Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Misconception about Science

What is a scientist like? Typically, they are mathematical, methodical, and logical; however, the general consensus seems to be that because of this, scientists also lack the ability to be creative and imaginative. There is a widely held believe that science does not require these traits in a person because science itself is purely procedural. This is simply not true. Science absolutely requires creativity and imagination; otherwise, no discoveries or progress would ever be made.
Regarded by many as a significant “turning point in human history,” the discovery of penicillin demonstrates how science involves creativity and imagination (Markel). The bacteriologist Dr. Alexander Fleming was studying colonies of Staphylococcus aureus in 1928 when he realized that his samples had been contaminated by mold. If science were strictly procedural in nature, Fleming would likely have scrapped these contaminated specimens and started over. Because it is not, Fleming carefully examined the mold instead. Fleming observed that the mold prevented the normal growth of the bacteria, effectively discovering the world’s first antibiotic. It’s good that he did; penicillin has saved countless people from early deaths due to bacterial endocarditis, meningitis, pneumococcal pneumonia, and other diseases (Kalvaitis). This incredibly important discovery only occurred because one scientist had the creativity to try what had yet to be tried before.
Creativity and imagination is required, not only in the designing of experiments that lead to important discoveries, but also in the reasoning and synthesis of evidence that lead to the formation of important scientific theories. The theory of evolution, or “the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits,” is a prime example of this (Than). Today, this theory is so widely accepted that it is taught in schools, but there was a time when it was not. Before Darwin’s Origin of Species, Creationism was the prevailing belief. Darwin had to have the imagination to think up this theory, and the creativity to collect and assemble the evidence to support it, such as fossil records and the variation in populations of Galapagos finches.
Another such theory is the Endosymbiotic Theory. This theory “describes how a large host cell and ingested bacteria could...become dependent on one another for survival, resulting in a permanent relationship” (University of Utah). Specifically, it claims that mitochondria and chloroplasts were once bacteria. This is a quite a weighty claim to make, but there is a wealth of evidence to support it: both organelles contain their own DNA; both organelles produce many of the proteins they need themselves; both organelles reproduce independently, etc. There was no precedent for this theory. Prior to it, the general belief was of “Modern Synthesis,” which “stated that natural selection and mutation were the driving force behind the evolution of eukaryotic cells and new species” (The Endosymbiotic Hypothesis). If scientists were not creative or imaginative, the original theory would have remained predominant, because no one would think to question it or combine the evidence in such a way as to lead them to this theory.

For many people, the mention of science calls to mind their high school days of experiments and lab reports. They likely remember gathering the materials on their lists, following the steps in their procedures, and answering the questions provided about the results. Because their personal experiences with science did not involve much creativity or imagination, they think that all areas of science are like this. However, where do these people think those materials lists, procedures, and questions came from? Someone had to have come up with them, and use their own imagination and creativity to do so. This is the true nature of science.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Entry Three: The Greenland Shark

     The ocean is truly the last frontier; it's amazing that in 2016, there are still secrets yet to be discovered in its depths. Although the existence of Greenland sharks was not one of these secrets, their mind-boggling lifespan was. While scientists apparently suspected it, as Peter Bushnell said in the article, it was only recently discovered that these sharks may live between 272 and 500 years.
     As exciting as it is, the discovery itself doesn't seem likely to have any great impact on the scientific community. Rather, this discovery presents an opportunity for scientists to use their problem-solving skills and perhaps come up with answers that could be applied to other areas of study too. For instance, in order to come up with the number 272, the scientists had to find a way of dating the shark. Generally, one can "count layers of calcified tissues...on a fish's fin scales or other bony structures," but the anatomy of this particular shark did not allow for this method. The scientists were forced to come up with another way of dating the shark: measuring the level of carbon-14 in its eyes. I was very impressed by the scientists' creativity; I knew that carbon dating was used by archaeologists to date artifacts, but would never have thought to use it for this purpose.
     In addition to allowing scientists a chance to flex their creative muscles, this discovery also opened up areas for future study. One of the scientists who worked on this study, Julius Nielsen, now wants to learn more about the Greenland shark, such as how it catches prey and where it mates. I agree that these would be interesting areas of study; however, I am puzzled as to why Nielsen so quickly dismisses the question of how the shark is able to live so long. Nielsen is focused on the behavior of the shark, while another scientist, Mario Baumgart, wants to know the shark's inner secrets, whether it has any "particular quirks or molecular tricks." Personally, I would be like Baumgart and would be more interested in investigating further the mystery of the Greenland shark's lifespan.
     Lastly, I was very interested in the idea that, since the sharks don't reach sexual maturity until age 150, the species could be wiped out by "a century of heavy fishing." To me, this sounds like a huge weakness and I wonder what the purpose is for this extremely delayed maturity. The fact that the sharks don't reproduce until they are so old seems to go against much of what we have learned already in biology regarding survival of the fittest. (I wonder how the Greenland sharks have survived as a species this far!) I think, in addition to exploring what makes the sharks live so long, it would be worthwhile to investigate their birth and death rates and how those are likely to be affected by new fishing practices--the article mentions--may arise from climate change.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Entry Two: CRISPR

I found this topic fascinating. Ever since the concepts of genes and DNA were discovered, scientists have wondered if humanity’s greatest ailments (such as cancer) could be cured, not by foreign treatments, but through the careful manipulation of the body’s natural defense mechanisms. It seems as if the CRISPR gene editing technique could be the method scientists could use to finally do this.
The way CRISPR works reminds me of the restriction enzyme lab we did in Biology class: an enzyme “snips” the chromosome at a specific site to cut out the targeted gene. In this case, the particular gene codes for the protein PD-1, which controls cells’ immune response. This is supposed to encourage healthy cells to attack cancerous cells; thus, using the body’s own tools to destroy the threat.
In theory, it seems like it is the perfect solution; however, there is room for some very serious error, as the article mentions. It could have a disastrous effect if the chromosome is cut in the incorrect spot. That’s why scientists “validate” the cells to be certain that the correct gene was removed. When I came to this part in the article, I became both intrigued and confused. I wished that the article had gone into more depth on how cells are validated. It seems impractical for the scientists to check the genes within each individual cell, so I wonder how it is actually done. Is there some actually efficient way in which the scientists are able to check many cells at once? Even if the CRISPR technique does work, the only way that it could become a viable option for the treatment of cancer and other conditions is if it is not so inefficient as to make it exorbitantly expensive (time is money to scientists and doctors!) I am very interested to hear more about this topic in the future as the clinical trials progress and more research is done.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Entry One: Hybrid Animals

          My initial reaction to this article, besides thinking that 'grolar bears' sounded like 'granola bears', was surprise. Shultz's main point was that hybridization like that between polar and grizzly bears is unlikely to occur in abundance in the upcoming years as Earth's climate changes. He cited a study in Nature Climate Change that simulated the migration patterns of animals in response to climate change, which found that "only 6.4% of species are expected to come into geographic contact with a hybridization possibility by the end of the century." Specifically, the findings were that birds had an 11.6% overlap, mammals, 4.4%, and amphibians, 3.6%, and that 85% "of all future hybrid meet-ups occurred in the tropics." I would have guessed these percents to be higher, when even these ones are probably too high, Shultz says, because they don't take into account man-made barriers that would obstruct animal migration.
          This article reminds me of discussions we had in Biology class about diversity and variation. For a species to survive, there must be genetic variation among the population. I wonder if hybridization between two closely related species, such as the polar and grizzly bear, would help or hurt the survival chances of the species. On the one hand, hybridization could introduce new genes into the population, therefore bolstering it against complete decimation by a single change in the environment. On the other hand, isn't it possible that hybrid animals could have mutations or be unable to reproduce and further the species, and therefore hybridization would actually hurt survival chances? I'm not sure. By the way Shultz writes about this topic, it seems as if he believes hybridization would be bad, because his tone seems relieved that the predictions for future hybridization incidences are so low.