Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Monday, May 27, 2013

How do you make science interesting? Make it rhyme and drop a beat.

In general, it is very hard to get people to care about science. I don't want to force a history major to change his degree to bioengineering. I don't need a six year old to sign a contract detailing her commitment to being the next Nobel prize winner. I'm talking about just getting someone (anyone!) who isn't already a scientist to recognize that science exists, science matters, and science can be cool.

I watched this incredible video produced by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and one point in particular stuck with me for the last week. Most of the stuff I teach to students is boring. It really is. 

I've been on both receiving ends of this exchange.

However, I find science fascinating. So, like my other teaching colleagues, I have found myself bewildered when students don't agree. Then I think about my mindset when I was taking the same classes. I have never been excited by basic facts. I am always excited to learn about how facts connect to tell stories.

Boring: DNA is a long polymer of nucleotides
Interesting: The composition of human DNA reveals that humans mated with neanderthals thousands of years ago

But if you want to make cool connections and form interesting questions, you have to have a least a working understanding of some facts. And in a time where everyone's attention span (including mine) lasts roughly 1-2 minutes, facts need to be presented more effectively than bulleted points on a PowerPoint presentation.

That leads me to my main point: Can I take a minute to talk about how cool GZA is?

Photo provided by Mika photography
GZA is one of the founding members of the WuTang Clan, one of the most prolific and important hip-hop collectives of all time. You may already know that about him. What you may not know is that he is a science advocate and all-around fascinating guy.

In my dream world, the sciences are intriguing to everyone. I would imagine painters and musicians coming into the field with me to be inspired by the annual explosion of life from vernal wetlands. I would imagine prominent scientists and popular musicians working with Hollywood filmmakers to produce beautiful documentaries about the natural world. I would imagine hip hop artists walking down the halls of M.I.T., researching their next album. 

Of course, these are imaginary for now. Except the last one. That one is true.

GZA is doing just that. He’s writing albums based on physics and biology. His upcoming album “Dark Matter” will no doubt be incredible. In the words of the man himself, "There's no parental advisory, no profanity, no nudity, the only thing that's going to be stripped bare is the planets." 
I’m sold.

The above links are from last year, but we only have to wait until this summer to listen to GZA's scientific treatise. BUT, my google news alert for "GZA" made sure that I received this video preview:

Writing a hip-hop album about science is cool. But let me show you something even cooler that GZA is involved with. It is called the "Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S." program, a collaboration between Columbia University's Chris Emdin, New York City public Schools, and GZA himself. 

Please watch this great video story about the program from PBS news hour:

While I probably won't be rapping in my classrooms anytime soon, this is a great reminder of why striving to make science education better is a basic component of making science better for everyone.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Live slow and die old: why are we studying salamander cells?

The following post was written as part of a practice exercise for the Scifund Outreach Class. But it isn't doing any good hidden away, so here you go:
A few years ago, Ligers were all the rage. You remember Ligers don't you?
Here is a Liger looking right at you
Ligers, of course, are the result of a mating between a lion and a tiger. I predict that the reason a hybrid animal like a Liger is so captivating to you and me is that it causes the imagination to run wild. You can't help but think of wild combination of your favorite animals!

However, hybrids are rare. So why won't I ever see a "Growler Bear" (grizzly bear + polar bear)?

The process of evolution has produced many barriers to the creation of hybrids, but one of these barriers could hold the secret to an important question for humans: why do we age?

DNA: the answers are somewhere in there.You have to look close!
The key resides in the dual-nature of our DNA. Whether you like it or not, every cell in your body has two distinct sources of genetic blueprints: your mitochondria and your nuclei. These two components of your cells serve very different purposes. Your nucleus acts as each cell's command center by ordering the construction of the proteins that maintain your body and dictate its function. Your mitochondria are the power plants of the cell, constantly creating the fuel that keeps the body running. Each of these components has its own genetic blueprints, but in order for cells to work they must both play nice with each other.

It turns out that playing nice with each other is difficult. Because your mitochondrial DNA is always passed down from your mother and your nuclear DNA is always a combination of both parent's nuclear DNA, the two genetic libraries evolve at two different rates. And the more distantly related nuclear and mitochondrial DNA are from each other, the more difficult it becomes to communicate.

This mismatch is not only a giant barrier to hybrids, but also one of the major contributors to how fast organisms age. This idea is called the "pace of life": organisms with high metabolisms often have shorter lives.

Consider a hummingbird flapping its wings hundreds of times a minute. All that energy requires mitochondria to be pushed to their limits, increasing the pressure for perfect communication between nucleus and mitochondria.

The bottom line: humans would be very interested in how to maintain a healthy dance between their nuclei and mitochondria. We've recently identified an animal that can somehow maintain this dance against almost impossible odds:

An all-female Ambystoma salamander: avoiding cellular destruction while looking adorable.

This salamander is part of an all-female group in the genus Ambystoma. What makes these salamanders special is their ability to clone themselves while occasionally stealing sperm from other salamanders species. The result are cells with multiple copies of nuclear DNA from up to five other related species (imagine yourself with copies of chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan DNA). However, their mitochondrial DNA always remains the same. This mismatch of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA spells a recipe for cellular disaster, but these all-female salamanders are widespread and successful. How do they do it?

The first step in answering this question is to determine if these all-female salamanders do in fact overcome this mismatch. To do this, I am growing tissue from different salamanders and comparing the efficiency of their mitochondria. 

At least, I hope I am. I've convinced my committee that it is a pretty good idea.

The Blogcation is over!

Oh boy, has it really been almost three months?

Well, I took a little leave of blogging in order to devote more time to important graduate school deadlines and a field season of catching salamanders. I learned something important from this blog-vacation: I miss doing it.

So I'm back with a new vigor and big plans on the horizon. Part of these plans included participating in SciFund's outreach training course. This course puts 171 scientists together in order to improve our collective ability to reach out to the public. I decided to take this course for one reason: to better communicate with you.

So let's get to it.