasy is like actually taking an ice cream scoop out of your brain! In reality, the only instance that causes a hole in your brain is physical trauma. That doesn't mean taking such drugs are healthy for your brain, though. Researchers claim that drugs can cause long and short term changes in your brain- such as the level of neurotransmitters it produces. When this happens, neurons experience damage and can cause many permanent problems. Drug use also causes memory loss and can change your brain chemistry so that it becomes addicted to the drug that was taken. One thing drug usage won't do though, is put a hole in your brain.

Observing a drunk person once is enough to prove that alcohol directly affects the brain. Alcohol can cause nausea, slowed reaction time, hangovers, and impaired decision-making. However, does alcohol actually cause brain cell damage? No, it does not. Even severe alcoholics do not experience loss of brain cells from drinking alcohol. What they do experience, however, is damage to the dendrites on the ends of their neurons. The cell itself is not necessarily damaged, but the way it communicates with others is. This can cause memory problems, confusion, and lack of muscle coordination. So while alcohol does not necessarily kill brain cells, it can still go to great lengths to damage your brain. 

The last misconception I will tell you about concerns the volume of our brain we actually use. It is a common myth that we only use 10% of our brain in our daily lives. This is likely one of the most popular misconceptions of our brain, considering Einstein has been quoted saying a variation of it, and the fact that the media has publicized this myth for years doesn't help. Many books have been written claiming it can empower you to harness the abilities of the other 90%. Some people believe psychics are those who are able to tap into the other 90% of their brains. However, this myth can be easily disproven. Disabilities can occur from damage to small portions of each part of the brain, so how is it possible that we can function with just 10% of the mass? Brain scans show that no matter what we are doing, our brains are always active. Although some parts may be more active than others, there is no part of our brain that is completely inactive. 

Did you find these facts interesting? I must admit that although I was aware some of the myths in this article were untrue, I learned a lot just from reading why they weren't. There is still so much to learn about the brain in the many fields that study it, so there are probably many more misconceptions that will be proven untrue in the future. If you'd like to continue reading about some of these misconceptions, click on this link:

Lindsey Dugas (1)

Socioeconomics and Endangered Species

       Socioeconomics having a part in species endangerment is probably not something you would think would have effects on one another. It makes sense though, population density, GDP and land use all have significant effects on why so many species are falling to endangerment and extinction. Although this study was done in European nations, tropical and subtropical areas tend to have greater amounts of wildlife diversity, but at the same time, many of these tropical countries are also developing nations with high populations and high pressure on agriculture. Agriculture and fishing play heavy roles in the lives of those who are native to such nations.
       The pressure is on the forests and waterways, being slashed and burned to produce crops or raise cattle, and in a few years the soil is unusable to both farmers and the inhabitants of those areas. Lands that were once rich forests become wastelands of dried our soil and nothing can be put back to grow again (maybe not for years). The issue is that these people can only make a short living off these lands and move on once it's no longer useable, resorting to the traditional and unsustainable methods used before and will be used again. 
       There needs to be a way to implement sustainable agricultural and fishing methods that can benefit both the people and the wildlife. More species are become at risk every year, and is not slowing down. Habitat loss and fragmentation are one of the main reasons species are becoming endangered, and to permanently destroy the living space is not going to solve any problems.  Species are falling at the hands of man for too long now, and it's time to change the methods used and time to educate the people on how to implement better ways to farm and fish. It's always easier said than done, but something has to happen before it is too late.

Posted by Alicia Champagne (1)

Would You Eat Wood?

For hundreds of thousands of years, wood has been used in everyday life. From being used as fuel to the frame of your house, wood is everywhere! There are many uses for wood, including it being a food substance, not just for other organisms, but for humans as well. Wood is comprised of cellulose, which is one of the most abundant organic compounds on earth. In this article, researchers did a study where they turned the cellulose from wood into a carbohydrate that humans consume daily, starch.
Plants produce approximately 180 billion tons of cellulose a year, and only in the past few years have companies started to use the cellulose for biofuels. But now there may be another new use for cellulose.
Bioprocess engineer Y.-H. Percival Zhang, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and his colleagues focused on cellulose and starch and the similarities between the two. Starch makes up to 40% of people’s diets, basically a majority of our diet compared to other things people consume. Cellulose, as many of us know, is made up of sugar glucose molecules, as is starch. They are just bonded in different ways.
To begin their research, Zhang and colleagues took genes from certain species of bacteria, fungi and potatoes in order to obtain the necessary enzymes. The enzymes they needed were used in a few different steps. The first set of enzymes were used to break down the cellulose to cellobiose, and the second set of enzymes were then used to split the cellobiose apart into glucose molecules and a molecule named G-1-P.
So far the final product is a white powder that can be added to food with no taste at the beginning, but after some chewing it tasted “slightly sweet.” Once this process was over, the left over cellulose was turned into glucose, which was then turned into biofuel.
Even though this idea works, it is still not perfected on the financial part. In order to have 200 kilograms of cellulose into 20 kilograms of starch, it would cost about $1 million! Hopefully in the near future, people can take this idea and make it not only more productive in the amount produce, but also a lot cheaper to spread around the world!

Posted by: Cynthia Bui (1)

Wonders of Future Medicine

Miracles of modern medicine don't come along very often, and sometimes they come by complete serendipity. But, more often than not these leaps are built on the strong foundation of work that has come before. It is hard to tell what will lead to future innovation, however some discoveries just have the feel that they may have a place in the larger scheme of things.

A few nights ago I was watching an ESPN 30 for 30 on Bo Jackson. I don't really care that much about football or baseball, but it was really well made and I got kind of entranced. If anyone knows the history of Bo Jackson's life they know (spoiler alert) that after a short, but nearly superhuman, career Bo was sidelined by a horrible hip injury that ultimately led to a hip replacement. Bo was a shell of his former self even after this injury, not because of diminished will, but because of the limitations placed on him by his artificial hip. One of the main reasons an artificial hip is not as capable as a genuine one is that there is no structure better to do the job than human bone. This is a problem that researchers working under MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Markus Buhler may have found a part of the answer to. This discovery is the molecular basis for the durable yet slightly flexible nature of bone. Buhler endeavors to explain how the brittle hydroxyapatite molecule and the soft, elastic collagen molecule come together in a 3d structure that allows the best features of both to come out. The answer that extensive calculations by MIT supercomputers have produced is that the hydroxyapatite is clustered in a large amount of thin, microscopic plates embedded in a collagen network. This allows the hydroxyapatite to stand strong while the collagen absorbs the forces that would break the brittle hydroxyapatite. This discovery could very well be the key in the synthesis of bone like materials that help millions around the world not be hindered by their injuries.

Recently there has been another discovery on a microscopic scale that could have a very far reaching influence. Researchers at Stanford and Case Western Reserve Schools of Medicine have, in similar papers, described how to turn fibroblast derived induced pluriopotent cells into oligodendrocyte precursor cells in mice. What all that means in laments terms is that they have found a way to create myelin, a necessary element in nerve signal conduction, from skin cells. Multiple sclerosis patients have their oligodendrocytes and myelin destroyed in an autoimmune reaction which causes symptoms ranging depression to problems with movement. Further research into this avenue could lead to the most effective treatment yet for MS which is a disease that can have a huge impact on your quality of life.

It is impossible to say whether either of these discoveries will play any role in the long run. Perhaps they will be forgotten or disproved in the near future. But, the fact that there is a chance they may lead to something that will greatly improve the quality of life of millions of people is a good enough reason for me to give them their moment in the sun.

Posted by: Hunter Alexander (1)

Getting on the Endangered Species List

The Gunnison Sage-Grouse

     Quite possibly the rarest bird in America, the Gunnison sage-grouse is decreasing in number rapidly after its recent discovery as a new species in 2000. They differ from the Greater sage-grouse in size and behaviors. There are less than 5,000 of these birds still in the wild at present time, distributed through populations in Colorado and Utah.
     Due to their small size, their genetic diversity is much lower than that of other grouses. It is because of this that they are more susceptible of illness and have more difficulty adjusting to environmental changes. They are limited with their ability to evolve and compete with others for resources.
     The Gunnison sage-grouse is also known as the “bubble-pop bird” because of its unique courtship behaviors. Similar to the greater sage-grouse, but at a slower pace, it struts in front of the desired female, and makes a popping noise as it inflates the pouches on its chest.
     Soon after its discovery as a different species, steps have been taken towards adding this bird to the endangered species list. Unfortunately, this is a rather long and complicated process in which many factors need to be explored before any actions can be taken. This process can take decades. The following is an excerpt of the questions that need to be explored towards adding an animal to the endangered species list from the national wildlife federation website:
  •  Has a large percentage of the species vital habitat been degraded or destroyed?
    Has the species been over-consumed by commercial, recreational, scientific or educational uses?
  • Is the species threatened by disease or predation?
  • Do current regulations or legislations inadequately protect the species?
  • Are there other manmade factors that threaten the long-term survival of the species? (1)”
     Hopefully, the Gunnison sage-grouse will be added to the endangered species list before their population declines much further and hey move into extinction.

Posted by: Ashley Sterpka (1)