Sunday, January 29, 2012

A grisly aspect of biology

While a lot of biology is manageable and relatively pain free to study and perform, there are certain aspects that make it uncomfortable to study. For example, when you induce disease in animals, you often have to "sacrifice" them in order to study them. Studying the rate of decomposition is also one topic that is unpleasant. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is one such place where this type of study occurs. The forensic anthropology department housed there has 1.3 acres of land to study the rates of human body decomposition in varying conditions (If anyone is interested in seeing further details, see this link:

Recently, a study has been conducted at Texas State University (which has a human decomposition laboratory similar to the "body farm" of the University of Tennessee) to study how fast vultures would pick a human body clean, and how far uneaten remains would be scattered from the original site (Vultures skeletonise corpse for the sake of forensics). How could this information possibly be used? There are many times when human remains are found in dry, desert like conditions such as the ones found in Texas.  These remains make it hard to pinpoint the time of death and the cause of death. Was it an animal attack? Or was it picked apart by vultures?

Scientists were able to videotape the work of vultures when they found a decomposing body after 37 days. The body was picked clean to the bone in 5 hours. This surprised scientists, as they had previously thought this process would have taken much longer. Scientists also tracked the dispersal of remaining body parts as the vultures came back to the site over 15 weeks, and hopefully this mapping will help in further understanding for future forensics.

No one ever said biology was clean and pretty. However, each aspect is important, even when it is one of decomposition.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Land of the Dinosaurs

What is a blog about biology without some dinosaurs? I know that as a child, I was always fascinated by them. How reptiles could grow to be so big and be the major fauna for millions of years, only to be wiped out by some environment phenomenon boggles me. I have two interesting dinosaur stories to share with you today! Birds are known to be the modern descents of dinosaurs, with the Archaeopteryx being the intermediate link. It has both reptilean (teeth, clawed fingers, bony tail) and bird (feathered wings and a wishbone) It is a winged and feathered dinosaur, but scientists have long debated whether it actually had the ability to fly.

A new study of the specimen has revealed the color of its feathers (Winged Dinosaur Archaeopteryx Dressed for Flight). Why does the color matter? The color and the pigment cells indicate that the feathers themselves were durable and rigid, characteristics needed for flight. Closer examination of the feathers also revealed that the structure is identical to that of modern bird feathers. This may seem like an elementary finding, as melanosomes (pigment cells) have been found in many fossils. However, these have previously been misidentified as bacteria. They were visable only with a power confocal microscope. Scientists are still not sure how the melanosomes in the archaeopteryx were used. Since the feathers were found to be black, functions  could range from camouflage, to body heat regulation, to even flight. However, the presence of melanosomes pushes flight to the forefront, as melanosomes provide strength and protect from abrasion during flight. 

The second dinosaur story deals with the discovery of a nursery in South Africa that contained ten nests (Fossils in South Africa Reveal Dinosaur Nesting Site: 190 Million Years Old). This nesting site was found to be 190 million years old, and it belonged to a prosauropod named Massospondylus. 

The authors of this study site that this nursery is 100 million years older than any previous find. The nests contain up to 34 eggs, all in tightly clustered arrangements. What is significant about this find is that it gives insight in the behaviors of Massospondylus. The clustered arrangement of the nests indicate that mothers returned to the site repeatedly and often came in groups to lay eggs. The highly organized nature of the nest itself also is evidence that the mother moved and organized her eggs. The nesting ground was found in sedimentary rock from Early Jurassic Period in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. This site also yielded some of the oldest found embryos, which is extremely important to the study of reproductive biology. All in all, this discovery is a boon to understanding dinosaur behavior. Isn't it all so maddeningly interesting??


Orignal Papers:

Ryan M. Carney, Jakob Vinther, Matthew D. Shawkey, Liliana D'Alba, Jörg Ackermann. New evidence on the colour and nature of the isolated Archaeopteryx feather.

Robert R. Reisz, David C. Evans, Eric M. Roberts, Hans-Dieter Sues, Adam M. Yates. Oldest known dinosaurian nesting site and reproductive biology of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph Massospondylus.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012; 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The dreaded flu season...

I am not sure how many of you have heard about this, but I thought it would important to put up a short post on the topic. Scientists have created a new avian flu bug in the lab, termed H5N1. This has raised many concerns, as an escape could lead to a flu pandemic. Also, the strain in the wrong hands could be used as a bioterrorism agent. Nature has published a statement that confirmed a 60 day"pause" from the research (Scientists call for 60-day suspension of mutant flu research). The US government has asked the journals set to publish this research to only include the main conclusions, and not to offer any details. The WHO is working in conjunction with the government to develop a plan to disseminate the information to other flu researchers. During the 60 day period, a series of discussions will be held to explain the benefits and risks of this type of research. While I understand that national security and national health are a concern, I believe that the information be available to scientists in a quick and painless manner. Science hinges upon the sharing of information, and even a 60 day delay could halt the valuable research being performed.

So my readers, it is my time to ask you this: Do you agree with this type of research (i.e. creating potentially lethal strains of bacteria in order to understand it's mechanisms and possibly begin crafting a vaccine)? And do you think the 60 day pause is advisable? Comments are always welcome!


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Need another reason to hit the treadmill? Do it for your cells!

It has been proven time and time again that exercise has many benefits. It decreases your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases. But how deep do the benefits of exercise go? According to a study by Levine et al at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical school, the benefits and effects of exercise can be seen at the cellular level (Exercise Triggers Beneficial Cellular Recycling).

This study reveals how cells use exercise to promote autophagy, the process of breaking down "junk" cellular contents and proteins. Autophagy occurs once a double membrane forms around the unwanted parts of the cell and joins with a lysosome. The lysosome contains many enzymes that break down the materials, thereby creating a burst of energy for the cell. Starvation and increased autophagy have long been linked, but the effects of exercise on autophagy is a new development.

Mice were genetically engineered to produce green protein (most likely GFP but it didn't say in the article) whenever an autophagy event occurred in the cells. These mice were then subjected to 30 minutes of treadmill running, and upon inspection of heart and muscle cells, green dots were found throughout the tissue. Autophagy was also observed in the pancreas and the liver, which are both involved in glucose metabolism.

Although it was seen that exercise triggers autophagy, but what purpose does autophagy serve? To test this question, mice were engineered to undergo autophagy, but due to a mutation in BCL2 protein (A protein that inhibits cells death and regulates autophagy), were unable to increase autophagy during exercise. When these mice were placed on a treadmill, they were unable to run as long as the normal mice because they were unable to metabolize glucose properly. To look at long term effects of exercise, Levine fed the mice a high fat diet for 4 weeks. Naturally these mice gained weight and developed type 2 diabetes. They were then placed on an exercise schedule while still on a high fat diet. The normal mice lost weight, gained back their ability to metabolize glucose, and their diabetes disappeared. The mutant mice lost some weight, but still had high blood sugar and diabetes. What does this mean? It means that autophagy in cells is essential to their continued viability and metabolic processing ability. And exercise increases the rate of autophagy in all of your cells, thereby promoting their healthy functioning.

So today's maddening idea? Get on your treadmill for your cells!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

LADIES, Want your man to spend more on you? READ ON!

Every lady loves to be pampered and spoiled-dinners, shows and concerts, and even an occasional piece of jewelry. Even a small gesture of flowers and chocolate can make a lady feel special. But can science prove what makes men spend money on a woman? According to a study by Griskevicius et al published on ScienceDaily (Scarcity of Women Leads Men to Spend More, Save Less), when men perceived that women were scare, they were more likely to spend money. This was tested by allowing participants to read articles that described populations as having a higher ratio of men then women, and then asked to describe their spending habits (including how much they would save per paycheck, amount they would put on their credit card etc). It was found that men who perceived that women were scarcer in the population saved 42% less and borrowed 84% more money.  In a second experiment, participants viewed a group of pictures that had more men, more women, or were even. They were then offered a $20 gift card now, or a $30 gift card next month. The group that saw fewer women in the photos, men were more likely to take the $20 gift card rather then waiting for the increased amount. 

According to this study, three important things were observed:
1). Sex ratios affect expectations of women: when women were presented with population estimates that showed a higher ratio of men, they expected men to go further in their courting endeavors (aka Spend the Moo-la!).

2). Population data supports this finding: Communities with higher numbers of single men showed increased debt and credit card ownership.

3). The research implications on marketing: Advertisers should focus on whether a women is surrounded by a group of men, and not rely solely on the image of a beautiful woman to sell a product. 

So the key to pampering, ladies? Find a city with a higher male to female population! This would seem like a no-brainer, but now we know that it is backed by scientific research! It would seem to me that there is still a lot sexual selection going on in our species, and just how far a guy will go to get your attention depends on the number of available mates! A maddening idea? No, just simple biology principles at work!


Actual Research Paper: 
Vladas Griskevicius, Joshua M. Tybur, Joshua M. Ackerman, Andrew W. Delton, Theresa E. Robertson, Andrew E. White. The financial consequences of too many men: Sex ratio effects on saving, borrowing, and spending.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012; 102 (1):

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A magnifying look at your genes

I have always been intrigued by the extensive complexity which lies within us. Organs, circulation, waste disposal, metabolism, and tissues all function together. The smallest unit of life is the individual cell, with each housing their own set of DNA. DNA is the instruction book which makes every part of the body, every cell, and every protein. It is a stable molecule that exists in every living organism.

In 2003, Craig Venter announced to the world the he and his team had succeeded in mapping out the entire human genome. From his efforts, it was found that humans only have 20,000-25,000 functional genes, which was a surprise to all. To better understand human genome sequencing, refer to this video (How to sequence a Genome: An introduction).

My topic today is not to give a history of sequencing methods or even to explain the molecular dynamics of such an enterprise. Rather, I would like to introduce the idea of personalized genome sequencing and genetic testing. I was browsing Scientific American, and found this article: The $1,000 Human Genome: Are We There Yet?. Life Technologies, a biotech company in California has announced that they are creating a new machine that will be capable of sequencing an entire human genome in one day for the premium price of $1000 (Of course we are talking about a sequencer machine here, not a personalized genome service. However, such a machine could make personal sequencing more popular and affordable). The sequencer machine, called The Ion Proton, will cost $149,000 with an additional $95,000 for a server and a prep service. This is actually very affordable, since biotech equipment can range into the millions.

With sequencing machines becoming more efficient and affordable, personalized sequencing will also continue to expand. Why on earth should you consider getting sequenced? Because your data will give you markers for genes associated with diseases. For example, you may find you have a marker for diabetes or even a predisposition for breast cancer. Where can you have this done? The company 23andMe offers two branches of DNA genotyping: one for ancestry and one for health. A kit can be obtained for $99 and all it requires from you is your spit and cheek cells from a simple mouth swab. I am very inclined to have this done, just to see what is in my genes.

Ancestry is also a popular sequencing option. FamilyTreeDNA allows you to follow your matrilineal side with mitochondrial DNA sequencing and your patrilineal side with Y-chromsome DNA sequencing. Kits range from $159-289. The National Geographic Genographic project had a similar objective. It sequences your mitochondrial DNA and places your migration out of Africa into distinct lineages (This being an example of the study of population genetics). This kit is also $99, and makes a great present for science nut in the family.

I am now sure that you are ready to jump onto one of these website and enthusiastically spit in a vial to take a look at the code manual that is your DNA. I certainly would, which is all part of a Biologist's Madness.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Explanation as to why you like your burgers and fries...

As we all know, we are constantly bombarded with the fact that America is the most obese nation in the world. We are all addicted to our french fries, burgers, and supersize milkshakes. We live for convenience. Today, I would like to share with you a study by Pepino et al in The Journal of Lipid Research. In the study, a novel receptor gene, CD36, was found to detect the presence of fat! Participants were given a fatty oil and a control non-fat oil and asked to determine which was which. It was found that people who produced a high level of this protein were more sensitive to fat than those that produced less. But wait! There is a catch! Diet affected the sensitivity of the protein, as it affects the amount of protein made. So that means that a high fat diet = less CD36 = decreased sensitivity to fat. Such a vicious cycle!
CD36 was activated by fatty acids, and not triglycerides, although humans can taste both. 
So what does this mean? My interpretation is simple: the overabundance of fat in our convenience food has overridden our bodies natural response mechanisms. This study shows only one protein that is knocked off balance. I can only imagine havoc that is caused when holistically considered. So the next time you pick up that burger, think of the simple protein CD36. As for me, I think I will be sticking to my vegetarian diet. Stay tuned for further madness!

~ LD

Article discussed:
Blame your tastebuds for liking fat: Receptor for tasting fat identified in Humans found at

Full Research Paper: 
M. Y. Pepino, L. Love-Gregory, S. Klein, N. A. Abumrad.The fatty acid translocase gene, CD36, and lingual lipase influence oral sensitivity to fat in obese subjects.The Journal of Lipid Research, 201

Friday, January 13, 2012

Biological Art

My official topic for my blog is this: consider biology as art. Quite honestly, I had not thought of it as so until I saw some magnificent scanning electron and confocal microscope images. I am myself guilt of having a picture or two that look like abstract art but are really experimental images.  Above my reading window, I have framed a confocal picture of stained fruit fly ovaries which I had dissected. People are often interested in the picture, but are taken aback when I tell them what the image really is.

Biological art reminds us that the world around us is limitless and our power to understand it is minute. It always astounds me when I look at some of these images how lucky we are to live in such an interesting world. I realized this during my summer internship at the University of Michigan, where I learned to dissect and study the fruit fly. At the the University of Michigan’s Center for Organogenesis, they have a website dedicated to Bioartography ( On this webpage are beautiful pictures that one may purchase. Each has a catalog number that gives a description of what is shown in the image. One of my particular favorites is #20, (, which is mouse embryonic stem cells that over express the protein Geminin. 

Websites such as Etsy also have an impressive array of biological art. The shop Breathe Decor has many prints which I am drawn too. In particular, this montage of three marine prints ( Another particular favorite shop of mine is called MicroBioArt, and specializes in print montages and tapestries of bacteria and viruses, such as Polio, Influenza, and Ebola. ( Wouldn't that be quite a conversation starter?
 "I love this print! What is it?"
"It's actually Ebola!"

In essence, beauty in the world can be found in just about anywhere. From your backyard, to the sky, and even under the microscope. Viewing the biological world in terms of art has given me another way to appreciate and think about what I and countless others study. So next time someone presents you a picture to view, think that it may not be what it seems. Until the next madness strikes!


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Madness Beginnings....

Well this is a new experience for me. My dear friend, Chase, has suggested I begin a blog about my adventures outside college. I have just recently done the "cap and gown" twirl dance to receive my bachelor's of science in Biology. So why am I blogging? I graduated a semester early, and now I have a whole semester to recoup from the undergraduate madness.

My Plan? I hope to attend graduate school for Stem cell and Developmental Biology. Currently, I have heard from only one school, the University of Michigan. The official interview is in two weeks, and I am extremely excited.

This blog is named Biologist's Madness. I hope to share with you some awesome things from the biology world. And hopefully with some humor and an artistic flair. This blog will highlight new articles, advances, and news from the Biology side of life. Stay tuned for next dose of madness.....