Friday, April 30, 2010

Vote for Your Favorite Microbe

Joseph Heintz, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Wisconsin legislators voted this month to pay tribute to Lactococcus lactis by making it the official Wisconsin State Microbe. Why Lactococcus and not, say, Bacillus or Saccharomyces? Because good old L. lactis is the microbe responsible for turning the curdled rennet, milk, and salt mixture into what we've come to know and love as Cheddar cheese. (It is also used in the making of Colby and Monterey Jack.) The honor makes sense, after all, as Wisconsin is the country's number one cheese producing state.

In light of this, the question begs to be asked: What about the other microbes that are just as hard working? Take our poll on the left to decide which microbe you think deserves such an honor. The winner will be featured in our blog on May 7th. The nominees are:
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae -- otherwise known as baker's yeast, for making leavened bread products.
  • Pseudomonas putida -- cleans wastes from sewage water at water treatment plants.
  • Escherichia coli -- lives in the human digestive system and allows us to digest the food we eat. 
  • Streptomyces -- a soil bacteria that is used to treat infections. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When the Valve Doesn't Work and the Boom's Not Enough

"Oil spill" -- it's a dirty noun, and with good reason. For many of us who have been around for more than a few decades, it even triggers some residual trauma. Who can forget the images of dying fish and seabirds washing up on the shores of Prince William Sound, Alaska, courtesy of the Exxon Valdez? Or the ban on fishing that lasted for over 5 months in the fertile Narraganset Bay off of Rhode Island because of a tanker-tug boat collision? Yes, there are many serious consequences to oil contamination in our oceans, and this latest event in the Gulf of Mexico is going to be no exception.

Though the International Tanker Operators Pollution Federation Limited proudly explains how the incidences of oil spills -- regardless of their source -- has significantly declined in the last thirty years (see the graph at right), it doesn't negate the fact that when they do happen, the results aren't pretty. Efforts to stop the leak in the Gulf through the use of robot submarines (closing the well's valve manually) have been unsuccessful, and in the three days since they started trying, the oil slick has moved more than ten miles closer to the shore, threatening wetlands, beaches, and wildlife from Louisiana to Florida. As of Wednesday morning, the slick is 40 miles wide, 80 miles long, and growing by the hour.

The viscosity and density of oil is different than water, and so tends to float on top of it. That is why the early deployment of booms is an important first step in containing spills. Unfortunately, wave action churns crude oil under, creating what looks like "chocolate mousse", and then that oil sinks -- contaminating the delicate ecosystem.

Responses to such spills can take many forms. Boats crews with booms and skimmers can try to contain and mop up the oil before it spreads too far. Planes and helicopters can dump dispersant chemicals into the slick to help the oil break down faster and be less harmful to the ecosystem (think: dropping some Dawn into a sink full of greasy dishes). Pollution containment devices can be constructed at the source, such as a leaking well, to capture the oil. And the oil can be lit on fire, about 95 percent of which is released as carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere.

While the efforts of the Coast Guard and BP are noble and appreciated -- they are trying a blend of all these techniques -- it appears that they are still weeks away from full containment, and a good three months away from stopping the leak permanently. In the meantime, the oil is expected to reach the Gulf shores as early as this weekend.

Are you using this important news event in your classroom and teaching? We would love to hear how. Share with us and other educators here, or on our Facebook page, how you are talking with students or colleagues about oil spills and cleanups. we would also love to hear about preventative measures folks along the Gulf can take now to protect their shoreline.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Using Skype in the Classroom

One of the benefits of incorporating new technology into the classroom is that it allows the teacher and students access to things they otherwise wouldn't have access to. In today's post, we'd like to highlight the benefits and uses of Skype -- the free software that allows for video conferencing.

What you need:
Skype is installed onto a computer (PC or Mac), so it goes without saying that your classroom will need a computer with internet access. Because it is a video conferencing tool, you will also require a camera and microphone. These last two do not need to be particularly hi-tech. In fact, combination units can easily be picked up at many stores for around $10. If your computer system happens to accommodate an overhead projector, that will be of use as well because it will allow all the students in the class to see the person/people they are speaking with.

How you can use Skype:
In the 'old days' -- meaning, pre-1990s -- it was quite common to be set up with a pen pal through school. Writing to a pal on the other side of the country or ocean helped young people practice their penmanship, learn about other cultures, and build communication skills. In today's day and age, pen pal programs are less common. However, new technology (like Skype) can be used to interact with folks outside of the classroom in other ways. For example, you can use video conferencing to:
  • talk with students in classrooms in other states or countries.
  • have discussions with scientists working in different fields (it's far easier than trying to bring that scientist into your classroom proper).
  • create research projects with students or classes in another place.
  • have specialists provide tours of places students would never have access to.
  • provide students access to lectures or presentations they can't physically travel to (with permission).
The initial set-up of the computer takes a matter of minutes, and making the connections for such video conferences can be built into classroom activities. Make students responsible to contacting potential scientists or specialists for conferences (with instructor direction). Ensure that students do their research prior to any conference so that they have thoughtful questions to pose. With a little bit of planning and preparation, you can have your students building important connections in no time at all!

Do you use multimedia or new technology in your classroom? We'd love to hear how you incorporate them. How does it affect your teaching and students' learning?

Friday, April 23, 2010

E. O. Wilson Takes to Writing Fiction

E. O. Wilson, renowned biologist and one of (if not THE) foremost experts on ant biology and ecology has put pen to paper once again. Only this time, it's to appeal to fiction readers who might not have the time or interest to pick up his more comprehensive nonfiction works.

The novel takes place by the side of a lake in rural southern Alabama. While the story focuses on a young boy who grows up to be a lawyer, the majority of characters, which probably comes as no surprise, are ants. In this undertaking, Wilson says he "had in mind a message, although I hope it doesn't intrude too badly, persuading Americans, and especially Southerners, of the critical importance of land and our vanishing natural environment and wildlife." Read more of his interview with Steve Ross of the Huffington Post here.

It's a unique and interesting undertaking, to say the least. Here, Nature is not just present to provide atmosphere to the story -- it's a main character. Wilson is giving voice to an 'entity' that we typically don't hear from (at least not in the conventional sense). Interestingly, the writer's voice has remained intact during this jump from nonfiction to fiction. The phrasing and terminology used is not unlike that of Wilson's very readable nonfiction books. While it isn't always the most conversational of tones, it is nevertheless quite engaging and gets across a sense of character that many writers of fiction would envy.

What intrigues us more, though, is Wilson's intent before writing -- to create a work of fiction that not only is entertaining, but puts across a sociological message: human beings are a biological species, acting in a biological environment and everything we do impacts all that is around us.

What do you think? Could the new wave of eco-activism be subterfuge? Will making us empathetic to creatures through fiction help a conservation movement that has taken quite a few hits in the last year?

Listen to the NPR podcast on this remarkable new story by clicking here.
Or read a book review by Barbara Kingsolver in the New York Times here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

40 Years On -- How Proud Would Rachel Carson Be?

Forty years ago today, Senator Gaylord Nelson held the first environmental teach-in we know as Earth Day. Partly in response to the growing eco-activism of the 1950s and '60s, and the overwhelming evidence presented to the public through works like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Nelson organized this national event in the hopes that a "grassroots outcry about environmental issues" might motivate the folks in Washington to do something to stop environmental damage. A New York Times article highlighting Nelson's efforts commented: "Rising concern about the 'environmental crisis' is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam."*

Forty years on, with controversy about another war on the lips of most Americans, the question begs to be asked: "Have we come far enough in our thinking?" There is no doubt that there is much to celebrate: the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, mandatory recycling in many communities throughout the nation. The activism work of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s also did much to raise the awareness of science as a discipline. But as we pat ourselves on the back for our earth-consciousness today, we might also take some time to think about the environmental issues we're now presented with and ways they might be addressed. Has the battle become weary, or are we starting to rally again?

With that in mind, we'd like to hear from you about what environmental concerns are at the top of your list. What should we as a larger community, and the government in Washington, be paying attention to most? We would also love to hear how teachers are choosing to honor this occasion in the classrooms around the country. Share your thoughts with us here, or on our Facebook page!

*"Environmental Crisis' May Eclipse Vietnam as College Issue," New York Times, 11/30/1969

Friday, April 16, 2010

News for Sushi Lovers Everywhere

During the First World War, Dr. Frederick Griffith, a young British medical officer, made an important discovery: the phenomenon known as "transformation." The transfer of DNA from one organism to another -- in Griffith's case, strains of Streptococcus -- could "transform" the original organism into a slightly different version of itself. (For more on this, see Visionlearning's DNA I module.) Now, scientists have discovered that something like this may have happened over time in the intestines of the Japanese population.

The human gut contains enzymes that break down polysaccharides -- one of the principle sources of energy for the brain. But these enzymes are not created by us, they're generated by the intestinal flora that live within us. Without a wide variety of intestinal flora, we simply wouldn't be able to acquire the energy needed to survive. Scientists all over the world study these different flora, and the enzymes they produce, in order to better understand how they function.

Two teams of researchers working at the Station Biologique de Roscoff, in France, have been studying the enzyme porphyranase, found in marine bacteria, in hopes of learning more about what, specifically, it does. It turns out that the enzyme digests the polysaccharide Porphyran,which is present in the cell walls of the red algae popularly used in sushi.

Further research showed that, while this enzyme is present in the gut of the Japanese test subjects, it is not present in those of the American subjects. They have presumed that the presence of this enzyme in the gut microbiota of the Japanese subjects is a direct result of diet. Further, they have 'explained this discovery by a transfer of genes between the bacteria, that allows the gut microbiota of the Japanese to acquire all the 'machinery' it needs to consume the algae that surround sushi." It's the first time to be shown that food bacteria can transfer genes to our own gut bacteria.

This doesn't mean that Americans' microbiota don't digest sushi well enough. Most of the seaweeds found in US supermarkets have been roasted in order to sterilize them, and in so doing have destroyed these microbiota. This project could lead to further research to see if there are added benefits to having specialized organisms living in our tummys.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Than One Way to Run a Solar System

For years, science class has taught us that planets are formed when a vast cloud of cold gas and dust surrounding a newly formed star is compressed. Using the mass's original momentum and gravitational force, these planets orbit the star in the same direction as the star's spin. Seems simple enough. And there hasn't been any evidence that would suggest otherwise. (The first multi-planet system other than our own wasn't discovered  until 1999, and that one behaves much like our own.)

There hasn't been any reason to question this -- until now. Researchers in Europe announced yesterday that they have observed extrasolar exoplanets revolving around their stars in the opposite direction to the stars' spin. Some of these planets, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, have highly tilted, eccentric orbits that would destroy any smaller, rocky planets that could harbor life.

Astronomer Alan Boss at Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington explained how such "close encounters between planets orbiting the star would result in some planets getting sling-shotted into highly eccentric orbits, in some cases even backward (or retrograde) ones." The cause of the change in orbit direction could be due to a variety of causes, including pull from distant massive planets.

The discovery, announced at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Glasgow, Scotland, suggests that our solar system is unique not only in the presence of Earth, but possibly in the stability of planetary orbits.

Image copyright of the Royal Astronomical Society

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lightning Myth is Proven Reality

If you have ever lived in rural farming areas, especially where large quantities of corn are grown, you've likely heard the old farmer's myth that lightning storms will make the corn grow. One layman's theory suggests that the nitrogen given off by lightning will be used up by the plants in an overnight growth spurt. Others suggest lightning fixes nitrogen in the soil, making it available for plant uptake. It seems, now, that these myths may actually have some basis in fact.

Researchers in Japan have shown that lightning strikes can more than double the yield of certain types of mushrooms. By applying gentle, high-voltage pulses of electricity to logs, researchers simulate the charge that would naturally be found in the ground near a strike zone. According to the findings, the mushrooms respond to the increased level of electricity in the soil by reducing "the proteins and enzymes secreted by their hyphae, followed by a sudden increase."

The hyphae act like roots for the mushrooms, taking in nutrients and providing stabilization on surfaces like rotting logs. These hyphae also act as the basis for new fruiting bodies (the actual mushrooms we eat). According to Yuichi Sakamoto, chief researcher at the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center, who has been working with the research team, "it's possible the mushrooms are giving themselves a reproductive boost in response to danger."

Early research by the team also suggests that exposure to lightning causes Daikon radishes to bud early.

For more on the Nitrogen Cycle, click here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Science Pick of the Week? You Decide.

It's been a very exciting week in the realm of scientific discovery. On Wednesday, the journal Biology Letters announced the discovery of a new species of monitor lizard in the Philippines. (See Wednesday's blog entry below.)

Thursday brought about the announcement of a new element, number 117 (still nameless), by a team of American and Russian scientists. By smashing together isotopes of calcium and berkelium, a radioactive element, in a particle accelerator, they have managed to create a new element, and possibly provided supportive evidence toward an "island of stability" theory. (That periodic table may need updating soon.)

And today, the journal Science is publishing a report on the discovery of a new species of Hominid in South Africa: Australopithecus sediba! According to the research team responsible for the find, the young male and adult female fossils "were a surprising and distinctive mixture of primitive and advanced anatomy and thus qualified as a new species of hominid, the ancestors and other close relatives of humans." you can view amazing pictures at National Geographic.

So which of these fascinating and exciting discoveries gets our science pick of the week? All of them! Each holds important implications for further research in biology, chemistry and anthropology (and likely other disciplines). Each also shows the importance of creativity, determination, and a keen eye for observation in the process of science.

Have you been talking about these events, or similar, in your classes? Share with us here!

A. sediba photograph copyright National Geographic.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New Species Found in Phillipines

In the last century, advancements in technology and science have allowed for a thorough exploration of our planet and the rapid sharing of information. So, it is a peculiar condition of our modern times that many young people feel that there is nothing left to discover -- everything has already been done and found (especially the big stuff). But as those who work in the various scientific disciplines know, there is always something new to uncover. You just have to look in the right place!

In the latest volume of Biology Letters, scientists working in the Philippines discuss their discovery of a new species of monitor lizard (genus Varanus). The giant, golden-spotted lizard, a relative of the Komodo dragon, is approximate 6 1/2 feet long, lives in the northern forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in Luzon, and feeds solely on fruits and snails. Apparently, the scientists learned about the species for the first time in 2004, when they spotted local tribesmen carrying one of the dead creatures.

As the article notes, the researchers used "data from morphology and mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences, [to] demonstrate the taxonomic distinctiveness" of the species. This information provided insight into the biogeographical history of the organism; a phylogenetic analysis shows that, though the lizard differs in "characteristics of scalation, colour pattern, body size, anatomy of the reproductive organs and genetic divergence," it is still closely related to lizards on other, nearby islands.

The discovery is noteworthy for many reasons, but particularly because the organism in question is so large. Finding new species of large vertebrates is not nearly as common as finding new types of frogs, insects, or small fishes. Even more, this discovery comes about on an island under significant threat from development and deforestation. Rafe Brown, a member of the team that discovered the monitor lizard, said in a statement to the Associated Press, that they "hope that by focusing on protection of this new monitor, conservation biologists and policy makers can work together to protect the remaining highly imperiled forests of northern Luzon."

Images copyright of Associate Press and

Monday, April 5, 2010

Using Current Events in the Classroom -- Earthquakes

In the last few months we have seen earthquakes cause devastation all over the world -- Haiti, Chile, and today Baja, Mexico. It can be difficult as an educator to incorporate events like these into the curriculum. The sensitive nature can make students uncomfortable and upset, and as an educator you risk appearing callus or cold. But, if handled with careful thought and sensitivity, using events like these can open students' minds to new ways of relating science to their everyday lives.

Massive geologic events like earthquakes can be dealt with in the classroom by sticking to the science. Rather than spending too much time talking about the human consequences of a specific earthquake, you might consider discussing the factors involved (such as plate tectonics or the structure of earth). Discussions in class can revolve around why we have seen so many significant earthquakes in a short period of time. Independent research assignments might include finding out whether these events fit into the known pattern of earthquake occurrence, or if there is a connection geographically to these three in particular (e.g. Are they all occurring along the same plate?).

However the subject is approached, just be sure that nothing you do has the potential of alienating students. By playing up the scientific inquiry and objective thinking, and playing down the emotional energy, you can push students to engage with science outside of the classroom and light a spark where there otherwise may only have been a dying ember. 

For learning and teaching modules on earth science, including explorations of earthquakes and boundary forms, visit Have suggestions on how to teach sensitive topics in the classroom? Share them with us here!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Eastern US Gets Rare Opportunity to See Space Shuttle

Those folks living along the eastern United States will have a rare opportunity on Monday morning. Should the weather cooperate, folks from Florida to southern Maine will be able to see the space shuttle Discovery as it makes its way into orbit.

Appearing as a bright star on the low horizon (about the same luminosity as Sirius), those with an unobstructed view should see the shuttle moving quickly along a path parallel to the eastern seaboard. Those with binoculars or a spotting scope will be able to see the 'V' of the contrails in the sky, and maybe even the orange of the external fuel tank!

Making its second-to-last voyage, Discovery will be launched from Cape Canaveral at 6:21 am EST and begin its journey to the International Space Station. Click here for a viewing map. Since the shuttle program's inception in 1981, there have only ever been five launches that took place at twilight, the rest occurring wither during darkness or the middle of the afternoon. Because of the time of day, this means that both the engine's rockets and the light from the sun should make the shuttle clearly identifiable in the morning sky.

The table shown here on the left, courtesy of, provides directions on where to look to see the Discovery on its journey out of earth's atmosphere.

NASA has scheduled only three more flights for shuttles after this launch. the shuttle program officially comes to a close at the end of this year, making way for the new space rogram that will focus on designing state-of-the-art vehicles for taking Americans into space.

For some help on spotting spaceships from earth, visit here. If you manage to see the shuttle -- or get photos -- please let us know!

(Discovery crew image courtesy of NASA)