science conservation earth_day cooperation species life_and_nature habitat pollution biology

An Earth Day Thought: Cooperation Is A Survival Tool

by Michael Keller

Every sunrise is a new breath of life. The morning comes and our star once again bathes us in the energy upon which the whole machinery of being runs. And life responds with every day’s beginning—plants grow; animals graze, browse and hunt; fungi, bacteria and insects slowly bring all of us back into the soil. When the night comes, much of life becomes quiet. Even then, though, many organisms remain at work, taking advantage of the darkness to give birth, take prey, and otherwise make their way in a crammed world. The Earth is beautiful and brutal—such is the nature of life.

Creatures breathe from almost every place on our planet, from the hydrothermal vent communities in the crushing pressure and pitch black abyss of the ocean’s floor to the microbes catching rides through the stratosphere on Sahara Desert dust storms. It’s a constant competition among individuals and species. Yet an exquisite adaptation to succeed in the bloodsport of survival has arisen over evolutionary time—cooperation. Many of us come equipped to work together so that we may individually and collectively live a little better.

"Organisms are inherently competitive, yet cooperation is widespread," wrote Columbia University’s Dustin Rubenstein and James Kealey in a 2010 paper in the journal Nature. ”Genes cooperate in genomes; cells cooperate in tissues; individuals cooperate in societies.”

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science tech medicine hologram 3_d virtual_reality data_visualization biology computer_science

Virtual Cadavers Offer New Opportunities In Medicine

Computer-generated models are starting to let researchers and students peer into the body without needing a real human stretched out before them.

Virtual dissection tables have been built at places like Stanford and the University of Calgary. Now University of Michigan computer scientists and biologists have taken the technology another step forward, using projectors, joysticks and 3-D equipment to build a floating holographic human that users can dissect, manipulate and put back together as they wish.

Read more and see the video below.

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science forest genetics genome dna sequencing agriculture biology loblolly pine trees
Researchers Sequence Loblolly Pine DNA, Felling Largest Genome Ever Analyzed

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by Michael Keller

Anyone who has taken a road trip through the Southeast has watched as countless loblolly pines swish past outside the window. Pinus taeda, a valuable cash crop used to make paper and lumber, blankets the region and grows as far north as Delaware.

Its quick growth rate and flexibility in thriving in different landscapes has led to the tree being a dominant presence—loblolly comprises more than half of the standing pine volume in the South, according to North Carolina State University.

Because of its ubiquitousness, the loblolly pine might seem to be an open book, a species whose usefulness means humans have long known what it is. But beneath the thick greyish bark that resembles a giant turtle’s scutes lies a secret only recently decoded. The DNA blueprint that makes a loblolly pine is comprised of some 22 billion base pairs, around seven times more than the genome that makes humans.

Now a research team of 37 scientists from 12 institutions—a big crew to fell a leviathan of a genome—has announced that they have used cutting-edge techniques to decipher the loblolly’s DNA. Their effort represents the largest genome sequenced to date and the most complete decoded conifer genome ever published.

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science tech distributed computing citizen_science folding_home protein biology cancer health
200,000 Computers Tapped To Crack Cancer Protein

by Michael Keller

A virtual supercomputer running on more than 239,000 computers around the world has successfully eavesdropped on a protein key to cancer’s progression in the body. 

Researchers using Stanford University’s Folding@home, a distributed computational platform, have been able to describe the activation of a protein called Src kinase, a molecular switch that is believed to turn on the tumor-producing signals in cells that tell them to grow, spread and not self-destruct. 

The team says it is the first time the protein has been modeled as it changes from an inactive state to an active one. Their insight could help develop new drugs that specifically target Src kinase.

(The gif above illustrates Folding@home’s simulated protein-folding steps from an uncoiled configuration to a complex, 3-D structure. The protein here is NTL9 and unrelated to Src kinase, the subject of this article. See the interesting video below. Courtesy Vijay Pande/Stanford.)

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