Thursday, December 8, 2011

Inside the Strange Science of Cord Blood Banking

Cord blood sample, before processing.

In a nondescript commercial park on the outskirts of Las Vegas, a large cryogenic stem cell storage facility is ready to accept your baby’s blood.

Cord Blood America in Las Vegas is one of dozens of private cord blood banks in the United States that, for a fee, will store stem cell-rich blood taken from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord.
Over one hundred thousand families save or donate cord blood annually, in the hopes it will one day provide medical help to their child or someone else.

“My vision is within the next 10 years we’ll see organizations like this develop into cellular therapy labs,” said Dr. Geoffrey O’Neill, vice president of CorCell, the subsidiary company that runs Cord Blood America’s Las Vegas facility. It’s beginning to happen now in countries like China and Mexico, he says.

But while banking cord blood is legal and safe, many health care professionals question the value of private banks. Regenerative therapies based on stem cells from cord blood have had mixed preliminary success, and researchers are split over when and whether they’ll ever come through.

In the meantime, private cord blood banks are expensive, their marketing can be misleading and their practicality is suspect.

Read the full story.
Photo: Jim Merithew/ Creative Commons licensed under BY-NC.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Give Bees a Chance: My feature in Science Notes!

To get a harvest a big part of an almond farmer's late winter and early spring is absorbed in ensuring enough pollinators make it into the orchard.

A big part of my late winter and early spring this year was absorbed in reporting on a small, but growing movement to get native bees to help. Out of the field visits and phone calls came my first feature story: Give Bees a Chance.

The story recently went live on Science Notes, the hallmark publication of the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. The piece is gorgeously illustrated by the hyper-talented Chelsea Crist (image above) and Julie Naylor (right) from the CSU Monterey Bay Science Illustration Program.

Wander around, you'll read about the problems facing our honeybees, the wild, glorious diversity of California's native bees, challenges facing farmers like the almond-growing Chris Schlies and the efforts of Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at UC Berkeley, to change the face of large-scale farming. It comes with a video and a podcast, both narrated by yours truly and featuring buzzing of bees.

As a final bonus, the piece got a lovely shout-out by Charlie Petit over at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Spiders, clocks and Valkyries

Crafty, nubile Rhinemaidens (Woglinde, Wellgunde, Floßhilde) tease the dwarf Alberich as he reaches out for one of them -- the scene that begins The Ring.
Illustration to Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold/Wikimedia

The week is sure to be epic. By this time next Sunday I will have (somehow) absorbed nearly 20 hours of Wagnerian opera. Tuesday evening marks the first installment of Der Ring Des Nibelungen, a four-part opera-to-end-all-operas.Woody Allen once said that Wagner left him with an urge to invade Poland, we'll see what it does to me.

Rhine scene from the San Francisco production/

I've been trying to do my homework to prepare for the ordeal event. Though, it seems, I won't be nearly as well-versed as I should be. I checked George Martin's Opera Companion out from the library and, turning to the Ring section was welcomed by this cheery advice:
[The Ring] requires considerable work: reading at least two books in addition to the libretto and spending several hours at the piano or victrola. If the opera goer does not care to put in that time or has not done so, he would do better to stay home, even if offered free seats.
I'm sorry Martin, stuff it. I'm going. I've neither read the libretto nor sat down at the victrola, but at my side I'll have (in spirit) Anna Russel, comedienne and Ring-interpreter extraordinaire, and (in person) Emilia, sweet and virtuous friend. Somehow the three of us will make it through. {Cue Valkyrie music.}

Part of the reason I haven't been spending hours at the piano with Wagner's score is that I've started writing for Wired Science on once again. It's keeping me busy, caffeinated and happy. My two most recent pieces: A gallery of the world's most impressive time-keeping devices and a video of spiders in space. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Limited listening: SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array gets quiet

Allan Telescope Array,
Hat Creek Radio Observatory,
Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill/Flickr
 Our collective ears have swiveled downward, from the sounds of the sky, to the jingling of our coin purse. The SETI Institute halted operations of the radio telescopes in the Allen Telescope Array, the San Jose Mercury News reported Monday. Until a few days ago, these telescopes had been scanning the sky, radio-ears at the ready, in a quest to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Budget shortages, it seems, find ever new ways to determine, and limit, what we listen to.*

These budget reductions are sad news, for me and for many people. SETI matters have appeared on this blog before (and for pieces I've written for Wired Science and for class). What actually interests me most about the field – more than the aliens themselves – is how the search affects those drawn to it. (For more on this watch Jill Tarter's, director of the institute’s Center for SETI Research, 2009 TEDtalk.

Moon meets Venus
Night sky (Sabby3000/Flickr)

The desire to reach intelligence beyond the bounds of earth, seems to imbue goodwill towards the life already here (snarky jokes shelved for another time). By turning off equipment that makes the search possible, we're lowering our perspective. Our concerns become more base. I can't think of any time when that worked to our advantage.

Tossing in my two copper coins, I hope it's not too long before our ears perk up again.

(*Note: Silly Danielle, radio signals aren't actually sound, but stretched-out, far-journeying light.)

= = = = = = = = = =

For reading see:

-Search for ET Put on Hold, Seth Shostak, a lively, likeable Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, Huffington Post;
-SETI Institute to shut down alien-seeking radio dishes, Lisa Krieger, the San Jose Mercury News;
-SETI Institute suspends search for alien signals, David Perlman, the San Francisco Chronicle;
-Or see the announcement and request for donations on the Institute's website.

= = = = = = = = 
(A repost from

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Ideal Husband: Lessons on Freelancing

Norma Bissaker and Frank Bissaker on their wedding day, 1941
The way to write? (Norma and Frank Bissaker on their wedding day, 1941/Flickr)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a freelance writer embarking on her career, must be in want of health insurance.
-Jane Austen Danielle Venton

The first time someone tells you that marrying well is key to successful freelancing – by that read “marrying into health insurance” – it's fairly easy to laugh. It lends a scent of the Victorian to the lifestyle, and accessorizes it with calling cards and afternoon tennis matches. The second time, its easy to crack a wry smile. Ah yes, I've heard this joke before. I began to worry it wasn't a joke when I heard it a third time. And when, for the fourth time, a professor, mentor or seminar speaker said that one absolutely must take care to exchange rings only with the employed, insured and pensioned, there set in a mild panic.

Now, I have nothing against those with steady jobs and retirement plans. Nor am I prejudiced against those with healthy savings accounts. However, as alluring as the prospect of health insurance might be, it's hardly inducement to hop in bed with someone. Therefore, I have been formulating a post-SciCom survival plan. I thought I might share, in case it is useful or in case you, reader, have suggestions of your own to offer.

Let's start with basics: food, clothing, shelter and entertainment. (A little distraction is, at least for me, also a requirement.) In terms of expense, housing trumps the list so nailing that down is most important. I could, I suppose, join a hippie commune or go back to being a live-in nanny, but I like the idea of having my own walls and roof. The most practical idea currently seems to be to build myself a Tumbleweed House. This company sells plans to tiny, yet complete, houses, or the pre-built houses themselves. At the moment my whimsy favors this model, The Harbinger. The very name inspires hope. 
Tumblewed Tiny House Company/Flickr

And where to put it? I hear you ask. My parents own about an acre of land on the outskirts of Petaluma. I'd like for them to think it would be a great idea if I tore down the old shop in the backyard, site of much camping equipment and fatherly tinkering paraphernalia. In its place I'd build a little picket-fence-enclosed home. Scuttlebutt is, if it is small enough, you don't need the city permits that a full-fledged dwelling calls for (ironing all of that out is sure to be an odyssey). All I need is a self-composting toilet, some solar panels, maybe an electricity-generating stationary bike, a way to get on the internet and I'm set.

Food, of course, is also a primary consideration. The backyard already holds seven fruit trees and more can be planted. The family vegetable garden can also be expanded. We could once-again raise chickens for eggs and, coming from angler-hunter-gatherer stock as I do, there is always seafood and venison around. I do enjoy a meal out with friends, but I can accept I'll need to eat out only on occasion. Home cooked meals always taste better anyway.

Saving on clothing is going to be less of a problem for me that it would be for, say, some of my Swiss or New Yorker friends. In this case, however, self-sufficiency is not the way forward for me. Once upon a time, I tried my hand at sewing. The ill-fated blouse was so supremely frustrating that, by the time I was done with the wretched thing, I had grown to loathe it. I don't think I've ever worn that shade of orangey-peach ever again in my life, ever. Thrift and consignment stores will be in my future, as they have been in my past.

Now, I am extremely talented at getting into situations that are best survived by laughing at myself. The truth is, however, a little external entertainment is far easier on the nerves and less likely to cause injury.

Fortunately my most of my pastimes are quite economical: reading, running, backpacking, going to Giants games with my brother. It would be far worse if my hobbies included, say, skiing, yachting, Swiss watches and heroin. (Full disclosure: I do actually own a Swiss watch and I've never done heroin.)

I'm happy to rely on the public library system for my books and movie rentals. Running is as cheap as free. With the exception of a decent three-season tent, I already own most of the needed backpacking equipment. Jeff and I always get the cheapest Giant's tickets.

I do, I must say, enjoy seeing live music. My plan for working this into my impoverished future life is a two-pronged approach. For opera: standing room! Tickets are $10. For the symphony: Rush tickets are $20 For modern music: catch on to the bands before they are famous, when the tickets are less.

These plans for frugal living are only meant to be taken so seriously, obviously. But the idea of standing through four hours of Madam Bovary is far easier to swallow than the idea of enduring a dating world where I have to include “financial security for two” along with my other requirements. It's already a lot to ask that someone be tall, smart, funny, red-haired, a fan of MST3K and have a large and generous heart. I'm not interested in asking to see their stock portfolio as well.

SciCom is full of practical wisdom, to be sure. Some of us, though, might need to supplement our training with home vegetable gardening lessons and workshops on plumbing installation. All tips welcome.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Surf city tsunami

Tsunami surges reach Santa Cruz, March 11 (Image: Flickr/Dan Dawson, used with permission)
The effects of Japan's Honshu earthquake reached as far as Santa Cruz on the Californian coast. On spring break from UCSC's SciComs program, I walked down to the water to gauge what residents have learned.

One week after a tsunami washed into Santa Cruz harbor and ricocheted around the docks, harbor life  has yet to settle. Joggers pass stretches of yellow caution tape. Men in hardhats and plaid shirts clear debris with shovels and high-pressure water hoses. Cafe patrons at the Kind Grind swap yet-to-stale tsunami stories. And, on the docks, Lisa Price's fourth grade class walk among the boats.

Her class – each child snapped into a life vest – is on their annual O'Neill Sea Odyssey outing, run by the company famous for wetsuits and surfing gear. “Every year we love this field trip,” says Price, who teaches at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif. The students learn basics of marine ecology and navigation, such as how to use a compass. Last year her class left the harbor on the Team O'Neill catamaran and saw dolphins and sharks in the bay. This year, as the debris is cleared from both the water and the parking lot, they'll board the dual-hulled boat, but remain dockside.

On the morning of March 11 central California was hit by a tsunami, triggered by Japan's Honshu earthquake. Only six students attended Ms. Price's class that day. The rest stayed home with worried family members. In the Santa Cruz harbor, surges of 5 to 6 feet left $22 million worth of damaged boats, docks and equipment. Now, in the tsunami's wake, the harbor and surrounding community is asking how to return to their routine, and which lessons should be drawn. Nine boats sank during the tsunami and two are still missing, presumed sunken. Dozens of others need repairs or dismantling.

At the boat works, Tom McKervey fields phone calls from anxious  owners. “Yeah, you're on the list – twice for some reason,” McKervey says. “We'll get to you. We've  got a little triage here – we have to take care of the leakers and the sinkers first.” He replaces the handset, “One of my esteemed customers.”

McKervey, blue eyed and white mustached, manages Aquarius Boat Works – a sort of maritime apothecary and repair store. Above the dusty wooden floors the walls are lined with hooks, ropes and maps. On shelving bins of weights and floats sit next to cans of paint and tubes of Spackling paste. The evening of March 10, McKervey watched news clips of the destruction in Japan. He arrived early at the harbor the following morning to tie down loose boats and riggings. He spent the day on the docks, alternately pushing debris away from boats with a pole and running to higher ground during surges.

“All day long the images of their plight [in Japan] made me think – this is a picnic compared to what  those folks had to live through,” he says. “Here only things were broken. Nobody got terribly hurt.” On McKervey's right hand, his thick middle finger holds a row of stitches. “I got a little cut out of the deal,” he says, dismissing it. He believes he will see a change in the local mix of boaters as a result of the tsunami damage, that is his real concern.

Santa Cruz hosts power boaters, sport and commercial fishermen and sailboat lovers. “Some of these folks are working towards the dream of sailing off into the sunset,” he says. And, while it's prominence has diminished, Santa Cruz is still a racing port. “I'm sure the harbor is going to shrink, both in people and boats. Many folks could only marginally afford boating before.” McKervey hopes the harbor will design a faster alert for boat owners, perhaps with a telephone chain, instead of relying on TV and radio. If more people had known sooner, he says, they could have waited out the swells in the open ocean.

Residents nearby responded to the tsunami in ways typical of Santa Cruz. On the day, surfers paddled out, hoping for waves worthy of a Japanese woodblock print. Onlookers crowded the bridges stretching over the harbor, boxes of pizza and six packs of beer at their side, shouting encouragement to McKervey and his fellow workers. The next week, a crowd of more than 100 packed the Community Room of the Santa Cruz Police Department to discuss preparations for the next tsunami.

Some wanted to know, street-for-street, how safe their houses were. Some wanted to know where to watch the waves roll in. Steven Ward of the University of California, Santa Cruz said he understood tsunami curiosity – the desire to head for water – and suffered from it himself. But, addressing the crowd as a geophysicist who studies tsunami's, he urged caution. “Scientists understand the general concepts, but its hard to predict how severe surges will be – especially in real time,” Ward says. “You might expect more of scientists than we can give.”

This is both humbling and frustrating. “My feeling,” says McKervey, “is that these events show us we're pretty insignificant – it reminds me to be grateful I'm alive.”

Watch a video of the tsunami, posted on YouTube by the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Music to write to: Andrew Bird, The Decemberists & Afriki Djigui Theatri

Montreaux Jazz Fest
Montreaux Jazz Fest/D. Venton
Santa Cruz is a wet, windy, stormy place this week. This prevents me and my fellow SciComrades from venturing outside while we're on Spring Break. Surely this isn't legal. So, as the rhythm of the rain pounds on my roof persistently, I’d like to offer rhythms of a different nature: A listing of my favorite music and artists to listen to while writing. Please submit your own favorites in the comments.

The best artist I’ve found to write along to is hands down, violin bows up, Andrew Bird. His music is beautiful, looping and lyrical. Something about his dual continuity and innovation help me gather momentum -- particularly if I’m having trouble getting started.

See him solo and live and you can watch as he builds multi-track songs, one element at a time. He records violin-plucking for the beat, whistle-melodies for motifs, and begins to sing. All the while your eyebrows gradually migrate to the outside edges of your forehead. The man has talent.

Catch a live show, if you possibly can, or watch a great example here (if you only watch one of the videos in this post, pick this):

When I’m working for several hours, I often have Andrew Bird on a continual loop in my iTunes. Below, the YouTube Andrew Bird playlist. Particularly addictive tracks include “Thank God it’s Fatal,” “Operation,” “Sythian Empire” and “Mitosis.”

I am also a Decemberists fan, devoted and devout. During the month of February I listened to their new album, The King is Dead a lot. The band (featured in a recent Talk of the Town, “No. 1”) has an ability to make every genre they turn their instruments irresistible. They also have a fantastic vocabulary, employing words such as “palanquin,” “odalisque,” and “roustabout.”

If you are a Decemberists neo-phyte, and unafraid of the idea of good country music, give the opening track of their latest album a try:

And if you’re willing to go for the serious honey-tonk:

Otherwise, an easier entry point might be The Crane Wife (loosely based on a Japanese fairy tale) or The Hazards of Love (a total rock opera, a la Deep Purple). These folks are also *just fantastic* live.

There is also something great about listening to music sung in a language I can’t (or can just barely) understand. My favorite breed of this is music from French-speaking Africa. I’ve poked around the International section of iTunes’ radio offerings and have settled on Afriki Djigui Theatri (also available here). I even like the commercials. I understand just enough of the French to stay amused, without growing annoyed at the advertising.

But I don’t want this post to be one glowing review after another. So let me say that, contrary to their name, Muse is lousy to write to. And while they put on a great light show (see below) I also think they’re pretty lousy live.

Muse in Lyon, France/D. Venton
Just to insert one more complaint, this non-stop rain makes me wish all the more that I was in Austin, Texas listening to music at South by Southwest. This wish might be an impossibility -- among other obstacles, the festival ended four days ago -- but that makes the longing only more acute. A great listing of SXSW music to pay attention is here on NPR's music pages.

Now that I’ve compiled my list, and have offered you more links than you can comfortably process, I wonder what White, Zinsser, and Blundell would say about my habit of scribbling with tunes in the background. I’ll look into it and get back to you. Meanwhile, send me what you write to either below or at danielle.venton[at]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Primordial Soup’s Missing Ingredient May Be Sulfur

(I had two stories up on yesterday, here is the second one for you!) 

A fresh look at forgotten vials from Stanley Miller’s primordial-soup-in-a-bottle experiments implies that volcanoes seeping hydrogen sulfide helped form some of life’s earliest ingredients.

Sulfur’s presence makes it possible to synthesize a greater variety of amino acids — the molecules that link to form protein chains — and gives nascent life a larger palette of chemicals from which to select.

“When you are analyzing old samples, you always hope in the back of your mind that you are going to find something really cool,” says primary author Eric Parker, a graduate student now at Georgia Tech.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see such a large array of different amino acids and amines.”

In Miller’s classic experiments, dating from the early 1950s, electricity — standing in for lightning — zaps a few basic chemicals, water, methane, hydrogen and ammonia, to simulate the atmospheric conditions on Earth before life began. Miller became famous for showing that simple chemicals could be combined with relative ease to form some of the building blocks of life.

This 1958 experiment, originally unpublished and revisited March 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marked Miller’s first inclusion of hydrogen sulfide, the chemical that makes rotten eggs smell and a prime component of volcanic gas emissions, in the primordial mix.

Using modern chemical analysis techniques, Parker’s team found 23 amino acids, seven other compounds and four amines, a breakdown product of amino acids. This was far more than typical analysis of past samples, which yielded five to 10 amino acids. Several of the amino acids were synthesized for the first time, including methionine, a required building block for many proteins in animals, plants and fungi.

The newly identified collection of amino acids is also similar to those found in meteorites, meaning sulfur may have help assemble life’s ingredients off this planet, as well as on.

Sandra Pizzarello, an Arizona State University chemist who was not involved with the study, agreed with Parker’s chemical detective work. She noted, however, that all experiments seeking to synthesize prebiotic chemicals are limited.

Earth’s early atmospheric conditions aren’t known, and the reactions in this experiment could only have happened near a source of sulfur. On a primordial Earth, that would have meant volcanoes. Whereas Miller originally focused on chemical reactions in the atmosphere, the primordial soup may have gathered in a volcanic bowl.

Volcanic origins were suggested by a 2008 reanalysis of another forgotten Miller experiment conducted by Jim Cleaves, a geochemist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and Scripps Institute of Oceanography biochemist Jeffrey Bada. Both are former students of Miller, and plan to revisit more of his old experiments.

“Miller was a real packrat. He didn’t throw anything out,” said Cleaves, Miller’s final lab student and inheritor of the lab. “Sitting on the shelf was this box, I thought, ‘I don’t know what these are, but I can’t bear to throw them out!’”

Images: 1) Stanley Miller in his UC San Diego lab in 1970/UCSD Archives.

See Also:
Citation: “Primordial Synthesis of Amines and Amino Acids in a 1958 Miller H2S-rich Spark Discharge Experiment.” By Eric T. Parker, H. James Cleaves, Jason P. Dworkin, Daniel P. Glavin, Michael P. Callahan, Andrew D. Aubrey, Antonio Lazcano, and Jeffrey L. Bada. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., Mar. 21, 2011.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Robot Swarms Could Help Search for Life in Martian Caves

Robot Swarms Could Help Search for Life in Martian Caves

(Latest story from Wired Science.) 

Autonomous swarming robots, programmed to search like honeybees, could be the best strategy to explore caves on Mars that may harbor life.

Methane traces in the Martian atmosphere point to undiscovered activity – whether geological or biological – lurking beneath the surface. “Something interesting is going on down there,” said Áron Kisdi, an engineer at the University of Southampton, UK. “We just need to find it.”

In a paper Mar. 3 in Acta Astronautica Kisdi presents a strategy that he believes offers the best way for robots to search large expanses of Mars for new caves, maximizing search area and minimizing search time.

In 2007 NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft found seven large holes in the surface – too large and deep to be explored with rovers. Odyssey’s resolution isn’t fine enough, however, to reveal smaller caves.  And these, if found, could be more accessible to rovers, with shallow entrances and narrower shafts.

“We have sent robots to mars a few times now,” Kisdi said. “But we’ve only seen a small fraction of
 the planet.”

For his swarm search strategy, Kisdi envisions using a rolling, jumping robot, Jollbot. A Mars lander would release 40 to 60 swarmbots to autonomously and randomly scout for caves, in the same way bees hunt for nesting sites.

When a robot finds a cave – sensed by a difference in temperature – it returns by the shortest route, the bee line, back to the lander. It wirelessly uploads the cave’s coordinates and temperature readings to the lander. Then it checks the information uploaded into the lander by the rest of the hive and decides to either start a new search or visit a cave discovered by another robot. If it also approves of a spot, it informs the lander and the process begins again.

Within a few iterations, the group comes to a consensus: either enough bots deem it a good site to point out to mission control, or interest peters out.

The simplicity of this strategy, Kisdi said, allows for the swarming robots to use the bulk of their power on locomotion, rather than programming, and to be cheaper to build. It also ensures that a larger, more sophisticated rover sent in after the bots won’t waste its time on uninteresting places.

“And if you lose a robot,” he said, “the search isn’t over.”

In a report released Mar. 7, a panel convened by the National Research Council asked NASA to give the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher the highest priority of its large missions. This project, the first of three, would collect samples from the Martian surface for analysis. But the report stresses the mission should only proceed if costs can be cut to $2.5 billion – $1 billion less than current independent estimates. This could give Kisdi’s search algorithm a better chance of, one day, seeing the methane of Mars.

“The hard thing about exploring Mars is providing power to robots on the surface,” said David Beaty, Mars Program Science Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The surface area of Mars is equal to the surface area of Earth’s continents. Traveling between one cave and another might be a distance of hundreds of miles.”

Beaty isn’t aware of any swarming robot search models under current development at NASA. But, he says, if the robots in Kisdi’s search model were long-lasting and mobile enough, the idea has potential. In Kisdi’s current simulation 50 swarm robots cover an area of 300 square meters in about five days. The area can be expanded by adding more robots with a longer search distance.

“I’d like to start developing the hardware next,” Kisdi said. “I plan to keep working on the idea until the next call for proposals on Mars missions.”

Image: A candidate landing site for Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, captured by the HiRISE telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

See Also:
Citation: “Future robotic exploration using honeybee search strategy: Example search for caves on Mars.” By Áron Kisdi and Adrian R.L. Tatnall. Acta Astronautica, Mar. 3, 2011.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

4 New Species of Zombifying Fungus Found

(Because I take my charge to bring you the latest in funky insect news very seriously, my newest piece from 

Four new species of brain-manipulating fungi that turn ants into "zombies" have been discovered in the Brazilian rain forest.
These fungi control ant behavior with mind-altering chemicals, then kill them. They're part of a large family of fungi that create chemicals that mess with animal nervous systems.

Usually scientists study these fungi as specimens preserved in a lab, said entomologist David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, co-author of a study March 3 PLoS ONE. "By going into the forest to watch them, we found new micro-structures and behaviors."

Once infected by spores, the worker ants, normally dedicated to serving the colony, leave the nest, find a small shrub and start climbing. The fungi directs all ants to the same kind of leaf: about 25 centimeters above the ground and at a precise angle to the sun (though the favored angle varies between fungi). How the fungi do this is a mystery.

"It's related to the fungus that LSD comes from," Hughes said. "Obviously they are producing lots of interesting chemicals."

Before dying, ants anchor themselves to the leaf, clamping their jaws on the edge or a vein on the underside. The fungi then takes over, turning the ant's body into a spore-producing factory. It lives off the ant carcass, using it as a platform to launch spores, for up to a year.

"This is completely different from what we see in temperate zones where, if an insect dies from a fungal infection, the game's over in a few days," Hughes said.

"The fungi rots the body of the insect and releases massive amounts of spores over two or three days. But in the tropics, where humidity and temperature are more stable, the fungi has this strategy for long-term release."

Of the four new species, two grow long, arrow-like spores which eject like missiles from the fungus, seeking to land on a passing ant. The other fungi propel shorter spores, which change shape in mid-air to become like boomerangs and land nearby. If these fail to land on an ant, the spores sprout stalks that can snag ants walking over them. Upon infecting the new ant, the cycle starts again.

Chemicals from this global group of fungi, known as Cordyceps, have been a part of traditional medicine for thousands years, and part of Western medicine for the last 50.

Organ transplant patients, for example, receive ciclosporin — a drug that suppresses the immune system, reducing the chance the body will reject the new tissue. Chemicals from this same fungal group are also used for antibiotic, antimalarial and anticancer drugs.

The fungi help the forest by keeping ant populations in check. "All of the problems with global ant infestations, for example the Argentine fire ant," Hughes said, "is because the ants have escaped their natural enemies. Then they become a pest."

These fungi need a precise level of humidity to survive. As global temperature changes, the forests where they live are drying. Hughes and his colleagues are now studying the decline these fungi.

"We're worried we'll see the extinction of a species we've only just managed to describe."

On the following pages are more photographs of zombifying fungi in action.
<< Previous | Next >>

All images: David Hughes, Pennsylvania State University

See Also:

Citation: “Hidden diversity behind the Zombie-Ant fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis: Four new species described from Carpenter ants in Minas Gerais, Brazil.” By Harry C. Evans, Simon L. Elliot, David P. Hughes. PloS One, Vol. 6 No. 3, March 2011.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The blossoms and the bees

Bee video
Originally uploaded by danielle512
California's almond groves turn white for a few weeks in early spring as the trees go into a blooming bonanza.

To ensure a nut harvest, California farmers hire up to half the nation's honeybees during this brief flowery flash. This afternoon I visited an orchard, near Merced, that hopes to reduce its dependence on hired honeybees. They recently planted a bee garden to attract and feed native bees throughout the year, see photos below.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gorgeous Jeweled Beetle Reveals Its Tricks

Aside from dolphins and aliens, my favorite things to write about are bugs. Wired Science gave me another opportunity to this week:

Gorgeous Jeweled Beetle Reveals Its Tricks

Japanese jewel beetle
Image: Takehiko Sato.
The Japanese jewel beetle has been a prized ornament since ancient times, and now researchers have revealed the secret to its scintillating good looks.

Brilliant metallic purples and greens run the length of each beetle's body. Each color band corresponds to varying numbers of stacked chitin layers in its wing covers. These nano-scale layers scramble light and reflect an iridescent sheen, reported a team from the Netherlands and Japan in the Mar. 12 issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

 “This surprises me. I’ve always assumed they had the same number of layers throughout the body,” said Dave Kavanaugh, curator of the insect collection at the California Academy of Sciences, who was not involved with the study. “It makes the color change much less accidental.”

For many iridescent insects, color seems incidental, a quirk of the cuticle surface. In the insects Kavanaugh studies, surface ridges cause visible iridescence, but their primary job is to deflect water or mud. Many are active at night, when their colors can’t be seen. But the Japanese jewel beetle's surface is smooth, and the study's authors suspect that iridescence helps these insects recognize each other and find mates.

If you find yourself in Japan, on a summer walk through the woods, you might find one yourself. If you can’t make it to Japan, enjoy these photographs.

See the full gallery on Wired Science

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To Talk With Aliens, Learn to Speak With Dolphins

(My story on today's Wired Science.)

The Kepler Space Telescope announced a new bonanza of distant planets this month, reconfirming that solar systems, some possibly hosting life, are common in the universe.

So if humanity someday arrives at an extraterrestrial cocktail party, will we be ready to mingle? At the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, researchers train for contact by trying to talk with dolphins.
Behavioral biologist Denise Herzing started studying free-ranging spotted dolphins in the Bahamas more than two decades ago. Over the years, she noticed some dolphins seeking human company, seemingly out of curiosity.

“We thought, ‘This is fascinating, let’s see if we can take it further,’” Herzing said. “Many studies communicate with dolphins, especially in captivity, using fish as a reward. But it’s rare to ask dolphins to communicate with us.”

Dolphins have large, sophisticated brains, elaborately developed in the areas linked to higher-order thinking. They have a complex social structure, form alliances, share duties and display personalities. Put a mirror in their tank and they can recognize themselves, indicating a sense of self.

When trained, they have a remarkable capacity to pick up language. At the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, Louis Herman and his team taught dolphins hundreds of words using gestures and symbols. Dolphins, they found, could understand the difference between statements and questions, concepts like “none” or “absent,” and that changing word order changes the meaning of a sentence. Essentially, they get syntax.

Some tantalizing studies even suggest dolphins share their own language (see sidebar, “Easier Language Through Math”). All are qualities we’d hope to see in an alien, and no daydream of contact is complete without some attempt at communication. Yet with dolphins, our attempts have involved teaching them to speak our language, rather than meeting in the middle.

Herzing created an open-ended framework for communication, using sounds, symbols and props to interact with the dolphins. The goal was to create a shared, primitive language that would allow dolphins and humans to ask for props, such as balls or scarves.

Divers demonstrated the system by pressing keys on a large submerged keyboard. Other humans would throw them the corresponding prop. In addition to being labeled with a symbol, each key was paired with a whistle that dolphins could mimic. A dolphin could ask for a toy either by pushing the key with her nose, or whistling.

Herzing’s study is the first of its kind. No one has tried to establish two-way communication in the wild.

“This is an authentic way to approach this, she’s not imposing herself on them,” said Lori Marino, the Emory University biologist who, with Hunter College psychologist Diana Reiss, pioneered dolphin self-recognition studies. “She’s cultivated a relationship with these dolphins over a very long time and it’s entirely on their terms. I think this is the future of working with dolphins.”

For each session, the researchers played with the dolphins for about half-an-hour, for a total of roughly 40 hours over the course of three years. They reported their findings of this pilot study in the December issue of Acta Astronautica.

Herzing’s team found that six dolphins, all young females, were interested in the game, and would come to play when the game was on. Young males were typically less social and less interested in humans. “This is when the females have a lot of play time,” Herzing said, “before they are busy being mothers.”

To Herzing’s surprise, some of her spotted dolphins recruited bottlenose dolphins, another species, to the game. This shows their natural curiosity, Herzing said. In the wild, dolphins communicate across cetacean species lines, coordinating hunting with other dolphins and even sharing babysitting duties.

Herzing found the study sessions were most successful when, before playing, the humans and dolphins swam together slowly and in synchrony, mimicked each other and made eye contact. These are signs of good etiquette among dolphins. Humans also signal their interest in someone with eye contact and similar body language. Perhaps these are universal — and extraterrestrial — signs of good manners.

Before we hope to understand extraterrestrials, then, perhaps we should practice with smart animals right here on Earth. Astronomer Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute was struck by this thought at a recent conference.

“From the way the presenter was speaking, I thought he was going to announce that he had found a signal of extraterrestrial intelligence,” Doyle said. “We’ve been waiting for this for years, but I thought, ‘We’re not ready!’  We can’t even speak to the intelligent animals on Earth.”

Image: Two Atlantic spotted dolphins in the wild. (Ricardo Liberato)

See Also:

Citations: “SETI meets a social intelligence: Dolphins as a model for real-time interaction and communication with a sentient species.” By Denise L. Herzing. Acta Astronautica, Vol. 67 December 2010.

“Information theory, animal communication, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” By Laurance R. Doyle, Brenda McCowan, Simon Johnston and Sean F. Hanser. Acta Astronautica, Vol. 68, February-March 2011.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A little lemon love

A couple of good lemon recipes
One of my favorite cakes to make, containing a few of my favorite things: zucchini, olive oil and lemons.
Zucchini Cake with Crunchy Lemon Glaze

With eggs, almonds, cream and lemons, this frittata-cum-tart is a knee-weakening swirl of flavors.
Cake, Tart, Frittata: Call It the New Baking 

I haven’t tried to make preserved lemons yet, but I’m dying to. This recipe is part of my plans for spring break.
Capturing Morocco in Its Sunny Pickle

And, remember, we must not live on sweet things alone.
Lemon Risotto from

(Note: A reposting from our class blog A Tale of Ten Slugs.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Seahorse Shape Explained as Stealth-Attack Adaptation

According to a new explanation of seahorse shape, those distinctive S-curve bodies let them reach further than straight-bodied ancestors.

Compared to tube-shaped pipefish, their closest relatives, seahorses extend their snouts an extra 30 percent. The difference is only a few millimeters, but for animals with a strike range of a centimeter or two, it’s a big advantage.

“This makes them stealthier and sneakier hunters,” said Lara Ferry, an Arizona State University ecomorphologist who co-authored the study, published Jan. 25 in Nature Communications. “Their prey is less likely to spot them coming, and they are less likely to miss a meal.”

To test the link between shape and hunting ability, Ferry’s team created a computer model predicting the movements of seahorses and pipefish. By tweaking the features of the model fish, they could estimate how body curvature affected range. They verified their results with high-speed video of seahorses and pipefish feeding.

The videos were needed, Ferry said, because the naked eye can’t see seahorses feed. They’re among the fastest eaters known.

“From the time they spot prey and open their mouth, to the time the shrimp is completely devoured, is only four milliseconds,” said Ferry.

Seahorses rely on stealth attack because they’re poor swimmers. While most fish, pipefish included, swim towards their prey, seahorses hide in sea grasses or corals, hang on with a prehensile tail, and wait for tiny shrimp to float by. To prepare for a strike, they tense their muscles and — like a stretched sling-shot — snap forward. (Watch video from Nature’s website.)

Seahorses are also unusual for being monogamous, and are among the only species in which males bear young.

(Read the original post and see more seahorse photos on 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why canned beer is better: This day in history

My piece on This Day in Tech, from

Jan. 24, 1935: First Canned Beer Sold

1935: The first canned beer in the United States goes on sale in Richmond, Virginia. By the end of the year, 37 breweries follow the lead of the Gottfried Krueger Brewery.

The American Can Co. began experimenting with canned beer in 1909. But the cans couldn’t withstand the pressure from carbonation — up to 80 pounds per square inch — and exploded. Just before the end of the Prohibition in 1933, the company developed a “keg-lining” technique, coating the inside of the can the same as a keg.

Krueger had been brewing beer since the mid-1800s, but had suffered from the Prohibition and worker strikes. When American Can approached with the idea of canned beer, it was initially unpopular with Krueger execs. But American Can offered to install the equipment for free: If the beer flopped, Krueger wouldn’t have to pay.

So, in 1935 Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer were the first beers sold to the public in cans. Canned beer was an immediate success. The public loved it, giving it a 91 percent approval rating.

Compared to glass, the cans were lightweight, cheap, and easy to stack and ship. Unlike bottles, you didn’t have to pay a deposit and then return the cans for a refund. By summer Krueger was buying 180,000 cans a day from American Can, and other breweries decided to follow.

The first cans were flat-topped and made of heavy-gauge steel. To open, a hole had to be punched in the top with the sharp end of a church-key style opener.

Some breweries tried out cans with conical rather than flat tops, but they didn’t stack and ship as easily. Cone tops were sealed with a crown cap just like the cap of a glass beer bottle.

Canning was interrupted between 1942 and 1947 to devote resources to World War II. Aluminum cans, cheaper and lighter still, were introduced in 1958.

Beyond their economy and convenience, cans are actually better for beer than glass bottles. This isn’t the heresy it sounds. Beer’s main enemies are light, oxygen and heat. A can’s complete opacity blocks out the light that can make a beer taste “skunked.”

Beer becomes skunked or “light-struck” when light splits its riboflavin, a type of B vitamin. The ruptured riboflavin can react with isohumulones, chemicals that come from hops and help beer taste bitter. The resulting molecule is similar in shape and smell to the musk sprayed by skunks. That’s why most microbreweries sell beer in dark brown bottles or, increasingly, in beer cans.

Source: various
Image: C-Monster/Flickr

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gallery on Wired Science: 8 Beautiful Bioluminescent Creatures From the Sea

Atolla, a deep sea jelly fish. Image Steve Haddock, MBARI.

While a handful of land animals can create their own light, homemade luminescence is the rule rather than the exception in the open ocean's dark waters.

Researchers estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of deep-dwelling animals are bioluminous, creating light by mixing the pigment luciferin with luciferase, the enzyme that makes it glow. The light tends to green and blue, colors that travel far in seawater. Glowing helps attract mates, lure prey or confound predators.

Many of these animals live thousands of meters deep and are difficult for scientists to find and study. Here are some of the prettiest — and strangest — glowing creatures of the seas.

Check out the rest at Wired Science.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

First day at I survived

All a twitter with excitement, I lived through my first day at, in spite of the jitters. What for me was a momentous day, was routine for everyone there. Interns, I gather, cycle pretty regularly through the offices -- we're a cheap and eager source of labor. But for us, it's a step in the direction of our aspirations. It doesn't matter that we're a dime a dozen. It is *our* dime that is in the pot of change.

To my editor's credit, she gave me an easy assignment and a early deadline immediately. So, prior to lunch on my first day, I already had my first bylined piece on the site. Read it here or see it below!

The Earth-orbiting satellite Hinode caught this stunning video of the annular solar eclipse Jan. 4.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon is slightly farther from Earth than usual and appears slightly smaller. When it moves between the Earth and sun, it covers the center of the sun, leaving a bright, fiery ring, or annulus, at the edge.

Hinode, a Japanese mission, studies the sun’s magnetic fields and surface eruptions. The satellite carries three NASA-developed telescopes that capture different types of light:
  • The optical telescope sees visible light.
  • The X-ray telescope, which took the video above, can see deep inside the corona.
  • The ultraviolet-light telescope reveals the deep, high-temperature processes that heat the sun’s corona.
This will be a good year for eclipse fans. With four partial-solar and two total-lunar eclipses upcoming, watch for more sun shots.
Video: Hinode/XRT

Happily, I'll be living in San Francisco for the weekends for a little while, at least for this month. I adore this city. I'm working in a cafe called "Nervous Dog Coffee" (doggy treats in a jar by the door), munching on an outrageously delicious Mediterranean turnover, CoCo Rosie is playing on the sound system, and the name of the woman's dog next to me is "Chomsky." It's a quintessential SF moment.