Tag Archives: geeking out

Rhesus chimera: Cutting-edge science meets natural history

Say hello to Roku, Hex, and Chimero, three adorable rhesus monkey infants who have recently stepped into the Internet limelight. Aptly named, each of these tiny mammals was concocted early in fetal development by mixing the cell lines of up to six genetically distinct progenitor individuals. By scientific definition, these little guys are what we call engineered chimera.

The term chimera originated in ancient Greek mythology millenia before it was co-opted for modern scientific jargon. The Greek Chimera, in fact, was a terrible fire-breathing creature. Depicted as a lioness with a goat’s head protruding from her back and a snake for a tail, she was related to other (perhaps more famous) Greek mythological monsters, including Cerberus and the Lernaean hydra.

Western scholars also apply the term chimera to many beasts in ancient Chinese mythology. Depictions of the Qilin, for example, date back to the 5th century BC. While the Qilin’s construction has been altered slightly throughout the centuries, all Qilin are shown with a single horn on the forehead, a body covered in scales, and four hoofed feet. Other Chinese chimera include the Bixie and Tianlu, both of which were winged beasts.

While these early chimeric forms were mythological constructions of disjointed body parts merged into Frankensteinesque creatures, today’s chimera are a very real scientific sensation. Yet Western culture largely still associates chimera with the ungodly and unnatural. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Why white’s not so white, after all: The story of leucism

When I was a kid, visiting the St. Louis Zoo was one of my favorite weekend activities. My most beloved attractions included feeding leaves to giraffes (what huge tongues!), spotting tiny frolicking marmosets in the open-atrium forest inside the primate house, and watching the silly ways in which bears slumber during the hot, humid afternoons of the Missouri summer. Then, one year, the Zoo announced something I found new and exciting — and more than a little bit baffling.

White alligators. With blue eyes.

For weeks, I begged my parents to take me. Finally, they succumbed and we made our visit to the Zoo’s herpetarium. The facility housed a number of intriguing residents, like twenty-foot-long pythons and 200-pound tortoises, but they were no match for the white alligator. To me, the bizarre creature was nothing short of a conundrum of nature. You see, back then I knew, having raised many generations of gerbils of various colors, that albinistic animals don’t have blue eyes. In most albinistic vertebrates, the production of melanin is so lacking, that the eyes appear pink, reflecting the coloring of red blood cells in the capillaries. This blue-eyed alligator I needed to see for myself to verify these wild claims of iris pigment on a white animal.

Bridges made of spider silk? You can thank the goats for that.

Put simply, arachnids are amazing. For example, there are over 2,000 species of scorpions on Earth, and all of these species fluoresce under ultraviolet light (Why? Who knows?!?). Meanwhile, Harvestmen, also known as daddy long-legs, have scarcely changed at all during 305 million years of evolution, and they can detach their own legs to distract would-be predators. And besides being the primary vector for Lyme disease transmission to humans, black-legged ticks can live up to two years and eat just three times during their entire life cycle.

But perhaps the most amazing arachnids of all are spiders, who have managed to delegate the production of one of the strongest materials known to man, silk, to goats!

More precisely, these days, there are genetically modified goats that produce milk with spider silk in it. Spider silk is part of a class of materials known as biopolymers, which are protein-based materials of biological origin. Spider silk has attracted widespread interest from engineers in recent years, largely because of its impressive mechanical properties — stronger than steel yet thinner than a human hair. It’s not a new material, though. Fossil records indicate that spider silk has a history on Earth dating back to the Middle Devonion Period over 350 million years ago!

Introducing Nerd Nite SF – Wednesday, June 15 at 8 pm

To me, one of the best aspects of life in the Bay Area is getting to mingle with the assortment of geeks, scientists, and all the other kinds of nerdery that populate the world’s hotspot of science and technology.  And where better to mingle than a gathering whose name says it all: Nerd Nite, held on the third Wednesday of every month at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.

Here’s how it works: each month, Nerd Nite hosts a series of three talks.  These talks generally have something to do with science and technology, but most important is that they’re fun, interesting, and occasionally irreverent.  If you don’t happen find any of these things in a particular talk, then no worries – there’s a full bar at your disposal as well!

This month’s agenda:

“Strum and Twang: A Brief History of the Guitar and Its Cousins”
Ever wonder why guitars are so popular these days?  This talk promises to cover the 4,000 year history of this awesome musical instrument as well as it’s importance in our culture.

“Science in The Simpsons
We all love the Simpsons for it’s four-fingered hilarity, but did you know that many of the show’s episodes reference quite a bit of fascinating science?  This talk will delve into the nerdy side of the Simpsons and give you a greater appreciation for our yellow friends.

“Building a Star on Earth: The National Ignition Facility”
I probably don’t need to hype this one up too much — after all, they want to build a star… on earth. Jim Post and Tim Frazier will describe their roles at the National Ignition Facility, which for me invokes some combination of a particle accelerator and the Death Star.  The talk promises to give a fascinating glimpse into our attempt to create a self-sustaining energy source using ultra-powerful lasers.

If none of these talks tickles your fancy, then don’t despair!  There will be another Nerd Nite next month too.  Here is a link to their website, where you can learn about their past and future productions in all their nerdy glory.

If you want to check out this week’s event, then here are the details.  I hope to see you there!

What: Nerd Nite SF
When: Wednesday, June 15th at 8:00pm (doors at 7:30pm)
Where: The Rickshaw Stop
Cost: $8.00 at the door