Class blog for sharing and commenting on current events in biology.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

McNeil, Donald G., Jr. "Another Scourge in His Sights." New York Times 23 Apr. 2013: D1. New York Times, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

“Another Scourge in His Sights” by Donald G. McNeil Jr tells the amazing story of Dr. Donald R. Hopkins role in the eliminating virtually all the Guinea worm disease in the world.  Growing up Dr. Hopkins lived in Coconut Grove, Miami with 9 other brothers and sisters.  Both of his parent were very concerned with his education and put a lot of weight onto how well he did in school.  While is mother was working at her sewing machine she made her children recite their multiplication tables and a poem called “Don’t Quit” out loud.  At a very young age Hopkins knew he wanted to be a doctor and at 15 he won a scholarship to Morehouse college in Atlanta.  He knew he wanted to study tropical medicine when he went on a trip to Egypt and saw children with trachoma.  In 1967 he went to Sierra Leone to help vaccinate people with smallpox until it died out.  In 1987, as the director of the C.D.C., Dr. Hopkins suggested that instead of trying to get clean drinking water for all people they should take on a more attainable goal of getting rid of the Guinea worm disease.  People become infected by drinking water from freshwater crustaceans called copepods, this is the only clean water source for many.  The larvae escape into the skin usually in the foot or hand, then they create a blister from acid that they pop out of, then the cycle begins again.  People who are woking to get rid of this disease work from the source, water.  They treat ponds with a pesticide to wipe out the copepods and teach families to filter water and help currently suffering victims. Dr. Hopkins has helped, and still helps many people suffering with this disease, he said “...I’m sort of immunized against skepticism.” 
Before Dr. Hopkins and his team were able to begin to tackle the problem of the Guinea worm disease this parasite infected mostly third world countries many of them Africa. With Hopkins help there are now less then 600 cases of this horrifying disease known worldwide. Some cases have been found in Mali, Ethiopia and Chad however, most of them are in South Sudan. The International Commission for the Certification of Dracunculiasis Eradication have certified 187 countries as disease free.  This is very important to the world because although it is not deadly it is very painful and all of Dr. Hopkins’ research has help greatly in beating this horrid disease.  
Overall, I think that this is a very good article that uses humor and amazing facts to tell the story of a great man’s accomplishments.  I love the way this article light hearted jokes to show the personality of a clearly amazing man.  I also think that Guinea worm disease was also explained very well for someone who does not know anything about it.  However, I think that this article could have talked more about Hopkins experiences in Africa fighting this parasite.  This would have made the article more moving and exiting.  Overall I believe that this article was very well written and gives a lot of information about the disease and the man, Dr. Hopkins, who is helping to stop it.   

Plants That Glow in The Dark to Replace Light Bulb

In today’s world the growing number of communal laboratories makes it cheaper than it’s ever been to research synthetic biology, and a do-it-yourself attitude is rising among amateur scientists and hobbyists.  A small group of amateur scientists has started their own ambitious project in one of these labs to create plants that glow, and their ultimate goal is to replace streetlamps and perhaps all artificial light with radiantly glowing trees and other plants.  The project is being funded by the website Kickstarter, a website that lets ordinary people fund projects through public donation.  Anybody can donate to the project through Kickstarter, including us.  So far, they've made $412, 613 of their $65,000 goal and have 7,221 donators.  Donators of $40 or more will receive their own glowing plant seeds.  As promising as this research seems, critics are worried about independently funded scientists creating malicious organisms in their garage.  Others are worried about the widespread release of bio-engineered seeds to the public, namely most of the financial contributors.  Some people have even written to Kickstarter demanding they remove the donation page from their website. Others are probably worried about the ethics of “messing with nature.”  Notably, they are not creating genetically engineered organisms, that is, organisms made by splicing the DNA of one organism into another. Instead, they are synthesizing brand new DNA from scratch to insert into the plant DNA.  While the department of Agriculture has laws around GMOs, these glowing plants bypass those guidelines because they are not technically GMOs.
            I found this research to be incredibly amazing, and am even considering contributing my own money to the project, which only takes one click.  It seems to me incredibly unlikely that these plants will replace all artificial light, at least during my lifetime, but it would be really cool to have a glowing plant on my desk instead of a lamp, or next to my bed so I could read in the dark.  These plants would save energy and are therefore good for the environment, and on a personal level could save individuals or families money on their electric bill.  While I think this idea is really cool, it is alarming that there seem to be so little regulations on the scientists.  What if some malicious scientists began experimenting with organisms that released deadly toxins and then released them to the public?  Okay, that seems a little far-fetched and sounds like the plot to a B-Horror film, but what if it was an accident?  That still seems unlikely, but I feel that it is  a little dangerous to let scientists be independently funded while working in these communal labs with no supervision or regulation.

            One critique of the article is they did a very poor job of explaining what Kickstarter was.  I happened to know what it is and have pledged to projects before, but I would have otherwise been a bit confused.  One thing the article did very well was remain unbiased.  The article presents the points of view of both the scientists and critics without siding with either.        

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New Tools to Hunt New Viruses

Fiona Staunton                                                                                                            May 2013
Current Event # 2                                                                                            Biology 10H

            Within the last year, two new, rapidly evolving diseases have hit both Asia and the Arabian peninsula. These disease have killed nearly 60 people, combined. More than 15 new strains of diseases have hit the globe in the last 20 years. However, many people are not worrying about these new diseases. Scientists are now taking a stand and working to stop the spread and creation of these new diseases. As the new diseases crop up, people are left with no prevention. Scientists are now using rapid gene sequencing to try and find a cure and cause of these new disease strains. Also, people re now posting their symptoms on many online websites, such as WebMD and ProMED so that if people are suspicious, they can compare their symptoms and catch the diseases quicker. These new tools could potentially save many, many lives.
            These new technologies are extremely important to not only the field of science, but to humans everywhere. Many people know of the Spanish Flu in 1918, that killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. Many people have heard about the deadly Black Plague in Europe which killed between 75-200 million people. Imagine if we had a serious outbreak of disease that wiped out people in such numbers? There are new diseases that are now spreading in the world, all of them extremely dangerous. The fact that scientists are spending more and more time trying to contain these diseases and find causes and cures, it extremely important in saving many people’s lives. It is also very important that countries are now working together to aid each other with new diseases, as the article wrote. The World Health Organization now considers covering up an outbreak of a disease a violation. This article is also relevant to our biology class, as we are studying genes.
            I found this article to be extremely interesting and important, however there were some key parts missing. The article only mentioned rapid gene sequencing once – which was not enough. I found that I had to Google myself what this new technology was in order to better understand it. Because rapid gene sequencing is so important to hunting new viruses, I feel that it should have been better explained. Also, in general, I felt the article did not go into depth about what scientist were actually doing to stop these new disease, which is the main point of the article. I found that too much of it was spent explaining the diseases rather than what was going on to stop them. However, overall I found this article to be interesting and extremely relevant to humans everywhere.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

2 year old girl gets windpipe made from stem cells

Ariel Sachtjen 5/8/13
Biology Stem Cells

Chan, Amanda L. "Hannah Warren, 2-Year-Old Girl, Gets Windpipe Made From Stem Cells." The Huffington Post., 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 May 2013.

At the age of only two years old Hannah Warren has been through a lot of medical treatments. Hannah was born in South Korea in 2010 but her parents soon moved to Peoria, Illinois. She was born without a windpipe and now has a new one grown from her own stem cells. Hannah is the youngest patient in the world to receive this stem cell treatment. From birth she could not  eat, drink , breath  or swallow because she was born without a windpipe.  Hannah had spent her entire life in the hospital. Doctors informed her parents that there was no hope for her to live. Hannah’s parents had heard of Doctor Paolo Macchiarini, and his work with stem cell grown tracheas. However, his institute is in Stockholm, Sweden and they could not afford to go there.  The Children’s Hospital arranged for Doctor Macchiarini to come to Peoria, Illinois to perform the surgery.  The stem cells used in this procedure came form Hannah’s  bone marrow.  They were extracted with a special needle inserted into her hip bone. They were seeded in a lab onto a plastic scaffold. In less than a week enough cells multiplied to make a new windpipe. During a nine hour operation Dr. Macchiarini inserted a three inch tube into her body. The operation was successful and the windpipe is working, but Hannah will need to stay on a ventilator a while longer. The doctors said they think  she will live a normal life and recover fully. Hannah still has a long recovery.  Right now she is unable to eat normally, but recently tasted food for the first time in her life.  She tried a few licks of a lollipop. Her father said “ she already has discriminating taste and prefers chocolate Korean lollipops to the American kind.” This type of operation normally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Children’s Hospital paid the entire cost of Hannah’s operation. It is a Roman Catholic hospital that believes in charity, and they also wanted to show how stem cell therapy doesn’t have to use embryonic stem cells which the Church is against.
This article shows the amazing impact of stem cell therapy.  I choose this article because I think the field of stem cell technology is very important. This technology is important to society because it can change lives, possibly providing cures for devastating illnesses and defects.  Human embryonic stem cells come from eggs that are fertilized during a process known as in vitro fertilization. These cells can help  infertile couples produce babies. However, it has been discovered that these cells also hold the clue to cures and treatments for many devastating diseases.  Embryonic stem cell research is a subject of  moral controversy.  However, scientists now know that stem cells can also be taken from an individual’s own body, as was the case with Hannah. Even people against embryonic stem cell research  support this type of stem cell technology. One in 50,000 children in the world are born with the windpipe defect. The stem cell technique has been used to make other body parts besides windpipes and holds promise for treating other birth defects and childhood diseases. Doctor Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine said “ Scientists hope to eventually use the method to create solid organs, including kidneys and livers.”  He said the operation on Hannah Warren “is really showing that the technique is workable.” I think stem cell research is tremendously important to our society.  The fact that stem cells can help cure some diseases and create new body parts is remarkable.
I really enjoyed this article. I thought it was very timely since in class we have been studying stem cells.  I thought it was very interesting to see that Hannah set a new record as being the youngest person to ever benefit from this stem cell treatment. Before reading this article I never even thought that someone could be born without a windpipe. I find it so interesting that it is a one in fifty thousand chance to be born with a windpipe defect. I thought the article was very well written, it did a great job of explaining Hannah’s defect and treatment. I thought it was very touching that Children’s Hospital brought Doctor Macchiarini all that way from Sweden and paid the entire cost of the surgery. However, I think the author could have gone into a bit more depth about the controversy surrounding stem cell research. It only briefly explained the Roman Catholic Hospital’s reason for supporting Hannah’s type of stem cell treatment. The story of Hannah Warren shows the world how science can create miracles.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Cancers Share Gene Patterns, Studies Affirm"

Sally Kwok

Kolata, Gina. "DNA Studies Lend Weight to New Way of Looking at Cancer." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 May 2013. Web. 01 May 20

         The scientist found evidences that different types of cancers are linked together by the genetic code that triggered the changes, and should probably be identified that way instead of where the tumor originated. Proofs that contribute towards this notion and discovery is the fact that they have come to realize that many types of lethal breast cancer are similar to some types of ovarian cancer, and that many scientist have reported striking genetic changes in breast, lung, and colon cancer that (could) link to several other cancer. The problem with the current system is that cancer is determined by pathologist who evaluate thin slices of tumor and then decide whether it should be treated with surgery or radiation, and if it’s more serious, be treated with chemotherapy later. However it’s hard to distinguish which of the two broad treatment group the cancer should go into sometimes. The one discussed in the article is with endometrial cancer. However, now they have been able to determine that many endometrial cancers have a mutation in the gene very similar to colon cancer, and further down, to ovarian, and breast cancer, all of which might respond to the same drug.

This is relevant in the developing of medicine to cure cancer. If a cancer cell of some sort if to be found similar to some other cancer which had been found to respond very well to a certain type of medication or treatment, it would effectively cut down time in curing a specific patient and giving them a better chance for survival, as well save money, since they no longer have to go out and seek a different cure for something else they’ve already made that will suffice. Also, the three main cancer, breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer that I mentioned above targets mostly women, giving a larger population of women better treatment as well as lower mortality rate.

I really enjoyed reading this article about how the scientist are now narrowing in on the reason why cancer cells happen in the first place- gene mutation, or wrong DNA pairs- and connecting all these “random” cancers together. Concentrating on that will help them develop more effective cures that treat multiple type, and save more lives, instead of looking at them as individual cancers on separate body parts, they’re recognizing that there is some sort of web” connecting all these different types and that pushing a specific button could change more than just one cancer. The only thing I wished the article had done was perhaps mention several cancers only in men that they had linked together, and give examples of specific drugs they had used so far for the treatment of the three lethal cancers.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Sense of Where You Are

Hilary Rizzo                                                                                                5/8/13
C Block Odd                                                                                               Biology
“A Sense of Where You Are”

Gorman, James. “A Sense of Where You Are” The New York Times. 5 May 2013. 29 April 2013.

            In 1998, two physiologists, May-Britt Moser and her husband Edvard I. Moser, convinced PerOskar Andersen, an internationally famous neuroscientist, to work with them on studying the intersection of behavior and physiology. Physiology is the study of functions of living organisms and their parts. They began recording the activity of cells in the hippocampus of rats moving in a closed area because they wanted to find out how information flows to place cells, cells in the brain that register specific places. They found that the cells were not responding to external marks, but they were keeping track of how they moved. In 2005, they discovered grid cells in the brains of rats, which create a map of the world and tell them where they are, where they were before, and where they are going. The grid cells, cells that sense head direction, and cells that sense borders and boundaries work together in the brain as a navigation system that maps movement. Electrical recordings of signals emitted by grid cells show a map that is very straightforward, which was surprising to many because the brain is so complicated. The area of the brain that contains grid cells is usually damaged in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and frequent symptoms of patients include getting lost, which suggests that grid cells may be found in humans as well as rats.
            The discovery of grid cells is a huge advance in science and society because scientists believe that grid cells might be found in the human brain. Grid cells are found in rats and proven to be in primates, so they will most likely be found in all mammals. Also, if grid cells do exist in humans, research for Alzheimer’s disease can advance as more of an understanding of grid cells and how they work develops because the cells are found in the same place Alzheimer’s disease first damages. Scientists may figure out how to detect Alzheimer’s before the patients notice it by looking at electrical recordings of signals emitted by the grid cells.
            Overall, I thought that this article by James Gorman was written very well. He incorporated the personalities and background of the Mosers into the article as well as the importance of their discovery. I think that the article needed to have more definitions because I was very confused on the difference between place cells and grid cells in the brain, since they both have to do with navigation. It was also difficult to comprehend how the information flows from hippocampus to the place cells, which was the original purpose for the study. However, I liked that the article ended with a quote from Dr. Edvard Moser, which compared how couples manage to cooperate on raising children, but for them, he says, “our brain project is our third child, so nothing different, really.”

A Drone’s-Eye View of Nature -- Gregory Mo

Gregory Mo                                                                                                                5/8/13
Current Event Biology

Farrell, Sean Patrick. "Drones Offer a Safer, Clearer Look at the Natural World." The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 May 2013. Web. 08 May 2013. <>.

            Who would have thought that decommissioned military equipment could help scientists study nature and bird patterns? This is definitely not something people think about often, but people will definitely start hearing about this in the news. Recently, military drone technology, which are basically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and are sent into the sky by the military to view surrounding areas, are now being used by scientists. This all started when early “Raven” systems, costing $250,000 each were going to be destroyed as they were decommissioned but were given to scientists for research and outfitted with cameras, temperature monitors and other gauges. These Raven systems have allowed biologists to study species counts. Drones can fly hundreds of feet in the air and can fly very close to animals, sometimes even without scaring the animal. This is seen by some biologists as an alternative to the way it has been done for years in manned helicopters and planes. These very small drone planes can be deployed in the air and take thousands of very good pictures of animals and the geography of the area. The drones have been even used to get images of seals and sea lions that would go under water if a large helicopter flew over them but the drone was able to get these images. The drone did scare some crane birds however, perhaps because they thought it was a larger predator, but drones also have a thermal imaging camera allowing biologists to take pictures from the distance and get very good counts. In addition to all of these benefits of the drones though, there are negatives. Getting the clearance to fly drones has been somewhat difficult by these regulations are improving as the Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) approved for the bird study mentioned earlier. The FAA is now currently working on guidelines that will allow private commercial drones to fly in the airspace in 2015 but until then the federal government and other institutions control the rights to scientific drone flights. Some scientists see drones as safer to helicopters which can crash and also as cheaper while also getting pictures which can be saved and are clear in image. Although drones have short battery lives but they can fly during not so ideal weather.
            This article is very important to society as drones may very well start replacing more than just helicopters in biologic studies. Soon drones might replace weather vaines and weather stations, they could even start to be the next security cameras, flying down the streets of cities taking images. It is also important because drones, although seemingly mostly for military usage now have a civilian purpose and could even save lives if drones can fly over the oceans and see crashed boats or what not. We are entering the field of drone science for non military usage which can lead to endless possibilities. I was interested in this article and chose it because you do not hear much about drones and using machines where men have been used and drones for biology. Much sooner than you might think, we might be looking up in the sky and seeing drones flying around.
            This article was well written but I feel like the article talks too much about the scientists behind this biologic drone usage. Although their contribution is very important and they deserve credit I would like to hear more about the drones and possibly their usage in the future as opposed to hearing about Mr. Grooves and Mr. Walker, although as I said their contribution to this field is very significant. I also felt that hopes for drones in the future was not supported as much, as this article still left me interested wondering how we might see drones for scientific usage in the future. Otherwise this article was very good and got me interested in this new topic of drones and their usage to science.

Kelly the Robot Helps Kids Tackle Autism

Caitlin Lillis                                                                                                5/9/13
Biology                                                                                             Current Event

            According to a recent study, autistic children who attended therapy with a robot had better social skills, than without having the robot there.  This study was directed toward 19 children that were diagnosed with autism. Within this study, a humanoid robot was used, and this robot happens to be specifically designed for use in education, and also special education. With its short height of about 2 feet, this robot almost appears as if it is a toy. The way the experiment worked is that children from ages 6 to 13 participated in twelve behavioral therapy sessions. Social skills were tested with the child asking the robot named Kelly, questions such as,  “HI Kelly, how are you?'" Diehl explained. "Then Kelly would say, 'Fine. What did you do today?” When Kelly the robot was not being used the therapist would ask similar questions. Both the scientists and the parents of these autistic children concluded that the children had a better session on developing their social skills with the robot rather than the session with the therapist.  Although, these results from this experiment were small, and because of this, researchers are not sure how this study will apply to the real world and how it will be used in therapist’s offices.  With the modern technology that our world is learning to adapt to, scientists hope that with this new advanced technology we can help some of these children tackle their social skills.
            The information proven from this research, affects humanity because it is a new step in which both families of autistic children, therapists, and scientists can partake in actively when it comes to an autistic child’s social skills. Even though robots are not currently being used in therapists offices, this is a valuable piece of research on autistic children, because it open the doors for many autistic patients both children and adults, so they can find new ways to improve on their social skills. It was mentioned later on in the article that more research had been conducted on an ipad and other pieces of technology, and scientists have concluded similar results to Kelly the robot. Having social skills is something that everyone in the world should share; autistic or not, and if something as simple as a piece of technology will allow for that to happen, further research on this topic will be conducted. Although I have no one in my family who has autism, I can relate to the many people who have an autistic child. I find that if something as simple as a piece of technology can improve on one’s social skills, than it is our responsibility to provide people with autism this piece of technology so they can have a better quality of life.
            This article went into great depth on this study, and has provided hope for many people that one day robots could be used in actual therapy sessions. One thing that I disliked about this article is that the writer only mentioned one other use of technology that has conducted similar research. I feel that perhaps the writer could have compared the two results from the different studies rather than just focusing on the new research that had been found from Kelly the Robot.  Overall this article was well written, and definitely gave me hope as a reader that one day in the future robots will be used in an actual therapy session. 

Norton, Amy. "Kelly the Robot Helps Kids Tackle Autism – WebMD." WebMD - Better information. Better health.. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2013. <>.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Groundbreaking Surgery for Girl Born Without Windpipe

On April 9th, 2013, an incredible surgery took place at Chicago Children’s Hospital. A 2 ½ year old, Hannah Warren, was the youngest person ever, to receive a bioengineered organ. In this case, she received a windpipe developed by Dr. Paolo Macchiarini because she was born without a windpipe, or trachea. This is an extremely rare condition and more often than not, results in early death. For her whole life, Hannah has been breathing out of a tube that was inserted in her mouth and she has never been able to eat properly or even speak, and for 2 ½ years she has been living in an Intensive Care Unit. Macchiarini, who is a specialist in regenerative medicine, was able to engineer a windpipe to surgically place in Hannah. This idea of regenerative medicine also known as tissue engineering has been able to advance and progress to this stage because of a better understanding of stem cells and the role they play in signaling the body to grow and repair itself. In order to make this windpipe, Dr. Macchiarini made a tube out of plastic fibers, and then placed the tube in a solution containing stem cells taken from Hannah’s bone marrow, and it was then placed in a bioreactor before the surgery. Doctors hope that now since the windpipe has been implanted, the stem cells will signal other cells to go to the windpipe so tissue will grow in and around the tube. It was a very long complicated process, but it has paid off for Hannah, as she know longer has to breathe through a tube and now has a life expectancy beyond the age of six.
            With this surgery being successful, a whole new field of medicine has advanced that could aid in saving many lives. This procedure performed on Hannah, proves that this idea of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine could potentially be the cure for various different conditions. If this idea of creating something such as a windpipe through plastic fibers and stem cells is proven to work, it could aid many suffering from various conditions. This surgery is a huge step forward for the study of tissue engineering, and also medicine as a whole.
            Although this surgery was able to save Hannah’s life, there are still many complications. The article touched briefly on the fact that this hand made windpipe will not last forever, so it is not proven that this procedure will definitely work. The article did not highlight enough on the fact that this surgery was basically just a trial procedure. This surgery could not be performed on just anyone, because there is still not enough data or research on this. The article made it out like Hannah was finally going to be able to breathe normally for the rest of her life, but the fact was that this procedure would only be a temporary solution, because the knowledge of tissue engineering is not to the state where a permanent solution can be made. Otherwise, this was a very heartwarming story, and I was surprised that this surgery was even possible.
Fountain, Henry. "Groundbreaking Surgery for Girl Born Without Windpipe." The New York Times.  
The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 01 May 2013.