Archive for August, 2008

Ice Age


Ice Age by Nancy Yu


I remember ages ago
when the ice wind could dry even the ocean
off our backs. It came in at first
in small crests then Avalanched into wooly mammoths.
I licked my lips and held on—frozen
to your mighty fur coat that slowly unraveled
into a hundred tiny tresses of naked hairs.

As I slipped, you reached up to touch
the widow’s peak above my Everest eyelashes
and I let you, afraid to blink for fear that
everything would disappear into a white canvas
of minimalism. It’s contemporary, my dear — what’s in
your heart is like an Alaskan oil mine,
Eldorado that cannot be pursued.

Back then I would always carry a comma
in my pocket and perform incantations
to protect myself from run-ons of
speeding icebergs and sabertooth bobsleds and
plate tectonics
that would certainly crash together
before I had a chance to slip away. All the while
you just sprinted after me, laughing
in my drink, you didn’t notice
that my chased white wine was
beginning to blush a crimson vermilion. We dined
beneath the Cambrian explosion the night
you whispered in my ear that
I was your Arctic enchantress. That
was the big secret behind my polar bear smiles.

But the fairy tale began to hang over like icicles
when you wrinkled the sheets between my toes
sprinkled salt on my snow angels, and
I covered the hurt in my eyes as
You just stood by, watching
Frosty’s magic melt between our fingertips
away with the spring.

— Poem and image by Nancy Yu.

First Place Winner in Summer 2008 Science Poetry Contest.

Posted by Joseph, under poetry contest  |  Date: August 30, 2008

One of Those Fundamental Quantities


hope by Clarissa Keen


What if time doesn’t really pass?
What if we just live one day over and over
in a circular paradox of infinite points.
The concept of moving forward,
moving on,
exists only in our minds.
The world of physics suddenly rearranged.
Momentum = present position;
We’re all standing still.
Schrödinger’s cat is alive and well.

They told me I was an artist,
that they could see it written on my palm,
along with my love, life and future,
yet I chose the other path;
To live
with nothing but numbers to count down the days
and the molecules which loosely hold us together.

Yet I wish entropy would just take over
and release me into the universe.
It’s irritating that my feet are so firmly planted to the ground.
I feel the need
to leave gravity behind and escape the atmosphere,
gaining speed at approximately 9.8 meters per second squared.
But I feel like time is continually dragging me down.
I’m stuck here getting inconsistently older,
and sometimes I think if I knew what was to come
things would be different…
But that’s what we’re all thinking, isn’t it?

Time is the scientist’s optimism:
That each second which ticks by will lead us to something further.
That each apple will fall from the tree, just as before,
and that it’s no longer one big coincidence that everything goes down,
Spreads out,
And stops.
The progress of man has reached its limit:
it is infinitely possible that, after all this time,
we’re not really getting anywhere.

— Poem and image by Clarissa Keen.

First runner-up in Summer 2008 Science Poetry Contest.

Posted by Joseph, under poetry contest  |  Date:

Relativistic Effects


Relativistic Effects by Bevan Weissman


By granules of sand
Under gravity’s grip

By the slap of the hand
Jolting sixty times ‘round

By epileptic fits of pixels
Screaming their conformity

By recording the rot of a cesium atom
If you want to be precise.

The whirl around a skewed axis, the flash of night to day
The whisk around a path
Five hundred eighty million miles long.
The times you’ve fallen into eclipse.

Scrawled in 4/4 signature
Imprinted on the inside of your ribs by your hammering heart
Engraved with the number of scars you bear,
——tick marks.

It started the moment
your lungs felt first air
And an infinity before.

It will crawl
to that final place
to die with you
But will continue to endure

— Poem and image by Bevan Weissman.

Second runner-up in Summer 2008 Science Poetry Contest.

Posted by Joseph, under poetry contest  |  Date:

With Skate Eyes, Scientists Peer Into Human Disease



Richard Chappell uses eye cups from the skate, Raja erinacea, to study the relationship between zinc and glutamate. (Credit: Joseph Caputo/MBL)

Paradoxically, the photoreceptor cells in our retinas release more of their neurotransmitter, glutamate, in the dark, when there is nothing to see, than they do in the light. This is doubly surprising since although glutamate is a major signaling molecule in the retina and throughout the central nervous system, it is also a potent cytotoxin that, in large doses, can kill nearby cells. What keeps our retinas from disintegrating each night as glutamate continues to be released is unknown, but growing evidence suggests our molecular protector may be zinc, a metal abundant in tissues throughout the body.

Zinc’s relationship to vision was first recognized when it was found that night blindness is associated with zinc deficiency, and recent studies have shown that a diet supplemented with this trace metal can reduce the progression of one form of age-related blindness. But despite its apparent benefits, not much is known about the relationship between zinc and the eye.

Richard Chappell, a professor of biological sciences at Hunter College, is at the MBL this summer with doctoral student Ivan Anastassov and Harris Ripps, a senior research scientist at MBL and emeritus professor of ophthalmology at the UIC College of Medicine in Chicago, to investigate how zinc may control the wily glutamate. Using the retina of the skate, a cartilaginous fish resembling a manta ray, they record electroretinograms (ERGs) to measure how retinal neurons respond to light stimuli in the presence and absence of normal levels of zinc. Their preliminary results indicate that ionic zinc (Zn2+) is co-released with glutamate from skate rods, and feeds back onto the photoreceptor terminals to suppress the release of glutamate, thus providing an automatic gain control mechanism that reduces the risk of glutamate toxicity.

Demonstrating the role of Zn2+ in the regulation of glutamate release from skate rods is still a long way from fully understanding its potential use in therapy for human diseases where glutamate toxicity may be involved, but its ubiquity among vertebrates shows promise. The presence of available Zn2+ and/or its transporters has been observed in the photoreceptor region of salamanders, zebrafish, mice, and skates, but “The question is whether this is an integral part of the physiology of the retina,” says Ripps. “Once you understand the normal retina, you can determine the basis of retinal disorders.”

Posted by Joseph, under marine biology  |  Date: August 20, 2008
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At MBL: Plastics Suspect in Lobster Illness


Shell Disease Lobster

This drooping lobster is missing limbs and painted with dark spots, the tell-tale signs of shell disease. (Credit: Joseph Caputo/MBL)

The 4th installment of “At MBL,” Joseph Caputo’s experience as a science writing intern at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The following story originally appeared, along with more photos, on the MBL Website.

The search for what causes a debilitating shell disease affecting lobsters from Long Island Sound to Maine has led one Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) visiting scientist to suspect environmental alkylphenols, formed primarily by the breakdown of hard transparent plastics.

Preliminary evidence from the lab of Hans Laufer suggests that certain concentrations of alkylphenols may be interfering with the ability of lobsters to develop tough shells. Instead, the shells are weakened, leaving affected lobsters susceptible to the microbial invasions characteristic of the illness.

“Lobsters ‘know’ when their shell is damaged, and that’s probably the reason when they have shell disease, why they molt more quickly,” says Laufer, a visiting investigator at the MBL for over 20 years and professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut. “But ultimately, they still come down with the disease. And we think the presence of alkylphenols contributes to that.”

Like any crustacean, lobsters shed their shells multiple times in one lifetime. After molting, the outer skin of the soft and exposed lobster will begin to harden. It is here that Laufer thinks the alkylphenols are doing their damage. At this point, a derivative of the amino acid tyrosine, whose function is to harden the developing shell, is incorporated. It is known that alkylphenols and tyrosine are similarly shaped and Laufer suspects that the toxin may be blocking tyrosine from its normal functions. He is at MBL this summer to measure the amount of competition between the two molecules. Alkyphenols are also known to act as endocrine disruptors.

Laufer discovered the presence of alkylphenols in lobsters serendipitously while investigating a tremendous lobster die off at Long Island Sound in 1999, when shell disease, first observed in the mid-1990s, was noted to be on the rise. Although an unusually hot summer, it was also the first time New York City sprayed mosquito populations to prevent the spread of West Nile virus. Laufer, who began his career as an insect endocrinologist, suspected the toxins from the sprayings may have contributed to the lobster die off. In 2001, while searching for the mosquito toxins in lobsters, he instead found alkylphenols.

“It’s a real problem,” Laufer says. “Plastics last a long time, but breakdown products last even longer. Perhaps shell disease is only the tip of the iceberg of a more basic problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals in marine environments.”

Posted by Joseph, under At MBL  |  Date: August 16, 2008
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Poetry Contest Deadline August 15


The last day to submit entries for the Summer 2008 Science Poetry Contest is August 15. The competition looks fierce, but one lucky poet/visual artist will be winning the $150 first-place prize. Two runners-up will also be published and (this is new) receive a $25 prize.

All rules are posted on the contest page. Winners will be announced on August 30.

If you miss this deadline, don’t fret. The next poetry contest will run from Jan 1. through Feb 15. Any contestant who isn’t picked can always enter again.

In Other News: Science Metropolis will begin regular updates near the end of August, including the completion of the For Science Hobbyists, For Parents and For Students pages. We are partnering up with local businesses to bring you science-related discounts, book clubs and other in-person events to bring your friends and family.  Sign up for the e-mail newsletter today to keep up with all the local sciences news and happenings come autumn.

Posted by Joseph, under Science Metropolis  |  Date: August 14, 2008
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Managing the Conch Fishery


Conch Shell

A New England whelk or “conch” is caught by MBL employees. Fishing for the snail is regulated by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. (Credit: Joseph Caputo/MBL)

Massachusetts fisherman once considered the New England whelk or “conch” as nothing more than bycatch. Although demand existed for the large-shelled snail, traditionally used for cooking in East Asian cultures, it could more easily be trawled in the waters around South America, the Caribbean and Asia, making conch unprofitable in the Northeast. This turned around in the 1980s, however, when overfishing of whelk quickly transformed the small New England conch fishery into a multi-million dollar industry.

A New England whelk or “conch” is caught by MBL employees. Fishing for the snail is regulated by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. (Credit: Joseph Caputo/MBL) Full size image

To maintain local conch populations, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries issued regulations in 1992 on how much whelk could be harvested. These included limiting the number of conch licenses issued, creating a closed season for conch, and setting a minimum legal size limit for catch.

Since 1988, two MBL visiting investigators have observed how the whelk-fishing policies have played out. Ilene Kaplan and Barbara Boyer, both professors at Union College in Schenectady, New York, are continuing their research this summer by interviewing fishermen, government regulators, and seafood dealers to understand how marine policies develop over time.

“This allows for a snapshot view of the relationship between fishermen and government staff and the development and implementation of marine regulations of a commercial fishery that has both economic and scientific significance,” Kaplan says.

Their results so far have identified both strengths and weaknesses in the current whelk-fishing regulations. They hope to use their fieldwork to influence larger marine policy decisions in the future.

Posted by Joseph, under policy  |  Date:

Invasion of the Comb Jellies


 The warty comb jelly, Mnemiopsis ledyi, is a voracious carnivore, competing with fish for small crustaceans and zooplankton in the European seas. (Credit: Lars Johan Hansson)

The warty comb jelly, Mnemiopsis ledyi, is a voracious carnivore, competing with fish for small crustaceans and zooplankton in the European seas. (Credit: Lars Johan Hansson)

In the waters surrounding Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the warty comb jelly, Mnemiopsis ledyi, lives out its days, bumping against eel grass and collecting small crustaceans with its sticky tentacles. The delicate creature, which resembles a small jellyfish without the stinger, is just another member of the food web here on the Western Atlantic coast.

Across the ocean is a different story. Accidentally introduced to the Black Sea in the early 1980s, the warty comb jelly spread rapidly through the Caspian Sea in the 1990s and has most recently invaded the Baltic Sea. In Europe, M. ledyi is considered a voracious predator, easily snatching dinner from local fish. Countries surrounding the Baltic Sea are now concerned what’s going to happen to their waters.

“Their impact seems to be increasing and that’s been tied to warming water temperatures, giving them an ecological advantage,” says Sean Colin, assistant professor of biology at Roger Williams University. He and John Costello, professor of biology at Providence College, are at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) this summer to determine who and how much M. ledyi eats.

Comb jellies are unique in how they process food. Eight rows of brush-like cilia beat against the water, creating a current that brings prey closer to the mouth. Using high-speed video, the team is observing their feeding behavior, predator and prey interactions, as well as the hydrodynamics of how they swim. “This will help us to understand on which types of ecosystems they might have a large impact or small impact and under which conditions they are going to be able to thrive,” Colin says.

Comb jellies aren’t all bad news. Also at the MBL this summer is Anthony Moss, an associate professor of biology at Auburn University, who is studying the ability of M. ledyi to quickly repair itself – a few minutes to a few hours depending on the injury – without scarring. The jellies have exceptional regenerative powers, capable of repairing up to 50 percent of their bodies. He hopes to apply his observations to wound healing across all organisms.

To see videos of the comb jelly eat its prey, visit the MBL Website.

Posted by Joseph, under marine biology  |  Date: August 13, 2008