Category Archives: Pitch Imperfect

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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The Case of the Sugars that “Strike Back” Against HIV

[Electromicrograph of an HIV-infected T-cell via NIAID & CC2.0] 

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

Sugar signals force HIV out of hiding

Proposed Dek:

And the same sugar signalling pathway “poisons the virus on the way out”

The Pitch:

Anti-retroviral therapies can block HIV’s attempts to infect new cells in patients but do nothing to get rid of HIV sleeper cells that are already in the patient’s blood stream. The immune system can’t spot infected cells unless the HIV is actively building viruses.

However, a paper in PLOS Pathogens may have revealed an unexpected ally in the fight against HIV–the sugar coatings on immune cells. Having sugars on the surface of a cell isn’t unusual; surface-sugars serve as ID-badges that allow immune cells to tell self from not-self. But they’re usually thought of as relatively passive in cell-to-cell communications. This study indicates that yanking on a certain class of surface sugar can start a chain reaction that forces HIV into the open.

“Even though it seems kind of counter-intuitive to wake up the HIV, it really boils down to: the infected cells will die if we wake them up,” says the study’s senior co-author Satish Pillai of the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco.

The paper came out on Thursday, but a Google News search turned up zero hits.

Sugars, in general, are relatively underused in next-gen medicine strategies–while genes, proteins, and RNAs hog all the glory–but they may have been potential allies ambushing HIV, hiding in plain sight.

Continue reading “The Case of the Sugars that “Strike Back” Against HIV” »

The Case of the Hot-Blooded Lizard

[Photo of a black and white tegu lizard (Salvator merianae) by Wagon16 via Flickr & Creative Commons]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headlines:

–Hot-blooded lizards may hold clues to mammals’ evolution
–(shorter alternative) How mammals evolved their heat

Proposed Dek:

–Cold-blooded Tegu lizards can turn up their own body heat during their breeding season, says Brazilian-Canadian study

The Pitch:

Nine months out of the year, Argentine giant tegu lizards split their time between basking in the sun to recharge their cold-blooded bodies, digging the underground burrows where they sleep at night, and hunting insects. However, when their mating season begins, these cold-blooded creatures warm up. And stay warm, even while sequestered in their sunless burrows.

Researchers only discovered this temperature increase when they used surgical implants to monitor the lizards’ heart and breathing rates, said Brock University biologist Glenn Tattersall. When they dug deeper into previous research on warm-bloodedness, they realized their evidence lined up with an evolutionary hypothesis about how mammals and birds got their heat.

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The Case of the Infected Fruit Bats

[Photo  courtesy of Brian Giesen via Creative Commons & Flickr]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

How Fruit Bats Spread Ebola and Hendra Viruses Without Getting Sick

Proposed Dek (aka “the sub-headline” or  “social media blurb”)

Unlike most mammalian immune systems which leap into action in response to threats, fruit bats’ immune systems are “on” all the time.

The Pitch (as sent on February 23rd 2016)

Flying foxes– aka fruit bats or megabats— can harbor viruses that are strong enough to tear a human body apart without exhibiting a single symptom.

Or more precisely, while viruses like Ebola and Hendra virus set off violent (and often deadly) immune system chain reactions in humans, fruit bats’ immune systems are able to nip viral infections in the bud right away.

Unfortunately, that means that healthy and highly mobile bats can inadvertently end up transporting viruses like SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Hendra to new locations. However, studying fruit bats’ ability to control viral populations without collateral damage may eventually help humans learn how to coexist with our own volatile immune systems.

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What’s in a Mutant Membrane?

[Photo by Yale Rosen, via Creative Commons]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

How an Ordinary Piece of Lab Equipment Might Help Identify Fatty Acids in Cell Membranes

Proposed Dek (aka “the sub-headline” or  “social media blurb”)

The makeup of cell membranes is more diverse than many suspect, but it’s hard to tell the molecules in membranes apart. This study might change that

The Pitch: (as sent on February 23rd)

Yesterday, I spoke with a Purdue biochemist whose lab may have opened up a whole new avenue of research on cell membranes and fatty acids. Their paper debuted on PNAS Early Edition , and Purdue has issued a press release, but so far no news outlets have picked up on its potential for helping biologists make sense of fatty tissues.

Yu Xia and her post-doc XiaoXiao Ma were able to identify 96 distinct fatty acids in a sample of rat brain tissue, using one of the most universal pieces of scientific equipment, a mass spectrometer. Up until now, no one has been able to tell fatty acids in cells apart without resorting to extremely expensive techniques.

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The Case of the Looming Octopus

[Photo  courtesy of David Scheel via Current Biology]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

How Octopuses Communicate through their Color-Changing Skin

Proposed Dek (aka “the sub-headline” or  “social media blurb”)

Turning dark and “looming” is a warning; white with black splotches means surrender.

The Pitch

When a philosopher and a marine biologist set up cameras to record octopus’s mating behavior, they saw something they didn’t expect.

Octopuses- which many biologists describe as solitary, cannibalistic predators- appear to use their skin to send each other signals, according to their study in Current Biology.

The marine biologist, David Scheel, describes one example from their footage: “The first octopus comes up from the back, being very dramatic– standing tall and turning very dark. Then it tussles with the other octopus for a minute, until that octopus turns pale.”

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