Four cool science articles that AREN’T about coronavirus

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With good reason, our newspapers, magazines, and TV programs are filled with stories about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  While the information is important, the information overload can be exhausting!  So, today we wanted to try something different.  This list highlights some cool science topics that are not coronavirus related.  We’ve linked each news article to an experiment to help you reinforce specific concepts with current events.

Chaetopterus sp.

Tube worm slime displays long-lasting, self-powered glow

The marine parchment tube worm builds small tubes on rocks or coral reefs.  They live most of their lives in the tubes, drawing water through its specialized filter system to feed.  Interestingly, when threatened, this worm retreats to the back of its tube and secretes a mucus that can glow for several hours.  Researchers in the Deheyn lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are studying this bioluminescence, and how it lasts for longer periods of time as opposed to momentary bursts of light like fireflies.  This technology can be used to create longer lasting biosensors in the laboratory.

Connect it to your classroom: Have you transformed bacteria with GFP in your lab?  Students can compare and contrast the bioluminescence of the tube worm to that of the transformed bacteria. (Not in the lab?  Try our Edvotek At Home lesson for GFP transformation.)

A ‘sniff test’ signals consciousness after a brain injury, study shows

Hospital room.  Image by Daan Stevens from Unsplash

Clinicians are often at a loss when determining the level of consciousness that a patient may have after sustaining serious brain trauma.  Some may be minimally conscious; others may be in a vegetative state.  This initial diagnosis can impact further treatment for the patient, including the use of life support. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute developed an assay to determine the level of consciousness using different odorants.  Patients were exposed to scented samples – one pleasant, one unpleasant, and a fragrance-free control.  In general, a long sniff signified a pleasant aroma, whereas a short sniff implied the scent was unpleasant.  The research showed that individuals with a higher level of consciousness would respond to the scents, whereas those who may be in a vegetative state did not respond.  Along with other diagnostic tests, this assay may help clinicians accurately diagnose individuals with traumatic brain injuries.

Connect it to your classroom:  In this neuroscience experiment, students measure their sensitivity to different odorants, then they use thin layer chromatography to identify the chemicals present in a mixed sample.

Want your flowers to glow? If you’re OK with GMOs, that’s now an option

When we think of genetically modified plants, the first thing that comes to mind are crops like corn, soy, and sugar beets.  Recently, plants can be genetically engineered to express bioluminescent proteins that make them glow.  By tweaking a few biochemical pathways in tobacco using common genetic engineering techniques, researchers created glowing plants.  While we imagine this system could be used to trace the development of different tissues within plants or to monitor gene expression over time, we also think that it will be pretty cool to have a backyard full of glowing flowers.

Tobacco. Image by fetcaldu from Pixabay

Connect it to your classroom:  CRISPR is an exciting gene editing technique that allows scientists to directly manipulate an organism’s genome. After studying traditional methods of genetic modification (either by PCR or by electrophoresis) and CRISPR-based gene editing, students can evaluate the pros and cons of both techniques and write a persuasive essay arguing for which is better for creating genetically modified crops.

Giant ‘murder hornet’ invasion becomes latest 2020 concern

 Vespa mandarinia magnifica (giant hornet).  Filippo Turetta / CC BY-SA 

Although this headline sounds more like the title of a horror movie, the introduction of the Asian giant hornet is a growing ecological concern in the Pacific Northwest.  While the hornet’s sting is painful and can be dangerous to humans, the real target of the giant hornet’s wrath is the honeybee.  When the hornets enter their “slaughter phase,” they will seek out a beehive and savagely attack the hive, eating the honeybee adults, pupae, and larvae.  This is a particular problem in the United States because of the declining number of honeybees due to colony collapse disorder and an overall decrease in pollinators.

Connect it to your classroom:  Bees are a critical pollinator for crops in the United States.  In this experiment, students will serve as the pollinators as they explore artificial selection in Brassica QuickPlants™. Students should compare the results from the experimental group with a control group that is not cross-pollenated using a Bee Stick or a cotton swab.  This lesson will reinforce the importance of pollinators for the propagation of crops.

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