BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Category: Student Post (Page 1 of 52)

Is Your Cellphone Trying to Kill You?

The cellphone that you use everyday, whether it is for work or your enjoyment, can harm you without you even knowing. Cellphones give off a certain type of energy called radio-frequency waves that can increase your risk of brain tumors or other tumors in the head or neck area. Cell phones are given the ability to function because of cell towers. Cell phones send and receive signals from surrounding cell towers by using radio-frequency waves. Radio-frequency waves, however, are a form of non-ionizing radiation, which means they do not have enough energy to cause cancer directly damaging the DNA inside a cell. This relates to our biology class, as we are talking about how cells work inside the body. Although radio-frequency waves do not have enough energy to break through a cell to cause damage, if they did, they would have to pass through the plasma membrane, and then reach the nucleus in order to damage DNA.

The radio-frequency waves come from the cell phone’s antenna, located in the body of a hand-held phone. The waves are strongest at the antenna and lose energy quickly as they travel away from the phone. The phone is often held against the head when a person is on a call. The closer the antenna is to someone, the greater their expected exposure to radio-frequency waves. The body tissues closest to the phone absorb more energy from the waves than tissues farther away, giving you a higher risk of a form of brain cancer than something else. The amount of energy absorbed by someone from the radio-frequency waves can be influenced by a number of things, such as the model of phone you use, or the amount of time you use your phone. However, in studies shown in the first embedded link, there has been no clear answer of the correlation between cellphones and cancer. Overall, I feel that if there was a significant finding in these studies, there would be a huge spike of cases of brain tumors or brain cancers. I believe this is not something we should be worried about, and if it were to be a problem, I feel that there would have been a solution created already.

E. coli is Beneficial to Plants?

An enzyme is a biological catalyst and is almost always a protein. It speeds up the rate of a specific chemical reaction in the cell. The enzyme is not destroyed during the reaction and is used over and over. A cell contains thousands of different types of enzyme molecules, each specific to a particular chemical reaction. Studies of scientists in the past focused on improving the photosynthesis of plants using the Rubisco, an enzyme that attracts carbon from carbon dioxide to create sucrose. However, Rubisco occasionally catalyzes a reaction with oxygen and CO2 from the air. By doing so, it creates a toxic byproduct and wastes energy, therefore making photosynthesis inefficient/unsafe.

“You would like Rubisco to not interact with oxygen and to also work faster,” said Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Molecular Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Scientists at Cornell, Maureen Hanson and Myat Lin, wanted to solve this problem. the conclusion they reached was to utilize E.coli. In order to do this, the researchers took Rubisco from tobacco plants and engineered it into E. coli. Their objective was to make mutations to try to improve the enzyme and then test it in E. coli in a quick and efficient way.

File:E. coli Bacteria (16578744517).jpg

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, grown in culture and adhered to a cover slip.

The fact that bacteria reproduces at a quick rate is an important in their experiments. The researchers were abler to test an altered Rubisco in E. coli and get results the next day. This is a huge improvement compared to normal Rubisco, which normally takes a few months for noticeable results.

The work by another group that engineered tobacco Rubisco into E. coli led to very weak expression of the enzyme. In plants, Rubisco is composed of eight large and eight small subunits. A single gene encodes each large subunit, but many genes encode each small subunit. The complex process of enzyme assembly and the presence of multiple versions of the enzyme in plants has made it very hard to experiment with Rubisco. By doing this, they attained expression of the enzyme in E. coli that matched what was found in plants.

With this newfound ability to develop new mutations of Rubisco in E.coli, researchers can pick out the improved mutations and distribute them to a crop plant which could help improve the economy immensely. The Rubisco in E.coli will help the photosynthesis of the plants, allowing them to produce more glucose as well as oxygen gas.  This will lead to an increase in cell respiration. The chemical energy released by respiration can be used by the plant for cellular activities such as protein synthesis or cell division. The plant will ultimately grow to be bigger, healthier, and in the crops case, more tasty.

Blue Whales: The Giants of the Real World

For the past twenty years, Jeremy Goldbogen and collaborators have been trying to figure out why blue whales were the biggest animal to ever live. The journey helped them find multiple different explanations as to why the blue whale is so unique and why it’s size is almost entirely based on two factors: their choice of prey and the coincidence of their evolution with the global increase of “upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the depths of the ocean.”

How does a Blue Whale’s diet affect its size?

Baleen Whales were able to evolve from filter-feeding on plankton to successfully lung-feeding on entire schools of fish and krill. This was a huge part of the whale’s evolution because of the ocean upwelling, which provided ample amounts of new prey for these whales.

What is specialization and how did it affect the evolution of Whales, particularly Blue Whales? 

During the ocean upwelling, not all types of swarming prey were the same. As a result, predators began to become a specialist in hunting certain groups. For example, some rorquals specialized in schooling fish, while others focused on plankton. Of all the present-day rorquals, the blue whale is the most specialized. They only eat Krill with very few exceptions. Specializing in Krill is far from easy. There is only a high concentration of Krill in certain regions of the world, therefore Blue Whales need to be extremely mobile. Because of this, they have sleek bodies and hydrodynamic flippers. Krill are also not easy to catch so Blue Whales sacrifice some mobility for a more hunting range. This means a bigger mouth which comes with a bigger body. The whale’s diet depends on being big but the energy needed to maintain this big body also balances out.

The Blue Whale: Stuck between the Old and the New

The Blue Whale is in an interesting predicament when it comes to their evolution and growth. They are stuck in their circle of specialization but their food web is deteriorating across the ocean and that is where they are also stuck. As I said before, being that big takes a lot of energy. These whales needed to eat as much as possible and when we pollute the ocean that hinders their ability to do so. I believe that it is extremely important for us to do what we can as humans in order to help these creatures because right now we are living during a truly unique time: we are on the earth at the same time as giants. I believe that it is our responsibility to save them for as long as we can.

 

 

 

Allergic to Water? Insight into Aquagenic Urticaria the allergy to water.

Your favorite Biology blogger, Monoseanaride, is here to educate biology lovers all across the globe on Aquagenic Urticaria, also known as, the allergy to water. This is a special that you do not want to miss out on.

 Background-

Aquagenic Urticaria (AU) is an extremely rare disease that causes an allergic reaction when coming into contact with water. This allergic reaction includes urticaria forming on the area where the water came into contact with the skin. This disease is mostly found in women, and the symptoms usually begin at the onset of puberty.

 

 

History-

Aquagenic Urticaria (AU) was first discovered by Shelley and Ramsey back in 1964 when they reported three cases. One case was a 19-year-old boy who had reported multiple episodes of urticaria. The second case was a four-year-old boy who suffered from the same symptoms as the 19-year-old man. Both patients suffered from pinhead-sized wheals around their bodies. Neither patient had any reaction from ingesting water, after multiple experiments, it was concluded that this reaction was caused by the water touching the surface of the skin. There was no case report on the third initial case discovered. Since these initial findings, fewer than 100 cases have been reported since.

Symptoms and Treatment-

The symptoms of AU include an itchy and painful rash after coming into contact with water. The rash is most commonly found on the neck, arms, and chest. The rash can form within minutes of coming into contact with water. Symptoms begin to fade after drying off in 30-60 minutes. In extreme cases symptoms can ensue on the digestion of water, these symptoms could include: wheezing, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, and a rash around the mouth. There is no official cure for AU. In the original diagnosis of AU doses of Fexofenadine were prescribed to help alleviate symptoms. Now antihistamines are given to help reverse the allergy-induced effects of AU.

Cause- 

This reaction is caused by the release of a chemical called histamine the chemical responsible for fighting off the symptoms of an allergic reaction. There is no evidence as to where this disease originated, but there are two theories. Some scientists believe that a substance dissolved in water enters the skin and causes the hives. This theory the scientists believe that it is an allergen in the water, rather than water itself causing the hives. The second theory posits that interaction between water and a substance found in, or on our skin creates a toxic material, which leads to the hives. It is unsure whether or not the disease can be inherited. In most cases AU is appeared sporadically, although there have been familial cases discovered, such as this one family who was passed through three generations.

Why Water is necessary for human life-

The human body is made up of about 60%, the brain and heart are made up of about 73% water, the lungs are made up of about 83% water, the skins and muscles are made of 64% water, and the bones are made up of about 31% water. Water is essential for animals and plants for reasons more than to quench thirst, or to shower, but rather because it is known as the universal solvent. Water is notorious for its capabilities to dissolve many different molecules. That’s not all though, water is used for many things such as aiding cell transport, cellular structure, and even is part of multiple chemical reactions such as photosynthesis in plants, and dehydration synthesis, a chemical reaction that helps connect monomers to make polymers, in animals. Water helps the folding of amino acids inside the cell. Water is also seen going through the cell membrane in a process called Osmosis, a process that spreads water to areas of high concentration and obtains equilibrium. 

Snacks That Smile Back…No More!

Throughout the world, child obesity is a global issue that has gone on for many years. With very few signs of progress, many people around the world are struggling to find innovative ways to save this worldwide problem. As more and more kids interact with many of these social media platforms including: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, many fast food chains use this as an opportunity to spread the word about their food. Disregarding the foods and beverages of high fat, sugar, and salt(HFSS) could be one of the leading factors to the growing percentage with children who suffer with obesity. As part of U.K. government’s plan to limit child obesity through 2030, the article states that the government is “considering limitations on television advertising for HFSS products between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.”.

This picture displays common junk food found in commercials.
This picture displays common junk food found in commercials.

The Study

Throughout this study, researchers used data on children’s exposure to HFSS advertising during the controlled hours(5:30 a.m.— 9 p.m.), as well as previously published information on the association between exposure to HFSS and children’s calorie intake in order to trigger a decrease in children being exposed to HFSS food. As the experiment was conducted, the ending results concluded that if all advertising containing foods with HFSS were to be limited or even terminated, 3.7 million children in the U.K. would experience on average 1.5 fewer advertisements per day, as well as decrease there calorie intake by an average of 9.1 kcal. The article states that these findings “would reduce the number of children aged 5 through 17 with obesity by 4.6% and the number of children overweight by 3.6%”. This data is equivalent to 40,000 fewer U.K. children who struggle with obesity and over 120,000 fewer children who classify as overweight. It it important to keep in mind that this study only focuses on the direct impact of HFSS advertising on children’s calorie intake and not the changing of children dietary preferences and habits.

Why is this Important?

This study proved that implementing a certain time frame throughout the day(5:30 a.m. -9 p.m.) to potentially reduce the exposure of less-healthy food(HFSS) advertising could provoke a valuable contribution towards not only protecting the future health of children who live in the U.K., but children all over the world. As children are becoming more connected with social media, it’s hard to avoid the mass amount of advertisements displayed throughout all these sites. “children now consume media from a range of sources, and increasingly from online and on-demand services,” says Dr. Oliver Mytton, researcher at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at Cambridge University.

Many of these less-healthy food options contain saturated Fats. These fats have fatty acid chains with “single-bonds” between carbons. This allows chains to pack closely together forming a solid, which are less healthy to consume due to the formation of plaques in blood vessels. These fatty foods also contain lots of carbohydrates as well. When consuming an excessive amount of carbs, your blood sugar levels can get too high. This leads to your body creating more insulin, which tells your body to store extra glucose as fat, making the person gain more weight, as well as lead to other major health issues.

I believe that obesity is a prevalent issue throughout our world, and the more studies and experiments we conduct to try and prevent this condition, the more healthy our world can become. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

Can Deodorant Cause Cancer?

Did you ever think you were harming your health while going through your morning routine? Applying deodorant is a daily practice of many people around the world. However, we often don’t realize what exactly we are applying to our bodies and what chemicals the products we are using are made up of. When was the last time you checked the label to see if there were any potentially harmful elements in something as basic as deodorant? Not often, I presume. But I think we all need to start!

The article from Penn Medicine explores the effects the deodorant can have. Deodorant’s contain chemicals which can be absorbed into the body from applying it onto the skin. The theory people have formed about deodorant is that the toxins from the deodorant will collect in the lymph nodes that will turn healthy cells into cancer cells, especially breast cancer as it located closest to the armpit where the deodorant is applied. The difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell a cancerous cells is a mutation of its DNA (contains the genetic code for organisms). Nucleic acids are DNA. Nucleic acids consist of nucleotides that are made up of a five carbon sugar, a phosphate group and a nitrogenous base. The mutation of the DNA causes uncontrolled cellular proliferation which can occur due to mutations in genes that control cell death and regular cell growth. Healthy cells carry out their ‘normal’ specialized functions. However, the American Cancer Society has said that there is not enough scientific evidence to back the theory. Aluminum is a big ingredient in deodorant needed to prevent sweating. Our bodies ability to sweat is controlled by our nervous system. But how does deodorant really accomplish what it is supposed to? Essentially, the salts in the aluminum have to break down in order to prevent sweat on the pores. The National Center for Biotechnology information claimed that breast tissue does, indeed, have an increase of aluminum in them with daily use of deodorant.

 Harmful Effects of Aluminum on Kidney’s 

A extreme excess of aluminum in the body can result in bone diseases or dementia. Also, a excess of aluminum can also cause kidney issues with people with pre-existing kidney conditions since aluminum gets filtered out of the body through the kidney’s. For the most part, though, there is not enough aluminum in the sticks for it to do enough damage for people with healthy kidneys.

Other Harmful Chemicals Used In Deodorant

Parabens is another ingredient used in deodorant to prevent bacteria from growing on the deodorant, basically being used as a preservative. Parabens also get absorbed through the skin and function as estrogen. Why exactly are parabens bad for us? A excess of estrogen throughout a lifetime, however, can result in increase breast cancer or even a tumor. The positive is that it is in too little of an amount to really make a difference in our bodies.

Just to be safe, though, I think it is time to go buy some aluminum free deodorant- a quick, easy and convenient solution! Here are some great aluminum free deodorants and here are some natural deodorants to get started on using!

Genes: They are influential in more ways than one

The article entitled, “Your Friends May Be In Your Genes,” discusses the study Virginia Commonwealth University researchers led on the influence of genes on the choices that we make when developing social connections.  Researchers claim that as people mature, their genes become progressively more critical in how they choose their friend groups. The discoveries in the study reflect which people are most susceptible for substance use or externalizing behaviors in their lifetime, based on the company they keep.

Comprised of individuals who were part of the Virginia Twin Registry, the study looked into the role of genetic factors in decision making amongst men during their adolescence, using roughly 1,800 male twin pairs ranging from teenage years to early adulthood, and involved interviews used to help explain how social groups can influence deviant behaviors.  Specifically, the study showed that genes can impact how individuals select their peer groups, and that those groups affects one’s tendency to engage in antisocial behaviors. Because peers have a significant effect on promoting and/or discouraging deviant behaviors and also oftentimes provide substances for abuse, an individual’s social environment can play a critical role in his/her life choices.

As mentioned in the article, “Why Twin Studies,” Twin studies have long been used as a means to identify different illnesses and disorders because they allow researchers to determine the the various influences on certain traits.  If a trait is similar between individuals who have the same genes, like identical twins, but not so in fraternal twins, a case can be made for a genetic link.  If a trait is similar between fraternal twins, but not so in identical twins, then a case can be made for environmental impact.

In the article, “Its Nature and Nurture: How Our Genes and Our Friends Shape the Way We Live Our Lives,” further support is given to the link between genes, environment, and risky behaviors when it points out that more educated Americans are less likely to smoke.  Since educated people tend to surround themselves with like minded people who find smoking unacceptable, those who are socially connected in this way are not usually smokers.  This suggests that people who have genes linked to educational success are less likely to have genes linked to smoking and vice versa.

Genes are segments of DNA that contain the instructions for the production of proteins.  Cells contain organelles, called ribosomes that are responsible for producing proteins that control physical traits.  Genes provide the information for which amino acids need to be joined to build each protein.

Personally, I think genes are interesting not only because they control the traits that we posses, but also because they can be linked to who we chose to surround ourselves with. It is our social choices that can then determine behaviors we participate in.

 

 

How a Rogue Protein can cause Alzheimer’s Disease

In a study done by NYU Langone Healthy and the School of Medicine, researchers learned more about the types of proteins that cause the tangles in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that affects the “memory, thinking, and behavior” of the over 5 million Americans who have it, according the the Alzheimer’s Association. The researchers tested tissue sample of 12 subjects with the disease looking for tau knots to “[examine] the bundles to identify the many proteins tangled within”.

File:Histopathology of neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer's disease.jpg

Shown is the tangles that are found in and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease 

You might be wondering, what is a tau knot? A tau is a protein that exists mostly in nerves that has the objective of stabilizing microtubules. When this protein is defective, it can become tangled with other molecules which leaders to Alzheimer’s disease.

Although neuroscientists already knew that tau tangles can cause neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia, they did not know many of the proteins that cause these dangerous knots. After analyzing the brain tissue, the researchers “found 12 proteins that they say have not before been tied to both tau and Alzheimer’s disease.” These knots were made up of 542 different proteins including those involved in the most essential processes of the cell like “energy production”, “the reading of genetic material”, “and cell breakdown and digestion.” These proteins that work to produce ATP and RNA in the processes of cell respiration and gene transcription (which are necessary parts of cell function); these important proteins are involved in the knotting. It is crazy that along with their existence comes the possibility of them destroying all they have created.

Despite the sad nature of this research, this new information comes along with hope for those suffering from this debilitating illness. According to co-lead author Geoffrey Pires, “Now that we have better insight into possible ‘key players’ in neurodegeneration, we may have clearer targets for potential therapies.” As these researchers gain more and more information, they gain a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and in turn, other similar “tau-linked neurodegenerative diseases, such as Pick’s disease.”

I feel Alzheimer’s is an essential disease to learn more about not only because it is incurable and unpreventable, but because 4 members of my own family have suffered from it. As the study’s senior author Thomas Wisniewski said “Alzheimer’s has been studied for over a century, so it is eye opening that we are still uncovering dozens of proteins that we had no idea are associated with the disease.” It is wild to think that something so common and well known, still has so many mysteries to it and that makes it immensely more fascinating and important to learn about.

Glowing Venus Fly Traps: Do they Have a Memory?

An article, published in the New York Times, written by Cara Giaimo, examines the science behind the closing of a Venus fly trap, a notably unique plant. The article discusses research approaches conducted by Mitsuyasu Hasebe, the leader of a science research team in Okazaki, Japan, in order to learn about the reasoning behind the plants reaction to stimulus in connotation with calcium Ions. Hasebe did this by gene splicing the plant. Gene splicing is used to modify a gene in eukaryotic cells , which becomes a new code for proteins being created.

Venus Fly traps are so unique in the way they get food, as most plants make their own. Dr. Hasebe’s study allows insight and explanation to how they function.

Hasebe’s research went in depth on an existing hypothesis from the late 90’s. In 1988 It was assumed by a team of plant researchers that the sense from the fly trap was caused by the overlapping of existing calcium ions, however it was explained that there was “no way to test their idea”. Dr. Hasebe found a way. His research ultimately lead to answering a long unknown question raised about this species.

Calcium Ions

As many of us know, the Venus fly trap has very unique and seemingly unknown characteristics. If its ‘just’ a plant, how does it act in a predator like manner?, the answer to that is calcium ions. In order to get a closer look at the calcium ions within the plant, researches spliced a gene into the Venus fly trap and the targeted areas (the calcium ions)began to glow. The glowing calcium ions allowed the team “to visualize the fly traps memory mechanism” and show the “ions build up as the hairs are triggered”.  This process exemplifies the Calcium signaling and the calcium ion build up that occurs when the hairs are triggered “quickly enough” after an initial stimulus.

Since Venus fly traps obviously don’t have  nerves to send messages to a brain like animals do, how do they process and react to this necessary information? Calcium signaling, in basic terms is used as a form of communication in cells. Looking at this process in terms of cell structure, the calcium ions surrounding the cells enter the cytosol, the jelly like substance making up the cytoplasm, and begins to regulate the proteins and enzymes within the cells. The cytoplasm is where the organelles remain suspended within the cell, provides further protection against any threats towards the organelles, and also helps structurally support the cell. For context purposes, organelles are structures within a cell that have a specific function and duty to fulfill in order to keep a cell functioning properly, for example a vacuole which is one large organelle in a plant cell but smaller in an animal cell, stores necessary solutes such as water within the cell. The calcium ions in the cytosol surround the suspended organelles. The cells themselves don’t initially have these calcium ions but they can recognize them due to the abundance of them outside of the cells. This article questions the plant’s “memory” of the first brush on the hairs. It is later revealed that instead of memory, like how humans experience, Calcium signaling provokes and communicates movement after the repetitive touch between cells.

 

Shocking Connection Between Ancient Neanderthals and COVID-19

As stated in an article that details the shocking discoveries of an investigation led by Professors Svante Pääbo and Hugo Zeberg, genetic material from our neanderthal ancestors can be linked to the development of severe COVID-19. COVID-19, as I am sure you are all aware, is the disease ravaging the world and is caused by the newly

discovered coronavirus. While most people only have mild reactions to the disease and recover relatively easily, some people with underlying conditions may have a severe reaction to the disease and require hospitalization. However, this new study indicates that certain people may be genetically predisposed to a severe COVID-19 reaction, and it all links back to our 60,000-year-old Neanderthal ancestors.

The study that discovered this connection analyzed the genetic material of 3,000 patients who had both severe and mild COVID-19. The study identified a section of the chromosome that contained the genetic material responsible for the severe COVID-19. Chromosomes are tiny structures located in the nucleus of cells and these structures hold the genetic material that determines virtually everything about the cell. This genetic material is made up of nucleic acids that — when combined into a double-strand helix by covalent bonds between the phosphate, sugar, and base groups– create DNA. The order of the bases in the chain determines the amino acid sequence. We inherit our genetic material from our parents, and chromosomes are present in pairs, with one part of the pair inherited from each parent. This means that you hold genetic information from your earliest ancestors, which could potentially include Neanderthals. Neanderthals were archaic humanoids that were eventually assimilated into the homo sapien species.  However, cross-breeding was required to absorb the Neanderthals into our species, which means that most of the people alive today have a percentage of Neanderthal DNA. If a person holds one of the thirteen variants that are present in Neanderthal DNA, they are far more likely to have severe COVID-19.

Professors Pääbo and Zeberg proved this to be true by discovering that the Neanderthal variants distinctly matched the variants associated with severe COVID-19. However, they discovered that the genetic material only originated from Neanderthals located in southern Europe. Therefore, they concluded that when the Neanderthals of southern Europe merged with present-day people 60,000 years ago, they introduced the DNA region responsible for severe cases of COVID-19. Additionally, the people who possess these Neanderthal variants today are three times more likely to have severe COVID-19. The fact that I found the most interesting is how dramatically the presence of the variants vary in different parts of the world. For example, in South Asia, 50% of the population holds the variants, but in East Asia, almost nobody has them. I also think that it is rather tragic how genetic material that has not had any effect on the world for 60,000 years is just now becoming active. What do you think about this discovery? Why do you believe Neanderthal DNA is causing these extreme cases?

 

Can Your Pet Sense the Next Earthquake?

It has been rumored for centuries that animals may be a key in sensing impending earthquakes. The first account is from ancient Greece when historians claimed “rats, snakes, weasels, and centipedes deserted the city and headed for safety several days before a devastating earthquake”. This observation and many more of its kind have been made all over the world about animal behavior patterns prior to earthquakes, but there was never an in depth research study done to prove if this was a concrete sign of an earthquake or merely coincidence. Until recently, where more scientific studies are being done to try and prove if this is a reliable method to use when predicting earthquakes. 

One scientific investigation into this behavior occurred in Japan in 2011 after they were hit with a massive earthquake damaging and killing many. It was formally named the Tohoku Earthquake. Before this earthquake occurred they surveyed some pet owners, more specifically dogs and cats, to track their animals’ behavior.  They also asked to track the dairy milk production from cows before the earthquake as well. The results of this study were interesting. After they collected their information they found that the pet owners recorded their animals having weird behavior one day before the earthquake, while the cows decreased their milk production about one week before the earthquake. About 18.6% of dogs had usual behavior, that includes sticking close to their owner more frequently. Compared to dogs, cats were reported having only 16.6% unusual animal behavior, which included “hiding”and “escaping”. Although these behaviors could be written off as normal for dogs and cats, the observations made on the milk production were a bit more compelling. Preceding the earthquake there was a milk production, “decrease from four to six days before the Tohoku EQ in the facility closest from the epicenter (340 km)”. They also reported that the closer to the epicenter they were,  the higher the chance of abnormal behavior occurring. However, though this study had some conclusive evidence, it’s not enough to prove that animals’ behavior can predict anything. 

A more recent study in Italy, led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz, may lead to even more evidence of animal behaviors linking to seismic events. Wikelski, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior,  along with his team, set up an experiment to study animal behaviors for about four months in total in 2016 and 2017. In this study they traced farm animals, specifically six cows, five sheep and two dogs. They used different instruments to “record accelerated movements—up to 48 each second—in any direction”. After the four months a total of 18,000 tremors happened, and one with a magnitude of 6.6. The results were a drastic increase in activity, hours before the earthquake occurred. According to Wikelski all their behavior was connected in some way. He says, “It’s sort of a system of mutual influence. Initially, the cows kind of freeze in place—until the dogs go crazy. And then the cows actually go even crazier. And then that amplifies the sheep’s behavior, and so on.” Like the previous study done in Japan, they also reported in this study that animal behavior was increasing abnormal closer to the epicenter, unlike the animals that were farther away. They predict this occurs because the shifting tectonic plates “causes the rocks to release minerals that expel ions into the air”. Though a valid hypothesis, there have been some criticisms of this theory. Wendy Bohon, a geologist from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology says geologists all over have been attempting to find signals that come before earthquakes. She says in order for this to be a trustworthy experiment their findings need to have definitely been stimulated from the tremors and not any other stimuli that animals are usually attracted to. Another geologist, Heiko Woith, said they needed to have a longer timeframe to get more concrete evidence. Although there were some flaws in their study, this is not the end of the researchers’ search for more evidence of this research. They plan to create new studies in Italy as well as Chile and Russia to prove that using animal behavior is a reliable source of information in guessing earthquakes. 

I chose this article because it involved a topic I’ve always been curious about and that is the sensing capabilities of animals. I have always heard about different animals and how much higher their sensing capabilities are compared to humans, which made me wonder when I saw the article if this would prove this to be true, even for something as big as an earthquake that often occurs far from the surface of the earth. I also thought that it would be interesting to see how these animals are able to sense these earthquake tremors. The article gave some insight to why this could occur, which has to do with ions potentially being expelled from the rocks. Ions are atoms or molecules that have a positive or negative charge, depending on the proton to electron ratio. When earthquakes occur they give off a magnetic field, which is a result of moving electrical charges, like ions.  Animals could be able to sense this because of a phenomenon called magnetoreception. Magnetoception is “a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location“. There are three types of methods used to explain Magnetoreception: electromagnetic induction, chemical magnetoreception and biogenic magnetite. These animals might be able to sense this on a molecular level. Although it’s not as simple of a theory as this, if this were proven to be true that would be an amazing scientific feat. There is still more research to be done,  but I think it is true that animals have a level of sense high enough to predict an oncoming earthquakes. However the real question is do you think animals are the key in predicting future earthquakes?

 

A Sweet Post About Sourdough!

When Covid-19 hit the US, some of the biggest quarantine coping mechanisms all revolved around a fan favorite carbohydrate: bread. With the copious amount of time on people’s hands, baking sourdough bread was the perfect activity.

Unlike any other bread, it’s hard to get the perfect tasting sourdough. Research has found that there are biological reasons behind sourdough bread and its taste, but before doing so, it’s important to learn what sourdough bread is made up of, and how it’s made. To help learn more about the process of making sourdough bread from scratch, I got a mini crash course from Little Spoon Farm. The starter (initial mixture) contains flour and water and sometimes salt, which will eventually grow into a diverse selection of microbes (these are tiny living organisms, which in this case are bacteria). The starter has to sit for 7-14 days, and within that time, the starter grows through the flour by eating the sugars within itself. With that growth comes bacteria/microbes and lactic acid, which eventually will allow the bread to be able to leaven in the oven.

Recent studies have shown that each starter is made up of different microbes. One study had 18 professional bakers from all around the globe make their sourdough, and send it to a lab in Belgium, where DNA sequencing was used to identify the microbes in the different starters. Although there were common yeasts and acids found like Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Lactobacillus, the strands and amount of each differed according to the starter. Another study done by Elizabeth Landis, at Tufts University, looked at 560 different starters submitted from all around the world. Through doing so, she found recurring microbe groups within these different sequences. There is still no definitive reason behind the microbe groupings, and why exactly they differ for each starter, but Landis mentioned that certain yeasts “specialize in feeding on distinct sugars,” due to the fact that they are made of different sugar mixtures. Some yeast also lack certain enzymes, which as we learned in class, help break down molecules. In this specific situation, the enzymes within different yeasts feed on and break down sugars. Differing yeasts could also be a reason why sourdough bread has different flavors. (Keep in mind that Landis’ findings are still under review, so there are still limited details on this experiment and not definitive reasoning).

Microbial ecologist, Erin McKenny, further elaborates on how “each microbial community can produce its own unique flavor profile.” For example, when more acetic acid is present in the starter, the bread will have a more sharp and vinegary taste. When the starter produces more lactic acid, it has a more sour and yogurt like taste. Metabolic byproducts within the starter could also potentially add to the complexity of the sourdoughs’ taste. In addition to each microbial community, scientists have identified other features that influence the taste of the bread like temperature. When lactic acid ferments in a warmer area, the bread has a more sour taste, and when it ferments in a colder area, the bread has a more fruity taste.

After looking at multiple articles showing how bakers get their sourdough to have a certain taste, I have learned how important the specifics are when it comes down to making sourdough. One article that gave tips on how to manipulate the taste of sourdough reinforces everything that the main article helped explain, and talks about the importance of keeping a warmer, dry climate to ensure that the bread tastes sour. It turns out that a quarantine treat may be a bit more complex than it appears. It’s interesting to see how biology plays a key role in one of the most prominent foods, and next time you consider making sourdough or get a bread basket from the Cheesecake Factory, you’ll now know the biology behind it.

Can your common cold help you beat vicious COVID-19?

Season colds are quite common, and while they are inconvenient and make us feel icky, they may be our advantage for our battle with COVID-19. 

To start off, when reading this article, I noticed that the author used the term “coronavirus” more casually. He referred to a “coronavirus” as a common cold, which of course left me confused. So I dug a little deeper…

Here’s a fun fact that I learned from this:

Many of us having been thinking that COVID-19 is the same as what we call the “coronavirus.” After reading an article differentiating the difference between the terms, I found that the term coronavirus is actually the broad term to describe a whole range of viruses. SARS-CoV-2 is the specific virus that causes only COVID-19 and is causes what doctors call a respiratory tract infection.

Basic biology tells us that while there are many cells that make up our body, they are all interconnected. A pathogen, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is an enemy to the cell. We learned about how things enter the cell in biology: the pathogen enters the cell, travels through the cytoplasm, and enters the nucleus. Because the virus has genes, it is able to rapidly produce copies of itself to infect the other cells. And of course, we know how scary these infected cells are when they start spreading to the lives around us given our situation with a global pandemic.

What we now know is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, our “bad guy,” can actually induce memory B cells. These memory B cells survive for quite a long time; they are important in identifying pathogens, and creating antibodies to destroy such pathogens. So when we got sick during the winter last year, chances are these memory B cells fought them off. The key part of the memory B cell in our fight against COVID-19 is the cell’s ability to remember the antibodies it created from past illness for the future.

What does this mean?

The belief is that anyone infected by COVID-19 already has the memory B cells from past common colds to fight the virus off.  Taking a further step, it is believed that since everyone already has the memory B cells, anyone who has had COVID-19 in the past is unlikely to get it a second time. If the SARS-CoV-2 virus were to enter your body a second time (which is likely considering the virus has not gone away and is literally all around us), our bodies would be prepared with former knowledge of the antibodies used to fight and win this time.

A study performed at the University of Rochester Medical Center is the first to demonstrate how this may be so.

Mark Sangters, Ph.D., is a research professor of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC; he has backed up his findings by comparing different blood samples. When looking at 26 blood samples of recovering moderate COVID- 19 patients (people who have had it for their first time now), it seems that many of them had a pre-existing pool of memory B cells that could recognize the SARS-CoV-2 virus and rapidly produce antibodies to destroy it. He also studied 21 blood samples of healthy donors, collected years before COVID-10 existed. What he found was that these B cells and antibodies were also already present.

When we are sick with a common cold, our antibodies are created by memory B cells to attack the Spike protein. This protein is what helps viruses infect our cells. What Sangters noticed, is that although each Spike protein is different for each illness, the S2 portion of the Spike protein is the same throughout all sickness. Our antigens can not differentiate the parts of the S2 subunit, so they attack the Spike protein regardless. This was his final piece in his conclusion that our common colds that caused our memory B cells to make antibodies, could be used to fight against COVID-19.

The Long Road Ahead:

My concern with this article is that this is the biggest issue we face with COVID-19 is patient outcome. As of right now, there is no way to fully prevent everyone from COVID-19 because it is still all around us. The issue the world is facing, is how to treat those who have already contracted the virus. This information just simply is not enough to help. How will these memory B cells help those who are currently sick? The answer: Scientists are unsure. There is still the uncertainty of the future vaccine and study of these memory B cells for a possibility of milder symptoms or shorter length of illness from COVID-19.

 

Despite all of this concern, this is still a step in the right direction. Any information about this terrorizing virus is still helpful given how little we know about COVID-19. If we were to expand more on this information, we could save the lives of those around the world!

 

 

Trash, Crops, and Even Pets are on the Menu for these Carnivores

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of New Mexico found that some of North America’s most prominent carnivores—wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, and foxes—are relying more and more on human sources of food such as trash, crops, and even small pets. In the study, the researchers used hair, fur, and bone samples to identify the diets of seven hundred carnivore species across the upper midwest region of the United States. To identify the diets, chemical isotopes of carbon were taken from these samples to distinguish between human-grown and naturally occurring foods.

Phillip Manlick, the lead author of the study, explains that “Isotopes are relatively intuitive: You are what you eat.” Thus, Human foods, heavy in corn and sugar, have their own distinctive carbon signatures in comparison to the carbon signatures of the diets of prey species in the wild. The ratio of these two isotope fingerprints from the predator samples informs the researchers what proportion of the predator’s diet came from human sources, either directly or from their prey that ate human food first. Our AP Biology class learned that carbon is an essential element in organic compounds. Organic compounds make up all living things which include the human food waste and crops these predators are consuming. Carbon is found in all four organic compounds (Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Nucleic Acids), for carbon’s molecular structure allows for it to create multiple stable covalent bonds with different molecules. Carbon’s covalent bonds enable complex molecules, such as carbohydrates and proteins, that are found in food sources to be formed. 

According to the results of the study, foxes, coyotes, fishers, and martens were the most likely to eat from human food sources, getting about half their food by eating domesticated animals or by foraging in areas that have been disturbed by agriculture. But on average, more than “25 percent of all the carnivores’ diets came from human sources in the most human-altered habitats.”

The reliance on human food sources is not good for the ecosystem, for it increases the overlap in competition for food among these carnivores. There will be more conflicts between species for human food. Furthermore, the reliance on human food sources leaves carnivores susceptible to more human attacks or can change the way species of predators hunt. None of these effects are beneficial to the ecosystem and actually may potentially have harmful ecological consequences.

Personally, I find it a little upsetting that human action is having such interference on the ecosystem and food chain of these predators. In addition, it is even more upsetting to hear that there are very limited options to take that would reduce the reliance on human food sources for these carnivores. Other than securing garbage cans and keeping pets inside at night, there are not many more options. These carnivores are adapting to human urbanization, and this trend will continue as humans keep pushing into these carnivores territories and habitats.

Astronomers: The Next Climate Change Culprit

     An article published in October 2020 on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, discusses two of the six papers published in Nature Astronomy in September 2020. The papers discuss astronomers and the large amounts of carbon they emit due to their long flights to meetings and their energy-eating telescopes. These carbon emissions have added to the global warming crisis and the Greenhouse effect. The Greenhouse effect occurs when gases (most commonly Carbon dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous oxide) absorb solar radiated heat that is projected off of the earth’s surface. The trapping of this heat in the atmosphere ultimately increases the overall global temperature. Water, “the moderator of temperature”, has a high specific heat and therefore a high heat of vaporization, as it takes a large amount of energy to raise the temperature of water 1 degree Celsius. Water molecules can absorb large amounts of heat emitted within earth’s lower atmosphere, and radiate this absorbed heat out in all directions. When this heat is released, the water vapor lowers the temperature of the surface it leaves, creating a cooling effect to monitor the temperature. However, in the case of global warming, water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas.  The vapor molecules holds heat within them, and some of the heat is projected back onto the surface, further adding to the Greenhouse effect.

      The first paper in Nature Astronomy discusses a study done by delegates at the 2019 European Astronomical Society (EAS) meeting in France. After sitting through a heatwave during their meeting and sweating through their shirts, the delegates decided to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide they emitted from their meeting travels. They found they produced 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide (1900 tons in total) per delegate. This is more than the average resident in India emits yearly! Besides flights, supercomputers are the next leading cause of astronomers’ carbon emissions. Another study showed that each Australian astronomer produced 37 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. 60% of those carbon emitted came from supercomputers and their energy usage.

     The second paper published discusses the work of MPIA’s Faustine Cantaloupe and her colleagues that uncovered 30 years of weather records from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). They discovered temperatures in Chile rose 1.5°C each year. This increase in temperature causes complications for Paranal’s very large telescope, which does not function past 16°C. Ironically, the carbon the astronomers are producing is hindering their ability to use their telescopes.

     In hopes to combat carbon emissions from astronomers and to help decrease global temperatures, MPIA’s Knud Jahnke plans to set up supercomputers in Iceland, using the environmentally friendly geothermal energy power plants there. Geothermal power plants dig boreholes and use the steam from hot water to run power turbines, harnessing energy without carbon emissions. I recently went to the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland, which uses geothermal energy to heat the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland! After seeing the power plant in action, I think that installing more supercomputers in Iceland would prove to be very effective and could help reduce their carbon footprint immensely. 

   Here is a photograph of Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland! 

                                                                        Photo by Author

     This year, the European Astronomical Society meeting took place again, but this time they were virtual due to Covid-19. The team of delegates continued their studies and calculated the carbon costs for the new 2020 meeting and discovered that they emitted 582 kilograms of carbon during the entire meeting (based on computer energy usage)- about one–three-thousandth of the previous 2019 meeting in total. The EAS is currently studying a hybrid format for future meetings. 

Do you think Zoom and virtual meetings could help solve the EAS’s carbon-producing problem? Comment down below! 

Eating Shark Meat Increases Your Chance At Developing Alzheimer’s Disease

What toxins lie beneath the grey leathery skin of a shark? 

According to the article written at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science,  scientists found toxins that are commonly linked to neurodegenerative diseases in the fins and muscles of many different types of sharks. Scientists collected samples of ten different sharks that are commonly found in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. The samples came back and tested positive for two toxins: mercury and beta-N-methylamino-L-alanine(BMAA). Many studies have linked mercury and BMAA to diseases like Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis(ALS). Shark meat delicacies are common in many Asian countries with dishes including shark fin soup.

Effects of Mercury on humans

Mercury has numerous health effects on humans and can be detrimental to one’s neurological system. Not only that, mercury also affects digestive and immune systems and can damage lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Mercury poisoning can also cause slow reflexes, damaged motor skills and intelligence disorders. In many instances, mercury poisoning can increase your chance at developing Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that the toxin mercury tends to accumulate in the shark’s tissue throughout their lives.

Effects of beta-N-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) on humans 

The neurotoxin beta-N-Methylamino-L-alanine is an amino acid produced by certain organisms that have been linked to ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. BMAA was also linked to being a cause of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers found BMAA in shark fins and cartilage both of which are used in food and medicine, respectively. The image shown below is of alanine, one of the amino acids. There is an NCC structure shown in the middle, a carboxyl group on the left hand side, an amine group on the right hand side and the CH3 represents the R group. Since BMAA is a non-protein amino acid, when inserted with other amino acids it releases toxic chemicals. The picture below represents an alanine amino acid, however, BMAA has a slightly different structure. The R group of BMAA is NH along with H3C and the amine group is NH2 which contributes to its toxicity.

Why you shouldn’t eat shark meat? 

If the reasons above have not convinced you not to eat shark meat, many species of sharks are facing extinction due to the high demand for shark parts. Though each of these toxins have their own set of dangers, mercury and BMAA together can have an entirely different and more dangerous effect on humans that researchers have not yet explored. To be safe one should refrain from consuming shark products if not for your own health but to save the sharks.

Don’t be afraid of sharks we need them! 

Sharks play a very important role in the ecosystem. Sharks are the apex predators in marine life are most likely at the top of the food chain. Ultimately, they keep the rest of the ocean healthy and in order. Without them many dangerous organisms would be present and could harm marine life. Sharks keep balance within the ecosystem and ensures diversity among ocean species. If you suffer from viruses like cystic fibrosis, researchers are close to finding anticoagulants within shark tissue that could possibly cure certain diseases. Sharks are also very important in the carbon cycle. When they die naturally, their bodies are full of carbon which is then consumed by scavengers and carbon is recycled into the ecosystem. Sharks do way more for us than we think!

A Friendzyme of the Environment

A team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England have engineered an enzyme that breaks down plastic six times faster than the previous most efficient plastic destroying enzyme. This enzyme specializes in breaking down PET, polyethylene terephthalate, the material most plastic bottles are made of. They created this by reengineering the previous enzyme, PETase, and combining it with another enzyme, MHETase, to create a ‘super enzyme’. They used a method normally utilized by companies in the biofuel industry, who combine enzymes to break down types of cellulase. Granted, it is still far too slow to be effective in breaking down the vast amounts of plastic waste we are faced with, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Enzymes are made of proteins which are made up of amino acids. Amino acids consist of a carboxyl group, an amino group, and a unique R group. Amino acids create chains in which carboxyl group match with amino groups, linking together using covalent peptide bonds, formed after dehydration synthesis. The chains of amino acids begin to fold and create proteins, which are the basis of almost all enzymes.

I think this issue is an important endeavor that should be funded by governments all around the world. We all share the Earth, and it is currently under threat by a number of issues, a prime example being pollution. Up to 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste may enter the oceans every year. Some studies put the amount of seabirds that contain some form of plastic waste in their system at upwards of 90%. Plastic waste needs solutions before it makes the oceans uninhabitable for more creatures, and a mass produced enzyme may be a valid solution. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large convergence of currents in the Pacific Ocean that has collected so much garbage, a large portion of which is made of plastic, that it is comparable to the size of Texas. Developing an effective enzyme that could quickly break down plastic could become a serious help to minimizing the environmental impact of the Garbage Patch.

While we cannot develop enzymes ourselves, several tips for mitigating our plastic waste are:

-Try to use aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles.

-Always recycle or reuse plastic bottles.

-Cut the holes of six pack rings before disposing so animals cannot be caught in them.

-Use metal and paper straws as a substitute for plastic straws.

 

File:PETase active site.png - Wikimedia Commons

^ The enzyme PETase 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should You Pursue A Personalized Diet?

According to an article by Tina Hesman Saey on Sciencenews.org, the idea of dieting and restrictive eating aren’t so black and white like we previously believed it to be. There are many factors someone should think of when they’re considering a new dietary plan. One main tip that people often give is that one who is considering a new dietary plan should consider eating low glycemic foods. A glycemic index diet is an eating plan based on how foods affect your blood sugar. Therefore, pursuing a low glycemic food diet, you’re eating foods that do not raise your blood sugar to very high levels. Maintaining a good blood sugar is important for body health because high and low blood sugar levels can result in many diseases, both digestion and nervous system issues in addition to many other issues that come with these diagnoses. When thinking of foods that would fit this new low glycemic dietary plan, we tend to think of fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, etc. that are often praised in a “balanced” diet. However, in Saey’s article we’re shown that foods have different affects on people’s blood sugar levels and other nutrient levels because of the way that their organs function in their body.

Saey uses two main examples to display the variety in body digestion of different foods. In her article, she provided a graph that displayed the varying blood sugar levels of different people who ate the same type of muffin. The main reason for having the graph of the study in her article was to display how people’s blood sugar levels can drastically vary purely off of the functions and traits of one’s body and organs. One main surprise that came from the study was that even identical twin sisters had different spikes in blood sugar from the muffin. Both sisters live different lifestyles, one being an athlete that ate mostly salads and the other being less active and eating foods like bread and cheese more frequently. Although one would assume that the more athletic sister would be able to deal with carbohydrates and other nutrients much better than the other, the two sisters share that different foods are harder on their bodies. For example the more athletic sister struggles to eat spaghetti bolognese because it spikes her blood sugar levels, even though it is considered a low glycemic food, and prefers to eat other carbohydrates like mashed potatoes; The less athletic sister struggles to eat mashed potatoes, but is able to freely consume spaghetti bolognese without any problem.

Another example given was of a man who ate the same meal of a sandwich and orange juice after a day of work. He realized that his blood sugar levels spiked after having this meal and continued to figure out what meals wouldn’t. He learned that his body is able to consume apples and pears without drastically raising blood sugar levels but not bananas. She then provides an example of a study where different people experience higher blood sugar levels from apples than cookies and vice versa. Evidently, the advice to eat more fruits and vegetables should be taken with caution as many people’s bodies aren’t able to consume these substances without having a spike in high blood sugar.

Unfortunately, this same rule applies to other organic compounds in our food such as dietary fats. These fats and carbohydrates work hand in hand as seen when the article says that the scientists are unable to see how quickly people cleared the fats from their blood after a meal until they were able to identify the blood sugar and insulin levels of the people who ate the food. Lipids and Proteins share many of the same molecular components which could be the reason for their similar affects on the body after consumption. Both lipids and proteins are both mostly made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, however, the small differences in their composition can lead to these different reactions in the body. There are 20 different types of amino acids and each protein can act differently in the body due to the varying polarity, R-groups, etc. Although lipids do not vary as much as proteins do, lipid variation matters a lot in the foods we eat; we stress the importance of eating unsaturated fats much more than saturated fats because of the health effects they may have on our bodies, showing that even the smallest variation of a double bond to a carbon atom has severe affects on our health. There are so many factors in our bodies that are different with each individual. Everything is also intertwined and any huge change made to our nutritional intake can severely affect the way the organs and functions of our bodies work. We have to keep track and be wary of all these different factors and make sure we act accordingly in order to promote a healthy, body, mind and life.

 

According to Immunologist Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Technology,  gut microbes are probably the most important factor in determining which fibers and complex carbohydrates get digested. Microbes were also a huge role in the spiking of one’s blood sugar after a food is consumed. Coincidentally, what you eat affects the type of microbes present in your digestive system, so there is some room for exploring how we can possibly eat in ways that promote a specific type of microbiome or avoid excessively eating foods that don’t work well with the microbiome created by our current eating habits. However, we as consumers have the responsibility of reading the labels and tracking the traits of the foods that we eat. Jennie Brand Miller, a nutritionist at University of Sydney, states that although there are certain exceptions due to people’s digestive systems being different, there is a 99% chance that high glycemic foods will spike your blood sugar more than low glycemic foods. If people do intend on following any type of dietary plan they must use the information that they’re given to the best of their abilities to make inferences and conclusions to reach their ultimate goal.

We must take facts about food and nutrition with a grain of salt since everyone’s body isn’t the same. Evidently, there is some room for more research and experimentation for us to find a possible ideal microbiome and dietary plan for each individual person. With more research and experimentation we should be able to determine if personalized diets are an efficient strategy to allow people to reach the health and body goals they want to achieve. This also brings into question, what other areas of nutrition are not as simple as they seem. Is it really that bad to eat a lot of carbohydrates or fats? Are meat diets truly helpful or are they more harmful to our bodies? Is there truly an ideal dietary plan that works for every person? There is much promise to having personalized dietary plans, but there is no such thing as a flawless system and we must be wary of the consequences of following such a system.

Potential Life On Venus?

In an article published on September 19th, 2020, Dennis Overbye speaks on a new discovery that has sparked conversation for the possibility of life on the planet venus. On September 14th, scientists announced the discovery of Phosphine gas on Venus. The significance of this discovery is that scientists don’t know what could potentially produce the gas except for microbes. According to the National Center for Biotechnological Information(NCBI), “Microbes are tiny living things that are found all around us and are too small to be seen by the naked eye. They live in water, soil, and in the air.” Overbye states that “on earth, anyway, the only natural source of phosphine is microbes; the gas is often associated with feces.” He quickly counters this by acknowledging that there is a large possibility that scientists don’t know everything about Phosphine gas.

Microbes, which are both eukaryotes and prokaryotes(or neither), consist of archaea, bacteria, fungi, viruses, protists, and other microscopic animals. Eukaryotes are cells that simply consist of DNA within a nucleus while prokaryotes are unicellular organisms that don’t consist of a nucleus nor organelles. As learned throughout the year, the difference in complexity and functions of eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms widen the array of the potential situation in Venus. If both prokaryotes and eukaryotes can survive in the atmosphere of Venus, the potential answer to what enables this grows. Also, due to the microscopic nature of microbes, also known as microorganisms, it would be very hard to infer whether they are or aren’t present on Venus.

As the article continues, Overbye continues to speak on what was previously known about the planet. He references information from “Carl Sagan, then a doctoral student at the University of Chicago” who “provided an accurate explanation for Venus’s torrid temperature, in his 1960 Ph.D. thesis. The planet’s crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere had created a runaway greenhouse effect, he concluded. Venus was a lifeless desert, at least on the ground.”

With this, Sagan and Harold Morowitz, a biochemist at Yale, pointed out, in 1967, how the clouds of Venus seemed more suitable for life. ““If small amounts of minerals are stirred up to the clouds from the surface, it is by no means difficult to imagine an indigenous biology in the clouds of Venus,” they wrote in a paper in Nature.” These claims, which were not very popular, have become very relevant again due to new findings and open up many possibilities.

All in all, the search for life on other planets is very much up and running. Will we find it soon?

 

COVID-19 Vaccine Poses a Serious Threat to Sharks

Recent studies suggest that shark populations may be in grave danger. By enhancing immune responses, squalene—a polyunsaturated hydrocarbon found in the liver of sharks—has been proven to make vaccines, such as malaria and flu vaccines, more effective. Thus, squalene can be found in some of the COVID-19 vaccine candidates, posing a potential threat to sharks.

If the final COVID-19 vaccine contains squalene, about 500,000 sharks could be at risk. Already, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed annually. While shark fin soup—a cultural Asian dish—poses the greatest threat to the animals, an estimated 2.7 million sharks are already being harvested for squalene which, apart from being used in vaccines, is a popular moisturizing ingredient in cosmetics. Squalene works as a great moisturizer because it is a lipid, one of the four main classes of organic compounds found in living things as learned about in AP Biology. Specifically, squalene is a polyunsaturated hydrocarbon which means that the structure contains rings composed of bonded carbons and hydrogens. Similar to lipids that are composed of fatty acid tails, the molecule is hydrophobic, making it a good moisturizer. When squalene comes into contact with the skin, it repels water which traps moisture inside it’s layer. This keeps moisture from leaving the skin.

There are other alternatives. Squalene can be found in non-animal resources such as olive oil, wheat germ, sugar cane, bacteria, and yeast; however, extracting the lipid from sharks is more efficient for producers, offering a greater yield at less of a cost. Nonetheless, sharks play a vital role in our oceans as a top predator, and relying on them for a vaccine is not only unsustainable but would also be very costly to our environment and world.

In addition, the question of morality comes into play—do we, as humans, have the right to place ourselves above the lives of complex creatures such as sharks? Personally, I think it is incredibly unethical to even consider harvesting hundreds of thousands of sharks for a vaccine, especially when there are other methods of obtaining squalene.

It still remains unclear whether half-a-million sharks will actually be killed for the potential vaccine, but the very idea is frightening for shark-lovers like myself. We must protect our sharks, our oceans, and our world!

 

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