7 Things To Know About Mitochondria: 2016 edition

Mitochondria: To most people, they’re little more than a ghostly memory fragment from middle school biology. However, these tiny “powerhouse(s) of the cell” are much more than they seem.

They’re actually the shape-shifting descendants of ancient bacteria that were eaten by a larger archaebacterium billions of years ago. . (If you want to know more about that theory, check out my recent Lateral magazine piece on the scientist who developed that theory.)  Mitochondria have complex relationships with other organelles, swim around in our neurons, and make up 1/3rd of the mass of heart cells.  In the past year, scientists have learned how to add and remove them with cellular surgeries and how to manipulate them directly.

Mitochondria live in every cell in your body and are essential for human life. As University of California post doc Samantha Lewis pointed out to me: “There’s mitochondrial involvement in almost every disease.” 

Yet, we rarely hear or think about our cells’ powerhouses.

Here are seven facts you probably haven’t heard about mitochondria:

1:  Mitochondria are interconnected shape-shifters.

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[A bone cancer cell with stringy mitochondria highlighted in yellow. Photo by NICHD via Flickr & CC 2.0 License.] 

We say “Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” as if mitochondria is a singular word, but actually it’s plural. (The singular of mitochondria is mitochondrion.)  However, in most cells mitochondria act as a collective, passing electrons and genetic information from mitochondrion to mitochondrion.

“They’re [descended from] bacteria that divide in a binary fashion,” explained UC Davis cell biologist and mitochondria specialist Jodi Nunnari. “During the course of evolution [the mitochondrial] genome has been greatly reduced. As a consequence of that and the fact that they were reproducing in a new environment, a few of those do mitochondrial fusion.” Mitochondria’s habit of merging sets them apart from all known bacteria. “Bacteria divide, but they don’t fuse,” Nunnari added.

In fact, mitochondria are so tightly connected that many scientists think of them as a membrane network rather than a series of jelly-bean shaped organelles.

Continue reading “7 Things To Know About Mitochondria: 2016 edition” »

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The Case of the Fish in the Flood

[A high flow event at Glen Canyon Dam in November 2013.  Photo by the Bureau of Reclamation via Flickr & CC 2.0 License.] 

Proposed Headine:

How an Invasive Species (Almost) Stopped a Flood

Proposed Dek:

“High flow events” or controlled floods are a key tool for managing the Colorado River. But what happens when an invasive fish gets in the way?

The Pitch:

Hi! While recently visiting Utah, I came across an interesting story about the Colorado River. Let me know if you’d be interested:

Is the threat of spreading an invasive species enough to justify canceling projects that help maintain the ecosystem? That’s the question facing resource managers at the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.

Last year, they had to cancel a controlled flood or “high flow event” because there were a large number of green sunfish in backwater sloughs just downstream of Glen Canyon Dam. They were concerned that opening the dam’s floodgates might wash the green sunfish downriver into the territory of an endangered fish species called humpback chub. However, controlled floods are crucial for releasing sediment that builds up near the dam and rebuilding shorelines and sandbars downstream in the Grand Canyon area. “When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it blocked 90% of the sediment that was coming through the Colorado River,” explains Rob Billerbeck of the National Parks Service. “So it changed what used to be a red river to a clear river.”

Without the floods that carry sediment downstream, shorelines erode. But more water flow also means more risk of invasive fish spreading. This year, the green sunfish may cause the cancellation of a second flood. So far, Parks Services officials have dealt with the situation by killing and removing the invasive fish from the river system. The NPS and the Bureau of Reclamation are optimistic that they’ve “treated” all of the green sunfish and will be able to move forward with a controlled flood, but the issue of balancing the need to prevent invasive species’ spread with the need to rebuild sandbars and shorelines will likely be a recurring one. This year’s controlled flood will go forward on November 7th, but the green sunfish problem seems likely to come up again.

Although it’s primarily an environmental and resource management story, I think the philosophical hook of “dammed if they do, dammed if they don’t” (sorry; couldn’t resist the pun) that raises an interesting philosophical question: What happens when invasive species begin to take wildlife management decisions out of human hands?

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12 Lessons from Science Writers 2016 in San Antonio

[Inside the Alamo. Photo by Jerald Jackson via Flickr & CC 2.0, My own Alamo photos did not come out this pretty.] 

This past weekend, I spent three and a half days at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

If you’ve never been to a Science Writers conference, here’s what you need to know:  It’s an eclectic event. On Friday and Saturday, science writers meet to discuss their craft and the state of their field. On Sunday and Monday, scientists present to the journalists, bloggers, and university writers, to give them all a chance to learn a bit about trending topics in science.

Here are a few of the key takehome messages I picked up at Science Writers 2016. 

1. The PIO vs. Journalist division has been wildly over-dramaticized.

 

Writers who work for universities–aka Public Information Officers or PIOs–are a huge chunk of NASW’s member population. They attend the same conference panels, follow the same Twitter accounts, and stand in the same lines for coffee as the journalists and bloggers amongst NASW’s ranks.

However, in some respects, PIOs’ work is very different from journalists: Specifcially, a PIO’s job is to make their university look freakin’ awesome; a journalist’s job is to provide needed information–and often critiques of institutions–to the public.  Both camps of science writers want to provide their readers with accurate and interesting information, but the reasons behind that objective strongly contrast.

At last year’s NASW meeting, a proposed amendment that would allow PIOs to serve as officers on NASW’s board  brought the tensions between the two professional groups to the fore. Some PIOs felt undervalued; many journalists and some PIOs  argued that allowing PIOs to serve as officers would create Conflicts-of-Interest for NASW. (Clarification: PIOs are already allowed to serve as board members, just not officers.) The debate has been extensively covered by Undark magazine. 

Based on some heated (and impolitic) listserv discussions, many expected the tensions to erupt once again at the meeting. However, the San Antonio conference was suprisingly calm,  with the vast majority of amendment commentators saying that “we should all (continue) to be friends”.

Many senior writers also acknowledged the existence of freelancers who do a combination of journalistic and PIO work, as well as bloggers (like yours truly) that don’t fit either category. The results of the vote on the amendment won’t be announced for several days, but overall, the debate seems to have simmered down.

2. If you want to be a science writer, don’t be afraid to pitch.

The most important tweet of the conference:

Back in high school, I once saw an utterly mediocre Will Smith movie, where he plays a guy who advises other men on how to get women’s attention.  One scene stuck in my head where Will Smith turns to camera and says, “Trust me. No woman wakes up and thinks, ‘Gee, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.'”

The casual sexism of off-feet-sweeping, aside, the principle holds true. Most people aren’t actively avoiding making new friends. And most editors are not avoiding awesome new writers. In fact, most of them are actually want to discover new talent.

Continue reading “12 Lessons from Science Writers 2016 in San Antonio” »

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How 600 Citizens Helped to Document an Underwater Epidemic

[A Sunflower Sea Star with several arms missing. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart via Flickr & CC 2.0 License.] 

In 2013,  something strange started happening to the starfish, or sea stars, that live along North America’s Pacific Coast. Casual observers began reporting starfish that were “dissolving” or “melting”.

What you first see is they start getting spots on them,” explains marine veterinarian Joseph “Joe” Gaydos of University of California Davis. “They [the sea stars]  start shrinking, and then legs start falling off…Legs will fall off and then crawl around, so it really is like something out of a horror show.”

In 2014,  researchers were able to identify a viral culprit as the immediate cause of the disintegrating sea stars, but we still know very little about how it spreads or which starfish species are most affected by it.

The dying sea stars that were easiest to spot were the ones that live close to shore.  But no one knew what the mysterious Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) was doing to the sea stars deep underwater and in the open ocean. 

“When the sea star wasting disease hit in the Salish Sea in 2013, my first thought was, ‘Gosh, we have 29 species of sea stars. Who’s going to get hurt?’”  Gaydos told me over the phone. 

Luckily, the Salish Sea, an area which includes Puget Sound in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada,  is home to an organization called REEF. Since 2006, REEF has been training amateur divers to count the organisms they see, and over 8,000 of those dives have included sea star counts. 

Gaydos and his colleagues, led by Diego Montecino-Latorre, analyzed the data from REEF’s dives. They also supplemented the REEF data by systematically criss-crossing the Salish Sea’s basins, counting the starfish they saw.

And the data tell a story of devastation. At least, for some of the sea stars.  Continue reading “How 600 Citizens Helped to Document an Underwater Epidemic” »

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What Lake Beds Know (Interview with Janice Brahney of USU)

[Photo by Jake Eberhardt via Flickr & CC 2.0 License] 

Lakes make excellent witnesses, says Utah State University assistant professor Janice Brahney The sediment at the bottom of lakes can hold clues about life in the lake thousands of years ago, preserving everything from fossils to traces of rainfall.

I wanted to be a detective growing up, solving puzzles and looking at trace evidence to piece together what happened,” she said. “Lakes are just really excellent recorders.”

Brahney focuses on glacial lakes, which form when giant ice sheets melt. Specifically, she’s been studying the glacial lakes high in the mountains of British Columbia.  Her research could help predict how our planet will handle melting glaciers.

Most of the lakes are so remote they don’t even have names.  For example, one basin has  five lakes that are collectively called Coven Lakes, but the individual Coven lakes are anonymous. 

Continue reading “What Lake Beds Know (Interview with Janice Brahney of USU)” »

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Best Shortform Science Writing July-September 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

[Image above by Silke Remmery via Flickr and CC 2.0 license] 

After nine months of searching through short science stories with an eye out for some of the best that the genre has to offer, I’ve come to a conclusion: Investigative pieces under 1200 words are rare.

Since the investigative genre often hinges on journalists showing their work and offering evidence on top of evidence on top of evidence, the relative dearth of short-n-sweet investigative pieces makes sense from a logistics perspective. At the same time, most members of the general public encounter science not through investigative reports but through brief segments on TV news shows and by the short but (hopefully) informative articles that crop up in Facebook news feeds.

And then we wonder why the public seems unable to effectively question science and why science journalists have a reputation for being less critical than their colleagues in business and political reporting…

Anyway, if you see any standout investigative or data pieces in the next few months, I hope you’ll share them with the editors of Best Shortform Science Writing. You can nominate stories via this Google form or simply by tagging us at @SciShortform on Twitter. (Be sure to include a link to the piece you’re nominating in your tweet!)

Special thanks to our editorial team’s new recruits– Dyani Lewis, a freelancer based in Hobart, Australia and Nola Taylor Redd, a freelancer based in Atlanta, Georgia– as well as our returning editors Sarah Lewin of Space.com and Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

Continue reading “Best Shortform Science Writing July-September 2016” »

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Mind the (Canopy) Gap: Recap of a Talk by Dr. Julia Burton

[Photo by Aaron Carlson via CC 2.0] 

The Talk:

Can silvicultural practices be leveraged to maintain diversity in understory plant communities?

In Plain English:

How does cutting down trees affect plant life on the ground?

The Speaker:

Julia Burton of Utah State University

The Sponsor:

USU College of Natural Resources

What It Covered:

Julia Burton studies one of the more neglected niches in forest ecology–the understory. Many conservation researchers and most media reports focus on the “charismatic megafauna”–trees and large mammals, but vines, shrubs, and other plants that live at ankle-level make up a large share of biomass and biodiversity.

North American forest understory plants are often dismissed as weeds or kinda boring plants, but they could play a key role in achieving the goals of silviculture, or forestry.  Burton pointed out that people in forest management are asked to achieve a lot more goals than their counterparts in the past. Not only are forest managers asked to maintain biodiversity, growth, biomass, but they’re also expected to sustain timber production, water resources, ecosystem health, and carbon sequestration ability. 

To do that, we need to understand our forests’ dynamics really well, Burton argued. Her work has focused on the upper MidWest and Northwest, the North American forest with the largest potential for storing carbon against climate change.

Continue reading “Mind the (Canopy) Gap: Recap of a Talk by Dr. Julia Burton” »

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The Slow Poisoning of the UK’s Bees (and What to Do About It)

[Photo by David Short via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0]

“By Request” is a series of posts where I track down studies that answer questions asked by you, my blog’s readers. 

High School Friend Elna asked: Impending extinction of bees- what can prevent?”

That’s a tough question to answer, because some bee populations are at much higher risk than others. Domesticated honey bee numbers are actually growing, largely due to the large scale industrialized pollination companies, which  bring giant swarms to farmers whose crops rely on bees.

Bees are an enormously diverse group that includes over 20,000 species, spread over 6 continents. (As far as we know, there are no bees in Antarctica.)  Like other animals, bees can be vulnerable to habitat loss, changing temperatures, and pollution.  However, bees do have one persistent problem that stands out: they keep getting caught in the line of fire when humans spray insecticides.

Well, bees are insects, after all.

However, bees are not equally vulnerable to all pesticides.

For example, when Ben Woodcock and his colleagues at the UK’s Natural Environmental Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology published a study which analyzed 18 years’ worth of data on 62 species of British bees, they found that some bee species’ populations are holding steady in the face of insecticides, while others aren’t.

Continue reading “The Slow Poisoning of the UK’s Bees (and What to Do About It)” »

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How Scientists Discovered 85,000 Viral Species in Leftover Data

[Phage viruses attempt to infect a cell. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

In 2015, the largest database of genetic information in the world– the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)–had complete genomes for 45,000 species of bacteria–but only 2,200 genomes from viruses.

Viruses outnumber bacteria in every habitat researchers have sampled. In fact, they outnumber stars in the universe and grains of sand on planet Earth.  Scientists tend to zero in on the handful of viruses that threaten human lives, but we know nothing about the vast majority of our invisible, arguably non-living neighbors. 

Last week, a paper in Nature announced that scientists had identified 85,000 previously undiscovered viral species by combing through leftover data from environmental DNA samples. Many of those viruses appear to infect bacteria and microbes that we’ve never seen come down with an infection before.

No spiffy new virus capturing techniques were required; the researchers, led by Nikos Kyrpides and David Paez-Espino, simply used existing data collected by previous scientific projects. Scientists gather environmental samples all the time. When microbiologists want to  see if a bacterial species lives in people’s mouths, they do a cheek swab. When marine biologists track the spread of algae-killing viruses, they scoop up samples of ocean water. But human mouths and open oceans are both home to complex microbial ecosystems. When scientists sequence the DNA from their organism of interest, they often end up sequencing the DNA from many of the other microbes in their sample, too. 

Most of the time that data about off-target species isn’t used in the original study, but sometimes scientists add their raw environmental DNA data–aka “metagenomic data”–to publicly available databases.

Kyrpides and Paez-Espino, who both work at the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, had access to a vast database.  “The largest amount of data was in metageonomic sequences,” said Kyrpides. “We were very interested in mining all of this information.”

The range of habitats in the data they used spanned from deep sea hydrothermal vents to human guts, from forest soil to synthetic environments like petri dishes, and everywhere in between. Freshwater lakes, saltwater lakes,  human mouths, open oceans, sewage, swamps, termite guts, and more were all represented in the data they crunched.

Continue reading “How Scientists Discovered 85,000 Viral Species in Leftover Data” »

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Coming to News Stands Near You / Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

[A statue of Charles Darwin. CGP Grey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

First things first: This August you’ll be able to buy a piece of my writing (on real paper) at a bookstore or newsstand near you! 

I have a front-of-book story about bacterial biofilms and how we can attack them with sugar-cutting enzymes out in the August issue of Scientific American.

You could read it online OR you could do me and all other emerging science writers a solid by buying an actual copy of one of our flagship magazines. 

Or you could do us a digital solid by purchasing a digital subscription to an outlet that pays us. (If you’re curious about why I’m so adamant about outlets that pay me making bank, read Bethany Brookshire’s excellent spiel on the subject.)

Also, over at Lateral, we have a new history & philosophy article out about why “Darwin Didn’t Delay” by the awesome Andrew Katsis. It’s part of Lateral’s SLOW issue and the first history & philosophy piece to debut with me as editor, so I hope you check it out!

But onward into the future! A few days ago, I internet-stumbled across a post by journalist Jennifer Brandel. Her company, Hearken, helps news outlets reach out to audience members and ask for story ideas! And not in a “Please-take-this-five-minute-survey way. As in, audience members can submit questions, participate in reporting, and give feedback to the journalists who are writing the story. 

Immediately, I realized that’s the sort of process I want to incorporate on this blog. 

Continue reading “Coming to News Stands Near You / Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want” »

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