Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus—A Tiny Virus Threatens the World’s Elephants

My favorite ice-breaker of all time is: “List one fact about you that no one would guess”. It is my favorite because I have an awesome answer (if I do say so myself). My go-to answer is: I spent a summer working with elephants.

It was the summer before I graduated from college, and it was really only one elephant, a five-year-old African elephant named Connie. Connie was intelligent, curious and mischievous—her favorite game with me was trying to untie my shoelaces (hint: double knotting is important). Working with her was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and left me with an abiding love for these creatures.

Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesviruses threaten captive breeding programs. Copyright.

Understandably, I was excited last year when one of my fellow bloggers wrote about Promega helping support the work of Virginia Riddle Pearson, who was working to identify and track strains of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) in African Elephant populations. EEHV is associated with the lethal elephant hemorrhagic disease (EHD) (1). This disease is a serious threat to the captive breeding programs of these endangered creatures. Between 1962 and 2007, it accounted for 58% of the deaths of North American captive-born Asian elephants between 4 months and 15 years of age (1). These deaths include the first Asian elephant calves born at the National, Oakland and Bronx Zoos. EHD also claimed the first live-born Asian elephant calves conceived by artificial insemination in both North America and Europe. Continue reading

Coffee and Science–A Cartoon Perspective

Although never actually on the lab bench,  coffee makers have had a prominent place in every laboratory I have worked in. It is because of my laboratory coffee experiences that I am able to drink coffee at any temperature and at any time of the day. The credit for my preference for really strong coffee (with cream, I confess)  goes to two Russian labmates who insisted on making the coffee every morning and went through two bags of beans a week (we had a very wide awake lab).

In all the labs, keeping track of whose turn it was to buy the coffee supplies was just as important as keeping track of whose turn it was to defrost the freezers. I am sorry to say we never thought of a log book because that might have saved me some frantic early morning trips to the store.

Does your lab have coffee rules or traditions? I’d love to hear what they are.

The Bones Didn’t Lie: DNA Proves Viking Warrior was a Woman

There is a grave near the Swedish town of Birka that was the final resting place of a Viking warrior. The grave, called Bj 581, was filled with weapons, including a sword, battle knife, axe, armor-piercing arrows, a spear and two shields as well as a full set of gaming pieces with a board, and the skeletons of two horses—a mare and a stallion. First described in the late 1800s, this grave has been held up as the example of what a Viking warrior burial site would look like because it was so well furnished.

Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 drawn by Hjalmar Stolpe; published in 1889. From Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. et al. (2017) Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 2017, 1–8.

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Five Summer Science Projects that are so Fun Your Kids Won’t Realize They are Learning

It is summer here in Wisconsin and the kids are out of school. If you are like me, you are looking for things to keep them busy and (bonus!) maybe teach them something. Below is a list of relatively easy, do-at-home science projects that can be fun for the whole family to try.

Parental supervision is recommended/required for these. And if you don’t want to worry about major clean up (or repainting walls and ceilings) you might want to do these outside whenever possible. I might be speaking from personal experience on this point, so trust me.

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Rapid DNA Act of 2017: What is It?

On May 16, 2017, the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 (H.R.510 and S.139, respectively). The bill was sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and enjoyed bipartisan support, ending up with seven Republican and five Democratic cosponsors in the Senate, and seventeen Republican and seven Democratic cosponsors in the House. The bill was passed by unanimous consent voice votes in both chambers.

So what is the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 all about?

Simply put, the act will expand the use of rapid DNA technology in law enforcement departments by creating a way for them to use the results they get by connecting them to the FBIs Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Still curious? Read on and you will learn much more about what the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 does and doesn’t do. Continue reading

Surfing the Light Waves: Shrimp, Coral, Turtles and Other Fluorescent Organisms

A branching torch coral, Euphyllia glabrescens.

Have you ever walked on a beach and noticed that the waves seem to glow as they roll onto shore? Perhaps you have seen fish or jellyfish that glow in the dark, or maybe you’ve chased fireflies in your backyard or on a camping trip. These are all forms of luminescence (the production of light without adding heat), but the manner that these organisms produce their light can be quite different. Continue reading

Restoring Memory in Alzheimer’s Mice with Microbubbles and Ultrasound

Neurons with amyloid plaques.

Neurons with amyloid plaques.

Imagine driving in your car and suddenly not recognizing where you, you don’t remember where you were going and have no idea how to find your way home. What if you looked across the breakfast table at your spouse and no longer recognizing them?  Or maybe you have to brace yourself every time you visit your parent, waiting for the day when they won’t know who you are. This is reality for the estimated 50 million (worldwide) Alzheimer’s suffers and their families.

For a world with an aging population, Alzheimer’s is a growing problem. Recent estimates suggest that 11% of people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. For people 85 and older, that number increases to 32% (1).

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating degenerative brain disease. It is the most common cause of dementia, and is characterized by a decline in cognitive skills such as memory, language skills, communication and problem solving abilities. These symptoms make it difficult for people with Alzheimer’s to perform everyday activities. It also is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to treat, and, as of now, impossible to cure. Continue reading

More Than Just a Belt—The Benefits of Practicing Martial Arts

Two years ago my, then ten-year-old, daughter and I started a journey together. We joined a local dojo (karate school). At the time my daughter was still looking for ‘her’ activity, and after trying both girl scouts and 4H as well as several intramural sports, I reached back into her early childhood when she had enjoyed participating in karate classes as a three and four year old. I was hoping to find an activity that we could share (much as her brother and father share camping and outings with Boy Scouts) that we would both find challenging and enjoyable—and maybe part of me had secretly always wanted to be a ninja.

A number of friends, family and even acquaintances have expressed surprise that this was the activity that my daughter and I settled on, or more specifically, that I was taking up karate as an adult. We tend to associate karate with classes of kids in white gis, or with high-intensity, high-level competitive martial artists, which we typically think of as male. But this is not a “kid only” or “male only” sport. According to the New York City-based research firm, Simmons Market Research, over 18.1 million Americans participated in karate or some other form of martial art at least once, and roughly 9.4 million were adults. The study also found that gender is pretty evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Karate is popular globally, with an estimated 50 to 100 million practitioners worldwide (Japan web and World Karate Federation, respectively), and was one of five new sports added to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

karate girl in mirrorMartial Arts Improves Physical and Cognitive Performance in Youth

It is easy to find the reasons why people enroll their children in martial arts training. Participation in karate has been shown to improve physical performance in children and young adults as measured by such things as better coordination, reaction speed time, explosive leg strength and muscle endurance (1, 2). At the same time, children participating in karate also score better than their peers on executive functions, working memory and visual selective attention (1). Karate has also shown promise in helping with behavior issues by improving self-regulation and executive function (3).

When you look at the literature, though, it is clear that the benefits of martial arts such as karate are not limited to children and teens. Continue reading

Plumage Revealed: A 99 Million Year Old Feathered Coelurosaur Tail Trapped in Amber

Touching a Dinosaur—Almost

Imagine holding a 99 million year old feathered dinosaur tail in the palm of your hand. The only thing keeping you from actually touching its feathers? A few centimeters of petrified resin. This was reality for the group of scientists who published their findings about this discovery in the December issue of Current Biology (1).

It all began roughly ninety-nine million years ago when a young coelurosaur met an untimely death. Continue reading

The Birth of a Disease? A New Anthrax-Like Disease Found in Sub-Saharan Africa

It usually starts with one; one dead animal, one sick individual, one case that a doctor thinks is unusual. These are all ways that a new disease makes its presence known. In the case of Bacillus cereus biovar anthracis, it started with a dead chimpanzee (1).  

The wild western chimpanzee was found dead in Côte d’Ivoire in 2001. An investigation led by scientists from the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin identified the pathogenic cause of death to be an atypical B. cereus isolate that caused an anthrax-like disease. Continue reading