Microbiology, Medicine, and the Military

Today is Memorial Day, a day in which we remember those who died while serving in the Armed Forces. However, not every member of the Armed Forces died on the battlefield.In the American Civil War, its estimated that 2.5% of the American population died, which would be about 7 million people today. Strangely enough 2/3 of those people were killed by disease, not in battle.

Disease is still a factor that affects the Armed Forces today. There are 9 different infectious diseases that can allow Veterans of the Gulf War to apply for disability compensation. In Iraq and Afghanistan, drug-resistant bacteria such as Acinetobacter (dubbed Iraqibacter by some) are particularly problematic for soldiers. This bacteria normally infects people with weakened immune systems. However, soldiers wounded in battle are also likely to be infected. Wounded soldiers being transported “6,000 to 8,5000 miles within days” have numerous opportunities for bacterial transmittance.

However, the threat of disease has led the U.S. Armed Forces to be a driving force in the advancement of scientific research. The spread of disease in the Civil War resulted in a starting point for many modern medical accomplishments, even ideas as simple as clean, well ventilated field hosptials.Today the advancement continues as the Armed Forces deal with the continual threat of bacterial infection. This includes finding new drug treatments as well as better infection control procedures, such as isolation of patients with multidrug-resistant infections. From 2005 to 2010, the percentage of wounded troops in Level V trauma centers, whom were found to be colonized with Acinetobacter decreased from 21% to 4%.

The Department of Defense dedicates 2.3% of its base budget ($12.3 billion) towards its Science and Technology program. This includes organizations such as The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, the Department of Defense’s leading laboratory for medical biological defense research. The military also has military centers, such as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, specifically to serve the medical needs of military families, those on active duty, and veterans. In fact, the recent case of a “superbug” resistant to our last line defense antibiotic was identified in a military clinic and confirmed at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. However, the Department of Defense is also considered an important source of research funding for academic institutions, rewarding $149 million last year to select academic institutes under its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. In short, the armed forces not only work to treat the medical problems they are currently facing, but work to prepare for the future medical problems the entire world may face.

Today, I invite everyone to remember those members of the Armed Forces that died in battle but also those that died from  medical conditions afterwards. As we remember the fallen, remember those who are still fighting. Then give thanks for the medical advancements developed because they were once needed to treat those on the battlefield.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com

What’s a Mutant?

In the X- men mythos, mutants are people that posses a special alteration to their genetic code called an “X-gene.” For each person, the X-gene manifests itself in unique ways, usually during puberty, and grants the gene carrier superhuman abilities ranging from control of the weather to telekinesis and shapeshifting. In the latest X-men movie Apocalypse, the father of all mutants, wants to cleanse the world of humans and make way for a world ruled by mutantkind. The funny part about this is ‘ol Apocalypse is contradicting himself because technically, humans are already mutants. You may be thinking,  “Bill, the kindly mailman from down the street, a mutant?” But it’s not quite as outlandish as it sounds.

Mutations in the DNA sequences that make up our genes are one of the  main reasons for the diversity of organisms on earth. Within any population a few animals will be born with random genetic mutations. Some of these mutations are bad and can cause disease, but others are good because they are perfect for specific environments, and thereby increase an organism’s  chances of survival and reproduction. Over millions of years and many generations, the mutations that give the best survival advantages in each environment will be passed on to more and more offspring until they are spread throughout the population. This is evolution through natural selection in a nutshell; millions of years of small mutations that allow new, specially adapted species to branch off from older ones. It is painstakingly slow, but effective.

So, barring some large cataclysmic event a la NBC’s Heroes (remember that show?)  the mutants seen in X-men wouldn’t just start popping up after a few measly generations for no reason. Instead, they would take hundreds of thousands of years to branch off from homo sapiens sapiens (humans) into the homo sapiens superior of comic book and movie lore, and the mutations would vary based on environmental pressures, not what writers thought sounded cool. The only mutant in the movies that almost gets it right is the aptly named Darwin from X-Men: First Class, who had the ability to automatically adapt to any situation or environment he was placed in.

Some mutations don’t actually do anything, while others actually do grant some unique appearances and abilities. For example, 12 percent of women carry a mutation that gives their eyes four color receptors instead of three like most people. A portion of these women, called tetrachromats, can use all four color receptors to their full capacity and see over 90 million more colors than the average human, experiencing the everyday world in a way the majority of us can’t even imagine.

However, many of the real-life genetic mutations we know about today can also be linked to various diseases and disorders. If you see someone that has an uncanny resemblance to Beast, Mystique, or Apocalypse himself, they probably have methemglobinemia. Caused by a mutation in a gene called CYBR53, methemglobinemia reduces the blood’s ability to release oxygen into the body’s tissues and results in distinctly blue-hued skin. While sometimes deadly, this disease is mostly treatable, but with treatment the blue color slowly fades. Methemglobinemia also be acquired through prolonged exposure to certain drugs and chemicals such as nitrites, but please if you’re going to cosplay for the movie premiere, opt for some skin safe paint instead.

With advances in science and technology, we can now conduct genetic tests that allow people to know if they have mutations putting them at risk for diseases like methemeglobenimia. This helps affected individuals receive faster and more effective treatment, and also tells them the chances of passing these mutations on to their children. Through scientific research, we are learning more each day about the different ways changes in our genes affect the human body.

Though some mutations are more prominent than others, we are all mutants in some way or another, and without mutations we would not have the vibrant and diverse world we do today. So instead of a Wolverine-like healing factor maybe your family just doesn’t bruise very easily, or can see really well in the dark. A billion years from now that could make you the ancestor to a race of space-faring super humans with skin immune to cosmic radiation! You may think that’s a bit far fetched, but remember, we are all descendants of a single-celled organism floating aimlessly in a sea of goop, so who’s to say what the future of mutantkind holds?

Dare to dream, and make sure to catch X Men: Apocalypse in theaters today.

Asante Hatcher
ACES PhotoAsante Hatcher is a third year graduate student interested in pursuing a career in scientific policy and advocacy. His insterests include, but are not limited to, cooking, reading, sports, videogames, and watching re-runs of the 1988 Crystal Light aerobics championship.

Biotechie’s Bucket Biology on the Cheap: “Cooking” an Egg without Heat

As I grew up, different states of matter were an interesting phenomenon. I would get ice and drop it in water just to watch it melt. Naturally, as a 20-something graduate student, accidentally making something precipitate (crystallize out of solution) in the lab got me to thinking about biological states of matter. I never did figure out why my experiment precipitated, but I DID come up with a lab to do with you!

In each cell, we have proteins that  have different jobs, ranging from simply holding other cellular components together, to making the energy we need to survive. When these proteins are made, they are transformed from a single peptide of amino acids, like biological legos,into a folded protein by chaperone proteins. Think of it like parents or teachers overseeing children learning a new project. They help the kids learn how to do things the right way to get the right result. Chaperone proteins help newly formed proteins fold correctly and get the right chemical modifications to do their jobs in the cell.

When we do experiments in a research lab, we often have to collect proteins to study, but we also have to modify them to do our experiments. A common way is to heat the sample of proteins to near-boiling. By treating the proteins like this, we cause a chemical change in the proteins, called denaturation. This means we are breaking the weak hydrogen bonds that held the protein in shape (but NOT the strong, covalent peptide bonds that hold the peptide together) and linearizing the peptide.

Usually, this change is irreversible, so, if the conditions are right, the linearized proteins will not reform their folded shape, but instead tangle up on themselves and precipitate when the solution is cooled.

Today, we are investigating the same type of change in my Bucket Biology Lab, but by other means. When we cook eggs, the egg white goes from runny and clear to solid and white. This is due to the denaturation and coagulation (tangling) of the proteins in the egg white, most of which is a protein called albumin. However, we have cooked an egg in a pan before. Today we will “cook” an egg with alcohol.

Disclaimer: While the result is the same, I can assure you that they are not nearly as tasty as heat-cooked eggs. The author may or may not have tried some egg denatured with ethanol, and the result is not pleasing. PLEASE DO NOT EAT THE DENATURED EGGS as you can get food poisoning, and especially DO NOT EAT THEM IF YOU USE RUBBING ALCOHOL for the experiment, which is a poison.


Supplied Needed:

Small Glass Bowl

An Egg (or more if testing different conditions)

70% Rubbing Alcohol (Isopropanol, or alternatively high-proof ethanol)


  1. Break the egg into the bowl. You can “scramble” it if you would like, but the end result is not as nice looking.
  2. Gently pour some alcohol over the egg.
  3. Swirl gently.
  4. After 5-10 seconds, you should notice the egg white turning white.
  5. With 70% isopropanol, maximum coagulation should occur in 15 or so minutes.

How this works:

The proteins in the egg white are in an aqueous solution, one that is water based. Alcohol is an organic solvent, and it disrupts the hydrogen bonds in the proteins it comes into contact with. Because alcohols are organic, they can often also interact with the hydrophilic core of the protein, the part of the protein that does not interact well with water and is usually wrapped inside the middle of the protein, away from the aqueous solution. Thus, like with heat, the alcohol causes the proteins to linearize and then tangle, giving you a “cooked” egg.

Other conditions can also result in precipitated proteins, such as high salt, or highly acidic or alkaline solutions. These types of conditions remove the proteins from their normal environment, making it difficult for them to maintain their structure.  Thus, this laboratory would be versatile for both older and younger students with the addition of a range of different solutions and/or different concentrations of solutions.

Which solutions will you test when you do the experiment?

What would you like to see next on Bucket Biology on the Cheap? Let us know in the comments or facebook or tweet us!

Student Worksheet:

  1. Build a hypothesis for what will happen when you add alcohol to the egg.
  2. What did you observe before, during, and 15 minutes after addition of the alcohol to the egg?
  3. Was your hypothesis correct?
  4. How do you think the changes observed occurred?
  5. What other conditions could we try to get a similar result?

Biotechie (Social Media Manager)

ScienceAces1Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a rising 3rd year PhD student researching cell fundtion, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

Cool Stuff Last Week:The cure for everything, three-parent embryos, and mechanical insects

  1.    IBM has come up with a new antivirus – for humans.

When asked to come up with a new antivirus software, a talented but confused team of individuals at IBM took the task a bit too literally – they accidentally created a macromolecule that might eliminate all viruses ever.

Obviously, that’s a lie. The very talented team, consisting of researchers from IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, very purposely created a macromolecule that might eliminate all viruses.

Viruses are traditionally very difficult to target because they mutate so frequently. This is an observable example of evolution in action and also why you need a flu vaccine every year. Viruses do, however, have certain characteristics in common, and scientists at IBM exploited these characteristics to create a theoretically all-encompassing anti-viral macromolecule.

The macromolecule does three things: first, it contains a functional unit which binds to healthy immune cells, competing with viruses for access to the healthy cells. Second, it makes the pH inside the virus more basic, which interferes with the virus’ ability to replicate DNA. Third, it uses electrostatic interactions to attract and capture the virus, preventing it from being able to infect healthy cells.

The new macromolecule was tested and shown to be effective on a wide range of viruses, including Zika, Ebola, and influenza. Word has it that the cognitive computing system IBM Watson may be used to further develop the antiviral drug.

  1.   The problem with three-person IVF embryos.

Three-parent embryos are one of the latest and most controversial in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques. The purpose of the procedure is to eliminate diseases caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA. Though a child gets most of his or her genetic material from the nuclei of the egg and sperm – half from Mom and half from Dad – a small amount of that genetic material comes from mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria reside outside the nucleus and are inherited only from the mother. Mitochondrial diseases can be severe and often result in death of the child. In three-parent embryos, the child begins life with sperm from Dad, a nucleus from Mom, and an egg minus the nucleus from a female donor.

Despite the controversy, the UK approved three-parent IVF embryos in 2015. New evidence, however, suggests this decision may require further review. In a report published in Cell, Dieter Egli and colleagues found that the technique is not 100% effective at eliminating defective mitochondrial DNA – and this can cause major problems down the road. The team discovered that the small numbers of mitochondria carried over during the transfer of the nucleus to the donor egg can “outcompete” and eventually replace the donor mitochondria. Although this does not happen in all cases, even small levels of defective mitochondria can pose a risk of disease to the child. Dr. Egli’s team, as well as other biologists in the field, recommend three-embryo IVF technology to be better refined before it is adopted as standard clinical practice.

  1.   Mechanical insects: has science gone too far?

Quick, what scarce resource does the world need more of? If you said bugs, you will be very excited to find out that scientists have now developed small mechanical insects that can land on you and everything.

Okay, wait, come back, sit down. These little robots are actually super cool. Until now, aerial robots (also known as drones) were limited by their ability to store power and to bear mechanical stress induced by flight. Now, scientists at MIT and Harvard have developed a little robot that is able to land on any available surface – an overhang, a tree branch, even a leaf – regardless of material or stability. This enables the robot to extend its mission time, which could be very useful for applications like long-term monitoring of disaster areas or military operations.

The robot’s landing gear is basically an electrostatically-charged pad that can be turned on to allow it to land and off to let it take off again. The system mimics certain aspects of how real insects alight on varied surfaces. This elegant mechanism differs from previous landing gear approaches, which tended to rely on mechanical anchoring or material properties of the landing surface. So the next time your personal drone is knocked out of the sky by your very exasperated neighbor’s shoe, consider investing in one of these land-anywhere technological marvels.

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

Cool Stuff Last Week: Penis Transplant, Friends or Not?, and Glass from Wood

  1.    The first penis transplant has been successfully performed in the US.

On May 9, Thomas Manning became the first person in the United States, and the third person worldwide, to undergo a penis transplant. Manning, 64, required a full penectomy four years ago due to a highly aggressive cancer. The transplant is hoped to restore both urinary and sexual function within weeks to months.

The transplant was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital by Drs. Dicken Ko and Curtis Cetrulo, along with a team of over a dozen surgeons and nurses. During the 15-hour surgery, the surgeons meticulously connected the urethra and blood vessels. Mr. Manning, like most transplant recipients, will receive anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life.

In the future, doctors hope to use the procedure on the hundreds of men each year, particularly war veterans, who experience genitourinary injury or loss. The procedure could have a major positive psychological impact, particularly for young men returning from war.

  1.       Your friends don’t really like you.

Suppose a scientist jumped out from behind a bush and asked you to come up with a list of your friends. Assuming you don’t reflexively punch our unconventional scientist friend, this should be a pretty straightforward task, right? Maybe not. A study out of MIT found that, on average, about half of people’s friendships were not reciprocated. A class of 84 students was asked to rate each other on a friendship scale of 0-5, with 0 being “I do not know this person,” 3 being “Friends,” and 5 being “one of my closest friends.” A reciprocal friendship was one where two people rated each other as a 3 or higher; nearly all of those who gave another person a 3 or higher expected that person to also rate them as 3 or higher.

Personally, my college classes were filled with temporary friendships that lasted only as long as the course. Every college class (and workplace, probably) is filled with nebulous, “I guess that person counts as a friend” relationships. Even after reading the study, I am still relatively unconcerned that all my friends secretly hate me.

The important part of this study is the insight it provides into social hierarchies and peer influence. For instance, the study also examined the influence of reciprocal friendships on behavioral changes and found that each person in a reciprocal friendship has more influence on the other than they would in a single-directional friendship. This could be useful for programs that rely on peer-based intervention, such as smoking cessation or fitness programs.

  1.    A new technology allows you to see through trees.

Sort of. Scientists at the University of Maryland have created a new process for removing pigment from wood in a process that results in a clear compound that is stronger than glass. The clear lumber could be used one day for windows, electronics, and microscopy equipment.

The first step in the process is to remove lignin, a polymer that helps plants keep their structure and provides wood with its color. Then, epoxy is poured over the now-transparent wood to make it considerably stronger. So far, the process has only been used to treat a 5×5 inch block of wood, but the researchers are confident that the procedure is scalable. Who knows – in a few years, you may be able to build a glass house and throw stones in it, if that’s your thing.

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

Journals #3:The PayWall, SciHub, and sharing Scientific Research


From here.

As a naïve young scientist, I always assumed that all of the knowledge accrued in science and research would be open to me, so long as I knew where and how to look. We are taught that sharing our experimental data with others spreads knowledge, helps fuel medical breakthroughs, drives space travel, develops engineering technologies, assists in ecosystem conservation, and generally furthers all science and technology fields. This is one of the main reasons we give talks to groups and have scientific conferences. This is the type of interaction that amazed me, and I assumed it would be true in the scientific literature as well.

Imagine my surprise when, as a young undergraduate working on her first research project, I found a perfect paper for my project through PubMed (basically the medical research equivalent to Google), only to find out that access to it would cost $35! I set the abstract aside and continued my search, ultimately only gaining access to one of the ten papers I needed.

We call this the PayWall. We can see the abstract, which is a short description of the paper, but we can’t access the paper unless we pay for it. Given the way scientific publication works these days, this is surprising to me.

You see, when you try to publish your research, after you and the other authors have written up the paper and generated the beautiful illustrations you think will be necessary to tell readers about what you discovered, you go through a series of steps:

  1. The paper gets peer reviewed if it doesn’t get rejected. This means that it is sent to scientists in your field to make sure you have done the research correctly and are providing new knowledge to the field.
  2. The paper gets sent back to you, usually with revisions and a last-minute experiment or two that the reviewers think you should do. (Reviewer 2 is almost always the culprit.) Sometimes the paper gets rejected and you have to try a new journal.
  3. You resubmit the paper to the journal with revisions, and they send it for peer review again.
  4. Once the paper is accepted by the journal, it goes through type-setting, and your figures are updated.
  5. Finally, you or your lab pays a fee to have the paper published, sometimes several thousand dollars and often even higher if you want to use color photos.
  6. Then, if your paper is not in an open-access format, your published paper sits behind the PayWall where anyone who wants to read it would have to pay the journal or publishing group to get it.

Wait a minute… I pay the journal to publish my paper, and then they also charge the people who want to read it for access to it? The fees used to be used for publishing the printed copies of the journal, but I don’t think I’ve read a printed journal copy of a paper since high school. To me, this does not make sense.

If I can’t access these papers because I can’t afford to spend $400 for ten, how are scientists churning out gigantic projects and dissertations that require experiments based on research from hundreds of papers?

And how in the world is anyone seeing this important and ground-breaking research?

How many discoveries were on the brink of a cure for diabetes or a formula for the next rocket fuel, but were never seen by the person who could propel the project forward because of the PayWall?

Finally, how would someone in the public who is interested in learning about some aspect of science that isn’t common knowledge going to get any information?

It turns out that most major research universities pay hefty subscription fees to scientific publishing groups like Elsevier, Nature, Science, and Cell, which then give anyone with credentials at that school access to their collections of papers. However, I was at a small, public research university that only subscribed to a few journals when I was completing my first research project. Even the scientists at large universities struggled with the PayWall. If you didn’t have a friend with a subscription whom you could beg to download the paper, you could try taking to twitter and posting the name of the paper with the hashtag, “#ICanHazPDF.” If nobody came to your aid, you were just out of luck.

“Wow,” I thought, “I wish there was a LimeWire for Science Papers.”

LimeWire was a program that was commonly used by teenagers and college students to download music for free. This music was purchased by someone else and illegally uploaded to share with others. Ultimately, LimeWire was shut down after a legal battle with record companies, and now we buy music or listen to Pandora or Spotify.

It turns out that there is a LimeWire equivalent for scientific papers. SciHub was founded in 2011 by graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, who decided to do something about the paywall that plagues scientists all over the world. A computer technology and neuroscience researcher in Kazakhstan, she became frustrated that she could not access the papers she needed. Thus she founded SciHub, which uses a variety of methods to obtain papers for its users, including accessing existing paper repositories around the world and using a credentialed user’s information to retrieve the papers behind the paywall.

Unsurprisingly, large publishers are not happy with this. The original sci-hub.org domain was taken down in October 2015 as a result of a lawsuit in progress through the publisher Elsevier, though the site is still available at sci-hub.io and other domains. The publishers claim that use of SciHub is an invasion of privacy for the users, as it uses their information to get the papers. Still, scientists around the world are praising it, and nearly 90% of those that filled out a recent survey at Science said they believed that downloading pirated papers, like those gained through SciHub, is not wrong.

Many believe that the publication system is broken, believing, as Esteban told Science, “Journal paywalls are an example of something that works in the reverse direction, making communication less open and efficient.” If scientists are charged to publishresearch that, even before publishing fees, has already cost an incredible amount of time and research dollars to complete, journals should allow all articles to be open access articles. Some journals, such as PLOS-ONE, already do this, but most either do not offer the option or charge a higher fee to do so. Funding for research is tight, so many scientists forgo paying these extra fees, leaving their papers behind the paywall. The good news for scientists who are unable to access papers normally is that, unlike LimeWire, Alexandra Elbakyan says SciHub isn’t going anywhere, despite the fact that she’s been forced into hiding to avoid the possibility of arrest.

What do you think, Science ACEs? Should all scientific research be open access once it is published, or do journals have the right to make readers pay for access?

How would you make research articles more accessible to the masses?

Biotechie (Social Media Manager)

ScienceAces1Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a rising 3rd year PhD student researching cell fundtion, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

Cool Stuff Last Week: Strengthening or removing memories and what the gene required for multicellularity tells us about the origin of cancer

  1.  A step to strengthen memories by manipulating neurotransmitters

In a new paper in Neuron, a group at Stony Brook University completely removed or strengthened memories by manipulating acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter or chemical that works in a part of the brain known as the amygdala.

Using opto-genetics in mice, a method to control processes in cells using light , the group either added acetylcholine or removed it during the formation of fear driven memories. Surprisingly, they found that when they increased acetylcholine concentration the traumatic memories became two times stronger. Removing acetylcholine had the opposite effect, the traumatic memory was pretty much wiped away!

Cholinergic neurons, neurons that use acetylecholine, are hard to study because there are less of them and they are often interconnected with other neurons. Despite this, the group hopes that in the long-term they can determine how to strengthen good memories and diminish or remove bad ones!

  1.    Gene in pond scum tells us about the origin of cancer

A group at the University of Arizona found the gene that is necessary for organisms to be multicellular is also altered in cancer. Multicellularity is important in the progression of cancer. Retinoblastoma, or RB is involved in the cell cycle, acting like a checkpoint making sure that the cell is ready to divide before it does. When it is not functioning properly, the cells may divide uncontrollably: Cancer.

The group took RB from a multicellular alga and introduced it to a unicellular alga. Multicellular organisms are made of multiple cells rather than one cell. Interestingly, the unicellular alga became multicellular!  This is really exciting as it represents one of the first steps into the evolution of plants and animals. The group is hopeful that this information will help scientists understand the origin of cancer for new treatments.

Michelle Rubin (Editor-in-Chief)
Photo on 3-31-13 at 9.15 PM #2 Michelle is  a fourth year biomedical PhD student. She is extremely interested in science policy and hope to pursue that after her  studies. Let her know what you think of the blog on twitter! @michellejrubin.


Science Civil War: Religion and Science? Or Religion Vs. Science?


Science v. Religion or Science + Religion? 

With Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War coming out, we at Science ACEs decided to see if there are any “civil wars” in science. The most obvious one is religion and science. Are they two opposing viewpoints or do science and religion compliment one another? We had two ACEs write two different view points: (1) science vs. religion and (2) science and religion. Read on to see what each side thinks and you decide which side of this “war” you pick. 

(1) Dear Religious Scientists, I Don’t Understand You

Religion and science are completely incompatible. I am baffled by the amount of scientists that subscribe to anything other than atheism. Historically, the religious community has rejected scientific progress on several occasions, and to this day there are issues between the two communities that cause conflict. This is especially concerning when religious ideals are allowed to dictate education and scientific research.

In the 1920’s the public’s attention was fixated on a small town in Tennessee anxiously awaiting the results of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In January of 1925, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed the Butler bill, which banned the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Later that year, John Scopes, a high school football coach and substitute teacher defied the Butler bill and was indicted by a grand jury and found guilty. After an appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the court’s decision and the Butler bill was deemed constitutional. To this day, educators and scientists are fighting to get evolution in textbooks, but they face opposition from religious lobbyists and politicians that insist on including creationism in the curriculum.

Another well documented conflict between religion and science involves the use of embryonic stem (ES) cells in research. The use of ES cells could broaden our understanding of human development and be used for cell therapy to regenerate damaged or dead tissue. However, for the last two decades, ES cell research has been met with strong criticism from some religious groups citing their anti-abortion stance. Harvesting embryonic tissue for research purpose is still controversial, and the debate to provide federal funding for organizations that provide embryonic tissue continues.

Not all religious groups speak out against the scientific community or try to stifle scientific progress, but the core beliefs of religion and science are completely at odds. This conflict was first described in the 1800s and termed the Incompatibility Hypothesis. The basis of this hypothesis is that belief in evolution and creationism cannot coexist without contradiction. To believe in evolution is to make conclusions from observable evidence, while belief in a creationism is based off of faith and non-observable phenomenon. The crux of the scientific method is to make hypotheses that can be supported or rejected depending on observable, testable phenomenon. Subscribing to any religion requires one to make untestable assumptions and replace an evidence-based belief system with one that is based in faith.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for continued conflict between religious and scientific people. I believe they can coexist within a society as long as one does not attempt to suppress the other. But, how can one possibly reconcile being a religious scientist when they are such contradictory schools of thought?

(2) It Was Very Good

As many others around the world, I am a Christian and a biologist. The current head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, has published multiple books about his journey in science and religion. At the same time I accept that many great scientists have taken alternative views  about Christianity and indeed all religions.

It is, of course, a challenge at times. Every religious scientist will face issues where they will be asked to pick a side: how can you believe in a creator and evolution? do you believe in the supernatural? Et cetera. To this I would answer that culture has established a false dichotomy. There are not just two sides to these issues, instead there are numerous viewpoints that people can take. Religions have denominations, scientists have opposing theories; why can’t there be multiple views for how the two overlap?

Dr. Ian Barbour famously presented 4 different views on the relationship between science and religion, but the one he preferred was dialogue, a conversation between the two. As Dr. Barbour noted, “This requires humility on both sides. Scientists have to acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and theologians have to recognize the changing historical contexts of theological reflection.” There are creationists, and there are evolutionists, but there are also theistic evolutionists. This term isn’t even a single viewpoint, but represents a range of viewpoints of people who simply argue that a creator God is still compatible with the theory of evolution.Together, science and religion are both based in the philosophy of realism, the idea that there is an objective world that exists, even when we cannot perceive it. In my religious tradition, we have  what is known as special revelation and general revelation. Special revelation is what we learn about God when God interacts directly with humanity in a supernatural way. Meanwhile, general revelation is learning about God through the natural world. At its most basic definition, science is studying the natural world. It is very careful and organized studying, but it is the desire to understand the world as it exists. For the scientific theologian, science is the search for general revelation, which leads to a greater understanding of God’s works. Indeed it is said that some of the first scientists were driven by the desire to understand the world that God had made. I can not say that I choose to study science for a religious reason, but remembering that science is an act of seeking God’s wonders can help on those days when experiments just feel like work.

I do not claim to have all of the answers, nor do I claim that these are bulletproof arguments.  I do know that I am a scientist and I still read the book of Genesis. Among the verses in the story of the creation, there is one phrase that speaks to me as a Christian seeking God and a scientist seeking the wonders of the natural world. “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31 NIV)

Anthony Barrasso
AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarAnthony is a 3rd year graduate student studying retinal development. His career interests include cancer research, education and politics. Outside of lab, he likes playing with dog and eating delicious food. Follow him on twitter @barrasso67.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com


May the Fourth be with You

We’re highlighting our Star Wars posts today since its Star Wars day! Check out all our posts about the science of Star Wars including the biology and the tech!

Excited for Star Wars? What about Science Wars?
Finding neighbors in a galaxy far, far away
Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops
Star Wars Q&A Part I: The Biology in Star Wars
Star War Q&A Part 2: The Tech in Star Wars

May the Fourth be with You.

-Michelle, Editor-in-Chief- 

Cool Stuff Last Week: Changing Skin Cells into Heart Cells, a Chunk of Earth Near the Oort Cloud, and Too Much Red Meat Could Make Your “Biological Clock” Older

  1.    Reprogramming skin cells into heart cells

A group in Gladstone has discovered a way to reprogram skin cells into heart cells using a cocktail of various small molecules. Their paper in Science explains that these new cardiomyocyte-like (heart-like) cells act like regular cardiomyocyte (heart) cells. These new cells contracted like cardiomyocytes as well as have the same gene expression and electrophysical properties.  

When the skin cells were introduced in damaged mouse hearts and treated with the cocktail, the cells became fully functioning cardiomyocyte cells. This is super exciting since this new understanding of how to reprogram cells could be used for a variety of therapies.

  1.    A chunk of Earth found on the other side of the solar system

A group in Hawaii found that a strange chunk of rock near the Oort Cloud actually might be a piece of Earth from billions of years ago. The Oort Cloud is a roughly spherical shell of icy objects on the outmost reaches of our solar system. These icy objects are thought to be made of materials that formed the Sun and other planets. This new chunk of rock will help scientists understand how our solar system evolved, specifically how planets grew and migrated into their current positions in the solar system. Current models suggest that planets like Jupiter moved by flinging materials into space. Also since the rock is so old, it will help scientists answer questions about the compounds that make up Earth. Such as what are the origins of the compounds? Are they a combination of other molecules?

  1.    Too much red meat increases your body’s biological age

A study published in Aging suggests that eating too much red meat and not enough vegetables actually makes your body think you are older than you are. This is due to the increase in phosphate in your blood serum. Phosphate is found in a variety of food,with the absorption of phosphate controlled in your intestine. Normally you absorb less phosphate as you age. Eating red meat increases the amount of phosphate that is not being absorbed to above normal levels.

The study focused on the city of Glasgow and compared men and woman. They found that males deprived of vegetables had the worst consequences. Interestingly, the resulting increased phosphate levels in males correlated with lowered kidney function.  So make sure to eat your veggies!

Michelle Rubin (Editor-in-Chief)
Photo on 3-31-13 at 9.15 PM #2 Michelle is  a fourth year biomedical PhD student. She is extremely interested in science policy and hopes to pursue that after her  studies. Let her know what you think of the blog on twitter! @michellejrubin.