Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What I think is cool in science, August 2012

Hi there. Now that September is here, let me tell you what I thought was cool in science during August.

How DNA could replace your DVD player
Our society is generating a lot of data, and these data are vastly important to businesses, governments, scientists, and consumers. The amount and diversity of data produced by our digital lifestyles is staggering: every text message, purchase, phone call, and email. It all adds up to an extremely valuable set of information that will become the focus of many current and future careers.

Well, I'm no technology specialist or systems analyst, but I do get jazzed when technological problems are solved by the application of biological solutions that evolved millions of years ago. That's what's happening according to a Harvard-led study that showcases how digital data (0s and 1s) can be stored as DNA bases (Gs, Cs, As, Ts,). So, instead of typing a bunch of 0s and 1s and saving them on a hard disk, the same data can be coded into DNA sequences where it can be stored very efficiently. Check out how efficient:
A comparison of data storage methods as presented by Church et al. (2012)

Sequencing DNA costs a good deal of money, much more money that it costs to store and access data through current digital media. But consider this: as I've gotten older, I have listened to my favorite music (which is data) on cassettes, then compact discs, then hard disks as mp3s. The way that DNA is written and read (enzymes working with nucleic acids) in my body has not changed at all. Sony does not have commercials advertising the newest generation of DNA players, because my body already does it so efficiently. So the real point of this study is to demonstrate that this sort of technology is possible and probably inevitable, making it a classic example of how evolutionary biology can lend itself to human technology.

For a great summary of this study, go here. Also, I want to thank my friend and former teacher Dave Hayes for showing me this cool story. If you don't believe me when I say he is a good teacher, check out his ratemyprofessor page. I don't know how he hasn't gotten a single chili pepper though.

Ants use the internet way more efficiently than I do
Speaking of the human technology to biology connection: a study from a group of Stanford University researchers provides an algorithm that equates the way ants manage their movements to forage for food with the way internet bandwidth is managed.
Image from Stanford News.
The collaboration between ant biologist Dr. Deborah Gordon and computer scientist Dr. Balaji Prabhakar began with Gordon's observations of how harvester ants regulate when foragers go out to get food. When Prabhakar was approached with this idea, he quickly made connections between the way the ants communicate and the way modern internet protocols control traffic, saying "The next day it occurred to me, 'Oh wait, this is almost the same as how [Internet] protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!'". Now, I thought I was pretty clever when I woke up one morning and independently realized I could keep my computer cables organized with binder clips, but obviously Dr. Prabhakar is the sort of guy who wakes up and has realizations that end up in Science magazine. Geez.

Next stop: Jurassic Park baby!
Lastly, I want to share this story, in which Russian researchers revive a plant species from a 32,000 year old fruit.
The campion plant produced from ancient fruit.
Their discovery becomes the oldest tissue that has given rise to live plants. Pretty neat stuff, but I realize that these sorts of discoveries happen more often than you think. Most often, plant seeds are unearthed, but occasionally a brain or pinky finger shows up in good enough shape to give some clues about what that ancient organism was like. However, stories like this really excite me because it means that I am one step closer towards my dream of a real Jurassic Park. Until then, I'll stick to amphibian biology.
Hold onto your butts, science is here
I'm still getting settled into a new semester after a long period of traveling. I hope to get some salamander-y content to you all soon. Til' then.