AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: space

Can We Genetically Modify Humans to Live on Mars?

CRISPR is a gene-editing technique that modifies the genomes of living organisms. They do this by searching for a strand of DNA and “when the target DNA is found, Cas9 – one of the enzymes produced by the CRISPR system – binds to the DNA and cuts it, shutting the targeted gene off.” CRISPR has been used to cure people of genetic diseases. Crispr

Humans have always dreamed of being able to live freely on another planet other than earth. It has been the topic of many pop culture movies throughout history. However with the use of gene editing theoretically this is possible. In a research paper written in 2016, they state that the main problems of living in other worlds would be radiation. With the use of gene-editing they’ve found that the protein named “Dsup prevented the animal’s DNA from breaking under the stress of radiation and desiccation“. It was also able to block X-ray damage by almost 40%. Lisa Nip a scientist at MIT state that “using genetic editing tools like CRISPR to actually transform our own DNA and make ourselves more able to survive in space.” This relates to our AP Bio class as we learned about genes as well as how the genes shape our traits as human. The idea of changing our genes is incredible as we always believed that it’s just how we were born and our parent’s chromosomes determined how we are, but now with CRISPR gene-editing, they can alter our DNA structure. Then through Mitosis, we are able to multiply our DNA, and eventually, all our genes are the edited version.DNA replication cy

CRISPR is rapidly advancing our research of gene-editing as it is the easiest and most reliable way to review gene-editing meaning that people are able to study it easily. This also means that scientist have easy access to it and are able to run many trials on DNA editing. Finally, there is a moral question to ask. Is it ethical to edit a person’s genes even if it helps them? Should we tamper with our human genetics? These questions aren’t very pressing as of now because we are still in the primary stages of gene-editing, however, some day these are going to be upon us. Thank You For reading let me know what you think about gene-editing down below.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: An Unlikely Astrophysicist


Neil DeGrasse Tyson (pictured to the left) is an American astrophysicist who is commonly referred to as a modern popularizer of science. His books, podcasts, and shows have introduced generations to the wonders of science and the cosmos.




Neil Degrasse Tyson was born on October 5th, 1958, in Manhattan, New York. Dr. Tyson discovered his affinity for space after looking at the moon through binoculars at a young age. When he was 9, he visited the Hayden Planetarium and had his first in-depth experience with the starry sky. However, as he was growing up, Dr. Tyson often said “being smart is not on the list of things that gets you respect.” It was very unusual for an African-American to be interested in anything STEM-related at the time. He recalled that “African-American boys were expected to be athletes, not scholars.”


Despite a lack of African American representation in his field, Dr. Tyson continued to chase his dreams. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and earned a BA in physics from Harvard. He continued on to earn a Master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and he eventually earned his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University. Dr. Tyson worked as an astrophysicist and research scientist at Princeton University and a columnist for StarDate magazine. In 1966, he became the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium and even founded the department of astrophysics at the museum. In 2001, Dr. Tyson became a member of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry. He served as part of President Bush’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy two years later. NASA awarded Dr. Tyson with their esteemed Public Service Medal, the highest honor NASA awards to civilians, and The International Astronomical Union even officially named the asteroid “13123 Tyson” after him. Arguably as impressive, (and my personal favorite of his accomplishments), Dr. Tyson was voted “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine in 2000.

Entertainment Career:

Dr. Tyson is praised for his ability to translate confusing topics (like astrophysics) into simpler terms and ideas that the average person can comprehend. Some of his most popular books are: One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos, Just Visiting This Planet, Death by Black Hole, and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. From 2006 to 2011, he was the host of the TV series NOVA ScienceNOW and became the host of the weekly radio show StarTalk in 2009. In 2014, Dr. Tyson hosted the very popular series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which was (in his own words) a “continuation” of astronomer Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series in 1980. Dr. Tyson’s Cosmos series is one of the most engaging and interesting shows I have personally watched. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is even slightly interested in space.


As Dr. Tyson has stated himself, “There are very, very few African-American astrophysics PhDs.” While following his personal dreams, he was “doing something people of [his] skin color were not supposed to do.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson, as an astrophysicist, is only one example of the many underrepresented groups of American-Americans in STEM; however, astrophysicists specifically are severely underrepresented. Astrophysicist J.C. Holbrook conducted a study in which she discovered that “since 1955, only forty African-Americans have earned doctorates in astronomy or physics doing an astronomy dissertation. This means they comprise at most 2.47% of PhDs in astronomy. Out of 594 faculty at top 40 astronomy programs, 6 are African-American (1%).” Despite these low numbers, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has taken a step in the STEM field that will hopefully inspire others of minority groups to follow.

Neil Degrasse Tyson has also weighed in on current civil rights issues. In Dr. Tyson’s “Reflections on the Color of My Skin,” he addresses the racial unrest in America in 2020. He tells stories of his colleagues and himself being pulled over, questioned, and followed seemingly for no reason, yet instead of simply stating what is wrong, he offers a list of solutions to the issues facing America today. The first three points argue to “extend police academies to include months of cultural awareness and sensitivity training that also includes how not to use lethal force, test [police officers] for any implicit bias they carry, with established thresholds of acceptance and rejection from the police academy, and during protests, protect property. Protect lives. If you attack nonviolent protesters you are being un-American. And we wouldn’t need draconian curfews if police arrested looters instead of protesters.” Use the hyperlink to see the rest of Dr. Tyson’s well-thought-out suggestions. Dr. Tyson continues to teach the world about science while inspiring others to follow in his footsteps.

Are Aliens Real?

Is there life on other planets? Although I may not be able to answer this for you in this blog post, I can point you towards data that suggests there is. NASA is currently conducting explorations to determine if there is evidence of habitable worlds. This search could take decades or more without pure luck and new planet finders aren’t set to take off until the 2030s or 2040s. “With a possible launch in the mid 2020s, WFIRST, or the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, could zero in on a distant planet’s reflected light to detect the signatures of oxygen, water vapor, or some other powerful indication of possible life” (Exoplanet Exploration: Planets Beyond our Solar System). As we learned in bio, oxygen and water are two building blocks of all life. Professor Sara Seager from MIT is currently researching possible chemical combinations that would point to alien life. Similar to how AP bio learns the basics of life in the first Unit, her research begins with the six main elements associated with life on Earth: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur and hydrogen. These elements are essential because they are primarily used to form lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids which are fundamental to the development of life in cells.  

Theories of life existing on other planets are far from new. If life can exist on Earth, how could it not exist elsewhere?  For example, The University of Chicago released an article stating  that if man went to mars, they would die. However, they mentioned new evidence that suggests otherwise. “For over half a century astronomers have observed slight seasonal color variations on the planet; variations apparently coinciding with the availability of water. These have been interpreted as evidence for plant life on Mars… If the reported color changes are real, there seems to be no other reasonable interpretation” (Carl Sagan, Life on other planets?). There may be molecules with C-H bonds on the surface of Mars. As we learned in class, the bond between them is essential for the structure of proteins, nucleic acids, and other biological building blocks. (To learn more about how these blocks lead to life, cosmic evolution and its enormous cosmic dust cloud explain this and the factors that are needed to provide support for life) (Cosmic Evolution: An Interdisciplinary Approach).

There could be over 100 million planets in this galaxy alone that host the life of organisms that are biochemically similar to humans. With natural selection, these organisms would be well adapted to their own environment. Slight differences in the environment will cause extreme differences in an organism’s structure. Due to this, it should not be assumed that extraterrestrial lifeforms hold any resemblance to human life, or any life on Earth for that matter, but there is still reason to believe they are out there. 

Supermassive Black Hole Turns Star Into Spaghetti


According to an article by Rafi Letzter, a black hole in a nearby galaxy recently devoured a whole star, turning it into “spaghetti.” The star was orbiting in the nucleus of the galaxy 2MASX J04463790-1013349 about 214 million years ago when it was sucked into its demise. At the center of the galaxy, lies a supermassive black hole. As the star made its way too close to the black hole, the black hole stretched it out through the process of spaghettification and consumed it. The light from this event reached Earth 214 million years later. Scientists had witnessed events like this in the past but never this close to home.

What is Spaghettfication?

Matt Nicholl, an astrophysicist from the University of Birmingham, describes this process of ‘consumption’ as a “tidal disruption event.” Spaghettification occurs because of the sharp increase in gravity when an object approaches a black hole. The gravity on side of the object (in this case a star) facing the hole is much stronger than the gravity on the other side. This difference in pull stretches out the object like spaghetti, hence the name spaghettification. Black holes’ consumption of stars reminds me of the role of lysosomes in the cell. Like black holes, lysosomes consume. They engulf dead organelles and other waste in the cell. In case you were wondering about the size of the star, it had about the same mass as our sun and lost half of that mass to the black hole!

Has Spaghettification Ever Been Witnessed in Its Entirety?

No, but this event was the closest scientists have ever gotten. The physical stretching process has never been seen; however, scientists did see a flash of light coming from the solar system, which is a sign of a tidal disruption event. When a star is ripped apart, some of its innards end up swirling around the black hole and shine briefly before disappearing into the hole. At the same time, clouds of material and dust blast out into space. This blast blocks parts of the black hole from being viewed. Over six months, the scientists watched, studied, and recorded the material flow into space as the tidal disruption faded. This rare sighting also confirmed the relationship between the flash and the blast of material.

So What?

Not only was this an interesting phenomenon, but the event, named AT 2019qiz, could help researchers discover more about tidal disruption events and the role of gravity in black holes.

Black holes are some of the most captivating scientific anomalies in existence. They exist all over the universe, yet scientists know very little about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts/questions in the comments! If you would like to research black holes further, here is some more usual information. Try not to get sucked in!




We Could Be One Step Closer to Finding Life on Other Planets

I’ve always been so curious about life beyond Earth. Scientists recently discovered that there are as many as 24 planets outside of our solar system more suitable for life than Earth. They found that these planets surpass Earth in several categories, including age, warmth, wetness, and size. These factors qualify the planets to be “superhabitable” and to have optimal potential for complex extraterrestrial life. 

When searching for a habitable planet, one of the most important factors to take into consideration is temperature, which goes hand-in-hand with distance from their star. Scientists have discovered several planets at extreme temperatures, including planet KELT-9b, which is so hot that its atmosphere is constantly melting or GJ 433 d, whose discoverers described it as “the coldest Neptune-like planet ever discovered”. While both of these planets are on opposite sides of the inhospitable spectrum, there are several other planets within their star’s “habitable zone”, which are not too hot or too cold for life as we know it to flourish. 

Scientists have discovered over 4000 exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system so far. The main qualities researchers aim to identify in exoplanets in order to classify them as “superhabitable” include a nearby star of the right star and life span, as it took 3.5 billion years for complex life to form on Earth, and size of the planet. A larger size means more surface area for habitats, higher gravity, and a thicker atmosphere, which is beneficial for flight based organisms. Planets with these qualities in addition to being slightly warmer and wetter would be even more habitable than Earth. A larger or closer moon than Earth’s would also be considered “better”, because of benefits such as helping to stabilize its orbit and preventing life-disrupting wobbles. Taking all of these factors into consideration, the researchers came up with a list of the most ideal parameters for the perfect superhabitable planet. This planet “would be in orbit around a K dwarf star, which is a relatively small star star that’s slightly cooler than our sun […]; about 5 billion to 8 billion years old; about 10% larger than Earth; about 9 F  warmer than Earth, on average; moist with an atmosphere that is 25% to 30% oxygen, with scattered land and water. [It] would also have plate tectonics or a similar geological process in order to recycle minerals and nutrients through the crust and to create diverse habitats and topography, and would have a moon between 1% and 10% of its size orbiting it at a moderate distance” ( As we know from biology, an oxygen rich atmosphere is essential as oxygen is one of the most important building blocks of life. Our cells need oxygen to produce various proteins which in turn produce more cells. Oxygen is also vital in many of our body systems and needed for the creation of carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and lipids. Other animals and plants also require large amounts of oxygen to survive. 

Out of the 24 Kepler Objects of Interest, which are unconfirmed indications of  transiting planets, spotted by the Kepler telescope, two have been confirmed as exoplanets, (Kepler 1126 b and Kepler-69c), nine are orbiting around the proper type of star, 16 are within the correct age range, and five fall into the right temperature range. KOI 5715.01 was the only candidate of the 24 that fell into the correct range for each of the three categories, but the planet’s true surface temperature is unable to be determined right now because it depends on the strength of the greenhouse effect in its atmosphere. Additionally, as all of these planets are more than 100 light-years away, many of them can’t be studied properly due to lack of technology.

I personally believe that we are on the brink of making seriously ground-breaking discoveries regarding extraterrestrial life. Technology is advancing every year, and in turn we make more discoveries each year about the enigma of space. Hopefully soon we will find out if some of these planets really do have life inhabiting them.

Mice Maintain Muscle in Microgravity

Scientists recently found a molecule that can maintain, and even augment, the muscle mass and bone density of space-faring mice.

That might sound irrelevant (why would mice need to maintain muscle mass in space?), but this could actually help astronauts with a common problem with space travel. Astronauts in space must exercise regularly and intensely to avoid muscle atrophy; due to the microgravity, astronauts have little regular physical exertion and quickly lose muscle mass otherwise. Studies have shown that space journeys as brief as 5 to 11 days lead to a 20% loss of muscle mass for astronauts. The calf muscles, quadriceps, and back and neck muscles (which can be collectively termed antigravity muscles) require minimal contraction for astronauts to move around in space, allowing the muscles to weaken rapidly.

Muscle atrophy isn’t only a problem for astronauts, though. Others to benefit from this research could include “people who are bedridden or in a wheelchair, as well as people with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other causes of muscle wasting.” 

The main focus of this study was the gene myostatin, common to various species, including mice, cattle, and humans. Myostatin plays a role in both the number of muscle fibers in the developing animal and the level of fiber growth in the adult stage, negatively regulating muscle growth in species from dogs to humans. Several studies have shown that myostatin inhibition can help with disorders that cause wasting of the muscles by increasing muscle mass. Some evidence even suggests that myostatin inhibition might increase muscle strength as well. This study, however, targeted a different cause of muscle atrophy.

Study author Se-Jin Lee eliminated the myostatin gene from mice, allowing them to achieve double the muscle mass of regular mice. In December 2019, the mice were launched on a SpaceX craft from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a 33 day space journey. In contrast to the normal mice, that lost muscle mass, the myostatin-inhibited mice maintained their augmented muscle mass.

On the left, a regular mouse, and on the right, a myostatin inhibited mouse with about double the muscle mass.

Of course, eliminating the gene from human astronauts is not a feasible approach. To better model a treatment that could be applied to humans, Lee’s team came up with a solution to inhibit myostatin’s expression. Myostatin prohibits growth by attaching to a specific receptor on muscle cells. To prevent this binding, the researchers came up with a molecule that was a “decoy” receptor to be injected into the mice’s bloodstreams, capturing myostatin proteins and activin A proteins, which prevent both muscle and bone growth. The unique chemical structure and folding of the receptor allows it to bind to these two proteins for this effect, and as we learned in class, the shape is very important to the functionality. The mice in the International Space Station injected with this molecule experienced bone and muscle growth while still in space. The treatment also recovered bone and muscle mass for untreated mice landing from space.

Treatments inspired by this research could hopefully be used to help astronauts maintain bone density and muscle mass in space. Though myostatin inhibition alone has not proven effective in humans, such a treatment that inhibits other proteins, like activin A, as well may be plausible.

1930’s Dust Bowl (MARS EDITION)


Mars has experienced dust storms for years now, so a simple one is nothing new; however, by October 29th of this year, the dust storms will be at their all time high according to NASA. The dust storms on Mars are so strong that back in 2007 (the most recent larger one), the storm dimmed the sun, reducing the solar power available to two rovers on different sides of the planet. This continues to be an issue as the storms increase, limiting the power available to the rovers, and leaving them alone. Not only do dust storms threaten rovers, but astronauts too. Future astronauts will have to face tremendous winds, extreme dust, and lack of solar energy like the rovers. Furthermore, research from the past will now to indicate a pattern to predict future storms as the storms have thus far indicated a cycle and with further observation will continue to prove true.

I chose to write about the mars dust storm because besides the fact that I am utterly obsessed with space, the dust storms and the recent water finding on mars bring us closer to finding a planet just like ours, and thusly in the far future a refuge planet in the event of disaster on earth. By creating a history of dust storms we can evaluate the safety and conditions of this planet as we continue to learn about it.



NASA develops model to predict global dust storms on Mars


A Star Gives Birth… To Twins?


Black Hole 

According to a recent study published by astrophysicist Avi Loeb, scientists now believe that collapsing stars can now lead to the creation of two individual black holes. Avi Leob had been debating whether or not the existence of this phenomenon  was a reality but the recent detection of gravitational waves convinced Leob that this does exist. Gravitational Waves are the ripples through time caused by extreme gravity altering the matter the waves interact with. Einstein first theorized that two black holes spinning around each other would alter the fabric of space time. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory used detectors in Louisiana and Washington in order to register the waves and the detections confirmed the existence and collision of two rotating blackholes.

Leob’s theory is that if a star is spinning fast enough when it collapses, the matter in the star could be distributed into a dumbbell shape and form two black holes. The detection of gravitational waves confirmed that it was indeed two individual black holes but it was unclear if these black holes where the byproduct of a star collapsing in the area or if the holes massive gravity had just pulled them together from different regions of space. When a star collapses inward, the influx of matter can cause the star to release a burst of gamma radiation, the most high energy form of light. A telescope trained on the area where the equipment recorded the gravitational waves also picked up a burst of gamma light. This provides validity to the theory that one star collapsed in the region and created these two black holes rather than the black holes moving from a different location in space.


Works Cited:

Original Article:

New Findings Uncover Clues to Mars’ Watery Past

Mars used to have flowing water, a thick atmosphere, and a magnetic field. But now it is only covered with dusty riverbeds and its air is practically a vacuum. Now how did that happen?! In order to uncover what happened to the planet’s lost features, a spacecraft MAVEN was sent out to search for clues. The probe was able to fight through the red planet’s turbulent lower atmosphere and witness a shimmering aurora and solar storm. The data the probe brings back gives scientists a glimpse into Mars’ past and scientists have now presented the mission’s first findings.


Mars was a different planet in a different solar system billions of years ago. Scientists believe the planet was stripped of its water and atmosphere because the sun was much hotter and radiating then. As Dave Brain, atmospheric physicist at the University of Colorado, said, “Imagine you have a pot of water on the stove and that represents the atmosphere. MAVEN is orbiting Mars at a time when the burner is at a low setting. And by looking at the steam, scientists can extrapolate back to a time when the burner is at a low setting.” The probe is jammed with instruments that count charged ions, measure solar wind, scan for ultraviolet energy, detect magnetic fields, and collect dust.

Thus far, the most impressive findings came from watching the effects of essentially a monster solar storm on the planet’s atmosphere. This was highly significant because, as Brain said, “solar storms are really windows to the past. We got to see what happens when a lot of energy hit all at once.” Solar storms can potentially strip away a ton of atmosphere and they are what most likely happened all the time billions of years ago.

One reason the red planet’s atmosphere is so susceptible to solar activity is due to its lack of a strong magnetosphere. When the sun gets riled up and fires dangerous and energized “blobs” at Earth, our planet’s electromagnetic barrier shields the attack and redirects it towards the poles. While traveling along the magnetic lines towards the poles, the solar particles pick up charge, which they release when encountering particles in Earth’s atmosphere, thus emitting light—an aurora.

Scientists were surprised when MAVEN witnessed an aurora on Mars since the planet does not have a magnetosphere. The aurora lasted five Martian days and potentially even enveloped the whole planet. This is a new kind of aurora for scientists as it doesn’t require a magnetic field. Unfortunately the team doesn’t have any noteworthy pictures of the aurora since the probe only caught it on its ultraviolet imager.

There were other impressive findings as well. “Mars has pretty significant topography,” says Stephen Bougher, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan and MAVEN co-investigator. Surface winds bend over features like Olympus Mons, and those disruptions propagate upward into the atmosphere. “Just like a wave coming onshore would crest and break, atmospheric waves crest and break,” says Bougher. But those winds don’t even explain the presence of heavy dust particles high up in the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN collected dirt from more than 600 miles up that defied the dynamics of Martian gravity. “The puzzle is how did that dust get up so high,” says Brain.

These findings aren’t just flashy—they’re scientifically major. They will help scientists understand more about how and why Earth’s atmosphere is so stable, and give interplanetary scientists a better idea of what to expect in future Martian expeditions. “You can figure out what dosage of radiation astronauts would be getting as they set up shop on the surface,” says Bougher. “You don’t want to send astronauts to certain death without exploring the risks.”

Original Article

For more information, check out this article:

And check out this video:

Is Mars more like Earth than we think?

Photo of Mars (licensing information here)

For a long time, Mars was thought to be inhabitable.  However, there were always “what ifs” and hopes that one day Mars would be identified as a place where humans could survive and live comfortably.  Recently, researchers found recurring slope lineae (RSL) on the Martian slopes of Mars to be caused by a salty liquid.  We all know the most important aspect of life is water, something no one can live without and life on Earth cannot go on without.  So, if water is crucial to life on Earth, wouldn’t that mean that finding water on Mars points towards the potential for life there as well?

Researchers used the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in four different locations on Mars where RSL were present.  There were signs of hydrated salts in all four locations during the seasons when RSL are largest and most prominent.  RSL range from .5 to 5 meters wide, but have no limit to how expansive they are downslope.  CRISM analyzes Mars at 3:00 p.m., which in Martian time is the hottest time of the day.  This means that any liquid on the surface of Mars would have evaporated during this time, making it virtually impossible for the CRISM to identify water in its liquid form.  However, hydrated salts precipitate from liquid water, meaning that even if there was no water found there at the time the CRISM analyzed that location, there was water there at one point in time.  The salts associated with RSL are perchlorates, which lower the freezing point of water from 0° C (32° F) to -70° C (-94° F)! Researchers believe this points to a larger possibility for the stability of salt water on Mars.

However, even with all this excitement, researchers are still hesitant to make the claim that there are extremely high odds for the ability of life on Mars.  Due to the low water activity of perchlorates, researchers believe it would be hard for any living organism to survive with this as their only water supply.  Head researcher Lujendra Ojha cautions people who are tempted to jump to the conclusion Mars is now considered habitable for humans.  However, people can still hope that one day Mars may offer a second home to human beings, especially with this new exiting find!


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