I mean to actually have a real post this week, but have been scrambling to figure out grad school things + worrying about CA fires that are way too close to home. Grateful for all the people who are working together to fight the fires and care for everyone who is being evacuated.
Anyway, on to some of the things I’ve been reading when not setting up an apartment, navigating university bureaucracy or mourning my trees:
So, anglerfish do this weird thing where males are tiny and actually fuse themselves permanently to females, becoming little more than an extra organ. It gets weirder. They manage this fusion, which when you think about the challenges of finding the perfect match for tissue/organ/blood donors seems highly unlikely, by having an extremely minimal immune system. If you can’t tell self/non-self apart, you can’t reject your mate. Sounds great, I guess? Article about it here or Science paper here
“The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments” – should come as no surprise to anyone, but social justice and environmentalism aren’t really distinct issues – where resources for people are, greater biodiversity and greenspaces also may be; where wealth and status symbols (like perfectly manicured lawns) are common, wildlife suffers, where people have access to natural spaces, their health improves, etc.
Been reading a lot about rapid COVID testing! Article here, good video here. Great interview here.
I agree with some of this (some good numbers here!), but I’ll also note that assuming tenure-track faculty = better teaching isn’t great, since most have a) not had real training to teach and b) are disincentivized to improve teaching over spending that time on research in a publish-or-perish atmosphere. Anecdotal, but my best classes were taught by adjuncts and younger professors not yet tenured.
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.