Transcript: TWIS.ORG Feb 16, 2010

Justin: This show is brought to you by listeners like you and the contributions that people like you are giving. People who aren’t you, who are actually giving. We couldn’t do it without them. So please, be one of them or unless that’s one of you in which, thank you.

Kirsten: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

As we passed from one holiday to the next, Valentine’s Day to President’s Day, the reasons for celebration change. We celebrate love and we celebrate those who work to make our nation great. Yet the underlying reason for celebration does not change.

We are humans who struggle through life who need a psychological break from the monotony of our existence. Celebrations remind us that we are alive and share this world with so many others who, like us, need to be reminded that each day is an amazing achievement.

And while the following hour of programming does not represent the views of KDVS, KDVS’ sponsors or the University of California, you are not alone in your love of science. And others are here to celebrate the wonders of science with you. Take the next hour as your holiday in the name of science and be reminded just how cool life really is on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, everyone. I’m Kiki, Kirsten Sanford. And I’m sitting here with Ali. We’re going to have a great show of science. Good morning, Ali.

Ali: Good morning.

Kirsten: Good morning. Yeah, Justin’s not here. Unfortunately, the show will be lacking in his splendorific verbal abilities. I don’t know. I’m making things up.

Ali: Rambling?

Kirsten: Rambling. Rambling, yeah, there you go. Be honest. So, in his place, Ali will be sitting here and bring in some stories. We’re going to be talking all about science — the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the lovely, the science.

Yeah, we have some plans for this week’s show but – so that Justin didn’t lose his job. He had to go do something else. So, we’re going to put off some of those things that I kind of teased about doing last week. We’re going to put them off until next week. It will be fun. It will be great.

So, today I have stories about synthetic biology, synthetic making proteins from scratch. I have some stories about – a story about stem cells. And I have a story about spirituality in the brain.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah, what did you bring?

Ali: I have stories about electric clothing, tiny molecules that walk. I have some warnings about climate change and some adventurous birds or great tits and robot patients.

Kirsten: Robot patients?

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: I like the bird story. I like the robot story. You found some interesting ones.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: I’m excited. I’m excited. And if anyone out there is interested in calling in and discussing any of these stories that we’re bringing up today, you can call us at 530-752-2777.

And now on to the news, let’s see. Big story this week is a study that’s published online in Nature, this week. It will be published in the magazine fairly soon, I’m sure. But scientists are creating proteins from scratch.

Now, this necessarily is not new news. Scientists have been trying to reconfigure amino acids to create proteins that have the functions that they want them to have for quite some time. So, this isn’t some anything – that aspect of this is not necessarily new.

But the new part is that some researchers, synthetic biologist, Jason Chin of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in the UK, created his own ribosome. Now, the ribosome is the part of the cell, the little machine inside the cell that takes amino acids and links them together.

Now normally, the amino – and those amino acids go on to become proteins. Like – once they fold into their confirmations. So you have inside the nucleus, you have the DNA. And then that gets turned into RNA, which is basically a backwards code of the DNA. Then or I guess the opposite side of the zipper, so to say.

So the RNA then is transferred from the DNA to outside of the cell. And then that RNA links up with the ribosome. And the ribosome reads the code – three base pairs at a time. And then uses those base pairs to create – those three base pairs to say, “Oh, this code is for this amino acid. I’m going to use, you know, whatever it happens to be.”

And so, this synthetic biologist was like, “Why do I have to have three amino acids? Why can’t we do this differently? Why can’t we maybe have four base pairs code for an amino acid?”

So, he designed – in a cell, he created a situation within bacteria where they had a gene for antibiotic resistance that was included in a four base codon. And so eventually, he grew these bacterial cells in a situation where they would die if they didn’t – he put them in an antibiotic, right. So, they would die if they didn’t evolve antibiotic resistance.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And the only way they could get antibiotic resistance was to create ribosomes that used four base pairs, instead of three, to code for amino acids.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So, he used basically the idea of natural selection to end up creating these bacteria that have these new ribosomes that can now take four base pairs instead of just the usual three to create a special amino acid.

So now they have this new way. Researchers have this new way to read base sequences and increase the complexity of how much they can do. So basically, it increases the number of – what he says, “It opens the door to what will be the truly revolutionary possibility of creating genetically coded polymers comprised of up to 256 unique building blocks.”

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, normal ribosomes, the three based codons, they code into 22 natural amino acids. But now with the possibility of having an extra codon in there, they can switch things up a little bit and create new combinations that didn’t exist before.

Ali: Wow! Interesting.

Kirsten: Yeah, so this is a brand new way for synthetic biologists to really be able to create proteins from scratch to be able to really control and manipulate the creation of proteins.

Ali: Yeah. Wow!

Kirsten: Never been done before. And researchers all over the place are just super excited about this because it’s something that has never been available to them before.

One researcher, John Sutherland from the University of Manchester says, “I think it’s fantastic. It opens up an era of synthetic biology where you’re truly making synthetic polymers as opposed to just tweaking and tinkering with an existing protein.” So, it’s really making things from scratch.

Tom Muir of Rockefeller University says, “I believe this to be a milestone contribution to the protein chemistry field. This could open the floodgates to all manner of exciting applications.”

So when the scientists are exciting – excited, we know that this is exciting.

Ali: Mm hmm. So they can get new super proteins on our body, huh?

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s just – yeah. I don’t know if it would be necessarily that we could – I guess they could synthetically create proteins that could be incorporated into what we do into human biology. But I know more so, it would be in terms of creating bacteria that have different functionalities…

Ali: I see.

Kirsten: …or different abilities. So, I guess it allows them so much more flexibilities so that they’re not constrained so much by the biology or the mechanisms by which biology works at the moment.

So now they have this new flexible ability that will just extend what they want to do. So like, you know, if they really want to make a bacteria that can say, degrade nuclear waste or create biofuels or any number of functions that you could possibly think of that they can create enzymes or proteins that are really specifically created to do a particular function.

Ali: Awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s pretty cool.

Ali: Yeah. On that note of creating synthetic molecules, I have a story about creating tiny molecules to walk in your body.

Kirsten: That’s wild, yeah.

Ali: Yeah. So in the body now, there are motor proteins that can walk along molecular tracks…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …to carry organelles and stuff to different places in the cell. And so basically, scientists want to be able to make their own, to carry their own molecules into places in the cell.

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: So, a new study led by David Leigh of the University of Edinburgh has designed a two-legged walker made of 21 atoms and it includes a track made of stepping stone molecules. So basically, the track can react with the two feet of the walker. And each foot is different. So, one consists of a chemical latch called the hydrazide and the other called a thiol. And so this design, it’s going to let each foot latch on to every other stepping stone. So basically, it’s going to allow it to move forward.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: And basically, a wash of acidic solution allows the foot to become loose and then bind to the next one. And so they’ve done this before and sometimes it would just walk back and forth because it didn’t have a direction and it was kind of wobble around.

Kirsten: Two steps forward, one step back.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s doing the Dosado or something.

Ali: But now, they’ve designed it to have irreversible reaction. So…

Kirsten: It won’t go backwards.

Ali: …it won’t go backwards.

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: And this is so very new. It’s nowhere near applicable yet but it’s…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …very exciting and interesting to scientists. And it says here that the walkers took 37 steps back and forth before falling off. And that’s compared to natural motor proteins that can – like kinesin that can take 75 to 175 steps without falling off.

Kirsten: It’s really interesting. I can’t help but thinking of a tightrope walker.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Or, you know, this is – maybe with, you know, some kind of special glue on their feet or something that allows them to keep walking forward along the rope.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I mean, because when you think of it, there are these fibers inside the cell that kind of hold the – keep the structure of the cell together and then these motor proteins used those fibers for transport to get from one place to another. And like you said, to deliver whatever it is they have to deliver. But how good are they at it? Are they really efficient tightrope walkers…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …or are they not? Are they going to fall off or they going to wobble? Yeah, and now that we’re trying to create these, you know, the ones that we are creating are still not as good as the ones that are naturally existing in our own bodies.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: In our own cells.

Ali: Yeah, so it’s really cool. Someday, hopefully, once they improve the technology they’ll be able to walk in, carrying fans and that can channel fluid.

Kirsten: Huh?

Ali: Yeah, so to certain destination or then also maybe they could go in and grab viruses and carry them out, just carry them out.

Kirsten: That would be great.

Ali: So that’s many years off but it’s a possibility with this new technology.

Kirsten: How interesting. Yeah and I can’t go and grab viruses or deliver drugs to a specific…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …part of the cell. So, you’re not even – you go – so you could potentially go beyond just this gross drug delivery of like – it’s…

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: …in your body. But more of it’s like, “Okay, you have a problem with your mithocondria. Here.”

Ali: Just tell your tiny walker where you’d want to go.

Kirsten: Tell your tiny walker. Yeah. Well, that’s fun. I like that. There is a study that just came out in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that GABA which is a neurotransmitter might be – it might be involved in the immune system and that if we can adjust GABA levels, we might be able to reduce multiple sclerosis and multiple sclerosis-like symptoms.

So, multiple sclerosis is a disease that’s considered an auto immune disease where the body attacks itself. And often, there is a – co-related with multiple sclerosis are high levels of inflammation within the body.

And these researchers have found that immune cells produce GABA and that there are antigen-presenting cells. So, cells that have, say some kind of a signal that the immune system uses to know to attack it, that the antigen-presenting cells also have GABA receptors.

So the GABA is coming in. And this suggests that the GABA may be involved in signaling within the immune system, within how the body attacks certain cells that need to be attacked because they’re infected with something or whatever it happens to be.

So the researchers got into this. They were looking at this because they found there’s much research that shows that GABA is produced by immune cells. And it seems like it’s involved in decreasing inflammation and reducing inflammation.

So, if we can possibly increase GABA levels in people with multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases where there is inflammation involved, there might be a reduction in the symptoms.

Ali: Interesting.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: But then wouldn’t the GABA cells do something else to or the neurotransmitters maybe cause some totally other functions?

Kirsten: That’s a good question. It’s really – because it is a neurotransmitter, there are probably other things that it could do. And the issue is this is inside the nervous system.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nerves. And so you are going to be dealing with not only things in the spinal column and outside to the rest of the limbs but you’re also going to be dealing – wanting to deal with areas of the brain.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And so yeah, if you increase GABA you could…

Ali: It’s kind of scary to mess with. Yeah.

Kirsten: It could be. It could be. I mean but maybe this is also something that – I mean, I don’t know if they found that there is a lower level of GABA in people who have.

Ali: But they’re not at the natural level anyway. Yeah.

Kirsten: Right. So maybe there’s some kind of deficit in GABA in the first place. And so that’s why the immune system is maybe attacking itself. Who knows, it’s like “Oh, no GABA to tell us to stop.”

But it’s an interesting question. It’s, you know – if we can find signals and triggers and potential targets for drug development or therapies, I mean this would – just looking at all the different angles and different directions. It’s really, you know, it’s a new way to look.

Ali: Interesting.

Kirsten: Yeah. We have a call. Let’s see. Hello! You are live on KDVS.

Bradley: Hi! Good morning guys. This is TWIS minion Bradley calling. How are you today?

Kirsten: Great. How are you, Bradley?

Bradley: Great. I just wanted to comment real quick on your GABA story. It’s a very exciting research, you know, for multiple sclerosis, not only multiple sclerosis but for other central nervous system disorders that may have, you know, immunological link.

Kirsten: Yeah, absolutely.

Bradley: The corollary here that’s very interesting though is a lot of times the medications or pharmaceuticals that they use to treat multiple sclerosis and dystonia and other types of – of these types of diseases are GABA agonist, which actually sometimes cause a down regulation in the natural production of GABA.

Kirsten: Of GABA. Yeah.

Bradley: So it’s going to be really interesting to see how this plays out. But it raises a lot of very interesting question.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s an interesting point to bring up. So there’s probably a reason they’re going in that direction with those kinds of drugs when why those kinds of drugs are useful, but how could it work better if you can upregulate the GABA at the same time.

Bradley: Exactly, great point. Thanks guys. I just want to call and say hi and say thank you for the story.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. Thanks for listening. Thanks for calling.

Bradley: Yup. Have a nice day. Yeah. Bye.

Kirsten: Bye.

And if anyone else would like to call in, the number is 530-752-2777 here at KDVS. What did I do here? I’m pressing buttons and making things blink. I don’t know what’s going on anymore.

If you just tuned in, you’re listening to This Week in Science with Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Ali Depsky. Your turn.

Ali: Okay. I have a story about electric clothing.

Kirsten: I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I had a friend once, this was at Burning Man and he made a suit with EL wire which is this electroluminescent wire and a little battery packed to run it. And he moved the wrong way and shocked himself.

Ali: Oh, no. Well, hopefully, these are too small to do that to you because these are nanofibers.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So basically, these new fiber nanogenerators at the University of California, Berkeley have the potential to be put into clothing and generate energy just by movement, by people’s movement while wearing clothing.

Kirsten: Right. Okay.

Ali: So it’s pretty interesting. So they work by “piezoelectric” properties, which is the ability to generate an electric field in response to mechanical stress. And then this works by a change of the polarization of the molecules.

And so, basically, they’ve created the tiny fibers. And according to Dr. Lin, “Because the nanofibers are so small, we could weave them right into clothes with no perceptible change in comfort for the user.” So…

Kirsten: Right. They’re tiny. Being nano, they’d be smaller than a piece of thread.

Ali: Yeah. They’re super tiny, so.

Kirsten: Really tiny.

Ali: And this isn’t new. It’s not new to create wearable nanogenerators.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: But these ones are organic. So that’s what’s special about these ones. And so, they’re more pliable basically.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: And they’d be more comfortable to put into clothing. And basically, very efficient but they think it could be made more efficient before they’re actually put into use. The researchers have shown that the efficiencies are as high as 21.8%, with an average of 12.5%. So I guess that’s how much energy they get out versus how much put in. Yeah.

Kirsten: It sounds real. I love the idea of integrating electronics into our clothing and developing these nanowires. Basically, they’re organics or they’re carbon-based nanowires.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: They’re going to – every time they bend or move in some way that’s what – like you have said, that shifts the polarities. So it shifts from like an on to an off, an on to an off.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So it is just going back and forth and back and forth. And by doing that, there’s a current and that’s induced within those wires. And then if you can get that current out of the wires to actually power something…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …you know, you can have your jacket or your shirt powering a little charger for your cell phone or…

Ali: It’s just so cool to have to generate energy from stuff you are already doing, anyway.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So there’s like so much to be harvested of energy that people use…

Kirsten: That we waste.

Ali: …and create anyway. Yeah, we just waste.

Kirsten: Yeah. We create and we waste. So we do work constantly.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: You move your arm and you’re just doing this work. Your body is working to move the bones but there’s excess energy in that that could be used.

Ali: Yeah. And I’ve always said that we should create gyms…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …that are hooked up to power generators. I don’t know if this already exists.

Kirsten: I think in some places…

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: …there are companies that are doing it. And this is something that we’ve been talking about for a long time.

Ali: These people just run on the treadmill. Yeah.

Kirsten: You’re running on a treadmill or even not just the treadmill but the bicycles.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Because bicycles are so passive.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: You can just sit and power the television that you’re watching during your 30-minute workout or whatever.

Ali: Yeah. We actually had a laptop powering bike in the E-mu for a while. I don’t know if it’s still there here at Davis. Yeah.

Kirsten: There’s a – What have I also seen? There’s a, I think the maker fair this last year. There was a group that had a bicycle setup where it powered an entire PA system. And so there was a band that was playing and with the speakers and the microphone, everything, the electric guitar, everything powered off of these people riding bicycles next to the stage.

And so people jumped off the bike and then jumped back on. Yeah, someone else would jump on in their place and the band played on. It kept going and going.

What else do we have here? Oh, life in other universes or our universe. Wait, did I say other universes? That’s right. I did because I’m talking about the multiverse. The multiverse is the…

Ali: What?

Kirsten: Yeah, what? There might be more to our universe than we think. There might be more universes beyond our own universe. We might not be the only universe in existence.

There’s an idea called the anthropic principle. And it’s thinking about our universe. And the multi – the possible — this is all theoretical physics — the possible multidimensionality of the universe that we exist in.

And that’s led to the possibility that there might be other universes that are parallel to our own in existence, all around us that we just don’t know about. And whether or not life exists in those universes is based on the variation of all the parameters to that universe.

So, the speed of light could be different in another universe from our own. The gravitational constant could be different. And if these parameters are different, then could life exist? And what would life be like if it did exist?

So there’s this possibility of, you know, maybe there are other universes out there where gravitation is just so heavy that, you know, just a tightly packed universe where there’s no possibility of life.

Maybe, you know, there’s another universe where a different parameters changed but life is based off of a completely different structural reality. Maybe the chemicals that make up life are completely different because the physics of that universe is so different from our own.

And so they said, “So, the way our universe is, we’re starting to get an idea of like, okay, well this is kind of how all the building blocks go together. This is the way our physics works. This is the way – and because physics works this way, these are the molecules that we can expect. And because these are the molecules that we expect, this is probably what life is like throughout our universe based on organic chemistry. “

But maybe that’s completely different in another universe. And there might be millions of billions of billions beyond even our comprehension of how many universes. We can’t even comprehend it.

Ali: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. So years ago, there was an equation — years and years ago, 1960 actually — Frank Drake came up with an equation called – that we now know as the Drake Equation which calculates the possibility of intelligent life in our galaxy or in our universe.

And so the problem has broken down into a bunch of factors. And so all those factors have to do with different – basically, let’s see, we have the number of stars of a certain size, the number of stars that have rocky planets around them, and then the number of those rocky planets that can support life that have their, you know, water and sunlight and da-ra-ra-ra. So there are all these different factors.

Ali: Life as we know it.

Kirsten: Life as we know it, exactly. That’s another point. But he basically broke down the probability of intelligent civilizations existing in our universe based on these factors that allow life to exist in our own solar system. So we know this is what it’s like here so, and we’re intelligent – so well we think we are. So what’s it going to be like elsewhere?

And now, there is a new equation based on the multiverse. And a researcher named Gleiser, Marcelo Gleiser he is at Dartmouth, University in New Hampshire, has taken the Drake Equation and updated it for this new idea of the multiverse.

And so it takes into account cosmological factors, astronomical factors, probability of life, the probability of complex life — all these different numbers. But the problem with what he’s come up with and he admits this is that this turns into, when you look at it in terms of the multiverse, it turns into a philosophical problem rather than a scientific problem that we can analytically determine the answer to.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Because we have no idea. The multiverse possibilities are so outside of our ability to comprehend in the first place; to measure, in the second place that to even think about it is – it just turns into philosophy rather than actual science.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: But it’s very interesting. It’s kind of a neat, neat take that somebody has finally turned around and said, “Hey, you know, we’re living in a multiverse now. Let’s see if this changes things.”

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Maybe it does. It’s 9 o’clock and we are going to take a brief break. I hope that you will stay with us and we will be back in just a few moments with more at This Week in Science with Kiki and Ali.

Justin: Thank you for listening to TWIS. If you rely on this show for weekly sciencey updates, please understand that we rely on your support to keep bringing those to you. Donate. Keep the sciencey goodness on the air.

We’ve made it very easy for you. Go to our website, Click on the button that will allow you to donate $2, $5, $10 or if you like, you can donate any amount of money you choose, as many times as you like.

Again, just go to and donate today. We need your support and we thank you in advance for it.

Kirsten: And we’re back. That is “Evolution (Use Your Brain)” by My Poor Kevin. And before that was “Perpetual Motion Machine” by Unbalanced Wheel. And that was off the 2008 Science Music Compilation for This Week in Science.

We are putting together a 2010 Science Music Compilation. We’re in the process of collecting music. So, if you are a musician, if your friends are musicians and they have – they really feel like writing a sciencey music song and sending it to us, send me an email. We want your science music.

It doesn’t have to be necessarily about science, it should – I mean, it can be about science but it’s inspired by science. It could be robots. It could be space. It could be science fiction. We want something that’s fun. Science is fun. Science is engaging. And science is a part of our world. So let’s write music about it people.

You can email me at if you have any questions. Got any stories, Ali?

Ali: Yeah, I have some great tits.

Kirsten: Really.

Ali: Yeah. So, great tits or these birds and scientists have found that they have the certain gene that causes them to have more adventurous or novelty-seeking behavior.

Kirsten: Great.

Ali: Yeah. And this was a study done in 2007, actually with a population of these birds. And they called this gene the dopamine receptor D4 gene or DRD4 gene. And so this was done in a lab. But then more recently, they’ve done it with wild birds and they used four different populations.

And Peter Korsten says – one of the researchers says, “To our knowledge, this is the most extensive study of gene variants underlying personality-related behavioral variation in a free living animal to date…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …and the first to compare different wild populations.

So, it’s kind of an interesting study because they found that it was that the association between novelty-seeking behavior and this gene were present in one population but not in three others.

So, this is kind of interesting because it’s a lot like gene personality associations that they found in humans…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: …where it’s population dependent. So, I guess it’s like an evolutionary thing where it’s only present in certain populations of people.

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: And humans actually have the same gene and it’s associated with the same novelty.

Kirsten: Same novelty-seeking behaviors.

Ali: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s a cross species, this adventure gene.

Kirsten: That’s the kind of thing that I would love to get my genome, get my DNA sequence.

Ali: Do I have this?

Kirsten: Do I have this?

Ali: Am I adventurous?

Kirsten: Should I be more adventurous?

Ali: Yeah. I guess you’d feel bad if you were not and then you had the gene.

Kirsten: Oh, I’m wasting my potential.

Ali: Yeah. So, this is – the researchers says, “Perhaps, further investigation of great tit populations could shed some light on the differences and outcome in the human populations,” says Peter Korsten.

“The difference between populations is perhaps not surprising given the small effect of the genes variants on the behavior and may be explained by a strong influence of the environment or through the effects of other still unknown genes.”

Kirsten: Right. So there might be some kind of moderating influences…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …by other genes which is usually the case.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Usually there are some other – there are systems of genes that are – that work together to create whatever behaviors you have.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Cool. That’s interesting. I love research also that’s in birds because people think that they’re very simple animals but, you know, they’re small…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …their brains are kind of tiny. But when it comes down to it, they’ve got so many complex behaviors and so many different things that they do. And then to be able to pinpoint certain aspects of what leads them to this incredible complexity.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: You know. I’d find it fascinating.

Ali: I just think and it’s really cool that it’s the same in humans as in these birds.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: And it’s really interesting. It’s something chemical or something that the gene creates that’s universal.

Kirsten: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that universal constant of novelty-seeking…

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: …genetically determined. In other bird news, another study out of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiles more evidence based on looking at a – not dinosaur but a fossil specimen called a microraptor.

Researchers looked at this microraptor fossil specimen. And looking at it, they’re concluding that it must have been what they call a glider, the trees to the ground kind of flying animal.

Kirsten: More like – kind of like a…

Ali: Like a flying squirrel?

Kirsten: Like a flying squirrel, exactly. For a long time, researchers – the evidence was compiled in a direction that suggested that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. But what research is starting to suggest is not that they came from dinosaurs so, from ground-dwelling animals but more from arboreal animals, smaller dinosaur-like creatures that had a common ancestor with dinosaurs for sure.

But it’s more likely that dinosaurs, instead of going from the ground up to the trees jumping and hopping and flapping their wings like the Wright brothers, that they were animals that lived in the trees and then had gliding feathers and other anatomical adaptations that allowed them to glide from tree to tree or from tree to the ground.

And the evidence is also suggesting that it’s possible that a lot of dinosaurs, what are thought to be dinosaurs actually are more closely related to birds than to dinosaurs. And that it’s possible that they evolve at the phylogeny, that the family tree of the traits that suggest when different animal – different species evolved or when they split-off that a lot of these raptor-like species may have evolved from birds, like velociraptor could have come from the bird lineage.

Ali: Really?

Kirsten: Yeah, basically, there was a lineage that split-off from dinosaurs, had a common ancestor with dinosaurs. And then, they’re probably in the trees. They had these kind of gliding characteristics. And then maybe some of them went back to the ground.

Ali: Huh.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so, and those ones that went back to ground started to look more like dinosaurs and so they were thought to be dinosaurs and to have evolved from dinosaurs but instead it’s possible they evolved from this bird lineage.

Ali: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: So birds came first.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: In some cases.

Kirsten: In some cases, yeah…

Ali: Interesting.

Kirsten: …birds could have come first. Yeah, it’s fascinating. I mean, part of the problem is that it’s really hard to get genetic information out of fossils.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: That’s, I mean, there’s degradation of genetic information over time. And so, what they – some of the only things that they have to look at are physical traits of bones or the, say, imprints of feathers…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …that have degraded over, you know, the millennia since the animals died and also, finding the fossils in the first place. You know, getting to the right location on actually finding a fossil that will fill in the puzzle to show you what the actual, you know, lineage possibly looked like.

All these things are really difficult to do. And so, you know, what – in paleontology, what they thought years ago, you know, evidence has to come – is coming out, and they’re going, “Oh, maybe we have to refine our hypothesis.”

Ali: Yeah, it’s so crazy what they based it on just tiny clues.

Kirsten: Yeah, little clues.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten Yeah, the dinosaur detectives.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: But, I think – and another side of this also is in the – I think in the public mind, people who don’t study paleontology, they think dinosaurs is like dinosaurs are anything that was in the rocks.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know, I mean, it’s just dinosaurs as this huge catch-all category…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …when really there were other organisms that are not considered dinosaurs.

Ali: Not as popular.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, we just call them dinosaurs. But a paleontologist will call them something else.

Ali: Right.

Kirsten: If you just tuned in, you are listening to This Week in Science.

Ali: All right. I have robot patients.

Kirsten: Is that patience as in like really good at waiting for something or…

Ali: No, as in medical patients.

Kirsten: Okay.

Ali: So…

Kirsten: Pass the oil can, I don’t know.

Ali: Basically, these pharmacy students at the University of Bath have been using these robot patients that are super life-like and they can basically emulate diseases and conditions and then the students have to make diagnosis from the robot patient.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So, SimMan G3…

Kirsten: But there’s no one’s life on the line.

Ali: Yes, so it’s a lot less stressful.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: Dr. Denise Taylor of the pharmacy says, “He’s amazingly life-like. He has a pulse. His pupils constrict when you shine a light on them. And he also reacts to drugs in a similar way to a real person. If he has a reaction to medicine, he might have a seizure, sweat or vomit.”

Kirsten: Oh, wow.

Ali: Yeah. So, he says, “He’s an amazing research because he gives students a chance to practice examination skills, including diagnosis and treatment of patients in a safe environment.”

Kirsten: That’s kind of like a flight simulator for pilots.

Ali: Exactly, yeah.

Kirsten: Surgery simulator for students.

Ali: So basically, SimMan G3 is his model or Simon as they call him…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …is the first to be used for pharmacy schools. So these have been used for a long time for medical students…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …I guess, but this is the first for pharmacy students. And they’re all very excited about it there because it’s a huge resource for them for learning. Yeah.

And “This calls on the pharmacist’s clinical and communication skills,” says the researcher. “They might have to explain a medicine-taking routine to a patient, offer advice on quitting smoking, check an individual’s cholesterol level or identify underlying issues, such as depression.”

And this has come up largely because the role of pharmacists are changing a lot.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: They’re having to do more patient contact and give advice and diagnose themselves.

Kirsten: Wow.

Ali: And a lot of times, I think, pharmacists working in hospitals can help the diagnosis because they – or what, which drug would be best to for certain things…

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: …because they have more knowledge on that than the doctors.

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: So I guess this them getting their own robot patient is kind of sign of the changing role of pharmacists.

Kirsten: Yeah, I mean, as much as I, you know – as long as I have known pharmacy. You go to the pharmacy. They tell you, “Watch out for these complications and make sure you take it with glass of water or whatever.”

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Okay, go home. You know.

Ali: But I guess in the hospital…

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: …so I’ll say they have a lot more interaction…

Kirsten: Interaction.

Ali: …with the doctors…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …and the diagnosis and stuff.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So, yeah.

Kirsten: It’s good that hospitals are starting to use pharmacists in that way…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …because the interactions between drugs, the – just the chemical knowledge of what’s happening in the body of, you know, the chemistry inside the body, the chemistry of the drugs that someone’s going to be taking, that’s really specialized knowledge and it’s getting more and more complicated.

Ali: Yeah. It’s a lot for one person to handle like the doctor.

Kirsten: Right. Right.

Ali: Yeah. So they need help.

Kirsten: Yes. “Pharmacists, help the doctors. Help!” And, not necessarily – I guess it’s kind of medical news, kind of medical news. Looking at — where did that story go — spirituality. The story was submitted by minion Bradley. “Does spirituality come from the brain?”

Now, this is a question that researchers have been interested in for quite some time. There are studies of meditation in monks. There are studies of – stimulation studies where researchers have tried to stimulate various areas of the brain to elicit feelings of oneness or transcendence with the universe.

And there’s growing evidence that there is something going on inside the brain that there are possibly certain areas of the brain that might be responsible for what’s known as “religiosity.”

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So a study that was recently published in the journal Neuron, researchers looked at patients who had brain tumors, brain cancer, 88 patients with brain cancer. Then they also had patients without brain cancer.

And they had them fill out a personality questionnaire before they went into surgery to remove their tumors.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So they determined what level these patients – of religiosity or spiritual – spirituality these people had before they went in to have their tumors removed and operated on.

But what they found is that there’s part of these – the parietal cortex that might be important. Patients who had tumors in the posterior brain regions — the temporal and the parietal cortex — had higher scores of spirituality before going into the surgery than people with tumors in other areas of the brain.

After they removed the tumors, they let the people recover, of course. But then they came back and filled out questionnaires on their personality again. And again, the researchers assessed their level of self-transcendence and found that the people who had tumors in their posterior parietal cortex were most likely to show an increase in self-transcendence than any other group.

And groups that had tumors in other areas, they saw no increase after the removal of the tumors. So what they’re suggesting based on the study is that there’s something – an area within the posterior parietal cortex that might be involved in your brain’s construction of your sense of self.

So determining where you are in space, where your limbs are, what separates you from everything else in the world, I mean, basically your ability to touch and feel and know that there’s a hard table in front of you or you’re touching the palm of your hand or you’re poking your friend’s nose, you know, all of these things, the sight, the fact that I am seeing Ali across the table from me, all these things, these senses come together into creating my sense of independence from the rest of the universe.


Ali: Your physical sense of self — is that what you’re talking about?

Kirsten: Yeah, the physical sense of self. And so there’s something potentially within the posterior parietal cortex that helps to develop this physical sense of self. And when your remove it, it allows your – it removes, say, a block to your brain feeling a larger sense of oneness with everything.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And this is kind – I think this study is kind of interesting that there’s – last year, there was a neuroanatomist who spoke at the TED Conference about her stroke and how during her stroke she started feeling this sense of oneness and this transcendence and connectedness with the universe. And so it’s possible that areas like the posterior parietal cortex were being affected and turned off during her stroke.

Ali: Mm hmm. I actually saw that, too. Wasn’t it her left side of the brain?

Kirsten: I think so, yeah. I don’t remember all the details. Yeah.

Ali: So it was more like her right – she was – more in her right side of her brain.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: And that was what it felt like to be almost entirely right-brained.

Kirsten: Yeah. I think these things – I think these questions are very interesting, you know, and not necessarily like determining, you know, who’s going to be religious, who’s going to believe in God and who’s not.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: That kind of, I mean, not that question. But more so, what is it about our brain that determines this sense of self and who we are versus…

Ali: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. And why is that adaptive for our survival?

Ali: Yeah. Well, I mean you need it to survive to like – hunt out food and stuff. So like- yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So maybe this whole sense of self and, you know, maybe it’s better for our survival. But in some way, we’ve separated ourselves by turning filters on.

Ali: Mm hmm. Yeah. Maybe it’s not the reality, right?

Kirsten: Who knows, right?

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: Whatever that is. Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s just a fascinating question.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Moving into Philosophy, yet again, but…

Ali: Cool. Well, I have another story, Kind of in a different note in the “end of the world” category.

Kirsten: Oh, no. This Week in the End of the World.

Ali: So this is about climate change and the need to deal with food production…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …to deal with climate change. So in the February 12th edition of the General Science, an international panel of scientists are urging world leaders to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology, particularly crops genetically modified to produce greater yields in harsher conditions and to base the regulations of such crops on the best available science.

So basically, there’s really concern because of the growing population.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: They have predicted that by 2050, the population will have increased by 30% up to 9 billion people. And they’re trying to figure out how to feed that population, especially including climate change which is making it harder for some crops to grow especially in the tropics.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s going to change – climate change will change the distribution of water around the globe.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: So some areas that are historically more wet will become less, less so and dryer areas might become more wet.

Ali: Yeah. Yeah. And so basically, these scientists are getting together in trying to put out a warning and then just indicate that we need to change our habits. And one says, “We’re really asking for yield gains comparable to those at the peak of the Green Revolution but sustained for an unprecedented length of time — 40 years — and at a time when climate change is acting upon us.” He said.

So basically, we need to up the food production…

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: …almost to a degree as what happened in the Green Revolution.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: And he says, “There has to be a lot of creative thinking, a greater blending of biotechnology and agriculture and better coordination between private and public research efforts throughout the world for us to keep pace with the increasing demand for food. We need to be thinking about long term demands for food and the environmental and social ramifications of how we will produce it.”

And so, I think this is interesting because, you know, a lot of people are against bio…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: …biocrop, biotechnology.

Kirsten: Yeah. GMO’s and…

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah, crops that have been manipulated in some scientific manner.

Ali: Yeah. And I’m sure there’s some credence behind it. But then it’s like you have to weigh the options of how – you know.

Kirsten: Yeah. There have been calculations done that suggest, I mean, organic farming is great and maybe it’s better for the land, maybe it’s better for biodiversity…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And maybe it’s even better for your health. But at the same time, it is not sustainable for a global population that’s growing to the numbers that our population is going to be reaching very soon.

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: And that’s something that you’re right, that it has to be balanced, that there has to be some way that we can – unfortunately, it’s going to most likely be based on this agricultural industrial complex where there’s going to be agro-business. There’s going to huge big business involved in creating gigantic farms that can mass produce, you know, crops, food crops for people around the world.

That said, there also needs to be some kind of a change in the way that food is distributed around the world because right now, there are politics that are blocked – many countries are blocking deliveries of food or they’re taking deliveries of food and the food isn’t getting to the people who need it.

And also there are lots of factors that are involved in food.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: But at the same time, yes. There’s a problem that we’re going to be bumping up against changes in where water is, water availability because water is really necessary for farming.

Ali: Yeah. And he also said a major obstacle is that many of the institutions aren’t working together closely enough.

Kirsten: Yeah. I believe that.

Ali: I think that’s a problem with a lot of politic-type things.

Kirsten: Yeah. “I have my own goals. Leave me alone.” Yeah. If only people would talk to each other.

Ali: What an idea.

Kirsten: What an idea. Well, this is the end of our hour. We’re ending it on the – let’s be hopeful that people will talk to each other note. Let’s make it not This Week in the End of the World. Let’s make it This Week in Hey, We Got a Lot More to Do. There’s a lot we can do.

I’d like to thank everyone for listening. Andrew Sherman, thanks for sending in a story. This is from the BBC. “Scientists say they have confirmed that a meteorite that crashed into the Earth 40 years ago contains millions of different organic compounds. And this is different from lots of other meteorites that have been analyzed.

They think that this meteorite is older than the sun in our solar system.

Ali: Wow.

Kirsten: So it might pre-date the birth of our own solar system. It’s an interesting meteorite there. One little piece of – I don’t know if you call it dirt.

Everyone else, Ed Dyer sent in a bunch of stories. Thank you so much for those. And Bradley, again, thanks for calling in and thanks for sending your stories. Thanks to those of you who commented on Twitter. Thanks for listening.

Next week, we’re going to have Ali’s special ten-year review of Brain Computer Interfaces which is going to be fun. I’m really – I can’t wait to hear what happened in the last ten years.

In the TWIS Bookclub, we are reading Jan Zalasiewicz’s “The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks.” And you can find – if you’re interested in chatting with other people about the book, is the website that you can visit.

Again, send me your sciencey songs, if you have any questions or just want to send me a song. Shoutout to (Shawn Ray Williams) in Utah.

And if you’re interested in seeing any of the shownotes for the story, you can visit TWIS is also available as a podcast. You can find it on the website and click subscribe to the TWIS Science Podcast. Or you can find us in iTunes. We’re also in the Zune Marketplace. Wee! But always free.

If you want to email us, email or Put TWIS in the subject header or be spam-filtered into oblivion.

And we will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday, 8:30 AM Pacific time. We hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

If you’ve learned anything else from the show, remember…

Ali: It’s all in your head.