Stories tagged Life Science

Mar
18
2011
It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
Today,
"Of the orchid genus catasetum, Charles Darwin wrote: "I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids." The male flowers in this genus evolved an unusual pollination program. They propel a package of pollen onto the backs of visiting bees. The bees endure the blow (which would be like a 150-pound person getting hit with a few bowling balls) in exchange for orchid aromas that the bees use to attract mates.
Mar
14
2011

Those sassy whales
Those sassy whalesCourtesy Currier & Ives
Word on the street is that sperm whales may have individual names. I hope so, frankly, because I'm sick of calling them ... that.

Sperm whales, it seems, have calls that are unique to the region they live in. So whales in the Caribbean might have a different call than whales living in the South Pacific. But there are parts of sperm whale calls that are, on the surface, the same in whales around the world.

I say, "on the surface" not as some ocean-related pun, but because there's a part of the whale's call—five clicks at the beginning of a call—that seem to be totally unique to individual whales. All whales make the five clicks, but if you analyze the sound in detail, there are actually subtle variations in the sounds that are unique to the whale making them. Because it comes at the beginning of each phrase, or "coda string," and because the variations are perceptible from every direction (some whale calls sound different depending on how the listener is oriented to the caller), some scientists think that the clicks could represent the "names" of individual whales, who are identifying themselves as they call out.

Pretty neat, huh?

PS—"Pretty neat," but not completely neat, because I probably can't distinguish between the whales' clicks. Here, then, is a short list of names for any whales interested in adopting more standard monikers:
-Herman
-Squid Blood
-Crybaby
-Fudgie
-Moby II
-Gentle Jeff
-Spermy
-Winston

There are, like, dozens of other possible names. These are just the first to come to mind.

Jan
17
2011

Although, despite its elephant mother: it should be a true genetic mammoth, and not some sort of hybrid Altered Beast.
Although, despite its elephant mother: it should be a true genetic mammoth, and not some sort of hybrid Altered Beast.Courtesy Tracy O
Y'all were probably walking around thinking, "Hey! There's pretty much no way a woolly mammoth could kill me. Dip-de-doo!"

And y'all were probably snuggling into bed each night, cozy in the knowledge that if there was any way a mammoth could end your life, it would have to be from a 12,000-year-old tusk falling off an overloaded tusk-shelf, or something. And you went to sleep happy and safe.

Well, y'all are about to feel like a jerk. Sorry, but 3... 2... 1...

Scientists in Japan want to clone a woolly mammoth and there's a chance, however imperceptibly small, that that cloned mammoth could kill you!!! Like, maybe you're having a birthday party in Japan, and, attracted by the smell of cake, the mammoth breaks free from its enclosure and stomps your whole party. And it eats your cake!

You're thinking a) mammoths don't give a crap about cake; and b) they've talked about cloning mammoths for years, and it still hasn't happened, and I haven't been attacked by any Pleistocene megafauna.

Ok. A) How do you presume to know if a mammoth will want cake or not? Plus, it doesn't have to be cake. Maybe you're just jogging through Japan, and the mammoth sees your mousy ears and decides you need a stomping. The scenarios are practically limitless.

And B) this particular announcement may be something new in the field of wild speculation. While previous plans to do some mammoth cloning have been dismissed on account of all available mammoth DNA being damaged by a dozen millennia, a new technique may have bypassed that hurdle. Scientists at Kobe's Riken Center for Developmental Biology have cloned a mouse from cells that had been frozen for 16 years, and they think the same method could be applied to frozen mammoth remains. If enough viable DNA can be obtained, it would be implanted in the egg of an African elephant to create a mammoth embryo.

This won't happen overnight, however. There's still research to be done, and clone success rates in normal animals hover around 30%. And even if a mammoth embryo is successfully created, elephant gestation lasts about a year and a half. If all goes well, the scientists think it's possible to have a living, cloned mammoth within 6 years.

So enjoy the next six years. After that... it could be a bloodbath!

Dec
15
2010

If it had hands: it would be holding your life in them. Just saying.
If it had hands: it would be holding your life in them. Just saying.Courtesy splorp
Gather ‘round, Buzzketeers, so that I might tell you all a story.

“What story,” you ask?

Is it the one about the little blond girl who is killed by bears for breaking and entering? No, not that story.

Is it the one about the boy who killed an acromegalic man by cutting down the tree that held his fort? No, it’s not that story either.

Could it be the story about the little Blood member who couldn’t tell the difference between a wolf and her own grandmother, and was subsequently devoured by that very wolf? Oh, I wish it were, but it’s not that story.

No, the story I have for you all is even more enduring and horrifying than all of those. It is the story of biodiversity, and how it will freaking destroy you if you mess with it.

Sure, snort dismissively if you must, but you’ll soon be singing a different tune. A sad tune about how everything you ever knew and loved has been taken away from you.

“But how can a concept—and a boring concept like “biodiversity”—hurt me?” Ah, see, but what you don’t know can hurt you. You’re like the little blond girl, screwing around in a house that belongs to bears. She might not have known that it was a bear house (although it’s hard to imagine that she could have missed all the signs), and yet she was destroyed. So listen up.

You see, all biodiversity is is the degree of variation of living things in an ecosystem. Lots of biodiversity in an ecosystem, lots of different things living there. Little biodiversity in an ecosystem, few species living there. And biodiversity includes all forms of life, from your vampire bats and hagfish, to your streptococcus and your slime molds.

At the moment, biodiversity on the planet is on its way down. Lots of the things we do these days make life harder for other species, until there are very few or none of them left. And, sure, no one wants to see a panda get hit by a train, or watch an eagle being run over by road grading equipment, but who cares about the smaller, grosser stuff, like algae or germy things? We could probably do with a few less of those, right? Right?

Wrong, Goldilocks! An attitude like that is bound to get you turned into bear meat.

And here’s where my story begins (again)…

Once upon a time, long, long ago, everything died.

Well, not everything-everything, but pretty well near everything. It was called “the Permian extinction” (we’ve talked about it on Buzz before: here), and more than 90% of all marine (water) species and 70% of all terrestrial (land) species on the planet went extinct. It was way worse than the extinction that would eventually kill off the dinosaurs, and it took the planet a lot longer to recover from the Permian extinction.

What caused the Permian extinction? Oh, you know, a lot of stuff. Probably a lot of stuff. See, while we can more or less say that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant space rock, it’s harder to say what did in the creatures of the Permian period. After all, the Permian ended almost two hundred million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. But people have plenty of good guesses: maybe a few smaller space rocks hit the planet, maybe massive volcanic eruptions in what would become Asia kicked dust and poisonous gas into the atmosphere, maybe the oceans suddenly released massive amounts of methane… probably it was a combination of these things and more, and the extinction probably happened in waves before the planet became a good place to live again.

But here’s another straw for that dead camel’s back: the algae died. Not all of it, but lots and lots of the algae died. But why, and why did it matter? After all, it’s just algae.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what cause so much alga—microscopic plant-like ocean life that turns sunlight into food—to die, but it looks like a sudden rise in the levels of sulfur in the oceans might have had something to do with it. It could be that there was an explosion in the population of sulfur using, hydrogen-sulfide releasing bacteria in the oceans, which would poison the algae.

In any case, there was a large die off of the sort of species we don’t give a lot of thought to. And what happened? The bear meat hit the fan!

Because they turn so much sunlight into so much food, algae act as the basis for most marine food chains. When the algae were gone, photosynthetic bacteria took its place to some extent, but the bacteria were a poor substitute, and the oceans were left with much, much less food. Also, algae produce a significant amount of the planet’s oxygen, and their absence would have created atmospheric changes as well.

This alone might have been enough to cause extinctions, and combined with the other natural calamities of the end of the Permian, it’s no wonder there was such a massive extinction event.

What a good story, eh? Now, if someone asks you what’s so great about biodiversity among the slimier and more boring species, you can just repeat this post, word for word. Or you can repeat this, the short version, word for word: “Because, Mom, if the algae die, we’ll be left choking and crying among the ruins of humanity for the rest of our short lives. And happy birthday.”

Dec
02
2010

The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.
The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.Courtesy Eeek
Big news from NASA today, y'all.

NASA scientists are holding a conference at 2:00 EST today, and I hate to spoil the surprise, but word on the street is that they've discovered life on the planet Earth. Ah... but it's not what you think—word is that they've discovered life that's really different from everything else here.

Last year, I posted about the theory that this sort of thing might exist, but it wasn't until now that it has actually been discovered. Here's the gist: bacteria living in the mud of weirdo Mono Lake have been found to use arsenic as a building block of their bodies. That may not sound like much, but, if it's true, it would mean that these bacteria are different than every other living thing on this planet. Everything else that lives on this planet is made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. These creatures use arsenic instead of phosphorous.

Aside from being super cool and different, the discovery suggests that if life can exist in ways we didn't think was possible, it can exist in places we didn't think life was possible. Like other planets and moons in our own solar system.

More details after the conference, hopefully.

Dec
01
2010

The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."

Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.

Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.

Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.

Nov
10
2010

This scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of Vibrio cholerae bacteria; Magnified 22371x.: Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement.
This scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of Vibrio cholerae bacteria; Magnified 22371x.: Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement.Courtesy CDC/ Janice Haney Carr
Picture yourself lying in a bed with a hole cut out under you to collect buckets full of unstoppable diarrhea. Now imagine your child lying there. Finally, pretend you are not one of the lucky ones lying on a cholera cot in a hospital, but are lined up outside a hospital in the street.
Cholera is an ugly disease.

The bacteria makes a toxin that shreds the intestinal lining, causing white flecks that look like rice to be passed in huge volumes of watery diarrhea. In hospitals, these “rice water stools” are collected and measured in buckets so body fluids can be replaced. Adults can lose up to 22 liters a day while battling this devastating infection. Without fluid and electrolyte replacement, most victims die from shock.

Lucky patients that recover often still carry the bacteria and can infect others. They can even re-infect themselves.

Cholera bacteria can survive outside the human body in water. They do especially well in dirty water. Unsanitary conditions are breeding grounds for Vibrio cholera.
I read this morning in the New York Times that cholera has spread from the Hatian countryside to the crowded, unsanitary camps of the earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince. The camps don’t have clean toilets and are often flooded when it rains. Over a million people live in filth and poverty. According to the article, health officials predict that over 270,000 people could get sick with Cholera over the next few years.
People like you, and me, and our kids.

What can you do to help? Support aid organizations that are mobilizing to get clean water, water purification supplies, and medical supplies to Haiti. Once the supplies arrive though, it’s up to the Hatian government to make sure workers are able to get them to the people most in need. Let’s hope they do.

(This blog post was originally posted on the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog.)

Nov
05
2010

Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.
Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.Courtesy Nalini Nadkarni
Since 2004, scientist Nalini Nadkarni has enlisted prisoners to aid in her scientific research.

Don’t worry, it’s not cruel and usual punishment. The inmates aren’t being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs or try out some new method of electroshock therapy. Instead, the incarcerated offenders are part of Nadkarni’s research team. Nadkarni holds a PhD in Forest Ecology and is on the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of her inmate-aided research.

For one of Dr. Nadkarni'sDr. Nalini Nadkarni
Dr. Nalini NadkarniCourtesy Nalini Nadkarni
research projects, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, helped plant seeds of rare prairie plants then recorded data during the plants growth stages. The prisoners actually enjoyed helping out with the research. Not only did it give them a sense of doing something worthwhile, it connects them to something that’s sorely lacking in the old Graybar Hotel: nature.

For another project called Moss-in-Prisons (no Thor, your hero Randy has been picked up by the Tennessee Titans), Nadkarni recruited inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to help discover improved ways of cultivating slow-growing mosses.

"I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses; access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants; and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions," Nadkarni said.

If successful, the research could help replace ecologically important mosses that have been stripped from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, a sometimes illegal tactic that seems to be a favorite among some horticulturists.

In many cases, helping with the research isn’t just a way for inmates to pass time behind the brick walls and barbed wire of their confinement. It’s also a way to inspire them. One former inmate, who had worked with Nadkarni, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology after his release from Cedar Creek, and went on to give a presentation of the research he had done there at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Apparently, Dr. Nadkarni is on to something, and its importance is not lost on those still behind bars.

"It teaches me something," said one prisoner involved with Nadkarni’s prairie plant study. "It makes me work with people and it's just a new skill that I've learned."

Both science and prisoners benefit from this natural symbiosis taking place in such an unnatural setting. And other prisons have expressed interest in getting their inmates involved in Nadkarni’s research programs,

"Everyone can be a scientist,” Nadkarni says. “Everyone can relate to nature, everyone can contribute to the scientific enterprise, even those who are shut away from nature.”

SOURCES
NSF story and video
NSF press release

Nov
04
2010

You think you’re safe from the dangers of the wild just because you live in a city? This video will change your view. It was shot by a guy named Craig Kuberski, who lives within the city limits of St. Paul, MN. I know some of you were hoping you'd get to see a rogue cougar or bear mauling innocent urbanites or eating their pets, but that’s not the case here. It’s just a couple of bucks on the town and in a rut trying to catch some city girls' attention.

Rutting period is the mating season for many ruminants, (i.e. mammals like moose, caribou, bison, and deer). The rut is set-off by the shortening of daylight hours during autumn and in the case of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus - which I’m pretty sure these are) can last for one to three months. During that time, male deer get all goofy and twitterpated, rubbing their antlers against trees, rolling in the dirt or mud, or battling each other – as seen in this video. Rutting season is the best time to hunt for them, and the easiest time to hit them with your car, although I don’t advise you do the latter.

As you may notice, Mr. Kubinski posted two buck fever videos on YouTube. I’ve only used the second here because it’s the better of the two, focus-wise, But if you’d also like to watch Part I, there you have it. KARE 11 also ran a story on it.

Nov
04
2010

Disease Detectives
Disease DetectivesCourtesy Disease Detectives
Earlier this year I got the chance to work as the crew of high school staff in the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center (http://www.smm.org/kaysc/) at the museum to create a series of web-based videos about infectious diseases for the Disease Detectives exhibit. We worked from January through August learning video production skills, learning about different infectious disease topics, talking to experts and folks on the museum floor. We're just getting the videos online now, and all of our videos will be on the exhibit website soon (www.diseasedetectives.org) but I wanted to share them here as well.

For this video, titled "Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock" the crew to a slaughter house on in South St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Health, U of M St. Paul (at 7AM to see the cows grazing), Mississippi Market Co-op, and did hours of research, prep, and post production.
Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock from Disease Detectives on Vimeo.

You can check out the video here.