Kamis, 24 Maret 2011

Living with Invasive Species

What should be done when non-native species introduced into an ecosystem begin to outcompete native species? Should such invasive species, as they are called, be eradicated before they do serious damage to an ecosystem and lead to a loss of biodiversity? The traditional answer is yes, according to many conservationists. But the sad fact is that that most invasive species eradication efforts haven’t been very effective.

More recently, some conservationists are beginning to rethink the problem of invasive species. Perhaps invasive species should be viewed as a more normal part of the constant change that has been shaping our world since life began. Containment rather than eradication seems to be the new buzzword. Ecologists who study the effect of invasive species on ecosystems say that over time, native species begin to compete more effectively against invasive species. It may take decades or even centuries, but eventually a new ecosystem balance is likely to be achieved, with or without human intervention.

Jumat, 11 Maret 2011

The Simeons Therapy Diet Fad

The New York Times published an article this week on the latest diet fad; a daily food intake of just 500 calories a day combined with daily injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). It’s known as the Simeons therapy, and it’s been around since 1964.

Frankly, the New York Times article stirs up an old “controversy” that shouldn’t still exist. Anyone who can stick to a 500 calorie-per-day diet will lose weight. Weight loss accomplished on the Simeons therapy diet has nothing to do with the added hCG, according to a well-documented review written in 1995.

The FDA has warned that non-injectable “homeopathic” forms of hCG available over the counter cannot be labelled as having have weight-loss properties. But there’s a long-standing tradition of allowing physicians to decide what is best for each patient (in consultation with the patient, of course). Therefore, physicians can legally prescribe injectable hCG as part of a diet plan if they wish, whether or not it works. And of course, they are free to charge whatever they like for the consultation/evaluation prior to writing the prescription.

Acquaint yourself with the facts, and then don’t waste your money on this diet.

Kamis, 10 Maret 2011


Thank you to everyone for an interesting end to the quarter. I really do enjoy seeing what has grabbed your imagination.

As well as a (relatively) unstressful opportunity to practice public speaking, this is also a fantastic opportunity for you to see almost 30 brief talks in rapid succession. Which ones did you find most memorable? Why? Think about that for a moment.

Good luck with your finals. Have a safe Spring Break and we will see you in the same place (but an earlier time slot) next quarter. Please sign up for the class if you haven't done so already, our numbers will probably be tight again.

I'm going to take a brief break from daily blogging, although I may still make the odd post if any seminars or research opportunities come across my desk.

Anyway, back to the talks. One of the keys to giving a good talk, whether it is one minute or one hour, is to tell a story. There is something very primal in humans in the way we even respond to the word 'story'. I assume this dates back to the tens of thousands of years when the only means we had to entertain ourselves were sitting around campfires and telling stories (songs are also stories).

Consider yourself in a lecture room. You have come to see a talk because the topic sounded interesting. You don't know much about the speaker but you want it to be a good talk. The speaker steps up to the podium, looks out at the audience and starts their talk. Consider how your brain responds to their first few words:
  • Today I'm going to teach you about... (oh well, at least I might learn something. I wonder what I should have for dinner...)
  • Today I'm going to tell you about cytopathological infection of the mammalian gastrointestinal tract... (err okay. Oh look a squirrel!)
  • Today I'm going to tell you a story... (Cool. I hope its a good story.)
So, regardless of length, think of any talk as a story. Which talks today did you remember? I'm guessing the ones that told a story rather than presented a collection of facts. I'm also guessing that for the talks that were structured as a story you could recall much more of the talks.

A couple of other tips. If you are telling a story then be interested in your story. Enthusiasm is what makes or breaks any oral presentation.

And finally, again regardless of length, have an ending! Always have a well rehearsed final sentence. If you run out of time (which of course you never should) you skip right to your final sentence but you never omit it. Unfortunately many of you had to leave but our final talk for the day had the best final sentence. A fitting note to end on.

New breakthrough in fighting malaria

Malaria affects hundreds of millions of people every year. It is spread by mosquitoes carrying a parasite that, once introduced to your body, multiplies by manipulating signaling pathways in your liver and red blood cells. The parasite's ability to quickly develop resistance to drugs has hindered attempts to find an effective treatment for the disease. However, it was recently discovered that certain drugs used for chemotherapy can also cure malaria. By disabling the host cells' signaling pathways, these "kinase inhibitors" effectively kill the malaria parasite since it can no longer proliferate. This discovery presents an entirely new method of curing malaria in which we target the host cell environment rather than the parasite itself. This method has several benefits: 1. it is effective against all strains of malaria, 2. the parasite won't be able to develop drug resistance, and 3. since there are already many chemotherapy drugs that have been deemed relatively safe and that could potentially be effective against malaria, it might not be necessary to develop a whole new drug. This breakthrough is a huge step toward a much more effective and permanent treatment of this disease.

Full Article:

Rabu, 09 Maret 2011

More dates for your calendar

Going to the Extremes -- from the Blue Holes of the Bahamas to Parasitic Ecosystems to Edge of the Universe -- at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Santa Barbara, CA -- Explore the extremes through the eyes of scientific explorers at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. This lecture series brings Dr. Kenneth Broad (environmental anthropologist), Dr. Kevin Lafferty (ecologist) and Dr. Lynn Rothschild (evolutionary biologist/astrobiologist) who will share their compelling and inspiring tales about the frontiers of science -- from the Blue Holes of the Bahamas to parasitic ecosystems to the edge of the universe. All presentations will be held in Fleischman Auditorium and will conclude with a lively conversation between speaker and audience, as well as an opportunity to meet the scientist. The lectures are weekly on Thursdays (March 10, 17 and 24) and each lecture begins at 7:30 PM. Tickets are available online at www.sbnature.org/tickets or at the door (Museum Members $8; Non-members $10). Parking is free. For more information call 805-682-4711 ext. 170.


Blue Holes of the Bahamas: Caves, Climate, and Cognition

by Dr. Kenneth Broad

Thursday, March 10

7:30 PM

Largely unexplored, and considered among the most hazardous places to dive, the flooded caves, or "blue holes" of the Bahamas, are a potential treasure trove of scientific knowledge. Dr. Broad will speak on the findings of his recent cave diving expeditions to the Blue Holes of the Bahamas which were featured on the cover of the August 2010 issue of National Geographic. Discoveries from the Blue Holes are significant to the fields of microbiology, paleontology and climate science. He will also discuss cave exploration in terms of risk perception.

To quote National Geographic, "Inland blue holes are the scientific equivalent of Tut's tomb. From a diver's perspective, they're on par with Everest or K2, requiring highly specialized training, equipment, and experience. Even more than high-altitude mountaineers, cave divers work under tremendous time pressure. When something goes wrong, if they don't solve the problem and make it back to the cave entrance before their gas runs out, they're doomed."

Dr. Broad is an environmental anthropologist who studies the relationship between humans and their environment. Kenny has led or participated in extreme expeditions around the globe - from dangerous urban slums to the deepest caves on the planet - to gather information and samples that shed light on little known environmental and cultural subjects. He is an associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and is Director of the University of Miami's Abess Center for Ecosystem Science. He also Co-directs the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. Broad received the 2006 Emerging Explorer Award and was elected a Fellow National of the Explorers Club in 2009. He received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University in 1999.


Parasites Rule! Castration, Mind Control, and Human Culture

by Dr. Kevin Lafferty

Thursday, March 17

7:30 PM

Parasitism is the most popular lifestyle on earth and parasites have evolved insidious and fascinating ways to complete their life cycles.  Dr. Lafferty will discuss how parasites quietly affect entire ecosystems and human culture, noting that parasites are normal part of a functioning food web.

Dr. Kevin Lafferty is an ecologist with the US Geological Survey and adjunct faculty at UCSB, specializing in parasites.  He's lived in Santa Barbara for 30 years and travelled the world in search of the parasites he admires.  He and his wife, Cristina Sandoval, the director of Coal Oil Point Reserve, are actively engaged in local conservation issues.


Life at the Edge: Life in Extreme Environments on Earth and the Search for Life in the Universe

by Dr. Lynn Rothschild

Thursday, March 24

7:30 PM

Lynn Rothschild has gone from the Bolivian Andes to the Rift Valley of Kenya searching for the hardiest of organisms in the most extreme environments for life. By getting to know life forms on Earth that can occupy the most hostile niches, we can begin to understand the survival requirements for life in general. She describes her quest for "life at the edge" and how such discoveries will shape our search for life in the Solar System and beyond.

Dr. Lynn Rothschild is an evolutionary biologist/astrobiologist at NASA Ames, and Professor at Stanford and Brown University, where she teaches Astrobiology and Space Exploration.  She has broad training in biology, with degrees from Yale, Indiana University, and a Ph.D. from Brown University in Molecular and Cell Biology. Since arriving at Ames in 1987, her research has focused on how life, particularly microbes, has evolved in the context of the physical environment, both here and potentially elsewhere. Field sites range from Australia to Africa to the Andes, from the ocean to 100,000 feet on a balloon. In the last few years Rothschild has brought her expertise in extremophiles and evolutionary biology to the field of synthetic biology, addressing on how synthetic biology can enhance NASA's missions. Rothschild is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the California Academy of Sciences and the Explorers Club.

Great research opportunity

Andrea, a grad student in my wife's lab is looking for good undergrads to help with summer research (and possibly to pair up with to apply for a grant for grad-undergrad research teams). 

This is a fantastic opportunity to get involved in a very exciting research project. The Briggs lab works on a number of research areas but much of the current focus is on the frog-killing Chytrid Fungus in the California Sierra Nevada.

Like most folks in the lab Andrea will be doing some back-country field work, but also does a lot of molecular biology (genotyping chytrid strains and characterizing bacterial communities that are symbiotic on the skin of frogs).  The general idea is to understand how bacterial community composition and chytrid strain contribute to the outcome of infection (persistence or die-off of populations).

Let me know asap if you are interested and I'll put you in touch with Andrea. Cherie has had lots of great CCS students in her lab and I'd like to continue that tradition.

Selasa, 08 Maret 2011

Zombie taxa

The dinosaurs all died out at the end of the Mesozoic, about 60 million years earlier.  Or did they...

Numerous dinosaur teeth have actually been found in much more recent rock formations, well into the Paeleogene. There are a number of explanations for this.

One explanation is that we are entirely wrong about the extinction of the dinosaurs. They did not go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous and persisted much longer, perhaps to the modern day! But for some mysterious reason their bones stopped being preserved and they just left teeth and claws.

An entirely different explanation, and dare I say a much more plausible one, is that in some taxa fossil structures may be eroded out of one layer and then re-deposited in a younger layer. Given that our fossil record of dinosaurs post-Cretaceous consists of just the sort of a structures (teeth) we'd expect to be washed out and re-preserved the evidence is consistent with this hypothesis.

This hypothesis also predicts that even today we would find structures like dinosaur teeth washed out of sediments and being preserved in brand new depositions. Yes, yes we do. Such taxa are known as zombie taxa.

Senin, 07 Maret 2011

Redefining Evolutionary Relationships

The evolutionary tree of life may undergo a makeover in the next decade or so.

In the past, the primary sources of information about the evolutionary relationships between organisms came from the fossil record or from comparative anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry. But now a new scientific field called phylogenomics (the study of the evolutionary history of organisms based on genetics) has emerged, thanks to the increased availability and cheap cost of sequencing DNA.

How does comparative DNA sequence data tell us anything? By tracing specific differences in the nucleotide sequences of the genes of closely related species, phylogeneticists can tell just how closely related two species are and when they most likely split from a common ancestor. That’s because when a mutation (a change in nucleotide sequence) occurs by random chance in a common ancestor, that mutation should still be present in all subsequent descendants of that ancestor. So when exactly the same mutation appears in the same gene in two species, the mutation most likely occurred before the two species split from a common ancestor – i.e. the two species are related to each other by a common ancestor.

The DNA sequences of a wide variety of species are now known, and more are being determined every day. We can expect challenges to the current tree of life (also called the phylogenetic tree) as the data are analyzed and debated.

Save the date

The Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at  UCSB cordially invites all faculty, staff and students to attend:
Honoring Dan Morse and his ongoing contributions to the UCSB campus and the at-large research community

Friday, April 15, 2011
100 PM - 530 PM
Loma Pelona Center, UCSB Campus

DRAFT SCHEDULE (speakers confirmed):
100 PM -- coffee/tea/cookies
115 PM -- Opening Remarks hosted by Dr. Joel Rothman, Chair, MCD Biology
130 PM -- Talk #1 (Dr. Bernie Degnan)
230 PM -- Talk #2 (Dr. Jen Cha)
315PM -- BREAK (refreshments)
330 PM -- Talk #3 (Dr. Angela Belcher - Giving Life to Materials for Energy, the Environment and Medicine)
415 PM -- Closing Remarks
430-530 PM -- RECEPTION (libations, hors d'ouevres)

A final schedule will be posted on the MCDB website
(http://www.lifesci.ucsb.edu/mcdb/ ).

Angela Belcher is one of CCS Bio's more famous alumni, director of the Biomolecular Materials Group at MIT and a 2004 MacArthur Fellow (aka the Genius award).

Minggu, 06 Maret 2011

Career opportunities

Who knew that panda impersonator was even a valid career option?

From a Time Photo-story: Giant Panda People - scientists don costumes for good cause.

In 1980, the Chinese government teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to establish the China Conservation and Research Center for giant pandas. Since then, with 100,000 visitors a year, it has become the most popular place on the planet to see giant pandas in their habitat. The reserve's mission is to observe, study and breed the endangered species to increase their chances of survival. So far the reservation has successfully bred 66 panda cubs.

Part of the reserve's mission includes placing the pandas it has bred back into the wild. Because previous attempts to reintroduce captive pandas into the wild have been largely unsuccessful, the researchers have developed the novel technique of dressing as the animals to acclimate them to the wild.

I think we need one more picture but you should check them all out at the Time website.

Is the 'panda' on the left eating bamboo? That seems to be taking method acting a bit too far...

Sabtu, 05 Maret 2011


The world’s largest set of shark jaws is going up for auction. The jaws, which once belonged to a megalodon, will be placed up for bid in Dallas, Texas in June at the Heritage Auction Galleries. The asking price is set at $625,000. The previous owner, the late Vito Bertucci, spent 16 years gathering the right shaped teeth to fit the jaw. So paleontologically this may be a specimen of many parts but realistically it is just awesome.

Magalodon is an extinct species of shark that lived roughly about 25 to 1.5 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era.

It is thought that megalodon looked like a bigger version of the great white shark. Much bigger.

Furthermore a paper in 2008 suggested that Magalodon had the most powerful bite that has yet been discovered.

Personally I think this would look awesome placed around my front door. Assuming it doesn't go for much more than the asking price I guess I could sell my house and buy it but then I wouldn't have a front door... It's a pity CCS doesn't have a large slush fund or a generous benefactor because these jaws would also look great as the entrance to CCS. I'm not sure if they would send the right message but they'd look fantastic.

Jumat, 04 Maret 2011

The Sixth Mass Extinction

Over about 3.5 billion years, evolution (descent of species over time, with genetic modification) has produced the astonishing variety and number of life forms found on Earth today. Punctuating this natural evolutionary process of speciation have been five mass extinctions – periods characterized by the rapid (compared to evolutionary processes) loss of over 75% of all species. Past causes of mass extinctions include major changes in ocean and atmospheric chemistry, changes in climate, periods of volcanic activity, and an impact with an asteroid.

According to a recent review article in Nature, we may be about to enter a sixth mass extinction, meaning that over the next 300 to several thousand years we can expect that over 75% of all current species will become extinct. Somewhat disturbing is the suggested cause – humans. Won’t THAT be an interesting and contentious debate over the next 300 years or so!

This is a well-referenced review in a high-quality journal. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in this subject. The notion that the next mass extinction may be caused by humans is only a small part of it.

Lotusland 2011

Unlike last year when it rained we had beautiful weather this year. The rain did lead to some great pictures last year though. Check out the posts here and here for some photos of the gardens last year in the sun and rain.

Post some pictures from this year if you took some good ones (when you click the photo icon in the posting screen this will give you the option to upload a photo).

Here are two articles about the Lotusland gardens and their founder, Ganna Walska, Forget About Rubies – She Wanted Cycads from the Christian Science Monitor and What The Diva Wrought, published in the Wall Street Journal. Both are short and well worth a read. The second article is hosted at the Lotusland website so click the links on the left for further information about Lotusland. 

Kamis, 03 Maret 2011

Early earth tectonics

This National Geographic video showing plate tectonics during the early earth covers a surprisingly large number of topics we have mentioned in this class - from the surprisingly early appearance of life before the end of the massive asteroid bombardment, to the generation of heat via radioactivity within the earth and the movement of the continents. Notice that they go much further back than Pangaea. Evidence for these early super continents is much weaker than the evidence for Pangaea.

'Here's how it might have happened...'

The UC Museum of Paleotology at Berkeley has some neat animated gifs of Plate tectonics, I like this one that ends with the present day. Check out India smashing into the rest of asia.

Rabu, 02 Maret 2011

Repairing Damaged Heart Muscle

After a heart attack, the best one can generally hope for is that the area of damage becomes scar tissue that is sufficiently strong to withstand the high blood pressures generated in the heart. That’s because in adult mammals, cardiac muscle does not rebuild or repair itself after an injury. And yet, adult frogs, newts, and some fish still do have the ability to rebuild functional heart tissue after injury – what’s the difference?

One hypothesis is that the general ability of heart muscle to regenerate in essentially all embryos is switched off shortly after birth in higher mammals. In support of this hypothesis, researchers have now shown that mouse hearts do undergo structural and functional regeneration, but only if the damage occurs within the first week after birth. These findings raise the possibility that if we could understand the process of heart muscle regeneration in a newborn mouse, we might be able to induce the process again in adult mammals if necessary. Ultimately this could lead to new approaches for the treatment of victims of heart attacks.

Biomimicry for the Future

This is an amazing short talk on how biomimicry could be utilized to reduce waste products and carbon footprints in modern designs.
Also, this is the Eden Project he references and the seawater greenhouse.

Research Ethics Talk

And now for something completely different.

*Date and location*: Mon, March 7, 4-6pm, Girvetz 1004

*Speaker*: Prof. Herbert Kroemer

*Abstract*: In early 2002, Bell Labs physicist Hendrick Schoen was considered a rising star in the field of molecular electronics. A little older than 30, Schoen had already authored 90 publications and received a series of prestigious awards. In April 2002, he was being considered for the directorship of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. In September 2002, he was fired by the Bell Labs and his most prominent papers were withdrawn from publication. What happened? In this talk, Prof. Kroemer will tell us about his role in the investigation on scientific misconduct and discuss issues and repercussions of unethical conduct in research.

To whet your appetite for this talk check out The Rise and Fall of a Physics Fraudster in Physics World. Although this example is from the world of physics the implications for scientific research are very general.

I used to joke with my friends in the physics community that if you want to cleanse your discipline of the worst scientists in it, every three or four years, you should have someone publish a bogus paper claiming to make some remarkable new discovery — infinite free energy or ESP, or something suitably cosmic like that. Then you have it published in a legitimate journal ; it shows up on the front page of the New York Times, and within two months, every bad scientist in the field will be working on it.  Gary Taubes.

Selasa, 01 Maret 2011


Cuttlefish eye, close-up
Cuttlefish are amazing animals! They can change their color faster than a chameleon because they have chromatophores which are special cells. They can change their pigment to complicated shapes to fit their background, and amazingly enough most cuttlefish are color blind!
Cuttlefish are color blind and yet they are masters of camouflage. Scientists don't know how they read colors, which they can do in the dark, perhaps something about their skin.

A strange fact about the cuttlefish is that it can adopt the female coloration along one side of the body as well as retain the male coloration on the other side. Male cuttlefish are extremely alert when it comes to the females, especially if she is laying the eggs. The male will guard aggressively over the female and this is when another approaching male will use his ability to have a dual look to access the female and trick the male.

Here are some cool links about the cuttlefish :)

More epigenetics

The Scientist magazine (the magazine of the Life Sciences) March issue has a special Focus on epigenetics.

I haven't had time to read these yet but there's a whole bunch of interesting looking articles:
and, in case you thought this wasn't relevant to today's lecture:
  • The Footprints of Winter - Epigenetic marks laid down during the cold months of the year allow flowering in spring and summer.
Many plants that grow in climates with a cold winter require growth for several months at low temperatures—a process called vernalization—to promote flowering in spring, when days lengthen and temperatures increase. Without this period of cold, plants would grow leaves in the spring, but would fail to flower. This phenomenon, familiar to every horticulturist, was difficult to explain with genetics alone; something occurred during those cold months that left a mark, which, in effect, released a switch that permitted flowering in spring. In recent years, the field has looked beyond the genome and found that vernalization is controlled by a wide range of epigenetic mechanisms.

    Cactus Walking On 20 Legs Found In China

    Cactus Walking On 20 Legs Found In China

    There was a wild period — roughly 520 million years ago — when life, for no obvious reason, burst into a crazy display of weird new fantastic forms — producing creatures in shapes never seen before or since. Consider this animal, the newest fossil discovery from Jianni Liu in China. She calls it "the walking cactus."
    This is not a plant, not a sculpture. It was a live animal, with no eyes, what may or may not be a head, mostly a gaggle of limbs, armor-plated, covered in thorns, attached to a stomach.
    What is it? Taxonomically, Jianni Liu thinks it's a lobopodian, a group of animals described as "worms with legs." Lobopodians are about the craziest looking critters that ever lived. A whole zoo of them appear in the rocks around Chengjiang, China. Here's what the walking cactus looks like in a rock...
    A fossil of Diania cactiformis.
    A fossil of Diania cactiformis.
    Jianni Liu has found three well-preserved walking cactus fossils, but previously discovered lobopodians are even weirder. Hallucigeni, so named because of its "bizarre and dreamlike quality" (said the scientist who described it) is another walking worm that has what looks like a head-like blob on one side, but with no mouth, no eyes, no sensory organs, so it probably isn't a head.
    Illustration of Hallucigenia.
    Mary Parrish/Smithsonian Institution
    No one can quite figure out if those projections are walking legs or feeding tentacles. We're not sure which side is up, which is down, but we know it lived in shallow seas and so the folks at the Field Museum in Chicago have imagined it taking a walk on a sunny day...moving something like this...
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