Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Glowing jellies on the global stage

Osamu Shimomura, a scientist emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory, was named co-recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The prize recognizes his pioneering work isolating what we now call the Green Flourescent Protein (GFP). After successfully isolating a glowing protein from a mollusc, Shimomura spent a summer cutting the light organs off of jellyfish and gathering what he poetically called "the squeezate" - literally, the liquid that he sqeezed out. After sqeezing thousands of the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which were abundant around Friday Harbor Laboratory (where the work was done), he and his colleagues were able to purify a tiny amount of the luminescent blue photoprotein aequorin. Check out this animation to see how jellyfish use the two proteins (aequorin and GFP) to produce flashes of light! Many jellies can glow when they are disturbed, possibly as a way of avoiding predators.

Since GFP was cloned, it can and has been applied to all kinds of cells in plants and animals to examine, for example, how our genes are turned on and off, how diseased cells are different from healthy cells, and how animals develop. In the image to the left(source), you can see a worm whose nervous cells are all lit up with GFP. Now a routine tool that researchers employ, GFP has enabled major discoveries in cell physiology, neuroscience and cancer biology. It's also led to some pretty stunning images: check out the most beautiful brain pictures you've ever seen, and have a look at a glowing bunny art project.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fly like an osprey

One of the sounds of summer around here is the distinctive call of ospreys. Quite often it heralds the return of a parent, fresh catch in its claws, to the shrieking nest. The nest at the Oceanographic Institution is outfitted with a great video camera, so even from home you can check in on the fledglings over the course of the summer.

But now fall is in the air and all the ospreys and their fledglings have disappeared. They're off on incredible solo flights to their wintering grounds in South America. Rob Bierregaard, a scientist who helped engineer the local osprey comeback (after their decimation from DDT in the 1960s), is now involved in a study that satellite tags young birds to see exactly where they go.

The 2008 migration is already astonishing. One young female, Penelope, left the Vineyard at the beginning of September and traveled in a straight shot down the East Coast to North Carolina, headed out over the sea, past the Bahamas, and is already soaking up the sun in Venezuela! That was 2,700 miles in only 13 days, taking no days off. Other birds, like Meadow, got a little sidetracked. She's been exploring the great lakes and it's yet to be seen whether she gets on board with this southern migration thing...