Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Archive for the ‘Link’ Category

You know how I feel about squids…

Here’s a video from the people at MBARI (Monterey Bay) showing footage of deep sea squid behavior.  Grotesque, beautiful, the fascination with squids is not easily explainable.  But if you don’t fall in love after this…

Cute Warning:  Piglet Squid featured in video!

[via Zooillogix]

[If you like this, you might be interested in this post on octopus consciousness and intelligence]

Written by Hanner

June 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

Posted in Link

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Saturday procrastination update: science comics!

Right now, I’m working on a paper for a class I’m taking on the intertwined histories of science and religion.  Well, when I say “right now,” I really mean an hour ago, and in the foreseeable future.  For I’ve taken a break to read INTERNET COMICS!

Here are a few science-related comics I thought you might enjoy.

The first, from Hark, a vagrant, on Watson and Crick’s grand discovery, theft, and sexism:

The second, from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, actually relates to my paper topic: how the Gaia hypothesis provided a scientific framework for the environmental movement (ecotheology in its extreme form), which it reframed in Judeo-Christian terms.  That’s our man, James Lovelock, the guy who came up with the Gaia hypothesis, in the bottom panel.

Last is BANG!, a full-length comic book (viewable online for free) describing the science of the origins of the universe.  In rhyme!

Enjoy these, and the weekend.  Back to the grindstone…

Written by Hanner

May 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Art, Link

The alien landscape of your cells

Jessica over at bioephemera alerted the world that the GE Healthcare IN Cell Imager photo contest winners had been announced.  And looking through these photos sent chills down my spine.  (I was eating ice cream simultaneously… But, no, it was probably the pictures.)

As you can see, the pictures show various patterns of fluorescence.  A scientist can selectively stain parts of cells with fluorescent markers  – using antibodies, for example – to study their locations, or even use the brightness to measure the amounts.  (In the lab I’ve used fluorescent antibodies to stain protein residues, and I could even see the brightness without film or a microscope in a dark room.)

This here on the left is a picture of brain tissue.  The blue parts are its DNA, while the green and red are two types of neurons, or brain cells.  They’re all stringy and tangled looking so that signals can be transmitted quickly through the brain.  I’m a sucker for pictures of neurons because they look so alien compared to normal cells.

But, truly, all life on the cellular level is alien.  That’s part of what is so inspiring about viewing image collections such as this one: how can we imagine that this is what is going on inside of us?

It took me 6 years of studying biology before I truly understood that CELLS MAKE UP MY BODY.  I know, it seems like an obvious fact.  But it’s one thing to read a biology textbook and label a drawing of the parts of a cell, and another to fully grasp the concept that trillions of these things compose my body, undergoing processes of which I am completely unaware.  That once I was one cell – and now not only do I contain multitudes, but many different types.

I want to share my first moment of this realization with you.  I was a sophomore in college taking a genetics course with my main man, Stephan Zweifel.  To be perfectly honest, I was completely overwhelmed by the class.  (The thought of two DNA strands overlapping and switching their genes in a cell was way too much for me to grasp at the time.)  But one day he showed us a video put out by Harvard showing the life inside of a cell.  Maybe it was the mesmerizing music, but I was drawn in entirely, struck simultaneously by two emotions.  The first was horror at my inability to follow the video, identify a single molecule, while my classmates called them out around me.

But the horror quickly dissolved into complete and utter awe.  I sat there slack-jawed as molecules assembled and disassembled themselves into elegant stalks (actin and microtubules, the beam-like skeleton supporting the cell), a bow-legged molecule hobbled along a pole dragging a huge, watery balloon behind it (a motor protein guiding a vacuole to the transportation center of the cell), and proteins suddenly stood up erect, as if for the first time (a dramatic conformational change).  It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what was happening or why.  All I knew is that something complex was happening on screen, and that these things happened inside of me.  Constantly.  And I had never noticed.

How could my own body be so alien?  I could have been watching a sci-fi film.  And it hit me: there is beauty on this small scale.  There is art that had been perfected for billions of years, that continues to evolve.  And I had the tools to understand it if I could only apply them.

And that’s how I began my journey to try to become a science dilettante.

But seriously, folks.  Look at lots of pictures and movies about cells and molecules.  Get totally freaked out about your body and its alien landscape.  Take comfort in the fact that no one will ever fully understand it and find joy in being overwhelmed by all the things we don’t know.  That’s what being a scientist is about, as far as I’m concerned.

GE Analyzer IN Cell Photo Competition 2010
GE Analyzer IN Cell Photo Competition 2009
Harvard’s Inner Life of a Cell (music)
Harvard’s Inner Life of a Cell (narration)

Written by Hanner

April 27, 2010 at 6:10 am

Posted in Art, Link, Reflection

The Science of Moscow’s Stray Dogs [Link]

You may have heard about the stray dogs of Moscow — tens of thousands of them roaming the streets in their own packs, begging, and even riding the subway.  In this Financial Times article from January 16, Susanne Sterthal interviews a biologist, Andrei Poyarkov from the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, who studies the ecology of these dogs on his spare time.

Poykarov’s unofficial conclusion: the dogs are becoming more wild.  He places the dogs into 4 different niches, each of the niches occupying a different location, method of food acquisition, and, most importantly, relationship to humans.  The homeless dogs don’t live with people, but hang out with them outside in public spaces.  The beggars can not only smell who has food on them, but can tell who is most likely to give it to them.  The scavengers’ relation to people is mainly trash-based, by digging through our dumps for food.  The last niche is the real wild dogs: dogs that only interact with one another, view people as dangerous, and hunt for food.  And this is in the 7th largest city in the world!

In the 1940s, before his exile from the Soviet Union, a biologist named Dmitri Belyaev had similar interests to Poyarkov.

Under the guise of studying animal physiology, Belyaev set up a Russian silver fox research centre in Novosibirsk, setting out to test his theory that the most important selected characteristic for the domestication of dogs was a lack of aggression. He began to select foxes that showed the least fear of humans and bred them. After 10-15 years, the foxes he bred showed affection to their keepers, even licking them. They barked, had floppy ears and wagged their tails. They also developed spotted coats – a surprising development that was connected with a decrease in their levels of adrenaline, which shares a biochemical pathway with melanin and controls ­pigment production.

“With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards,” explains Poyarkov. “That is, to a wilder and less domesticated state, to a more ‘natural’ state.” As if to prove his point, strays do not have spotted coats, they rarely wag their tails and are wary of humans, showing no signs of ­affection towards them.

Most people in the city are not convinced that these dogs are dangerous — although they probably should be.  Poyarkov estimates that out of all the tame dogs released into the streets, only 3% survive the wild dogs.  (I don’t blame the wild dogs — a lot of pets these days look deceivingly like rats.)

So here’s the lesson: don’t let your babies out on the street at night, and dream of a post-apocalpytic Moscow landscape where dogs rule.

Written by Hanner

January 21, 2010 at 8:11 am

Endangered species awareness: 2 cool projects

Endangered species were the first type of conservation I remember learning about.  I did a panorama of the black-footed ferret in 3rd grade.  A project on the manatee in 4th grade led to a sirenian-obsessed pre-adolescence.  These are cute animals, and we are destroying their habitats!  WE MUST SAVE THEM!

Endangered species are a great way to connect a public, which may not be interested otherwise, to conservation efforts.  It’s a near-tangible way to pinpoint a specific problem, a specific animal even, and get people involved.  Some conservationists argue that this isn’t a good method, that the focus on CMF, or charismatic megafauna (such as the endangered whales, tigers, lions, manatees, etc.), ignores the smaller and uglier microbes and insects, which are going extinct at a much higher rate.  But, hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere!

Seychelles Sheath-Tailed Bat by Molly Schafer

The Endangered Species Print Project was started by the artists Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler, who met at the Art Institute of Chicago and bonded over “nature-geekery.”  After years of art shows filled with works based on natural imagery, they decided to start a project to help save some of the animals that inspired their work.

The ESPP releases prints, the sales of which go towards specific conservation organizations.  Each print stars an endangered species and the number of prints of each work corresponds with the number of animals left remaining in the wild.  For example, there are only 37 prints available of the seychelles sheath-tailed bat, and 222 of the madagascar fish eagle.

By limiting the print-editions, there is a reaction in the buyer to want the rarest print (as is an art-buyer’s instinct), accompanied by the creeping realization of what the rarity of that print means, and of how distant our lives are from these animals’.  Sure, we can buy a piece of art that is a symbol for a single animal that exists in the wild; this art can donate money to help save this specific animal; but in the end, these species are nearly gone from the planet, and far more needs to be done than buying a piece of art.

That being said, this is a wonderful project to support, as it spreads conservation awareness while donating money to good causes.  Buy prints here for $50 a pop (no matter the print/wild quantity).

Extinked, which took place in November, involved the tattooing of the endangered species of the British Isles on chosen human “ambassadors.”  Detailed scientific drawings were made of the species, and common citizens applied to the artists for the honor of being blessed with the drawing of the specific animal for life in the form of a tattoo.  Even if the species does go extinct, it’s form will live on in the skin of at least one Brit for another 100 or so years.

And isn’t that one purpose of art?  To commemorate a certain event or person or time?  I like to imagine the effects of this project much like the living books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where people would memorize the text of books and teach it to one more person before they died to keep the book alive through the book burnings.  Pass on your extinct animal to the next person, so that at least a glimmer of prior biodiversity can be remembered by a small group of people.

Written by Hanner

January 11, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Posted in Art, Link

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The Known Universe by the AMNH [Video]

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about astronomy.  But I know one thing:  this video will blow your mind.  I try to remind myself how small I am every day, and this video sure does the trick.

It’s vids like this that make me thankful for the internet.

Y’know, with that much unexplored space, maybe the Battlestar Galactica fleet is really out there somewhere, looking for us…

(A girl can dream.)

Written by Hanner

December 25, 2009 at 1:24 am

Posted in Link

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Corkscrew duck genitals — WITH VIDEO!

One of my fondest days of an undergrad ornithology course was the day we learned about duck genitals.  It was funny, clearly, because it’s about penises and we were in undergrad.  But equally fascinating evolutionarily: why would a male duck evolve a penis that twists like a screw?  And how could a female evolve a vagina that is shaped like a screwhole with opposite threading?  (Insert your favorite sexual screwing joke here.)

I cannot do the new research by Patricia Brennan more justice than Carl Zimmer does, so I recommend that you head over to his post on The Loom.  He includes video of a duck boner, as well as a duck penetrating glass tubes of different shapes.  If you have a duck fetish, I would stay away from these videos at work.

Written by Hanner

December 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

Posted in Link

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Trailblazing with the Royal Society

To commemorate its 350th anniversary next year, the Royal Society, the world’s oldest science academy based in London, has released an interactive website about scientific history.  Trailblazing features a timeline starting in 1650, tracing scientific breakthroughs throughout the centuries alongside major historical events to help put it the discoveries in context.  It’s a well-designed site, with detail on the experiments and beautiful images, especially for the older works.

Working in a lab full of protocols and precedents makes me long for the olden science days, when scientists were true artists.  So little study had been done that methods were endless tinkering, collecting and labor, and nothing was handed to you.  True determination was necessary, a real lust for knowledge.  Now science is a common job, and the need to publish something “legitimate” to retain funding feels restraining.  The work is done mainly in fields that politicians or large companies have deemed worthwhile.  The true crackpots are few and far between.

We should be readily mocked by our equals when presenting our findings, like Harry Whittington when he presented a reconstruction of a 500 million year old creature from the Burgess Shale, only to be right in the end.  We should write down long-winded accounts of interesting people or weird diseases we encounter, just so they aren’t forgotten.  We should hook-up our pets to our house appliances for the sake of science, like Robert Hooke did when he invented the air pump.  (Well, maybe we shouldn’t torture our pets.)  Y’get what I’m sayin’ here?

I’m nostalgic for a time and a feeling I’ve never experienced.

Written by Hanner

December 10, 2009 at 12:20 am

Posted in Education, Link