Marine Biological Lab, Cape Cod

This is from the folks at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I applied and was awarded two environmental hands-on lab fellowships, in 2007 and 2009. I highly recommend applying, it’s a fabulous experience, especially for science journalists who have not been part of environmental studies programs or have not done much biology, or field work, in general. As for the biomedical program,  my colleagues who have taken part say it’s great too. The location is also special — MBL has a long history and a storied place in biological field research. One of my favourite “field trips” was across the street to see the rare books collection at the archives. Wow. And on one trip we spent a couple of nights in the field on Martha’s Vineyard. Magical. On the second fellowship I travelled to Alaska to the Toolik Field Station north of the Arctic Circle. Definitely the opportunity of a lifetime and I learned so much. The fellowship is a chance to indulge in your love of learning, science, and travel, and come back a better science journalist. These hands-on experiences gave me more confidence to head into the field with scientists I didn’t know already and write my first science book for grown ups, Salmon: A Scientific Memoir. Jude Isabella

Get Your Hands On Research: Apply for an MBL Science Journalism Fellowship

Dive into hands-on research! The MBL Logan Science Journalism Program in Woods Hole, Mass., offers print, online, and broadcast journalists a chance to immerse themselves in hands-on biomedical or environmental research in one of the world’s most dynamic settings for scientific discovery. Room, board, lab fees, and U.S. travel/partial foreign travel are covered for accepted fellows.

The program runs May 27-June 5, 2015 with opportunities available for extended fellowships in Woods Hole or Arctic Alaska. Deadline to apply is March 2.

For more information, visit or contact Diana Kenney:

By Meredith Hanel

Close-up of the ragworm Platynereis dumerilii image via Encyclopedia of Life supplied by the Natural History Museum, London (

Close-up of the ragworm Platynereis dumerilii image via Encyclopedia of Life supplied by the Natural History Museum, London (

Maybe you caught up on sleep over the holidays or you are only catching up now that all the parties are over. Busy schedules can make us wish we didn’t need sleep, but we do. We know there are health consequences if we don’t sleep enough or at the right times, but scientists still aren’t sure why animals, from fruit flies to humans, evolved to sleep in the first place. This past year researchers identified a possible primitive form of sleep in a type of zooplankton called the marine ragworm. At night, instead of sinking into a cozy bed, the larvae of marine ragworms sink into deeper water. Nighttime sinking is caused by pauses in the movement of the larvae’s cilia, microscopic paddles that otherwise propel them upward. There are parallels between the way melatonin and light/dark cycles control activity of ragworm cilia and how melatonin controls sleep in higher organisms.

When the sun goes down we feel less alert. This is due in part to the secretion of melatonin in our brains at night. If we don’t mess up our melatonin secretion by using our laptop late in the evening, we can easily fall asleep in our favourite position, and remain relatively motionless and not easily aroused. Meanwhile, inside our brains neurons are active with a characteristic sleep pattern. In vertebrates, including fish and mammals, melatonin regulates sleep and circadian rhythms.

Melatonin also serves a more ancient function. It scavenges free radicals, preventing these reactive molecules from causing too much cellular damage. This antioxidant job is performed by melatonin in nearly all life forms, from bacteria to humans, whether they sleep or not. At some point during animal evolution, melatonin was promoted to a managerial role in the control of sleep. What might have been the first animal to use melatonin for sleep regulation? What did sleep look like in those early days?

You guessed it – the marine ragworm.

The marine ragworm is considered a living fossil, found in the same environment as its ancestors millions of years ago. Darkness signals the ragworm larvae to sink through the night. As a result, they begin their morning deep under water and swim upward all day, only reaching the surface at dusk. In fact, the larvae of the marine ragworm join a massive vertical migration of many types of plankton on a day/night cycle, which is thought to keep these creatures away from harmful light-induced oxidative stress.

Researchers discovered a specific region in the brain of ragworm larvae that is responsible for sensing light, running an internal clock and producing melatonin at night. Applying melatonin during the day could induce the nighttime ciliary pauses and blocking melatonin during the night could induce the daytime ciliary beating pattern, something author Maria Antonietta Tosches says was like given them ‘jetlag’.

The researchers identified the specific nerve cells that control cilia motion and unexpectedly the application of melatonin increased neural activity. Interestingly the authors suggested that this distinct pattern of neural firing called rhythmic bursting, seen at night or after melatonin application, may be analogous to sleep specific mammalian neural activity that helps filter incoming sensory information, like noise-cancelling headphones, so we are not constantly being awakened.

Melatonin has been around for 3.6 billion years, starting out as a simple antioxidant molecule. It would have been a darkness indicator early on because light-dependent oxidation would have reduced its levels during the day. The evolution of melatonin receptors, present in all animals except sponges, would have harnessed this darkness indicator for circadian regulation of additional physiological processes and behaviours like sleep.

Melatonin harnessed in the control of vertical migration in water in plankton may represent a primitive example of melatonin controlling a sleep-like state.

hanel headshotMeredith Hanel earned her PhD in medical genetics and spent many years in the lab doing research in molecular and developmental biology related to medicine. Meredith works in science outreach with Scientists in School. She enjoys writing about science and loves to find out the biology behind just about anything in nature.


Melatonin Signaling Controls Circadian Swimming Behavior in Marine Zooplankton. Tosches, M.A. et al. (2014) Cell 159: 46-57. Get paper []

Deep, Dark Secrets of Melatonin in Animal Evolution. Schippers, K.J. and Nichols, S.A. (2014) Cell 159: 9-10. Get paper []

How plankton gets jetlagged: Evolutionary link between sleep and rhythmic swimming behaviour. (2014) Press Release – European Molecular Laboratory. September 25. (


Just in case anyone’s New Year’s resolution involves continuing education, here is a much-anticipated guide to Fe3O4, magnetite, the lodestone, the most magnetic natural material on earth, and one with a bright future in science.

by Victoria Martinez

We’ll never know exactly when humans first began to use magnetite as compasses but we do know that during the Han Dynasty, somewhere around 220 BCE, someone in China had figured it out. Around the same time, the first Chin emperor is said to have used a board with a South-pointing compass like the one shown below to convince his court that he had a divine right to rule. Magic and science are indistinguishable, sometimes.

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220BCE Chinese compass, image via Smitth College Museum of Ancient Inventions

But magnetite’s legend goes back even further: some historians date the legend of Magnes of Crete to 900 BCE. As the story has it, Magnes, an old shepherd, was climbing Mount Ida when his shoe nails and metal staff tip got stuck to the rock. The story crowned Magnes the discoverer of this wonder element, aptly named magnetite.

In modern times, magnetite provides about 40% of the world’s raw iron (magnetite is a ferrous oxide, technically a rust of iron, from which iron metals are extracted). But more applications are always being developed, and that leads to some exciting science.

A new future for magnetite

Today, scientists are interested in magnetite for a new set of reasons. In particular, a range of advanced materials applications lay ahead — depending on what we learn about magnetite’s structure and properties.

Up until very recently, for example, there was reason to believe that magnetite could be used for advanced electronics (thanks to its half-metal surface and other properties). That changed this month with a paper in Science laying out clear evidence that magnetite is better suited to catalytic applications.

A catalytic material speeds up a reaction without getting used up. It’s a process often used to speed up production of industrial materials, like ammonia, but it’s a process also useful in medicine.

Ancient lodestone. [Credit:]

Ancient lodestone. [Credit:]

Precious metals like gold and platinum are much sought-after for their catalytic function, but their costliness presents a challenge. To bring down costs, an ideal catalyst would maximize surface area, so all of the precious metal is helping at one time in reactions.

That’s where iron oxides come in — they’re already widely used in industry as they are relatively inexpensive and reactive. But, if they can be used to hold individual atoms of metal catalysts like gold, they could be used to maximize gold’s efficiency as a catalyst.

Solving a modelling mystery

Eamon McDermott, a Canadian theoretical chemistry PhD student at the Vienna University of Technology, and second author on the Science paper, says that scientists thought it was impossible to properly measure magnetite and metal oxides’ surfaces, which would make it difficult to understand how gold and other metals bonded to it.

But McDermott’s team showed that it was possible to model exactly how gold bonds to the metal oxide, which could help develop extremely efficient catalyst systems for industry and medicine — and help to properly measure the surfaces.

The paper shows that the often used model of magnetite’s surface is wrong.

McDermott and his collaborators altered the model in their research. Something else happened when they did this, a voltage change instigated a change in the surface pattern.

“This is completely not something that would just happen coincidentally,” McDermott said. This weirdness was a sign that their model worked:the physical structure wasn’t actually changing, but changes in electrons made it look like it was. With this information in hand, it was clear that the team’s new model worked. Moreover, it changes how magnetite is understood, opening up new doors to highly efficient catalysis.

It also means that other metal oxides could be modelled, opening up new doors for research. The lodestone of old has come a long way, but as with most things, there’s plenty more to be seen.
Victoria Martinez is a writer and editor interested in science and poetry. You can follow her work on Twitter @eigenmotion.

Photo credit: Ashley Dace [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ashley Dace [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By:  Kristina Campbell

By now we have all heard about the importance of the microbial life that lives inside of us. Yet one of the questions that researchers still face is, how similar is one person’s gut microbiota to another’s? Finding patterns is an important research goal.

When gut microbiota research first began to gather steam in 2011, a group of scientists introduced the idea of ‘enterotypes’ – well-balanced gut bacterial states. Their data indicated that the different species of bacteria present in people’s guts did not show a random representation or a continuum; instead, species composition fell into three robust patterns that showed up in subjects from four different countries.

In a similar vein, a research group at UCLA recently introduced the idea of two ‘metabotypes’ based on the kinds of metabolites produced by gut bacteria. According to Braun, no matter what species are present in the gut, there are only two output options: “People’s microbial communities make one mode of products or a different mode of products.” Meaning, there are just two categories of metabolic activity: metabotype one and metabotype two. Enterotypes and metabotypes are still debated categories, but they open the door to an important upcoming topic in gut microbiota research: patient stratification.

Stratifying the Patient

Think about a cliff that you might encounter while hiking. To most of us, it just looks like a big wall of rock. But to a geologist, it has different layers that tell a story. Similarly, as research increases knowledge of gut microbiota composition and function, clinicians will be able to take a notoriously messy diagnostic category like ‘allergy’ and break it down into subgroups able to respond to different treatments.

I’ve heard from several scientists and practicing clinicians that gut microbiota is a potential way to stratify healthy people into categories, and also to stratify patients within an existing category. Obesity, for example, is still a poorly-understood condition from a clinical standpoint. Karine Clément, a Parisian physician and professor who has spent much of her career investigating obesity  says, “It’s very heterogeneous, and this is why also I thought that studying the gut microbiota was interesting because…it’s a way maybe to stratify better patient groups. And over time, if you have individuals with a low bacterial gene amount, and low diversity, maybe it’s important to find this group and find accurate treatment for them.”

Your gut enterotype might not be something to add to your OKCupid profile just yet. But stay tuned for ways to better define yourself, and opt for better health, through intestinal investigation.

KCKristina Campbell, the “Intestinal Gardener”, writes for the Gut Microbiota for Health Experts Exchange.


by Sarah Boon,

Our long observation of the natural world has yielded many interesting secrets, enhancing our scientific knowledge and leading to changes in policy and legislation. For example, measurements of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa since 1958 have shown a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, while satellite images of Arctic regions since 1979 have confirmed the decline in Arctic sea ice extent. The Global Land Ice Monitoring from Space (GLIMS) project – which just released its latest book last month – has been monitoring global glacier change since 1998, documenting the exposure of gravel valleys long buried by glaciers.

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CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa since 1958.                Average sea ice concentrations for 1979-2000.

What all these records have in common, however, is that they only go back so far. If a scientist wants to move beyond the time frame of the instrumental record – and believe me, they do! – they have to bridge the gap by exploiting new data sources.

There are data rescue projects, like the Nimbus project. It aims to restore 1960s data from a long-forgotten weather satellite used originally to monitor clouds, and extend the record of sea ice extent for both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Other traditional science-oriented approaches include paleo-records like ice cores and tree rings, sediment cores from lakes and the ocean bed, and corals. Each of these so-called ‘proxy’ records can provide information on past climates, hydrology, vegetation, and more.

A key non-scientific data source, however, is historical records. Scientists are teaming up with historians to move data collection out of the STEM realm and into the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) world. Yes, that’s right – science and history, working together to answer science questions.

This isn’t so odd in the field of archaeology, where researchers routinely work with historians to gain a better understanding of the context in which archaeological finds exist. Recently the BBC aired a show on the Quest for Bannockburn, in which archaeologists Neil Oliver and Tony Pollard search for the site of the famous battle between England’s Edward II and Scotland’s Robert the Bruce. Throughout their search, they refer repeatedly to historical accounts of the battle itself, and to other historical records from the time period. Closer to home, the recent Parks Canada search for the Franklin ship, Erebus, was directed by recorded Inuit history, which pinpointed the area in which the ship was found.

The environmental sciences have also benefited from historical records. Early explorers often took detailed natural history measurements during their travels, such as weather observations in the Antarctic. Companies like the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) recorded the number of animal pelts traded by First Nations groups.

The HBC data were used in 1942 by researchers from Oxford University to reconstruct lynx population cycles. In 1983, researchers used 17th century tax records from Scandinavia to document the expansion of local glaciers during the Little Ice Age: formerly prosperous farmers saw declines in revenues as glaciers advanced and ruined their farmlands. More recently, researchers at the University of Sunderland, UK, used ice observations in 200 year old log books from British whaling ships to show that Arctic sea ice used to have a much greater in extent than it does now. The Mountain Legacy Project, housed at the University of Victoria, uses photographs taken in Canada’s mountains by land surveyors from 1861 – 1953 to examine landscape change over time. Researchers have even coined the field of historical ecology, using historical sources to guide modern ecosystem restoration efforts.

Using these data can be tricky, as they weren’t collected with science in mind. If these limitations are made clear from the outset, however, the data remain highly useful, and represent the ingenuity and creative spirit that’s attributable to both sciences and humanities alike.

What observations are you recording today that might be used by scientists of the future?

Sarah BoonSarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments [] about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture.

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