If I’m to be honest with myself, and sometimes I feel like I might, I’d have to admit I’m fairly impressive. Really. When I consider the things I can do, I am forced to concede I can do a lot – and if I really think about it, it turns out that the abilities with which the human body has been endowed are awesome… In the original meaning of the term, like, awe-inspiring; though it’s all pretty rad, too.

Before I get into why exactly I am thinking like this, I might as well address the inevitable here: Yes, I’ve been a blogging recluse lately, and no, I am not proud of it. I’d like to reconcile that fact, starting now. My Grand Re-Opening feat will be a series, so I shall be forced to continue whether I like it or not. The topic with which I will attempt to leap back in, reclaim my writing, and try to engage those who have given up on me, is one I believe addresses the core of many of my most-encountered questions… What are we? What are we supposed to do? What am I supposed to be doing? What’s the reason I do all these other things, even when I don’t really want to?

A little background should always come first. One must develop the characters of a story before they become believable; one must create their history and illustrate their environment and the pressures therein. We must begin to understand the world from their perspectives, and in light of both their strengths and limitations. This can be especially hard when one is part of the story, when the teller and the tellee are the same and yet so different, when the body and mind would weave such extraordinarily different tales…

When I get to thinking about what it is all animals have in common, well, I get bored. I’ve noticed my students do too, by the subtle nodding and bobbing of heads and the fog which glazes their eyes as I discuss blastulas and homeobox genes and lack of rigid cell walls. Not that these things aren’t fascinating in their own right, just that I want to know MORE. Because I am human, and I feel special, and I’d like some scientific evidence to the fact. I know I can do things other creatures cannot. Both what makes me unique and what makes me care is that I can actively seek understanding of these things.

So I will start where things become relatable* (incidentally, how is this not a word?? as in, ‘something that can be related to’) and universally – I’m taking a liberty here – thought-provoking. Mammals. We know we are mammals because, in addition to having coined that term to describe ourselves, we have genes for hair, a brain part to regulate homeostasis, bones in our ears, and glands to sweat and produce milk (mammary glands!! ..there’s a discussion in here about nipples on men, but I’ll leave that to you). Other than that, mammals are to all appearances an interestingly varied set of multicellular critters. But we know we belong with them, rather than in some other group of organisms, not just because we can classify and categorize and hypothesize – we know because we just feel it. I guarantee you could squash a toy chihuahua in a way not dissimilar to a ginormous cockroach, but under most circumstances I can also guarantee only one of the aforementioned situations makes you feel morally corrupt. Further, I might also surmise that if you had said cockroach in a tank with a plant, you’d feel poorly about killing one of these two creatures for lack of food and water, but mostly indifferent to the other. So again, we can presume which one is more like us in this subjective way.

And herein lies the trouble in answering questions about ourselves: Articulation, vocabulary, and separation of bottom lines from the tugs of our emotions. How do we, and should we, disengage from ourselves enough to objectively analyze ourselves? During the beginning of class each semester, I can reliably and predictably draw gasps of horror from even the most stoic of self-proclaimed uninterested, texting co-eds present only in body and because of state requirements simply by implying I might place a kitten in a blender. However, even those who might beforehand have declared titles of debating champion, logic king, or witty cynic find themselves in the ultimate conundrum when challenged to convince me why I shouldn’t hit “frappe” even for the tiniest fraction of a second. Tongues become twisted, hands are wrung, faces fraught. It is urgent, and crucial, and yet they cannot convey the point their body feels so strongly. It’s still a cat, I argue calmly, the parts are still all there. Do you know how hard it is to break a cell? With due diligence I could even arrange them back into the pattern from which the pieces came. And so on.

And it becomes apparent; the study of life is no more clear than the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it” When it comes to purpose, and intent, and the junction between choice and insight and instinct, we have many feelings and few concrete concepts. Many facts, many opinions, and yet the inability to justify one with the other. The best, and only really, place to start is by laying a foundation of historical context and functional understanding and building upon that to create an idea of what might be right. For us, here and now, and in light of the fact we are a fleeting intermediate in some larger picture, the details of which are gloriously unavailable for our scrutiny.

Primates are alike because we are all adapted to climb trees. No joke. But yes, I said “climb.” No mention is made here of descent. Many humans, quite obviously, have somewhat lost the capacity to actually get down from those trees intact. What we lack in physical prowess, however, is the tradeoff we made for increased mental aptitude and the upright stance which made our hands available for things like advanced communication and making clever gadgets. But climbing is important. It is one of the first clues to some of our most innate reflexes and attributes, as we shall see…

My, how you’ve grown!

Posted: July 2, 2011 in miscellaneous

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Check out those melons!

Posted: June 16, 2011 in miscellaneous

For quite some time now, my family and I have been wondering about the mystery plant making a home of the pepper and onion bed in my parents’ back yard. The limey, viney creature seemed more than content to grow in the crevices left between the piquant hosts and flourished especially in these first weeks of summer heat. Likewise, the intended crops showed no signs of discomfort with their new companion.

While the plant and leaves looked mildly familiar, I failed for months to identify the unexpected garden addition. Of course, a quick internet search and comparison would immediately have yielded results, though it never really occurred to me and often I was distracted by something else mid-speculation anyway. (This did occur to my father, eventually. And only confirmed what we already knew by then.)

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It seems that someone, at some time during the past… year? two? had eaten a watermelon (**quick note here to all you uber-observant people: there were seeds in the damn watermelon) and tossed the remains in the general direction of the garden, which makes good composting/fertilizing sense and serves as an excuse for being too lazy to toss them elsewhere. The plant had snaked its way between and around the peppers and onions and established itself as a contributing member to the local population. Once the summer heat hit, it began to flower – and fruit! Though small and fairly inconspicuous, the watermelons are easily identifiable as such, complete with stripes. Now, I normally am not one of those ladies with an obsession with all things miniature (you know what I’m talking about!), but baby watermelons are adorable. This is the type of infant I can deal with.

I’m excited at the prospect of fresh watermelon in a couple months, and excited to see whether the fruits crush any surrounding flora as they gain bulk. But I am also left wondering: Why are these sweet treats so happy growing in the midst of plants known for their formidable flavor?

A friend and I met for an afternoon chat; we saw one another in the parking lot and together headed toward our destination. We talked as we walked, slowly tracing our way to the awaiting patio. At some point along our journey, we simultaneously noticed that we had begun to drift apart. We exchanged a look and each of us gazed down, both wondering what had caused us to subconsciously choose different paths. Interestingly, she had unwittingly followed a curvy sidewalk carved into the landscaped lawn. I, on the other hand, had continued to march straight toward the destination, inadvertently pursuing the shortest distance between two points.

We giggled, as girls do, sparking a lively discussion regarding our innate differences – which, of course, resulted in an appreciation of our overall similarities. I realized the acquaintances who become my close friends mimic the phenomenon we experienced while walking: They are the people who confidently and independently follow their own path, yet arrive at the same destination. (I’m certain there’s an Ayn Rand quote in here somewhere.)

We do what we do. And we do what we want. (Caveat: What some people want is to do what they think others want them to do, or expect them to do.) But why is this? Are mere chemicals responsible for free will? What pathways give us individuality, from whence stems innate motivation (or lack thereof); can a change in chemicals change innate responses? Are our subconscious decisions predetermined? Are they dynamic in space, time, and circumstance? Can we purposely choose against them? Are we able to permanently alter our seemingly inherent characteristics?

I could go on and on with these questions; unfortunately, not I nor anyone else really has an answer. We have many clues, glimpses, hopes; but alas, nothing concrete, nothing that holds true uniformly or ubiquitously for the entire human population. Interestingly, while there are many drugs that affect personality, decision-making, and preference, these compounds are often among the least understood; in fact, the mechanisms of action for entire classes of mood-altering substances remain wholly elusive. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants based solely upon the appearance of effectiveness, with no understanding whatsoever of how or why they work. There do seem to be some consistent biochemical messengers that pop up again and again in studies of personality, attitude, choice, inclination, and other cognitive-based traits; these compounds are inevitably influenced by the drugs we find effective at eliciting responses in these areas (though, oddly, often we only notice this ex post facto).

I’m enthralled by these compounds. Not only are their direct effects (those we’ve discovered so far, anyway) amazing, but there seems no bodily pathway immune from some indirect effect of their action. They serve as a dynamic reminder that our bodies run not on a series of one-way linear biochemical reactions, but that we function as a network of interconnected, amenable reactions – and because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even the most innocuous compounds are vital to our optimal functioning.

Monoamine neurotransmitters appear to play an important role in linking our conscious behaviors with our subconscious existence. These include the lately in vogue compounds serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and their relatives. Just knowing which compounds are involved seems only the tip of the iceberg, however: Not only does the manufacture, quantity, location, and concentration of the chemical in question matter, but so does the characteristics of the corresponding receptor proteins as well as their ratios and interactions with seemingly unrelated pathways along the route. It seems that dopamine, in particular, has a functional role in our decision-making processes, all of which probably have a subconscious component.

Do yourself a google for the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and read all about how our major body systems are intertwined and interdependent. I especially enjoy learning about how my gut has a mind of its own – complete with literal mood swings and impressionable responses to my bodily conditions and those substances I choose to expose my innards to.

Fascinatingly, these compounds that make us individuals also seem to play a role in social interactions and cohesion. I am currently reading The Wisdom of Crowds, given to me by a former student (and ongoing friend); I cannot help but suspect maybe culture is actually the average of our individuality, beautiful and wondrous exactly by its projection of the best of our collective biochemical tendencies, exactly capturing the perfection of our imperfections.

Apple of My Eye

Posted: March 29, 2011 in evolution, genetics, just for fun, plants

Next time you bite into a sweet, juicy piece of fruit, don’t let your enjoyment be diminished by the realization that you are both eating an ovary and being manipulated into playing an active role in plant sex. Ignorance might seem like bliss, but really; that plump, fleshy goodness is just as satisfying nonetheless. Kind of. Mostly. But many plants NEED animals to help them with both copulation and then also distribution of offspring, because plants can’t just get up and walk to the singles bar, nor can their children move away. So these chlorophyll-laden Casanovas devised tactics to entice unsuspecting motile creatures to do their dirty work for them. In exchange for a little sugar high, plants romance animals into carrying off feats of reproduction and migration without so much as ruffling a leaf.

Angiosperms, or flowering plants, began to dominate the planet (taking over from the Gymnosperms, which bear “naked” seeds) as insects also began to radiate into incredible abundance, diversity, and ubiquity. Coincidence, you might ask? Not so fast – with flying pollinators unabashedly doing the deed for immobile plants, these clever vegetables developed all sorts of sneaky tricks to entice the growing insect population to carry their sperm for impregnation of ova far and wide. This co-evolution gives us both the diverse beauty of the plant kingdom and the specific flower (sight, taste, smell) preferences of the animal kingdom.

I think now is a good time to discuss the difference between a fruit and a vegetable… So: All a plant’s somatic, or non-reproductive cells, make up vegetative structures. Why do we (perhaps unkindly) refer to comatose patients as existing in a “vegetative” state? Well, they’re not moving, they’re not reproducing; in fact, they are rather plant-like! On the other hand, certain structures may become specialized for reproduction – in plants, cells dedicate themselves to one or the other: normal body growth and development, OR reproduction. Flowers and their resulting fruit are such specialized tissues. Thus, any plant part NOT involved in reproduction (i.e. vegetative) is called a vegetable, while those parts directly involved in sex are called fruit. You can distinguish this by determining whether a piece of produce has seeds, which are plant embryos. Sans seeds, you have some vegetative structure from the plant. Squash? Fruit. Peppers? Fruit. Nuts? Fruit. Avocado? Fruit. Olives? Fruit. You see where I’m going with this. Seeds = Fruit. Beans and peas ARE the seeds! (The pod is the fruit.) This defies the conventional wisdom of amateur chefs around the globe. Consistently, we call items traditionally seasoned with savory flavors “vegetables” while reserving “fruit” for items incorporated in sweet dishes. You may want to take a moment to reflect and recoup after that reality-altering realization.

When it’s time for an angiosperm to have sex, the plant diverts energy and nutrients into creating differentiated reproductive structures. Leaf and other tissues specialize into distinct flower components by altering gene expression and up-regulating exactly those genes necessary for each cell’s particular role. A flower often has female parts – collectively called the carpel, and male parts – comprising the stamen. On the anthers (tips) of the stamen, pollen grains are hollow structures housing millions of individual male gametes (sperm!). Insects pick up these grains and transport them to the carpel of a different plant. Flowers, then, share a bit of nectar in exchange for fertilization!You know that bulbous structure at the base of flowers? Within that ovary lies the ova, or eggs, of the flower. When a bee brings foreign sperm into contact with a viable egg, the receptive flower begins to produce ethylene gas, which triggers the decline of any flower parts not essential in seed and fruit formation (this is the same compound that causes ripening of fruit). Simultaneously, the receptacle and/or ovary wall tissue grows, swelling in size to form a protective (and often tasty!) structure in which to house the developing offspring. Eventually, the structure begins to look like a fruit as we know it; the seeds are the embryos (or house the embryos).

When trees establish themselves in the ground, they compete with one another for resources; access to sunlight, and surface area to absorb water and nutrients from the soil. Mature trees then will often be found spaced apart, at whatever distance that particular ecosystem has the nutrients to support them. So to prevent the parent tree from competing for valuable resources with offspring, trees would like to be able to distance themselves from their seedlings…..And so: The fruit was born. When you or I or some other creature comes along and spies a shiny treat dangling tantalizingly from the tree, we promptly grab it and go. In doing so, we are feeding right in to the plant’s plot – As we wolf down the sweet snack we inadvertently consume the seeds (or, for picky humans, toss them far from the parent plant). Fruit, then, share a bit of nutrition in exchange for seed dispersal (where do you think the term “spreading his seeds” comes from?!).

Intact seeds pass through our digestive system without great harm to the protected embryo. It’s no coincidence that fruits contain fiber and other compounds that aid in excretion; in fact, many fruits contain natural laxatives that induce peristalsis (smooth muscle contraction in your digestive tract) and literally force expulsion of the seedlings. This is pure plant genius. Not only have you safely carried (dispersed) the angiosperm offspring to a new location, you have planted it happily within a cushy pile of fresh, hydrated fertilizer. What more could a germinating baby plant ask for??

Incidentally, it isn’t only plants who have evolved these sneaky tactics – fungi do their fair share of animal manipulation as well. After all, what is the stereotypical place to find ‘shrooms? All’s fair in love and war. And love is war.

I KNOW that look you all get. I can see it in your eyes. Sometimes, you just wanna throw stuff at me.

Well, today is your lucky day….

Registration for the first annual TCC Northwest Campus faculty v student dodgeball tournament is Tuesday-Thursday of this week (March 29-31)!!! The $5 fee benefits our Cornerstone student club; for just $10 you can get a T-shirt too!  Create a team now and don’t forget to sign up!!! Dr. Preston, Mr. Green, Mr. Rhoades, Dr. Moore and I are among the faculty participants who just CANNOT WAIT to throw balls at you. Feeling a little uncomfortable? Show up just to cheer on your FAVORITE team (hint, hint)!! Go ahead and get yourself a T-shirt too, to support your peers and commemorate this awesome opportunity. If you need me, I’ll be in my office stretching.

Click here to register and find more information: Learn about our team and cause.

Please note: You can also sponsor one of our classmates, donate directly, or become a distance team member, OR: participate through “Sleep in for the Cure”….which I’m certain many of you will appreciate 🙂

An apple a day…

Posted: March 16, 2011 in genetics, just for fun

It all began normally enough. I was wearily poking at the discarded remnants of a neglected portabella bin, wondering to myself if it was relevant to check whether mushrooms had gotten moldy, when from across the room I spied a soccer mom pick up the most amazing specimen ever to enter a grocer’s produce aisle…

I immediately sprang into action: illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights I raced across the scuffed linoleum floor, leaping over a power cord (what the heck was that doing there?!) as I dived headlong toward the unsuspecting woman holding this wondrous apple just so – such that I could see its glory while she merely thought it was red. Here’s a hint: The lady next to her, had she bothered to look, would have called the apple green.

Despite the utter lack of interest she had previously displayed toward her selection as she sifted through the bin of golden deliciousness, this unfortunate lady for a moment seemed to find offense to my apple-snatching tactics. I, however, had clearly won the grab and flaunted my remarkable trophy in the air with a triumphant “Yeeessssss!” Obviously well versed in fight picking and not-picking, my victim exhaled heavily, shrugged, and turned to resume her half-hearted fruit sorting.

Now what, you might ask, could make a biologist behave in such a manner at the neighborhood market? For what would she risk potential eye rolling, hip-jutting, over-exaggerated throat clearing, and finger pointing? Obviously outnumbered and outwitted in this rather non-diverse sea of tired, bitter middle class women, I can only surmise that my epinephrine pathway took control and caused an action response not entirely conscious.

And thank goodness it did, because otherwise I might have hesitated a moment too long and forever regretted my cowardice. You see, this apple was a genetic Golden Ticket. A needle in the proverbial haystack; and almost lost innocuously forever in a mouthful of hay by an unappreciative horse. Not that I’m comparing this lady to a horse, mind you.

I understand my enchanted apple to be a rare genetic anomaly. Or, as the last guy put it, “It’s a genuine one-off and none of us have ever seen an apple like it before.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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I adore apples. And I hate doctors. Like the chicken and the egg, however, I’m not sure which of those came first in my life… So let’s discuss the biology of apples a bit! But oh! where to begin? So much fascination and so little space! First of all, apples have the largest plant genome sequenced to date…or at least the apple TREE does, and specifically the Golden Delicious, which was singled out from over 7500 varieties to have its DNA code immortalized first. From that sequencing project, we have learned other interesting tidbits, such as that the wild Eve of apples (common ancestor, Malus sieversii) was born in the mountains of modern-day Kazakhstan and acquired its ginormous genome through at least one major duplication event (a large genome is thought to render competitive advantages and other major evolutionary implications – for example, vertebrates are throught to have arisen from a genome duplication in some shared invertebrate ancestor).

More on this topic later – I’ll share with you my, and biologists of various other specialties’ , suspicions regarding the specific source of this special apple’s phenotype. Here’s a hint for those of you extra-credit point seekers: What has the body of a lion, the head of a goat, a snake for a tail, and breathes fire?

You may have seen the title of this post and thought: “Oh! It’s like Jeopardy! And the question is…What three things are mutually exclusive?” I initially typed these words without irony, inspired into blogging action by the resignation of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller; however, this simple title took on new life as it glared back from the screen.

Whether you are conservative or liberal, work with your head or work with your hands, are with us or against us, look black or white or in between, a universally shared trait seems to be the inherent skepticism (no matter from whence it stems) of these three words thrown inexplicably together: Politics. Media. Truth. What has so united us in our distrust?

I’m reminded of something David Gergen alluded to while speaking at UTA’s Maverick Speaker Series last year: What we need (I believe he was initially making an inter-generational comparison, which I will here take the liberty of scaling up to the whole population level) is a cause for passion. Previously in this great nation of ours, we have been united by common goals that often included battles, whether of the physical or ideological nature. Importantly, these causes gave all Americans, regardless of background or affiliation, a united stance to take on a directed measure. The example Gergen used was the first two World Wars: These were just, he argued, and everyone agreed. What Gergen then called for, in an argument under-appreciated at best, is a new united front – a new reason to band together – and one that is nonviolent. Simply stated, we need to SHARE PASSION if we are to ever feel content. What, asks Gergen, since the Great Wars, have we ever ALL BELIEVED IN, all at the same time and in the same place? Give us a common cause, a good one, and you’ve just given us a clear path forward.

The question is, of course, rhetorical. And the history of human nature seems to suggest only great injustice can incite unified indignity. Unfortunately, I share the perspective of Einstein when it comes to the disturbing concept of raging a third world war: “I know not with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Economics often serves to remind us biologists of just how animal-like humans truly are. All our supposed logic and reason and critical thought can be explained and predicated by laws that serve game theorists, behaviorists, ecologists, and evolutionists equally well.