They’re Eating WHAT? Understanding Ecosystems Through Weird Meals

A few days ago, while taking an unplanned distraction break on Facebook, I came across a video of an enormous coconut crab attacking a red-footed booby. The footage was captured by a biologist studying crab behavior in the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On this trip he had already confirmed that the monstrous crustaceans snacked on large rats, but he never expected to watch one devour a full bird.
This video sent me on a research journey into other interesting meals discovered by animal researchers. Besides providing sensational headlines about what’s eating what, these studies help us understand everything from nutrient exchange to learned behavior. I’ve compiled a short list of observations and discoveries made in the past few months where researchers have used weird meals to understand complex phenomena. Warning: this might get gruesome! Continue reading

Playing it Forward: Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship and Mentorship

Amani Gillette’s Story

Amani working in the laboratory of Dr. McFall-Ngai’s as a high school Youth Apprentice

Amani Gillette, a junior from LaFollette High School in Madison, started the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP) in Fall Semester, 2010.  An outstanding youth apprentice (YA) throughout her two years in the program, she excelled in both the specialized laboratory course at the BTC Institute and in her work site research under the mentorship of Professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, UW-Madison Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology.  Amani’s characterization of a gene and protein found in a small tropical squid resulted in her first scientific publication and poster presentation.

Fast forward— after receiving a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Michigan Technological University (which included working in a tissue engineering lab and two summers interning at Promega Corporation under the supervision of Dr. Dan Lazar to help develop an assay for autophagy), Amani is now back in Madison. She is in her second year of graduate school and, working with Dr. Melissa Skala at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is currently mentoring Biotechnology YA Ava VanDommelen (senior from DeForest High School). Following in Amani’s footsteps, Ava will present her research nationally this January at the SPIE conference (the International Society of Optics and Photonics). Continue reading

Tick, Tock! The Molecular Basis of Biological Clocks

A long time ago, before the rise of humans, before the first single celled organisms, before the planet even accumulated atmospheric oxygen, Earth was already turning, creating a 24-hour day-night cycle. It’s no surprise, then, that most living things reflect this cycle in their behavior. Certain plants close their leaves at night, others bloom exclusively at certain times of day. Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo every morning, and I’m drowsy by 9:00 pm every night. These behaviors roughly align with the daylight cycles, but internally they are governed by a set of highly conserved molecular circadian rhythms.

Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries relating to molecular circadian rhythms. The official statement from the Nobel Committee reads, “…this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. [They exposed] the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.” What, then, does this self-sustaining clockwork look like? And how does it affect our daily lives (1)?

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Biotechnology in Space: Partnering with the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

The BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) has been a member of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) since 2002. As an educational arm of NASA, the mission of WSGC “is to use the excitement and vision of space and aerospace science to equip the citizens of Wisconsin with the math, science and technology tools they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

Also as noted on WSGC’s website, “The mission of NASA’s Space Grant Program is to contribute to the nation’s science enterprise by funding education, research, and informal education projects through a national network of university-based Space Grant consortia.” Members of these consortia include academic institutions, government agencies, businesses and other educational organizations, such as the BTC Institute.
Of particular relevance to the WSGC/BTC Institute partnership, Space Grant Program goals include working to:

  • Recruit and train professionals, especially women, and underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities, for careers in aerospace related fields.
  • Develop a strong science, mathematics, and technology education base from elementary through university levels.

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Your Kid Can Become a Citizen Scientist with These 7 Apps

Has your kid ever asked you what you do in the lab all day? (“Hmm…good question, what am I doing all day?”) A simplified answer might sound something like this: I observe, ask a question, collect data, and use those data to answer the question (or at least try!). The scientific method may be difficult to explain to a kindergartner, but you can always start by encouraging them to observe the world around them, ask lots of questions—and even help collect data. In fact, with the help of technology, your child can become a scientist without 7 long years in graduate school or ever setting foot in a lab. A “citizen scientist”, that is. All you need is a smart phone. Here is a list of apps that can make your kid, grandma, neighbor, anyone, become a citizen scientist by helping professional scientists collect data for their research. The apps are all free to download, easy to use and have a real impact on the scientific community.

1. iNaturalist:

Are you sick of not knowing the answer when your child asks “What’s this bug?” on a nature walk? You need the iNaturalist app. Here’s how it works: You observe an interesting plant/insect/animal, take a photo, and the app identifies the name of the species and some basic information about it. There is also the option to share your finding with other users and they can suggest an identification. iNaturalist shares your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists understand biodiversity. You can even set up scavenger hunt-like activities: iNaturalist birthday party anyone? Continue reading

A Nickel’s Worth of Free Advice: Biotech and the Law

This year’s participants in Emerging Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering, a two-credit graduate course offered in partnership with the Department of Oncology, UW-Madison, held July 17-21, 2017.

Today’s author extends thanks to Heather Gerard, Intellectual Property Manager, Promega Corporation for contributing her expertise to this post.

Students most often come to the BTC Institute with the primary goal of learning about molecular biology technologies. Our mission is to help them update their experimental tool-box, facilitating more capable studies of DNA, RNA and proteins back in their home laboratories.

But what else do we do? Well, we’re glad you asked. Continue reading

iGEM: Saving the World with Science

The University of Chicago 2016 iGEM team group photo (Photo credit: Julia Byeon)

Every year, groups of teenagers gather together and brainstorm ways to save the world—with science. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to educating young scientists and enhancing open community and collaboration in the field of synthetic biology. They hold a competition every year with hundreds of teams participating from around the world.

Last year, Promega provided cloning reagents to the University of Chicago iGEM team, and they received a bronze medal for their work. We asked two of the team members, Steve Dvorkin and Julia Byeon, about their experience. Steve is a junior and majors in biology; he is co-president of the team this year. Julia recently graduated and works in public policy. Continue reading

CRISPR: Gene Editing and Movie Madness

There are new developments in genetics coming to light every day, each with the potential to dramatically change life as we know it. The increasingly controversial gene editing system, dubbed CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), is at the root of it all. Harnessed for use in genome editing in 20131, CRISPR has given hope to researchers looking to solve various biological problems. It’s with this technology that researchers anticipate eventually having the means to genetically modify humans and rid society of genetic disorders, such as hemophilia. While this is not yet possible, the building blocks are steadily being developed. Most recently, two groundbreaking studies concerning CRISPR have been released to the public. Continue reading

“Reverse” Molecular Reactions in DNA through Mind-Body Interventions

While my morning routine typically only involves a large cup of coffee, increasingly more Americans are beginning their days with a set of sun salutations. Sun salutations are a series of poses originating from yoga, one of the most popular types of mind-body intervention in the United States. Along with yoga, other commonly recognized mind-body interventions (MBI) include meditation, mindfulness, Tai chi, and Qigong. Despite the fact that each of these activities differ in the amount of physical effort required, they all view mental and physical health as single cohesive system.

The influence of overall mind-body intervention on health and wellness is an ancient concept that is now revolutionizing Western medicine. In the past, Western medicine has focused primarily on the health of the physical body. Yoga and meditation were viewed as beneficial, but were less likely to be recommended by clinicians as a method for relief. Now, with recent developments in gene expression analysis techniques, we have a better understanding of biological mechanisms and how they interact with psychological variables. A possible shift in clinician’s philosophies can be seen in the steady rise in the complementary health approaches of yoga, Tai chi, and qi gong1.

To completely understand how MBI affects a person’s health, we must first realize the links between stress and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA refers to the common molecular pattern discovered in individuals facing hardship. Whether it be in the form of diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or the death of a loved one, the characteristics of CTRA stay consistent. CTRA causes an influx in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These neuromodulators then affect the production of transcription factors. Continue reading

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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