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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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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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Science Mystery Pix

Stomatal pores under a leaf? Sand dunes on Mars? Clams clamoring to be fed? Hint: the image illustrates an evolutionary adaptation. Take a guess, then read on!

Secret of Serotiny: In 1961, a fire destroyed 28,000 acres of forest in Montana. Since then, the lodgepole pine has established dominance over this vast acreage, with a density of tens of thousands of trees per acre. Yet, this pine normally does not spread its seed beyond a range of some 200 meters. How did the lodgepole pine achieve this remarkable biotic potential?

Its secret was serotiny: millions of seeds per acre were stored inside cones, high up at the canopy top of mature stands, for just this scenario. The heat of the fire melted the resin that kept the cones closed, releasing seeds to be carried by wind or gravity over several days, to land on burned but cooling ground. With little competition, more light, warmth and nutrients from ash, the seedlings flourished, making this pine an aggressive pioneer species.  

Serotiny is the adaptation by some plants that hold on to their seeds for decades after they are mature, releasing them only in response to a specific environmental trigger. The trigger could be dryness, water, or fire. Some desert plants have adapted to release seeds after rainfall, when the chances of successful germination are high. Other plants release seeds only after they die, a feature known as necriscence. Oddly, fire-survival strategies may be paired with fire-embracing adaptations, such as retaining dead (and flammable) branches instead of the more common practice of self pruning . Known as niche construction, this double strategy ensures removal of poorly adapted plants in regions susceptible to natural fires. 

The Fiery Cretaceous: Fire has been an effective agent of natural selection for at least 125 million years and possibly longer! The high oxygen levels (23-29% compared to today's 21%) in Earth's paleoatmosphere of the early Cretaceous fueled frequent fires, captured as charcoal in the fossil records. Since then, fire adapting traits in plants arose independently, many times.  Our Mystery Pix can now be revealed as the cone of a Banksia tree, endemic to Australia, with open seed pods after a bushfire. Photo via PinkRockAus's Fotothing
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Cancer or Canvas?

★ Do you see cancer cells run amok or a beautiful rendition of Van Gogh's "Starry Night"?  In this addition to my Art or Science? collection, it's hard to pick out the microscope image from the artwork it inspired. The tiny biological details revealed by researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Organogenesis are captured in larger than life quilts by Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends who raise public awareness about the importance of the arts in healthcare settings.

★ On the Left is a cross-section of mouse skin with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of human skin cancer. The top layer of skin is stained red, collagen fibers are stained blue and the deadly tumor cells appear in the red at the bottom. On the Right, artist Carole Nicholas renders the image with fabric and stitching to simulate the Van Gogh's brushwork in a quilt.

★ This type of common skin cancer arises exclusively from the base of the hair follicle, where a niche of stem cells reside. When the hair follicle is in its growth phase, these cells are temporarily activated by the hedgehog signaling pathway. In cancer, this pathway is permanently on overdrive, due to mutations in genes known as Patched (PTCH) or Smoothened (SMO). If you're curious about the origin of these amusing gene names, especially Sonic Hedgehog, Indian Hedgehog and Tiggywinkle Hedgehog, check out +Buddhini Samarasinghe's entertaining and informative post (! 

REF: Hutchin et al. Sustained Hedgehog signaling is required for basal cell carcinoma proliferation and survival: conditional skin tumorigenesis recapitulates the hair growth cycle.

Image Credits: Mark Hutchin, University of Michigan
Art Quilt by Carole Nicholas, Fiber Artists@Loose Ends

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Art or Science?

Are these pastel fractals the creation of an avant garde artist from some postmodern cubism movement?  You may be surprised to learn that these are high resolution images of bacterial populations growing on a petri dish!

Bacterial Art: First, the familiar E. coli bacteria were genetically marked with differently colored fluorescent proteins before mixing together on an agar plate. Each rod-shaped bacterium grows by division to give a single file of cells that is sensitive to small mechanical forces from neighboring cells pushing and jostling against each other. The line of cells buckles in a way that is predicted by fractal mathematics.  As the bacteria grow to form a confluent film, jagged boundaries emerge between differently colored clonal lines. Zooming in, the patterns are self-similar, repeating at scales from millimeters to micrometers! Mutant bacteria that form spherical cells don't produce these fractal patterns. 

Form and Function: What do these beautiful images teach us? They help us understand how patterning happens on a nanoscale. In synthetic biology the goal is to engineer populations of cells to produce spatial patterns, synchronized signals and predictable behavior that can be simulated using simple, mathematically coded rules.  

Life Imitates Art? Oscar Wilde reversed the conventional when he claimed that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. What do you think he meant by this? It seems to me that this bacterial fractal "art" perfectly illustrates John Berger's definition of Cubism: "The metaphorical model of Cubism is the diagram: The diagram being a visible symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures."

Reference (and more beautiful images):

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Alien Cityscape?

Can you guess the identity of the tiny blue skyscrapers in today's Science Mystery Pix

Hint: We have ~20,000 of these. The shorter "skyscrapers" are arranged in front and longer ones in back of a certain body part. Proteins with funny names like Noggin, Bmp and Bambi cause these gradients to develop. 

If you google guess the answer, try not to give it away, but add some confusing helpful information in your comment!

Awesome Poetry Hint by +Rashmi Pahuja :
Like trees in a tunnel
Feeling the air funnel
Combed in waxy gel
Well dressed infantry
In Attention
Keeping all intruders out,
Record and decode
All the tremors, shakes and thunder.

#ScienceEveryday  when it's not #ScienceSunday  .
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Accidental Art: Wood Painting with Fungi

❖ Fungus-infested wood, or spalt was once dismissed as inferior, structurally unsound and consigned to the scrap heap. But since the 1950's,  the Lindquists, a father and son wood turning team from the New York Adirondacks, changed the way we look at spalted wood. Today, the intricate swirls of bold lines, unexpected splotches of color and random patterns are a sculptor's dream. Spalting has developed a niche market by adding economic value to a previously wasted resource.  

Science of Spalting: Oregon State University's Sara Robinson ("Dr. Spalting") has taken this accidental art and transformed it into science. By systematically testing different combinations of fungi, moisture, temperature and pH, Dr. Robinson creates beautiful wood specimen in the laboratory.

❖ The thick black lines that appear to artistically meander through the wood actually mark out fungal war zones! Formed by heavy deposits of black melanin pigment and hardened combinations of fungal filaments and wood, zone lines are used by antagonistic fungi of different species or even genetically distinct fungi of the same species to protect their own territory and resources. Bleached patches of wood that form a canvas for other colors are formed by white rot fungi that eat away at dark colored lignin leaving behind the lighter colored cellulose. Then there are the splotches of pigment: blues, greens and pinks, deposited by fungi that colonize wood in successive waves, each species leaving an environment that paves the way for another.

Ref: Developing fungal pigments for “painting” vascular plants. Sara C. Robinson Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2012) 93:1389–1394 

Article about Dr. Spalting at OSU

This   #ScienceEveryday post was inspired by +Brent Neal pointing to a blog post by +American Scientist  ▶
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Victorian Diatom Art

In the mid to late 19th century, people became increasingly fascinated with science. Rising literacy led to a demand for books, and an anonymous book titled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation became the rage ( Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection. Microscopes became cheap and readily available. They were used not only for scientific discovery, but also as tools for popular entertainment. Microscope clubs popped up and amateurs made their own slides. Clever entrepreneurs took advantage of the public's interest to make microscopic art by arranging hundreds or even thousands of tiny diatoms, butterfly scales or even beard hair (!) to generate these astonishing works of beauty. One such artist, Henry Dalton, used a boar hair and his own breath to move particles into position under a microscope. A newspaper article described him thus: "Although Dalton was dissipated, he excelled most of his imitators in this peculiar line of art" (

Source: Exhibition Mounts by Watson & Sons, London circa 1885.

Reading: Antique microscopy slides reveal obsession with science

#ScienceEveryday when it's not  #ScienceSunday  
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Hair, Tooth or Scale? 

Although at first glance, these three appendages appear to have little in relation to one another, there are intriguing hints of a common developmental origin. Can you guess the identity of today's Science Mystery Pix?

The Toothless Men of Sind: Our story begins in 1875, with Charles Darwin describing the curious case of a Hindu kindred whose males suffered a near absence of teeth and hair. This inherited condition, known as ectodermal dysplasia, was tracked down to defects in genes coding for a signaling protein (ectodysplasin-A or EDA) and its receptor (EDA receptor or EDAR). Similar hairless and toothless mutations were found in the mutant mouse strains Tabby and Downless, pointing to a common developmental origin for hair and teeth. 

Fighting Tooth and Scale : Which came first, teeth or scales? It is thought that the earliest teeth arose in shark-like fish that lived in the Early Devonian period, about 400 million years ago. The pointy tooth-like scales found near the mouth of fossils would have helped grasp prey or fight predators. Eventually, these transformed into the teeth of modern day mammals. 

A Fishy Tale: Now for the final link! Mutants of the medaka fish (Oryzias latipes), originally isolated from wild populations, are viable and fertile but completely lack scales. Named rs-3 (for reduced scale-3), the mutation affected the same ectodysplasin-A receptor (EDAR), which is required for the initiation of hair development in mammals. So what do you the image a 20x magnification of hair, tooth or scale?


Image from Dr. Havi Sarfaty of the Israel Veterinary Association and winner of Nikon Small World competition. 

  #ScienceSunday  #ISeeTheWorldWithScience  
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Science Mystery Pix

Art or Nature?: This beautiful image reminds me of the art of Van Gogh: Willows at Sunset (, perhaps? But it's actually a photomicrograph of an insect part. Can you guess what it may be? Hint: it's useful during aquatic sex :) 

Rheinberg Illumination: This image was colorized using a form of microscopy invented in 1896 by Julius Rheinberg. Quite simply, a two colored filter, usually cut from sheets of acetate, is placed in front of the light source. One color makes up the background while the other is diffracted by the object under study. It's a cheap and creative way to bring art into science! A nice explanation can be found here:

Photo credit: Spike Walker / Wellcome Images

#ScienceEveryday    #ISeeTheWorldWithScience  
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