Even Monkeys Know that Same Amount of Work Should Pay the Same Reward

This is a really intersting TED lecture from pirmatologist and ethologist Frans De Waal (pictured above) that studies primate behavior. De Waal is  especially interested in understanding the origins of morality, empathy, and similar emotions prevalent in species of higher order. In this particular video, De Waal is describing a simple experiment where two monkeys, housedin side-by-side cages, are rewarded with sliced cucumber for handing a researcher little rocks. The monkeys, however, prefer grapes over slices of cucumber. See what happens when one monkey is rewarded with slices of cucumbers, while another is given grapes for doing the same work!

Absolutely amazing to watch.

Even Monkeys Know that Same Amount of Work Should Pay the Same Reward

From Crust to Mantle to Core

“47,700 elephants balanced on your head”- the colloquial unit for depicting the pressure at the center of the earth. Through a simple, yet thorough virtual excavation, BBC Future takes you on a fascinating journey to the center of the earth- 6,370,000 meters below ground- spotting on the way the mole borrows just 0.7 meters below ground, or the deepest hand-dug well (392 meters), or the earth’s diamond factory located 150,000 meters below earth. At the same time, you can also reach 11,000 meters to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean known as the Mariana Trench- the deepest point of any water body on Earth, sighting on the way critters such as the Giant Pacific octopus, just 100 meters below sea, or the European eel, 700 meters below sea. Either way, you are in for a ride!

From Crust to Mantle to Core

Finding E.T.

A view of the Milky Way as seen from Nevada, USA (Source: Wikipedia)
A view of the Milky Way as seen from Nevada, USA (Source: Wikipedia)

The Role of Extremophiles in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

We think life abounds beyond earth, a hypothesis that has been floating around for centuries. But locating such life is as challenging as finding a needle in a haystack, the haystack being the size of a planet or a star. How on earth are scientists preparing to overcome this formidable task?

The answer: by locating the driest, coldest, darkest, hottest, and saltiest environments on earth that mimic extraterrestrial environments, and getting to know their thriving inhabitants- the extermophiles- microbes that love environments deemed unlivable by most species.

Two such scientists are Biologist Jocelyne DiRuggiero at the Johns Hopkins University and astrobiologist Christopher McKay at the Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center. On a Johns Hopkins University HUB webcast, the duo shed light on the various strategies employable for the discovery extraterrestrial life.

Jocelyne studies microbes living in the driest place on earth- the Atacama Desert of Chile, with areas that haven’t seen a drop of rain for as long as 400 years! Here, in an apparently parched, dead terrain, once described as the “most barren region imaginable, Jocelyne has found a diverse community of bacteria living inside rocks, many of them composed purely of salt.

A valley in Atacama (Source: Wikipedia)
A valley in Atacama (Source: Wikipedia)

Christopher, like Jocelyne, also studies extremophiles in- not the driest- but the coldest places on earth- the Antarctic dry valleys, where microbes can be found-again- living under rocks. “Living under rocks is a good strategy for microbes (in harsh environments),” describes Chris.

What can extremophils tell us about extraterrestrial life?

The idea is the many of these microbes have developed strategies to survive in extreme conditions, such as low moisture or low oxygen, some of which are comparable to the conditions on other planets such as Mars. Thus, these habitats can offer clues as to the kinds of places scientists should be exploring on foreign planets for signs of life, to essentially minimizing the size of the haystack.

Tools that are valuable in this quest are the same tools that scientists use to discover and identify new microbial species in extreme environments on earth- tools that can measure amino acids, lipids, and photosynthesis. Still, it is important to appreciate that extraterrestrial beings will likely not share the biochemical composition of Earthians, given the uniqueness of Earth’s atmospheric and elemental composition. Thus, new tools might need to be developed, catering to extraterrestrial environments, based on spectroscopy data on the atmosphere and gas composition of these foreign lands.

Regardless, the possibilities of the types of life on planets of our solar system as well as that on exoplanets are fascinating. Take Titan, for instance. This moon of Saturn has vast lakes and streams of liquid hydrocarbon, instead of water. Or Enceledus, another of Saturn’s moons, that likely has an underground ocean of liquid water. Perhaps life is cooking under these moist surfaces, bubbling away, the way it did a few billions years ago on Earth!

Size comparison: Titan (lower left) with moon and Earth (Source: wikipedia)
Size comparison: Titan (lower left) with moon and Earth (Source: Wikipedia)
Finding E.T.

The Cow-Free Beef… Well, Almost.

Using Biotechnology to produce real meat protein grown from stem cells from donor animals.

“A vegetarian with a Hummer is actually better for the environment than a meat-eater with a bicycle,” remarked a facetious, yet serious Mark Post at a 2013 TEDx conference in Netherlands, when explaining the impact of conventional animal farming on the environment and the enormous resources it takes to grow a little bit of meat: a lousy “bioconversion rate,” he informs an astute audience. Post is a pioneer in a dynamic application of biotechnology called tissue engineering, which involves building biologically-functional matter like blood vessels, or bone, using adult cells and specific biochemical factors, to potentially replace or improve damaged tissues, largely circumventing the need for the controversial fetal stem cell research to engineer life-saving therapeutics. However, instead of using tissue engineering to grow human organs, Post has chosen to grow a beef burger, an out-of-the-box approach to preparing for the inevitable surge in population and the ensuing rise in demand for meat, expected to double over the next few decades.

The process requires muscle stem cells, precursor cells that are destined to mature only into muscle cells, obtained from a donor cow (or potentially a pig, fish, chicken, turkey, or any other meat one wants to eat) through a simple and innocuous procedure.  Like growing a plant, the cells are given everything they need to survive and multiply into real muscle cells, including nutrients, correct temperature, and anchor points to direct their assembly. What you get after eight weeks of multiple rounds of cell division are strands of muscle fiber that can be assembled into a beef patty, the prototype of which was showcased last year in a widely-covered event in London.

Post admits that several key details need to be worked out. The authentic red color of the meat, which comes from blood and specific protein called myoglobin, has to be induced; the fat in the meat has to be added to give it taste. Moreover, thickness, characteristic of a stake, has to be somehow achieved, without a vasculature to nourish and irrigate the cells in the middle, as is the case in an animal. Yet, Post boldly envisions a future where household pantries will come with packs of a variety of muscle stem cells (perhaps somewhat like a dry yeast pack) that will be cultured and grown into edible authentic meat in a simple kitchen incubator.

And Post isn’t the only one with this vision. The father and son team of Modern Meadow, Gabor Forgacs and Andras Forgacs, are also developing ways to use tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting– systematically layering of cells on a particular matrix to achieve a three-dimensional biological structure– to not only produce animal-free meat but also animal-free leather.

So, in this almost sci-fiish future, we can expect to be able to buy cultured meat as well as cultured leather.  What about cultured milk? An offshoot of biotechnology devoted to reinventing the way we look at food is the production of animal-free milk, spearheaded by a start-up company called Muufri.

Regardless of how long it will take, it seems likely that, as techniques in tissue engineering and 3-D bioprinting improve, achieving authentic cultured animal products at an affordable price is a reasonable prediction of the future. The question is, Would you eat it?

The Cow-Free Beef… Well, Almost.

How Flowers Make Love

Biologist David Haskell holds the magnifying lens to the fascinating lives of forest dwellers in his Pulitzer Prize finalist book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

“Biochemical matchmaking” the term used by Haskell says it all. The union is a unique arrangement among two, not one, sperm cells encased within a pollen grain and the “fleshy ovule” burrowed deep in the base of the style. The sperm cells drift passively all the way down to the base and prove their merit by outlasting others.

Once united, one sperm cell embraces the egg to make an embryo, while the other sperm cell finds his mates in two small plant cells that join to give rise to a larger cell with a triplet DNA, one from each participant. Like the yolk of an egg, this plant cell grows and fattens to provide nutrients to the rapidly dividing embryo eager to become a seed.

The plants that are unable to find a mate do not give up so easily either. Many choose “desperate self love” using their own pollen sperm cells to self fertilize their egg if no suitable match lands on their sticky landing pad-the stigma-  sacrificing genetic enrichment for mere survival and an opportunity to try their luck again in the next season of love making.

Unable to travel to their lovers’ nest themselves, these flowers rely on bees, birds and other pollinators to carry their pollen to other flowers. In return they reward these mailmen with nectar. As always there are thieves like ants that want the reward without doing the work.  These bypass the pollen and go right for the sugar.

Like the interwoven lives of the creatures that inhabit the forest, Haskell seamlessly stitches together the tales of interdependence among species with the elegance of a wordsmith and the prowess of a seasoned scientist. The premise of the book is a year’s worth of ecological observations focused on a “singe square meter” of a forest in Tennessee- Haskell’s mandala, Sanskrit for microcosm. What he does beautifully and successfully as a popular science writer is tie everything he sees back to the scientific explanations behind the phenomenon, inspiring a deep appreciation for other species and nature in general.

The reading offers an animated experience with Haskell spotting a member of the forest- xylem, moth, Chickadee birds, or simply a snow flake- and zooming into its colossal inner world, revealing how beautifully complex and complete its life is. You read the book and realize a moth is not just a moth, a flower not just a flower, a snail not just a snail, but each a functioning organ supporting the intricate anatomy of the forest, keeping it alive in inclement weather, drought, and other hardships.

All the questions you asked as a kid: how does a snowflake get its shape; Why are there rings on a tree trunk, some diffuse, some distinct; what’s moss- get answered in an experiential and fascinating narrative. A must read for nature lovers!

How Flowers Make Love

Relishing Southern Biodiversity

My trip to South Carolina was full of the expected- great food, beaches, vintage houses, horse carriage rides, as well as some of the unexpected- an opportunity to explore the biodiversity unique to this region.

The most prominent and distinct element is of course the Spanish moss, a fascinating flowering plant that extracts moisture not from soil, but from the air using its aerial roots- an adaptation that frees it up to explore unconventional habitats, such as branches of tall trees, maximizing sun exposure, without spending the energy it takes to grow as tall as the tree.  This quality of Spanish moss, scientifically known as Tillandsia usneoides, to use aerial roots classifies it as an epiphyte- plants that can be thought of as renters, relying on other trees to grow on, without causing any major harm to their host. Other commonly known epiphytes include orchids and moss.  I witnessed Spanish Moss for the first time and found them breath-taking. Bundles of curls decorated large oak trees, hanging like chandeliers from a massive ceiling. At night, these ornaments look rather eerie; boosting the economy of the state’s many ghost tours.

640px-Spanish_moss_at_the_Mcbryde_Garden_in_hawaii

Another opportunity to relish southern biodiversity came from touring the Audubon Swamp Garden of the magnolia plantation. Originally a rice plantation, first established in 1679, the Magnolia plantation was set on hundreds of acres of land on the banks of the Ashley River. The abandoned paddies now serve as habitat for myriad species of animals, birds, and trees. Some highlights included:

Duckweed, of the family Lemonideae, is a small flowering plant that floats on the surface of swampy water, forming a discontinuous green sheet on the surface. Aerenchymas, tiny, air-filled cavities in the plant, serve as the plants’ floatation device. Lacking the usual plant anatomy, i.e., stem or leaves, Duckweed are essentially little spheres that reproduce rapidly by budding, the process by which a new cell is formed as an outgrowth or bud from an existing cell. These plants provide essential nutritional support to other species living in the swamps, including birds and fish. By blocking sunlight and consuming excess nutrients, they also prevent the formation of destructive algal blooms that can be harmful to other inhabitants of the water. Interestingly, the algae also form a green film on the surface of water, so distinguishing duckweed from algae isn’t easy.

Curve_of_duckweed_covered_water_edged_with_several_bald_cypress_trees

Also growing in the swampy waters were towering bald Cypress trees, scientifically known as Taxodium distichum, especially adapted to thrive in swampy environments. Accompanying their trunks were several curious little woody stumps called Cypress knees – above-surface projections from the roots of the trees that do not grow into large trees. Although many theories abound, including stability and enhanced oxygen exchange, the exact function and utility of these knees remains unknown. Another notable water- resistant tree at the Swamp was the Tupelo gum tree, also known for its height, growing as much as 90 feet, and living up to 1000 years.

640px-Bald_cypress_knees_in_duckweed

Our good fortune allowed for many sunny and warm days during our December trip, which meant that several hibernating animals made appearances to soak up the sun, a behavior that proved deadly for one snake that went by the weather, and not by the calendar, succumbing to imminent colder temperatures of the night. Other than the dead snake, we saw a couple of alligators and turtles in the swamp.

1280px-AmericanAlligator

Flowering plants at the swamp included Camellia japonicum, also known as rose of winter, native to China, Japan, and Korea. They were brought to the US in the 1800s with the intended use as greenhouse plants. In the 19th century, however, the Magnolia plantation became the first site that used these flowers as outdoor plants. As a result, even today, the swamp is peppered with these beautiful flowers that blossom between January to March. Interestingly, azaleas were first introduced to America also at the Magnolia plantation. We didn’t see any flowers since unlike Japonicum, azaleas bloom in late March- early April.

angel-oak-tree (3)

1280px-Camellia_japonica_var__decumbens_3

Other natural treasures outside the plantation, included long stretches of savannah, grasslands with trees spaced sufficiently apart to permit sunlight to reach the ground, allowing shorter, grassy species to thrive, and the Angel Oak tree, a colossal 20 meters tall Oak aged 400- 1400 years, definitely a must see wonder!

Relishing Southern Biodiversity