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Archive for January, 2010

This is the first in a series of once a month posts discussing some of the cool and unusual things out there on Earth and in science in general. A lot of it will be “big picture” – I’m fascinated by biodiversity and I think there’s a lot of neat things out there that don’t really get the attention that they deserve. But I’ll try to throw in some test tube science once in a while as well. 🙂

Meet Dendrosicyos socotranus, the cucumber tree. This is a monotypic genus; this means that this genus contains only ONE species. If this species were to ever go extinct, the genus would not exist anymore. Dendrosicyos socotranus is also unique in that it is the only member of the Cucumber family to grow in tree form. Think of the cucumbers you might typically encounter in a garden – species are usually herbaceous and low lying. Not so for D. socotranus – A fully grown plant can reach over 6 meters in height!

D. socotranus is found only on the island of Socotra (sometimes spelled Soqotra). It typically prefers drier areas in the lowlands.

Soqotra is part of an island archipelago off the coast of Yemen in the Indian Ocean. Like many isolated island archipelagos (eg. the Hawaiian islands, the Galapagos islands), Soqotra boasts many endemic plants species with unusual forms and habits. The cucumber tree is only one of many!

[Photo by Socotra Project]

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Personally, I think nude mice are super-cute!

Nude mice, commonly used in research, are instantly identifiable by their hairless, wrinkled pink forms.  Sometimes called “athymic”, due to their lack of a functional thymus, nude mice are also immunodeficient and do not produce T cells.  But how do immunodeficiency and hairlessness relate?

Nude mice have a mutation in a gene called FOXN1.  This gene encodes a transcription factor, which is a protein that is required to activate a gene.  In this case, FOXN1 normally encodes a protein which activates a gene involved in the differentiation of a type of cell called epithelium.

Epithelial cells are cells which form body surfaces, such as skin, and glands, such as the thymus.  Normal development of epithelial cells results in skin with hair and a functional, T cell producing thymus.

The mutation in FOXN1 disrupts the normal development of both skin progenitor cells and thymus progenitor cells.  This results in skin which forms without hair and a non-functional thymus.  And there you go!  A nude, immunodeficient mouse!

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Albino… mouse?


Albinos are a result of genetic abnormalities, usually the possession of two recessive genes for albinism.  Recessive genes are usually not a problem – chances are, everyone has at least a few.  But, when you happen to inherit two, interesting things can result.  Albinism is one of them.

Albino mice show characteristics typical of albinism in general: lack of pigment and red-tinted eyes.  They’re commonly used in biomedical research in the form of mouse strains such as CD1.  In the wild, many albino animals don’t survive due to their lack of camouflaging pigment.  But, some persist and a notable few have an almost cult-like status.

So why choose a genetic abnormality as the name for a science blog?

Well, science is quirky.  Is there anything normal about spending your day mixing chemicals and cells in a dish and then counting them?  I think not.  There is a very high probability of failure – just ask any grad student.  But when the stars align, the supervisor is happy and the antibody works… interesting things can happen.

And hey, if it works for grad students – Who knows what might happen here.  🙂

[Photo by Dale Tidy]

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Welcome to the mouse house

I love science. Really.

But after working 3 years in a biochemistry and molecular biology research lab, I was very nearly ready to leave science behind.

I find the daily grind of research to be mind numbing. You worry about the next experiment, you watch projects be discarded, you feed your cells, you run your gels, and after a while, you forget the “wow” factor. Most people don’t go into science because they love PCRs and Western blots – They go into science because they want to know how the world works, because they are amazed by the nature of life, because they are inspired to constantly learn new things… At least that’s why I went into science!

With that in mind, this blog is most definitely not a recap of biological experimental data reduced to obscure statistics nor a forum for posting the latest paper arguing the nature of cancer stem cells.

This blog is for sharing stories in science. Thanks for reading!

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