So NASA Found Some New Exoplanets…Now What?

34412848-March-8-Planets-600x600-WEBYou have probably heard a lot of excitement over NASA’s recent announcement about the discovery of seven earth-size planets found orbiting around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is part of the constellation Aquarius.

These exoplanets are notable because they exist within the habitable zone of the star (nicknamed Goldilocks planets because this area is not too hot and not too cold) and are probably rocky with the potential to contain water on their surface.

A lot of the enthusiasm revolves around the hope that one of these planets might harbor extraterrestrial life or could be suitable for human inhabitants. Of course, many further observations must be made to determine if these scenarios are plausible, not to mention the huge advances in technology that would need to occur so we could actually verify the planetary conditions or send humans 40 light-years away. Continue reading

Top Science Books of 2016

While I planned to write about New Year’s resolutions for the first Promega Connections blog of 2017, I was sidetracked by some “best of 2016” lists—in particular, best science books. I realized though that these seemingly unrelated ideas overlapped at some level because every year I resolve to find time to read more books. What was once an easy and natural escape for me, like for so many others, reading for fun now requires a bit of effort and prioritization. With the continual distractions of Netflix, social media and online news stories, it’s a challenge to find time to read books the way I once did.

So, in honor of a new year’s resolution do more of what I like and less of what I don’t like, here is a list of what has been deemed the best science books of 2016. I culled through the lists of several of the most reputable science blogs and publications and looked for overlap among them. Between the Science Friday blog, New York Magazine’s blog, The Science of Us, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and the New York Times’ best of 2016 lists there are loads of suggestions to keep you reading until the start of the next decade. Below are eight recommendations that appeared on several “best of” lists. Continue reading

When I Grow Up, I Want To Write #PewPew Hashtags

Artist’s rendering of Curiosity using its ChemCam. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not generally a space nut, but I do get a huge kick out of the work we’ve done to put rovers on Mars. I’ve felt pride and loneliness on behalf of the earlier rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and cheered the unexpected longevity of their missions. They always felt so plucky and can-do; sort of a robotic extension of the American spirit on a daunting new frontier. Who’s a cute little robot pioneer doing incredibly valuable scientific exploration? You are! YOU ARE!

Earlier this month, hours after Mars Curiosity navigated it’s “seven minutes of terror” and successfully landed on the Red Planet, I laid in bed, having just soothed my daughter back to sleep. All that soothing had had the opposite effect on me: I was wide awake. I decided to try to wind myself back down by staring at the small illuminated screen on my phone and catching up on some tweets. What can I say? It makes me drowsy every…single…time…zzzzzzz. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw tweet after tweet from my friends and connections heralding the latest interplanetary achievement by NASA. Curiosity was on the ground! Successfully! They did it! The mood was nothing less than jubilant and awestruck, and I found myself getting completely sucked in. Yeah, this WAS super cool! I mean, we built a SKY CRANE? There was a guy with a MOHAWK? Whooo-hoo! USA! USA! USA! Continue reading

Curiosity Rover on Track for August 5 Landing

[wpvideo kN9KABwW]With the amazing, beyond belief success of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the expectations are high for Curiosity. However, the task is far more difficult. With a much larger rover to land, the landing is more difficult. If you haven’t seen NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, it’s worth a look.

Where will you be on August 5? Will you be awake and holding your breath and watching your twitter feed—looking for the first news of a successful landing from NASA?

Finding Life on Mars May Be Complicated by Microbes Hitching a Ride from Earth

“The Andromeda Strain”, a novel written by Michael Crichton, remains one of my favorite science fiction novels for two reasons (spoiler alert for the plot): The US government deliberately sent objects into space to scoop up extraterrestrial microorganisms and examine their potential to be used as a weapon (with the expected consequences of contaminated space probes falling near human habitats and causing trouble), and the deadly organism infecting humans is stopped in its tracks by the inescapable bounds of its pH requirements exemplified by two survivors in an afflicted town: a crying baby and a Sterno-drinking man. Reality may be a bit different from the novel but the principle is the same: We are launching probes from our planet and sending them to other planetary bodies, sometimes to stay on another planet, sometimes to return to Earth. In both cases, worries about terrestrial organisms contaminating other planets and extraterrestrial organisms contaminating Earth are valid. Because we are sending more and more probes to examine the possibility of life on other planetary bodies, Curiosity being the most recent example, the question remains: How do you adequately test for organisms that may be hitching a ride from Earth into space? Continue reading

A Cure for 1970s-era Sci-Fi Special Effects: NASA’s Image of the Day Gallery

Earth viewed from spaceI enjoy science fiction (sci-fi) movies and television shows and include the original Star Wars trilogy in my top ten list of favorite movies—certainly Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back but less so the Return of the Jedi simply because I find the ewoks more annoying than cute. This choice in entertainment was probably imprinted upon me at an early age. At age 7, I saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as my first movie in a movie theater, and my brothers and I had piles of Star Wars-related toys. Also, I remember watching reruns of the original Star Trek but only when we could get grainy reception of a distant television station. I watched the original Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years and even Pigs in Space on The Muppet Show. It was the late 1970s and 1980s, and I was surrounded by images of space travel, albeit the poor-quality, often cheesy sci-fi images typical of that era.
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Minding the As and P: Can Arsenic Substitute for Phosphorus or Not?

Image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic. Image Credit: Jodi Switzer Blum

Back in December 2010, there was a press conference held by NASA to announce the discovery of a bacterium found in a high salt, high pH lake with high concentrations of arsenic that seemed to have substituted arsenic for phosphorus in the bacterium’s biomolecules. This set off a wave of response in the blogosphere regarding what Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team did nor did not do to confirm arsenic was incorporated into DNA molecules. Controversy ranged from the ability of arsenic to form a stable compound to the types of experiments conducted to confirm incorporation of arsenic into molecules like DNA.

Wolfe-Simon et al. stated they would address all critiques of the Science paper if the critiques were also subject to peer review like their paper titled “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus”. On May 27, Science published eight Letters to the Editor and the Wolfe-Simon et al. response to the critical comments. Continue reading

A Teachable Moment in Science Communication

Girl using microscope in science class, class watching

“Can’t I just be excited about the research?” my colleague asked.

We were discussing the work published by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues in Science (1) that described an arsenic-tolerant bacterium and proposed that this organism was not only sequestering arsenic but also incorporating it into biomolecules in place of phosphorus. The work was preceded by a press release by NASA, was leaked, and picked up by major media outlets like the Associated Press (AP) who got the story wrong. It was embargoed by Science, blogged about heavily in well-respected scientific blogs and lambasted by some within the scientific community. To quote science blogger Alice Bell “that not-an-alien-story really does keep on giving.”

It seems like the web world is full of blistering criticism and staunch defense of this work from both the scientific and the lay communities. Why has this work generated so much controversy?

I think that this “not-an-alien-story” provides an incredibly valuable “teachable moment” for scientists, journalists, and the public as well as the public institutions that fund scientific research. Continue reading

Six Required Elements for Life: C, N, O, S, H, and P. Well, maybe not P.

Image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic. Image Credit: Jodi Switzer Blum

According to James Elser, professor at Arizona State University, the one thing he could always count on telling his students was that “Every living thing uses phosphorus to build its DNA.” After Thurday’s announcement by NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, he will probably be rewriting his lectures.

At a NASA press conference at 1:00 pm, December 2, 2010, Dr. Wolfe-Simon described work by her team to identify organisms that could make interesting elemental substitutions in biomolecules. Specifically the team looked at Mono Lake, located in California, USA in the Eastern Sierra. Mono Lake is representative of an extreme environment because it registers a pH of 10, is three times more salty than sea water, and contains a great deal of arsenic (average = 200µM), a normally toxic element.

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