Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Weak in Science

In the spirit of self-improvement, I subscribed a few months ago to Science Magazine's weekly roundup of scientific developments. Having jousted with several of those emails now, I can safely assert that they are not to be trifled with. Not only is "This Week in Science" responsible for some of the strangest verbiage to cross my screen, its seemingly random collections of words generally do, unlike the spam-borne gibberish they resemble, reveal meaning after sufficient examination. Just not always to me.

Until lately, those emails had started off gently, with a text block touting a resume enhancement service. Today, that accessible little ad gave way to something a touch more challenging:
Are you leaving money in your Western blot gel?
Drastically enhance your performance in protein recovery
up to 90% and get all your proteins back.
Elchrom Scientific's Blot-EX offers you
500% transfer efficiency in less time compared to leading competitors
Blot-EX is NON acrylamide and non-toxic!
Let me just say that if I am leaving money in my Western blot gel, I want it back. All of it. And make sure someone dries it off first. Wait, there's more. Here's a URL:
For more information visit:
If that's not challenging enough, check out this abstract on a study of Greenland's ... um, of Greenland's ... uh, ice? Mind you, I read the New Yorker's terrifying "The Climate of Man" series (all three parts!), so this stuff isn't wholly alien to me, but, uh ....
The Value of Excess
The surface air temperature record of Greenland has been reconstructed mostly from analyses of the isotopic composition of H and O of the water in ice cores. A number of other factors besides average temperature can influence those proxies, however, such as the seasonality and origin of precipitation. (p. 118) measured the deuterium excess of ice from Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) samples in order to constrain the source and seasonality of the precipitation for the last full glacial cycle. Earth's orbital obliquity is an important control on the latitudinal temperature gradient between the source and site of precipitation, and moisture sources shifted to the south during cold periods.
My own orbital obliquity is better now, thanks. I think it's because I'm going to the gym more often.

And just as I start to dwell on the notion that there are people painfully, infinitely smarter and way, way more educated than I, as suggested by this particularly dense nugget ....
Phosphorylation Rheostat

The modulation of the activity of proteins by phosphorylation has often been described as a binary switch, but (p. 142) show that finer rheostat-like control can also be achieved. The transcription factor Ets-1 exhibits a graded DNA binding affinity that depends on the number of sites that are phosphorylated. Ets-1 exists in conformational equilibrium between a dynamic conformation that binds DNA and a well-folded inhibited state. Increasing phosphorylation progressively shifts the equilibrium toward the inhibited state and thus fine-tunes the level of activity. The phosphorylated region, which serves as the allosteric effector, is predominantly unstructured and flexible, and probably acts through transient interactions.
(hello? is this mike on?) ... something entirely comprehensible and interesting pops up, reminding me why I subscribed to this crazy email in the first place. May I present the lovely, the talented ...
Habitat Corridors Promote Conservation

As wildlife habitats become more fragmented by human land use, wild plants and animals encounter increasing difficulties in dispersal between patches of suitable habitat. If the patches are small, then local extinctions may ensue. To mitigate this problem, conservationists favor networks of corridors to provide links between patches, but how effective is this approach? In a replicated, landscape-scale study of the role of habitat corridors in the southern United States, (p. 146; see the news story by) followed Eastern Bluebirds as they carried native wax myrtle seeds from bushes in a central source patch to one of four surrounding receiver patches in a matrix of mature pine forest. The birds carried substantially more seeds to the corridor-connected patches than they did to the others. The authors were able to build a predictive seed-dispersal model at the landscape scale from individual-based observations on the movements of birds.

I'd be lying if I said I read the entire email every week. One of the reasons I don't is that these paragraph-long abstracts are all you get without paying a hefty monthly sum for full access to the Science website. (Like full access would do me much good.) So on the rare occasion that I do slog through the jargon to arrive at some thin understanding, that's where it stops. Nanocomprehension.

But that's OK, because part of me thinks all this talk of nanoscience and computer chips is pure hokum, that we're laboring under an all-pervasive cloud of disinformation, that everything we call silicon is actually powered by well-trained fleas. But whenever I try to talk about this theory, broaching, say, the notion that quarks and space travel are fictions, people look at me like I'm even more of an imbecile than they had suspected. So I keep it to myself. I'll trust you to do the same. Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be Liberal Arts majors.

In any case, every once in a while the newsletter shows me something interesting that even This Old Brain can grasp, like that stuff about wildlife corridors. Yet another reason not to mow the lawn or trim the hedges. Proof positive: It may appear a little stand-offish in its emails, but Science really does exist for the betterment of men.


P.S. "Soil-dwelling myxobacteria move by a process termed gliding motility, which requires the surface expression of cellular protrusions, the type IV pili. More than 25 years ago, Myxococcus xanthus motility mutants lacking pili were shown to be phenotypically complemented by direct contact with motile neighbors. (p. 125) now identify the mechanism of the contact-mediated, nongenetic complementation of this type of motility. Complementation appears to be effected by the transfer from one cell membrane to another of the TGL protein, which is required for the construction of secretin pores, which in turn allow for the synthesis and retraction of the pili required for motility."


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