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Showing posts from 2019

What Can Worms Teach Us?

If you are the world’s safest driver, can you expect your children to be safe drivers as well? Will they avoid dangerous driving situations when they first learn to drive? Short answer: most likely not. Long answer? At least in some organisms, the offspring can inherit some life-saving tips from their parents. For example, in Caenorhabditis elegans , a free-living transparent worm, parents can learn to avoid toxic food source and their offspring learn to avoid that food source without ever encountering that food. In their recent paper , Rebecca Moore and her colleagues described how the offspring inherit this information. C. elegans moving! Courtesy: Wikipedia Both in animals and plants, the environment greatly influences physical and behavioral characteristics. These characteristics sometimes can be passed onto the next generation even though the genetic code, the DNA sequence, remain unaltered (read this essay   for more information on the genetic code). The biological mecha

How Genetics Could Have Helped Charlie Chaplin

In 1943, actress Joan Barry gave birth to Carol Ann and claimed that Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and director, was Ann’s father. And when Chaplin denied the claim, Barry filed a lawsuit against him demanding child support. About a year and a half later, a California Jury voted 11 to 1 in Barry’s favor. Chaplin’s appeal for the verdict was unsuccessful, and he was forced to pay child support and court fees. Was Chaplin really the father of Barry’s daughter? We don’t need to go over Chaplin’s private letters or fancy DNA testing to get an answer—we just need some basic understanding of genetics and some readily available information on Chaplin’s and Ann’s blood type. In this essay, I want to go over those things to show why Chaplin couldn’t have been Ann’s biological father. Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925). Courtesy: Wikipedia Normally, most of our cells contain 23 pairs or 46 chromosomes, the tightly wound DNA strands. A sperm or an egg, however, is an exception: a

How Well Do You Know Mendel?

History often has a strong sense of irony. A person praised in one generation can be the contempt of the following generation. History, conversely, can turn an obscure figure into a celebrity, an inspiration for the future generations. Johann Mendel’s life is an example of the latter, but with some twists. His work, for example, only became well-known about four decades after his death, something perhaps even he couldn’t have anticipated.  At the time of his death, Mendel had written more about meteorology than biology; yet, his fame came from his work in genetics. Every biologist knows him, though perhaps not as Johann Mendel, but as Gregor Mendel —a  name he took up when he joined the Augustinian Friars. This essay is about his ingenuity and dedication to science, and to some extent, his life. Thought Experiment With Cards To fully appreciate his brilliance, let’s do a thought experiment.  Let’s suppose we have two decks of cards: pink and white. We take one card from each de

What If The Synonyms Went Away?

In 1984 , George Orwell described how devastating it would be if we were to reduce our vocabulary/dictionary. We need appropriate words for complex thoughts, and Orwell reasoned that it would be impossible to have complex thoughts without those words. It would be, for example, very difficult for us to talk about totalitarianism if the word didn’t exist in our vocabulary. But what happens when we get rid of some synonyms in our genetic code? That’s what Fredens and his team wanted to find out. They described their findings in their recent paper , and here, I want to go over that paper. Since we normally don’t think of synonyms when we think of biology, let me explain what I mean.  If the purpose of life is to produce food, then we can think of our DNA as an encyclopedic cooking book that we could use to make a particular dish. Like the book, all the information a cell needs to make a protein or RNA  is contained within our DNA (I will explain what RNA is later on). Unlike the book,

Demystifying Research Papers (Part II)

In the first part of Demystifying Research Papers , I went over how research articles are usually constructed. I purposely didn’t talk much about the Results section because I wanted to do that in a separate essay.  A well-written Results section not only shows the outcome of all the relevant experiments but also helps the readers to follow the rationale behind those experiments. Here, instead of directly elaborating on the Results section, I want to go over a hypothetical question to explain the rationale and structure of this section. Confusion: Gerard Mignot Suppose we want to investigate if green tea has a beneficial effect on cancer treatment, and our hypothesis is simply this: green tea is good for cancer. Before we do anything, we need to look into older publications carefully (doing searches on , for example)[1] because we don’t want to spend time or money if that study has already been done. We also need to read up on publications related to green tea and trea

Demystifying Research Papers (Part I)

Research papers in science are often hard to understand because it’s very easy to get lost in the sea of technical words, acronyms, and esoteric techniques. It would be very difficult—if not impossible—for example, for me to understand a research paper in physics because my background is in biology, not in physics. Even in biology, there are many topics I am not familiar with, and I would need to invest some time to understand papers on those topics. However, it’s possible to get at least some idea about what is going on if we know more about the standard format of research articles and invest some time familiarizing ourselves with the unfamiliar terms and techniques. In two essays, I will explain how we can achieve that: I will go over the general structure of a research paper this essay and will talk more about the backbone of a research article in a second essay: the Results section. Manifesto of Confusion: Anna Ravliuc Abstract: Abstract briefly tells us what to expect from a

Something Silly, Something Canine

(Even though this essay is based on an actual paper, it's mostly a work of fiction!)   Perfect timing! Does anyone know the photographer? Editor’s Note: We, at the New Yeti Tales, pride ourselves in bringing the latest news on elusive, controversial encounters and sightings to our readers. For that, we heavily rely on our readers’ tips. Every day, at the NYT, we receive thousands of tips, and we are familiar with all kinds of stories. A few days ago, however, we received a letter from Dr. Vera Smart from Elite University that both intrigued and confused us. Dr. Smart claimed that with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI), she had uncovered a hidden message from a dog in a video. She sent us the bizarre transcript of the message with her letter. After much internal discussion, we have decided to publish the entire transcript. We’ll offer some additional notes from Dr. Smart at the end of the transcript. Here is the transcript: Hoofs and greetings, dear friends. I hope yo

Enemies of Our Enemies: Our Viral Friends

Can you successfully use the concept ‘enemy of our enemy is our friend’ in medical treatment? Specifically, could you use viruses to treat an incurable infection? Born with genetic disease cystic fibrosis , Isabelle Holdaway had to deal with lung infections and breathing problems all her life. Because of persistent infections, by her fifteenth birthday, her lungs had lost more than two-thirds of their functions. As a last resort, her doctors decided to transplant her lungs even though they feared infection might spread through her entire body after the surgery. And unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. As the infection spread beyond her surgical wound, the doctors told her mother, Jo Holdaway, that her daughter's infection couldn’t be treated and that Isabelle’s chance of survival was less than one percent.  Desperate for a miracle, Jo decided to look into alternative treatment options for her daughter. She knew her daughter's infection was caused by bacteria, micros

All That Glitters and Cures

The story of King Midas in Greek mythology perfectly illustrates our fascination with gold. In that story, Midas wished that everything would turn into gold upon his touch. His wish was granted, and he died because of it—because his food would also turn into gold, poor Midas died of starvation. As the story shows, our desire to possess gold has been with us since ancient times, and even though gold’s value has somewhat diminished in our time, gold still represents wealth and security in many countries. Even research biologists are not immune to the allure of gold. Though for them, the appeal of gold lies elsewhere: gold nanoparticle s  are not toxic to the cells and drugs can be added to these nanoparticles to ensure effective delivery. In their  paper published in 2016, Alex Savchenko and his colleagues described one such use of gold nanoparticles. They creatively used gold nanoparticles to solve a complex delivery problem. An analogy of what they attempted to achieve would be to be