In the article on the life of astronomer Maria Winkelmann-Kirch I included an image of the orbit of a minor planet that is named after her.
Minor planets are also known as dwarf planets. You may recall two of these almost planets were visited by the New Horizons spacecraft: Pluto in 2015 and 2014 MU69 earlier this year. The minor planet Mariakirch however, is not located in the Kuiper Belt with Pluto and 2014 MU69. This may seem weird but it’s actually not! In between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter is the Asteroid Belt. This region contains millions of asteroids of various sizes and some just so happen to be large enough to be considered dwarf planets. In fact, most of the known dwarf planets come from the Asteroid Belt because they are closer and much easier to find.
Mariakirch was discovered at the Palomar Observatory on September 24, 1960 during a collaborative minor planet survey involving the Palomar Observatory and the Dutch Leiden Observatory. It is 2.8 AU from the Sun and takes 4.7 years to make a full orbit. For reference, Mars is 1.5 AU from the Sun and Jupiter is 5 AU.
You can learn more about all the minor planets in our solar system by visiting the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. It’s where I got the image for the orbit of Mariakirch. As incentive, check out this cool gif of all the known asteroids moving around the asteroid belt.
I recently met a patient who was born with a heart abnormality called Tetralogy of Fallot. Because it results in limited blood flow through the lungs, we call it a ‘cyanotic’ defect for the blue skin tone of a poorly-oxygenated baby. Congenital heart diseases are the most common birth defects; among cyanotic heart defects, Tetralogy of Fallot occurs most frequently.
Our primary intervention for repairing a cyanotic heart defect was originally developed in the early 1940s by two physicians at Johns Hopkins University. Helen Taussig, a cardiologist, noticed that certain “blue babies” (like those with Tetralogy of Fallot) had improved survival rates if they were born with a second heart defect.
This second defect was a ductus arteriosus, a small vessel that routes blood away from the lungs in a fetus. Before birth, the lungs are full of fluid and oxygen comes from Mom, so blood needs to be moved away from instead of towards the lungs. Usually, the ductus arteriosus closes around the time of delivery, but in some babies it remains open, allowing for more blood flow to the lungs after birth.
When Taussig realized that blue babies benefited from this additional heart defect, she consulted with Alfred Blalock, a vascular surgeon, to recreate it in cyanotic newborns. By 1945, they published on several successful surgical installations of what we now call the Blalock-Taussig shunt.
I’m especially fascinated by this story’s inspiration, with one defect rescuing another, so to speak. Finding protective factors within previously-identified problems is an outside-the-box (and apparently effective) approach.
As bizarre as it sounds, this same idea likely applies in many fields, scientific or otherwise: your answers might be hidden inside of your problems.
Did you ever think you would hear the term ‘implanted memory’ in an academic article rather than while watching a sci-fi movie? Well, this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience describing how scientists were able to create or “implant” an artificial memory into mice might blow your mind.
Scientists did this with optogenetics, which allows researchers to control neurons by shining light on them. Using this technique, they simultaneously activated an area of the brain related to the perception of an odor and areas of the brain associated with either reward or aversion. They were able to make mice respond to an odor they had never smelled before as if they had.
Implantation of false memories in mice had previously been achieved. In that study, scientists were able to alter a previous fear memory in mice by activating the cells that contained the memory. However, what's more exciting is that in the new study the researchers were able to actually “create” an artificial memory from scratch. This is the first time this has successfully been done without any external sensory experience, just by manipulating specific areas of the brain!
More surprisingly, the resulting artificial memory was quite similar to a real memory, as they both depended on the activity of the basolateral amygdala. But before you start questioning whether Inception is now possible, understand that this was done in mice. Memory systems in humans are considerably more complex, meaning that manipulating them might take more than just a little bit of activation.
You may have seen Bill Nye's tirade against our collective inaction to prevent the worst impacts of climate change on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It reminded me of a story I heard recently about a time, not too long ago, when Bill Nye wasn't quite so furious at our inability to pass comprehensive legislation addressing climate change.
The year was 1996 and the place was Epcot, the Walt Disney World Resort theme park. The Universe of Energy, an Epcot pavilion sponsored by ExxonMobil since its opening day, debuted a new educational ride: Ellen's Energy Adventure.
On the ride, Bill Nye teaches Ellen DeGeneres where fossil fuels come from, while riders are transported into an animatronic jungle full of the dinosaurs whose carbonized remains we're burning every day. Then, the pair travel the country to explore how energy is created. While the ride recognizes the potential of solar, wind, and hydropower, Bill and Ellen still spend a lot of time exploring the benefits of fossil fuels. Jump to about the 20 minute mark to see for yourself.
ExxonMobil dropped its sponsorship of the pavilion in 2004. In 2017, the pavilion was closed (but not before its final show broke down and fans of the ride evacuated through the animatronic dinosaur land).
The U.S. House of Representatives has a committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The committee discusses issues relating to science research and brings their findings back to the rest of the House. It is currently chaired by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the first woman and African-American to chair the committee. You can read a great interview with Rep. Johnson on her vision for Congress' role in setting science policy here.
The committee's job is to connect the representatives of the American people to science research agencies, boosting the benefit of science research to the country. You can watch video of the hearings on the committee’s website. Or, if you are in the Washington DC area, you can also attend the hearings in person.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about how the federal government supports science research, these hearings are a great place to start. Past and upcoming hearings are all listed on the website and cover lots of topics including research budgets, new technology programs, and even diversity in STEM.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into Earth's orbit in 1990. Since then, after a quick camera fix, it has taken some of the most spectacular images of our universe. With an unimpeded view of the cosmos, Hubble can peer farther and look deeper than any Earth-based telescope.
Last week, NASA and ESA released a wide-field view of our universe. To create this image, they stitched together over 7500 separate exposures taken over the past three decades. Astronomers picked a seemingly empty patch of sky and took multiple lengthy exposures with Hubble's camera. Then they stacked, or added up, the images to enhance the brightness of faint galaxies.
Due to the vast distances we are dealing with and the finite speed of light, galaxies that are farther away are also from an earlier time. The particles of light we receive at our telescopes left these distant galaxies billions of years ago. The longer we keep the camera shutter open the more of these particles we can accumulate and the further back in time we can look. This image contains around 265,000 galaxies, the faintest of which are revealed by light they emitted over 13 billion years ago.
It's a really cool image to download and zoom into different areas. I recommend downloading the highest resolution PNG or TIFF image. Galaxies pop into view that weren't visible when you were zoomed out. There are galaxies of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It's a fun way to get lost in the cosmos.
See anything interesting in your zooms? Take a screen shot and send it to me on Twitter! We can talk about what you are seeing.
Yeast - the humble organism that makes your baked goods rise before you put them in the oven - has long been used as a "model organism" for all types of fundamental research in biology. But why?
The short answer is simply because it is so easy to manipulate for experiments. Many human cell lines take an average of 12 hours to replicate. Yeast colonies can double in just two hours. We can knock-out a gene and determine its effects in just a couple days. You can even directly replace many yeast genes with their human homologs (meaning, equivalent genes) and examine changes in the cells!
I and other yeast researchers working on human and molecular genetics studies get a lot of scrutiny from people who think our work lacks clinical relevance. Any time we submit findings, we must know which human homologs are important, and how this could manifest into a disease in humans.
At the end of the day, yeast are remarkably similar to us. We should give these single-celled eukaryotes the love they deserve. If you're looking to read more about what its like to be a yeast researcher, check out this amazing piece by Dr. Laura Frontali as she reflects on her career.
While doing research on Maria Winkelmann-Kirch for my most recent Massive article, I kept being reminded how little progress there has been for women in science today.
When I noticed that she wasn’t given credit for the discovery of Comet 1702 H in the textbook I referenced, it reminded me of recent news stories about women in the sciences showing up in the acknowledgments for work that deserves authorship.
Winkelmann-Kirch and her husband worked as a team. The only significant difference between them was that she did not attend a university — forbidden for women at the time. Both had discovered comets. Both could make accurate calendars and perform the necessary calculations. When the Academy of Sciences in Berlin denied her petition to take over her husband’s position after his death, all I could think about was those studies where researchers changed the names on resumes from male to female and found that hiring committees were less likely to hire the woman. Or reports that women in the biomedical sciences need to publish 2.5 times more than men to earn the same postdoctoral positions.
As a woman who became a mother during graduate school, the way Winkelmann-Kirch was treated throughout her career felt all too familiar. Today, research has shown that close to half of women leave full-time STEM work after having children — I’m one of them. I may not have been actively pushed out as Winkelmann-Kirch was, but the lack of support made it difficult to be productive with a family.
The only difference 300 years has given us is that the sexism is sometimes more subtle. What is still painfully clear is that women and minorities can never be ‘good enough’ for a system that both actively and passively pushes them out. That needs to change.
and Biomedical Sciences
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Stephen Hawking may have lost his voice in 1985, but he was far from finished speaking with the rest of the world. With a custom-designed computer interface, he used a single cheek muscle to navigate an adaptive word predictor and slowly type out literature that remains at the forefront of human knowledge.
Scientists have tried to directly relay brain signals to audible speech, but often come up short. One of the reasons is that the brain does not directly generate speech, but rather it instructs the movements of our vocal tract that lead to speech as an output. With this in mind, researchers from the University of California - San Francisco measured frequencies from the Ventral Sensorimotor Cortex, which is the brain region that coordinates the movement of the body parts shaping the vocal tract, to predict the corresponding motion of vocal organs called articulators - our tongue, lips, teeth, and palate. These predictions were then synthesized into a waveform of audible speech. To see how this works in action, check out this really cool video produced by the USCF Nuerosurgery team.
Using listeners from Amazon Mechanical Turk to verify intelligibility, they found that a speaker even miming the target sentences produced sufficient data to accurately capture synthetic speech. Interestingly, the step between articulation and sound output was generalizable between participants, indicating that a version of this technology could be used clinically to help rescue impaired speech. However, the primary measurements were taken from participants who already had intracranial implants on their cortical regions, so unfortunately this technology won’t be available over the counter anytime soon.
As the summer field work season draws closer, I thought I’d offer a few entirely unscientific tips for doing healthy and successful field work. Whether the upcoming field season is your first or tenth, you might be feeling pretty nervous and unprepared. That's normal! I've been in your shoes many times - so here are my top five pieces of advice to ease your mind, in no particular order:
1. Know what you should overpack and know what you can skimp on. Err on the side of bringing more food, batteries, and datasheets than you think you need, but know that you can usually get away with packing fewer clothes than you would for a normal trip. It’s the wilderness – no one cares how you look or how you smell! And honestly, wearing the same shirt and pants for five days in a row is a badge of honor in my book.
2. Allow yourself at least two comfort items. I work at high elevations in the Peruvian Andes, so one of mine is a hoodie. The other is usually a stash of personal snacks. And always, ALWAYS, have a couple of pairs of spare socks or underwear tucked away where they won’t get wet. Nothing feels better after a day in the elements than clean, dry clothing on your body.
3. Zippered plastic bags are your best friend. They’ll keep the bugs, dirt, and water away from your stuff. Other field must-haves are waterproof notebooks, permanent markers wrapped in duct tape (keep both on hand at all times!), and brightly colored flagging that you can attach to all of your stuff. You definitely will inevitably drop your pencil into a pile of leaves, rendering it near-invisible to the unaided eye. It will also be easier to find if it’s attached to a long strand of neon plastic – I promise.
4. Don’t be dumb or try to "prove yourself." Safety should come first, always. If your mental alarm bells start going off or your gut starts to knot from fear, get out of whatever situation you are in. This applies to anything from walking an unfamiliar trail out in the middle of nowhere to strolling down the street in a major city on a day off from field work. A healthy, happy, and secure field team is more important than any data.
5. You’re probably going to cry! And that’s perfectly okay. For some reason, when we talk about doing field work it often devolves into a shouting match of one-upsmanship to tell the wildest, most ridiculous story about insane physical or mental feats we’ve accomplished (remind me to tell you about the time I wrestled an anaconda after walking 10 miles in my bare feet AND still managed to collect a secret groundbreaking dataset that will save the world!) (Kidding. So much kidding.) We forget to talk about all the ways that field work is really, really hard. Almost everyone I know has had a moment in the field where they have absolutely lost it, usually from a combination of exhaustion, fear, hunger, or just plain being stuck with the same small group of people for three weeks straight. It’s normal.
What's your favorite field work tip? Tweet me @CassieFreund and I'll share them. For the first time in seven summers I'm not headed into the field next month, and although it'll be weird, I can't wait to follow everyone's adventures from the clean comfort of my desk.
I was reading a novel with a notebook and pen waiting for me on the table. I was sitting hunched over, squinting my eyes, holding the book with my two hands while I went over the first, last, and maybe some sentences in the middle of each paragraph and kept on flipping pages. Finished the first chapter not knowing the name of the main character, confused about the location, frustrated that I hadn’t taken any notes, and the leisure reading experience had become highly unenjoyable. Was I seriously trying to read a novel as if were skimming over a research paper? The novel didn’t have designated sections for the introduction, methods, results, and discussion. How rude!
I was going over the first sentence of the paragraphs to get the main topic then the last sentence to get the conclusion and transition, and some sentence in the middle to get some details to put into context but only if I thought that the first and last sentences were relevant to me. I was utterly confused for an entire chapter of the novel because I just didn't relax and read it without attempting to take out structured content to be used for something else (ehm, research). However, when I went back to the chapter that I butchered in my reading, I was amazed and captivated by how the details were concrete, significant, specific and focused, and appealed to all the senses. The author took me on a pleasant journey.
Walking the walk but not talking the talk, limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy (LATE) is a newly defined brain disorder that mimics Alzheimer's disease (AD). Both LATE and AD share common symptoms, but the underlying protein pathology differs between the two diseases. In AD, the two major proteins associated with disease are amyloid beta and tau, forming plaques and tangles, respectively. However, in LATE, the major protein is TDP-43, a protein linked to diseases like ALS and frontotemporal dementia.
One-quarter of people 85 and older are estimated to have LATE, meaning that they have enough TDP-43 in certain parts of the brain to impair cognition. The identification of LATE could have major implications for disease diagnosis and clinical research.
The paleoanthropology of Asia got even more interesting this week when researchers published the first fossil from a Denisovan found outside of Denisova Cave in Siberia. Discovered in Baishiya Karst Cave (Xiahe, China) in 1980, the fossil - half of a lower jaw with two teeth - provides some of the first morphological data on the Denisovans (which are only known from very fragmentary fossils and DNA) and expands their geographical range onto the Tibetan Plateau.
This is really interesting because some modern populations in the area have genetic adaptations to high altitude that came from interbreeding with Denisovans, but no fossils of this enigmatic hominin had been found in the area before. The specimen has been dated to at least 160,000 years old and preserved ancient proteins (but no ancient DNA) that allowed it to be linked to the Denisovans. With at least three other papers on hominin material from Asia published within the last month, we're beginning to build a more complete picture of our own evolutionary history on that continent, which is incredibly exciting.
While there are an estimated 2 million people in the US living with ME/CFS, many patients go for years without a diagnosis, which they get only after other disease possibilities have been eliminated. Dr. Davis and his team developed a nanoelectric assay, which can measure minuscule changes in energy, to test the effects of stress on immune cells and plasma. The change in electrical activity is directly correlated with the health of the sample, therefore allowing Dr. Davis' team to accurately distinguish the cells from ME/CFS patients from healthy controls. While more research efforts are needed to accurately diagnose and treat this illness in clinic, this is one of the first biomarkers for ME/CFS identified. These results from Dr. Davis' team prove that this illness is not made up in the patients' heads, but identifiable in their blood.
The womb has long been considered a sterile environment. A baby’s debated first exposure to microbes, at birth, appears to play a critical role in postnatal immune development. Babies born vaginally, and thus exposed to the mother’s microbiome, were found to develop stronger immune systems than babies born by Cesarean-section. Raising the possibility that microbes are present in the intrauterine environment, several groups isolated microbes from placentas and fetal meconium. However, some researchers question whether the samples or reagents were contaminated. Isolating a sterile sample from any environment would be tricky, and even more so during birth. Since the purity of the aforementioned samples is questionable, some groups are investigating how microbes might enter the uterus during pregnancy. Could intrauterine microbes come from the reproductive tract, invasive medical treatments, or maternal gastrointestinal stress? Others wonder what role microbes in the uterus could play in fetal development or preterm births.
With few standing microbe-free areas of the body, a uterine microbiome seems realistic. Nonetheless, at this point, I think it’s more important to establish reliable methods for isolating pure uterine samples than to invest resources in potential effects of the microbes.
As a graduate student, I'll take any chance I can to practice communicating my science, whether it's writing a blog post or giving a professional talk. One opportunity that I think is often underutilized or viewed as a burden is inter-departmental conferences. At times, they can feel like another annoyance to add to the pile, another abstract to throw together last-minute. If participation is lukewarm, the experience isn't at useful as it could be.
On the other hand, if you have good turnout (for both students and faculty), it can be a great experience - especially for younger students who have had fewer opportunities to practice presenting. Yesterday, our geology and climate departments held our 15th annual joint conference. With over 80 student presentations and a science advocacy panel, it was a productive and scientifically motivating day. Older students got feedback from faculty members they don't often see, first-year students realized just how difficult talking about your own research can be, and undergrads proudly displayed their first research projects. It's a much smaller conference than most, so you can spend more one-on-one time with people to really learn something new or get an idea from someone else's work.
It's one thing to know vaguely what your friends do; it's another to dedicate an entire day solely to learning more about what your colleagues are passionate about, as well as learning what people in other departments are working on. Too often, there isn't enough communication between departments, and collaborations that could be never come to fruition. Inter-departmental conferences are a great way to promote new collaborations, new ideas, and to support students at all levels.
(A tip to motivate participation: offer cash prizes if you can!)
From the Smithsonian Institution, this is an interactive timeline *and* map of global volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and emissions since 1960. Four dimensions of geoscience! Even better, you can download the data used to generate the map for yourself.
Fair warning, though, this really got the fan spinning on my laptop.
Recently, a team of international researchers have discovered a new human species, Homo luzonensis, in the Philippines. Their first discovery was in 2007, when they came across an unusual small foot bone - a metatarsal - dating back to 67,000 years ago. This bone was found in Cagayan Valley on the island of Luzon, on the protected lands of the indigenous Aeta people. This fossil was the earliest direct proof of humans living in the Philippines, but analysis could not determine which species of “Homo” it belonged to. After further excavation, the researchers found more strange remains from what they determined to be 3 individuals - at least two adults and one child.
However, not everyone is convinced by this discovery. They argue that there is not enough evidence that this is a new species of human, especially because the fossils were all broken or heavily worn down. They claim more tests need to be done before naming a new species.
The interdisciplinary team has already used all the non-destructive tests available including 3D analysis and x-ray imaging to distinguish the different morphological characteristics, but further analysis is still needed to learn more about this species’ behavior or biology.
This discovery reaffirms how important the islands of Southeast Asia are for understanding the evolution of our species. Within the last few decades, the number of different known species from human fossils has almost tripled. As researchers work to unearth the diverse roots of our family tree, what will they find next?
I just stumbled upon the account @justsaysinmice and it has already become my favorite account on Twitter.
Mouse studies are incredibly useful to test scientific hypotheses in whole mammals, but it is no secret that many findings in mice do not translate to results in humans. Suggesting that they do is not only a perversion of the scientists' own claims, but is also irresponsible to the public. And this, as the creator of @justsaysinmice, James Heathers, notes in an illuminating Medium post explaining the philosophy behind the tweets, is what leads to public erosion of trust in scientific breakthroughs.
Lack of trust in science is at the very heart of climate change denial and the anti-vaccine crusade, so Heathers is mitigating this one headline at a time by discerning when a study was done in mice. And I, for one, think it makes a big difference.
When you hear the phrase “love spot”, I’m sure the last thing you think of is the common housefly. However, did you know that 15 different families of fly, including the mayfly, have a male-specific region of the eye called “love spots”? This region of the eye is highly specialized for motion detection and small-area targeting, and is most heavily utilized by males as they aerially pursue females during mating rituals. Talk about romantic. In some species the love spots are visible to the naked eye. The males have large eyes that are connected, whereas females have eyes that remain separated by other tissues.
Also, there are some stark differences in pigment between the male and females in some species, such as the horsefly. How do we know that the male love spots make them more adept at motion sensing? Measurements of the photoreceptors of the eye using small electrodes measures a difference in speed of 60% between male love spots and the corresponding female region of the eye! It’s thought that the structure of these love spots was then used in other fly families to become what are known as “Killer Spots”, which are found in both male and female and are used in predation.
A new study where a group of scientists in China have inserted a human gene involved in brain development into monkey embryos has made headlines.
While this research has led many scientists and ethicists to condemn this act as an "ethical nightmare", the scientists who performed the study have expressed their solemn interest in better understanding human evolution. This experimental approach is not the first of it's kind - recently scientists have also created animal chimeras by injecting human brain organoids into the brains of rodents. But why are we more sensitive to human-monkey chimeras?
The conversation about the consequences of this research on the monkey's intelligence has received the most attention. It is easy to believe that inserting a few human genes (particularly those involved in brain development) will make the animal smarter and more human-like, but we have to acknowledge that despite being highly genetically similar, there are millions of differences that makes monkeys, monkeys and us, humans. The real question is, how many human genes does it take to make a monkey no longer a monkey but a human? Food for thought.
In multiple sclerosis (MS), the fatty sheath that wraps around axons, called myelin, is damaged. However, there are currently no approved treatments for Multiple sclerosis patients that focus specifically on myelin repair, and current treatments only slow disease progression rather than halt it entirely. Drugs that focus on increasing the level of thyroid hormone promote myelin repair, but are unusable due to their extreme side effects. However, a few days ago a paper came out in JCI Insight that utilised a drug called Sob-AM2 to enter into the nervous system and selectively increase the level of thyroid hormone. This resulted in myelin repair and improvements in movement in three mouse models of MS, without side effects. This has huge implications on the future of MS treatment and it has the potential to change how we treat patients living with MS.
Two Photon and Massive partnered up to fund science writing training for a small group of new writers. We were thrilled to have over 100 applicants, though we wish we could fund everyone! We ended up with 12 Photon Fellows, each with their own perspectives and areas of expertise. Look out for their articles coming soon.
On the 128th sol (Martian day) of its mission, NASA's InSight rover, using its seismometer pictured above, has captured evidence of an earthquake on Mars. Er, uh, a marsquake.
Hell yeah. "Marsquake" is the name of my garage band so this will only be a windfall for me.
In terms of rumble, this is a rather small seismic event (NASA notes that if this had happened in Southern California it would barely register on any given day against any of the many small shakes that happen every day). Read more about the event here at the Jet Propulsion Lab/NASA website.
and Agricultural Science
KTH Royal Institute of Technology
I work in microbiology and biochemistry research. A student in my lab (her name is Anna) is investigating how Bacillus bacteria can be used to fight off the fungi that cause serious diseases in plants. This concept of biocontrol (using biological control agents instead of chemical pesticides) is a bit of a hot topic in research right now, and an industry selling biocontrol products is beginning to bloom. This can make it feel like a new idea, an innovative form of subtle environmental engineering, to use bacteria to control insect and fungal pests.
A recent re-reading of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, reminds me that the idea of biocontrol is far from new.
Carson's book is credited as having kick-started the environmentalist movement, as it laid out in painstaking detail the damage we were doing to our environment by our over-use of pesticides (especially insecticides). Carson could see the incredible scale of loss inflicted on our ecosystems, the reduction in what we now call biodiversity, and she lamented the “campaign for mass chemical control…another symptom of our exaggeratedly technological and quantitative approach”.
At the very end of Silent Spring, Carson wonders if there is another way to treat the insect pests that plague our farms. She describes how Bacillus bacteria were used to kill off insect pests as early as the 1910s and 1930s! Support for these “natural” approaches to pest control waned after chemicals like DDT were discovered, as new technological solutions were thought to be inherently better than any nature-based interventions.
Now I hope that we are returning to a more ecological view of pest control; maintaining a robust and diverse ecosystem to keep pests and pathogens in check, this time armed with deep scientific knowledge about how biocontrol works. After all, as Carson said:
“For the microbes include not only disease organisms but those that destroy waste matter, make soils fertile, and enter into countless biological processes like fermentation and nitrification. Why should they not also aid us in the control of insects?”
Silent Spring and the rest of Rachel's writings on the environment are available from all good bookshops, online or otherwise.