Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dolphin Talk


             It is often said we miss the most important things in life simply because they lie right beneath our noses. Keeping that in mind, I submit that perhaps men's search and yearning for intelligent life should shift its focus away from the infinite stretches of the universe and instead to our own oceans. After all, only a fraction of our oceans have been explored, and even less of it is completely understood.
             I call for a shift in our search for intelligent life on the heels of a fascinating article published this week. In the article, which can be seen in its entirety here, Virginia Morell explains how recently it was discovered that when dolphins communicate with each other, they are capable calling each by "names, a trait until this time reserved solely for human beings.
             Dolphins are well known for being pretty and majestic creatures often seen in zoos or water boat tours, heck they have even been the stars of movies, Flipper and Dolphin Tale. While dolphins are easily recognizable, it is important to establish certain facts about them. 1) They are marine dwelling mammals, similar to whales but they ARE NOT whales. 2) Since they are mammals they do not have gills like fish and instead must come to the surface to breathe air through their aptly named blow holes. 3) Also they are warm blooded, give live birth, and travel in groups called pods. 4) Dolphins are intelligent and social animals who have their own form of communication known as echolocation or biosonar in animals.
             It is through echolocation that dolphins have are able to communicate and interact within their pods in such intricate and almost human ways. Dolphins care for each other, help their sick, watch each other's young, and eve search for lost members of their groups. All of these actions seem rather intelligent, but it the discovery recently that in a group each particular dolphin has their own specific sound and frequency that is used to identify themselves. While this is not necessarily ground breaking in the animal kingdom, it is the fact that other dolphins who are socially connected are able to call out each others "names". What is even more impressive is that dolphins can then take the name of another dolphin, repeat it, and then add additional notes and varying frequencies to indicate some sort of message.
          This discovery is very exciting simply for the fact that no other organism that we know of on earth is capable of communicating this way except for humans. Even chimps who are genetically the most related to human beings, only recognize certain sounds for certain objects or predators. Additionally research has shown that these sound recognition are not learned names for things as in the case of dolphins or humans, but rather inherited behavior.
            Research continues to see if dolphins language can be further understood, and to see if it possibly even more human then it already seems. While we are so busy looking for intelligent life in space, we should be prepared for the possibility that we may not be the only conscious beings on this planet. Or if you have read the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, perhaps the answer to intelligent life in space is actually Dolphins on Earth...

Bryan Cohoon (4)

The End of Coral Reefs?


    Coral Reefs, one of the more beautiful natural phenomena that may not be around for very much longer according to studies on CO2 emissions. The heightening temperatures of the surface water of the ocean is causing this bleaching because it's just too hot for the algae and they die off leaving the "skeleton" of the coral behind. A bleached out reef also effects the vertebrates and invertebrates that inhabit them. Reefs only make up 1% of surface area of the ocean, but occupy about 25% of marine fish species, so it's not just the coral and algae being effected here. The loss of these reefs holds a much bigger impact than we realize.  

     There is still time, however, because most reefs are predicted to be bleached out by around 2040 (assuming that the emission levels only stabilize, or increase). This is only a prediction, but the actions that everyone does is the cause, and the conditions of the reefs are the effect of the decisions we make. The world has lost enough reefs to bleaching already, and we should not sit back and watch the rest die off either because they could be gone in our lifetime. 

     If the carbon emissions were to either halt or even reduce, the reefs would have a 23 year longer life expectancy. If we were to cut down on these carbon emissions, then we could even expect flourishing of reefs once they have adapted to the changes in the waters. Why let such a beautiful thing die? I think this means that we all have to find ways to cut down our carbon footprints, and it's not a difficult goal to attain, even some change is better than none at all!    


I've even left a couple of websites on how to calculate how much CO2 we contribute per household, and ways to cut down and make small changes.

Posted by Alicia Champagne (1)

As if You Needed Another Reason to Worry About Your Sweet Tooth

Just about everyone has a guilty pleasure when it comes to food. Whether it be chips, candy bars, or pastries, everyone will find something bad for them that they wish they could eat without consequence. Unfortunately for us, there are consequences, grave consequences. Normally with this introduction one would assume that this is a paper about physical health. While it technically is you would most likely not link this problem with your physical health, but your mental health. The threats that trans fats and high fructose corn syrup present themselves in the forms of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be completely honest, I wish it was on these more physical problems because so far the only one of posing me a threat is heart disease due to genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, I have another genetic predisposition that this post is about, one that you would not expect to be affected by the foods you eat, Alzheimer's.
            This was pretty shocking news to me as well, because in my youth only connection that I really thought there was between food and the brain was that it is fuel. If you are hungry you can't really think about anything else no matter how hard you try, and if you get too hungry thoughts become sluggish. Then came a bit more information as I got older: that there are chemicals that foods contain that can make your brain perform a certain way. For example ginseng will make you feel a little bit sharper, and that on the opposite ends of the spectrum the tryptophan in turkey can make you sluggish and sleepy. Now I understand that the brain is an extremely complicated system and that there is the potential for anything to happen. But, before I was presented with this theory about Alzheimer's I thought that as long as I protected my physical health from its effects, junk food could hold no sway over my life.

          However, due to recent research there is a movement in the scientific community calling for this theory of food being linked to Alzheimer's to be considered more seriously. Some scientists have even gone as far as calling Alzheimer's “diabetes three”. There are two main components of this theory of a linkage between Alzheimer's and diabetes. The first part being how blood sugar affects the brain. If blood sugar held in the blood cells is too high this will weaken the blood vessels and weak blood vessels weaken the organ they are providing blood to. This is the main symptom in diabetes. The brain requires a lot of blood to work properly, so one can see how high levels of blood sugar can cause changes in cognitive function. In the body the regulator of blood sugar is insulin, which calls for muscle and fat cells to convert glucose to glycogen and fat, respectively. These are both useful forms of glucose. However, if your cells ignore these calls from insulin due to overuse, called insulin resistance, or if your pancreas does not produce enough, the glucose remains in the bloodstream. This causes the blood vessel issues, applies to every part of the body, and causes further problems everywhere it affects. Would it really be that much of a leap to connect it to brain problems as well?
         The second part of the theory is the implication that this insulin resistance in the brain leads to the formation of the beta amyloid plaques. These masses of protein are thought to be the main trouble makers in Alzheimer's pathology. A Brown university neuropathologist named Suzanne de la Monte studied the effects of blocking the path of insulin to rat brains. These rats showed neuron degeneration, physical disorientation, and looking at their brains showed all the signs of Alzheimer's disease.

          That is the scientific evidence, but what kind of other connections can we draw between Alzheimer's and diabetes, specifically Type 2 diabetes? One that should definitely be considered is the meteoric rise of both diseases in recent years. Studies linked below from both the CDC and Plattsburgh State University show that as time has progressed new cases of Alzheimer's and diabetes have been increasing. Both graphs show steady increase in each disease begins in the mid nineties. Now this certainly isn't when highly processed food came to the forefront of American culture, that had happened long before. But, we must consider that the effects of these diseases are slow, and that the degeneration would take the course of years.

         I don't want you to get me wrong here, I'm not saying that avoiding chips is an Alzheimer's vaccine. The point I am trying to make is that there is a lot of evidence that insulin resistance or lack of insulin in the brain may be a factor in Alzheimer's neurodegeneration. That if, like me, you have a fear Alzheimer's taking away your last years, better safe than sorry.

Posted By Hunter Alexander (4)

To eat or not to eat?

Browsing through weird Discovery articles I managed to stumble upon an article on 20 animals you could eat but most likely wouldn't, unless it was apart of your culture/region. This listed included common species such as squirrel (Which is extremely common in the Walking Dead as a food source), frogs, dogs, and cats but also endangered species such as sharks and whales. In most cultures its taboo to eat a pet, yet in other countries its a norm that cats and dogs be eaten. Squirrels are so abundant but very tough, but who would go shooting the neighborhood squirrels most people find cute and just abnormal to eat when we ourselves farm cows and pigs that provide substantial amount of meat?

 A lot of species die out because of the cause of habit destruction and disease that is helped spread by invasive species caused by commercial use. In this case, the article makes a comment about shark fin soup and how people will use just about any shark regardless of its status of population.

"A sampling of 51 shark fin soups from 14 cities around the United States found one soup made from the fin of the endangered scalloped hammerhead, and others containing fin from vulnerable and near-threatened species, including bull, smooth hammerhead, school, spiny dogfish and copper sharks."

More species become endangered just by consumption without proper time to repopulate referring to the fishing industry. Whaling from japan just wastes tons of whale meat because the population has grown away from the taste and more money is made by whale-watching yet Japan insists on keeping the whaling going.

The article also mentions how Montana has allowed motorists to eat roadkill which is completely stomach turning to myself and leads to the thought of how desperate people will just run over animals now to eat them or possibly become very sick from eating old roadkill. It doesn't appear healthy for people or the community of species that is subjected toa possible painful death if someone wants to eat it that bad.

Sunni-Lynn Farias (1)

Terminal Ballistics 2: Dispelling the Myths

For my first blog post I gave an overview on bullets and their effect on soft tissue, known as terminal ballistics. Now that we have a brief understanding of how bullets affect the human body, I am going to apply some of that knowledge to dispelling some myths and downright lies being spread by politicians in effort to garner support for a ban on the firearms that millions of Americans use every day to protect themselves.

The AR15 platform rifle has landed itself at the center of the controversy over the fundamental right of self defense and that right's recognition in the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. These modern rifles have been labeled as "high-powered" by every anti-gun politician and their mother. Armed with our knowledge on terminal ballistics, we can easily dispel this as a myth. First, let's compare one of the most common hunting cartridges, 30-06 Springfield, with the much smaller cartridge, .223 Remington, which the AR15 fires.


So which of these cartridges is truly high powered? The 30-06 Springfield, probably the most common hunting cartridge there is? How about the .223 Remington, incredibly common for hunting small game, but considered unreliable for use on larger game by unskilled hunters? Numbers are numbers, so if we take the amount of actual energy from each one of these bullets, we are left with 2,820 foot pounds and 1,282 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle respectively (with 150gr and 55gr loadings).

The numbers are nice and all, but what does this mean for the bullet's effect on soft tissue though? We already covered that rifles tend to do much more damage, and create a much larger permanent wound cavity than handguns. Let's look at the 30-06 and .223 and how they affect soft tissue.

30-06 150gr soft-point

.223 50gr soft-point
For purposes of comparison this was between a 150gr soft-point (exposed lead nose) bullet being fired from a 30-06 rifle, and a 50gr soft-point bullet being fired from a .223 rifle. It is clear that the 30-06 not only penetrates into soft tissue deeper, but creates a much greater permanent and temporary wound cavity. If you were to ask Diane Feinstein, I'm sure she would have a great explanation for you as to why this was the case, since .223 is supposedly the cartridge fired from a high powered rifle. Let's go even further though, let's take a look at the military loadings for .223, known as 5.56mm in the 55gr M193 cartridge, and the 62gr M855 cartridge. These use a 55gr full metal jacket bullet, and a 62gr lead and steel bullet known as the ss109 penetrator, respectively. In congressional hearings today, these were referred to as "assault bullets that explode in victims' bodies," clearly by someone educated.

5.56mm M193 55gr fmj

5.56mm M855 62gr SS109 Penetrator

Miraculously, the soft-point hunting ammunition experienced greater fragmentation, who would have thought it! Also, it should be pretty clear that while the bullets did indeed fragment inside tissue, they did not "explode" anymore than the two various hunting rounds did, in fact they fragmented less. This occurred because soft-point hunting ammunition is designed such that the exposed soft lead expands uniformly as it enters soft tissue, while full metal jacket rifle bullets rely on yawing and end over end movement to cause damage and induce fragmentation. Hunting bullets which politicians would never dare call for a ban of, are designed to cause more damage to soft tissue than military bullets which are touted as extra dangerous. Yet these military bullets actually cause less damage to soft tissue in order to comply with the Geneva conventions. Because of this, law enforcement often does not use the military ammunition but rather uses a variation of hunting bullets. The military ammunition is common among shooters as overrun is generally significantly cheaper. More imaginary facts from our friends on the Hill and in Washington!

They don't stop there, however. During hearings in January the Philadelphia police commissioner was quoted as asking how you would hunt anything with an "assault rifle," as there would "be no meat left to eat." We already know that is false based of the explanation and medical diagrams above, but let's drive the point home a little further. Clearly there is nothing left from any of what these hunters have taken down:


There are entire websites devoted to hunting with the AR15. If you need more "proof" that it is perfectly acceptable as a hunting rifle, because all it is in fact is a different shaped and colored hunting rifle, do an image search for AR15 hunting.

Why is it important that we call out politicians for their lack of knowledge with regard to science and biology when pushing an issue? Certainly many here would agree that using creationism and the bible alone as grounds to not teach evolution to students is unfair and downright irresponsible. How is using made up terminology and lies about guns people use for self defense every day any better? We hear it all the time, AR15s are never used for self defense. Tell that to this family, or this tax business in a bad neighborhood, or maybe these students. Hey, tell it to me or many of my friends and students who have opted to use AR15s to protect their homes. As responsible Americans, we can't allow our elected officials to use ignorance and fake science to pass laws that will not only land good people in prison, and make those of us who want to protect ourselves less able to do so.

Michael Ball (1)

Does Your Future Child Have Red Hair?


When looking around, a majority of people have black or brown hair. Then there are people with blonde hair, and finally the color you see the least, are those with red hair. What if you could have the chance to tell if your future child would have red hair, would you?
BritainsDNA, is a British company that can test your genes and in fact tell you if your child will inherit the red hair color gene. Both parents would have their tested to look for the gene MC1R, that causes people to have red hair. This is done by a saliva test in order to find out if  one or both of the parents are carriers of any variation of the MC1R gene. From simple genetics, since they are testing if the parents are carriers, the MC1R gene from both parents would need to be passed down to the child, as it is a recessive gene. But even so, this does not mean that the child would automatically have red hair. This would just mean that there is a 1 in 4 chance of having red hair.
The population of people with red hair is just over 0.5 percent, worldwide. This means that people with red hair are very rare, about 1 in 200 people rare. In other words, that is approximately 40 million people in the world!  If you have a red headed friend, you might want to tell them how special they are! And if you don not, would you be interested if you have the possibility of having a red haired child?

Posted by Cynthia Bui (1)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Autism found to be Present at Birth

Autism Found to be Present at Birth in Low-Birth-Weight Infants

A new study has shown that the condition of Autism may be present at birth, especially in underweight babies. Michigan State University conducted a study on 1,105 low birth weight infants born in the 1980's. These infants all received cranial ultrasounds soon after birth which documented slightly larger ventricular space.
These larger ventricles coincided with a loss of white matter in the brain. The ventricles are shallow spaces within the cerebrum and cerebellum that produce and store cerebrospinal fluid. CSF supports that health of the brain and spinal cord as it is produced and absorbed into the body. These children with larger ventricles were interviewed later on in life to explore further signs of Autism. It was determined that underweight infants are seven times more likely to develop some form of this condition.
Previous studies have shown that premature babies, who are generally underweight, are more susceptible to this condition. They are also more likely to have larger ventricles. This suggests that Autism may be more likely to develop from conditions prior to birth. It also indicates the importance of white matter in the brain. Further research must be completed to learn more about the functions of white matter and if there is any prenatal support that can be offered to ensure proper size of the ventricles.

Posted by: Ashley Sterpka (1)

Work Cited:

Shortcomings of our Calorie Counting System

For many Americans who don't want to fit the stereotype of an obese fast-food binger, calorie counting is an important aspect of daily life. When it comes time for weight loss, we try hard to plan healthy meals, get in some cardio, and deplete our snacking. However, the system which has been used around the world to estimate the calories in our food has been around since the turn of the 19th to 20th century. "Our current system for assessing calories is surely wrong," said evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This system has some obvious flaws, and has recently been deemed inaccurate and impractical.

One major aspect where the system is inaccurate, is the estimate of calories for cooked food. When heat denatures proteins or gelatinizes the collagen in meat, it affects the amount of calories in the food, leading to inaccurate assumptions about the calories being consumed. Also, the way different food is processed or cooked can make them easier to digest, resulting in a different amount of net calories. For instance, take starch in cereal kernels such as barley grains or beans, and compare them to the same cereals ground into flour or process it into breakfast cereal. The latter is easier to digest. 

So why does all this really matter? Well, we are currently in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and counting calories has definitely been misleading, according to David Ludwig, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. How the body processes different foods in different ways matters. However, there are many other things that this system doesn't take into account. Age, gender, height, stress level, and other factors seem to make a big difference in how much a person can eat and still maintain the same weight.

So, whether this makes scientists more likely to spend a multitude of effort revising and recalculating our calorie counting system, or it makes a majority of people less likely to obsess over counting calories is hard to tell. I hope people who want to lose more weight are able to do so by making healthy decisions and choosing better meals, rather than counting calories on a system which is clearly flawed. What do you think, is the system really as important as they are making it out to be if we have been using it for centuries? Or is it a possible excuse for why calorie counting simply doesn't work for some?

Lindsey Dugas (1)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Murderous Great Tits!

     The link between the bird and dinosaur may be growing larger, and the appearance of dinosaurs is becoming fluffier. Researchers have been accepting the fact that birds belong to a specialized subgroup of theropods (encompassing T-Rex and Velociraptors), meaning these modern birds are the only dinosaurs to have survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 65 million years ago. So when the thought of a dinosaur comes to mind (especially a T-Rex or a Velociraptor) most people would associate the kind of terror depicted in Jurassic Park; the large, dangerous, relentless and blood-thirsty savages. From a more educated perspective, dinosaurs are not crazy savage beasts, but can definitely be aggressive and dangerous given the opportunity. Therefore, I have to pose the question: if there is a strong link between the dinosaurs and modern birds, does this include the savage behavior of the dinosaurs?
    One may think so if ever exposed to some Great Tits, they’re dangerous if not treated in a careful manner, where observing is probably preferred to the hands-on approach. These Great Tits may look like beautiful, awe-inspiring, and docile creatures, yet do not underestimate the power of Great Tits. Because of certain evidence and documentation from researchers, one may be led to believe that Great Tits are the murderous, blood-thirsty, savages that are most closely related to that terrorizing assumption of dinosaur behavior.
    These Tits are found throughout Europe, the Middle East, Central & Northern Asia and parts of North Africa; and they don’t tend to migrate unless exposed to very harsh winter (Great Tits do not like the extreme cold). Great Tits are quite colorful, exhibiting a bit of black, yellow, olive, and white. The go –to meal of choice is insects, but have been known to consume a wider variety of organisms such as small bats or even other birds. There have been several recorded cases of the Great Tits having a habit of picking at the bones of hoofed mammals, eating fat and tissues of hanged people back in the day, and more recently leaving a trail of bird carcasses in their wake.
Take your Tits seriously, or else.        

Nick Mulone (3)

Ancient Fossilized Sea Creatures Yield Oldest Biomolecules Isolated Directly from a Fossil

Fossils provide us with physical proof that there was life before humans.  Fossils can provide information about what lived in the past, their environment (in comparison to its current counterpart), and they can be used as time indicators.  The properties of fossils help us construct the “history of a continent”.   It has been presumed that organic matter cannot survive fossilization, which is the process of geologically recording organic remains.  Not all organisms meet the prerequisites for fossilization.  Hardness of body parts, the environment, and predators can influence the process of fossilization.  Most organisms that are well preserved are buried quickly, protecting them from the environment and depriving them of oxygen to limit the extent of the decay. 

The belief that organic matter cannot survive fossilization has been challenged.  Fossils have been discovered in Midwest America (Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa) of crinoids, or “sea-lilies”, in immaculate condition and dated back 350 million years, that contain the organisms’ original organic matter.  This pristine condition of the crinoid fossils was possible because of the geography of the flat, vast plains of the Midwest that were unchanged by mountains or volcanism.  The fossilized crinoids dated back to the carboniferous period (359 – 299 million years ago), a time when an inland ocean spanned the Midwest.  According to Ohio State University geologists, the storms that occurred during this time rapidly buried the crinoids in many layers of fine sediments under the water, catalyzing fossilization.

Crinoids are composed of a porous calcite skeleton covered in living tissue.  When the organism perishes, its tissue decays and calcite precipitates into the pores.  Some organic matter that has not entirely decayed could become sealed in the pores by calcite, creating a “tomb” that is ideal for preservation.  A professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State explained that the molecules in the organic matter found in the fossils, called biomarkers, are similar to quinones, which sometimes function as pigments or toxins.  Interestingly, the crinoids had fossilized in different colors: blue-gray, dark gray, and white.  The organic molecules were examined by a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which separates the molecules by electric charge and mass, and identified as molecules similar to quinones.  The ancient quinone-like molecules were compared to those of the crinoids of today, showing that they occur in both specimens. 

The next objective is to identify the exact quinone molecule in the crinoid fossils to then be able to determine what kind and how much information can be acquired about the individual species.  The data we can derive from fossils is limited by technology.  People noticed the color differences in the crinoids 100 years ago but the necessary technology was not available to analyze their composition.  I can only imagine the discoveries that will be possible in the future with even more advanced technology. 

Posted by Jessica Westover (3)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DEET Efficiency Less Effective the Second Time Around

Imagine a world without mosquitoes. It would be a world with less disease transferring insects and a world without mosquito repellent. Since eradicating a large and successful population of a specific insect would be nearly impossible due to its ecological backlash, with expectation to Janet Fang's theory, lets then talk about how we could continue to improve distancing our hot, human skin from the heat-seeking senses of mosquitoes.

DEET is a common, and highly regarded, mosquito repellent. DEET, (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide), has been the subject of recent studies which has found that certain insects are unaffected by its presence. According to James Logan, Nina Stanczyk and colleagues, in the subject species A. aegypti, They found that three hours after pre-exposure the mosquitoes showed behavioral insensitivity... [and] pre-exposure to DEET has implications for the use of repellents and the ability of mosquitoes to overcome them.     

Logan and company, studied A. aegypti through three experiments dealing with the effect of DEET. Exp. 1 was the effect of DEET with a human arm (control variable), exp. 2 was with a nylon control on a heat source and exp. 3 was with a section of nylon tights with no arm present. Only female A. aegypti were tested and although they did not mention why they only tested females, it must be attributed to the females' ability to live longer than their male counter-parts; almost up to a month in captivity. With random probing and data collection, the results showed that it was not behavioral change that caused the ineffective repellency of DEET, ultimately it could be attributed to the mosquitoes natural response to have higher feeding success.

This case study is not discouraging the use of DEET but only analyzing the fact that certain mosquitoes has the ability to essentially ignore DEET once they have been previously exposed to it. Also the study does not know for how long this effect lasts. With studies like this, we can become closer to a place without too much mosquito interference.   

Poster by Tony Huynh (3)

How the Whale Got Its Teeth

Even though they don’t look like one, whales are mammals. They have a tail fluke, no hind limb and no body hair. Most whales don’t have teeth and those that do, like killer whales, have only a row of simple peg-like teeth, which looks the same. On the other hand, most mammals have four types of teeth, each shaped for specific task. A multidisciplinary team of researchers investigated how whales got its teeth using fossil records and the embryonic development process.

In this study, Brooke Armfield and her colleagues investigated the developmental processes of dolphins, which are whales' smaller cousins, and tracked the evolutionary progression of their dentition throughout the fossil records. Fossil records show that, 48 million years ago, whales had the same four types of teeth just like other mammals. Eventually, as they started adapting to life in the water, 30 million years ago, their teeth became simpler and transformed into their peg-like appearance.  

The next step was to search how teeth are shaped during development. There are two proteins – FGF8 and BMP4 – in the embryo, which cause the developing teeth to grow into a certain shape. FGF8 expression occurs in the back of the jaw leading to development of molar teeth in mammals. BMP4 expression occurs near the tip of the jaws. Studies in pig embryos – relatives of whales and dolphins – have shown that these two proteins are distributed in the same way as they are in other mammals. This proves that whales' ancestors might have this distribution of gene expression as well.

However, studies on dolphin embryos show a different pattern. FGF8 is still present in the back part of the jaw, but BMP4 is present along the entire length of the jaw, overlapping with the presence of FGF8. The new hypothesis was that the overlapping presence of BMP4 in these new areas causes the teeth all along the jaw to be simple in shape and similar to each other.

It is interesting to see only a simple shift in the location of proteins would influence the shape of teeth in whales. This demonstrates that major changes to the design of an animal can result from small changes in early development by simply shifting the region where an already existing protein occurs.

Posted by Setareh Sepasi (3)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Ideas About Origin of Alcohol Metabolism

Although observing a college student’s weekend habits wouldn’t suggest it, ethanol is, in fact, a toxic substance. Left unmetabolized, it acts as a central nervous system depressant by working as a GABA agonist at the synapse.
Since GABA functions primarily as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, a flood of “GABA-imitating” alcohol into the synapse means neurons that normally receive an action potential from a presynaptic neuron actually silence that impulse before it can travel where it needs to go. The haywire this creates in the nervous system presents itself initially as euphoria and relaxation, but as blood alcohol content rises and more inhibition takes place, the consequences become more severe (nausea, impaired cognition, unconsciousness, etc).
Luckily, not all ingested ethanol ends up in the bloodstream. Humans are able to metabolize a certain amount of ethanol through the action of alcohol-dehydrogenase, which converts it into acetylaldehyde. Other enzymes produced by the liver then rapidly convert toxic acetylaldehyde to acetate and eventually carbon dioxide and water.
This safety mechanism is great for having a little fun on a Friday night without worrying about shutting down your nervous system (although some of us almost manage to do that). But how and why, evololutionarily speaking, did we evolve the ability and motivation to consume this poison?…especially when many animals, including primates, get by without consuming it or being able to metabolize it.

Steven Benner, of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., sought to answer this question by tracing the history of the alcohol-dehydrogenase (ADH4) back through the primate family tree. Benner looked at the changes in the enzyme at each branching point in the phylogeny and was able to evaluate the effectiveness of each variant in metabolizing alcohol.

He found that most extinct primate ancestors (“branching points” on the tree) were not able to digest ethanol. However, the common ancestor of humans, gorillas, and chimps possessed ADH4 that was 50 times stronger than previous enzymes. Interestingly, these primates spend more time on the ground than other species. Brenner hypothesizes that the “terrestrial lifestyle” of our common ancestor gave it more access to fruits that had fallen from the tree. Many of these fruits had breaks in the skin that could allow yeast to enter and ferment sugar into ethanol.

Obviously, primates that did not possess the enzyme could not eat these fruits without passing out and possibly falling victim to ground-restricted predators. Those that could metabolize the ethanol were free to enjoy as much of this uncontested resource as their livers could handle. Benner’s hypothesis also explains why extant primarily tree-inhabiting primates cannot metabolize ethanol—they were not exposed to the fallen fruit, only fruit still attached to the tree.

Although Benner’s explanation is certainly convincing, it will take a little support from the fossil record (there is little fossil evidence of human and primate ancestors during this time period) for his ideas to be more widely accepted. Until then, all we can do is lift our glasses to the nameless ancestor who, 10 million years ago, was bold enough to step down from his tree and make it possible for us to “enjoy responsibly”.

Posted by Joseph Starrett (3)

Burrr!! The Truth Behind Surviving Winter and How it May Just Be in Our DNA

 If New Englanders thought this winter was unbearably cold, you clearly haven’t spent any time in Siberia during the winter. Siberian winters can reach lows of -25°C (-13°F) and when comparing that to Amherst, MA temperatures of 5°F and 15°F, it would seem like we live in Florida compared to Siberian natives! It’s shocking to think that 0.5% of the world’s population lives in such cold conditions, but studies have shown that natural selection on the human genome may play a key role in helping indigenous Siberian people to adapt to the frigid north.
      A recent study performed by Alexia Cardona, member of Toomas Kivisild’s genetic group at the University of Cambridge, and colleagues observed 10 Siberian groups that made up much of the native population and analyzed DNA samples in order to seek out genes that evolution favored to help humans adapt to survive and reproduce in cold climates. The DNA analysis proved successful because three genes; UCP1, ENPP7PRKG1 were naturally selected within various Siberian groups. The gene UCP1 was selected for more in southern Siberian groups, and helps the body’s fat directly produce heat rather than producing chemical energy for muscle and brain function. The other two gene variants positively selected, ENPP7, which functions in the metabolism of fats in meat and dairy, were found selected for in most of the Siberian region. The other gene, PRKG1, was greatly selected for in northeastern and central Siberian regions, and is concerned with shivering and the constriction of blood vessels in order to prevent heat loss. Alexia Cardona notes that these results, “show how, over the more than 25,000 years that modern humans have lived in Siberia, various people have adapted to the region’s cold weather and meaty food sources through selection on multiple genes that control several biological mechanisms.” This new study really sheds to light how humans are constantly evolving and adapting in order to survive and reproduce and how natural selection is the key to all basic biological life. In this case, native Siberians would be unable to survive and reproduce in such cold conditions if it weren't for natural selection favoring these specific genes. Therefore, without natural selection favoring these types of genes, Siberia would not be the same as it is today and people would be unable to survive there.

So now begs the question, if Siberian natives have naturally selected genes to help them adapt to colder climates, do other people in cold climates like Russians in the winter, or even people here in New England, share those same naturally selected genes or are we all stuck bundling up, shivering, and dreaming of the summer sun?
Posted by Gabrielle Wertheim (3)

Drugs Harming Our Aquatic Ecosystems

     Drugs are polluting our waterways and effecting our aquatic ecosystems! There have been proposals to change the waste water treatment plants and equip them with better machinery which would filter the waste better so that very little amounts of the drugs would go through unharmed. As of now almost all of the drugs go through these treatment plants unscathed. Pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to pay for the cost of revolutionizing the waste treatment facilities.
     Some fish living in the waters that have been effected in the following ways:  eating extreme amounts, becoming bold and moving into new and uncertain areas, and they are becoming anti-social, and unwilling to mate. Young Perch feed on zoo plankton, which in turn feed on algae. If drugged young perch are continuously gobbling up the zoo plankton then there will be no zoo plankton to feed on algae and the algae will thrive. Zebra fish are affected by a reduced courtship and if they do not want to mate then there will be no new generation to replace the last.
     We all know that a small change in a smaller ecosystem can have a huge effect on the on the entire ecosystem. Is the cost too great for pharmaceutical companies to provide better waste water treatment facilities when they are making millions selling these exact drugs that are the problem? Should we just allow them to sabotage the aquatic environment? Once enough destruction of aquatic environments occurs it is only a matter of time before it has an effect on the dry environments the two go hand in hand.

Tonya Sulham (3)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Crazy Catz

How many cats are being taken care of as household pets? Let’s hope not too many. Up to half of all human beings are infected with a rare disease that is transmitted from their cats. These house pets are believed to carry a parasite that can take their caretakers hostage.

The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is easily transmitted from a cat’s feces to humans and can lead to the disease, Toxoplasmosis. The parasite resides in the human brain and can lead to serious side effects. It can cause blindness, brain damage, and in the worst-case scenario, still birth when transmitted from a mother to her unborn child.

Cats don’t normally consume their own feces so how do they manage to catch the parasite in the first place? Rats consume the feces of cats and can become infected with Toxoplasma gondii. When a cat attacks and bites an infected rat, the parasites are then being transmitted, keeping the parasite and disease alive.

By no means should everyone abandon his or her precious cat. Lucky for us, it’s relatively a benign disease for many. Just be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling yours cat’s litter box! There are movements towards finding a vaccination for Toxoplasmosis. It is yet to be determined whether the vaccines are potentially life threatening or life saving, but research can potentially help those currently infected. 

Posted By: Kimberly Ty (3)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saving the Tasmanian Devil Population

            During a time in which so many species are on the verge of going extinct, biologists in Australia are making an effort to conserve what’s left of the Tasmanian devil population. The Tasmanian devil is an endangered species living on the island of Tasmania, which is off the coast of Australia. Many species in Tasmania are unique to only that area so it’s important to give these species the best chance of survival. The main reason for the dwindling population of the Tasmanian devil is a facial tumor that is extremely contagious called the devil facial tumor disease (or DFTD).

In an effort to conserve the population, a nature sanctuary has been made on Maria Island for fourteen healthy Tasmanian devils so that they can start a new population that isn’t plagued by the disease.  Authorities are calling this group an “insurance population” just in case the disease eliminates all the devils on Tasmania. Tasmanian devils have never inhabited Maria Island so scientist will be closely monitoring the ecosystem on the island to make sure that there will be no disruption with the introduction of this new population. If the transfer is successful two years down the line, scientists will bring more of these devils to Maria Island so that the population would be brought up to 50.

I found this article interesting because I have never heard of a cancer that can be contagious. I found out that this is one of the only forms of cancer in the world that is transmissible along with canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT) in dogs and reticulum cell sarcoma in Syrian hamsters. DFTD was discovered in 1996 and causes death within three to six months.  Due to habitat isolation, Tasmanian devils lack genetic diversity so the disease is able to spread quickly. The tumor cells are spread when a devil bites another diseased devil’s face during a dispute. As an interesting side note, the Tasmanian devil has the strongest bite force per body mass of all mammals. Hopefully this new population will have better luck on Maria Island so that this fascinating species can survive.

Posted by Poya Jafari (2)

Malnutrition and Disease: A Vicious Cycle

Malnutrition and infectious disease are severe problems for many people in disadvantaged areas of the world. While both challenges alone pose a significant obstacle to global health, new research suggests that they may comprise a vicious cycle. Malnourishment is known to be a significant risk factor in acquiring various infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis. However, infectious disease also appears to be a contributing cause in many cases of malnourishment. Infections that disturb the body’s normal bacterial composition in the digestive tract may prevent the proper absorption of nutrients. Also, when a person’s immune system is actively fighting an infection, a significant amount of their limited metabolic energy goes into fighting the infection. This can put substantial stress on an already energy deprived system.
Despite daunting challenges posed by malnourishment and infectious disease, new research has shown that targeting both problems simultaneously in patients can have promising results. A recent study in Malawai showed that malnourished children who were given an antibiotic along with a dietary supplement showed better recovery from malnutrition then patients on the dietary supplement alone. The study consisted of 2,767 malnourished children aged six months to five years. Of the subjects, 85.1% of the children on placebo recovered, compared with 88.7% and 90.9% on amoxicillin and cefdinir, respectively. This same study also looked at the gut microbial content of children with kwashikior, a disease that develops in some children with severe malnutrition. The hallmarks of this disease are bulging stomachs, thin and elongated limbs, skin disorders, and liver disease. The study looked at pairs of twins in which one child developed the disease and the other did not. The researchers found that the twin with kwashikior routinely had a less diverse microbiome in their digestive tract than the healthy twin. These results illustrate the importance of maintaining a balanced and diverse microbe content in order to digest food effectively.
Based on the results of this study, the World Health Organization is expected to recommend the use of antibiotic supplements in treating malnourishment. Many of these antibiotics cost only a few dollars for a week’s supply. Hopefully with prices as low as these, an international effort to get these drugs into the hands of those who need them will be successful.

Posted by Sean McDougall (2)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is the "Iceman" a Real Life Superhero?

Wim “Iceman” Hof is an adventurer who currently holds 18 world records for his daredevil activities. He has conquered stunts such as the longest ice bath, completing a full marathon above the polar circle, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro barefoot wearing only shorts. How does the Iceman accomplish his daredevil acts without killing himself during the process? Hof claims that he “influences his autonomic nervous system and immune response through concentration and meditation”. He possesses the abiliity to maintain a safe core temperature which prevents his body from entering a hypothermic state.
So far Hof is the only human being known to have this remarkable ability, which is why Dr. Peter Pickkers from the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre performed research on the Iceman recently. During the experiment Hof was injected with an endotoxin while meditating. In a normal healthy human the body reacts to the endotoxin as if it were being attacked by bacteria and then launches an immune response. After the injection Hof's results were quite different. He displayed elevated cortisol levels suggesting that the stress hormone suppressed his immune response. Hof did not experience the typical " flu like" symptoms associated with an endotoxin injection and his immune response was recorded to be approximately fifty percent less than other human participants.

Is the Iceman a superhero? I will leave that up to you to decide, he does possess an abnormal ability to keep himself alive under extreme circumstances and has mastered the art of mind over matter.

Angeline Latsch (2)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Terminal Ballistics: Linking Biology to Bullets

            As an NRA and State Police certified firearms instructor a component of the courses I teach involves educating students about what kind of force is necessary for self defense, and as a member of the armed forces and veteran I have basic training in combat trauma management. The interaction of bullets and biology is known as "terminal ballistics," and is widely reported on by medical professionals, scientists, law enforcement personnel, and the military. The intended and actual effect a bullet has on the biology of a target, whether it is while hunting or in a self defense scenario, is crucial in selecting a firearm and understanding its proper employment in various scenarios, as well as treating gunshot related injuries. In this article I will try my best to highlight the key points of various studies I have read that deal with the intended and actual effects of various bullets on the human body.
            When shooting for self defense it is important to understand there are three primary functions a bullet can have on a target to stop the threat. The first of these is through catastrophic damage to the central nervous system, the next is through mechanical structural damage to the body, and the final is through massive hemorrhaging and subsequent loss or diminishing of consciousness. As firearms instructors we teach to shoot to stop the threat. Through this we hope that should the presence of a gun or single gun-shot not be enough as a psychological block to stop someone from being attacked, the victim realizes that at that point they are probably going to need to cause a lot of physical damage until their life is no longer in danger.
            We teach to primarily focus on shooting the center mass, or torso of a person, rather than going for other areas of the body. Under a high stress, dynamic situation, it is unlikely that one will be able to hit the smaller target that is the core of the central nervous system, contained in the head and spine. One's torso provides the largest target, and contains the majority of vital organs. In a life or death situation, especially a gun fight, every second counts. The unfortunate reality is that when stopping an aggressor, physically incapacitating them in the shortest amount of time means being able to inflict the most damage in as little time possible.
            When a bullet passes through or into the human body, it creates a permanent and temporary wound cavity. The temporary wound cavity can be many times the diameter of the bullet, and in and of itself can cause extensive damage. Handguns, the primary self defense tool of Americans, use lower velocity bullets which cause a much less dramatic temporary wound cavity than a rifle. For that reason, I recommend hollow point ammunition for defensive uses such as concealed carry, as it is designed to expand which increases the amount of damage to the intended target as it passes through. Likewise, I personally use a rifle for protection of my home as the nature of the ammunition lends itself to being able to cause more damage than handgun ammunition, in addition to other benefits dealing with accuracy and repeatability of hits.

            While it may seem dark, the ability to cause as much damage as possible is very important. If a person continues an attack after being shot or even under the threat of being shot, it is likely due to some sort of impaired neurological function, whether it is adrenaline or drugs. In the instance that an attacker is not reacting to pain or fear, it is very possible that they will only be stopped when physically unable to continue. Generally, shutting down neurological function or damaging nerves or the spine extensively is the fastest way to do this, but the head and spine is a small target. If massive hemorrhaging is caused, a dramatic drop in blood pressure can also cause a loss in consciousness, though this will not occur as fast as damage to the CNS. Understanding the type of bleeding associated with damaging the heart, liver, spleen, and lungs, as well as the major thoracic arteries and veins helps explain why this is such an attractive target to stopping a violent criminal, rather than the small target of the head. 
            Understanding the potential damage that can occur when someone is shot is equally important when treating gunshot wounds. One of the big things we are trained to look for in the military is entry and exit wounds in the chest, as a sucking chest wound, or pneumothorax, is very common in gunshot wounds to the chest. We also are trained in needle decompressions in the case of blood entering the pleural cavity, this is known as a hemothorax. Other types of expected bleeding based off various injuries sites, for example the arteries in the legs, are taught to be treated through compression and clotting compounds, as well as tourniquets. Obviously doctors who perform emergency and follow up surgeries must understand the kind of trauma to the body they can expect from gunshots from rifles, shotguns, and handguns.
            There have been many books, articles, essays, and personal accounts written on the topic of bullet effects on human bodies. These studies are important as they allow for better training of military, law enforcement, and civilians, better development of firearms and ammunition, and better training of first responders as well as doctors and surgeons. This brief summary was meant only to give the most basic overview on how gunshots are intended to effect the human body, and what kind of damage and subsequent treatment can be expected. I have included many good links throughout the paper from perspectives of medical professionals, to at home tests, to sanctioned articles for and by the military. There are literally thousands of pages of information on this topic in the public domain, and I highly encourage those interested in medicine, self defense, or both to sift through. 

Michael Ball (1)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Klondike the Extraordinary Puppy

Klondike the Extraordinary Puppy

If you’re a dog person like I am, you may be excited to hear that they wont be going anywhere any time soon. Biology is advancing every day, and one of its recent successes has caught my eye. One little puppy’s survival and thriving growth has given hope to endangered canines and possibly other types of endangered species as well.

Klondike is a Labrador-beagle mix who was born through the process of cryopreservation, the freezing of tissue. After his beagle  mother was artificially inseminated, the embryos were frozen and one was eventually inserted into his surrogate mother, another beagle. Scientists waited until Klondike was nine months old to announce the success of this process. The puppy doesn’t have any major health problems, and has developed normally so far in his life.

Although neither Labradors nor beagles are endangered, this assisted reproduction technique can most likely be used with species such as the red wolf, one of the world’s most endangered canines. Repopulation of this species is now possible, with Klondike as proof! Female dogs can only give birth once or twice a year, so being able to freeze their embryos and preserve genetic diversity is truly a breakthrough.

Biology is constantly developing in new and amazing ways. Now that scientists have successfully given life to a frozen dog embryo, they may be anticipating the same success for other endangered species. Cryopreservation of embryos is a rather new field in biology, and it will be fascinating to learn which species they will use this technique on next!

Posted by Lindsey Dugas (1).