The turn of the 20th century saw an industrial revolution that saw the rise of machines to handle tasks previously beyond our grasp. Mechanization and automation in our civilization have created a higher quality of life than our physical bodies could ever achieve. Scientists are continually pushing the upper limits of engineering to create gigantic machines–from the International Space Station, orbiting the planet with a size greater than a football field, to massive oil rigs that drill the depths of our oceans. Recently, however, the Chemistry Nobel Committee recognized a group of scientists for their pioneering work to extend the lower bounds of machines. (more…)
Ever wonder how your brain knows exactly what to do to achieve the goal of acquiring a cup of coffee, even if you’ve just stumbled out of bed? You need to take a number of steps in the correct order, including putting in the filter, adding the water, adding the coffee and turning on the machine. From our conscious perspective, this process appears rather ordinary, maybe even dull. However, the great mystery of brain science is that all of your behavior can be understood as an incredibly complex dance of electro-chemical patterns flowing through a hundred billion neurons (specialized cells which send messages to each other as well as your muscles). We have very little idea how it all works, but a diverse range of research labs at IU are doing their best to figure it out. (more…)
Have you ever experienced an earthquake? This probably isn’t something you think about often, especially if you live in southern Indiana, where earthquakes large enough to be felt (or cause any damage) are quite rare. Talk to anyone living in Japan, Chile, or even California, and the odds are that they have experienced one or more earthquakes while living there; these areas of the world are tectonically active, and earthquakes are a somewhat normal occurrence.
— Jascha Polet (@CPPGeophysics) April 16, 2016
A small number of these earthquakes have a devastating impact on the surrounding area and nearby communities. For example, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan that occurred on April 15, 2016 resulted in over 70 deaths, and the total cost to rebuild due to damage will be about $24 billion. A large portion of the damage was caused by landslides that were triggered by shaking from the earthquake. An example of this devastation can be seen in the image above, where a landslide completely destroyed the Great Aso Bridge in Minamiaso, Japan. (more…)
Have you ever taken time to gaze at the stars on a clear night, either with a casual eye or a telescope? If so, you might have seen the famous star cluster, the Pleiades, without even knowing it! Known as the Seven Sisters from Greek mythology, it is a bright and compact group of stars. The Pleiades cluster actually contains about one thousand stars of which the seven brightest ones outshine all the others. This post will introduce you to star clusters like the Pleiades, the subject of a significant part of the IU Department of Astronomy’s research.
“The Seven Sisters.” The name conveniently suggests that star clusters can be considered “families” of stars, as stars are known to be born from shared molecular clouds. These families have to fight against the gravitational pull of the much larger galaxy (and its glamorous city life) to keep its members within its own gravitational hug, but often many family members escape and become part of the general galactic population. Smaller star families with weaker gravitational bonds are often disbanded completely, while larger ones—though they still lose a number of children—are able to survive and orbit the galaxy together. These are the star clusters that we enjoy gazing at, and also the ones that we study as astronomers. (more…)
Zika. Ebola. SARS. Each of these different diseases have been extensively covered by the media and have sparked widespread concern about disease prevention globally. This concern over disease prevention has hit even closer to home with the mumps outbreak at IU this past spring. With this recent outbreak, there has been a push to minimize the spread of mumps–and other deadly diseases, such as meningitis–on campus. One major campuswide effort has been to vaccinate students and faculty. (more…)
Disease epidemics can be devastating. How can the spread of infectious disease be controlled? It is believed that more genetically diverse host populations have lower prevalence of infectious diseases. This pattern is particularly strong in agricultural systems where diverse mixtures of crops are less susceptible to epidemics than single species (the “monoculture effect”). But how does host genetic diversity affect disease spread? IU professor Curtis M. Lively uses theoretical modelling as an approach to investigate this question in the March 2016 issue of The American Naturalist.
Infection-genetics models: This study examines two theoretical models of infection genetics, namely the matching alleles model (MAM) and the inverse matching alleles model (IMAM), to ask whether the effect of increasing genetic variation on disease spread can be affected by which model underlies the genetic process of infection. Infection genetics models are broad, theoretical frameworks used to describe the interactions between specific host genotypes and parasite genotypes. Genotype is the genetic make-up of an individual. Alleles are the alternative versions of the same gene. For example, an individual with genotype AB is defined by the presence of allele A at one gene and B at another gene while genotype ab is defined by the presence of different alleles at the same genes, a and b. (more…)
You might be surprised to learn that your body is home to tens of trillions of microorganisms. In fact, your body contains more microbes than it does human cells. While that might sound a bit worrisome, these tiny, single-celled organisms are extremely important for human health. For example, the microbes that live in the gut help with digestion, breaking down foods that the stomach and small intestine cannot digest on their own. The community of microbes that lives in the gut, called the gut microbiota, is unique to each person, and can change dramatically based on changes in diet, the use of antibiotic medications, and numerous other factors.
However, gut microbes are involved in much more than digestion – gut microbes influence social and emotional behaviors, and disruptions in gastrointestinal function have been linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders, depression, and anxiety. Researchers believe that the gut microbiota may be a critical link between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain and that changes in the microbiota could therefore influence brain development and behavior. (more…)
Anyone growing up in the 1990s or earlier would recollect that our solar system had nine planets, but did you ever wonder if planets exist outside the solar system? Planets found outside of our solar system are called extrasolar planets or exoplanets. Approximately 5,600 exoplanet candidates have been discovered since 1993, and nearly 2,000 exoplanets have been confirmed since 1995. Now we know that billions of stars in our galaxy have one or more planets orbiting them. Since the universe has billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, there are at least trillions of planets in our universe.
Astronomers have long wondered how these planets form. According to the “solar nebula” theory, the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas leads to the formation of a star and planets orbiting it. When such a gas-cloud collapses under its own gravity, most of its mass accretes into the central region of the cloud. Then nuclear fusion begins producing energy in this very high-density and high-pressure central region, and thus, a star is born.
I hate answering the telephone. I will watch it ring and ring from the corner of my eye, paralyzed by fear and unable to look away. When it eventually stops, I feel both ashamed of myself and triumphant that I avoided the trauma of a human conversation. For me personally, the circumstances surrounding a phone call aren’t even that bad. The conversation will be in English, my first language, and the subject matter will be relatively predictable. It’s either a doctor’s office calling to remind me of an appointment or a university alumni center asking for donations, which both use routine scripts that don’t require extra attention. Even under ideal listening conditions, the phone blurs or omits various frequencies that make the caller’s voice difficult to understand – for example, making it difficult to distinguish words like “fight” from “sight.” In person, I could read lips or use visual input like gestures to help me figure out meaning. On the phone, my ears are on their own. (more…)
How do species adapt to new conditions? For a couple hundred years, the answer has been that incremental change in parents trickles down to offspring over generations in a population, giving us the process of biological evolution. That is just as true as ever, but it appears to be a bit more complicated. Where once scientists saw life on Earth as a tree, united at the trunk of some primordial population and extending an increasing number of independent branches with the progression of time, it now appears to be more of a tangled shrub, with adaptations occasionally being shared across populations in a more lateral fashion.
Adaptive introgressive hybridization is a process by which beneficial traits can jump horizontally across population or species lines. Adaptive evolution may continue only as long as there is variation in a trait for selection to act upon, and the rate of evolution is proportional to the variation present. Therefore, when alien individuals from other populations are introduced to an evolving population, it may increase the amount of variation and thus the rate of adaptation in the recipient population. (more…)