I really don’t have a lot to say today, just feeling a lot of rage and uncertainty. Posting these today because sometimes you have to hold on to whatever you can find, and the common theme of reading this week is life finds a way…under even the most hostile of circumstances.
I am forever fascinated by the ways life manages to thrive in unlikely locations. And well, microbes extracting water from rock is incredible to think about (the paper is here, though sadly not open access).
How do you crack open a giant virus? A cool study using cryo-EM + identifying proteins released when the virus opens. Includes fantastic viral terminology such as “stargate vertex” and “starfish seal,” what could be better? (press release here, paper here).
Also a bonus – working througha book about rabies (you know, for a little light reading) and finding it fascinating. It’s called Rabid, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, and it’s all about how rabies has shown up in culture throughout history. Interesting for the science and culture (and a chapter about vampires and werewolves for good measure).
I know, I know I’m doing horribly on this whole write stuff once a week thing. I haven’t written anything in how many weeks now? Alas I have all these drafts and no time to do anything with them. How do people manage to accomplish so much in one day? I get to the evening and am so exhausted I don’t want to work on anything. Anyway, I digress, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed recently:
It’s a bright beautiful day, and I’m taking a break from work for poetry, picnics and working through the plethora of saved articles, papers, and books I’ve accumulated. A few interesting things:
Dickinsonia! Weirdest oldest animal we know, identified by its steroids. There’s a kind of hilarious quote that pretty much sums up the scientific process in the article too: “[My supervisor] Jochen [Brocks] said we could try it, but he was always sure that it was a stupid idea,” Bobrovskiy says. “Even I thought it would fail. But it didn’t.”
How does epigenetics help organisms adapt? A fascinating article about how changes in the expression of genes helps species respond quickly to environmental changes. Also remember learning about Lamarckian vs Darwinian evolution? I remember my high school biology class kind of laughing off Lamarck and his idea of acquired characteristics (“so if I just flap my arms I’ll eventually grow wings?”), but reality is much more subtle and complicated than that. On an epigenetics level, some traits are acquired through experience and passed on to the next generation…
An actually good article about our preparedness for the next pandemic. There are a lot of factors we need to consider – leadership, hospital staffing and supplying, research, responsiveness (and technological capacity) of industry to produce vaccines and medications, education, funding of all of the above, etc. And as a side note since it caught my eye, I don’t think we can ever hope for a system to produce new vaccines in weeks.
A big challenge with producing good vaccines is that for some viruses, exposure to the virus (or a vaccine) results in an even more severe illness the second time you’re exposed. Dengue is one of those viruses, and so understanding the challenges of producing an effective vaccine and the potential risks is important.
I went down the rabbit hole of weird viruses, and am enchanted by the term “genomic accordions.” Basically, some viruses are good at rapidly expanding and contracting their genomes by adding or subtracting extra copies of genes. More copies helps respond to stress and develop new mutations. This paper describes the process in poxvirus. Or if you prefer, an episode of one of my favorite podcasts about it.
Speaking of fun viruses, check this one out! It splits its genome into separate pieces that each infect different cells…
Recently I went and visited my family in Washington and noted that there was a lot of moss around all the trees there. I don’t have a lot of moss in the forest where I live. I figured it had to do with the amount of rain, as we generally have a warmer, drier climate.
But then I went out to my forest between the rain this week, and was struck by the sight of an enormous tree completely coated in moss. The entire trunk was green.
But none of the trees around it had any moss. Poking around a bit more, I realized that all the trees with moss were Douglas firs, and the trees without (but often with a lichen?), were redwoods. This remained true wherever I went, suggesting it wasn’t some something to do with that particular tree’s environment. Being very much not a plant scientist (or a moss scientist), I didn’t know much about what was going on, and wondered if the species-specific moss growth had to do with something structural (is redwood bark too smooth for moss to grab on to? do douglas firs move water/nutrients in a way that moss can better appreciate?), or chemical (do redwoods deter moss growth?). I decided the chemical deterrent hypothesis made more sense, because I found moss on old redwood stumps that had lost most of their outer bark.
Having wasted a great deal of time eating lunch and staring at trees, I went back to the lab and did some reading:
Other people have observed this phenomenon (link to paper on JSTOR) through studies of epiphytes in redwood forest. The authors of this paper suggest moss are deterred by anti-fungals produced by redwoods. Also fascinating, they describe their tree-climbing equipment/process in their methods section! Also more complex tree structure/surface area = more species growing on it.
It’s an off-and-on rainy morning here, so I’ve settled by the window with the best lighting and am doing my weekly skim through various papers and articles that caught my eye. This week in things I feel one should know about the world:
Gears! In insects! This is really old but I had apparently saved this to read later and never got around to it. Check out the video. If a design works at all, you’ll find it somewhere in nature…