Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Beginnings of Jurassic Park: Dinosaur Blood Discovered? (A Guest Post)

A reposting of an original article by Samantha Vold

The classic tale of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs once again walked the earth has tickled the fancy of many a reader. Dinosaur DNA preserved in a fossilized mosquito was used to bring these giants back to life. But in real life, it was previously thought that there was no possible way for organic materials to be preserved, that they often degraded within 1 million years if not rapidly attacked by bacteria and other organisms specialized in decomposition. Skin and other soft tissues, such as blood vessels, would never withstand the test of time. Or would they…?

T. rex skeleton at Palais de la découverte. Image by David Monniaux at Wikimedia

In 1992, Mary Schweitzer was staring through a microscope at a thin slice of fossilized bone, but this bone had something unusual. There were small red disks located in this tissue and each had a small dark circle in the middle resembling a cell nucleus, the command center of the cell. And these little disks very much resembled the red blood cells of reptiles, birds, and other modern-day vertebrates (excluding mammals). But it wasn’t possible, was it? These cells came from a 67 million-year old T. rex. And it was commonly accepted that organic material never lasted that long.

Comparison of red blood cells. Image by John Alan Elson at Wikimedia

This opened a huge controversy in the scientific community, but Schweitzer persisted. She consulted with her mentor, Jack Horner, a leading scientist in the paleontology field, and he told her to prove to him that they weren’t red blood cells. Schweitzer took the challenge and began to run some tests.

The first clue to these mysterious scarlet-colored cells potentially being red blood cells was the fact that they were located within blood vessel channels of the dense bone that were not filled with mineral deposits. And these microscopic structures only appeared inside the vessel channels, as would be true of blood cells.

Schweitzer then began to focus on the chemical composition of these puzzling structures. Tests showed that these “little red round things” were rich in iron, and that the iron was specific to them. Iron is important in red blood cells as it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body. And the elemental make-up of these little red round things differed greatly from the surrounding bone and sediment around them.

The next test was looking for heme, a small iron-containing molecule that gives blood its characteristic color and allows hemoglobin proteins to transport oxygen throughout the body. Schweitzer tested for this through spectroscopy tests, which measure the light that a given material emits, absorbs, and scatters. Her results from these tests were consistent with what one would find in heme, suggesting that this molecule existed in the dinosaur bone she was analyzing.

Schweitzer then conducted a few immunology tests to see if she indeed had found hemoglobin in these ancient bones. Antibodies are produced when the body detects a foreign substance that could potentially be harmful. Extracts from the dinosaur bone were injected into mice to see if antibodies were produced to ward against this new organic compound. When these antibodies were then exposed to hemoglobin from turkeys and rats, they bound to the hemoglobin. This suggested that the extracts that caused an antibody response in the mice included hemoglobin. This in turn suggested the T. rex bone contained hemoglobin, or something very similar.

Through years of research, Schweitzer has shown that what was once believed to be impossible is indeed true. Soft tissues, blood cells, and proteins can withstand the test of time. This process is possibly done through iron binding to amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins) and thereby preserve them. Research is advancing in this area, but as of yet, no DNA has been found to bring Jurassic Park to life. But for the avid believer, don’t get up hope yet. Perhaps one day we truly could walk amongst dinosaurs.


References:

Fields, Helen. (May 2006). Dinosaur Shocker. Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine.

Pappas, Stephanie. (13 Nov. 2013). Mysteriously Intact T. Rex Tissue Finally Explained : DNews. DNews. Live Science.

Schweitzer, M. (2010). Blood from Stone Scientific American, 303 (6), 62-69 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1210-62

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Birds, Vitamin E, and the Race Against Time: A Guest Post

A reposting of an original article by Alyssa DeRubeis

The long and tapered wings on this young
Peregrine Falcon means it was built for some
serious speed! Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.
Maybe you’ve been put under the false assumption that humans are cool. Don’t get me wrong; our bodies can do some pretty neat physiological stuff. But I’m gonna burst your bubble: humans are lame. Just think of how fast we can run compared to a Peregrine Falcon in a full stoop: 27 MPH versus 242 MPH.

Keep thinking about all the cool things birds can do. It doesn’t take us long to realize that our feathered friends are vastly more fascinating compared to humans. Now that you’re finally admitting defeat, I ask that you read on.

The most amazing avian physiological feat is the ability to travel long distances seasonally (a.k.a migrate). Between poor weather conditions, preventing fat loss, and staying alert, migration is not easy by any means. However, birds can cope with all of these things by assimilating and using antioxidants like vitamin E.

Here’s a classic bird migration scene: thousands of Tundra Swans, geese, and ducks congregate on the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Here, they rest and refuel before continuing their journey south. Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

Let’s talk a little bit about bird migration. It’s a two-way street, where a migratory bird will (usually) fly north as soon as possible to rear its young, and then fly south where it can stay warm and eat all sorts of goodies. During these two bouts of intense exercise, the birds produce free radicals, which are types of atoms, molecules, and ions that can harm DNA and other important stuff inside the body. This is where vitamin E comes in to save the day, because this vitamin, along with vitamin A and carotenoids, are antioxidants. They drive away bad things like free radicals from birds’ bodies; some scientists suggest that they may even reduce risks of cancer! In the case of migrating birds, antioxidants can make this migration headache a lot more bearable.

Well, that’s great. But where do these antioxidants come from? The short answer is avian nom-noms, but it’s one thing to eat something with an antioxidant in it. It’s quite another to actually be able to assimilate and use this antioxidant. Okay…so where do the birds get this ability from? It’s parentals!

Anders Møller from the University of Paris-Sud, along with his international team including Clotilde Biard (France), Filiz Karadas (Turkey), Diego Rubolini (Italy), Nicola Saino (Italy), and Peter Surai (Scotland), pointed out that there is little research looking at maternal effects on our feathered friends. Møller hypothesized that maternal effects (the direct effects a mother has on her offspring) play a critical role in migration: If mothers put a lot of antioxidants in their eggs, the chicks will be able to absorb antioxidants better later in life. This would give these birds a competitive edge because they will migrate in a healthier condition and arrive to breeding grounds earlier.

This male Barn Swallow on the left must’ve gotten back pretty early for him to have landed himself such a beautiful female. Thank you, Vitamin E! Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

In the early 2000s, Møller and his five colleagues collected 93 bird species’ eggs. The crew was able to analyze how the natural differences in antioxidant concentrations (put in by the mother) related to the birds’ spring arrival dates in 14 of them. They found that vitamin E concentration, but not vitamin A concentration, was a reliable predictor of earlier arrival dates.

This European posse took it a step further by injecting over 700 barn swallow eggs with either a large dose of vitamin E or a dose of corn oil (which contains a small amount of vitamin E). It was soon evident that the chicks with more vitamin E were bigger than chicks that received less vitamin E, thus already giving the big chicks a competitive edge over their less vitamin E-affiliated brethren. The researchers kept track of the eggs that hatched out as males in the following spring via frequent mist-netting sessions (a bird-capturing technique). Guess what? The fellas with higher vitamin E concentrations arrived earlier on average by ten days than those with lower concentrations!

Sweet. But what does it all mean? First off, vitamin E is crucial for migratory birds because it allows them to process antioxidants more efficiently. In fact, another study done by Møller, Filiz Karadas, and Johannes Emitzoe out of University of Paris-Sud suggested that birds killed by feral cats had less vitamin E than birds that died of other reasons. Furthermore, the early birds get the worm. Events such as insect hatches—vital for baby birds—now occur earlier in the spring as temperatures rise (read: climate change). Plus, if you’re a male arriving at the breeding grounds early, you get to pick the best spots to raise your offspring.

Wood-warblers, such as this Palm Warbler, must get back to their northerly breeding grounds in a timely fashion in order to hit the insect hatch for da babies. Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

Obviously, there’s an advantage to up the vitamin E intake and get a head start as a developing embryo. In an egg, most nutrients come from the yolk…which comes from the mother. The healthier the mother, the more vitamin E she will put in her eggs. And vitamin E isn’t produced internally; birds must consume it. While Møller’s paper on maternal effects states that vitamin E can be found widely in nature, a separate study found no apparent association between vitamin E and avian diet. Hmm. So then where DO birds get vitamin E from? Is it a limiting resource? Is there competition for it?

Clearly, we’ve got some questions and answers. As the field of “birdology,” advances, we will learn more and keep humans jealous of birds for years to come.


REFERENCES

1. Møller, A., Biard, C., Karadas, F., Rubolini, D., Saino, N., & Surai, P. (2011). Maternal effects and changing phenology of bird migration Climate Research, 49 (3), 201-210 DOI: 10.3354/cr01030

2. Møller AP, Erritzøe J, & Karadas F (2010). Levels of antioxidants in rural and urban birds and their consequences. Oecologia, 163 (1), 35-45 PMID: 20012100

3. Cohen, A., McGraw, K., & Robinson, W. (2009). Serum antioxidant levels in wild birds vary in relation to diet, season, life history strategy, and species Oecologia, 161 (4), 673-683 DOI: 10.1007/s00442-009-1423-9

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Science Beat: Round 9

If you're stressing out over midterms and you learn science better with a beat, take an educational break:

Chemistry:




Cellular Biology:




Genetics:




Which was your favorite? If you liked these, check out other science songs worth learning at Science Beat, Science Beat: Round 2, Science Beat: Round 3, Science Beat: Round 4, Science Beat: Round 5, Science Beat: Round 6, Science Beat: Round 7, Science Beat: Round 8, and Science Song Playlist. Check out some song battles about the life of scientists at The Science Life, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs! And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future post!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Can Animals Sense Each Other’s Wants and Hopes?

A repost of an original article from November 13, 2013.

Is the ability to empathize uniquely human? This question has long been pondered by philosophers and animal behaviorists alike. Empathy depends in part on the ability to recognize the wants and hopes of others. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that we may not be alone with this ability.

A male Eurasian jay feeds his female mate. Photo provided by Ljerka Ostojić.
Ljerka Ostojić, Rachael Shaw, Lucy Cheke, and Nicky Clayton conducted a series of studies on Eurasian jays to explore whether male jays could perceive changes in what their female partners desired. Eurasian jays are a good species with which to explore this phenomenon because males routinely provide food to their female mates as a part of their courtship. The researchers wanted to know if males would adjust what food items males offered their mates depending on what food type the females wanted more.

In order to make a female prefer one food type over another, the researchers fed each female one of two food types (wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae) until they were full. But being full of one type of food doesn’t mean you can’t find room for desert, right? So when the researchers then offered the females access to both wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae, those that had previously eaten wax moth larvae now preferred mealworm larvae and those that had previously eaten mealworm larvae now preferred wax moth larvae. But could their male partners tell what they preferred at that moment?

In order to test whether male jays were sensitive to their partners’ desires, the researchers fed the females either wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae until they were full. They did this while their male partners watched from behind a transparent screen. They then removed the screen and gave the males 20 opportunities to choose between a single wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae to feed their partner. In this context, males usually chose to share with their mates the food that their partners preferred rather than the food their partners had already been fed! But are the males responding to their mate’s behavior or are they responding to what they saw when the females were eating earlier?



This video (provided by Ljerka Ostojić) shows the experimental process
in which the male chooses a food type and then shares it with his mate.

The researchers repeated the study with an opaque screen so the males could not see their mates while the females gorged on one particular food type. Without the ability to see the mate eating beforehand, males chose both food types equally and did not attend to their mate’s preferences. Because the females still had a preference for the opposite food type but the males were not adjusting for that preference, this means that the males are not responding to their mate’s behavior in this experiment or the previous one. This suggests that if male Eurasian jays see what their mates are eating, then somehow they have the ability to know to give their mate the opposite food type!

Whether this process involves the males having an understanding of their mate’s desires or some other mechanism is not fully known. But male Eurasian jays are certainly adjusting what they give their mates according to what she wants. Now if we can only teach human males to do that!

Want to know more? Check this out:

Ostojić, L., Shaw, R.C., Cheke, L.G., & Clayton, N.S. (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays PNAS, 110 (10), 4123-4128 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1209926110

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Striving for a Honeybee Democracy

A revision of an article from August 14, 2017.

Democracy is hard. And slow. And complicated. But if it is done well, it can result consistently in the best decisions and courses of action for a group. Just ask honeybees.

When a honeybee hive becomes overcrowded, the colony (which can have membership in the tens of thousands) divides in what will be one of the riskiest and potentially deadliest decisions of their lives. About a third of the worker bees will stay home to rear a new queen while the old queen and the rest of the hive will leave to establish a new hive. The newly homeless colony will coalesce on a nearby branch while they search out and decide among new home options. This process can take anywhere from hours to days, during which the colony is vulnerable and exposed. But they can’t be too hasty: choosing a new home that is too small or too exposed could be equally deadly.

Our homeless honeybee swarm found an unconventional "branch". We'd better
decide on a new home soon! Photo by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia.

Although each swarm has a queen, she plays no role in making this life-or-death decision. Rather, this decision is made by a consensus among 300-500 scout bees after an intense “dance-debate”. Then, as a single united swarm, they leave their branch and move into their new home. At this point, it’s critical that the swarm is unified in their choice of home site, because a split-decision runs the risk of creating a chaos in which the one and only queen can be lost and the entire hive will perish. This is a high-stakes decision that honeybees make democratically, efficiently, and amazingly, they almost always make the best possible choice! How do they do that? And how can we do that?

The honeybee house-hunting process has several features that allow them, as a group, to hone in on the best possible solution. The process begins when a scout discovers a site that has the potential to be a new home. She returns to her swarm and reports on this site, using a waggle dance that encodes the direction and distance to the site and her estimate of its quality. The longer she dances, the more suitable she perceived the site to be. Other scouts do the same, perhaps visiting the same site or maybe a new one, and they report their findings in dance when they return. (Importantly, scouts only dance for sites that they have seen themselves). As more scouts are recruited, the swarm breaks into a dancing frenzy with many scouts dancing for multiple possible sites. Over time, scouts that are less enthusiastic about their discovered site stop dancing, in part discouraged by dancers for other sites that head-bump them while beeping. Eventually, the remaining dancing scouts are unified in their dance for what is almost always the best site. The swarm warms up their flight muscles and off they go, in unison, to their new home.

Each dot represents where on the body this dancer was head-bumped by a dancer for a
competing site. Each time she's bumped, she's a little less enthusiastic about her own dance.
Figure from Seeley, et al. 2012 paper in Science.

What can we learn from these democratic experts? As much as I would love to see Congress in a vigorous dance-debate head-butting one another, I don't think that is the take-home message of choice. Tom Seeley at Cornell University has gained tremendous insight into effective group decision-making from his years observing honeybees, which he shares with us in his book, Honeybee Democracy. Tom has summarized his wisdom gained from observing honeybees in the following:

Members of Highly Effective Hives:

1. share a goal

2. search broadly to find possible solutions to the problem

3. contribute their information freely and honestly

4. evaluate the options independently and vote independently

5. aggregate their votes fairly

All of these critical guidelines can be encapsulated with a single objective: The decision-making body needs to objectively consider a range of information from individuals with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and knowledge. We can apply this to our own human decision-making: It means that we all need to vote objectively and honestly and independently. This means casting votes that are consistent with our own information and judgements, even when they are not consistent with the policical party we may align ourselves with. It also means that if you don't agree with the decisions of your School Board, Town Board, City Council, County Legislature, State Legislature, or National Legislature, then your background, expertise and knowledge are likely missing from the deciding body. Yes, you can write and call your representatives and provide them with part of your knowledge, or you can run for office yourself and make people with your background truly included in the decision-making process.

Many feel that our hive has been homelessly clinging to our exposed branch for too long. If we are going to make good, well-informed, effective, and efficient decisions, we need open and respectful communication across diverse backgrounds. Independent thinking and diversity improves the quality of the decisions that affect us all. If honeybees can do it, so can we.


Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

2. Seeley, T., Visscher, P., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P., Franks, N., & Marshall, J. (2011). Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision-Making by Honeybee Swarms Science, 335 (6064), 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

3. List, C., Elsholtz, C., & Seeley, T. (2009). Independence and interdependence in collective decision making: an agent-based model of nest-site choice by honeybee swarms Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1518), 755-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0277