Thursday, September 27, 2018

Bee-lieve It or Not

Since 2007, knowledge about the gut microbiome (a community of microorganisms that live within the digestive tracts of animals) has been greatly expanded. The research conducted has considerably shaped our understanding of why these complex communities of microorganisms are important for our digestive tract and immune system. Although scientists have primarily studied the human gut microbiome, this mutualistic relationship is not exclusive to only humans. Many other animals, including insects, also have a mutualistic relationship with gut flora.

Recent research has suggested that a disruption in the honey bee's gut microbiome may be to blame for the species' rapid decline. This disruption is thought to have been caused by a synthetic compound called glyphosate, which is found in the world's most commonly used herbicide.  It is able to kill plants by blocking the production of a specific enzyme, EPSP synthase. This enzyme allows the plant to produce proteins essential for growth, therefore blocking the production of the enzyme is lethal. Aside from plants, this enzyme is also produced in some species of bacteria, thus bacteria can also be affected by Glyphosate. Interestingly, glyphosate does not affect animals because they lack EPSP synthase. Although animals experience no direct effects from glyphosate, because of the importance of the gut microbiome, they have the potential to be affected indirectly.

These secondary effects have catastrophic consequences. Nancy Moran, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Texas in Austin, has conducted a study in order to investigate the extent of this plight. In her study, approximately 2000 honey bees were fed either a sugar syrup or a syrup dosed with glyphosate. The results showed that after three days, the bees that were fed the glyphosate syrup had five times less gut bacterium than those fed the sugar syrup. This decrease in the bees' gut microbiome is significant because it increases their susceptibility to lethal infections. It was discovered that bees with healthy gut microbiomes have a 47% survival rate from infection, compared to a 12% survival rate for those affected by glyphosate.

Although we still do not know why acquiring a glyphosate-disrupted microbiome makes bees more susceptible to infection, there is a clear correlation between disrupted microbiomes and mortality rates in bees. This discovery has broadened the discussion about the potential reasons for the rapid decline in honey bee populations. Hopefully this new information can be used to help prevent similar situations in the future.

Posted by: Hayley Fecko (1)

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Toxic to Clean

Toxic to Clean

Growing up in America has given people unquestionable access to clean drinking water, without questions about how this water was processed and filtered and brought up to the standard deemed drinkable according to various laws and regulations. But what about those who do not have this access? Those in Asia and Africa who go days without clean water and are forced to drink contaminated water in order to survive? 

Professor Kalantar-zadeh has discovered a way to make this health crisis potentially go away by using a cheap filtration device and the science of chemistry. He has found a way to turn otherwise toxic water into drinkable water within mere minutes by using a simple filtration device. The method works by using nano filters made of aluminum oxide (which are highly porous) and pouring contaminated water down this filtration device. Any lead or metal contaminants in the water will stick to the aluminum oxide due to high levels of affinity. The water comes out the other side after several filtrations and is completely safe to drink. However, the question remains of how much this would cost?

Possibly the best part about this filtration method is how cheap it is and how commercially available it can be to regions of the world who are both in great poverty and who lack clean water. Manufacturing of the filter would cost a mere ten cents and the best part? This is a green product and uses minimal energy in the creation of the aluminum oxide. Professor Kalantar-zadeh has said that he wishes the world to know of this filter, as it can be made in a kitchen and used among hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering from diseases related to contaminated water. Now the only question remaining is how do we get this filtration method out to the world and what will be the role of major manufacturing companies?
Posted by “Lauren Hiller” (2)

Snake Anti-Venom Uses in Emergency Medicine

Snake Anti-Venom Uses in Emergency Medicine

          Snakes are awesome creatures that are present nearly in all places around the world. Their presence is increasing in places where people live, which increases the risk of being threatened by people leading to snake bites. Some snakes don’t carry venoms, but a lot of them do and if a venom gets into the human blood it can cause life-threatening organs damage. The only way to cure this venom action is by anti-venom injection at the hospital, but that is not as easy as it sounds and not all hospitals carry all the specific equipment due to rare snakebite cases.

          Snakes inject venoms into the prey’s blood primarily to paralyze or kill it before eating it, but it can also be used as a defense mechanism against any threat including humans. If a snake Venom enters the blood, it can lead to death. The most effective way to prevent damage or death is by injecting a specific anti-venom (antibodies) into the blood as soon as possible to block the venom effect. Each venom is composed of a unique amino acid chain and protein structure that works in a specific way and on a specific body system, for example, cytotoxins (damage cells), hemotoxins (destroy red blood cells or form clots), neurotoxins (disrupt normal nervous system functions including breathing and heart functions). These unique structures cause difficulty in making the different kinds of anti-venom available. In addition, snake identification can be really challenging and can interrupt the treatment plan along with very limited pre-hospital care procedures that can be done. People would feel good when they could get to the hospital not knowing that lots of hospitals stock very few anti-venoms usually for common snakes in the area only. This is causing doctors to be concerned about increased snakebites fatalities. It also needs trained doctors to administer the injection with the right type and dosage. Doctors and people are requesting the hospitals to prioritize emergency patient care more by stocking the hospital with all material needed for snakebites. Most hospitals don’t have it due to the cost of equipment for this rare case. However, it happens, and the cost is not an adequate excuse because it is as low as $1,500 to $2,000 per dose of anti-venom and it is usable for up to 3 years, sometimes less due to its protein nature (antibodies).

          Snakes are pretty but dangerous, and the best thing to do first is preventing snakebites to avoid tissue damage and possibly death. Hospitals should be prepared for any case of snakebite patients before it is too late. Hospitals should put emergency patient care as its number one priority including any case of snakebite treatment.

Posted by "Jad Imad" (2)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Friendly Foe

A Friendly Foe

               Along the desolate coastline of Iceland, a small glimmer of life begins to bloom. With its conical purple flowers and radiating leaflets, Lupinus nootkatensis, blue Nootka lupine, starts to take hold. Forty years later, L. nootkatensis is found covering most of the eastern side of the island, from sea to mountain.  L. nootkatensis, has invaded Iceland.
               In the early 1970’s L. nootkatensis was planted along the coastline of Iceland as a way to limit erosion due to wind. The government began a program that distributed the seeds of the plant to coastal neighborhoods so that the residents could take them and plant them in areas that are highly affected by erosion. Fast-forward forty years and the people of Iceland is trying to stop the spread of this invasive plant, as it has covered many areas that contain native flora species.
               Even though many people of Iceland are trying to control the spread of this invasive plant, many people still believe that the plant is a good thing for the island, according to the New York times article, “Beauty or Beast? Iceland QuarrelsOver an Invasive Plant”.  These people have good reason to believe so as well. L. nootkatensis, stabilizes coastal banks, provides nutrients to the soil, and makes the desolate landscape look full of life. Because of these properties, residents have seen a decrease in dust storms and road closures and increases in overall soil nutrients and tourism. For many people these pros out way the cons, stopping many of the efforts to reduce or limit the growth in population of L. nootkatensis. With public outcry to stop the spread of L. nootkatensis and those that want to see it spread, the government has yet to put forward money or programs to limit the incredible populations of L. nootkatensis. But, if action is not taken on a large stage then the damage might be irreversible.
               Now is the time to take action against invasive plant species, not just in Iceland but globally. As the world continues to get warmer, the range that these plants can grow gets larger, meaning these invasive plants will spread further and faster than ever before putting critical environment in even more precarious positions.

-Posted by Francis Hoey (2)

Wolf ancestry

As time goes by, scientists wish to solve the mysteries of our past relatives, as well as the ancestors to many species that exist today. To handle this task, scientists need to capitalize on genome analysis, which gives clues as to which genetic and phenotypic traits have been lost or gained. For this process, scientists need to analyze the genome of the species they would like to compare to an extinct species. Genome comparison between two extinct species is also prevalent in the world today because it can reveal similarities and the evolutionary steps that were taken between the two species.
            Recently, as stated in the Science magazine article “Japanese wolves may be rare remnant of Ice Age Wolves”, graduate student Jonas Niemann found that a recently extinct species, the Honshu wolf, closely resembled wolves from the ice age.  The ice age wolves, who resided in Siberia, lived 35,000 years earlier and were deemed extinct 20,000 years ago. Intriguingly, the Honshu wolf went extinct in 1905 due to farmers shooting and poisoning them for spreading rabies (which the wolves got from domestic dogs). The ancestor of the domestic dogs died ultimately by the paws of domestic dogs. 
The relation between the Honshu wolf and the ice age Siberian wolf will help piece together the evolution of wolves and dogs, and maybe even tell scientists more about other extinct species that interacted with the deceased wolves. This finding helps cement genomic testing as a reliable source, as well helping scientists get one step closer in knowing how mammalian species, as well as the rest of the organisms on Earth, have evolved.
Rachel Klett

Conservation of the Burmese Star Tortoise

The Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is one kind of tortoise that has been considering as a critically endangered animal species. In these years, many Burmese star tortoises were hunted and captured by smugglers, and then were sent to America, Europe, Eastern Asia and other regions to fulfill the commercial demands in pet stores and food markets.

The Burmese star tortoise was declared functionally extinct in the early 2000s. However, thanks to the people in the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the population of the Burmese star tortoise started recovering. With the help of the Myanmar government, the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society made a team and built captive assurance colonies for the tortoises in the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary and Yadanabon Zoo. About 175 individuals of the Burmese star tortoise, most of which were confiscated from illegal traders, were introduced to these colonies in the early 2000s. With the help of the workers and volunteers in the sanctuaries, the innovation and expansion of the colonies and the improvement of nursery and breeding practices, the number of tortoises in the colonies increased into thousands in the mid-2000s.

In 2013, the team started to released the tortoises to the protected zones around the colonies. The team used a method called “soft release” to help reintroduce the Burmese star tortoises back to their wild habitat. In “soft release”, people built pens around the habitat, and the tortoises lived within the pens for about 1 year. In this method, the tortoises could have enough time to acclimate to the new environment, so the mortality of the population would be low. The pens were removed after 1 year, and the tortoises were free to move to the outer places. To track the individuals in the protected zone, people equipped the individuals of tortoises with transmitters and watched their movements via radio tracking. A team of workers and volunteers tracked tortoises 3 times per month to ensure that no hunters or smugglers could capture the tortoises.

To protect the Burmese star tortoise from being smuggled, the governments of Burma and other countries in the Southeast Asia also cooperated in searching and tracking illegal smugglers and hunters in the conservation areas. In December, 2015, two suspects were arrested in Thailand for the illegal trade of Burmese star tortoises. Three Burmese star tortoises were found in one of the suspects’ house and were released into the wild in Burma.

Now the population of the Burmese star tortoise has recovered rapidly. Today thousands of tortoises are born in each year in the assurance colonies. And the colonies now have about 14000 tortoises, 1000 of which have been successfully released to the habitats. Nowadays people in the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other conservation groups are still working on reintroduction of the Burmese star tortoises and protecting them from being hunted by smugglers.

Posted by Muchen Liu (2)

Monday, September 24, 2018

Developing Immunotherapy Techniques as Cancer Treatment

Developing Immunotherapy Techniques as Cancer Treatment

We all know someone that has been affected by cancer. As the years go on it seems that the impact of such a horrible disease is extending rapidly and the push for a cure is stronger than ever. In recent years, immunotherapy has become a promising technique for cancer treatment. As science progresses and we learn more about the ways in which cancer cells develop and spread, we also learn more about pathways that can be used to destroy them. In a general sense, immunotherapy is the programming of specific substances produced by the body, such as T cells, antibodies, etc., to either elicit or suppress a specific immune response. These responses can be an activation, in which the immune response is initiated and certain cells or substrates are targeted, eliciting tasks including cell death or exportation. The response can also be the suppression of an immune response in which the events occurring are allowed to continue. 

            This recent study seeks to identify the main components of successful anticancer immunotherapy, almost entirely focusing on the use of T cells. The information presented covers a range of topics as it relays information on all aspects of the treatment. To begin, the study reports necessary characteristics of cancer cells for treatment, including the importance of a high mutation rate. This is likely as it increases the chances that a T cell will be able to recognize the specific cells necessary for effective treatment. Another section of the study focuses on three important aspects of the infiltrating cells, including the numbers of different cell types, as well as the positioning of cancerous cells to immune cells, and the different functions of different immune cells. Also stressed include some outside factors that need to be considered in use of such treatments. These factors are composed of essential things such as the effect of the treatments on non-cancer cells, as well as the interactions between multiple forms of cancer treatment. These are both incredibly important in the safety of individuals when using immunotherapy.

            The goal of the authors of this article is to recognize important factors in immunotherapy so as one day it might be personalized. Personalized treatment would likely increase the success rates exponentially, as well as improve the experience for the individuals. They cover important factors of treatment cells as well as of different cancerous cells. They also discuss various outside aspects that contribute to the health of the individual outside of the cancer. This information is so important as it could lead to serious breakthroughs in this developing treatment. By analyzing a lot of different material, they were able to come up with a rather concise list of factors for further investigation. Cancer is a scary reality for a lot of people, and our continuing efforts to eradicate it are only becoming more essential.

Posted by Alexandra McGuire (2)

Copycat or Copy Cat?

Copycat or Copy Cat?

The diversity of plants and animals that we see in nature is something that is fascinating to think about. One booming area of study is in biomimicry. Biomimicry is basically when we look at something going on in nature -- a biochemical process, structure on an animal's body, mating behavior -- and try to utilize it for human purposes.

An article titled "Biomimicry in textiles: past, present and potential. An overview" in the Journal the Royal Society Interface goes through the history and various uses of textiles throughout history. It also analyzes various species, like the spider species N. claviples and B. mori, and some of the properties of their silk, along with the properties of adhesive polymers on gecko's webbed feet. The chemical properties of spider silk and gecko adhesion mechanism were explored in the review, to try and see how people can manufacture these materials for use in textiles. Spider silk has potential applications in textile manufacture, to make lighter, tougher fabrics. Adhesive particles on gecko pads have potential applications in caulking for carpentry, plastics, and other industrial adhesives.

One hot topic right now, in the effort to slow climate change, is to create products that decompose, and are "natural" to help minimize waste production. This can be accomplished in part, by biomimicry. Biomimicry also helps to make sure that we do some part in preventing destruction in the ecosystem. We need to study these animals, and they need to be around to do that. With climate change, ecosystems around the world are at risk of collapsing. These animals need to be protected if we want to have any chance of learning about them, and using biomimicry for our use. Biomimicry could help both us, and other species in this way.

Eadie, L., & Ghosh, T. K. (2011). Biomimicry in textiles: Past, present and potential. An overview. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 8(59), 761-775. doi:10.1098/rsif.2010.0487

Posted by "Chandler Kupris" (1)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Wasp's Weapon

A Wasp's Weapon

         The animal kingdom has created sophisticated predators that are capable of injecting venom into their prey. Most would eat their meal after the organisms perishes, but the Ampulex Compressa goes the extra mile to utilize their prey. More commonly known as the jewel wasp, they possess a drive to plant their eggs into their victims, and mind control them into following the wasp’s biding. Cockroaches serve as their primary food of choice and any one of them unlucky enough to encounter a jewel wasp should prepare for a painful zombification.

            In the Scientific American, comes a study conducted on the behavior of jewel wasps and how they indoctrinate their food. Jewel wasps possess unique adaptations that allow them to maneuver past the ganglionic sheath (equivalent to human’s blood brain barrier) through mechanical and chemical reactions that tell the hosts to inject the venom into a precise spot in the ganglia. After the wasps inject their venom, the victim is left alone for 30 minutes for the neurotoxin to wreak havoc. Dopamine is flooded through the victim’s brain and begins to groom itself, preparing the hosts for the injection of the eggs. After the 30 minutes, the victim is rendered completely submissive and possesses no will to resist their demise.

            The victim’s motor abilities are completely intact, but any sense of free will is lost to the point where it must be led by the wasp to move its ligaments. The neurotoxin targets GABA-gated chloride channels which allow action potentials to shoot off in the nervous system. As the sodium channels start to open, the venom causes the chloride channels to open as well. The influx of both positively charged ions of sodium and negatively charged chloride cause a stagnation of charge stopping the action potential in its tracks. It can be overcome with a large influx of stimuli, but rest assured the neurotoxin has two other compounds. B-Alanine and taurine act as an insurance for the GABA if it is overcome by the neurons. When the venom finishes its job, the victim is lead to its burial ground where it will have an egg hatch inside of it to eat it from the inside out. The venom slows down the metabolic process of the prey, so the young can have a fresh meal, ouch.

            The jewel wasps prove to be one of natures finest predators with a neurotoxin disturbingly enough to fuel our nightmares. The complexity behind the mind control comes down to a mother’s intent on getting their young to survive in a cruel world, but at the expense of a poor bypassing pest. There is no question to the success of these variant of wasps, their resilience to insure survival is fascinating.

Posted by "Chorryi Chin" (1)

This Bee Lives in a Kill Zone

This Bee Lives in a Kill Zone

The volcanic kill zone is essentially everything it sounds like. It contains a surface covered in volcanic ash and sparse in vegetation. Rolling over the volcanic debris are clouds of toxic fumes and bubbling pools slow-flowing magma. These conditions make it nearly impossible for any plant to grow because the magma inevitably wipes out any traces of life. Except for when a group of scientists visiting the Masaya volcano, just outside the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, encountered a species very much alive and thriving, burrowing beneath the ashes of the kill zone.

A species of bee, Anthophora squammulosa, was discovered rummaging through the volcanic debris in search of nectar. A peculiar home for a bee, as their sole source of food comes from plants. A combination of abiotic factors caused by the volcano such as the blistering hot temperatures and high frequency of acid rain destroy any chance of plant traces. The question remains: Why are these bees living in an area that is void of vegetation?

It turns out that this bee population almost entirely receives its pollen deposits from one plant: Melanthera nivea. This wildflower can survive the mountain’s harsh conditions. It is no surprise that A. squammulosa and Melanthera nivea have a tight relationship where the bee pollinates the only plant able to withstand these brutal volcanic conditions. In this mutualistic relationship, the bee gets to eat and the flower gets to reproduce. Female bees dig their nests approximately 30 centimeters into the ash where they lay eggs and store their pollen and nectar deposits. With no apparent predators or risk of plant roots damaging their nests, it is safe to wonder if A. squammulosa is a species of masterminds, choosing the kill zone as a home to avoid all forms of competition, or if this is just another evolutionary example of a population’s adaptation?

A Bog's Life

Bogs are a unique type of freshwater wetland prevalent in northern European countries such as Germany and Denmark. There are also a notable few in the continental United States. Bogs are an important ecosystem because of the distinct biodiversity that is found there. There are different kinds of bogs such as eutrophic bogs or valley bogs. The type of bog that I find most interesting is the quaking bog.

Bog soil is highly acidic in pH. In addition, the primary form of freshwater for bogs is from rainfall. Hence, they are also low in nutrients. All bogs have a limited amount of oxygen. As a result of this and the acidity, plant matter, mostly from Sphagnum moss and other mosses, decays slower than normal. Layers of these decaying plants accumulate forming peat, a thick and soggy substance. These peat layers can form ‘floating mats’ with more vegetation growing on top. Quaking bogs earn their name due to the wave like movements that are generated by the mats when a person or animal steps on it.

Another interesting phenomenon observed are ‘bog bodies’. These are people who have been trapped in peat bogs and mummified. Oftentimes, floating mats of bogs are not structurally strong enough to hold weight. If a person or animal steps on it, they can fall through the mats and die. However, the environment of the bog prevents decay and instead the bodies are preserved naturally.

Peat is the first stage in the formation of coal. Over thousands of year, rocks and other sediments press down on the peat to squeeze out water and form coal, an important fossil fuel. Peat can also be used as a fuel source. Bogs however, are extremely sensitive to changes in pH and can be destroyed easily. Much of the habitat has been destroyed in England for example, because of extensive peat extraction. Therefore, it is important we take care of our bogs, not only for their ecosystems and biodiversity, but also for their unique characteristics.

Posted by “Priya Bikkani” (1)


Rethinking the Science Behind Sex

For many of us, it was a basic part of the high school
biology curriculum to learn that XY and XX are the
sex chromosomes for males and females, respectively.
Higher education has lead some to believe that the
origins of sexual diversity continue with the embryo,
whether it possesses a Y chromosome that contains the
SRY gene which signals for underdeveloped gonads to
turn into testes. In recent years, researchers have
concluded that sex chromosomes and the SRY gene
are far more complex than once originally thought, and
there have been a growing number of scientific studies
surrounding what truly determines a person’s sex on a
molecular and cellular level.

Geneticists in Nature state that all people possess
traits of the other sex to varying degrees. Because of
advancements in DNA sequencing and new technologies,
cellular biology is revealing that virtually every single
person is a “patchwork of genetically distinct cells”, some
of which possess a chromosomal sex that does not
correlate with the rest of their body. According to an
article in National Geographic, the SRY gene may become
dysfunctional or missing during gamete formation, resulting
in a typically male XY embryo that fails to develop male
anatomy and will be identified as a girl at birth. On the other
hand, there is also a chance that the SRY gene appears on
the X chromosome (possibly due to crossing over from the
pseudoautosomal regions of the sex chromosomes), leading
to a typically female XX embryo that develops male anatomy.
Other genetic variations can also occur that are totally
unrelated to the SRY gene, such as complete androgen
insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), in which the cells of an XY
male do not respond to the secreted testosterone and other
male hormones and the individual physiologically appears
to be female.

Evidently, when genetics is considered, the boundary
between the two sexes tends to become blurry and blended.
Regardless of societal norms, there proves to be a much
greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly
an area of overlap where some people can't easily define
themselves within the binary structure.

Posted by Jamie Courtney (1)

How can training be affected by different stimuli

Training can be done in many different ways. It is very common that athletes nowadays change their training every so often. It is very easy, for us humans, to think that there are many different ways to train and have a variety of approaches. However, can that be said the same for animals? Particularly horses? 

recent study has shown that there are 2 types of horse training and it results in different results from the different groups that were conducted in the experiment. Each group had 6 randomly chosen ponies. Group A was help in a small field and was trained in a small enclosure; the horse was free to do whatever it wanted until it showed interested in training and then the trainer would start paying attention to its behavior. If the horse started to follow the trainer, he would start to interpret physical contact. When the trainer saw that the horse was open to being saddled he would start with that, but, keeping in mind that if the horse wanted to leave it was free to do so and the whole process would have to start again. Group B used horses isolated from one another and kept in a stable. The trainer would use a halter if the horse wasn’t cooperated and was saddled without giving it the time to the new stimuli it was being introduced. The results conducted in this study show that even though Group A took more time to be trained, it was more open to unfamiliar people saddling it compared to Group B. Group A horses showed to approach people more easily and calmly. 

This all comes down to how a person or an animal is approached. As seen in the study if the horse is being approached with violence it will not be comfortable around other environmental stimuli. The same thing happens when a new athlete is being introduced to a new training program.  If the new training is very different to the old one and it requires the athlete to use new muscles that haven’t been used before in a very fast transition that doesn’t allow the new muscles to accumulate to the new changes, it will result in serious injuries where the athlete might never be able to use those muscles again. 

Posted by Olga Egkorova