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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Sep 27, 2018

Science marches forward, but sometimes nations march backward. This is certainly true in recent years with my own country, and we're not alone in our reversion to a lesser form of ourselves. The government of Japan is throwing an international temper tantrum because most of the rest of the world don't want to go back to the awful days of wanton and senseless slaughter of whales for commercial purposes. Yes, we're judging. And the verdict speaks poorly of this great nation. Japan can, and must do better.

On This Week’s Show

  • Science News of the Week
  • The Climate Lounge
  • A****** of the Month
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Dr. Amrita Sule and Chris MacAlister

Skeletal Stem Cells Found In Humans

Amrita Sule

Today’s stem cell story is super exciting because it is the very first time researchers have identified these very specific stem cells in humans, which differentiate into the skeletal cells.

Stem cells have been studied rigorously for their ability to self renew and differentiate into more specialized cells. Stem cells, however, differ in their ability as to what they can do and what they cannot. There are different kinds of stem cells in our body, formed at different times present in different places of the body. It has not been an easy journey to pin down a stem cell type that forms the skeletal tissue like bone and cartilage.

Skeletal stem cells were first identified in a mouse model called the rainbow mice. Well, what is a rainbow mouse? In these mice each type of stem cell was color-coded and its differentiation into different organs or tissues was tracked. How cool is that! However, it is not possible to do this in humans (no rainbow humans).

So instead, the researchers looked at cells which had gene signatures similar to that found in the mice skeletal cells. They worked with fetal bones from the fetuses that were aborted or did not survive. They isolated stem cells from the growth plate which is a region in the bone where new cells are made.

These cells when grown in lab dishes formed new bone and cartilage. Voila!!! We have a bone in a dish! But can these cells form bones or cartilage if we inject them in body?

To test that these stem cells were transplanted under the outer kidney layer.  And yes, they grew into bones and cartilage.

This discovery carried out by Longekar group in Stanford and was published in the journal Cell this past week. These scientists were able to create a family tree for the skeletal stem cells. With skeletal stem cells being at the apex followed by pre BCSP (bone, cartilage stromal progenitor) followed by the BCSP, which then gives rise to the bone, cartilage, and stromal cells, respectively.

This discovery has great implications in diseases like osteoporosis as well as any kind of bone injury and change the field of orthopedics.


Dickinsonia, The Animal Kingdom’s Oldest Member

Chris MacAlister 

Whack on your lipstick, pucker up and lay a wet one on your fridge, a window, a family heirloom or even a total stranger. It doesn’t really matter, provided that you leave a mark. Because if you think about what that distinctive lip mark looks like then you’re also thinking what the fossil remains of a creature called Dickinsonia looked like. Although, at up to a meter long, not even Mick Jagger would be able to make an accurate recreation of one this way.

We have a rich a varied fossil record available to us today but it’s a simple fact is that, the further back in time you go the hazier things get, and this is where Dickinsonia may be of some assistance.

Even though they they lived around 550 million years ago they are now providing some ammunition for a really bad low budget horror flick as in 2016 a naturally mummified Dickinsonia was discovered.

Paleontologists are known to get very excited about fossils, but there’s a whole other level of excitement reserved for mummies. Because whilst bones and hard bits of creatures can tell you a lot, soft, squishy, gooey stuff can tell you so much more and in within mummification, this stuff fossilizes too. For example; within the gooey stuff of this Dickinsonia was a fossil of colesterol.

This may not sound to exciting on the face of things but let me paint the scene because, to be perfectly honest, our knowledge of life at this point of history is pretty lousy. This fossil is from a time before the period known as the Cambrian explosion, where practically every arrangement of life that is familiar to us today first developed. This means that we have virtually no frame of reference for everything existing before and our knowledge is so scant we are struggling to classify things at the kingdom level. The kingdom level! That means that we don’t know whether Dickinsonia was an animal, a fungus or something completely different. But colesterol? Colesterol has only ever been seen within animals, which is the best clue the we have yet as to what is creature actually was.]

Scientific American, Science

This Research Group Seeks To Expose Weaknesses In Science

Amrita Sule

I think we all can agree when I say that one way forward to scientific progress is “transparency”. However, there is an emergent trend where we see falsified data or even poor-quality data which has led to numerable retractions. Several of these retractions were based on the results not being reproducible.

This reproducibility crisis is prevalent in many fields including basic and clinical biology and often the result of poorly designed experiments if studies just attain highest statistical significance. Academicians live by the three words, “publish or perish”, and this is definitely one of the reasons why poor quality studies get published.

The problem being identified, the question is how can we circumvent this? Two psychology researchers Marcel van Assen, Tilburg University and Jelte Wicherts assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam identified this issue in their field when a prominent psychologist Diederik Stapel from Tilburg University confessed of fabricating and faking data for over 15 years.

This was big. But the bigger question was how did everyone miss this? And this is just one person.  More importantly how do we fix this?

These two psychologists pioneered the formation of a group of meta researchers which basically will study how scientists operate. With a grant from the European Research Council they are trying to build software which will allow researchers to analyze their data and reduce the risk of bias at the same time. There exists counterparts of such groups, e.g., the Center For Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the Society For The Improvement Of Psychological Sciences.

One of their projects is call Statcheck. Statcheck can scan papers for statistical significance. Think of it like a mathematical spell check. This algorithm identified that 1 in 8 papers out of around 30,000 it scanned (1985-2013) have errors with regards to statistical significance. And there is a chance that many of these are accidental errors, but they still get published unchecked.

The group wants to study the data published in 200 psychology studies and analyze it in different ways to check if there were any biases when the study was conducted. But the hindrance here is that not all researchers are OK with sharing data. And that will make such a study difficult.  

Many journals now across the different fields are making it mandatory to share data and the number of open-data publications is going higher every day. This brings me back to the point of transparency I started with.   


TESS Spacecraft Has Discovered Its First Alien Worlds

Chris MacAlister 

This story is making me a little nostalgic. I’ve been appearing on this podcast for about about six months now and one of the stories from one of my very early episodes was about the launch of TESS. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was sent to replace the Kepler space telescope as our number one exoplanet spotter and it’s already logged its first find.

The new exoplanet is about 60 light years away, orbiting a star called Pi Mensae.

People often wonder how planets can even be detected around stars many light years away, and there are several methods which can be employed to work this out such as wobbles in the star’s position as the gravity of its planets pull back or dips in the star’s luminosity as a planet passes in front of it. But what gets me is level of detail that can be calculated from this data.

According to the data, this new planet, Pi Mensae C is twice the size of Earth, it orbits its sun every 6.27 days (which would make it a great place to visit if you love New Year) and is probably gaseous, like a mini Neptune. I don’t know about you but that seem ridiculously specific, especially when you consider that these deductions had to take into account the effects of Pi Mensae B. This is the other planet already discovered around this star and one of the biggest planets ever discovered anywhere, 10 times bigger than Jupiter!

The team at NASA thought that it was too good to be true, to find this at pretty much the first thing that the new telescope looked at. But whilst we’re at it; they’ve actually found another one as well!

Forty-nine light years away we now have LHS 3488b, which is 1.3 times the size of Earth and an even better place for fans of New Year as it’s solar orbit lasts only 11 minutes. Those would be some seriously hot parties and I mean literally because surface temperatures there are over 500oC!

So to all of you LHSians out there, Happy New Year!

New Scientist

The Climate Lounge

Life on an Arctic Survey

Tom Di Liberto

Just right off the bat, let me say that anyone trying to pretend that Maria and the poor relief effort afterwards didn’t kill thousands of people is a dumb***. Moving on.

This week in the climate lounge, I’m taking you someplace really really cool. So cool, it’s cold. How cold is it? Cold enough to serve as the desolate remote outpost for research surveys into the Arctic. I’m talking about Station Nord, a itty bitty military outpost of the Danish military in northeastern Greenland 575 miles from the geographic North pole. Like imagine a map of Greenland. Imagine a place really far north of on that map. Great. No go farther north. That’s where Station Nord is. And that’s where science happens, so lets learn how.

Now Global warming has so many canaries in a coal mine that that damn coal mine is basically a bird exhibit at a zoo. But a number of those canaries are wearing their best down jackets high in the Arctic. #1 among them is the state of Arctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice extent is rapidly dwindling over the last 30 years (13% by decade), no doubt due to the fast rising global temperatures which are amplified in the Arctic. But another thing that is incredibly important is sea ice volume or how thick the ice is. Thinner ice breaks up easier. And knowing the location of the thicker ice can let scientists know if the winds are blowing old thick ice out into the open ocean to melt or not. But measuring thickness from satellites has its flaws, especially in the summer months when ice is melting. There is a need for on location monitoring. And that’s where Station Nord fits in.

Since 2011, scientists from the Alfred Wegener institute have been using Station Nord and placing sensors on a souped-up DC3 airplane and flying over the arctic measuring ice thickness

Station Nord is staffed by six soldiers on two year tours. From October through March they are alone except for the companionship of two dogs who help alert everyone to the presence of polar bears. Scientists begin to show up in late Winter into early Spring. The Wegener institute scientists (a total of nine people) showed up in late July and August. But a lot of their time was spent waiting for the right weather window to fly their planes. In total they made only nine flights which was pretty good actually. But means there is a lot of down times. So what do you do in the middle of nowhere? What happens in station Nord does not stay there because that’s a horrible way of thinking about anything and no location, however remote should allow for things to occur that never get out.

There are weird rituals. Every Saturday for instance, everyone has to wear a tie when going to dinner. They also host an Arctic/Greenland style medieval games complete with jousting while riding in the bucket of  carrier bike while people scream and blow horns in their ears. Oh and somehow they have a pig roast once a year. They actually transport a whole hog to the far north. In between doing science of course.

So I guess it could be worse but still this is a harsh harsh environment that scientists put themselves in for weeks or months at a time to tell us the latest news from the arctic. Away from their families, away from their friends, away from civilization. But sometimes, things are worth that struggle. At least they aren’t the military folks stuck there for 2 years!

NY Times

A****** of the Month

Dateline - FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZIL – Japan’s attempt to resume unabated commercial whale hunting was rejected earlier this month by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Masaaki Taniai, vice minister for fisheries in Japan, said he “regretted” the vote’s outcome Friday and threatened Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC.

Anti-whaling nations led by Australia, the European Union and the United States defeated Japan’s “Way Forward” proposal in a 41-27 vote.

The IWC was set up in 1946 to conserve and manage the world’s whale and dolphin populations. They began a moratorium on commercial whale killing in 1986 after some species, such as humpbacked whales had been slaughtered to near extinction.

Currently Japan ostensibly observes the moratorium but takes advantage of a loophole to kill hundreds of whales every year for “scientific purposes”, and then that whale meat ends up on dinner plates.

So, the IWC adopted Brazil’s “Florianopolis Declaration,” which envisions whale protection in perpetuity...which I’m sure pisses off those who want to return to commercial whale slaughter.

The “Florianopolis Declaration,” is currently non-binding, but anti-whaling nations herald it as an important indicator of the IWC’s future direction.

Kitty Block, head of Humane Society International, said “the IWC’s moral compass” had led it to reject Japan’s proposal. “It’s clear from exchanges this week that those countries here fighting for the protection of whales are not prepared to have the IWC’s progressive conservation agenda held hostage to Japan’s unreasonable whaling demands.”

So, the government of Japan, for your petulant response, and threatening to leave the IWC and to resume the slaughter of are the Blue Streak Science A****** of the Month.

Pub Quiz

  1. How long can a sperm whale stay underwater on one breath?
  2. Give me one good reason that scientists believe whales were once land-based animals?
  3. What is the name given to a method employed by many whales to find prey and locate obstacles in the water using sound waves?
  4. How are whales able to eat while submerged without drowning?
  5. When a person observes a whale spout, what can they tell about the whale that created it?
  6. What is a baleen?
  7. What species of whale has the nickname “sulfur bottom”?

In Next Week’s Episode

In next week’s episode we’ll be talking about the one year anniversary of the wildfires in northern California. It was in the early hours of 9 October in 2017 that the single most devastating wildfire in the history of California changed the lives of so many people, including yours truly.

So be sure to tune in to next week’s episode, number 88.

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Amrita Sule, Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember...follow the science!