Discovery

Left Hand, Left Hand, Right Hand, Right

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Why are some people right-handed and why are some people left-handed? For years it was believed that “handedness” (i.e. if you are left-handed or right-handed) was determined in the fetal brain. Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany recently suggested that asymmetrical gene expression in the spinal chord might help determine handedness. The researchers looked at gene expression in the spinal chord of fetuses between the eighth and twelfth week of pregnancy. Differences in gene expression on the left and right side could already be detected and those areas of activity correlated with arm and leg movement. The researchers also suggested that differences in left and right gene expression could be due to environmental factors.

The study of changes in genetic expression that occur without changes to genetic sequences is called Epigenetics. Environmental factors can act as a trigger for expression of certain genes both in our fetal development and throughout our lives. It will be interesting to find out more about how environmental factors determine handedness and perhaps we may also find out why left-handed people are superior 🙂

About the Illustration: Watercolor with some Photoshop magic. I kept the illustration pretty basic because handedness is a very basic part of our identity. The title is a play on the first line of the “Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss. It was his birthday a few weeks ago and I have read that book enough times this past year that it’s content might rattle around in my brain for all eternity.

Going, Going, Gone

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The remaining portion of the Antarctic ice shelf called ” Larsen C” is showing signs of disintegration and may be no more by the end of the decade. This is deeply concerning since ice shelves help hold glaciers in place. Without that support the pace of glacial movement out to the ocean increases and therefore increases the pace of sea level rise. This particular ice shelf supports three glaciers named Leppard, Flask and Starbuck (anyone recognize the Moby Dick connection?). In 2002 a portion of Larsen C collapsed, it looks like what remains of the  10,000 year old ice shelf will soon be gone. The ice shelf Larsen B collapsed in 2002 which led to the increased flow of supporting glaciers. But Larsen C is 10 times the size of Larsen B and the fourth biggest ice shelf in Antarctica. What this could mean for coastal areas around the world is unknown.

Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently made this discovery through the use of data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge (a six-year airborne survey of the Earth’s polar ice, the largest of it’s kind).

Interested in what’s going on in the Antarctic? Other aspects of climate change? Consider subscribing to Climate Central: http://www.climatecentral.org “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.” Facts still matter.

About the Illustration: Micron pen on vellum paper.

Jet Lag

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The Common Swift (Apus apus) can remain in the air for up to 10 months straight. Scientists tracked birds from (or to) their breeding grounds by attaching  data loggers to record their route and flight activity during their annual migration. Some of the birds made short landings but remained in the air most of the time but some birds didn’t touch down once in the entire ten months. Talk about jet lag.

And the Nobel Goes to…

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At the beginning of October Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his research into the genetic underpinnings of autophagy. Autophagy is the process by which cellular material is destroyed and reused. His work is crucial to understanding the molecular mechanisms behind cancer and other diseases. Mutations in autophagy genes have been linked to illness in humans.

About the Illustration: My illustration is an abstract version of autophagy where autphagosomes (an organelle-a specialized subunit of a cell that serves a specific purpose in the functioning of a cell) consume damaged organelles or other cellular contents and then fuses with lysosomes (another type of organelle) to degrade the cellular materials to be repurposed within the cell. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Other Nobel Prizes in the Science went to:

Nobel Prize in Physics-David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz for  explaining strange phenomena in unusual phases (or states) of matter.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry-Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for their development of molecular machines that are a thousand times thinner than a hair strand. Yes, you read correctly.

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So a starfish, now what does a starfish have to do with the Nobel Prize? In the 1960’s Dr. Robert Paine observed the impact of removing the ochre starfish (Pisaster ochraceus) from a small area of the Washington coast. Without the starfish present the diverse community devolved into a species-poor area. Based on his observations Dr. Paine formulated the theory of “Keystone Species“.  This is a species that has a large impact on an ecosystem and when it disappears that ecosystem essentially falls apart. A major theory that helped shape ecology, keystone species have been identified in a variety of ecosystems. Both terrestrial and aquatic.

After the Nobel Prizes in Science were announced an opinion piece came out in the New York Times about updating the Nobel Prize. The author, Gabriel Popkin, discusses the role of Dr. Paine in furthering the field of ecology and how the diversity of scientific disciplines has grown since Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize through his will. He writes about possibly expanding the Nobel Prize to include other fields such as ecology, climatology, geology, etc… So? So what? Consider that the Nobel Prize brings money and prestige and consider how that could be used in fields where there is little of either. Consider that funding for science in the United States is diminishing. Also consider that the ochre starfish is dying out due to sea star wasting disease. What does that mean for the ecosystem that it supports? What does it mean for us?  Had Dr. Paine studied the role of the ochre starfish  in coastal ecosystems in the current funding climate he may not have been able to come up with his monumental findings. There is still much to learn and discover but with shrinking funding some research will loose it’s seat at the table.

 

 

 

115 Is The New 40

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A recent paper published in the journal Nature claims that the ceiling for earthly existence for human beings is 115. Dr. Jan Vijg from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and his colleagues examined global demographic data and determined that we are reaching our life span limit. Human life spans have increased through time with medical and technological innovations but, according to Dr. Vijg and his colleagues, that has stagnated since the 1990s. Have we reached the limit? Would you really like to live to see your 150th birthday?

 

Sun Worship

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Young sunflowers follow the sun and turn from east to west during the course of the day. During the night they reorient themselves to the east to begin the cycle once again. When sunflowers stop growing they permanently orient themselves to the east and wait for  pollinators to visit. This phenomenon is called heliotropism and other plants display this type of “sun worshipping” behavior. The underlying mechanism behind sunflower heliotropism was unknown until researchers from the University of California (Davis) published their results on sunflower heliotropism in the journal Science. According to their findings, young sunflowers regulate growth of their stems based on an internal circadian rhythm through phased gene expression that increase cell growth in stems facing the west during the night. This allows them to bend east at sunrise. During the day, stem growth on the east side increases to allow the young plant to bend westward in the afternoon and sunset. Mature plants remain eastward oriented when growth slows to attract more pollinators. An eastward orientation increases the warmth of the plant which increases pollinator attraction.

About this Illustration: Watercolor and micron pen of a sun in motion over a field of sunflowers. You can now purchase merchandise with this illustration on it via RedBubble.

 

 

The Raven of the Pacific

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A curious looking whale that washed up on the shores of St. George Island (one of the Pribilof Islands in the state of Alaska) in 2014 might actually be a new whale species according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Marine Mammal Science. Originally it was thought to be a small Baird’s beaked whale. However, after genetic analysis of the the deceased whale researchers determined that it may in fact be a new species of beaked whale. DNA from the deceased whale was compared to a variety of beaked whale samples from the Pacific (including the skeleton of a whale hanging in a high school gymnasium in the Aleutian Islands). From those samples eight individuals genetically matched the deceased whale and after further genetic analysis the researchers determined that this group was genetically distinctive from the Baird’s beaked whale.

Japanese fishermen have seen this particular species of whale for years and refer to it as the karasu or raven (it is darker than the Baird’s beaked whale) but it was never really considered a separate species until now. Additional genetic analysis and observation of living individuals (aside from fishermen no one has seen one alive) will help scientists determine if this is truly a new species. An official taxonomic name has not been given to this new species but hopefully it will incorporate karasu into the taxonomic or common name. Or the they could call it the Nevermore Whale 🙂

Beaked whales belong to the taxonomic family Ziphiidae and comprise 25% of all cetacean species (whales and dolphins). They are referred to as “beaked” due to their extended rostrum or snout. Little is known of beaked whales and species identification can be difficult due to physical similarities. This may explain why this new species was not identified until modern genetic analysis could be used to separate it from other beaked whales. This new species will belong to the genus Berardius which includes the Baird’s beaked whale from the North Pacific and the Arnoux’s beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere.

 About the Illustration: My interpretation of the “Raven”. Watercolor. Beaked whales are a bit shapeless so it was difficult to create something that did not look like a blob. My sad illustration aside this is a pretty amazing story. To find a new whale species in 2016 is pretty awesome. Let’s hope we do not drive it to extinction before it is officially named.

For More Information: If you would like to read the original journal article this post was based on click on the link. It is actually an open access article. Morin et al. Marine Mammal Science. June 26, 2016. Genetic structure of the beaked whale genus Berardius in the North Pacific, with genetic evidence for a new species