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Rajini Rao
Life is an experiment. Experiments are my life.
Life is an experiment. Experiments are my life.


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Denmark: one week, two conferences

The first was on acid-base regulation and proton transport, 49th in a series that was first organized by legendary Danish scientists Hans Ussing and Nobelist Jens Skou. The Ussing chamber is a classical apparatus used to measure electrical current across a layer of cells known as epithelium, as a proxy for the ions that are transported in and out of the cells. Skou discovered one of the most important of these transporter proteins, known as the sodium pump. The meeting was held at the historic Sandbjerg estate, near Sonderburg, which dates back to the 16th century and eventually ended up with the family of author Isak Dinesan (real name, Karen Blixen) of Out of Africa fame ( It is now owned by Aarhus University, to the enjoyment of lucky researchers! The second conference was to celebrate the achievements of a colleague, Poul Nissen, structural biologist extraordinaire, of Aarhus University. Poul received the Novo Nordisk prize for his beautiful atomic structures of ion pumps, including the sodium pump that was discovered by Jens Skou. We stayed at Norsminde Kro (Kro=inn) and the science talks were at Mosegaard museum. Back to Aarhus, where the sun barely sets, before heading back home.
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Yesterday, on Earth Day, tens of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts across the world took to the streets to march for science in an unprecedented show of solidarity. We came wearing white lab coats, pink knit brain caps and costumes. We sang, chanted and cheered. We carried signs that were prophetic, political, nerdy, funny, witty and even obscure. Here are some of my favorite signs and photographs from various marches. Thanks to +Chris Robinson for marching with me in Chicago, where we were both attending our respective science conferences, and taking some great photographs. Tell us if you marched (and where) and feel free to post photos of your favorite signs in the comments!
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Earth Day: When is Green NOT Good?

Algal Art What is the mysterious 3D whorl in this latest addition to Art or Science ? Look closer and there seems to be a scratch in top center..and is that a white speck of dust marring your monitor?

You may be surprised to learn that these delicate green swirls are an aerial view of a giant algal bloom floating in the Baltic Sea, captured by the orbiting satellite Sentinel-2A. The white speck heading into the "eye of the storm" is a ship. You can see the ship's "wake", caused by the propeller's cutting through the floating algae as a straight dark line.

Annie, Fannie and Mike: They seem friendly enough, but these are actually nicknames for three types of cyanobacteria that account for the vast majority of algal blooms world-wide: Anabaena, Aphanizomenon, and Microcystis. Caused by eutrophication of water from fertilizer dumping, what could be bad about these temporary blooms of harmless sounding photosynthesizing microorganisms?  "Annie" and "Fannie" produce toxins that attack your nervous system. "Mike" makes microcystin, one of the most potent toxins on the planet. Even inhaling a few droplets of contaminated water can make you nauseous and dizzy, and larger doses kill. They grow best in warm water with lots of nutrients. Thanks to warming climate and fertilizer run offs, algal blooms are on the rise, starting as early as March and April.

As algal blooms grow, others die. Bacteria divide quickly, using up the oxygen supply. Fish and aquatic life are starved of oxygen. This leads to dead zones. Scientists are combating algal blooms through innovative strategies. One way is artificial destratification by mixing up upper, warm layers with deep, cooler water using propellers. This effectively starves algae and cyanobacteria of nutrients and light. Another way is biomanipulation by introducing aquatic plants that compete with algae or predatory fish that eat other plankton eating fish. Sadly, support for this research is at an all time low. That's why we #MarchForScience today. Show your support for #EarthDay and support science!


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Olympic Gold..or....Green?

♒ We know that green is Brazil's favorite color, and the Olympics are trying to Go Green for the environment, but even so, the overnight change in color of the Olympic swimming pool from an azure blue to murky green took scientists and sportsmen by surprise. While officials hastened to assure athletes that the green waters posed no health threat, the mystery caused much speculation. Caipirinha-flavored Soylent? Stiffed by Trump’s pool cleaning service? Who peed in the water?

♒ “Midafternoon, there was a sudden decrease in the alkalinity in the diving pool, and that’s the main reason the color changed,” said Mario Andrada, a Rio 2016 spokesman. So, the pool became more acidic. But acidic water is not green. There are two likely explanations: first, excess copper in the water can turn it green, but not murky. The latter is caused by a sudden and rapid growth of algae, triggered by the warm weather, lack of wind, insufficient chlorine and ineffective filters.

♒ Algal spores can enter the water inadvertently, carried by wind, rain and contaminated swimsuits. When the conditions are right, they can "bloom" overnight. Because these algae are visible only under the microscope, there must be millions of them in the water to change the pool color from blue to green. One way to deal with them, after normalizing the pH, is *superchlorination*—aka shocking them with high levels of chlorine. Not all the Olympians are complaining: Canadian divers said that the contrast with the sky helped them win the bronze.

♒ Pix: The Olympic diving pool on August 8 (left) and the Olympic diving pool on August 9 (right) Image: AP

#rioolympics2016   #swimming  

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Eye See You: Moving Retina in Jumping Spiders

⦿ Jumping spiders (Salticidae) don't use a web to catch prey. Instead they locate, stalk and mount a jumping ambush when they are 1-2 cm away. To do this, they need to detect and then evaluate objects so they don't confuse a potential mate as prey! Fortunately, jumping spiders have among the sharpest vision among invertebrates.

⦿ Unlike insects, spiders don't have compound eyes. Instead their 8 "simple" eyes point forward (for high focus) and sideways (to detect motion). Strategically, this is similar to the division of labor in our eyes: we detect peripheral vision at the edges of our retina with low resolution but wide field of view, and sharp images at the fovea in the center of the retina, which is packed with a high density of vision receptors, but has a limited field of view. Since the spider's large central eyes are set close together and have a limited field of view, they must be moved to point the fovea towards the object. How do they do this?

⦿ Involuntary leg movements are triggered by stimuli from the lateral eyes to reposition the body. However, the spider cannot swivel its whole eyeball as we do, because the lens is built into the carapace, or outer skeleton. Instead, a set of six muscles moves the retina: up and down, sideways and rotationally, while the lens stays fixed. In a transparent spider, you can see the unusual movements of the retina in the tube-like principle eyes. Just one more addition to the cuteness quotient of these tiny spiders! 

REF: M.F. Land (1969) Movements of the retinae of jumping spiders (Salticidae: Dendryphantinae) in response to visual stimuli.

Video Source: Yellow amycine jumping spider from Ecuador,

GIF Source:
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Red, White and Grape: From Jumping Genes to Wrapping Leaves

Red or White? Even King Tutankhamun (1332-1322 B.C.) prudently stashed away amphorae of both red and white wines to enjoy in the afterlife. Biochemically, a single class of pigments found in grape skin, the anthocyanins, separates the red from white. White grapes arose from their wild, dark berried ancestors by not one, but two rare and independent genetic events: either one alone would not have given us the white grape. In fact, all ~3000 white cultivars today carry these same gene disruptions, pointing back to a common ancestor that arose millennia ago. The disrupted genes code for transcription factors, aka master regulators of biochemical pathways that can turn other genes on or off.

Science sleuths have peeked back into the gene history of Vitis vinifera to figure this out.

First, the MybA gene duplicated, giving two side-by-side copies, both active in making anthocyanins and red berries. Somewhere along the way, one of them, the MybA2 gene accumulated two mutations (depicted as stars) that rendered the resulting protein non-functional.

Independently, a “jumping gene” or retrotransposon, (green triangle) landed within the adjacent backup gene MybA1, knocking it out as well. The resulting plant, termed heterozygous, still bore red berries, because the unmutated genes on the other chromosome were active. Eventually, two heterozygous plants bred together and some offspring received both chromosomes with two nonfunctional MybA genes.

Voila, white grapes!

If you’ve ever snacked on delicious dolmas, then you know that the goodness of the grape vine goes beyond berries. Legend has it that the gods of Mount Olympus feasted on the tender leaves of the grape wrapped around morsels of rice or meat, alongside ambrosia and nectar! Although stuffed grape leaves are common around the Mediterranean, Greeks claim that dolmades were co-opted by the army of Alexander the Great to parcel out limited rations of meat during the seige of Thebes.  Luckily, you only need to lay seige on your local Middle Eastern grocery store to find jarred leaves, preserved in brine. Unfurl them gently and give them a good wash to get started. It doesn’t hurt to have a glass of your favorite vintage, red or white, on hand before embarking on this project!

For the recipe on stuffed rice dolmas, visit my blog at:

REF:White grapes arose through the mutation of two similar and adjacent regulatory genes. Walker et al., 2007
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Owl Be Seeing You

It's time for the #SuperbOwl and #ScienceSunday

Did you know that the eyes of an owl are 5% of its body weight? Imagine Peyton Manning with eyes the size of a baseball.. Their large pupils dilate at night, harvesting more light to be captured by an abundance of rods, specialized for night vision. Their eyes don't have as many cone cells as we do, so their color vision is not that great. But they can see up to 100 times better than the Broncos at night! 

How does the owl rotate its head without wringing its neck? An owl has twice as many vertebrae compared to the 7 in humans, giving it a 270 degree flexibility, without tearing the delicate blood vessels in their necks and heads, and cutting off blood supply to their brains.. That's because unlike human vertebrae, the vertebrae of the owl have large cavities, about ten times the diameter of the vertebral artery that goes through, allowing for plenty of slack. The artery also enters the cervical vertebrae at a higher point, for more freedom of movement. It is heavily networked so that blood supply to the brain and eyes is not interrupted by twisting of the neck even if one route is blocked. Astonishingly, the blood vessels at the neck became wider as they branched, in contrast to that of mere humans, where they get smaller and narrower. 

Read More: Research by +Michael Habib  and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University on the mystery of the Owl's neck. This award winning study was featured in Science magazine and may be the first use of angiography, CT scans and medical illustrations to unravel the mystery of the magnificent owl. 

For +rare avis  who wanted to know about the #SuperbOwl :)
Image Source: Northern Hawk Owls
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Why are there "dew drops" at the tips of leaf veins?

❦ Have you ever seen clear orbs of water glisten along a leaf edge? You may have mistaken them for dew drops, which are caused by moisture from the air condensing on cool surfaces. But these drops are only found at the edges of leaves and if you look around- they won't be found on dead leaves. So what are they?

❦ Plants use a plumbing system of xylem tubes to move water and nutrients. During the day, transpiration (water evaporation) from leaves creates a vacuum that pulls the column of water up from the roots to the leaves. At night, the stomata (leaf pores) close, transpiration stops and salts accumulate in the xylem of roots, drawing in water from the surrounding soil by osmosis. The excess water rises up the xylem tubes and is forced out at the leaf tips through openings called hydathodes. This exudation of plant sap is known rather inelegantly as guttation, and only happens at night. The water pressure is not strong enough to rise beyond 3 feet, so guttation is not seen on tree leaves. The thermal image (inset) taken by infrared photography shows the cooler temperature (blue) in the guttation droplets.

❦ When the drops dry, they sometimes leave behind a residue of salts and minerals. This is not a problem, unless the soil is over-fertilized resulting in fertilizer burn of leaf tips. In the same way, guttation droplets in corn seedlings were shown to have high levels of neonicotinoid compounds, used as pesticidal coatings on the seed. These concentrations could be a lethal dose for honey bees that sip on guttation drops as a water source. While shedding toxins through guttation drops protects the plant, it may have repercussions - both beneficial and harmful, on insects and other animals. 

Inset of thermal image:

REF on neonicotinoids in guttation droplets #openaccess:

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The Flight of the Hummingbird

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal

With these words, the poet Emily Dickinson summed up the fleeting magic of the hummingbird.  

Hummingbirds are the only vertebrates capable of hovering in place. In addition to flying forwards, they can also fly backward and upside down! They are tiny: the smallest bee hummingbird of Cuba weighs less than 2 grams, less than a penny! Add to this their speed- they can clock up to 45 mph, and stamina- they can fly 18 straight hours, and you may appreciate their unusual metabolism. In fact, they have the highest metabolic rate of any warm blooded animal. 

With a heart beat of 1,200/min and wing beat of 200/sec during flight, hummingbirds generate a tremendous amount of heat. Because their muscles are only ~10% efficient, much of the energy they consume is released as heat. But their thick plumage of feathers keeps in the heat: useful when the bird wants to conserve body heat, but a problem during flight. 

Using infrared thermal photography, scientists have found that hummingbirds (and probably most birds) lose body heat from three areas seen as bright white spots in the gif below: the region around the eyes, at the shoulder where the wings meet the body, and the feet, which they can dangle downward to dissipate even more heat. 

Animated Photo

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Gene Drives: Green Signal or Back Seat? 

What is the deadliest animal on earth? If you're thinking of the great white shark or a venomous snake, you could be wrong. Counting human deaths, it is the innocently named (Spanish for "little fly") mosquito. Millions, mostly children in third world countries, are killed or sickened each year by malaria, dengue, yellow fever and encephalitis caused by parasites and viruses that are transmitted by mosquito bites. This happens despite billions of dollars spent, years of research and potential cures ranging from vaccines and drugs to public health management. 

Stop or Go, that is the Question: Imagine if the mosquito could kill the parasite before it has the chance to spread to its human victims. For example, the mosquito could be engineered to make antibodies against Plasmodium, killing the parasite soon after it enters the mosquito after a blood meal. Just like a vaccination, nearly all mosquitoes would need to carry this new trait to be effective. There is a way to do this and it is not a new idea. What used to be theory, however, has just become a reality. A new paper published in the journal PNAS has now changed the question from Can we do this? to Should we do this?

What are Gene Drives?: Normally, the chance that any gene trait is passed from parent to offspring is 50%, since only one of a chromosome pair is inherited from that parent. But some selfish genes can copy themselves so that both chromosomes carry the trait, which now affects 100% offspring. A gene drive consists of DNA sequences that provides the technical ability to do this. With the new CRISPR/Cas9 tool that precisely cuts and inserts any gene of interest, the gene drive has become a reality. 

Can Gene Drives work on Humans? Gene drives work best in fast reproducing species, like mosquitoes, that can be released in large numbers. For this reason, they are not going to be effective in spreading inadvertently through humans, or even commercial crops and animals which are bred by controlled processes like artificial pollination and insemination.  

Gene Drives are Natural: For example, a gene called P element swept through all fruit flies in the wild, but is not found in lab strains that were isolated before it spread. 

Gene Drives can be Reversed: For each gene drive that spreads a trait, a reverse gene drive can undo the genetic changes in the original strain. Such reversal drives should be tested in advance, and could be released to stop the spread of any unintended consequences.

What else can Gene Drives do? Besides targeting mosquitoes, gene drives could be used to eradicate invasive species, or reverse resistance to herbicides and pesticides. 

Take the Poll: A public conversation based on sound scientific information, weighing pros and cons, must be the starting point for developing policy. Engineered mosquitoes that could rapidly spread in the wild and eradicate the malarial parasite have been made. Here is the question: Should we use Gene Drive engineered mosquitoes to fight Malaria? 

FAQ on Gene Drives:
Image: Matt Panuska
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Yes, release the engineered mozzies!
No, there may be unintended consequences
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