Ah the measles, a childhood illness that most of my generation has never experienced; due in large part to the success of measles vaccination. A lot of people think the measles isn’t that big of a deal, its just some combination of a rash and fever that goes away in due time. While this is true in most people, in about 1 in 1,000 cases the infection becomes systemic and moves to the brain resulting in death, in what is known as measles encephalitis. The measles vaccination resolved this issue but also had an unexpected secondary effect.
16th-century Aztec drawing of someone with measles (Photo credit: Unknown – (2009) Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 144)
When the measles vaccine was first introduced in America in the 1960s, scientists were perplexed why childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted along w/ the measles; even deaths from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea were cut in half. An obvious assumption was the drop in childhood deaths was just a result of our advances in modern medicine. While there is undoubtedly truth in the assertion that modern medicine was advancing rapidly in the mid-20th century, whenever the measles vaccine was introduced to Europe a few years later, and even now as its being introduced to third world countries, the same phenomena has been observed. Places that have the measles vaccine see a steep decline in deaths from all other childhood diseases. So whats going on?
As 2016 winds to a close, and in the spirit of the holiday season behold the world’s smallest snowman, measuring in at 3 microns. To put that into perspective, the smallest grains of sands are approximately 60 microns.
Mini snowman, ~3 microns in height (Photo credit: Western Nanofabrication Facility)
This creation is the work of Canadian nanotechnologists from the Western Nanofabrication Facility. The snowman is made from three ~1 micron silica spheres stacked using electron beam lithography. The eyes and mouth were cut with a focused ion, beam while the arms and nose were sculpted with platinum.
Tiny snowman amongst other 1 micron silica spheres. (Photo credit: Western Nanofabrication Facility)
A cool feel good story to round off 2016 as we head into 2017. Happy New Year all!
Plastics, more importantly microplastics, clog our oceans. This phenomena in the ocean has been likened to smog around cities. These plastic particles are dangerous because they can absorb toxins, subsequently be consumed by zooplankton and invertebrates, and bioaccumluate up the food web to fish that are consumed by humans. A study in Nature found that 25 percent of seafood sold contains microplastics! There has been a recent awareness of the unseen harm that exists when plastic pollution in the ocean degrades into microplastics. A report in Environmental Research Letters estimated that “accumulated number of micro plastic particles… ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.” That is cray cray. Despite a better awareness of the impact of microplastics on marine ecology, we still have a poor spatial understanding of microplastics in the ocean. The presence and density of microplastics is determined by trawling the ocean (i.e., researchers go out with a net and physically count the pieces of plastic they pick up). As you can imagine, this is not very effective.
Conceptualization of plastic degrading in the ocean. (Photo credit: Archipelagos Institute)
Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.
Living the life of a graduate student at VIMS’ infamous Fall Party. (Photo credit: Kersey Sturdivant)
Science brings us many wonderful things (honestly if you enjoy the benefits of the modern era, go out and hug a scientist). One of humanities age old desires is the ability to convert something invaluable, or a nuisance, into something desirable. The old midas touch if you will. Recently some scientist stumbled onto the process of converting CO2, a primary culprit of anthropogenic climate change, into alcohol… though not the kind you drink, the kind that humanity could use as fuel.
(Photo credit: Getty + Space Images)
Producing fuel from CO2 is huge because it lets us take a nuisance compound, and converts it into a productive one. This was accomplished by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by using common materials (copper and carbon), but arranging them with nanotechnology. The researchers were attempting to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn CO2 into a useful fuel, such as ethanol. They figured they would go from CO2 to methanol, and then work out the logistics of going from methanol to ethanol, when they realized the first step in their process managed to do it all by itself. Science for the win!
Happy FSF! As some of you may know (and for those who don’t), I study the bottom of the ocean, and I do so primarily using innovative technology to image the seafloor (e.g., Wormcam). The interesting work I’ve conducted has resulted in me having the opportunity to present my work to a larger lay audience, in the form of a TEDx presentation.
(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)
I am giving my TED talk with my good buddy and colleague Steve Sabo. In our talk, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Worms”, Steve & I will illustrate the significance of the ocean floor through advancements in underwater camera technology and data visualization, making complex science more accessible for everyone.
Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)
Pollination. I think most people understand why this is important (or maybe I should say, I hope). To put it simply, the process of pollination facilitates reproduction in plants by transferring pollen from one plant to another. In the terrestrial world, this can be mediated by physical forcing (e.g., wind) or by animals (e.g., insects) – and its why people are freaking out about the loss of bees due to pesticides (because they are a primary pollinator), but I digress. Until relatively recently, pollination by animals was not thought to occur in the ocean. Unlike on land, where most flowering plants rely on creatures to carry pollen, plant reproduction in an aquatic world was surmised to rely exclusively on currents and tides. However, a team of researchers led by marine biologist Brigitta van Tussenbroek revoked the long standing paradigm that pollen in the sea is transported only by water, discovering and documenting the process of zoobenthophilous pollination (a term they coined).
Gamarid amphipod feeding on pollen of a male
flower of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum at night. (Photo credit: Tussenbroek et al. 2012)
In today’s FSF we bring you both a jaw dropping, and somewhat terrifying cinematic visualization of how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, and overtime can become super bugs immune to any antibiotic treatment. A concise and detailed description is presented below:
This stunning video of evolution in action captures how bacteria with no resistance to an antibiotic can in a very short time become resistant to concentrations of more than a thousand times the initial concentration. Other scientists have documented this phenomenon before, but never with such vivid clarity as that provided by Michael Bay and Roy Kishony of Harvard University.
A great white shark nursery in the North Atlantic that was discovered in 1985 south of Cape Cod in the waters off Montauk, New York has received renewed attention due to the increased activity of white sharks off cape cod in recent years. The nursery was first documented in 1985 by Casey and Pratt who deduced the presence of a nursery based on the number of juvenile sightings and landings in the area. This work was followed up recently by OCEARCH (an organization dedicated to generating scientific data related to tracking/telemetry and biological studies of keystone marine species such as great white sharks), which tagged and tracked nine infant great whites to the nursery, located a few miles off Montauk.
Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com
Photo of a great white shark in Mexico by Terry Goss, WikiMedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_shark.jpg
Human induced climate change is real. It feels weird that I have to say that, but the overwhelming body of evidence suggest human activity post the industrial revolution is having irrevocable damage on our environment. One of the major implications of climate change is the loss of the polar glaciers (and subsequent sea level rise).