I’m a Total Bio Nerd

….and this blog makes me giggle. Not So Humble Pie is my new favorite blog (other than my own, of course.)

And since I work in a Drosophila lab…these cookies made me shriek with delight.

See more on BoingBoing (one of my coworkers brought in Petri dish cookies today!!!)

If anyone knows where I can find a set of science-themed cookie cutters, please tell me!! I’d love you forever!!!

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UCLA Researchers: Stem Cells Kill HIV

In a spectacular breakthrough for science, UCLA researchers have demonstrated that stem cells can be engineered into essentially a genetic vaccine.

!!!!!!! <—– is how excited I am about this

Now, this does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that we have found a cure for AIDS. Research environments are carefully chosen for optimum conditions, and although I have not read the journal article this research was presented in, I believe it’s safe to say that these conditions were no exception to the norm.

Still, a breakthrough is a breakthrough.

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Is there a place for faith in science?

I know it’s been awhile. Working full time keeps me pretty busy, and when I get home from work I usually don’t want to blog.

But today I read an opinion article on CNN.com that made me feel the call of the blog again. This year we celebrated Darwin’s 150th birthday. And as we all know, evolution is a hot topic of controversy, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future (unless everyone just starts to get it!)

This column, written by Michael Shermer, is an excellent digestion of the reasons why so many Americans (45%, according to a 2001 Gallup poll) completely reject evolution. He also offers the argument that religion and science need not be mutually exclusive. I happen to agree with him. Is human life less spectacular if we evolved this way than if God placed us here on this Earth sometime in the last 10 millenia? I think not, and Shermer agrees with me. Before I give you some gems from the article, here are the 6 reasons (boiled down by me) Shermer thinks prevent nearly half of Americans from accepting evolution.

1. The idea that science and religion cannot co-exist, that if one is right, the other is wrong.
2. Belief that evolution is a threat to certain religious tenets.
3. Misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. (And, in my not-so-humble opinion, a misunderstanding of the scientific concept of theory.)
4. The fear that evolution degrades our humanity.
5. The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism.
6. The fear that evolution implies that we have a fixed human nature which we cannot hope to contain within civilization.

And now, my favorite snippets:

“If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe — 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.”

“It should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God’s works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.”

“Believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors. We have learned a lot in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be welcomed by all who cherish human understanding and wisdom.”

Another column posted on CNN.com, written about Richard Dawkins, argues that religion and science cannot co-exist, and goes so far as to call upon atheists to take up a secular crusade. While I won’t disagree completely with Dawkin’s statement that “Religion teaches us to be satisfied with non-explanations,” I think that faith has a place. Science cannot explain the “why” of many things. Unless you’re wondering “why” vinegar and baking soda make an excellent fake volcano, science really can’t help you. Science explains the how. I maintain that we’ll never know the exact reasons a bunch of amino acids got together, had a party, and made a living thing, even if someday we do know exactly how. And if you need to know why, or at least have a reason why, then faith can help you. Faith and religion (not the same) are not for everyone, but for those who need or want it, it is there, and it doesn’t have to mean you reject science.  Therefore, I believe that there can be a place for faith in science, and a place for science in faith.

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More Things Science Can Do…and It’s Okay!

Per the suggestion of a friend, albeit one that came about three weeks ago, I’ve decided to write an entry about how theories can be supplanted when new ones that make more sense and come with more evidence are proposed. I feel that this draws parallels to the world of politics, where changing your mind based on new information is viewed as “flip-flopping”, whereas if you never change your mind, you are a “strong leader.” The comic Bizzaro did a nice job of illustrating this once, but I can’t find a link to it.

Anyway, as an example of my above point, let’s discuss the Miasma theory of disease, and how it has been supplanted by the germ theory. (Quick definition of theory = “comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with scientific laws that express relationships between observations of such concepts” (from Wikipedia page on scientific theory.)

The Miasma theory of disease holds that many diseases such as chlamydia, cholera, and even Black Plague were caused by bad/polluted air. (Miasma come from the Greek for “pollution.”) Perhaps one of the best-known instances of the miasma theory being put into large practice is in the cholera outbreaks of the 1850s in London. Until John Snow deduced in 1854 that cholera was being spread via the dirty water in the London slums, the theory that it was being spread by dirty air was the going idea. This idea even made acceptance of Snow’s theory difficult, and prevented sanitary measures from being introduced in a timely fashion.

Florence Nightingale was also a big proponent of miasma theory. That doesn’t discredit her work, however, because due to her strong belief that bad air was causing various infectious diseases, hospitals became more and more sanitary. (And started to smell better!) Others who accepted miasma theory made the connection between dirtiness and disease, but they did not understand that it was the germs in that dirtiness that was actually making people sick.

Enter germ theory. This theory, like many in science, was highly controversial when it was proposed. (Imagine that, controversy in science…) I can definitely see why though: “Wait, so you doctors are telling me that what’s making me sick are these tiny little things that I can’t see and that live inside of me?” Kind of hard to believe, right?

Germ theory is actually much older than Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Louis Pasteur. An ancient Hindu text called the Atharvaveda mentions living agents as the cause of disease. In 36 BC, On Agriculture was published, and in it a warning about locating a home near a swamp, due to minute organisms that can float through the air and cause sickness.

It wasn’t until 1676 that the first of many scientists (van Leeuwenhoek) made the first crucial discovery that would go on to help prove germ theory: observing bacteria under a microscope. That proved the existence of microorganisms. Ignaz Semmelweis contributed to the theory in 1847, by lowering child mortality rates at a Vienna hospital after making doctors wash their hands between autopsies and delivering a child. John Snow, with his observations about cholera, added more evidence. Pasteur, between 1860 and 1864, added even more backing with his evidence against spontaneous generation of bacteria.

Robert Koch, in 1890, really added the final blow against miasma theory, and gave the best weight to germ theory with his postulates. These 4 rules, with following experiments, essentially proved germ theory (and are still used today in the study of new diseases):

  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy animals.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

Germ theory has supplanted miasma theory because it has been tested many times, has a large body of evidence behind it, and is frankly the more logical explanation. The practice of germ theory has resulted in antibiotics and sterile treatments (thank you Lister), and is now a cornerstone of clinical microbiology. Only delusional people still believe miasma theory. 🙂

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More Reasons Stem Cells Rock

I have finally decided to post a news article, after much time off! I know you are all excited.

Anyway, researchers led by Dr. Yoram Cohen at Tel Aviv University in Israel have discovered that stem cells derived from bone marrow cells can migrate to diseased areas of the brain, and potentially repair them or halt cell degeneration. These findings have large implications for future treatments of neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.  This is especially exciting for me, because since my grandmother, who passed away about a month ago, was diagnosed with dementia (no official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was ever made), I’ve been very interested in research on this disease and others like it.

The first part of the study was to prove that the cells were indeed viable. Using a state-of-the-art nanoparticle system, researchers were able to track the movements of the stem cells, and determined that the cells were indeed migrating to the areas of disease. Dr. Cohen explained, “Cells that go toward a certain position that needs to be rescued are the best indirect proof that they are live and viable. If they can migrate towards the target, they are alive and can read chemical signalling.”

This study also demonstrates the ability of bone marrow stem cells to be transformed in neural-type stem cells. This is good for two reasons: 1) it circumvents the ethical issues presented by using embryonic stem cells, and 2) the cells can be derived directly from the patient they are meant to treat, eliminating the possibility of rejection.

Obviously we are still a long way away from a real-life therapy using this method. We must remember that what works in animals won’t necessarily work in humans (although we sure hope it does!) We do, however, have a new path to explore in terms of treating neurodegenerative disease, and we have more evidence that stem cells are the answer to these diseases.

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Long Time No See

Hello everyone! I know it’s been a long time, but that’s what happens when you begin to plan a cross-country move, apparently.

Since I last posted, I’ve completed my move to Syracuse, gotten mostly settled, and begun my second week of work in Dr. Pignoni’s lab. So far most of my job has consisted of flipping flies….and there’s the fire alarm. And it’s pouring. Better go. More later.

….2.5 hours later, here I am again.

As I was saying, most of my work consists of flipping flies, which to the uninitiated means taking all the living flies out of one vial and putting them in a fresh one. This is necessary to keep stocks healthy and can also be done as part of a method to expand stocks. I have done some other things, for example: making +amp plates for plasmid propagation, begun a fly stock expansion that looks like it will take at least a month (the flies are not behaving), helped to organize the lab (the lab itself just moved from MEEI in Boston to Upstate), and a few other miscellaneous things. According to Dr. Pignoni, I will be the “fly tech” once I get comfortable and autonomous in the lab. This is because I have past experience with fruit flies, although I’m hoping that “fly tech” doesn’t mean “no molecular biology” because I really like molecular biology and that’s what the majority of my background is in.

Currently all the PIs in the lab space (there are three, each with their own lab) are on vacay. So we’re having an inter-lab party tomorrow. Which means I need to bake brownies after dinner.

Hopefully I’ll have some biology news or journal articles to discuss soon, now that I’m finally settled and finding some free time at work. But that’s it for now!

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Read the New Guidelines

As an addendum to my previous post, here is a link at which you can read the NIH’s new guidelines as well as the reasoning behind the guidelines. The guidelines are relatively easy to read, and they do not require extensive knowledge of biology and technical terms. It’s also quite educational to read how the NIH addressed concerns brought to them during the public comment period.

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