I don’t generally quote The Daily News, but in this case the image that’s sweeping the country sums up what America thinks.
According to the National Science Foundation, we at Kenyon can keep paying my technician and students–but the government doesn’t guarantee to reimburse us. And the National Institutes of Health advises us to “check the national media” to find out when medical research commitments can be processed. I suppose our irreplaceable colonies of mice and monkeys may go unfed.
This happens once a decade or so; the third time I’ve experienced. We can only hope the culprits really get the boot, like they did last time.
In the rainforest of Venezuela and Brazil rise high mesas called “tepui,” where many unique creatures are found. These creatures were thought to evolve in isolation, perhaps including many “ancient” forms. They are found atop the unique table-like tepuis that rise above the clouds.
The tepui ecosystems may have influenced Avatar as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. It’s hard to get up there and find out–the only way is to climb.
But the tepui ecology is in fact more complex than was thought. Unique creatures, such as the pebble toad, may be more recent arrivals that evolved in a recent new direction, more like the arrivals in the Galapagos islands. Like islands, each tepui may host unique species found nowhere else.
Sometimes we think that only “native” evolved species are worth study. But every native species had to get there from somewhere. We are all travelers, and visitors to new lands. The journey is what makes us interesting.
So this is the new MakerBot at Kenyon’s Science Complex. The blue-and-white thing looks blurred because it is vibrating so fast, printing out the pink polyedron. The pink stuff enters as a fiber of plastic down the right-hand tube, which comes from a coil of pink plastic behind. We plan to use this machine to make models of molecules and cells, along the lines of Brett Barney at Thingiverse.
The machine reminds me of my first IBM PC printer back in the 80s, full of whirring parts sliding on metal rods. But it’s definitely the way of the future. Someday soon, everything will be made this way, from candy to jet planes.
So the government undertakes a multimillion dollar program to investigate mysterious messengers from an uncharted world. Sound like the X-files? Actually it’s NIH, the National Institutes of Health. And the mystery messengers are within our own body, tiny particles called exRNA or extracellular RNA. Molecules of RNA that are made within a cell, copied from DNA the same way as the messenger RNAs that specify proteins–but unlike normal messenger RNAs, exRNAs actually leave the cell, typically protected in little bubbles of fat. So where do exRNAs end up–and what are they doing?
Like UFOs, exRNAs have been reported since the early twentieth century, but rarely taken seriously. Now, just within the past decade, their implications have exploded. exRNAs are found in all kinds of boy fluids, such as blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal fluids. In other words, they can travel throughout the body–and may end up inside other people’s bodies.
The obvious implication is cell-to-cell communication. Cells tell other cells what to do, throughout development and healthy function of our bodies. But abnormal messages can direct our cells to do abnormal things, like start a cancer. Cancers have already been associated with specific exRNA sequences; for instance pancreatic cancer is associated with elevation of a specific external RNA called miR-210, also known as a microRNA. The miR-210 microRNA is already known as a life-or-death regulator molecule within cells, associated with recovery from heart attacks but also with tumors. Even if exRNAs turn out not to serve therapy, they have enormous potential as markers of early-stage cancers, allowing diagnosis in time to treat. exRNA represents the kind of ground-breaking research for which we depend on NIH–your tax dollars at work.
It may seem anomalous to think of a 3000+ year-old tree accelerating. But that’s what’s happening to the redwoods (sequoias) growing along the California coast.
Scientists study tree rings from cores deep into the trees. I sure hope they know what they’re doing–I’d hate to think of inadvertent damage, or allowing pests into a three thousand-year tree. On the other hand, I suppose a tree that old has seen anything that could happen. Some of these trees are so large they even have giant Douglas firs growing out of them, up in the canopy.
So why are these trees growing faster? About a 100 years ago, their tree rings showed greater growth of wood each year. Then more recently, the acceleration has increased even more. The growth appears to correlate with increasing temperature and CO2 due to global climate change. It’s just a “correlation” yet–but is consistent with other findings that plant growth accelerates with temperature and CO2, providing they get enough water and other nutrients.
So is this a good thing? Maybe, for these trees, for now. But higher temperatures lead to drought and pest infestations. Alaska is dealing with pest infestations in a tragic way, and Africa is losing trees to drought.
From Danny and the Dinosaur to Night at the Museum, storytellers have tried to convey the excitement of knowledge stored away in dusty museums–and how it may come to life. Here is a case in real life, an animal never known to science but stored away amongst thousands of pelts and bones in the drawers of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
A related type of animal, the olingo, is known in the cloud forests of the Andes, at altitudes surprisingly high to support carnivores. But the red pelts of the smaller raccoon-like olinguito were collected early in the twentieth century, before even the discovery of DNA. They were cleaned, preserved and catalogued in numbers too large for museum researchers to study them all. For decades, it was considered hopeless to learn much about preserved animal remains beyond their bone measurements.
But the advent of DNA sampling by PCR changed everything. Now an enterprising researcher, like Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian, can notice something odd like the striking red coat and unique anatomy of these specimens–then propose a new species, and test the hypothesis. And plan new expeditions to find this creature alive.
For mammals, species are defined based on DNA divergence and other chromosome anomalies that prevents the likelihood of interbreeding. Of course, there are infrequent cases of species hybridization; and there are sudden anomalies, such as the 44 chromosome man, who could lead through interbreeding to a new species. But overall, the DNA of an organism tells us much about its breeding history and the general shape of its population. And the museums have come alive with new stories.