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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An Unexpected History Lesson

Hillside Trail, Muir Woods National Monument

Hiking the Hillside Trail in Muir Woods National Monument

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

–Woodie Guthrie

When my daughter was in preschool, she learned the lyrics to Woodie Guthrie’s folk song This Land Is Your Land. After one summer vacation, while she played in the Gulf stream waters off the coast of Florida, she asked, “Can we go see the Redwood Forest now?”

I had never seen the Redwood Forest, and my daughter’s request piqued my curiosity. I thought about my own childhood, when I had accompanied my older sister on a botany class project to collect plants and how curious I was about the plants and where they grew and what their names meant. Suddenly I wanted to see the Redwoods, and the Giant Sequoias.

It took a few years, but we managed to design a vacation trip that satisfied my daughter’s request to see the Redwood Forest and my growing curiosity, and I am so glad we did.  Continue reading

A Successful Launch for Biotechnology: The Basics for Middle School Teachers

Megan Wagner (left) and Katie Aliota, science teachers from Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School in Sun Prairie, WI; load an agarose gel with colored dyes.

Megan Wagner (left) and Katie Aliota, science teachers from Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School in Sun Prairie, WI; load an agarose gel with colored dyes.

Today’s blog is jointly written by guest blogger  Peter Kritsch, Biotechnology and Biology Teacher at Oregon High School and contributor Barbara Bielec. K-12 Program Director at the BTC Institute.

The BTC Institute has offered two graduate-level courses for high school teachers for many summers.  Biotechnology: The Basics and Biotechnology: Beyond the Basics have become very popular and are also drawing the interest of middle school teachers.  So, this June we piloted a new 3-day course designed specifically for them.  Representing different schools and districts, eight teachers learned how to extract DNA from strawberries, pour and run agarose gels, identify a taste gene, and received information on lots of resources to use with their students.

Through the BTC Institute’s Biotechnology Teacher Academy, these courses are offered at no cost and $300-$500 stipends are available.  A main Academy goal is to provide high quality professional development opportunities that prioritize content that participants can smoothly incorporate into their classrooms.   Our commitment to stipends is generously supported by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC), Promega Corporation, Madison College and the BTC Institute.  (All three courses are offered for graduate credits from Edgewood College, and Viterbo University also offers credits for the two geared to high school teachers.)

The importance of this approach is affirmed by Sherry Jacobsen (Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, WI):

This [course] is such a gift to teachers!  Many times we aren’t treated as professionals so it was nice to be treated as a professional without a high personal cost.  I love how the course is so practical.  Many courses are only in theory and no application.  I can take so many useful ideas with me.

Biotechnology is making its way into the middle school classroom. With access to the BTC Institute’s Equipment Loan Program, teachers can check out micropipettes, gel boxes & power supplies, an ultraviolet light box and other equipment for up to two weeks.  Course participant Amy Reimer (Core Knowledge Middle School in Verona, WI), has already taken advantage of this program and noted that it was “great to review procedures” through the course and plans to borrow equipment again this coming year. Continue reading