Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Germs as Friends

Ever cringe when you see toddlers and little ones putting every dirty thing in their mouths? We've heard for years that germs are to be avoided at all costs. Now, however, researchers are starting to realize that our gut bacteria or the microbiome has a big role in keeping us healthy. The "good" bacteria army keeps the "bad" players at bay. Fascinating! (to quote Vulcan Science officer Spock).

Recently, in the science journal Cell Host & Microbe, the results of a study on the microenvironment of the mouth was reported. Researchers in China followed and sampled the bacteria in the mouths of fifty 4 year-old children. They divided them into three groups; healthy children with no caries (cavities), those with few caries, and those with lots of caries. Then, they compared the groups with regard to the types and amount of bacteria that made up their dental microbiome over a two year time period. 

Jian Xu, one of the study's coauthors explained that the healthy children had a diverse microbiome. And although variables like saliva and plaque amounts affect caries too, this study provides a window into when children get cavities, how their mouth microbiome develops, and what that means to their future dental health. Food for thought.  Go science!  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Citizen Science - Disk Detective

We discuss cool science research regularly here, but today I want to focus on doing science as a lay person or "citizen science."

Interested in space and finding new planetary systems? Then, check out where you can be part of a NASA and Zooinverse crowdsourcing project whose main goal is to publish scientific results from data collected from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).


Well, planets are created from immense clouds of dust, gas, and rock that swirl about a common center of gravity to form "debris disks" around a star. The rotating debris, from an angstrom up to a centimeter in size, come together in the disk to form planets.

Identifying these disks and possible planets takes computer and people power. You can help search for likely debris disks at the Disk Dectective website. The tutorial is simple and explains everything from how to know what you are looking at to how to compare images from different space scans. It's more fun than a video game and you are doing real science. Give it a try and let me know how you do. 

Find more citizen science projects on a variety of topics listed here, here, and here. Definitely something for everyone. Go science!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Blue Moon

Did you know that tonight, July 31st is a blue moon? It is! And for those astronomically challenged, a "blue moon" is the third full moon in a astronomical period (season). 

A normal year has four astronomical periods (seasons) of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each are ~3 months long and have three full moons. When one of the seasons has four full moons (about every 2-3 years) the extra full moon is called a Blue Moon. Hence, the old expression. "That only happens in a blue moon." That is, not often.

A visually blue-colored moon is actually pretty rare. Rather, the atmosphere through which a moon rises affects the way it looks. When the atmosphere is filled with dust or smoke particles wider than 0.7 microns, they scatter red light making the Moon look blue. This can happen after a dust storm, forest fire or a volcanic eruption.

Eruptions like on Mt. Krakatoa, Indonesia (1883), El Chichon, Mexico (1983), Mt. St. Helens (1980) and Mount Pinatubo (1991) resulted in blue moons.

So all being said, go outside tonight and enjoy the blue moon. You can even howl if you like. Go science!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Bats and Sonic Plants Cozy Up

I've heard of birds nesting in trees and insects building homes in foliage, but bats in pitcher plants? So interesting!

In Borneo, carnivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes hemsleyana) figured out a way to get bat guano (fertilizer) delivered for free. They offer bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) their vase-shaped leaves as natural sleeping bags to spend the daylight hours in protected comfort. 

Apparently, the plants advertise the comfy roost as well. They have evolved a way to reflect back the bats' high frequency sonar in a 5 star luxury hotel way (compared to the 1 star surrounding plants). The thin pitcher shape is crucial to the habitat marketing and allows the bats to find them easily and settle in. 

In the past, scientists reported tropical plants that evolved sonic skills to attract bats as pollinators. This is the first time a plant has used sound to call the hogs (er... bats in for the night). Go science!