Author: Shweta Ramdas
Editors: Charles Lu, Whit Froehlich, and Scott Barolo
Last year, when I pooh-poohed my mother’s alternative medicine regimen, she said, “But these actually work well for me, because I believe in them!” My mother had just outsmarted me with science.
The placebo effect is one of the most remarkable yet least understood phenomena in science. It is a favorable response of our body to a medically neutral treatment (sugar pills, anybody?): in other words, a placebo is a fake treatment that produces a very real response. This is attributed to a physical reaction stemming from a psychological response to the administration of therapy. You could say that a patient sometimes gets better anyway—how many times have we waited out the common cold—and you would be right. This natural return to the baseline which can happen is not considered the placebo effect, which is an improvement in response to a treatment.
Editors: Theresa Mau, Alex Taylor, and Kevin Boehnke
What exactly separates us from other animals? For that matter, what makes any species or group of species special? How is life so diverse? How can cephalopods camouflage themselves so well, and how did platypuses become so bizarre?
Part of the answer is in genes. Genes are sections of DNA that perform a specific function, usually after being translated into proteins by special cellular machinery. Every species has genes that code for proteins, but different species have different numbers of genes. Humans have around 20,000, fruit flies have around 18,000, and the tiny water-flea has around 31,000 genes. Different sets of genes produce animals with different structures and functions.
Editors: Alex Taylor, Christina Vallianatos, and Bryan Moyers
In 2001 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists, Leland Hartwell, Tim Hunt and Paul Nurse, for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle. Normally, before a cell can divide, it must undergo several phases of the cell cycle in a precise order. First, a cell grows in size, then duplicates its DNA, and finally distributes its DNA evenly between two daughter cells. The three researchers played seminal roles in identifying the mechanisms by which cells transition from one cell cycle phase to the next.
These fundamental discoveries are not only crucial to our understanding of biology, but have applications in human disease. Many types of cancer are linked to mutations that cause cells to move quickly through or even skip some parts of the cell cycle, making cell cycle regulation a hot area of biological research. Given the implications this research has for human health, it might surprise you that many cell cycle regulators were not first discovered in humans. Instead, these cell cycle regulators were identified and characterized in model organisms including yeast and sea urchins.
“But what do I have in common with the yeast I use to bake bread?” you might ask. As it turns out, a lot more than you’d think.
Editors: Molly Kozminsky, Christina Vallianatos, Bryan Moyers
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years, you have definitely come across headlines to the tune of “Researchers Find Gene for X”, where X can be anything from happiness, to political affiliation, to your preference for cilantro. There are quite a few people who respond to these studies with “but surely that’s not genetic!” I work on the genetics of psychiatric disorders and have fielded this question from most people with whom I discuss my research: “Isn’t something like depression just caused by things that happen to you or your upbringing? Why do we place the blame on genetics instead?”
The team at MiSciWriters certainly finds cephalopods fascinating, and we aren’t alone. Last year, the octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) was added to the growing list of organisms whose genome sequence is known.
Octopuses belong to a class of organisms called cephalopods, which literally means ‘head-feet’ (members of the cephalopod family have a head and tentacles or arms). These tentacles enable the creatures to do some very clever maneuvering, such as escaping their aquariums to eat crabs outside their tanks. It’s no surprise then that these are the most intelligent amongst invertebrates and now new information about the octopus genome can tell us more about these fascinating creatures.
Editors: Molly Kozminsky, Jimmy Brancho, Kevin Boehnke
Harry Potter has his mother’s eyes. From his father, James, he inherits his black hair, his ability to play Quidditch, and a certain predisposition to mischief. We are all unique combinations of our parents, receiving half our DNA from each. In the genetic lottery, our parents’ genes are scrambled and spliced to create a new individual who carries on the family’s long tradition of snoring into one’s sheets. But besides a rickety knee, shortness of stature, and preferred pizza toppings, what else can we blame on our parents?
Editors: Ada Hagan, Alisha John, Bryan Moyers, and Irene Park
Google “diet for pregnant or nursing mothers”, and you’ll be swamped with web pages recommending foods that help the baby and foods to avoid. There has been considerableresearch indicating that the diet of pregnant mothers can affect the child’s health (including risk for schizophrenia). But how? And are these effects long-lasting, or do they wear off once the child hits adulthood?