WBEZ | biology http://www.wbez.org/tags/biology Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Bed bug reports up in Chicago http://www.wbez.org/blogs/chris-bentley/2013-01/bed-bug-reports-chicago-105080 <p><p><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/bedbug%20with%20penny%20courtesy%20StarMaster.jpg" style="height: 413px; width: 620px;" title="Cimex lectularius. (Courtesy StarMaster via Flickr)" /></p><p>Chicago is now the <a href="http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2013/01/and-the-most-bedbug-infested-u-s-city-is/">top city for bed bugs</a>, according to pest control company <a href="http://www.orkin.com">Orkin</a>. There is no population count for the blood-eating insects, so Chicago&rsquo;s dubious honor is based on an increase in the number of bed bug treatments local residents have called in Orkin to perform.</p><p>As worried reports from metro areas around the country make clear, bed bugs are back. Although they are not known to transmit diseases, bed bug bites can cause an allergic reaction leading to itchy red welts. They are notoriously hard to get rid of, and <a href="http://curbed.com/archives/2011/11/09/renter-horror-story-2-bed-bugs-ignored-for-three-months.php">the stress they can cause</a> renters and homeowners is hard to overestimate.</p><p>Their resurgence over the past 10 years could be seen as a return to normal though, historically speaking. Bed bugs have been around since ancient times, earning mention in medieval European texts and writings from the time of Aristotle. After World War II, however, widespread use of broad-spectrum pesticides like DDT largely stamped out bed bugs in the U.S.</p><p>Ten years ago Karen Kramer Wilson, then an extension agent in Colorado, said reports of bed bugs were rare, but she would sometimes see infestations of related species known for feeding on bats and birds. DDT was phased out for <a href="http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/chemicals/ddt-brief-history-status.htm">environmental and toxicological effects</a>, and an increase in international travel revived the U.S. population.</p><p>&ldquo;The key to getting a handle on this is really understanding their ecology and biology so you know what you&rsquo;re dealing with,&rdquo; said Wilson, who is now the <a href="http://www.chias.org/">Nature Museum</a>&rsquo;s living invertebrate specialist.&nbsp; &ldquo;In our current situation, everyone should be aware of what they look like, and how you could contribute to their movement.&rdquo;</p><div class="image-insert-image "><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/bedbugs%20by%20cuttlefish.jpg" style="height: 414px; width: 620px;" title="Bed bugs seek out crevices and small openings, like mattress seams. (Courtesy cuttlefish via Flickr)" /></div><p>Bed bugs like tight quarters &mdash; a behavioral response known as thigmotaxis, also seen in earwigs and silverfish. That has served them well, evolutionarily speaking, but it can make them exceedingly hard to oust from an apartment building. Look around mattress tags and seams, behind headboards and anywhere your bed meets the wall. Clutter also makes for good hiding places, so don&rsquo;t leave luggage or laundry lying on the floor. These are good tips not just at home, Wilson said, but also when traveling.</p><p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s one of those things that crosses all the socioeconomic barriers,&rdquo; Wilson said.</p><p>Pest control specialists have been called in to clear bed bugs from four-star hotels and million-dollar homes, as well as more modest accommodations.</p><p>How do you know if you&rsquo;ve found bed bugs? Their flat, oval-shaped bodies are about 3/16 of an inch long and reddish-brown in color. In addition to the actual bugs, you could see rust-colored streaks or small dark splotches on and around your bed.</p><p>Bed bugs can live for many months without feeding, and can even slow down their metabolism in cold weather to survive cold temperatures. So rather than trying to starve or freeze them out by leaving your apartment, eliminate their hiding places and get encasements for your mattress and box spring. Pest control specialists can also kill existing bugs by steam-heating the air to 120 degrees, which melts the bugs&rsquo; waxy coating and dehydrates them.</p><p>Though it&#39;s not a viable option for long-term pest control, bed bugs do have a rather effective natural predator. Masked hunters (<a href="http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/ygbriefs/e608maskedhunter.html"><em>Reduvius personatus</em></a>) are of the &quot;assassin bug&quot; family of insects. The aptly-named bugs sometimes carry dust on their backs for camouflage while stalking prey, which includes bed bugs. Any heat or pesticide treatments to kill off the pest, however, would also eradicate the masked hunters.</p><p>So the only long-term solution, Wilson said, is diligence.</p><p>More bed bug information is available from <a href="http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/entfactpdf/ef636.pdf">the University of Kentucky</a> and <a href="http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/pcbedbugs.htm">the Illinois Department of Public Health</a>.</p></p> Wed, 23 Jan 2013 05:00:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blogs/chris-bentley/2013-01/bed-bug-reports-chicago-105080 Clever Apes #27: Breaking the fossil record http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-03-08/clever-apes-27-breaking-fossil-record-96971 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2012-March/2012-03-07/Orgel2.JPG" alt="" /><p><p><img alt="Joseph Orgel holds his sample of T. rex tissue. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)" class="caption" height="450" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-07/Orgel2.JPG" title="Joseph Orgel holds his sample of T. rex tissue. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)" width="600"></p><p>Dinosaurs loom large in our imaginations not just because they were in fact enormous, but also they are so ridiculously old. There has always been a big, impenetrable curtain separating us from prehistoric life. Sure, we have some ancient bones, but those had long since turned to stone. Any actual tissue, the stuff of flesh-and-blood creatures, is irrevocably lost, lasting only a few tens of thousands of years in most cases. Maybe a few stray organic molecules could persist for a few million if, say, they were frozen deep within primeval ice.</p><p>So, needless to say, it came as something of a shock when Mary Schweitzer <a href="http://www.sciencemag.org/content/307/5717/1952.abstract">discovered that she had some 68-million-year-old dinosaur tissue </a>on her hands.</p><p><img alt="Researchers at Argonne lab use tricycles to get around the Advanced Photon Sourc" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-05/Orgel trike.jpg" style="margin: 10px; width: 350px; float: right; height: 267px;" title="Researchers at Argonne lab use tricycles to get around the Advanced Photon Source. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)">The find was and is controversial. <a href="http://genome.fieldofscience.com/2009/06/dinosaur-proteins-from-t-rex-and.html">Many scientists are skeptical or outright dismissive </a>of the idea that tissue could have persisted inside the partially fossilized thigh bone of a T. rex. But since then Schweitzer and her collaborators have gradually built up evidence that the find is real. And most recently, <a href="http://www.iit.edu/csl/bio/faculty/orgel_joseph.shtml">Joseph Orgel of the Illinois Institute of Technology </a>has begun to understand how mummified dino-flesh could possibly have survived a thousand times longer than was thought possible.</p><p>Orgel used <a href="http://aps.anl.gov/">x-ray diffraction</a>, a kind of molecular imaging technique, to understand how the dinosaur tissue is structured in detail. The particular stuff they have in hand is collagen, a material found in our bones, tendons, blood vessels and skin. It is itself a hardy molecule, and Orgel found that the protein sequences preserved in their fossils came from the innermost, protected part of the collagen fiber. So it’s possible that <a href="http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0020381">collagen’s tough, ropelike structure preserved a tender bit of dinosaur jerky inside.</a></p><p>Keep in mind, this is not DNA. We will not be cloning Barney from this stuff. But understanding how these proteins can be shielded from decay for so long could hold practical lessons for modern medicine. If you’re repairing, say, a bone or cartilage, you might be able to leverage or mimic nature’s ability to make durable organic materials that don’t degrade, in effect, forever.<img alt="Phillip Messersmith designed a medical glue based on the blue mussel's natural a" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-March/2012-03-05/Messersmith.jpg" style="margin: 10px; width: 250px; float: left; height: 333px;" title="Phillip Messersmith designed a medical glue based on the blue mussel's natural adhesive. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)"></p><p>Also in today’s episode, we consider another example of design inspired by biology. <a href="http://biomaterials.bme.northwestern.edu/mussel.asp">Dr. Phillip Messersmith’s muse is the blue mussel </a>– a bivalve that secretes a unique adhesive to stick itself to rocks or boat hulls or wherever it feels like sticking. (They form their connective threads and tacky pads through a kind of shellfish injection-molding process. The video below, provided by the Messersmith lab, captures an amazing example.) This stuff turns out to have some key qualities that a surgeon would envy. It starts as a liquid and solidifies quickly, it functions well under water and it’s sticky as hell.</p><p>That’s a big advantage over the medical glues out there that doctors use to attach or repair tissues. The safest ones are too weak. The strongest ones (basically, super glue) are toxic. <a href="http://biomaterials.bme.northwestern.edu/">Messersmith and his lab-mates at Northwestern University </a>are using the fundamentals of the mussel glue to design their own version, which they demonstrated for us on some sausage casing.</p><p>So someday, maybe they’ll be able to install a dino-inspired bone patch in your body, and lock it down with some mussel glue. Until then, don’t forget to subscribe to our <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/wbezs-clever-apes/id379051174" target="_blank" title="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast">podcast</a>, follow us on&nbsp;<a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes" target="_blank" title="http://twitter.com/#!/cleverapes">Twitter</a>, and find us on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412" target="_blank" title="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook</a>.</p><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="451" mozallowfullscreen="" src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/38034455?color=ff0179" webkitallowfullscreen="" width="601"></iframe></p></p> Wed, 07 Mar 2012 16:30:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-03-08/clever-apes-27-breaking-fossil-record-96971 Clever Apes #22: Paper covers rock http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-11-22/clever-apes-22-paper-covers-rock-94295 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-November/2011-11-22/IMG_3809 keeper.JPG" alt="" /><p><p><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-22/IMG_3809 keeper small.jpg" title="Rock paper scissors, and its variations, may lie hidden in the math that underlies natural systems. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)" width="600" height="450"></p><p>Charles Darwin ushered in modern biology with his explanation of how different species evolve. But his work leaves us with a paradox: Why should dozens or even thousands of species coexist in a single habitat? The theory suggests they ought to duke it out until just a few winners dominate. And yet we have such magnificent biodiversity all over. More than 2,000 species of trees share a single acre of rainforest in the Amazon. So what gives?</p><p><em><strong><span style="font-size: 8px;">Listen to the episode:</span></strong></em></p><p><audio class="mejs mediaelement-formatter-identified-1332483827-1" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/sites/default/files/Clever_Apes_22_Paper_covers_rock.mp3">&nbsp;</audio></p><p>The answer might lie in a game you probably mastered before you were 12: rock, paper, scissors. Any pairing of two species (say, “rock” tree and “paper” tree) will almost always lead to the weaker one going extinct (so long, “rock” tree). But introduce a third species – “scissors” tree – and you close up into a stable loop, where all three can coexist. This has been known for a while, and observed in natural settings among <a href="http://bio.research.ucsc.edu/%7Ebarrylab/lizardland/male_lizards.overview.html">side-blotched lizards in California</a> and <a href="http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v428/n6981/full/nature02429.html">bacteria growing in a dish.</a></p><p>University of Chicago ecologist <a href="http://allesinalab.uchicago.edu/people/stefano-allesina.html">Stefano Allesina </a>scaled it up with a computer model, and showed it could indeed explain big, complicated systems like the Amazon jungle or underwater kelp forests. In fact, you can have as many species as you want coexisting, with one big caveat: Strangely, it has to be an odd number. That means no fourth throw in roshambo, though <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iapcKVn7DdY">“rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock”</a> is safe.</p><p><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-22/ouroborous.GIF" style="width: 250px; height: 169px; float: left; border-width: 1px; border-style: solid; margin: 10px;" title="Side-blotched lizards form a loop in competing for mates. (Courtesy of Barry Sinervo)"></p><p>Dig even a little deeper, and it seems that rock, paper scissors describes a basic mathematical concept that appears in all kinds of systems, as shown in <a href="http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-theory/">game theory</a>. Whether it’s economics, political science or biology, any system where competitors have different advantages that can’t be ranked from best to worst probably has a little rock, paper, scissors tournament hiding in there somewhere.</p><p>Incidentally, actual rock paper scissors tournaments have been gaining steam, thanks largely to the efforts of the <a href="http://www.worldrps.com/">World Rock Paper Scissors Society. </a>If you want to learn how to crush the competition (and never change a diaper again! Oh wait, that’s probably just in my household), check out their <a href="http://www.worldrps.com/index.php?option=com_content&amp;task=view&amp;id=256&amp;Itemid=37">strategy tips. </a>You can also practice against a robot <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/science/rock-paper-scissors.html">here</a>.</p><p>Finally, we inaugurate our recurring series, Ask an Ape, in which we answer science-y questions posed by listeners. Please weigh in with your own question in the comment section below, <a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes">tweet us</a>, post to our <a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook wall</a>, or call our hotline: 312-893-2935.</p></p> Tue, 22 Nov 2011 22:19:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-11-22/clever-apes-22-paper-covers-rock-94295 Kids' sugar cravings might be biological http://www.wbez.org/story/2011-09-25/kids-sugar-cravings-might-be-biological-92434 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/npr_story/photo/2011-September/2011-09-26/candyboy_wide.jpg" alt="" /><p><p>Ask a child if they like sweets and the answer is almost universally a resounding "Yes!" It's no surprise to most parents that kids love candy, cookies, sweetened drinks, and some kids have even been known to <em>add sugar</em> to a bowl of Frosted Flakes. But don't blame the kids, say researchers, it's biology.</p><p>Scientific evidence shows that children not only have a stronger preference for sugar than adults – but that sweet-tooth is <a href="http://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2011/07000/Innate_and_learned_preferences_for_sweet_taste.12.aspx" target="_blank">hardwired</a> from Day One.</p><p>"We know that the newborn can detect sweet and will actually prefer sweeter solutions to less sweet ones. The basic biology of the child is that they don't have to learn to like sweet or salt. It's there from before birth," explains <a href="http://www.monell.org/faculty/people/mennella" target="_blank">Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center</a>.</p><p>Unlike adults, who often find overly sugary things unpleasant, Mennella says kids are actually living in different sensory worlds than adults when it comes to basic tastes.</p><p>"They prefer much more intense sweetness and saltiness than the adult and it doesn't decrease until late adolescence, and we have some evidence they may be more sensitive to bitter taste," Mennella says.</p><p>A reason for this may be that a preference for sweet, caloric substances during rapid growth may have given children as an evolutionary advantage when calories were scarce. That notion is supported by the fact that sugar doesn't just taste good to children -– it actually makes them <em>feel good</em> too.</p><p>Mennella's <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1364537/pdf/nihms7936.pdf">research</a> has shown that sugar is a natural pain reliever in children, and many hospitals even put a sweet tasting liquid in a baby's mouth during circumcisions or heel stick procedures to help <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20829174" target="_blank">lessen the pain.</a></p><p>When researchers gave adults and children water mixed with various amounts of sugar, adults preferred sugar concentrations similar to that of a can of soda, while finding higher concentrations too sweet. By comparison, children preferred at least twice that concentration, and younger children had virtually no limit.</p><p>"You can keep putting sugar in to the point where you can't dissolve it in the water anymore and they still like it," says <a href="http://depts.washington.edu/nacrohd/about_us/personnel/coldwell" target="_blank">Sue Coldwell,</a> a researcher at the University of Washington who has studied kids and sweets.</p><p>But there seems to be an age limit on the super-sized sugar preference.</p><p>Coldwell and her colleagues suspected that sugar preferences changed during adolescence. They checked a bunch of indicators, like body image and hormones, and then they checked bone growth. They gave the sugar-water test to adolescents while simultaneously <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2764307/pdf/nihms100732.pdf" target="_blank">measuring</a> a marker of bone growth in their urine. What they found was that kids who were still growing preferred sweets. While those whose growth had already stopped –- around age 15 or 16 — had taste preferences similar to adults.</p><p>Exactly how this all works is still somewhat of a mystery, but Coldwell says that one important clue lies in the discovery that growing bones actually secrete <a href="http://classic.the-scientist.com/news/display/53475/" target="_blank">hormones that can influence metabolism</a>. Other well-known metabolic hormones like <a href="http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/endocrj/57/6/467/_pdf" target="_blank">leptin and insulin</a> have been shown to act on brain areas that control cravings and appetites, and even directly bind to the tongue where they affect the preference for sweet tastes. Coldwell suspects that hormones from growing bones may be doing the same thing. In other words, it's not your kid's fault he raided the cookie jar – the hormones from his growing bones made him do it.</p><p>"I don't know for sure but I am very suspicious that the bones are somehow telling either the brain or the tongue that there is energy needed for their growth and signaling for that preference to increase," says Coldwell.</p><p>That's not to say a kid can't overdo it. In a modern world of calorie overload and childhood <a href="http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/07/19/138513138/latest-figures-on-obesity-paint-an-uglier-picture">obesity</a>, cravings for sugar are no longer the evolutionary advantage they once might have once been. But if the goal is to get children to reduce their intake of sugar, researchers say understanding the biology behind their cravings is the first step.</p><div class="fullattribution">Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.</div></p> Mon, 26 Sep 2011 03:30:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/story/2011-09-25/kids-sugar-cravings-might-be-biological-92434 Lab mishap shows risks of working with dangerous bugs http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-09-15/lab-mishap-shows-risks-working-dangerous-bugs-92043 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-September/2011-09-15/lab sign.png" alt="" /><p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="Despite precautions, a recent mishap shows research on nasty pathogens is still " class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-September/2011-09-15/lab sign.png" style="width: 473px; height: 370px;" title="Despite precautions, a recent mishap shows research on nasty pathogens is still dangerous. (WBEZ / Michale De Bonis)"></p><p>In the most recent installment of Clever Apes, I got a taste of what it’s like to work at the highly secure Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory, dealing with extremely unsavory bugs like plague and anthrax (<a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-09-13/clever-apes-18-biological-weapons-91950">listen here</a>). I saw all the steps researchers take to protect themselves from infection: respirator, multiple airlocks and air filters, biosafety cabinets, full gown and two pairs of gloves, etc. The protocols seemed to make the risk of any contact with the bugs, which are generally present only in tiny amounts anyway, pretty remote. But, as lab director Howard Shuman put it, “We do everything we can possibly imagine to reduce risk to people who are working. That doesn't mean the risk is zero.”</p><p>A recent occurrence at Ricketts’ sister lab, the Cummings Life Science Center on the University of Chicago campus (the university also runs the Ricketts facility), drives this home. <a href="http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/09/university-of-chicago-microbiologist.html">A researcher there was infected with the pathogen</a> Bacillus cereus<em>, </em>and required hospitalization and surgery. This is not the worst germ on earth – it’s a common cause of food poisoning. But it happens to be exactly what Ya-Ting Wang, the researcher we spied on in the BSL-3 suite in the story, was working on. Don’t worry, she’s fine.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="A researcher handles bacillus cereus in a biosafety cabinet at Ricketts laborat" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-September/2011-09-15/cereus.png" style="width: 500px; height: 457px;" title="A researcher handles bacillus cereus in a biosafety cabinet at Ricketts laboratory. (WBEZ / Michael De Bonis)"></p><p>But the important point here is that the Cummings center researcher would have been using the same protocols while working on B. cereus as the scientists at Ricketts (By the way,<em> </em>B. cereus is considered a level-2 pathogen, but the university has a policy of using the higher-security protocol with it). That means that all the same levels of redundancy and precaution would have been present, and still a likely contamination happened. We can all be thankful it was B. cereus and not something much worse like anthrax.</p><p>So how could this happen? I talked with Conrad Gilliam, dean for research and graduate education at the university's Biological Sciences Division about this.</p><p>Hear our interview here:</p><p><audio class="mejs mediaelement-formatter-identified-1332483722-1" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/sites/default/files/Gilliam interview.mp3">&nbsp;</audio></p><p>The investigation is ongoing, but Gilliam shared a number of working assumptions: 1) This was likely a lab-acquired infection, though that’s not confirmed yet; 2) the contamination probably came from a spill by another investigator (meaning researcher), probably without that person realizing it; 3) the patient (<a href="http://www.suntimes.com/7662835-417/university-of-chicago-suspends-research-in-lab-after-scientist-gets-a-skin-infection.html">identified as a female researcher </a>in published reports) probably touched the spill, which would have had to be at a high concentration to ultimately cause infection, and 4) the patient would have had to touch the contaminated gloved hand to an open wound – which is to say, she likely scratched an itch under her gown or something. All of this is still somewhat speculative, but Gilliam says that’s the best guess right now.</p><p>The relevant section of the Cummings lab has been shut down since the end of August and isn’t likely to reopen until at least next week, after which it could take weeks to get back to normal. Meanwhile, the university has moved all the B. cereus research, as well work on similarly classed bugs like Staphylococcus aureus (as in MRSA) off campus and into the Ricketts lab. But as we see here, wherever it's studied, a little breach in protocol like scratching an itch is all it takes to upend the most carefully conceived protections.</p></p> Thu, 15 Sep 2011 19:15:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-09-15/lab-mishap-shows-risks-working-dangerous-bugs-92043 Clever Apes #15: Trick of the light http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-07-26/clever-apes-15-trick-light-89684 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-July/2011-07-26/P1080171.JPG" alt="" /><p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="Lisa Utschig holds a vial of the protein active in photosynthesis. " class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-July/2011-07-26/green stuff.JPG" style="width: 600px; height: 400px; margin-top: 5px; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px; margin-left: 5px; " title="Lisa Utschig holds a vial of the protein active in photosynthesis. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)"></p><p>Photosynthesis is one of the oldest biological processes on earth. Microorganisms figured it out more than two billion years ago, and <a href="http://www.geo.arizona.edu/%7Ereiners/geos195K/Huxmanreading.pdf">completely transformed the planet</a>. Sure, there was life before photosynthesis, but unless you like <a href="http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Anaerobic_Respiration">breathing rust</a>, it probably wouldn’t have been your bag.</p><p>Photosynthesis put oxygen into the air, fueled the plants that feed us and formed the organic molecules that would become fossil fuels. Life on earth is positively drenched in sunshine, and yet the basic processes of how green things turn light into energy are still shrouded in mystery.</p><p><span style="font-size: 8px;">Listen to the episode here: </span></p><p><audio class="mejs mediaelement-formatter-identified-1332483579-1" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/sites/default/files/Clever Apes_15_Trick of the light.mp3">&nbsp;</audio></p><p>In this installment of <a href="http://www.wbez.org/cleverapes">Clever Apes</a>, we consider why photosynthesis, a concept <a href="http://www.biology4kids.com/files/plants_photosynthesis.html">familiar to most third-graders</a>, remains a puzzle to science. And we’ll find out how a research team at <a href="http://www.anl.gov/">Argonne National Laboratory </a>has begun to <a href="http://www.anl.gov/Media_Center/News/2011/news110518.html">crack the code</a>.</p><p>Plus, how a Chicago scientist homes in on tiny atomic clocks to figure out how long it’s been since the sun shone on a specimen. That can tell you when, say, a layer of sediment was covered over, and consequently how old stuff buried in that layer is. The <a href="http://www.uic.edu/labs/ldrl/">optical dating technology </a>has already led to major discoveries, including one that helped <a href="http://www.wbez.org/story/anthropology/chicago-scientist-dates-artifacts-may-rewrite-ancient-history-84190">overturn the conventional wisdom </a>about when North America was settled.</p><p>Listen up, subscribe to our <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast" target="_blank" title="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast">podcast</a>, follow us on&nbsp;<a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes" target="_blank" title="http://twitter.com/#!/cleverapes">Twitter</a>, and find us on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412" target="_blank" title="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook</a>.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="David Tiede heads a team trying to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis. (WBEZ/M" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-July/2011-07-26/Tree chem.JPG" style="width: 600px; height: 400px; margin-top: 5px; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px; margin-left: 5px; " title="David Tiede heads a team trying to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)"></p></p> Wed, 27 Jul 2011 01:51:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-07-26/clever-apes-15-trick-light-89684 Postcard: Scientists climb into bald eagle nests to measure health of the Great Lakes http://www.wbez.org/content/postcard-scientists-climb-bald-eagle-nests-measure-health-great-lakes <p><p><em>Biologists with the National Park Service are in their sixth year of visiting eagle nests on Lake Superior for blood and feather samples that help them monitor the level of toxic pollutants in the lake</em></p><p style="text-align: center;"><iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/25677824?title=0&amp;byline=0&amp;portrait=0" width="513" frameborder="0" height="341" scrolling="no"></iframe></p><p><a href="http://vimeo.com/25677824">Feisty is good</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/wbez">WBEZ</a> on <a href="http://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p><p>Jim Spickler is wearing an orange hardhat and hanging on a climbing rope 100 feet up in a white pine tree on Basswood Island in Lake Superior.</p><p> <style type="text/css"> div .inline { width: 290px; float: left; margin-right: 19px; margin-left: 3px; clear: left; } div .inlineContent { border-top: 1px dotted #aa211d; border-top-width: 1px; border-top-style: dotted; border-top-color: #aa211d; margin-bottom: 5px; margin-top: 2px; } ul { margin-left: 15px; } li { font-family: Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: 1em; background-repeat: no-repeat; background-repeat-x: no-repeat; background-repeat-y: no-repeat; background-position: 0 5px; background-position-x: 0px; background-position-y: 5px; padding-left: 3px; margin-bottom: 0.5em; }</style> </p><div class="inline"><div class="inlineContent"><a href="http://www.wbez.org/frontandcenter"><img alt="" src="http://www.wbez.org/sites/default/files/story/insert-image/2011-June/2011-06-28/FNC-inset-promo.jpg" style="width: 280px; height: 50px;" title=""></a><ul><li><strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/frontandcenter/2011-06-23/runaway-algae-returns-lake-erie-88249">Runaway Algae</a></strong></li><li><strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2011-06-23/front-and-center-how-chicagos-excrement-killing-fish-gulf-mexico-88234">How Chicago's excrement is killing fish in the Gulf of Mexico </a></strong></li><li><strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/frontandcenter/2011-06-21/how-likely-fear-west-could-steal-great-lakes-water-88162">Could the West steal Great Lakes Water? </a></strong></li></ul><p><strong>SLIDESHOW</strong></p><a href="http://www.wbez.org/frontandcenter/2011-06-14/postcard-detroits-floating-post-office-88094"><img alt="" src="http://www.wbez.org/sites/default/files/blog/insert-image/2011-June/2011-06-28/img_1542.jpg" style="width: 120px; height: 90px; float: left; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px;" title=""></a><p 12="" font-size:=""><br> <strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/frontandcenter/2011-06-14/postcard-detroits-floating-post-office-88094">&nbsp;J.W. Westcott,</a></strong><strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/story/postcard-detroits-floating-post-office-87236"><br> Detroit's floating<br> post office</a></strong><br> &nbsp;</p><p><strong><a href="http://www.wbez.org/story/postcard-detroits-floating-post-office-87236"> </a></strong></p></div></div><p>“Good morning, Mr. Eagle,” he says to a fuzzy brown bird sitting on the six-foot-wide jumble of sticks that serves as the eaglet’s nest. Spickler is a wildlife biologist and an expert climber from northern California where he works in giant redwood trees. It’s his job to gently stuff the eaglet into a sack and bring it to the ground for a quick checkup. The eaglet is only seven weeks old, but it’s already the size of a small goose, and it has formidable talons attached to its bright yellow feet.Waiting for Spickler on the ground is Bill Route, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program, which keeps tabs on the wellbeing of plants and animals on Park Service land.&nbsp; Route heads up this survey of eagle nests.“Eagles are a success story,” Route says. “Their numbers are increasing.”</p><p>Route says there were no eagles at all nesting on the Great Lakes in the late 1960s, thanks in part to the insecticide DDT, which left the eagle’s eggs perilously thin and nearly wiped the birds out. But DDT was banned in 1972, and eagles started to bounce back. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007.</p><p>“We still find traces of DDT in eagles,” Route says. “It’s very persistent. And that’s what we’re worried about: persistent, toxic chemicals that accumulate up the food chain.”</p><p>Like some flame-retardant and stain resistant chemicals. The scientists will screen the eaglet’s blood for those, too.</p><p>“Eagles are a sentinel species,” Route says.&nbsp; “They get this magnification. Since bald eagles sit on top of the food chain, they get a lot of the contaminant because they eat other organisms that are also contaminated.”</p><p>As Route is talking, Jim Spickler descends the climbing rope with the eaglet. They draw a blood sample from the bird and make some measurements. The eaglet hisses at them and makes some klutzy attempts at biting their hands. In minutes, Spickler is on his way back up the rope to put the eaglet back on its nest.</p><p>Two adult eagles circle above the trees letting out a steady stream of cries. The sound is surprisingly thin and high-pitched for a bird with a seven-foot wingspan. The biologists say adult eagles can be noisy, but they rarely attack humans. The adults will be back on the nest soon after the humans leave.</p><p>A few minutes later, the eaglet is in its nest and Jim Spickler is on the ground.</p><p>“It’s a little bit of a feisty chick,” he says as he starts packing his climbing gear. “But that means that it’s well fed and it’s likely to survive. So, mission accomplished.”</p><ul></ul></p> Wed, 29 Jun 2011 14:00:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/content/postcard-scientists-climb-bald-eagle-nests-measure-health-great-lakes Clever Apes #10: Yuck http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-04-13/clever-apes-10-yuck-85105 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-April/2011-04-12/P1070472.JPG" alt="" /><p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="Bill Stanley holds the skull of an African rat he discovered, being cleaned by c" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-April/2011-04-12/Beetle small.JPG" style="width: 500px; height: 375px;" title="Bill Stanley holds the skull of an African rat he discovered. It's being cleaned by carrion beetles. "></p><p>Let’s consider the beauty of a seething swarm of carrion beetles picking clean the carcass of a dead rat.</p><p style="margin: 0.6em 0px 1.2em; padding: 0px;">Sorry – were you eating breakfast?</p><div>To a scientist, that grisly scene might evoke the cycles of ecosystems, the connectedness of life and death, and the elegant efficiency of a life form sculpted by eons of evolution to be the <a href="http://www.hunthd.com/taxidermy-supplies/dermestid-beetles/250-dermestid-beetles/prod_391.html">perfect flesh-removal machine</a>. To most of the rest of us, it’s just gross.</div><p>Yucky stuff has always been part of the mystique of science – alluring for some, forbidding for others. In the latest installment of Clever Apes, we consider the dirty work of science, from the <a href="http://www.museumsecrets.tv/dossier.php?o=77">“bug room”</a> at the <a href="http://www.fieldmuseum.org/">Field Museum</a> to <a href="http://www.microtracescientific.com/">the lab</a> where scientists analyze dead critters found in food.</p><p>But we aim not to titillate. Oh no. In this part one of our two-part series, we hope to show how the yucky can also be elegant. So hold your nose and listen.&nbsp;</p><p><audio class="mejs mediaelement-formatter-identified-1332483438-1" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/sites/default/files/Clever_Apes_10_Yuck.mp3">&nbsp;</audio></p><p>Subscribe to the Clever Apes&nbsp;<a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast" style="text-decoration: none; color: rgb(0, 104, 150);" target="_blank" title="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast">podcast</a>, follow us on&nbsp;<a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes" style="text-decoration: none; color: rgb(0, 104, 150);" target="_blank" title="http://twitter.com/#!/cleverapes">Twitter</a>, or find us on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412" style="text-decoration: none; color: rgb(0, 104, 150);" target="_blank" title="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook</a>.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="Chris Palenik mans the transmission electron microscope at Microtrace. " class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-April/2011-04-13/P1010288.JPG" style="width: 500px; height: 375px;" title="Chris Palenik mans the transmission electron microscope at Microtrace. "></p></p> Wed, 13 Apr 2011 15:25:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-04-13/clever-apes-10-yuck-85105 How an uncommonly driven researcher made an Alzheimer's breakthrough http://www.wbez.org/story/alzheimers-disease/how-uncommonly-driven-researcher-made-alzheimers-breakthrough <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/story/photo/2011-March/2011-03-16/Bissonette microscope.JPG" alt="" /><p><p>Researchers at Chicago&rsquo;s Northwestern Medicine announced a breakthrough this month in confronting Alzheimer&rsquo;s Disease.</p><p>Like many scientific advances, it took years of grinding work.</p><p>But the young man behind this discovery had some deeply personal reasons to keep going in the face of long hours, long odds and even broken bones.</p><p>Chris Bissonette was just a kid when his grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer&rsquo;s.</p><p>All he really understood was that his grandfather was losing memories, and then he moved into the hospital.</p><p>The picture got clearer years later, when Bissonette was working a summer job at a lab.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: And the lab housed the British Columbia brain bank, with hundreds of brains of people with Alzheimer&rsquo;s Disease.</p><p>Bissonnette would see their medical records.</p><p>And he came to learn the disease is even more grisly than he&rsquo;d thought.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: Descriptions by doctors of someone screamed all night because they couldn&rsquo;t sleep and they didn&rsquo;t know what was happening and they no longer had a personality. There is a horrible end to people with Alzheimer&rsquo;s Disease that most people don&rsquo;t really know about. I wanted to make it so that these people had some hope.</p><p>So he threw himself into brain science.</p><p>He learned the culprit in early Alzheimer&rsquo;s seems to be one particular kind of brain cell crucial for accessing memories.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: They&rsquo;re kind of like librarians in a library, and now suddenly with them all dead, people don&rsquo;t really know where everything&rsquo;s stored. It&rsquo;s not that the memories in peoples brains are being destroyed, it&rsquo;s just that the brains are unable to retrieve them.</p><p>Save or replace those cells, and maybe you could outsmart the disease.</p><p>As a grad student he joined the lab of Dr. John Kessler at Northwestern.</p><p>Bissonnette wanted to use human embryonic stem cells to figure out how to grow the affected brain cells from scratch.</p><p>Kessler says he tried to talk him out of it.</p><p>KESSLER: To be perfectly honest, I said you know, Chris, this may be too tough a project for you to be doing as a student. Perhaps we should do this with mouse cells. Chris&rsquo;s response to me was, no &hellip;</p><p>BISSONNETTE: I don&rsquo;t really care if mice have Alzheimer&rsquo;s, and I don&rsquo;t care if mice are able to remember stuff. So I want to be able to have an impact in the actual human disease.</p><p>And so he began what would become a six-year project in a windowless lab.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: So this is the stem cell lab here. And so, all of the air inside this room has been filtered twice.</p><p>SPITZER: How much time would you say you&rsquo;ve spent in this room?</p><p>BISSONNETTE: Thousands of hours.</p><p>The narrow, yellowish room is lined with fridges, incubators, a canister of liquid nitrogen.</p><p>Stem cells can develop into any type of cell in the body.</p><p>Bissonnette painstakingly manipulated them with different solutions.</p><p>Getting the right formula took many educated guesses, and lots of wrong turns.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: You&rsquo;d think you were on the road to getting the right kind of cells, and then at the end you&rsquo;d check to see what you&rsquo;ve made, and they&rsquo;re entirely wrong. So you know that a month of your work was completely wasted, and for the next month you&rsquo;re not going to get anything better.</p><p>The cells need constant attention &ndash; missing work was not an option.</p><p>Twice, Bissonette broke bones in bike accidents and was right back in the lab &ndash; once even before the bones were set.</p><p>Again, his mentor John Kessler pleaded with him to take it easy.</p><p>KESSLER: He came in, he was obviously in a lot of pain, his arm was in a sling, it just didn&rsquo;t stop him.</p><p>Eventually Bissonnette cracked the code.</p><p>The lab can now grow virtually unlimited numbers of the brain cells.</p><p>That means scientists will be able to test thousands of drugs and maybe, someday, even transplant the cells into a sick person&rsquo;s brain.</p><p>Kessler attributes the breakthrough to Bissonette&rsquo;s determination.</p><p>KESSLER: Chris is as good as any student I&rsquo;ve had in my laboratory in 30 years. He is really that good, and that smart. You know I sometimes feel that if I had a half a dozen people like Chris, there&rsquo;s no disease we couldn&rsquo;t deal with.</p><p>So what do you do when you pulled off a scientific coup at age 29?</p><p>If you&rsquo;re Chris Bissonette, you apply to business school.</p><p>BISSONNETTE: I don&rsquo;t have the energy to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week any more. I&rsquo;m never going to find another discovery that&rsquo;s going to be as large as the first stem cell therapy for Alzheimer&rsquo;s Disease. So I think I could have a much bigger impact in science by leaving academic science.</p><p>Bissonette wants to help biotechnology firms bring discoveries to market.</p><p>After all, the real breakthrough will come when the advances he&rsquo;s made move beyond that windowless lab, and to a patient&rsquo;s bedside.</p><p>(Hear an extended interview with Bissonnette <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2011-03-16/clever-apes-brain-dish-83827">here</a>)</p></p> Thu, 17 Mar 2011 10:28:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/story/alzheimers-disease/how-uncommonly-driven-researcher-made-alzheimers-breakthrough Chicago scientists grow neurons from stem cells http://www.wbez.org/story/chicago-scientists-grow-neurons-stem-cells <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/Neuron.JPG" alt="" /><p><p>Scientists at Northwestern University say they&rsquo;ve figured out how to grow a kind of brain cell that&rsquo;s lost in Alzheimer&rsquo;s Disease. The cells make circuits critical for forming new memories, and they&rsquo;re among the first to die in Alzheimer&rsquo;s.&nbsp;Researchers at Northwestern Medicine coaxed human embryonic stem cells to grow into those neurons. They also developed an alternate strategy, where they got skin cells to mimic stem cells, which they were then able to grow into the neurons.&nbsp;</p><p>John Kessler, Chairman of Neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said the breakthrough could accelerate research into therapies.</p><p>&ldquo;Because we have the human neurons right in front of us in a tissue culture dish, we can screen literally thousands &ndash; actually, tens of thousands -- of drugs at a time, to find one that may work in the disease,&rdquo; Kessler said.</p><p>Down the line, scientists hope to be able to transplant the new cells into Alzheimer&rsquo;s patients whose own neurons have died.&nbsp;The findings are published in the journal Stem Cells.</p><p>&nbsp;</p></p> Fri, 04 Mar 2011 12:00:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/story/chicago-scientists-grow-neurons-stem-cells