BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: science

Long Island Sound May Be Getting a Timely Makeover

In its glory days, the Long Island Sound has supported many fisheries for lobsters, oysters, crabs, etc. It still boasts of 170 species of fish and more than 1,200 species of invertebrates. In recent years, however, the Sound has been plagued with excess nitrogen. The build-up causes eutrophication, in which the extra nitrogen feeds seaweed and algae blooms, causing them to use up more oxygen. As a result, the fish don’t have adequate oxygen and perish, and the ecology of the Sound makes it uninhabitable for shellfish.

Where does all of this nitrogen come from? The main sources of nitrogen are septic tanks and sewers, fertilizers from lawns and parks, certain agricultural practices, and atmospheric deposition from dust, rain, and snow. Because the severity of the problem is based largely on human practices, it is much worse in some areas than in others.

Bridgeport  Seaside Park looking over Long Island Sound 2011

View of Long Island Sound from Bridgeport Seaside Park (credit: 826 Paranormal)

Jamie Vaudrey and her team at the University of Connecticut wanted to make this issue a priority for people, so they made a model displaying the level of nitrogen runoff in the Sound. They painstakingly collected data for four years from each of the 116 estuaries, harbors, rivers, and bays of the Sound. This allowed people to see how this problem affected not only the Sound but their local beach or the coast they sail on.

The model is an Excel spreadsheet that can be easily downloaded. In addition, the “scenario” section of the model allows people to alter a communities’ settings (such as lessening fertilizer usage) to see how it can lessen the nitrogen runoff. Another feature of the model shows the places that are impacted the most by the issue.

The model is already in use by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Nature Conservancy. Vaudrey is creating a second model to shed more light on how every bay is affected differently by the introduction of excess nitrogen.

Do you think that this model will prompt local governments to enact legislation to solve this problem? Will this model be extended to other bodies of water suffering from this same fate? Let me know in the comments!

Original Article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170219165109.htm

Tickle, Tickle!

You might be wondering, why am I ticklish? Or, why do I laugh if somebody else tickles me, but not when I try to tickle myself? The mystery of ticklishness has been sought after for decades, including by Darwin and Aristotle.

A recent study tested ticklishness on rats, and the results were astonishing! The rats reacted to human tickles with ultrasonic “laughter cells” and emitted various calls. While many humans are most ticklish on their armpits and stomachs, rats were found to be most ticklish on their bellies and underneath their feet. They performed “joy jumps” after being tickled, which is a behavior associated with joyful subjects in various mammals.

 

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Researchers continued searching for answers, and sought to discover how being ticklish relates to the brain and whether or not it is a trick of the brain that rewards interacting.

When researchers Shimpei Ishiyama and Michael Brecht investigated the response of the rat’s brain to tickling, they observed nerve cells that responded strongly to tickling and they found very similar responses during play behaviors as during tickling- even without the scientist touching the rat. These nerve cells also worked in reverse. For example, if the rats were made anxious, they were less ticklish and the activity in these cells were reduced. It was discovered that activity in the trunk somatosensory cortex is what led to ticklishness.

The discovery of the connection between brain responses to tickling and play was incredible.

 

Other Articles About This Topic:

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/11/10/501447965/brain-scientists-trace-rat-ticklishness-to-play-behavior

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/11/11/watch-rats-giggle-and-jump-for-joy-at-being-tickled/

More CRISPR Improvements

Crispr-Cas9 is a genome editing tool that is creating a whole lot of buzz in the science world. It is the newest faster, cheaper and more accurate way of editing DNA.  Crispr- Cas9 also has a wide range of potential applications. It is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by cutting out, replacing or adding parts to the DNA sequence.  The CRISPR-Cas9 system consists of two key molecules that introduce a mutation into the DNA. The first Molecule is an enzyme called Cas9. Cas9 acts as a pair of scissors that can cut the two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome so that bits of DNA can be added or removed.  The second is a piece of RNA called guide RNA or gRNA. This consists of a small piece of pre-designed RNA sequence located within a longer RNA scaffold. The scaffold part binds to DNA and the pre-designed sequence guides Cas9 to the right part of the genome. This makes sure that the Cas9 enzyme cuts at the right point in the genome.Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 4.50.55 PM

CRISPR-Cas9 is efficient compared to previous gene-editing techniques, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. CRISPR is less efficient when employing the cellular process of homology-directed DNA repair, or HDR, as opposed to nonhomologous end joining.  Jacob Corn, the scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues have come up with a way to improve the success rate of homology-directed repair following CRISPR-Cas9. “We have found that Cas9-mediated HDR frequencies can be increased by rationally designing the orientation, polarity and length of the donor ssDNA to match the properties of the Cas9-DNA complex,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “We also found that these donor designs, when paired with tiled catalytically inactive dCas9 molecules, can stimulate HDR to approximately 1%, almost 50-fold greater than donor alone.”

“Our data indicate that Cas9 breaks could be different at a molecular level from breaks generated by other targeted nucleases, such as TALENS and zinc-finger nucleases, which suggests that strategies like the ones we are using can give you more efficient repair of Cas9 breaks,” coauthor Christopher Richardson, a postdoc in Corn’s lab, said in a statement.

Original Article:

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/45159/title/More-CRISPR-Improvements/

Other Addtional Helpful Links:

http://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-crispr-cas9

 

CRISPR/Cas9 Provides Promising Treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

There are nine kinds of muscular dystrophy and of these, Duchenne MD is the most common severe form of childhood MD. It affects about 1 in 5000 newborn males, only in very rare cases has it affected females. DMD is a genetic disorder that causes progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. Patients usually die by age 30 to 40.

DMD is caused by the absence of a protein, dystrophin, that helps keep muscle cells intact. In 1986 it was discovered that there was a gene on the X chromosome that, when mutated, lead to DMD. Later, researchers discovered that the protein associated with this gene was dystrophin. From this information, we can tell that this disorder is sex-linked, which explains why women are mainly carriers.

No one has found an absolute cure for this genetic disorder until now. Even in recent years, people have discovered treatments that will make patients’ lives more bearable, but never reverse the disorder. As a result of these advances, mostly in cardiac and respiratory care, patients are able to live past teen year and as long as in to their fifties, though this is rare. Although there are still drugs being tested like Vamorolone (a “dissociative steroid,” is an anti-inflammatory compound), more treatments on the molecular level are now being considered. However, thanks to recent discoveries and research with the new genetic technology, CRISPR/ Cas9, scientists may have found a treatment for DMD.

This new approach to gene correction by genome editing has shown promise in studies recently. This particular correction can be achieved in a couple ways: one is by skipping exon 51 of the DMD gene using eterplirsen (a morpholino-based oligonucleotide). Studies over four years show prolonged movement abilities, and a change in the rate of decline compared to controls. The newest approach to gene correction using CRISPR/Cas9, which the article I’m writing about focuses on, was performed in this study as next described: the CRISPR/Cas9 system targets the point mutation in exon 23 of the mdx mouse that creates a premature stop codon and serves as a representative model of DMD. Multiple studies in three separate laboratories have provided a path and laid the groundwork for clinical translation addressing many of the critical questions that have been raised regarding this system. The labs also discovered by further demonstrations, that this is a feasible treatment for humans. Functional recovery was demonstrated in the mice, including grip strength, and improved force generation- all of which are very important and hopeful discoveries. It is estimated from these studies that this new method will pass clinical trials and go on to benefit as many as 80% of DMD sufferers. Even greater success rates are expected if this is performed in young and newborn DMD patients.

Biomedical Engineers paving the way for Immunology

For many years Biomedical Engineers have been attempting to find ways to make precise, efficient, and deliberate changes to the genetic material of living cells. Developments in this field can, not only help to eradicate many genetic diseases but it can also ensure what many scientists call “adaptive immunity”. With their newfound CRISPR – Cas9 technology, they may have found a solution to the problem that has been giving them so much grief

hela-cells-544318_960_720

Adaptive Immunity occurs when a foreign body is recognized specifically for what it is and how it can harm the body. The other form of immune response is the innate response, in which there is a foreign body identified and the immune system sends any type of immune-response cell to general area to kill it. However, in adaptive immunity the body can individually recognize the problem and send exactly what needs to be sent, a much more efficient process.

Moreover, scientists hope that a cell’s ability to perform adaptive immunity will help contribute to eliminating harmful genetic mutations. Researchers hypothesize that, with this newfound technology, cells will be able to identify and respond to invading genetic material from a bacteriophage or invader of any sort. (quite possibly eradicating HIV and all other viruses from the Earth).

The science behind this new genetic-police force is as confusing as it is difficult to say… CRISPR…Cas9… what does any of that even mean?

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats

Cas9 comes from the name of the protein-9 nuclease that scientists first found in Strep (Streptococcus Pyogenes) cells back in 2007 which help the bacteria participate in adaptive immunity.

koli-bacteria-123081_960_720

All in all, its some pretty crazy and extremely complex stuff.

If you do so please, I suggest doing some of your own research on this topic if you have any questions. The opportunities afforded by this breakthrough are endless.

ORIGINAL Article: https://www.neb.com/tools-and-resources/feature-articles/crispr-cas9-and-targeted-genome-editing-a-new-era-in-molecular-biology

This new tropical virus is not as fun as it’s name sounds!!!

Although it may be fun to say, the Zika Virus is no laughing matter.

16735-close-up-of-a-mosquito-feeding-on-blood-pv

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the number of Zika Virus infections has increased to 147 in recent months (only 107 of which are from international travelers from Zika-infected areas). Moreover 117 more cases of Zika were reported from Puerto Rico after the CDC released those aforementioned numbers. The CDC urges that people refrain from traveling to highly infected areas like Puerto Rico and especially Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janero, Brazil is a hotspot for Zika infection through mosquito bites

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janero, Brazil is a hotspot for Zika infection through mosquito bites

 

Zika is spread through the bite of an infected female mosquito (typically of the Aedis Aegipty type) and 80% of the infected showed a variety of the following symptoms: mild fever, skin rash around area of bite and other, conjunctivitis (pink eye), muscle and joint pain that last for approximately 1 week, and fatigue.

 

Now you may be asking yourself, “What’s so dangerous about a virus that sounds like it should be a Pokémon? People get over viruses every day?” Well the answer is not with Zika itself, but rather with what Zika causes.

 

Several studies have emerged that claim Zika is directly connected to Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Microcephaly. Additionally, the PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) claims there is no evidence that Zika can cause death, but there have been several reports of it worsening pre-existing medical conditions.

CDC_map_of_Zika_virus_distribution_as_of_15_January_2016

Areas of Zika Virus infection and density of cases (the darker the purple the more amounts of cases in that area)

Guillain-Barre Syndrome – an extremely rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, systematically destroying it over a long period of time. Although weakness and tingling to extremities are first symptoms, they can quickly spread eventually leading to full-body paralysis. Most people with the rare disease must be immediately hospitalized for rigorous treatment.

 

Microcephaly – a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than average. Most often it can be detected at birth and sometimes avoided with late-stage abortions but recent U.S. laws have prevented such actions. Microcephaly results in abnormally low brain function and development (not growing enough in the womb and not developing at a normal pace after birth.) Children with Microcephaly have severe developmental issues and there is no treatment or cure.

 

Microcephaly can be caused by Zika if a woman contracts the virus in the first and second trimester of the pregnancy. 9 cases of pregnant women contracting Zika have been recorded and of those 9 cases, two women had miscarriages, two women terminated their pregnancies, one woman had a baby with very severe Microcephaly, and most other women contracted the virus in the late stages of the pregnancy and had generally healthy babies

 

In conclusion, if you are a pregnant woman try not to travel to exotic and/or tropical areas where Zika-infected mosquitos usually live.

 

Original Article: http://news.yahoo.com/factbox-why-zika-virus-causing-alarm-202231278.html;_ylt=AwrC1jHwztFW5m0AGIHQtDMD;_ylu=X3oDMTBydWNmY2MwBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwM0BHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg–

You Are What You Eat

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Original Link To Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pnnl/8146322408

It has been known for some time by scientists that variations in food intake lead to various different gut floras.  However, that theory had only been tested on mice…Until now.  Lawrence David, assistant professor at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, led an experiment that resulted in the discovery that different foods not only lead to different bacteria, but the bacteria themselves experience gene variations.  Although the discovery itself is truly amazing, the celerity at which the changes occur is the most impressive.  University of Chicago’s professor of medicine Eugene Chang specializes in gastroenterology originally thought the changes would take months or even years but the study showed that the changes started to take place within a couple of hours.  There were also changes in the amount of bile acid secreted into the stomach and that microorganisms native to cheeses and cured meats were stronger against this.  The real question is “Why is this relevant?”  To Chang, the first is evolutionary.  Ancient humans who experienced rapid dietary changes could successfully switch from nuts and berries to meat with little gastric distress and maximum absorption of nutrients from even the most unrecognizable foods.  The second is the effects of diet on certain diseases.  Chang, who has been leading a research team to discover the connection between  B. wadsworthia and colitis in mice is yet to apply these tendencies to humans.  However, he believes there could be a connection.  His experiments show just how sensitive the body is to dietary change.  Dramatic changes in ones diet could lead to a brief exposure to harmful diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.  The experiments are difficult to conduct however because according to David, it’s hard to find even 10 people willing to dramatically change their diets for science.

original article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-guts-microbiome-changes-diet/

similar article on the gut micro biome: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/290747.php

What a Smelly Solution to a Smelly Predicament!!!!

The newest developments in scientific and medical research have been focused around a rather smelly purpose.

Fecal transplants are all the rage… and yes, it is what is sounds like. A fecal transplant occurs when the feces of a healthy donor are surgically transplanted into the colon of an individual who has various imbalances in the bacterial assortment of their gut. The feces with a healthy bacteria levels pass through the colon of the sick individual, replacing their “bad bacteria” with “good bacteria”, restoring the bacterial balances back to the way they should be.

Poop

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poop.jpeg

You may ask yourself, why can’t you just take some antibiotics to kill the dominating bacteria and even things out?

Well the problem is just that. Bacterial imbalances are usually caused by antibiotic use that kill one type of bacteria and not another, so taking more antibiotics on top of that would just add to the problem.

The transplant of fecal matter is an icky procedure but has shown to cure many more ailments other than JUST bacterial imbalances. Fecal transplants have showed to help various metabolic diseases, neuropsychiatric disorders, autoimmune diseases, allergic disorders, and even tumors.

E coli Ag Res Mag

E. Coli. – one of the most common bacterias in not only your colon, but also your whole body, is a key player in the Fecal Microbiota Transplantation

One specific study of Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) in metabolic syndromes, mixed microbiota from the feces of a lean donor with a sample of unhealthy, self-collected feces. After the mixed feces were then reinserted into the gut, the resultant excrement of the patient displayed increased insulin sensitivity and increased number of healthy butyrate-producing intestinal bacteria. In a sense, the resultant doo doo showed signs of improved health for the patient. Another report of FMT displayed favorable outcomes in abating the effects of:

  • Parkinson’s disease – a progressive disorder of the nervous system that negatively affects movement
  • Multiple Sclerosis – an autoimmune nervous system disease in which the human immune system attacks the central nervous system
  • Myoclonus Dystonia – a nervous and musculoskeletal disorder that results in involuntary and spontaneous muscle twitching and jerking
  • Chronic fatigue Syndrome – a cerebral disorder in which the brain excretes neurotransmitters that transmit the information to feel tired and fatigued. Can be extremely dangerous when mixed with everyday activities such as cooking and driving.
  • Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura – a vascular disorder that results in excessive bleeding, internal hemorrhaging, and bruising from low levels of blood platelets.

While many think that poop is simply waste that ought to be disposed of immediately, the beneficial effects that Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) have spread all over the body. From regulating the bacterial levels in the colon, to helping alleviate the symptoms of various autoimmune, vascular, muscular, nervous, and skeletal diseases.

Who would’ve thought that putting poop BACK into the colon would be a healthy thing to do!?!?!

Original Article: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/22/fmt-film/

Funny, yet extremely informative, animation and additional article: http://www.openbiome.org/about-fmt/

 

ANOTHER new study on Coffee

As students in high school, many of us are familiar with the immediate advantage of drinking coffee which is a decrease in fatigue and increase of alertness. Since I was young, however, I have heard many myths and hypotheses about the bad side effect of coffee, like how it stunts your growth and stains your teeth. I have also heard of other, positive side effect of drinking coffee. Some articles have said that caffeine has some positive effects against some diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers. Multiple studies and published articles have come up throughout the years on the various side effects of drinking coffee daily and whether or not it is good or bad for you. An article published on sciencenews.org explains the most recent research on this mysterious drink and its long term effects on us humans, while another article argues its bad effects.

This article describes a study and analysis of more than 200,000 professionals followed for almost 30 years. They concluded that drinking up to five cups of either decaf or caffeinated coffee a day has a strong correlation to reduced risk of early death from heart and brain diseases as well as suicide. This study had even accounted for lurking variables such as smoking, weight, and diet. By adjusting for these factors, the scientists discovered that the benefits were more pronounced for non-smokers. They also found that both decaf. and caffeinated coffee were had positive effects. This led the researchers to believe that the powerful components of coffee may stem from chemical compounds in the bean such as diterpenes and chlorogenic acids.

Another article I came across mentioned the known positive, as well as the harmful effects of caffeine. (On a side note, I find it relevant to point out that this article mentioned that studies proving harmful effects of caffeine are harder to find that the reported positive effects. This, I speculate, might have to do a little bit with the fact that people tend to want to hear reassurance on things that will permit them to continue on with habits or actions that might be seen as harmful or bad otherwise.) This website cited studies that were performed by the Mayo Clinic that found that coffee raised blood pressure, increased risk of heart attacks, caused headaches, reduced fertility in women, proved harmful to people with type 2 diabetes, worsened menopause symptoms, increased anxiety, and, most obviously, caused insomnia and more. Some of these correlations, like an increase in headaches due to drinking coffee, can be explained by obvious reasoning: caffeine is a diuretic, and therefore if you aren’t drinking enough water to compensate, your body will produce too much urine and you will become dehydrated which leads to headaches in some cases.

Because of this drug’s popularity, studies after studies have come out presenting new, or sometimes repetitive, information regarding the side effects of drinking coffee. Many people want to believe that it is good for them because they drink it on such a regular basis that if it proved to be very harmful they would be in real trouble. Therefore, people are looking for proof that it is good, so there are more articles, credible and not, showing proof that it is. Additionally, another potential issue with these studies is the amount of caffeine given to the patients. In study one, the subjects were given around 5 cups of coffee a day, which is 2 to 3 more than the average American, and therefore unrepresentative of what Americans actually consume. From this data, I have decided to continue drinking the relatively small amount of coffee I do on a weekly basis, paying attention to how my own body reacts and noting the changes with attention in order to learn more about how it affects me personally, as I feel I am the only reliable source of information to myself at the moment.

Only the Small Survive

Small fish featured in its natural niche

Small fish featured in its natural niche

http://www.pdpics.com/photo/1329-small-green-fish/

With many large species such as giraffes and sharks threatened with extinction, we might not see the likes of them for millions of years.  History has shown that evolution cannot restore large species for tens of millions of years.  Intrigued by this concept, paleontologist Lauren Sallan of the University of Pennsylvania sought to know why small species are able to bounce back much quicker than larger species.  Looking at aquatic life of the Mississippian Period, from 359 to 323 million years ago, she observed that most fish were significantly smaller than their ancestors.  This idea that certain species generally shrink over time is known as the Lilliput Effect, named after an island indigenous to tiny people in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  The fossils used in Dr. Sallan’s project fit this description as their ancestors probably perished perished in the deep freeze brought on at the end of the Devonian Period which wiped out an estimated 96 percent of all vertebrates.  However, the Lilliput Effect does not apply to all species.  One species, known as the rhizodontids, included fish that grew to the size of modern day killer whales.  Dr. Sallan concluded that the painfully slow recovery of large species on this planet is due to the ecosystems decimation during mass extinction events.  Although this particular article does not go into depth on why small animals have an easier time “bouncing back” than large ones, Dr. Sallan examined many fossils which prove that creatures shrank dramatically after large-scaled extinctions.  For example, the average size of a shark shrank from about a yard in length to only a mere few inches.  However, later in the article, Dr. Sallan cites her study by saying how smaller vertebrate species produce and diversify more easily contrary to large vertebrate animals dwindling in diversity until species extinction.

Original Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/13/science/after-a-mass-extinction-only-the-small-survive.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=1

Other Interesting Articles:http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/mass-extinction/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl-mass-exodus-plains/

HUMANS ON MARS!?!?!?!?!?

For many years people have known that there is water on mars, in its solid state at least. Furthermore, Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere has served to preserve the various topographical grooves that prove that there was ONCE liquid water on mars and that it flowed quite freely.

PIA16150_fig1-Mars_Curiosity_Rover-Glenelg_Terrain

What piqued scientists’ interest was the discovery just a few months ago that some of these grooves, the smaller ones usually only 5 meters wide, would appear during Mars’ warm season, grow several hundred meters long, and then disappear when the climate turned cold. Additionally, the streaks often showed up on steep slopes and looked very similar to images of water flowing downhill on Earth’s surface.

Field erosion 01

The anomalous nature of these ephemeral grooves compared to the extremely wide ancient river pattern on Mars’ surface, led researchers to further investigate these sites.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) now equipped a new instrument used for the spectroscopic detection of minerals, meaning that it carefully takes pictures of the surface of an object in various wavelengths of light (x-ray, ultraviolet, etc.) in order to reveal higher levels of specific compounds and minerals, was the exact instrument for the job. In this specific case, researchers used the MRO to scan for salt in the unusual streaks.

Why Salt?

I’m glad you asked… Scientists have decided that, based on Mars’ surface samples, any salts on Mars’ surface must be magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and/or sodium perchlorate; all of which are minerals that suggest that water could’ve been absorbed into the soil* from the atmosphere, via deliquescence, or from below the surface in an aquifer. When the MRO detected those salts and perchlorates in the streaks it was a definitive “Yes” to the question of, “Is there still LIQUID water on Mars?”

Internal_Structure_of_Pluto

A hypothetical artist’s rendering of how big the aquifer could be on Mars. The Mars rover failed to detect the buried water because it was both extremely deep, and covered by a thick layer of frozen nitrogen.

The significance of liquid water on Mars is that, in the event that human’s travel to Mars, they would be able to begin growing plants. Plants that would not only provide them with food but also the most necessary commodity humans need to survive, oxygen. Plants need four main ingredients to survive: water, sunlight, nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide. Up until this point, water had been the only missing piece to the puzzle, as Mars’ atmosphere is almost 95% carbon dioxide and is so thin (about 100 times thinner than that of Earth) it obstructs very little solar radiation [sunlight].

Equipped with my Celestron Powerseeker, my family and I took every opportunity we could to look into the depths of space, or at least the depths of our celestial neighborhood. We watched intently as the full lunar eclipse and the blood moon converged overhead. We spectated as the ISS sped across the sky in about 30 minutes on a cloudless night. When I first saw on Yahoo News that NASA had confirmed that there was liquid water on Mars, I was both excited at the new discovery and puzzled as to why everyone was so excited… anyone who has seen a picture of the planet already knew that Mars has water in the form of ice at it poles. Overall, my fascination with space led me to topics such as these. Although hundreds of questions were answered for me, many still remain:

Will NASA attempt to send humans to Mars? If so, when and where can I buy my ticket?

Will further studies find living organisms such as bacteria and protists in these water-streaks?

How big is the aquifer that the streaks could’ve originated from?

Will NASA attempt to establish a colony in Mars? If so, will the first infants born on Mars be considered “Martians”?

*soil being a relative term for the matter on the surface of Mars

http://news.sciencemag.org/space/2015/09/dark-streaks-mars-are-definitely-wet-nasa-says

https://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/march/nasa-research-suggests-mars-once-had-more-water-than-earth-s-arctic-ocean

For Cool Images of Mars’ Water Streaks see

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/jaw-dropping-images-us-first-211104638.html

Biggest Ever Epigenetics Project!!

 

Marian_and_Vivian_Brown

Identical Twins

 

This article is about a project that has recently been planned out with respect to

epigenetics. It is the largest project to date and will cost around $30,000,000 to complete. Epigenetics is the study of cellular and psychological trait variations that are not caused by DNA sequence, but rather what within the DNA is triggered and shown. It is a relatively new field and has exploded in recent years. The heads of this project are TwinsUK and BGI, both very credited organizations in the realm of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the newest and recently the most popular field of all genetics and the goal of this project is to use the twins and the resources given to understand why and how epigenetics occurs.

The plan is to review the patterns of 20,000,000 sites in the DNA of each identical twin (they must be identical because their DNA must be the same and not vary) and compare the DNA with the other twins. The aim is to not look at similarities, but to look at differences and figure out how twins get different diseases if their DNA is identical. They will focus on obesity, diabetes, allergies, heart diseases, etc. at first. Until recently, science did not understand why twins could receive different diseases since their DNA is identical to their other twin, but by studying epigenetics and how genes can be triggered to do different things based on surroundings and circumstance, this idea is plausible.

Being able to locate what genes turn on to trigger certain diseases along with how to control this is something that will benefit not only our general knowledge but will also advance health care to levels that it has never seen. Experiments such as this have been done before but only with a handful of twins. The goal in this experiment is to increase the amount of twins tremendously in order to increase the accuracy of their data.

The Executive Director of BGI, Professor Jun Wang stated that the goal of this experiment is to “unlock many secrets about human genetics that we don’t currently understand, and to accelerate research and applications in human healthcare.”

 

Diesel Exhaust Causes Changes Within

Diesel Exhaust

Two hours of exposure to diesel exhaust fumes has proven to show fundamental health-related changes in biology by switching some genes on and others off.

A study put volunteers in a polycarbonate-enclosed booth and had them breath diluted and aged exhaust fumes. These fumes were about equal to the air quality along a Beijing highway. The researchers examined how the exposure affected the chemical coating that attaches to many parts of a person’s DNA. The coating they were referring to is carbon-hydrogen coating, also known as methylation. The coating can silence or dampen a gene and prevent it from producing a protein. Methylation is a mechanism for controlling gene expression.

The study found that diesel exhaust caused changes in methylation located at about 2,800 different places along a person’s DNA, which affects about 400 genes. Some places led to more methylation. How these changes affect health is the next topic of research. However, the AstraZeneca Chair in Occupational and Environmental Lung Disease claims that the fact that DNA methylation was affected from only two hours of exposure is a positive implication; when something happens that quickly, it usually means you can reverse it through either therapy, change in environment, or change in diet.

This article is very similar to what we are learning about methylation and epigenetics. It discusses how the environment can affect someone’s genes and their gene expression as opposed to solely being their DNA sequence. I found this interesting because diesel exhaust is something people are exposed to everyday and it is important to know the affects it can have other than just respiratory issues.

Source:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-01/uobc-bid010715.php

http://aqicn.org/city/beijing/

http://www.whatisepigenetics.com/dna-methylation/

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diesel-smoke.jpg

Human Brain Gene Implant Greatly Effects Mice

A study conducted at MIT tested the effect of human Foxp2 gene on mice and observed their ability to navigate through a maze. Foxp2 is found in both mice and humans, but the human form of the gene is related to  learning and language but it has been hypothesized by neuroscientist Ann Graybiel of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research that perhaps the human gene is related to sub-conscious actions based on environmental cues.

The maze lead to a pile of food, and throughout the maze the scientists placed visual and sensory cues that lead to the end of the maze and to the food. At the end of the study, the results showed that the genetically modified mice would complete the maze 3 days faster than the wild, control mice when visual and sensory cues were both involved.

The significance of the study is the potential connection between specialized learning and the Foxp2 gene. Although the difference between learning how to run a maze and leaning how to speak is massive, tests like this one are the beginnings to analyzing the true significance of Foxp2.

Mice

The Rise of NFL Brain Injuries and Possible Solutions

tackling leading to brain injuries

tackling leading to brain injuries

Brain-injury treatment program that was created for military veterans hurt on the battlefield has now been updated to include professional athletes. Eisenhower Center’s representatives announced that it will be the main facility used by the NFL Players Association to treat brain and neurological issues. This will be facilitated through the After the Impact program.

Residential neuro-rehab facility is located in Ann Arbor. The program has intense treatment for athletes recovering from concussions, mild traumatic brain injury, or PTSD. It came from Eisenhower Center’s transitional treatment program to serve military soldiers dealing with brain injuries.

The NFL expects 28% of retired players to suffer Alzheimer’s or moderate dementia; this has caused former players to sue. About a third of all retired NFL players will suffer long-term cognitive problems and the After the Impact program has helped some reach the path to recovery.

NFL provoked a judge to approve a $1 billion settlement of concussion lawsuits ignoring concerns raised by former players. The 65-year fund will resolve thousands of lawsuits on the NFL, accusing them of hiding their knowledge of concussions and brain injuries in an attempt to keep players.

I picked this topic because I watch football every weekend and have wondered about the impact of the hitting on the players. It is nice to see that there have been efforts made to fix this.

Sources: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/16/braininjury-program-worki_n_6337018.html?utm_hp_ref=brain

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11905362/nfl-urges-judge-approve-estimated-1-billion-settlement-concussion-lawsuits

http://www.eisenhowercenter.com/neurobehavioral

 

Recently discovered mammal suffers from parenthood…

For a recently discovered species of marsupials, the Black-tailed Antechinus, it seems that parenthood is the highest cause of death. The Black-tailed Antechinus was discovered in Queensland’s Springbrook National Park, Australia by Dr. Andrew Baker. He laid 300 traps of oats and peanut-butter to catch the marsupial. After putting the marsupials through a multitude of tests they found that all the males died after mating. The stress hormone levels in the males, post mating, would steadily increase until eventually the males bodies would simply shut down. In this species of marsupials the males never live to see their young be born.

Why do only some COCAINE users become addicted?

The obvious precursor to cocaine addiction is cocaine use. However, some people are able to use cocaine on and off with out becoming addicted while others become afflicted by addiction very quickly. There has always been the theory that your personality can make you more prone to addictions and other “weak” decisions but recent studies go a step beyond that and link addiction to the structure of an individual’s brain.

The frontal lobe of the brain is associated with self-control. The size of the frontal lobe appears to indicate how susceptible an individual would be to cocaine addictions. A study done by scientists at the University of Cambridge compared the brains of casual cocaine users versus cocaine addicts. What they found was a noticeable difference in size of the frontal lobe: users had a larger frontal lobe while addicts had a smaller frontal lobe.

The scientists believe that the size difference was preexistent and  not a result of drug use because both groups were cocaine users. The main difference was that the mere users “could take it or leave it” due to their more powerful self control.

The brain is a popular subject when it comes to addictions due to the harm addictions can cause and due to the hope of a better understanding of addictions so that they can be “cured”. There are newly defined addictions more and more frequently, as addictions to food, caffeine, internet, and shopping become more and more prevalent.

Another example of increased susceptibility to addiction is the genetic or hereditary quality of alcoholism. “Though the exact mechanisms haven’t been identified, experts in alcoholism widely agree that some people are genetically vulnerable to developing the disorder.” Also, experts suggest that many people addicted opiates may have “deficiencies in their brain reward systems.”

Further studies exploring the links to the brain and addictions would be instrumental in curing the countless addictions that interfere with people’s quality of life.

 

Link to Main Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/science/brain-shape-may-play-role-in-cocaine-addiction.html?ref=science&_r=0

Link to additional articles:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3076712/#.URBDX81RLzc http://www.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,1640235,00.html

Link to the photo used:http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/4327205241/

 

 

The Woman who cant be Afraid teaches us about Fear

A lot of people say they aren’t scared of anything, but the reality is every body is scared of something. Everybody, except a woman known as SM.

SM had a rare illness that caused damage to the part of her brain associated with fear. The amygdala “is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival”.  In the same way that pain is a warning sign in attempt to protect you from danger, fear is a function of protection. Without fear you would constantly place yourself in dangerous situations with out responding to an impulse of survival.

The Amygdala- the area of the brain responsible for fear

The damage to SM’s amygdala caused her to lose the ability to feel fear. Scientists tested her on several simulated and real life situations such as being held up at gunpoint, watching scary movies, watching domestic violence. SM felt no fear what so ever in any of these situations. Scientists naturally would predict that with the loss of a functioning amygdala, SM would never feel fear again.

Yet, one day SM had a panic attack. The panic attack was brought on in an experiment where SM inhaled a small amount of carbon dioxide that created a short feeling of suffocation.

The fact that SM felt fear from a panic attack without an amygdala “illuminates some of the brain’s most fundamental processes and may have practical value in the study of panic attacks.” Additionally, it suggests that there may be an alternative center for fear responding to internal threats- such as suffocation or a heart attack.

This study is particularly fascinating because it shows just how little we know about ourselves and the world around us. It illuminates the flaws in our apparent definitive knowledge and encourages further research and speculation about what we know concerning the brain.

 

Link to Main Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/health/study-discovers-internal-trigger-for-the-previously-fearless.html?ref=science

Link to additional Articles:

http://biology.about.com/od/anatomy/p/Amygdala.htm

Link to Picture used:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amygdala.png

The Science of the Appeal Behind Dark Personalities

A recent study suggests that many people have a mysterious attraction to dark personalities. Specifically, people with traits like Machiavellian, narcissism, and psychopathy. These three traits are called the “Dark Triad” and people with these traits were found to be more attractive than those who were seen to have less of these characteristics. On this surface, it seems bogus. Who in their right mind finds a psychopath to be sexy? However, a quick examination of society proves otherwise. Dark brooding characters seem to be all the rage right now, it’s why movies like the Twilight series sell out (teenage girls swoon over Edward’s moodiness) and why TV shows with characters forced to make morally ambiguous decisions like The Walking Dead are hits.  In the experiment,

Each student was photographed soon after they arrived.  Then, after taking this initial photograph, each student asked to change out of their own clothes and put on a pair of gray sweatpants and a t-shirt…The students were then photographed in this more natural state. Holtzman and Strube showed both sets of photographs to a group of strangers who rated them in terms of physical attractiveness. By comparing the attractiveness ratings of the dressed-down and dressed-up students, the researchers were able to determine how much each student was able to make themselves more appealing through flashy clothes, makeup, accessories, etc.

The students in the study were then tested for the Dark Triad, and the results were confirmed with the friends and family of the students. While there was a definite correlation between attractiveness in the photos of the dressed up students and a high Dark Triad score,

the dark triad score was not related to ratings of physical attractiveness in the dressed-down photos. In other words, people with dark personality traits are not seen as more physically attractive than others when you take away their freedom to wear their own clothes and makeup.

This suggests that people with darker personalities are simply better at making themselves look nice. Do I believe this? To a large extent, yes. The more narcissistic you are, the more you’re going to care about your appearance.

 

http://pixabay.com/en/view-science-diagram-human-cartoon-40356/
The amygdala is the portion of the brain believed to be responsible for these kinds of personality traits.

The article does add one important point: choose your friends carefully. Social interactions  and the way we perceive others, is a complex mechanism. The amygdala is a small part of the brain that is responsible for much of our social interactions and ability to connect to others. This part of the brain plays a big role in deciding who seems like a potentially good friend and who you may want to avoid. Initially  humans being tend to associate physical attractiveness with goodness and trustworthiness,

a phenomenon known as “the halo effect.” When we perceive someone as physically attractive, we automatically assume they are also kinder, smarter, and more confident. Therefore, creating a physically attractive veneer is a highly effective way of creating an advantageous first impression.

 

As the saying goes: don’t judge a book by its cover.

 

Sources:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=psychology-uncovers-sex-appeal-dark-personalities&page=2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_triad

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala#Social_interaction

Photo: http://pixabay.com/en/view-science-diagram-human-cartoon-40356/

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Just for fun, I took a Dark Triad quiz.  Click on he link to take it yourself. Judging from my score, I should be able to make myself look like Miss Universe. I can’t, in case you were wondering. As with any kind of generalizations such as these, they are never 100%. Leave a comment with your result. Do you agree with it?

Forget about it!

What is the earliest memory that you can remember? Is it a good memory or a bad one? Hopefully it’s a good one. Recent studies have shown, however, that the brain has two ways of coping with bad memories.

Photo by Reigh LeBlanc

Students are taught in school that in order to “remember” something, there are a series of chemical reactions throughout the brain that allows you to find the memory you are looking for. But if you have a bad memory, how do you stop the reaction and forget?

Dr. Roland Benoit is a “cognitive neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in England.” He and his team studied how one can stop these bad memories. They found that the brain uses two mechanisms. First, the brain can simply “block out the memory.” The other mechanism is to “recall a substitute memory.”

Dr. Benoit studied the outcome of MRI scans when participants were told to associate different words. They were first told to associate the words “beach” and “Africa.” Next, they were told to associate the words “beach” and “snorkel” (forgetting about “Africa.” Dr. Benoit and his team found that the left prefrontal cortex of the brain works with the hippocampus (the “hippocampus is an area of the brain connecting to conscious remembering”). When the group was told to forget about Africa, and focus on snorkel, the prefrontal cortex inhibited the function of the hippocampus. Thus, the brain has a mechanism built in to allow humans to virtually block out memories.

This study shows that there are different techniques to block out memories, especially if they are bad memories. Every human is going to have a different mechanism when it comes to blocking out memories. If you would rather replace a memory with something else or completely block out a memory, the choice is yours.

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