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)


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Genes What Do They Actually Tell US?

Genetic testing and direct-to-consumer companies are becoming ever so popular.  Genes give us probabilistic information, this information is not concrete. So why is it that genetic testing and genome reading is becoming so popular? Is it that we as humans find it necessary to have even a surreal feel of concrete information? Humans do not like things that they do not have knowledge about or cannot obtain knowledge to according to the article. Due to variation in environments and uniqueness of each person's genome multiple studies of a given trait or disease have produced varying results.Would you want to know if you were prone to certain disease, even if it was just a probability? I think that companies are going to make billions on scaring people, making them hypochondriacs, making them think they are at risk for a bunch of different traits or diseases, when it is actually a small probability to contract one. "Complex traits — such as the diseases that most of us will eventually get — result from the interactions among multiple genes and/or environmental factors. Predicting disease depends not just on identifying our genotype, the particular, unique set of DNA sequence variants we inherited, but also on predicting our future environments — what we’ll eat, drink, or breathe, the medications we’ll take, and so on — which neither DTC companies nor anyone else, no matter how ‘expert’, can do." so what do you think about all this? Do you think that these direct-to-consumer companies should be allowed to exploit people through their genes?
Tonya Sulham (3)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Jurassic Park in 3D, and More 

Every kid has seen Jurassic Park at one point or another. If you haven't seen it then you need stop reading this blog and go rent it or stream or buy or something, just see it. With that out of the way, even those who might not have seen Jurassic Park should be aware of the basic plot of the movie, or  of their original material, books. Simply put, scientists discover dinosaur DNA preserved in ancient misquotes and then use that DNA along with genes spliced from reptiles to recreate dinosaurs in modern times.
While Jurassic Park was first dreamed up over 20 years ago, it easy to watch the movie or read the books and laugh at how silly the science used in those stories seemed. Today for example, we know dinosaurs are most closely related to birds, not lizards or frogs. A simple mistake, but one that would make a huge difference if the idea of Jurassic Park were ever to be realized in real life.Exciting maybe that could be a possibility. Recently, actual organic remains were discovered of Cretaceous period dinosaure embryos, leading to scientists being able to track the growth of dinosaurs through embryonic development for the first time ever.  

The bones represent about 20 embryonic individuals of the long-necked sauropodomorph Lufengosaurus, the most common dinosaur in the region during the Early Jurassic period. An adult Lufengosaurus was approximately eight metres long.
With so much actual organic material being discovered and today's continual advances in the fields of genetics, who knows what is possible. Today humans have cloned cows, sheep, dogs, horses, pigs, rabbits, and many other animals. As we get closer and closer to perfecting our cloning techniques is it really that hard to imagine a group of scientists attempting to clone some of this Lufengosaurus material.  Another boost to the likely hood of Jurassic park is the genetic mapping being done so feverishly today as well, it seems very possible the missing sections of DNA could be found on some ancient bird and reprogrammed into the dino-DNA, we could do it the same way we make insulin from sheep. The possibilites our modern technology are so great, we may be able to use it to revive ancient life. The question is do we want to? If so, should we??

bryan Cohoon (3)

Blame the Bacteria

For my previous blog entry, I wrote about the discovery of arterial plaque-buildup in the mummified remains of various ancient populations. With heart disease consistently being the leading cause of death in the United States year after year, it is clear that our relationship with our hardest-working organ has not much improved despite hundreds of years of technological and medical innovation and discovery.

But that’s not to say that progress is non-existent. Doctors and clinical researchers are working hard to uncover the roles of lifestyle, diet, and genetics in the development of heart disease. Still, there are some paradoxes that are hard to explain based on our current understanding of high-cholesterol and fatty diets promoting heart disease.
Take red meat, for example. A food that is high in protein and relatively low in fat and cholesterol. Theoretically these qualities are heart-healthy and a green light for incorporating as a staple into your diet. Why, then, is red meat the first thing to get kicked to the curb when trying to lower blood cholesterol levels? The connection to increased atherosclerosis was identified years ago, but not explained until quite recently, when researchers were able to put the blame on an unlikely source – the bacteria in our guts.
The gut microbiome is essential in the digestion of food and the proper function of our digestive system. It is a dynamic community of bacteria that changes in response to diet, disease, and antibiotic use, among many other factors. Dysfunctions of the microbiome may promote the development of Crohn’s disease or other gastrointestinal issues.
Researchers discovered that bacterial processing of L-carnitine, a molecule found in red meat, into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) caused increased cholesterol levels by slowing the removal of cholesterol from the blood stream. They confirmed their findings by observing that mice which were fed high levels of L-carnitine had double the risk of developing atherosclerosis. When the same mice were treated with antibiotics (diminishing their gut microbiome) they did not see the increased plaque deposits.
Furthermore, meat-eaters who took L-carnitine were found to have higher levels of TMAO than vegans who had the same treatment, suggesting the difference between their gut bacteria was the determining factor for TMAO levels. Meat-eaters are likely to have more L-carnitine converting bacteria simply because the consumption of meat promotes the growth of these bacteria. Vegans do not have enough of the bacteria to cause significant conversion of the L-carnitine into TMAO.
This research adds further insight towards the role of diet in the development of heart disease and opens up avenues for possible treatment or prevention plans that can hopefully put a dent in America's greatest health problem.

Referenced work:

Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. 2013;

Credit for cc images:

Posted by Joseph Starrett(3)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Maternal Childhood Abuse and its Link to Autism


        As we roll into the second week of April, when the birds are chirping and the sun is shining, it’s important to also recognize that it’s the second week of the National Autism Awareness Month. Autism is most commonly known as a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others due to various disorders of early brain development. There is no one specific cause for autism, but a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health has discovered that women who grew up experiencing abuse were at the highest risk- 3 ½ times more than women not abused- of having a child born with autism.
       This article brings to light the impacts and harms childhood abuse has on not only the person who experiences it, but also on future generations that are put at an increased risk for brain disorders like autism. Not only does this study help identify a new risk factor for autism, but it also helps to identify future preventable risk factors. Results of this study concluded that no matter what level of abuse a woman may have been exposed to, the risk of having a child with autism increased based on any level, ranging from moderate to severe, compared to women that were not exposed to any level of abuse during childhood. Although further research is required in order to weed out the mechanisms involved in maternal childhood abuse-autism, authors of the study believe that women’s biological systems experience long-lasting effects from all types of abuse, which plays a crucial role in a future mother’s childbearing abilities and the type of stress that can be put on the fetus.

       Even though there may be no cure for autism, through various studies, such as this one, there can be increased efforts to prevent childhood abuse, which can furthermore lower the rate of babies being born with autism. Recently I was given the opportunity to volunteer for the Autism Speaks 5k run/3k walk where I realized that autism is becoming a very prevalent disorder among our future generations, and with the sad truth of there being no cure, studies such as this one shine light into some hope for preventing more children being born with this disorder and maybe even eventually finding a cure. Not only does this type of research have the opportunity to decrease rates of childhood abuse, but it also opens the door into an array of discoveries on the mechanisms and biology that drives autism. 

Gabrielle Wertheim (3)

Link to Photo:

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Smoking Bans

As most of us know, UMass will be joining 1,100 other campuses in a smoke free environment for its students and staff. The university will be administering the smoking ban campus-wide on July 1, 2013. Upon the return to campus for the fall 2013 semester, smoking will no longer be tolerated. This includes all areas of campus as well as inside vehicles and parking lots.

Within this article, the author discuses the impacts of municipal smoking bans in public areas such as restaurants and bars. Recent studies showed that there was generally an improvement seen with the use of smoking bans in place. Smokers reduced the number of times they stepped outside for a smoke and the second hand smoke completely disappeared, improving the health of the employees and other guests.

Although smoking bans are beneficial, study shows that smoking rates are still high. A study of student smokers showed that label warnings were not necessarily helpful in preventing the decision to quit smoking. More dramatic warnings such as “smokers die earlier” versus the typical warning, “smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy” were shown to the students. Those who smoked for self-esteem reasons actually viewed smoking more positively after seeing the new warning. Those who didn’t smoke for self-esteem reasons viewed smoking more negatively.

Tell me your thoughts about smoking. Do you think that the new smoking ban at UMass will have an effect on the students and staff?  Would different warning labels on cigarettes packages cause smokers to quit smoking or will they be ignored regardless of the dramatic warnings?

Kimberly Ty (3)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Colorful Poison.

The poison dart frogs are one of the most venomous creatures on earth as well as being the most beautiful and eye alluring. They are members of the Dendrobatidae family and range from Costa Rica to Brazil. The bright colors and patterns warn off predators and these frogs also have unusual parenting behaviors such as carrying eggs on their back or in their mouth as well as males of some species being devoted to a clutch of eggs for protection and transportation.

The Indigenous Emberá people of Colombia, use the poison from the Golden poison dart frog and tipped their blowgun darts. What is so fascinating is the fact that one little frog has enough poison can kill 10 grown men. The Embera people sure knew how to utilize this frog to defeat enemies and take down kills. It is mind boggling on how this discover could have occurred, did someone eat the frog or were they experimenting because they already knew from watching natural predators the frogs were poisonous?

Leimadophis epinephelus, is the only snake known that is a predator to these frogs because the venom does not affect them. It possibly has some sort of mutation allowing it to 'dodge' any adverse side effects the poison would cause another predator. Other poison dart frog venom is being synthesized as a painkiller which is mind boggling but does make sense for poisons that might simply numb pain receptors and cause no real damage to humans.

Sunni-Lynn Farias (1)

Nature's Most Deadly Predator

If I asked you to think of the world’s most deadly predator, which species would come to mind? Maybe the cheetah, who can dart after its prey at speeds up to seventy five miles per hour? Or perhaps the great white shark, a 2,000lb monstrosity capable of tearing into its prey with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth with pressures up to 1.8 tons? It might surprise you to learn that you have probably stood face to face with one of the most efficient predators in the world today, the common dragonfly. In terms of the efficiency with which it manages to catch it’s prey, dragonflies are in fact one of the most lethal killers out there.

The dragonfly’s efficiency as a predator stems from several key attributes. Researchers have recently identified a circuit of sixteen neurons in dragonflies that connects their brains with their flight centers in the thorax, allowing them to tract and readjust their position to intercept a moving target, the way a heat seeking missile does. A dragonfly also makes good use of its visual system to actively track prey. Dragonfly eyes are some of the most acute of all insects. Furthermore, their large eyes occupy most of their heads, providing a near 360 degree field of vision. Dragonflies also make use of a neat mathematic trick in order to track and intercept their prey. Say that two objects are heading in roughly the same direction, with the second object at an angle less than fifty degrees from the direction the first object is facing. If the first object maintains this angle with the second object, the two objects must eventually collide. Dragonflies make sue of this principle by positioning and maintaining the image of their prey on a specific spot on their retina as they fly towards them. As long as the prey stays on the same retinal spot, the dragonfly is guaranteed to intercept them.

Despite their many hunting attributes, one trait in particular may set them apart from other predators. This is there ability for selective attention, something that resembles that of higher functioning organisms such as primates more than insects. A recent study in Australia looked at exactly this. The researchers used electrophysiological techniques to show the degree of selective attention in dragonflies. When presented with a single stimulus (i.e. small dot on a LCD screen), recordings from a midbrain neuron responsive to the visual stimulus elicited one pattern of firing. When presented with a different single stimulus, the same neuron would show a different characteristic pattern of firing. However, when presented with both stimuli at the same time, the neuron would show the pattern of firing characteristic of one or the other single stimulus, not a blend of the two. The researchers interpreted this as evidence for the dragonfly’s impressive selective attention abilities. 

It is intriguing to ponder what we can learn from studying the mechanics of nature’s masterful little machines, such as the dragonfly. Research such as that done in the Australian study could provide us with a potential new model organism for studying selective attention as it may operate in more cognitively advanced organisms, such as humans. In addition, one of the biggest supporters of research on dragonflies is the U.S. military, who wishes to learn the secrets of one of nature’s most finely crafted aerial drones. Maybe next time you spot a dragonfly humming by outside your window, you’ll see him in a somewhat new light. 

Posted by Sean McDougall (2)