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Galápagos–What They Never Tell You

April 11, 2019

Back from the Galápagos Islands, I’m still getting the “sea legs” feeling out of my brain. I’ll take just a moment to reveal things they never tell you in the nature books.

The animals of course are all protected, off limits. Many signs tell humans to keep six feet away from them. What does that look like?

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After three days of feeding us elegant ceviche (raw fish soup) we visited this outdoor market where the fishers were selling their catch of the day. With the help of a sea lion and three pelicans, one of them right on the counter with the cutting board. Most hygienic.

In actuality, there is a complex balance amongst the nature park, the long-time human inhabitants, and the tourists. Each constituency gets a portion of land and time available. 99% is off limits, protected park, but there is still plenty of access. And some of the animals don’t seem to mind.

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Every sea lion feels entitled to the nearest level ledge where it can haul off and rest, sometimes a mother nursing a pup. At the beaches, every bench is full of a sea lion. As a result, I avoided sitting on any outdoor bench everywhere (knowing what kind of poop had probably landed there).

Speaking of poop, that is an unexpected hazard of bird watching on the boat. We lay back for hours watching the frigate birds circle overhead, where they enjoyed the air bumped up by the moving boat. The two upper birds are male; you can see the red throat pouch if you look closely. I heard a scream, “Poop on my I-pad!”

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At night the boat attracted baby animals of all sorts–the light or the effluents, I’m not sure, but there they were, baby sharks, baby sea lions, and baby turtles. The baby sea turtles had probably hatched that very day, from the egg nests on the beach surrounded by protective signs.

To the Galápagos Islands

March 31, 2019

The next two weeks I’ll be away on a tour of the Galápagos islands. I’ve read and taught about the islands, including Vonnegut’s novel of that name, for the past twenty years. So it’s exciting to actually get there.

The islands have formed out of volcanic activity over the past eight million years; some are barely tens of thousands of years old. Volcanism continues today.  This image comes from a remarkable video, Wild Galápagos.

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What is remarkable is the many intricate relationships between creatures that evolved over a short period of time.  Consider the fierce-looking lava iguana, an iguana that colonizes the harsh bare rocks of solidified lava.

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What do these fierce creatures eat?

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The iguana grazes beneath the seawater on green algae, nourished by nutrient-rich currents from Antarctica. But then the algae must survive the powerful surf that could dash it against the rock. Remarkably, the iguana climbs back up.

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While they try to rest, the iguanas are bothered by flies. So they let smaller lava lizards climb up to hunt the flies.

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What about love? Everyone’s heard of the blue-footed boobies who will mate with whoever’s got the bluest feet at the moment.

But waved albatrosses pair for life, though they migrate apart across the ocean. They return to these islands to reunite. Here,  a pair of waved albatrosses rediscover each other after six months. My, are they excited!This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is waved-albatross-pair.png

They mate and raise a chick together–unless the wily mockingbirds get their egg first. A harsh existence, but fascinating.

4D Printing of Life?

March 24, 2019

We’ve all heard of 3D printing, the computer-controlled buildup of a material into a three-dimensional form. So what is 4D printing? Basically, the buildup of a material that has special functional properties.

A simple example would be a material that can be induced by a signal to deform or fold itself. The signal can be heat or water. Amazingly, the heat-deformable object shown retains its structural strength and load-bearing capability, even after it’s deformed.
Still other objects can be induced to fold into a precise 3D form. The MIT Self-assembly lab is famous for such devices.

What gets more interesting is when the printed substance consists of living cells and tissues. For instance, we can now print out replacement corneas for cornea transplant. Hearts and thyroids are on the way.

So at ICFA (the fantasy conference) we wondered: What would happens if you could print out an entire human being? “Clone” is a questionable term, because it has always referred to development of an organism from a single-cell zygote; in effect, a delayed twin. A 3-D printout however would have all the structure found in the copied adult—scars, memories encoded in neural connections etc. What rights would such a printout human possess?

Clone with Joan at ICFA 2019

March 21, 2019

We couldn’t clone Gay and Joe, but we sure tried! Jeanne and Johnna, too. What a great time we had–from human CRISPR to health-improving lentiviruses, microbial invention of metazoans to 3D-printed humans. Gut bacteria fight depression, if you’re Belgian or Dutch. And the truth about the hygiene hypothesis.

Meanwhile, who could beat the diverse fauna of our setting.

See you at ICFA 2020!

Brain Stroke Zaps Gut Bacteria

March 17, 2019

The gut-brain axis means your intestinal bacteria can influence the brain. But does the brain talk back and regulate the gut?

According to West Virginia University researchers, that is what  happens.
In experimental animals, a brain stroke (brain cells die due to injury) leads to disorganization of the gut lining, for weeks afterward. And the proportion of “good” bacteria decreases, compared to the less good ones. This work has not yet been published, but we’ll look forward to the details.

Painted Butterflies–Rare Good News

March 12, 2019

Most of the news for butterflies is terrible, with monarchs and others in exponential decline. But for one species, the painted ladies swarm by the billions past LA.

Of course this species is a generalist, feeding on any sort of plant. And it’s common for environmental disruption to favor certain populations for overgrowth, while many more kinds decline, so diversity loses. Nevertheless, it’s breathtaking to see these little wings migrate up the coast.

To help the butterflies and the bees, I support the Xerces Society.

Sugar-Coated Nanomachines Cure Cancer

March 10, 2019

An idea going back to Fantastic Voyage is that physicians can shrink to microscopic size and travel through the blood vessels to treat the site of a patient’s illness. Today, we’re not shrinking human physicians, but nanomachines. This research team at University of Tokyo focuses on a particular challenge for nanomedicine, getting the therapeutic agents across the blood brain barrier. The blood brain barrier is especially challenging to fight brain tumors, such as glioblastoma, the kind that Senator McCain had. Dr. Kataoka discusses his work here.

Kataoka’s group used an ingenious trick to get their device across the blood vessel membrane. The capillaries into the brain exclude lots of things, but need nutrients—especially the sugar called glucose. The brain has one of the highest glucose uptake rates found in the body. The glucose is taken up by a protein called GLUT1 that is embedded in the membrane of the capillary cells. So the researchers built a delivery device called a “micelle” (basically a highly engineered soap bubble). The micelle contains sugar molecules attached to a carbon chaine (hydrocarbon) that dissolves into the micelle membrane. Now the whole sugar-coated object can bind to GLUT1 molecules in the capillary, and dissolve through the membrane.

How do we know it works? This micrograph shows the capillaries within the brain of a mouse. The sugar-coated micelles have a tagged molecule that fluoresces red. In the first image, we see the micelles only found within the capillary vessels. But after 60 minutes, the micelles have leaked out of the vessels into the surrounding tissue; a process known by a mouthfull of a term, “extravasation.” Extravasation is something that white blood cells normally do all the time, in most parts of the body, but not the brain.

If that’s not strange enough, at ICFA “Clone with Joan” Saturday breakfast we’ll hear more about how gut bacteria may take up residence in the brain (a controversial report) and how bacteria can treat human genetic diseases. Sounds more and more like the microbial aliens of Brain Plague.