Here's why we're making a science tarot deck

It's not a typical tool for science engagement, but we think it has potential

Matteo Farinella


Columbia University

You might have seen that Massive is working on a Women of Science Tarot Deck. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, I've spent most of my weekends drawing science-themed symbolic illustrations -- and I couldn’t be happier about it!

Now, some of you may ask (and have asked) “why are you mixing science and tarot? Isn’t Tarot all about magic and occult stuff?” Initially, when my friend Nadja suggested the idea, I asked myself the same question. Like most people, I associated tarot with divination. But  the tarot actually started as a playing cards deck, used since the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe. In fact, in Italy we still use the 4 tarot suits (spades, wands, coins and cups) as regular playing cards, without any magical associations. Only later, in the 18th century, people started using tarot cards for divination and magic.

tarot spread using massive's women of science tarot deck

Part of me is just really excited about updating this ancient tradition for our modern scientific culture. After all, the cards' meaning evolved throughout history and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to do it once more. But, as a science communicator, I also think this is a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience. In particular, I have been thinking a lot lately about how scientists should engage with spirituality (especially after reading this fascinating comic by Jordan Collver and watching this conversation on Stated Casually). I grew up atheist (or religious-free, as I prefer to say) and I always had a pretty aggressive attitude toward any spiritual beliefs. But I now understand the value of a more neutral/grey zone (or ‘decompression chambers’ to use Jon Perry’s beautiful metaphor). If we require people to reject their whole spiritual identity in order to even start reading about science then we are excluding a whole LOT of readers! A more inclusive science communication should provide some in-between spaces where people feel comfortable exploring science, without feeling immediately challenged or attacked.

women from science history on playing cards

I really hope that a science tarot deck can play this kind of role: a space for people who do not traditionally identify as science geeks to engage with scientific concepts in a playful and nonjudgemental way. And also, a good opportunity to challenge some stereotypes of what science "should" be and what scientists look like by celebrating the inspirational women included in the deck.

#BlackInMarineScienceWeek increases the visibility of Black marine scientists

The week will showcase Black scientists from every imaginable marine science niche, with the goal of inspiring younger generations

Meghan Zulian

Oceanography and Marine Science

University of California, Davis

Following the harassment of Christian Cooper in Central Park in May 2020, Black birders created #BlackBirdersWeek to celebrate Black nature enthusiasts and highlight their belonging in outdoor spaces. Since then, dozens of campaigns have emerged to amplify and appreciate Black academics, scientists, and naturalists. 

Next up is #BlackInMarineScienceWeek, running from November 29th to December 5th. Led by founder Dr. Tiara Moore and organizers Amani Webber-Schultz, Dr. Camille Gaynus, Carlee Jackson, Al Troutman, Jasmin Graham, Jeanette Davis, Kris Howard, Leslie Townsell, Kaylee Arnold, and Jaida Elcock, this week represents an opportunity for community building and improved representation.

“There are few Black folks in ecology and even fewer in marine ecology,” says Arnold, a science communicator and disease ecologist. “The network that I’ve gained through organizing this week is phenomenal. Meeting other Black marine scientists and showing that to the world, especially young Black folks, is a way to say we exist, we’re here. We have a full day dedicated to young kids, which is unique and exciting.” 

The organizers hope that the week will help normalize Black folks doing marine research, inspire younger generations, and remind everyone to check their preconceived notions.

"When I say I study sharks people seem concerned about my swimming or my hair, [and] sometimes respond with 'Oh, that’s super interesting'... I don’t know if that's because it's unusual for people to study sharks or because I’m Black and I study sharks,” recalls Elcock, an elasmobranch movement ecologist, science communicator, and co-founder of Minorities in Shark Science. “Science is for everybody. People say there isn't diversity because [Black] people aren’t interested... that’s clearly not true… there’s a whole week dedicated [to it]."

Discussion this week will address the fact that exclusion, not lack of interest, led to today’s lack of representation. Centuries of segregation and underinvestment in Black neighborhood pools led to, and are perpetuated by, these incorrect and harmful ideas.

“My grandparents and my mom said there were just no pools for her to go to... I had a very different experience. Despite people trying to push us out of the water and science, we persevered, and now we get to break down those stereotypes,” notes Arnold.

Black in Marine Science Week is here to do just that, showcasing organizers and participants from every imaginable marine science niche, all shaping how society views the oceans and its inhabitants.

“There's more Black folks than even we know and are showcasing. I hope that if the media picks up on the number of us as well, and has better representation. Seminar series are extremely white, and now you have a resource of people you can invite instead,” emphasizes Arnold, pointing to the necessity of non-Black marine scientists to step up and ensure representation continues beyond this joyous and educational week.

Eastern snapping turtles use culverts to hunt migratory herring

Culverts allow fish to move through human-dominated habitats, but they also serve up dinner for clever predators

Sruthi Sanjeev Balakrishnan

Cell Biology

National Centre for Biological Sciences

Human encroachment into wildlife habitat, especially streams and small rivers, is not good news for turtles. But one group of turtles may actually be making the best of a sticky situation: Eastern snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), a species of freshwater turtles commonly found across North America, have found a way to use culverts to their advantage. They use these tight spaces to ambush passing migratory fish.

A recent study tracked the predation habits of snapping turtles in and around culverts constructed near the Herring River in Massachusetts. The area sees seasonal migrations of river herring. Like salmon, river herring are born in freshwater, live their lives in the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn. All this back and forth movement means that the herring have to cross many culverts, which act as bottlenecks and slow down the passage of fish. 

At the Herring River culverts, researchers used video cameras to track the movements of fish and the predation habits of turtles. Along with the migratory herring, they also tracked the resident fish that live in these rivers all year round and are familiar with the culverts. 

The scientists found that resident fish avoided the center of the tunnels in culverts where snapping turtles lay in wait, successfully avoiding becoming a turtle's meal. The herring, on the other hand, did not learn to avoid the turtles and were caught more often. The turtles, in turn, preferred to target the herring, which tended to swim lower and were easier for them to catch.

The study showed how the snapping turtles used the culverts and quickly learned to target the naïve herring over the experienced resident fish. The turtles also seemed to slow down the overall movement of herring as these fish eventually started avoiding culverts that had turtles. Although the culverts might allow good eating for the turtles, the researchers caution that this could potentially delay fish migration in the long term if the herring are scared off of culverts altogether.

Are invasive insects better equipped for climate change than native species?

Separately, climate change and invasive species are two huge threats to biodiversity worldwide. What happens when they combine?

Hanusia Higgins

Forest Ecology and Invasive Species

University of Vermont

Due to increasing global trade and travel, non-native species have arrived on every continent. Some of these species become invasive, and they have long been thought to possess special traits allowing them to flourish in their new environment.

As climate change shifts the parameters of our environment, species — invasive and otherwise — must adapt to new challenges. Though researchers have long believed that invasive species are better able to adapt to novel climate conditions, a recent study finds that invasive alien ant species showed less colonization of new climate types than non-invasive alien species.

If the set of climate, habitat, and resource conditions an organism exists in is its niche, then a niche shift is an expansion or contraction of those conditions. By analyzing a global database of ant range information, scientists in Switzerland and France found that the greatest predictor of niche shifts for ants is not their invasiveness, but their native range and niche size.

This study paints a more hopeful picture of the dual threats of climate change and invasive species — two of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide. If climate change does not accelerate invasive species’ range expansion, as previously thought, the interaction of these two factors may not be as dire. 

However, these findings point back to the evergreen question: Which factors make a species invasive? For ants, at least, it seems as though the ability to niche shift is not one of them.

Painting the blades of wind turbines helps birds avoid them

A Norwegian study found avian fatalities fell 70 percent after painting one blade black

Rita Ponce

Evolutionary Biology

Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal

Wind power is a promising renewable source of energy and wind farms are becoming increasingly more common. However, there is a concern for their impact on wildlife, in particular as collisions with them cause the deaths of thousands of bats and birds every year.

Based on previous work, a team of researchers led by Roel May from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research set out to test whether painting one of the blades of the turbines would increase their visibility and reduce avian fatalities. They tested their prediction at a wind-power plant in the Smøla archipelago in Norway, an area designated to be Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, where researchers have collected avian fatality data since 2006.

Out of four turbines, one was painted black and the other three were left unpainted. Fatality data from searches at the base of the turbines over three-and-a-half years showed that black paint reduced the annual rotor blade fatality rate by 70 percent.

Birds of prey, such as the white-tailed eagle, benefited the most and accounted for the largest observed decline in death. The authors attribute this to the species' excellent vision.

Their data does not indicate that birds became familiar with the painted turbines. They say this is a good thing, as fatalities could increase if birds habituate to the changes.

These findings still need to be replicated in other studies. However, the authors suggest that such a strategy could be more easily put in practice before building the turbines, because painting blades with the turbines already set in place was a demanding task. As wind-power plants become more common, their impact should be reduced as much as possible. Painting their blades may be one way to go.

High-altitude cycling strains your heart less than running

New research explores hypoxia and exercise performance

Luke Whitcomb

Physiology and Biomedical Sciences

Colorado State University

Exercise is hard. It’s even harder if your muscles can't get the oxygen they need. This physiologic challenge is known as hypoxia. When muscles are hypoxic, they often can’t work as hard. Atop a mountain in Colorado, atmospheric pressure is much less than it is at sea level. Even though the percent of oxygen molecules found in the air is the same, there is less driving force for that oxygen to get into the body.

If an individual has a physical condition, such as congestive heart failure or COPD, which impedes the body’s ability to capture and transport oxygen to exercising muscle, similar hypoxia could occur. Sports scientists and doctors can simulate these conditions in healthy participants by restricting the amount of oxygen they breathe through special masks or low-oxygen chambers.

New research shows that these two causes of hypoxia have different effects on exercise performance. Researchers combined 21 previously published studies which evaluated exercise capacity under the simulated normobaric hypoxia (NH) and high-altitude hypobaric hypoxia (HH) in athletic men. These studies included two different exercise methods: running and cycling.

As expected, participants’ maximal exercise capacity was impaired under both NH and HH conditions. However those in HH performed slightly better than those in NH — perhaps because of lower air resistance making it easier to breathe. And between those who ran or cycled, those who ran had lower blood-oxygen levels and lower heart rates. There was no difference between running and cycling seen in NH. 

These insights may allow athletes and doctors to better predict how they or their patients will respond to exercise in low oxygen environments.

As bee population numbers plummet with climate change, 'winners' and 'losers' emerge

Different bees cope with heat and land use changes in their own ways

Rebecca Dzombak


University of Michigan

Bees are critical to the survival of myriad ecosystems around the world, and their pollination is worth billions of dollars every year in the U.S. and abroad. Their populations have been declining for decades due to climate change and habitat loss, posing a threat to global food security.

Agricultural yields can be threatened by a simple decrease in bee populations, as well as by changes to the crops' growing seasons and the bees' flight and pollination seasons. If the crops are ready to be pollinated but the bees aren't around to do the job no luck.

While changes to bee species' abundances and diversity have been well-studied, biologists don't yet know how in sync bees are with crops from region to region, or how that's changed over time. A new study in Global Change Biology examined how wild bee populations in Belgium have shifted when and how long they're active their "flight period" over the past 70 years.

The study found that 61 percent of Belgium's wild bees declined over that time span, but not all bee species had the same response to climate and land-use changes. There are "winners" and "losers": southern bees adapt more readily to warmer temperatures, and bees with bigger ranges can cope better with land-use change. That makes generalizing predictions about future changes tricky.

Additionally, two of the bees' behaviors, flight period and occupancy (range), varied by species. Those behaviors are affected by temperature changes and agricultural expansion, both of which increased over 70 years. As a result, the bees' pollination season was 9-15 days shorter and started a few days earlier.

With an estimated 11 percent of crops in Belgium depending on pollination for success, that's a significant shift. The timing of crops' growing season and bees' pollination is a delicate balance. While wild bees' pollinating can be supplemented with domestic hives, it can be less efficient than wild pollination and, because wild bees are free, it's always more expensive.

Bees' critical role in agriculture isn't new, but scientists are just beginning to understand their complex responses to climate change and agriculture, and what that means for pollination seasons. Until more research is done, changes to pollination seasons will remain up in the air.

How did the bear cross the road? Wildlife corridor's success caught on video

The important project allows safe movement for even some of the largest mammals in North America

Max G. Levy

Science and Health Journalism and Chemical Engineering

Last week, Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources released a video of the state's first ever wildlife overpass. The project, which allows animals to move across a landscape increasingly covered in roads, appears to be a success.

Roads, especially busy, high-speed ones, pose an enormous risk to animals such as coyotes, moose, and bears. Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death for large mammals in North America, in addition to being very dangerous for people driving the vehicles that collide with these animals. Roads and private lands also slam the door on vital animal movement corridors, keeping populations of animals restricted to smaller ranges. This restriction leads to less genetic diversity and greater susceptibility to local natural disasters, such as fires.  

Human-made corridors are a popular solution allowing wildlife to travel safely across human-impacted landscapes. In this case, Utah DWR's video shows an highway's abandoned overpass converted to safe walkway for the state's abundant wildlife.

The full video is worth a watch, but here are some fun screengrabs for your pleasure as well, all courtesy of Utah DWR's public video.

Woolly mammoths may have roamed Canada 1,000 years longer than previously thought

A new method to extract DNA from sediment provides insight into the history of mammoths and horses

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

By analyzing ancient DNA found in sediment, scientists can reconstruct past floras and explore long-standing historical questions, such as finding out where temperate trees survived during glacial stages. But despite the rapid progress in this field, scientists still face challenges when it comes to ancient DNA extraction, such as how to tackle inhibitors that may be present in the sediment and impede DNA sequencing.

Recently, a group of researchers in Canada developed a new cold spin inhibitor removal technique to extract ancient DNA from four permafrost samples from the Klondlike — a region in the Yukon territory in northwest Canada. This research was published in the Quaternary Research journal in September 2020.

Using this new technique, the researchers were able to overcome inhibitors present in sediment, allowing for a higher recovery of ancient DNA. 

The researchers also identified several animals and plants in their four permafrost samples, from as little as 0.2 grams of sediment, leading them to conclude that the samples belonged to different time points in the Pleistocene-Halocene transition, which occurred approximately 11,000 years ago. 

However, there were a few interesting anomalies. 

The researchers found genetic evidence suggesting that the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and horse (Equus sp.) may have survived longer than expected in the Klondike region, almost a thousand years later than previously thought. This adds to the conflicting evidence present. For example, while previous radiocarbon dating indicates that horses disappeared from North America relatively early (i.e. ~13,000 years ago), a 2009 study published in PNAS found ancient DNA evidence to suggest that woolly mammoths and horses persisted in interior Alaska until at least 10,500 years ago. 

While the mystery of the woolly mammoth and horse will need further investigation, this new study provides an alternative technique for scientists working with ancient DNA, rather than relying on the harsher treatments that destroy the very limited ancient DNA present in sediment.

After 57 years, the Arecibo Observatory's iconic telescope is shutting down

The US National Science Foundation is planning to dismantle the damaged telescope

Gabriela Serrato Marks

Marine Geology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory is home to one of the most powerful radio astronomy telescopes in the world. Scientists have used the observatory and telescope to make incredible discoveries, from the distribution of polar ice on Mercury (in 1994) to repeating fast radio bursts from outside our galaxy (2016). It's also a key part of science education in Puerto Rico, with more than 100,000 visitors each year

But in August 2020, the 305-meter telescope started to have major structural issues. First, an auxiliary cable broke out of its socket, smashing into the large reflector.

Just as the observatory's team finalized testing and repair plans in early November, a main cable broke, further weakening the integrity of the structure. Now, the remaining cables, support towers, and platform are at risk of catastrophic collapse.

Today, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it plans to decommission the massive telescope. Decommissioning means that the telescope won't be repaired. Instead it will be carefully taken apart and permanently shut down. 

NSF determined that it is too dangerous to attempt to repair the telescope itself because of the risk of collapse. They will, however, try to save the rest of the buildings and structures at the Arecibo Observatory, like the visitor center and LIDAR research facility. 

Arecibo Observatory from above

Image courtesy of Arecibo Observatory/UCF

It's difficult to know how this loss will impact the future of radio astronomy. Prior to the damage, Arecibo was the most powerful and most sensitive planetary radar system on Earth. Astronomers used Arecibo to observe up to 130 Near-Earth Objects (comets and asteroids that are in our planet's neighborhood) each year. 

Curious honey bees are more likely to have curious kids

Foraging honey bees search for new food sources as flowering plants emerge

Lila Westreich

Pollinator Ecology

University of Washington

Humans are curious about the world. It's our curiosity that has led to life-saving inventions and Nobel Prize-winning discoveries about the world around us. But curiosity is not limited just to Homo sapiens — it also exists in the insects we know and love. When you think of honey bees, you probably think of giant swarms of bees, all working in tandem to raise offspring, bring back pollen and nectar, and serve their queen. But in order to survive, honey bees must be curious.

Foraging honey bees must act like tiny explorers, searching for new food sources as new flowering plants emerge. Bees, just like humans, can be extremely curious about the world around them. Some bees would rather stick to the flowers they already know. A recent study from researchers at Marquette University found that some bees are genetically predisposed to being more curious explorers, seeking out new food sources even when familiar food sources are present.

To understand how bee behavior differed between individual honey bees, the researchers separated genetically "curious" and "focused" bees and gave them access to two food sources: a familiar location, and a location with changing smells and colors. The bees were separated based on the behavior of their parents — if their parent was very adventurous and curious about the world around them, they were more likely to be curious, too. If the bee parents preferred to only visit the same places, eat the same foods, and keep to what they know, the offspring of those bees were likely to have the same preferences. 

The researchers found that the bees that were genetically predisposed to being curious were more likely to visit the location with changing characteristics, and to perform more intense waggle dances to alert their fellow honey bees to these new foraging opportunities. The curiosity stemmed from the bees' genetic background, and is an important trait to a successful colony, especially in the face of climate change and shifting flowering landscapes.

Could the next coronavirus outbreak come from pigs?

A virus called SADS-CoV could also spillover to humans

Ashley Knox

Microbiology and Virology

University of Colorado

Where will the next deadly virus originate? This is the question plaguing “virus hunters,” scientists searching for the animal viruses that may jump into humans to cause deadly illnesses. This transfer of viruses from animals to humans, known as “spillover”, has caused several outbreaks including the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 and the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. A team of scientists led by Ralph Baric, known as ‘The Coronavirus Hunter’, may have just found the next threat, a virus known as swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus, or SADS-CoV. 

In 2016, SADS-CoV caused an outbreak in Chinese swine herds. The virus is associated with acute diarrhea and vomiting in pigs, and has a high mortality rate for piglets. Considering the ability of similar coronaviruses to jump from animals into humans, Baric’s team investigated whether SADS-CoV constitutes a threat to humans. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The team reconstructed the viral DNA of SADS-CoV in a lab and infected cells isolated from several different animals, such as monkeys, pigs, and cats. Their results show that SADS-CoV can infect cells from several different species. 

The team also infected cells from human lungs and nasal passages and found that SADS-CoV can infect all of them. Though the researchers attempted to identify how SADS-CoV enters human cells, they could not find the cellular receptor responsible. However, the tools developed in this study may aid in identifying a receptor in the future, which could serve as a target for antiviral therapeutics or vaccines. 

With the potential risk of SADS-CoV now identified, Dr. Baric said in a press release that his team is “looking for partners to investigate the potential of SADS-CoV vaccine candidates to protect swine… vaccines may be key for limiting global spread and human emergence events in the future."

SADS-CoV has not yet infected humans, but displays several characteristics that make it a pathogen of concern. Fortunately, virus hunters like Dr. Baric and his team are researching these viruses before they cause illness in humans. By surveilling viruses in animals and creating recombinant viruses to study in the lab, researchers can determine the dynamics of viral infection and establish effective therapeutics before an outbreak even occurs.

Protecting 8% of the ocean from fishing could generate an extra $15 billion worth of seafood annually

Marine Protected Areas will drastically increase production from fisheries in a more sustainable way

Ashley Marranzino

Marine Biology

University of Rhode Island

Researchers and policy makers fight to control declining fish and marine invertebrates populations by placing restrictions and regulations on fisheries, but these can be difficult to enforce and often reduce catch rates. New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposes a different method to save our seafood while increasing the total amount of seafood we can sustainably catch: protect a small fraction of the ocean from fishing. 

The team of environmental and marine scientists suggests that fishery yields will drastically increase if we create a new network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where fishing and other human activities are carefully regulated or prohibited. By strategically protecting important ocean habitats, we create sanctuaries where healthy ecosystems flourish and important species of fish can grow and reproduce. Because these MPAs connect to the rest of the ocean (they are not confined by walls or barriers), the species thriving within an MPA eventually spill out into the surrounding areas, improving catches in the process.

Currently, only 2.4 percent of the world’s ocean is designated as highly protected MPAs. The scientists found that protecting an additional 5 percent of ocean area could increase total seafood catches by at least 20 percent. Based on the current value of seafood, the scientists estimate the additional catches will generate $15-19 billion (USD) in revenue each year — significantly outweighing the cost of establishing and managing new MPAs (estimated to cost $2 - $6 billion/year). 

While closing potential fishing grounds seems counterintuitive, the researchers point out that humans realistically only fish 4 percent of the ocean and over 50 percent of the ocean could feasibly be protected without restricting the current level of marine food production. 

Microscopic worms pee milk on their children as their bodies decompose

C. elegans turn their aging bodies into food for their children

Brittney G. Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

Wilfrid Laurier University

In a new preprint on bioRxiv, researchers based in the U.K. report that nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans) give their offspring a head start in life by peeing milk on them.

It’s actually not milk in the strictest sense of the world – milk comes for the mammary glands of mammals — but the worms are passing a nutritious, liquid food from parent to baby. 

But how does a 1 mm long worm with less than 1000 cells make a nutritional supplement for its young?

Adult C. elegans live a short life. Within a few days of reaching sexual maturity, their bodies break down and stop functioning, a process called senescence. Their intestine atrophies into a fatty, yolk-like material and their muscles fragment into pieces. Researchers used to chalk up the appearance of the yolk mass as just a weird thing that happened as the worm aged, like how you pull muscles from standing up wrong. Old nematode bodies hold together enough to make yolk, but degeneration of other parts of the reproductive system eventually inhibit successful egg-laying. (Interestingly, if a fertilized egg is not laid within about 12.5 hours, it hatches inside the worms body, where it then eats and kills its parent.)

The decomposing goo isn't wet garbage after all: it’s worm milk. Post-reproductive mother worms vent the yolk through their vulva and on to their offspring, providing them with a boost of nutrients to support their growth. 

What’s more is the worm’s lactation and senescence processes involve some of the same biological machinery (through the insulin/IGF-1 signaling pathway). This suggests that these two processes are closely related — nematodes don't just happen to make yolk as they get old; self-decomposition linked with yolk production evolved to as a way of passing on as much of their energy as possible to their offspring. 

Tardigrades glow bright to survive blasts of UV radiation

A fluorescent coat protects some species of tardigrade from lethal doses of UV radiation

Sree Rama Chaitanya

Molecular Biology

Instituto de Medicina Molecular

Many organisms, from bacteria to plants and animals, produce natural fluorescence. For example, a recent Massive Science lab note illustrates how bananas fluoresce when they ripen. But many scientists are interested in the biological role of such natural fluorescence. Now, scientists report in Biology Letters that some tardigrades (also called water bears) use fluorescence to thwart lethal doses of UV that would otherwise kill many viruses or bacteria. 

Scientists serendipitously identified this new reddish-brown species — Paramacrobiotus — when they were gauging different tardigrades collected from moss samples grown on a wall. When they exposed all the collected tardigrades with germicidal doses of UV, most of the Hypsibius tardigrade species died in 24 hours, but the Paramacrobiotus species survived. They also figured that 60 percent of Paramacrobiotus survived even after 30 days of exposure to four times more UV. 

Surprised, they investigated further into what supports Paramacrobiotus survival. When they looked at all the tardigrades under a fluorescence microscope, they found that Paramacrobiotus species fluoresce more than Hypsibius, and this fluorescence increased with exposure to UV. They then extracted the fluorescing material from Paramacrobiotus to coat the Hypsibius and several other worms (Caenorhabditis elegans). They found that the fluorescent coat protects the Hypsibius species and other worms from lethal doses of UV at levels twice that of their uncoated peers. 

Tardigrades can withstand extreme environmental stress and can even survive radiations in outer space. Such environmental stresses (like UV) can damage tardigrade DNA. Looks like this new species of tardigrades could have evolved to exploit fluorescence as their natural defense mechanism. 

Scientists are trying to develop sustainable biomaterials from wood

Hemicelluloses are already used in food packaging, hydrogels, and more

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Biotechnology

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

To grow tall and withstand high winds, plants need to be strong and flexible in just the right ways. Trees gain these properties from natural polymers in their cell walls. Cellulose is the most famous cell wall polymer, and gives the plant cell its shape and structure, while lignin gives rigidity and strength.

Lesser known components of wood are the hemicelluloses – long chain complex carbohydrates such as xylan and mannan. Hemicelluloses are often flexible and slightly soluble, so their function in the stiff and strong wood cell wall is a bit mysterious. But their properties make them valuable components in food packaging, wound dressings, and more.

New research published in Nature Communications has investigated the structural roles of hemicelluloses extracted from wood by developing a simplified model of a wood cell wall, using bacterial cellulose

The research has illuminated the biological functions of xylan and mannan, as discussed in a Behind the Paper blog by the paper's lead author, Francisco Vilaplana. It revealed that xylan makes the cell wall more stretchy, while mannan makes it more resistant to compression. The ultimate goal of Vilaplana's research program is to inform the design and development of new bio-based materials from industrial wood waste.

In particular, Vilaplana believes this work will help material scientists find better ways of using cellulose, and said via email: “We now know that mixing cellulose with xylan makes it more extensible, which is really useful for making packaging materials, whereas adding mannan improves the compressive properties, which could be helpful in light construction materials.” This could directly inform the work of companies such as Cellutech, which are already developing cellulose-based packaging materials.

Being able to tailor the properties of naturally occurring materials is an important step to making their use economically attractive, helping us move towards an overall more sustainable bio-based industrial economy.

Disruption of “molecular glue” within our brain cells can lead to Alzheimer’s 

Sticky proteins help the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria inside brain cells communicate with each other

Adithi Ramakrishnan

Developmental Neuroscience

College of William and Mary

Inside our brain cells, two proteins act like molecular glue to stick two cell components — the power-packed mitochondria and the tubular endoplasmic reticulum — to each other.  With the aid of these sticky proteins, the mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum can talk with one another, helping our brain cells produce energy, get rid of damaged parts, and respond to threats from the environment.  Getting rid of the protein glue that sticks these two cell components together can prevent essential cell functions from running smoothly. 

Since many of the cell functions managed by this molecular glue are also disrupted in Alzheimer’s Disease, a recent study investigated whether the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients were missing their sticky proteins.  The researchers searched for two glue proteins (VAPB and PTPPIP51) in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s who had died and attached a glowing “tag” to any proteins they observed, so that they could see how many there were.  

They found that brains in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease had less “sticky” connections between the mitochondria and the endoplasmic reticulum, meaning that the two were less able to communicate. They also found different amounts of the glue proteins in early and late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. 

The results indicated that there could be some relationship between damage to these glue proteins and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.  We still don’t know how exactly Alzheimer’s messes with sticky proteins, but this study clues us into how important good communication is to keeping a brain cell healthy.

A new antibiotic punctures bacterial cells and destroys a B-vitamin

The one-two punch may prevent the development of resistance to this antibiotic

We need new antibiotics that are immune to resistance. For every new antibiotic that humans have produced (most of which are merely derived from the natural molecules made by bacteria), bacteria have developed resistance mechanisms that are rapidly spread by horizontal gene transfer (HGT). HGT is the set of processes that allow bacteria to share genes, especially the genes that make them resistant to antibiotics.

Princeton University researchers have recently found a new antibiotic compound, which they named Irresistin, because it does not induce antibiotic resistance. They published their findings in the journal Cell. Irresistin works by puncturing bacterial walls and destroying folate (vitamin B9, which bacteria need to produce their DNA) within the bacterial cells. 

The scientists assert that Irresistin's dual mechanism of action may account for its immunity to resistance. Their experiments demonstrate that Irresistin works against many bacteria, including the notorious superbug MRSA. But given the history of pathogens developing antibiotic resistance to every known antibiotic, plus the natural tendency of bacteria to spread resistance genes via HGT, how likely is it that Irresistin will thwart Nature’s ability to evolve resistance once it is introduced in the clinic? That question remains to be answered.

If Irresistin can sustain immunity to antibiotic resistance — and proving that might take years of clinical use — the dual mechanism strategy employed by the Princeton scientists might point the way for the future development of resistant-immune antibiotic drugs.

Octopus-inspired robot can climb ladders and walls

New research highlights how mimicking nature makes for great design

Shannon Casey

Biology and Medicine

Investigating components of the natural world can lead to solutions for everyday problems. This process of emulating nature in order to find innovative solutions for complex design challenges is called biomimicry.

Biomimicry is a very useful concept in robotics. For example, the octopus is a highly intelligent creature that uses its body in unique ways. This model has inspired researchers to develop a soft-body robot made of silicone capable of climbing.

The robot, reported at the IEEE Conference on Intelligent Systems in August, was constructed with two flexible arms. Each arm was made of silicone and had a grasping part and a lifting part. The grasping part resembled the spiral curve of an octopus tentacle. The lifting part contained a string that, when pulled, enabled the robot to climb. The researchers placed the robot on a ladder and a bumpy wall to demonstrate that it could grasp bars and complete vertical climbing tasks. They also found that the robot was able to grasp a variety of objects with its flexible silicone arms.  

And this group from Hosei University in Tokyo isn't the only one drawing on the octopus for robot inspiration. Other researchers have considered the cephalopod when designing machines for years, including a "Tentacle Bot" reported earlier this year.

As a next step, the researchers want to further develop the robot’s artificial intelligence. This is a noteworthy example of how biomimicry can help inform the future of science and technology.

New squirrel species appeared faster when squirrels came down from the trees

New research identifies important factors in the evolutionary history of squirrels

Hector Tejero

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Barcelona

There are almost 300 species of squirrels in the world. From terrestrial marmots in North America to gliding squirrels in Southeast Asia, these animals show an outstanding diversity of locomotion modes and ecological specializations. 

In a recent paper in Mammal Review, paleoecologists investigated the factors that have played a role in accelerating the origination (speciation) and disappearance (extinction) of squirrel species. They reconstructed the ecological and evolutionary history of squirrels in order to identify ancestral characteristics  — traits that were present in past squirrel species  — and periods when the distributions of squirrels changed. This allowed them to identify factors associated with squirrel diversification. 

The researchers found that the first squirrels lived exclusively in trees around 40 million years ago. They concluded that the subsequent adaptation to moving on the ground probably boosted speciation in squirrels. Their results show that squirrels in mountains had higher diversification rates than their lowland relatives, reflecting that mountain ranges offer more ecological resources due to a wide variety of habitats. Most importantly, the researchers found that species present in many different habitats are less affected by changes than species in only one kind of habitat, which are prone to go extinct when conditions change. 

Based on their results and the evidence of the impact of past environmental change on biodiversity, the researchers warn that the current anthropogenic climate change, triggered by global warming and deforestation, will provoke the extinction of an important part of squirrel diversity. Moreover, surviving species will suffer a drastic reduction in their distribution, increasing the probability of their extinction, too.

Plants can grow quickly or accurately, but not both

New research examines this well-known trade-off in our floral friends

Kelly Cotton

Cognitive Psychology

City University of New York

Generally, our actions are subject to a speed-accuracy trade-off: the faster you do something, the less accurate you tend to be. Slower behaviors allow you to gather more information about your goal and you can adjust your actions accordingly, whether moving your hand to precisely grasp a target or deciding when to press a button. Humans and many animals consistently demonstrate the speed-accuracy trade-off. Do plants?

In a recent study, researchers measured the growth of snow pea plants as they climbed towards a support trellis. Surprisingly, as the plants grew upwards, they grew faster as they reached to grasp the thin support compared to how quickly they grew toward a thick support. This finding is perfectly in line with a speed-accuracy trade-off explanation. Thicker supports may actually be more difficult to grasp and less preferred by climbing plants, so much that in rainforest field studies, fewer climbing plants are found in areas with thicker supports.

How are plants, with no advanced nervous system, able to gather information about their environment to guide their behavior, planning and flexibly executing movement? Sound, maybe. Or chemoreception. Possibly even eye-like structures. These findings about the speed-accuracy trade-off in plants perpetuate this interesting debate about plant communication.

¿Puedes saber la edad de un chimpancé por sus canas?

A diferencia de lo que ocurre en humanos, las canas no son una buena pista para saber la edad de los chimpancés

Laura Martinez-Inigo

Animal Behavior and Primatology

This Lab Note is also available in English

"Peinar canas" es una expresión que usamos para indicar que alguien tiene una edad avanzada. Para nosotros, los humanos, este dicho es muy preciso ya que, por regla general, cuantos más años cumplimos, más canas acumulamos. En la primera mitad de nuestras vidas pueden aparecer algunos cabellos blancos. Sin embargo, es una vez que llegamos a la mediana edad cuando nuestro cabello puede perder su color original por completo. Por tanto, las canas son un buen indicador de la edad en los seres humanos. 

Pero, ¿es este el caso de nuestros parientes evolutivos más cercanos? ¿Puedes estimar la edad de un chimpancé por la cantidad de canas de su cabeza?

Para averiguarlo, los científicos fotografiaron las caras de chimpancés de diferentes edades e hicieron que 152 observadores humanos contaran la cantidad de canas en cada foto.

Al analizar los datos, los investigadores descubrieron que las canas en los chimpancés funcionan de manera diferente que en los humanos. En los chimpancés, el cabello puede empezar a volverse gris al principio de la vida, pero una vez que llegan a la mediana edad, el proceso se detiene y casi no aparecen nuevas canas. Vamos, todo lo contrario de lo que ocurre en humanos. Además, hay mucha variación entre individuos de chimpancé; puede haber un chimpancé de 5 años con más canas que uno de 50 años. Por tanto, no se puede saber la edad de un chimpancé por sus canas.

No está claro cuál podría ser la utilidad biológica de esta diferencia, pero indica que el encanecimiento no está necesariamente vinculado al proceso de envejecimiento en mamíferos. 

Scientists develop a "liquid biopsy" that can detect many types of cancer through a simple blood test

The test even saved the lives of several study participants who had no symptoms

Ivana Marisa da Costa Martins

Molecular Biology and Oncology

University of Coimbra

High cancer mortality rates are mostly attributable to late diagnosis. That's because late-stage cancers that have already spread through the body are harder to treat. Cancer researchers are looking for ways to make earlier diagnoses, which could allow more successful treatment and improve patient survival rates. 

So, what if early cancer detection was only a blood draw away? When there is a tumor present in the body, it can release certain proteins and DNA into the bloodstream. The detection of tumor-derived components, such as circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) in the blood – using a technique known as liquid biopsy – seems to have the potential to complement standard screening techniques, improving early cancer detection and patient survival. 

Now, a study recently published in Science examined the utility of liquid biopsy tests to check for several types of cancer at once. They gave their test, which detects genetic mutations and cancer-specific protein markers in blood, to nearly 10,000 women without any history or symptoms of cancer.

Participants with an initial positive blood test, meaning that they had detectable ctDNA mutations or increased levels of specific proteins, underwent a second blood draw to confirm the findings. Then, those with two positive results underwent PET-CT imaging to locate the cancer in their bodies.

Overall, oncologists diagnosed a total of 26 participants with cancer through these liquid biopsies. Some also underwent curative surgery. Remember, none of the participants had symptoms, so they previously had no idea that there was cancer present. These promising findings reveal that non-invasive blood tests could complement current cancer screening methods, doubling the rate of cancer detection and improving patient survival.

How does Pfizer’s "90% effective" COVID-19 vaccine work?

Pfizer made a big news splash, but is their mRNA vaccine a silver bullet?

Brittney G. Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

Wilfrid Laurier University

Today, multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer reported their mRNA-based vaccine candidate, BNT162b2, was more than 90 percent effective against SARS-CoV-2, based on early phase 3 clinical trial data.

The study enrolled 43,538 participants in six countries who were spilt into two groups: a group that was received the vaccine candidate, and a group that received a placebo treatment.  

Since the start of the phase 3 trial on July 27th, 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the study group. Fewer than 10 percent of those cases were from participants who had been given the vaccine candidate, and more than 90 percent of the cases were from the placebo group. 

Pfizer reported no serious safety concerns with the vaccine, and that 42 percent of the trial participants had racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. The second point is key, as BIPOC communities show higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and mortality than white, non-Hispanic communities. 

The study will continue monitoring their participants until 164 confirmed cases of COVID-19 occur in the trial population to gain more accurate information about the vaccine’s efficacy. 

How does it work?

The vaccine candidate contains genetic material from the virus called messenger RNA. As its name suggests, messenger RNA carries information between different parts of a cell, providing instructions like which proteins to make.

BNT162b2 uses messenger RNA that describes one of the spike proteins that stud the outer surface of SARS-CoV-2. Though human cells don’t make spike proteins, they can still read viral messenger RNA and follow its instructions. When someone receives a dose of BNT162b2, their body responds by producing the spike protein, but only the spike protein, and no other part of the virus. 

Since spike proteins aren’t normally found in human cells, their presence triggers the immune system, leading to a defensive response where the proteins are removed. Now that the immune system’s had some practice, it’s ready for the real thing. If someone who was vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 was exposed to the virus later on, their immune system is ready to react, and hopefully, fend off the virus. 

Messenger RNA vaccines are relatively new on the scene, but have the potential to be safer and more effective than other vaccine types. There is no risk of getting COVID-19 from a vaccine, as the virus is never present in the body.

Hold on, there are some caveats 

The Pfizer data is promising, but there are some barriers that will need to be dealt with should BNT162b2 see broad production and distribution. 

The logistics are tricky, as the drug must be stored in a -80oC (-112 oF) freezer. This is standard equipment for biomedical research labs in universities and hospitals, but rare in doctor’s offices and pharmacies. This is a severe requirement even by the standards of vaccines. Inactivated flu vaccines can often be stored in a normal 2-8oC fridge, and even Moderna's similar mRNA vaccine only needs to be frozen at -20oC. Moderna's vaccine is also stable longer once thawed (that is to say that Pfizer's vaccine deteriorates faster once unfrozen), which would make administering it to a population a bit easier.  

The vaccine also needs two doses. This means at least twice as much vaccine needs to be manufactured as a single dose treatment, assuming perfect compliance with vaccine scheduling. In their press release, Pfizer reported they “expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.”

Another issue with multi-dose vaccines is that not everyone can reliably get both doses, leading to inequality in vaccine access. For example, Black and Hispanic/Latinx adolescent girls are disproportionately prone to low HPV vaccination completion rates compared to white adolescent girls after adjusting for difference in socioeconomic status and insurance coverage. Solving vaccine access and completion issues will be key to high vaccination rates and creating herd immunity to COVID-19.

Though this is still much work to do (including the completion of the clinical trial), this announcement has been hailed as welcome news in the ongoing worldwide health crisis. 

Researchers discover a highland population of New Guinea singing dogs

These rare animals are known for their harmonic, whale-like howls

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

New Guinea singing dog is a rare animal best known for its harmonic howls, which were once described as a “wolf howl with overtones of whale song.” 

We recommend turning down your volume before playing this video:

Today, only about 200 to 300 captive New Guinea singing dogs remain. They are highly inbred, as the entire captive population descended from only eight individuals. Conservation biologists fear that the New Guinea singing dog is nearing extinction due habitat loss and and the expansion of mainland breed dogs and village dogs on the island of New Guinea.

But in 2016, the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation and the University of Papua led an expedition that uncovered the existence of 15 highland wild dogs on the western side of the island of New Guinea. These dogs are rarely observed – they have a secretive nature, tend to live at high altitudes, and were only photographed twice prior to 2016. These features suggested that the highland wild dogs are potentially a wild New Guinea singing dog population.

To investigate this, researchers collected blood and skin samples from three of these highland wild dogs. Next, they carried out DNA sequencing and various genetic analyses to compare highland wild dogs to a dataset of 1,346 dogs from 161 breeds, as well as 16 captive New Guinea singing dogs and 25 wild dingoes.

The researchers found that the nuclear genome of the highland wild dog has a strong similarity (a 72 percent overlap) to the New Guinea singing dogs, and that both dogs are derived from the same lineage. 

In addition, the highland wild dog has higher levels of genetic diversity, although the population and distribution of these dogs remain to be seen. This has important implications for conservation efforts, suggesting that the highland wild dogs can help invigorate and rebuild the captive New Guinea singing dog population. 

Island- and mainland-dwelling gibbons have differently shaped jaws

These findings could help scientists classify fossil primates

Brittany Kenyon-Flatt

Biological Anthropology

North Carolina State University

One challenge in evolutionary biology is that fossils rarely contain DNA, and so it can be tricky to classify fossil animals without the ability to travel back in time and see them in the wild. Scientists have begun exploring how other methods, like quantifying skeletal morphology, are useful for taxonomic assessment. They test these methods by looking at morphologic differences between closely related living species. 

New research by a team of anthropologists investigated whether there were differences in the mandibular shape of gibbons. They studied three subspecies of white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) one species of black-handed gibbon (Hylobates agilis) from Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. They tested whether mandible (jaw) shape was influenced by allometry (or, the relationship of body size to shape) and geography.  

Using novel geometric morphometric methods, the researchers found that there were differences in mandibular shape between the two species, and that the white-handed gibbons had a more variable mandible than the black-handed gibbon. This was not due to allometry, or body size differences, but could be attributed to where they live. The gibbons from Indonesian islands had a different mandibular shape than the gibbons from mainland Thailand and Myanmar. The researchers hypothesized that these differences are related to behavioral differences such as different diet compositions. For example, island species might eat more fruits than mainland species.  

Results from this study suggest that we can learn about taxonomic differences in closely related species from studying their morphology. This is an important clue for better understanding primate evolution, as it highlights how testing specific groups, like gibbons, will help us to better understand primate taxonomy and evolution.  

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