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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Building a Face, and a Case, on DNA

Connor Barrett
Biology Current Event
Building a Face, and a Case, on DNA
DNA analysis has been extremely helpful in identifying and convicting or acquitting people in crimes, but new technology is going to improve what DNA analysis  can do. Several teams of Scientists across the country are working to develop technology that could identify the hair, eye, and skin color, along with the age and gender, of suspects from their DNA. This new science is called forensic DNA phenotyping and is starting to be used in crime solving. The eventual goal of these developing tech companies is to have software and technology that can develop a detailed and accurate facial description from the DNA, just like a sketch artist. The early forms of this technology were used in Columbia South Carolina last month when police released a sketch from of a double homicide suspect, even though there were no witnesses. The Department of Justice recently issued a $1.1 million grant to develop tools like this. Other companies like Parabon NanoLabs, Identitas, Illumina, and HIrisPlex already have a head start in finding ways to determine physical traits from DNA. The difficulty in constructing this technology comes with the fact that most physical traits are the product of several genetic variants. Hair color, for example, is a product of 24 different variables in a persons DNA, and all of these variables have to be analysed in order to determine their hair color. There are 700 variables that affect a person's height and tracking how each variable one changes the final height of a person can be tricky. One study suggested that, while there are 700 different variables that influence height, only 15% of them change from person to person, which makes predicting someone's height from their DNA easier. Age is also something that scientists have been able to calculate, but through a different process; certain genetic markers shut off particular genes as people age and seeing which genes are shut off can tell a person’s age. Other scientists working on this type of technology have said that ancestry and race only makeup around 23% of facial structure, and the genetic variants that they have found help very little in determining features so scientists still have a long way to go. The development of groundbreaking new technology is usually met with with criticism and sometimes friction, especially when dealing with issues like race and DNA. The issues with this technology in particular seem to be with the possibility of racial profiling. This technology is not yet permitted in court trials because it has not been perfected, but it is most definitely the future of crime solving.
These new developments in forensics will lead the way for the future of how solving crime is tackled. It will make profiling and finding criminals much easier and most likely deter criminals. It will also further our understanding about how DNA translates into our physical traits. Down the line it may also lead to predicting disease and defects in our bodies based on our genetic code. The technology for DNA science is advancing very rapidly and is a very important field of biology. These discoveries will lead not only to better forensic analysis, but also a better understanding of how DNA works.
The article written by Andrew Pollack was well done, informative, and easy to read. It taught me a broad spectrum of new information about the science involved with DNA forensics. Pollack seems to have done plenty of research, talked to many sources, and developed this story as much as possible. I do think, however, that he could have done a slightly better job at organizing and structuring the article as it seemed to go back and forth between ideas occasionally, especially when it came to the racial implications of this new technology. Overall Pollack’s article was well written and made learning about DNA forensics easy and interesting.

Pollack, Andrew. "Building a Face, and a Case, on DNA." The New York Times. The New
York Times, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

Ara Atayan
Biology/ Mrs. McClennan
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. (2015, February 27). First detailed microscopy evidence of bacteria at the lower size limit of life. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 28, 2015 from  

            This article tells us about the discovery of ultra-small bacteria, which scientist are thinking could be the smallest form of life possible.  This discovery was brought to us by the University of California, Berkeley and the scientists of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  The ultra-small bacteria are so microscopic that: “more than 150,000 cells could fit onto the tip of a human hair.” The scientists who led this experiment believe this bacteria is not uncommon, because they found them in groundwater. The composition of the cell is made of “densely packed spirals” which are thought to be DNA, a few ribosomes, hair-like appendages, and a stripped down metabolism. These cells are so small that they most likely rely on other bacteria for a suitable life. Scientists discovered they form from three microbial phyla, which are not fully comprehended yet.  Learning more about the cells origins will help us determine their role in ecosystems and life.  The article also tells us about the steps scientists took to test these specimens and some of the technology they use, such as 2-D and 3-D cryogenic transmission electron microscope. In addition, they pointed out how the scientists got other scientists opinions on what the cells could be. 
            This discovery is newsworthy because it may have settled the debate on how small a living organism can be and shows what the scientific limit of life is.  Additionally, it opens doors to further understanding our world.  By knowing life can exist this small we can determine how this microbes affect our climate, food, and water supply. This can help us understand the root of troublesome bacteria and possibly prevent them. Also, this discovery is a great example of how mixing fieldwork, microscopy, genomic analysis, and getting others opinions can lead to the best results possible. 

            I thought this article was very well written and engaged me since it was so recent. For the most part the science seemed to be backed up and explained well in the article. One part I questioned was, even though these cells contained many aspects of life, how could they say it is proof of super small life if they probably have a community effort to live.  This seemed contradictory to me since it shows they may not be self-sufficient organisms.  One thing I did not like about the article was it only reported when the scientists published their findings, it did not give us a sense of how long it took them to discover this ultra-small life. Overall this article was interesting and related to topics we were learning in biology now too.

Biology Current Event

Biology Eva Cagliostro
Current Event February 28, 2015

Castle, Stephen. "Britain Set to Approve Technique to Create Babies From 3 People." The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2015. <>.
The article “Britain Set to Approve Technique to Create Babies From 3 People” by Stephen Castle describes the decision by British lawmakers in the House of Commons to allow the in vitro creation of infants by three adults. According to the New York Times article, the procedure would be used to help women with mitochondrial diseases. These hereditary disorders affect the mitochondria, the organelle that create energy for the cell, and leads to a large spectrum of problems in the body, including premature death.
According to Castle, the procedure involves taking the nucleus DNA from the two parents and combining it with a donor’s mitochondrial DNA in the embryo. The author of the article includes quotes from experts who support and agree with the House of Commons’ decision. Those interviewed believe that this procedure will allow mothers with mitochondrial diseases to have children without worrying about passing down their ailment.  The idea is that the technique will only be used for women who have the faulty mitochondria. However, many others are opposed to the vote because the altering of embryos could lead to “designer babies.” In other words, parents could design their child using the DNA of others.
I chose to write a review of Castle’s article because the altering of an embryo is a monumental scientific breakthrough.  For the first time, a child will have the DNA of three people. This published piece is important to society because it offers a possible cure for genetic diseases. A mother or father who has a possibly fatal disease can have children without the fear of having a son or daughter who will have to suffer the hardships of a hereditary disease. On the other hand, this technique could give the wealthy the option of creating a superior race by handpicking the DNA of the exceptional. This could then lead to a multiple donors parenting a single infant.
The New York Times article “Britain Set to Approve Technique to Create Babies From 3 People” was well written and informative. The style of writing was easy to understand and did not bore the reader. However, there was a large amount of information missing from the piece. Castle neglected to include specific details about the procedure. The subject of the article was extremely interesting, but because the author did not include an explanation of the in vitro creation of these children, the reader is left confused. The author wrote about such a large topic, and did not include a large wealth of information that could influence a reader’s opinion on the matter or help explain the science behind the procedure.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Catherine Cain                                                                                                     11/27/15
Biology Current Event                                                        Mrs. McClellan D Block Odd

Achieving long, luxurious eyelashes is not simply a new fashion trend.  Long eyelashes have been considered an enviable trait even from ancient times. Recently, one group of researchers demonstrated that the length of the eyelashes is not merely a fashion concern, but appears to play an important role in protecting the eyes.
            Over the years, scientists have offered various, different explanations to explain why mammals would have eyelashes. Among these theories are that they are there to protect the eyes from dust and particles, to act as sensors to trigger blinking, or to protect and to lubricate the eyes. They also thought, in humans, they might have developed to play a role in sex and mating. Researcher David Hu became intrigued with eyelashes and their biological function after the birth of his daughter.  He set out with the help of colleagues and graduate students in his biomechanics lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate and measure the eyelashes of 22 different mammals (virtually all of which have eyelashes). They created artificial eyes with lashes, put them in a wind tunnel, and blew air at them. They then created mathematical models of airflow in the presence of the lashes.
The results showed that eyelashes are always about one-third as long as the eye is wide. This turns out to be the ideal length for diverting airflow around the eye thus reducing evaporation from its surface. According to Dr. Hu’s study, if eyelashes are too long, they channel air to the eye (long false eyelash wearers beware). Dr. Hu acknowledged that while all the theories regarding the functions of eyelashes may be true, the changing of airflow around the eye is so important that, from the largest to the smallest mammal, the proportion of lash length to eye width does not change. Dr. Hu hopes that his research may have some practical applications to things such as solar panels, which may suffer reduced efficiency when particles and debris deposit on them.
            I enjoyed reading this article very much.  The topic was interesting, the writing was easy to follow, and the explanations were direct and straightforward. The comments of other scientists regarding Dr. Hu’s findings impressed me that his work was clever and valuable. That said, the article does not address the evidence for alternate theories or why they are less relevant.  The most relatable part of the article, I thought, was the detail that Dr. Hu came up with his topic from staring into his infant daughter’s face and noticing how her eyelashes behaved, which inspired him to explore this line of research. I am sure many of us have looked in the mirror and wondered why we have eyelashes, but it took his insight to answer that question.

Gorman, James. "Length of Lashes Keeps Eyes From Drying, Study Finds." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Kate Braumuller                                                                                              2/23/15
Biology 10                                                                                                      McClellen

Lubofsky, Evan. "A Smarter Undersea Robot." Oceanus Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

Link here.
The article, “A Smarter Undersea Robot,” by Evan Lubofsky discusses a new and improved underwater robot.  Common undersea robots are missing “curiosity” says Lubofsky.  These robots take more than 100,000 images on just one mission on roaming the seafloor.  Scientist Lubofsky proclaimed,  “We don’t care about millions of images, we just want to get the information that’s important to us.” Scientists are trying to create a new robot that is able to distinguish whether objects seen are ‘interesting’ or just ordinary.  If underwater robots were able to determine weather something is unordinary, this will allow researchers to spend less time sifting through the countless images and more time collecting “meaningful data”. Researchers have developed specialized software in which a robot can extract visual information from its surroundings as well as categorize patters and data collected.  This software was based off of a concept referred to as semantic modeling. Scientists then could make faster discoveries.  Scientists have created a prototype of a underwater robot, named Aqua.  This prototype was able to distinguish that a coral head was more important than mountains of sand.  The next step for these scientists is to turn the prototype into an actual research tool. Scientists will use the software they developed on a more technologically advanced robot known as a WHOI robot.
This new robot will enable scientists to collect more sufficient and important data, allowing for quicker discoveries.  Knowing more about our ocean, will allow us to make newer discoveries perhaps leading to new ways to benefit the environment.  The world is always changing, along with our seas, with new technology we are able to discover and understand it better and improve life on earth. I chose this article because I found it very interesting how new advances in technology are being made.  I am interested in learning more about new technology and how it benefits research.
This article was very simple to read, it was very well structured but challenged me at the same time. I enjoyed the authors connections to common knowledge, such as the reference to the Dr. Seuss book, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” It made the reading fun and kept me engaged.  One thing I would have changed in the article would be the description of the software created.  I would have liked to know more on how that worked. Many articles on science can be very bland, this article was interesting and enjoyable to read.


Text Box: Photo of the Prototype Aqua