By Emily Dennis, @emilyjanedennis Photo by Megan Murphy/Smithsonian’s National Zoo, creative commons. Naked mole rats are neither moles, nor rats. They are mammals, but they live in bee-like colonies. They have eyes, but can barely see. They live for a long time (up to 30 years!) but rarely get cancer. Naked mole rats (above) are clearly not your average rodent. Now, thanks to a recent paper, we know that their cells aren’t really normal cells, either... and we have some tantalizing hints towards explaining why naked mole rats don’t get cancer. Before researchers could study naked mole rat cells, they had to figure out how to grow them in the lab, outside of the animal. Many labs grow lots of different types of cells: bacteria from our stomachs, yeast from our beers, neurons from our brains, cancer cells from our tumors, and skin cells from our bodies... but until recently, no one could get naked mole rat cells to grow well. When you try and grow naked mole rat cells in a dish filled with liquid food, like in the photo below, very few of the cells grow, and the ones that do make the food really sticky
By Matthew DeGennaro, @mattdegennaro An Aedes aegypti female feeding on human blood Not all mosquitoes have a taste for human blood. But when they do bite us, they can potentially introduce a blood-borne infectious agent, like the virus that causes dengue fever or the microorganism that causes malaria. The goal of my research in the Vosshall Lab at The Rockefeller University is to identify the genes that cause mosquitoes to seek out humans so we can find more effective ways to repel them. My most recent findings, published last week in Nature, focus on a gene called ORCO (Odorant Receptor Co-receptor) in the dengue virus carrying mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Specifically, my colleagues and I presented a mechanism for how mosquitoes use ORCO to locate and confirm the identity of a human host. Intriguingly, this same protein is also needed for mosquitoes to be repulsed by the insect repellent DEET. During her post-doc in Richard Axel’s lab at Columbia University, Leslie Vosshall identified a family of proteins, called odorant receptors (ORs), that insects use to smell odors. Then, as head of the Laboratory for Neurogenetics and Behavior at The Rockefeller University, Leslie discovered how these OR proteins work together to
By Gabrielle Rabinowitz and Emily Jane Dennis “Does flossing decrease my risk of heart disease?” No, but is it good for you? Yes. “Does aluminum cause Alzheimers?” Nope. “Should I start following the Paleo Diet?” Probably not & paleolithic people probably didn’t either. As scientists, we’re asked these sorts of questions all the time. Although we’re trained to evaluate scientific ideas, it definitely doesn’t take a PhD to judge the latest craze or newest finding. To do it yourself, follow these 5 steps: 1. Separate the sales pitch from the science Almost everyone is trying to sell something. In articles about science, the sales pitch is usually right in the headline. The science is harder to find. Start by looking for a quote from a scientist. Read the quote but ignore the spin the author put on it. Don’t forget that scientists can have biases too: be skeptical of scientists who don’t acknowledge the limitations of their research and fail to present alternate explanations. Also, check to see who’s funding the research- they might have an agenda too! In short, read articles carefully and figure out if the claims they make are based on the facts they present. 2.
By Emily Dennis, @emilyjanedennis I watch a lot of hockey. As a Detroit Red Wings fan, I know that The Joe is the best hockey rink: it has the best music, the best zamboni guy, the best octopi traditions, and the best players. So, I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Tampa Bay Lightning has the best goal-celebration in sports. Whenever the amazing Steven Stamkos or one of his teammates score a goal, this happens: That is a Tesla coil. The Tesla coil is named after its inventor, Nikola Tesla. In the late 1800s, Tesla and Thomas Edison were both working on competing forms of electricity. Tesla worked on alternating current (AC), a current that changes direction at an imperceptible speed: 60 times a second! Edison invented a device to supply direct current (DC) power, the kind of power that flows in one direction, like a battery. Lucky for us, Tesla won this “War of Currents” and we now have AC power in our homes. DC power isn’t as good for our modern needs because the farther it travels, the less efficient it gets. It’s also significantly harder to increase and decrease the voltage of DC power than AC
By Emily Dennis, @emilyjanedennis Bees are cool. In the early 1900s, researchers like the tremendous Karl von Frisch noticed that when a group of bees gets too big, the queen will lay eggs and then leave the hive, bringing with her 10,000 of the worker bees. These bees swarm on a branch for several hours, or even days. Then, they all fly off at the same time and head toward their new home. Until 2010, the way the bees make this collective decision was a mystery. Recently, we discovered that the swarm sends out scouts to collect information and then ‘debate’ about which site is best. At the end of this process, they all agree on one site and then fly there to build their new home. When I first heard about this, I wanted to know how scientists figured it out. It’s really difficult to do experiments with bees because they need miles of space to fly around. To get around this problem, the research team, led by Dr. Thomas Seeley, did their experiments on an island that didn’t have any good natural homes for the bees. This allowed them to set up artificial bee homes of different qualities
By Emily Jane Dennis,@emilyjanedennis Creativity is cool. Today is Darwin’s birthday. Instead of talking about his life or how he made everything in biology make sense, I want to talk about two of his drawings. Darwin’s first (left, 1837) and final (right, 1859) evolutionary trees These two drawings, separated by 22 years, are a perfect illustration of the creative process in scientific thought. On the left is the first ever evolutionary tree, and on the right is Darwin’s final tree from On the Origin of Species.When he sketched out this first tree, Darwin had already spent years coming up with and expanding on his idea of transmutation (what we call evolution). I think about this drawing as a proof, a way to visually evaluate what he had been mulling over for so many years. He used this figure to take a bunch of independent thoughts and pull them together to address one big question: how do the species we see today relate to species that existed in the distant past? I like to believe that the “I think” above Darwin’s first tree drawing is a glimpse into his inner-critic. It was written by that doubting voice inside his head, urging him to find
By Emily Jane Dennis @emilyjanedennis It’s been cold here in NYC. After lots of mild weather, the last few cold days have been tough. Personally, I’ve found solace in three things: hockey, puppy sweaters, and snow. These pictures, from William Bentley’s collection are simultaneously extremely familiar and eerily otherworldly… Whenever I look at phenomenal photographs I always want to know the story behind these pictures. Really, who gets paid to document and investigate snowflakes? The basics: Snowflakes/crystals are made of water molecules. They begin forming when water vapor gets cooled down quickly, forming droplets with dust. As these droplets freeze, they bump into other water molecules and droplets, and grows and grows (or doesn’t). Each snowflake is made of roughly 1,020,000,000,000 water molecules! (check my math here- assumes a 3mg flake ) Lots of snowflakes are identical, but the more complex ones are very unlikely to have a twin. How do we know this stuff? Some really famous thinkers, Johannes Kepler**, René Descartes, & Robert Hooke (Mr. Microscope) described snowflakes as early as the 1600s, but true scientific investigation really started in the 1950s with Ukichiro Nakaya. Nakaya was a physicist and took pictures of ALL snow crystals (not