On a cool summer night, you might see fireflies glow. What you may not know is that fireflies are key to discovering new drugs too.  Fireflies glow through a process called bioluminescence. In it, there are molecules that combine with energy and give off the green glow. Scientists are using those molecules and attaching them to cells to learn more about how these cells work. Following the glowing molecule is like watching a person in a darkly-lit room who has a glow stick. You know exactly where they are. The same goes for the part of the cell that has the glowing firefly molecule attached to it.

Now, fireflies are not the only species that glow.  There are worms that glow along with the anglerfish, which you’ve seen in major movies. There are also deep-sea shrimp that glow. Out of all those organisms, the deep-sea shrimp has the most disturbing use of bioluminescence.  When shrimps feel threatened by a predator, they vomits a glowing goo from their mouth to scare them off. That is a very effective means of bioluminescence!

All in all, bioluminescence is one of the tools that animals have.  Nature provides some excellent ways to see things in the dark, which scientists borrow for discoveries. As you can see, the light from fireflies is a small beacon during the summer, but also for the discovery of new medicines.

 

Something is happening to honeybees! They are turning into zombie bees, or zombees.

There is a tiny fly that is injecting its eggs into the honeybee along with a parasite, and the parasite is taking over the honeybees’ behavior.  The bees fly around erratically and walk around awkwardly. You can say that it is the flight of the living dead.

Scientists are asking all of us to look out for bees that act strangely and report these sitings on their website: Zombeewatch.org. If you see something, say something. So far zombie bees have been found on the west coast in California and Washington state and on the east coast in Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Honeybees are important to us because they pollenate many of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables we enjoy. Without honeybees, there would be no honey too. Americans eat over 400 million pounds of honey every year.  If bees go away, we will need to eat foods that are wind pollenated like corn and wheat.

Honeybees make our lives a bit sweeter and here is one way all of us can help to keep them buzzing.

We all know that chameleons change color. But there is another marine master of disguise that you might not know about–the cuttlefish. This animal can change its skin with more variety and much faster than a chameleon. The secret has to do with how it communicates to tell its body to change.

The chameleon sends signals through its bloodstream to tell the body to camouflage. However, the cuttlefish sends electrical signals using its nervous system, which is much faster. By the time a chameleon has changed once, a cuttlefish has changed four times.

The reason for the cuttlefish’s ability to have such a diverse range in camouflaging is that it skin is made up of three layers. The first layer can change to warm colors, the second layer can change to all the others, the third layer can turn white. The combination of all those layers allows the cuttlefish to change to any color, plus patterns.

Here is a video for you to se for yourself (courtesy Roger Hanlon):

There have lots of news about various pandemics. The first line of defense is a camera, a thermal camera.

When someone is sick, they usually have a temperature. Here is where the camera comes it. Thermal cameras can “see” if someone has a fever because these cameras can detect the heat. Thermal camera detect the heat, which comes off as infrared.

 

Twenty years ago, there were 1 billion monarch butterflies migrating 3,000 miles from the US to Mexico. Today, there are only 35 million! If you don’t want to do the math, that is less than 10 percent around now compared to what was around when the Spice Girls were big.

So what happened? Well, a weed that the monarch butterflies (and caterpillars) eat started to go away, and along with this weed went the monarchs.

Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed. Twenty years ago, milkweed grew quite a bit. But, with the development of crops that can resist herbicides, farmers sprayed and sprayed killing off the milkweed. When there is no milkweed, there are no monarchs.

Monarchs are a majestic species and one of the last animals we know that proceed with a great migration. American Bison (also known as the buffalo) use to migrate long distances, but they were virtually exterminated. Carrier pigeons used to migrate, but they are not around any more either. So, here we are facing another extinction of an animal, but there is something that we can all do to stop the monarchs from going away forever.

One thing you can do is stop mowing your lawn. Yes, you read that right. If you don’t mind a few wild flowers, why not add milkweed to the mix.  There are places that will give you free milkweed seeds.

Cities can stop mowing around power lines and underpasses that need not be well manicured. Here, milkweed can grow and give monarchs something to dine on too.

What is clear is that all of us can make a difference and bring these beautiful creatures back to a robust population.  We often hear about butterfly effects, but this time we can have an effect on butterflies.

Happy non-mowing!

It is lunchtime in the future. You are hungry and eating a burger. But, the beef inside did not come from a cow. It came from a lab. Scientists are figuring out how to grow hamburger patties in a petri dish.

Now, you might be wondering why would you want to grow two all-beef patties without the cow? It ends up that cows are very inefficient at producing protein. Also, there will be many more mouths to feed in the future. In fact, by 2050, there will be nearly 9 billion people on the planet. That’s a lot of hungry people. Cows can’t cut it.

Additionally, cows produce a lot (like,  10 to 20%) of all the green house gases in the world, because they belch methane. Methane is a powerful gas that traps the heat that the earth is trying to eliminate. So, finding another source of meat is good for the planet.

Making a lab-grown beef patty is a very simple process.  There are special cells in your body called stem cells that are used to repair muscles should they become injured. What scientists do is get these stem cells and take them outside of the body and give them an environment to grow and create muscle.  And, nine weeks later, you have a hamburger.

So what does the burger taste like? Well, it is a bit dry. There isn’t any fat to hold in the juices. So, researchers are working on making fat too.

Interestingly, the cost of this first burger wasn’t cheap. It cost $25,000 to create it. But, now that these scientists know what it takes to make one burger, they can figure out how to scale up their process.

It will take some time before you see a beaker-grown beef patty. There are still many tests that have to be done and governmental guidelines that need to be met.

But, eventually a beef patty may be made at a 3D printer near you.

 

Dogs bark. Cats meow. Ducks quack. These noises might not seem like much to us, but animals are communicating.

We’ve been intrigued with communicating with animals since the classic movie Dr. Dolittle from the 1960s and the revamped version of this movie in the 1990s with Eddie Murphy. But, scientists have been studying animal language for much, much longer and have found that animals have a full vocabulary with verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Animals can alert other animals of predators by stating what the predator is, what it looks like, and how fast the predator is running.

But the fascinating part about animal language is time. Animals with longer lives tend to speak at longer and more drawn-out paces than animals with shorter lives and faster speech. For instance, a prairie dog speaks in chirps, but if you slow down those chirps, they sound like human speech. Prairie dogs live for a three to five years.  On the other end, whales live for decades and speak for whole minutes. If you speed up their speech several times, it sounds like a human speaking.  There seems to be some correlation between the length of life and how long an animal speaks.

All this is to say it that the chirps or barks you hear are full of compressed information. And, to quote Bonnie Raitt, that is “Something to Talk About.”

Find out more about animal language here:

Chasing Dr. Dolittle by Con Slobodchikoff

 

Imagine you are a seed. You are buried in the ground and it is dark.

You are starting to sprout and grow. But which way should you go? Which way is up?

Well, it ends up there are special cells in plants that allow it to sense the direction of gravity. These cells are sort of like a jar full of water with small rocks inside. If you throw in the rocks and seal the jar, the rocks will fall to the bottom. If you tilt the jar, the rocks will fall to the new bottom. Something similar is going on inside these cells. There are small rocks that fall to the bottom of the cell and tell the cell, this is where gravity is pulling. So, the roots know to go in that direction; and the shoots of the plant know to go in the opposite direction.

Scientists would call this ability of plants to sense gravity, gravitropism.

If you want, you can try a little experiment. Get a small plant, and put it on its side. In a few days, the plant will tilt upwards.

Now, this ability for plants to sense the direction of gravity is fine on earth were gravity is present, but what about on the space station, where there is little gravity? If we want to grow plants in space, in the right direction, we need to give plants other clues to know which way to grow. Fortunately, plants also grow in the direction of light too. And, recently astronauts have grown a flower in space.

Plants are budding with science and with special cells they know what’s up.

 

Our expanding waistlines result from the  competition between our modern diet and our ancestral genes.  The book Newton’s Football (Random House) spells in out:

Cheap and easy access to calories is a very recent development in the human condition. The hunting and gathering that early man did was a boom-or-bust business. One day there’d be a feast in the form of ripe fruits and vegetables or a freshly killed ox. And there were, of course, no Ziploc bags or Sub-Zero refrigerators in which to store the leftovers.

When the harvest was over and the hunters hit a dry spell, it was famine time. Attempts to store food were generally unsuccessful, and even when it did work, it still required an early human to defend the food against those who’d steal it, human or otherwise.

Storing excess calories as fat was an elegant solution to these problems.

“Fat is the best defense against a rainy day, and throughout human history there were lots of rainy days,” explains David Katz, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

Additionally, there is a new ingredient in our diet that our ancestors rarely enjoyed, and that is processed sugar.  Sugar is surprisingly prevalent in our modern diets and is found in bread and crackers and salad dressing and tomato sauce. And, that’s more calories to burn.

Sugar in moderation is a good thing and serves as a fuel for our bodies, but if we don’t use sugar, it gets stored. “It’s subject to the laws of thermodynamics,” says Katz. “If you don’t burn it, the body will store it as an excess of calories.”

As one can see, fat was a Stone Age solution for a rainy day when there wasn’t any food. Unfortunately, in our modern day, that rainy day never comes.

So, blame those extra pounds on your ancestors.

There is lots of news about CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a brain disease, a neurological degenerative disease that is caused by repetitive hits to the head. The symptoms include dementia, memory loss, and depression. In the early twentieth century, this condition was called “punch-drunk” and was found in a number of boxers who ultimately were found to suffer from dementia. No cure for CTE is currently known, and at present it can only be identified postmortem.

Here is an excerpt from Newtons Football (Affiliate Link), which describes where doctors are:

In the field of head injuries, scientists have a lot to try to understand as they parse the puzzle of concussions and the related long-term degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Just how does a concussive impact impair the function of the brain?

“You’ve got this metabolic crisis going on within the cell,” posits Robert Cantu, a professor of neurology at Boston University, as potassium ions flood out of the nerve cell, replaced by calcium ions, which prevent the cell from passing on information.”

Is there a genetic component to concussions and CTE?

“No one knows yet, but studies are focused on a variant of a common lipid transport gene called ApoE-e4. This gene does good things making sure fat goes to the right place,” says Robert Stern, a professor of neurology at Boston University, “but if you have the wrong form it does something crazy in the brain.” He adds that “it is a susceptibility gene, as opposed to a deterministic gene. If you have the wrong form, it increases your risk of having the disease, but it does not mean you will get it,” Stern explains. “There is not going to be a CTE gene because it is such a multifaceted disease.”

 

Newtons Football (Affiliate Link)