Archive for: February, 2011

Fishy Skin Treatment

Feb 27 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

This may be TMI, but the wintry weather we've been having has made my feet really dry and itchy (and not too pretty to look at). Soaking my feet in a warm bath brought to mind a story I read a few years ago about pedicures that used fish to nibble away dead skin.

The fish turns out to be the Garra rufa or Doctor Fish. Native to Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the fish are used in spa treatments all over the world. Watch them in action:

Doctor Fish made a splash in the US news when a salon in Alexandria, Virgina imported 10,000 of the little guys from China in 2008. Since then, a number of states - including California - have banned the use of Garra in pedicures because they cannot be "disinfected" between treatments. The alternative - limiting each fish to a single treatment - would be cost prohibitive and would result in lot of "retired" fish to dispose of in some way.

That unfortunately means I'll have to stick to traditional treatments - pumice and lotion - for my dry heels.  My husband claims my feet are too ticklish to withstand 15 minutes of fish nibbling anyway.

Interestingly, one preliminary study found that Garra nibbling - more properly called ichthyotherapy - may be part of an effective treatment for psoriasis.  Maybe someday you'll find them in your dermatologist's office, even if they aren't allowed in your local salon.

Additional Reading:

Shishkin P. "Ban of Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Salon Owners on the Hook" Wall Street Journal (2009)

Grassberger M and Hoch W "Ichthyotherapy as Alternative Treatment for Patients with Psoriasis: A Pilot Study"  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. December; 3(4): 483–488. (2006) doi: 10.1093/ecam/nel033.

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Stuttering and Genetics

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Brain & Behavior

Ever since the release of the award-winning movie The King's Speech, there has been a lot of discussion about stuttering in the media.

The movie is the fictionalized story of the struggle of King George VI - "Bertie" to his family - to overcome his stuttering with speech therapy.  That summary doesn't make it sound particularly interesting, but I found the story to be quite engaging. By the end I was rooting for Bertie to make it through his big speech.

It's estimated that almost 1% of adults stutter, just like Bertie. After decades of research, the underlying causes are only beginning to be understood.

At this past week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, there was a symposium that focused on recent developments in cross-disciplinary stuttering research.  The most interesting study discussed in that session looked at how genetics may contribute to the speech disorder.

NIH geneticist Dennis Drayna and his colleagues have been studying closely-related families in Pakistan. They discovered three mutations associated with stuttering in those families. The three affected genes - GNPTAB, GNPTG, and NAGPA - are involved in directing glycoproteins to the lysosomes. Lysosomes are tiny organelles inside the cell that break down waste material and cellular debris. If the proper glycoproteins don't end up in the lysosomes, carbohydrates and fatty materials can build up to toxic levels in the body's cells.

It was already known that some mutations in GNPTAB and GNPTG cause mucolipidosis, a disease that affects both neurological and physical development.  In its severest form, mucolipidosis causes mental retardation and skeletal deformities. The people who carry the mutations in GNPTAB and GNPTG associated with stuttering don't have the severe neurological and physical problems associated with mucolipidosis.

It's not entirely clear how the mutations in genes involved in cellular metabolism might affect the development of the brain and cause speech problems, so there's still a lot of research to be done. But no matter what the mechanism is, finding these mutations provides support to the idea that the cause of stuttering is primarily physiological rather than behavioral or psychological.

But these genes are only a small part of the story.  Only about 6% of stutterers carry a mutation in GNPTAB, GNPTG or NAGPA.  Drayna's team and other research labs are searching for  additional associated mutations.  The hope is that the ongoing research into the genetics of stuttering will ultimately lead to new effective therapies.

Listen to the  AAAS Podcast on "The Mysteries of Stuttering" for more about the research presented at the symposium.

Additional reading:
• Michael Palin: "Stuttering: It's on everyone's lips now" Los Angeles Times (2011)

• Howell P. "Listen to the lessons of The King's Speech" Nature 470 (7) (2011) doi:10.1038/470007a

* Schenkman L. "First Gene Mutations Linked to Stuttering"  (Science NOW 2010)

• Willyard C. "Ancient Mutation to Blame for Stuttering" (Science NOW 2011)

• You can find more information about current research and resources for stutterers on the Stuttering Foundation of America's web site.   The National Institutes of Health also provides information on stuttering.

• Read the original research article: Kang C. et al. "Mutations in the Lysosomal Enzyme-Targeting Pathway and Persistent Stuttering" N Engl J Med 362:677-685 (2010)  doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0902630 (free full text)

• Learn more about the research presented at the 2011 AAAS Meeting.

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Cat Burglar Caught on Tape

Feb 19 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

GrrlScientist reports on her Punctuated Equilibrium blog over at the Guardian that a cat burglar has been stalking a San Mateo, California neighborhood. In this case the thief is 6-year-old Dusty, a mixed-breed housecat.  Dusty prowls the neighborhood at night and grabs gloves, shoes, toys and other items from his neighbors' yards and carries them home to share with his family.  His record is 11 items in a single night, and he seems to favor drying swimsuits.

Local station ABC 7 caught him in the act with their night vision camera. Watch their report:

Apparently Dusty's neighbors are understanding about his behavior, as they know where to go to find their missing items.

Dusty isn't the only feline thief roaming our cities and suburbs. Apparently this sort of "misdirected predation" behavior is not uncommon in urban cats. The UK cat site has a whole collection of cat thief stories - and those are just the ones who both got caught and had stories written about them.

Personally, if I had a cat I'd much prefer a "gift" of the neighbor's flip flops than a half-dead mouse.

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Do-it-yourself 3-D Bioscience Modelling

Feb 17 2011 Published by under Art & Science

A picture's worth a thousand words.  Sometimes even more.  I think that's especially true when trying to imagine microscopic organisms and molecules, that simply can't be seen with the naked eye. And even better than a flat picture is a three-dimensional model that you can move and manipulate.

I have on good authority that it used to be that if you wanted to create a 3D image on your home computer you would have to invest in expensive software and wait seemingly forever for models to be processed or rendered.  But almost a decade ago, Blender - a free open source 3D modeling application - was released to the public. And over the years personal computers have gotten fast enough that it doesn't take days to render your images.

Blender has been used to make some pretty amazing animated shorts. But it's uses aren't limited to entertainment and commercials.

Blender Image Rendering

Blender rendering a microbe image.

Issue #31 (December 2010) of BlenderArt Magazine takes a look at how Blender can be used "Under the Microscope" to demonstrate scientific principles and visualize microrganisms and microscopic cellular components.

Biomolecular visualization specialists Raluca Mihaela Andrei, Mike Pan and Monica Zoppè, write about how to use BioBlender.  BioBlender is a Windows application used to view and manipulate 3D protein models using data from the  RCSB Protein Data Bank (pdb files).

An example of their work is  the video Protein Expressions (there is a stereo version on their web site):

In the same issue, physicist Enrique Sahagún describes how he animated a kinesin protein motor transporting a vesicle down a microtubule.  The result:

The magazine includes some full-page images that demonstrate  nicely that  biological visualizations on the microscopic level can be both powerful science and beautiful art.

You can download Issue 31 of BlenderArt Magazine- along with sample .blend files. - for free at The issue are also includes a couple of articles about creating physics visualizations, if bioscience isn't your thing.

If you are in the Boston area, you might want to consider attending the BioBlender workshop at the VizBi (Visualizing Biological Data) conference  on March 19th at the Broad Institute in Cambridge.

3D Models created with Blender:

Virtual worm @ WormBase

• IFC-CNR Scientific Visualization Unit videos and blender files

Firing Neurons, the Cell Dance 2010 Public Outreach Video Winner

•  XVIVO's Powering the Cell (I don't know that they used Blender, but it's fantastic animation)

Molecular Shots Portfolio

Online tutorials :

Jonathan Williams demonstrates how to use Blender to model a Microscopic Virus

Frederik Steinmetz shows how to construct a "Microcosm" using Blender 2.5


The image at the top is one of the Blender Magazine sample images in the process of rendering. I actually don't have any experience making 3D animations myself.  Thanks to Brian (who does use Blender) for pointing the magazine out to me!

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The Neurochemistry of Love

Feb 14 2011 Published by under Brain & Behavior

Hearts (Explored!)My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly express'd;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
~ Sonnet 147, William Shakespeare

The pursuit of romantic love is a greater driving force than the sex drive, according to Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the neuroscience of love.  As she describes it, symptoms of love are indeed quite powerful:

Romantic love begins as an individual comes to regard another as special, even unique. The over then intensely focuses his or her attention on this preferred individual, aggrandizing the beloved's better traits and overlooking or minimizing his or her flaws. Lovers experience extreme energy, hyper activity, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings. They are goal-oriented and strongly motivated to win the beloved. Adversity heightens their passion [ . . . ] They reorder their daily priorities to remain in contact with their sweetheart , and experience separation anxiety when apart. And most feel powerful empathy for their amour; many report they would die for their beloved.

In fact, love can affect your brain like an addiction.  When love is reciprocated it's a constructive addiction, while rejection of love is a destructive addiction.  It's powerful effects have shaped and been shaped by evolution, and - Fisher argues - have even helped drive the development of human culture.

Here's an interesting lecture at UC San Diego where Fisher talks about the evolution and neuroscience of romantic love and the development of poetry and art (20 minutes):

If you are interested in more, also check out Fisher's 2008 TED talk about the brains in love (16 min.):

Happy Valentine's Day!

Technical reading:

Fisher HE et al. "Reward, Addiction and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love" J. Neurophysiol 104: 51-60 (2010)  (free pdf)

Fisher H "The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection" in The New Psychology of Love, 2nd Edition. RJ Sternberg and K Weis (Eds.) New Haven: Yale University Press (2006) (free pdf)

Fisher HE et al. "Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice"  Phil Trans R Soc B 360: 2173-2186. (2006) (free pdf)

More of Fisher's publications.

Image: Hearts (Explored!) by qthomasbower, on Flickr

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Happy Darwin Day!

Feb 12 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Sorry for the long posting hiatus.  The past couple of months seem to have flown by unexpectedly quickly. I thought a post celebrating Darwin Day would be an ideal way to get back into the swing of things.

Today, February 12th, is the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. The day is celebrated by biology-loving folk all over the world as International Darwin Day.

So far there hasn't been any official recognition of Darwin's birthday here in the U.S. (at least that I know of).  But I'm proud to say that a few days ago Representative Pete Stark (D-CA)* submitted  House Resolution 81 in support of officially designating February 12th, 2011 as Darwin Day.

I quite like that the resolution was framed as support of science in general. As Stark said in his introduction to the Resolution:

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 and his life has had a profound impact on the course of human history.  Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has not only provided a compelling explanation for the diversity of life, it is also the foundation of modern biology and genetics.  Darwin exemplified the scientific curiosity that has led to new scientific breakthroughs that have helped humanity solve numerous problems and improve our quality of life.

Charles Darwin is worthy of recognition and honor.  His birthday should be a time for us to celebrate the advancement of human knowledge and the achievements of reason and science.  It should also be a time for Congress and other elected officials to ensure that children are being taught scientific facts and not religious dogma in our public schools.

The mention of "religious dogma" is sure to antagonize those Representatives who think their religious beliefs can take the place of science (or at least think their constituents want them to believe that). And Stark  threw in  in a bit about climate change, which seems  like a poke at Republican climate change deniers. But even so, I'm hoping the bill at least garners enough support to pass out of committee.

But even if it passes, it will be too late to celebrate Darwin's birthday this year.

So to celebrate  Charles Darwin's birthday right now, I give you Australian poet Emily Ballou, reading from her collection The Darwin Poems:

As you read this Darwin Day may be over, at least for this year. But you can still celebrate:

• Read Darwin's original notebooks, diaries, and publications at Darwin Online. Not only can you read Darwin's works on evolution, but the notes on the development and growth of his children and his best selling book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (all about earthworm behavior and ecology)

• Ask your US Representative to support House Resolution 81 in Recognition of Darwin Day

• Listen to the 2008 Humanist Hour podcast interviewing P. Thomas Carroll, who transcribed thousands of Darwin's letters and personal correspondence.

• Learn more about evolutionary biology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution site

• Buy some Darwin-related gear to support The Beagle Project. The project aims to build a working replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship that "carried Charles Darwin around the world"

• The bill was co-sponsored by fellow Democrat  Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey

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