In 1951, a woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer. Without her consent, the doctor treating her took some of the cancerous cells for laboratory use, serving as the defining action that lead to a medical research breakthrough.
Human cell lines used in laboratories for experiments would die very quickly and it was a great labour for scientists to keep the cells alive in order then to do experimentation on them. Henrietta’s cells – on the other hand – were considered ‘immortal’ because they did not die after a certain number of cell divisions (known as ‘cellular senescence’).
These god-like cells were given the not so anonymous name ‘HeLa cells’ taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s forename and surname. The HeLa cells had a major part to play in 20th century medical advancement. For example, a researcher at the University of Minnesota used the cells to create the vaccine for polio.
Over the years, the HeLa cells lead to breakthroughs in the development of gene mapping, disease research and testing the effects of radiation. It hasn’t been plain sailing though for the HeLa cells. The cells are able to float on dust particles which lead to some serious contamination. Furthermore, for many years Henrietta’s family were kept in the dark about her cells being used in this way, which later lead to outrage and the family demanded a financial stake in the cells that were taken from Henrietta without her consent.
There’s so much more to this incredible episode of medical history that goes beyond the scope of a KYC, and we encourage scientists, historians and lawyers all to look into the intricacies that make sense to each respective discipline.
We all want a bit of L-O-V-E, from homo sapiens, through to dolphins and of course the various sub-groups of the Heliconius toxic butterfly species.
Scientists are intrigued by two central American sub-species in particular – the red-winged Heliconius Melpomene Rosina and the white-winged Heliconius Cydno Chioneus. This pair have been part of the same ecosystem for a million years and competed for the same resources and yet have remained genetically distinct with very few instances of interbreeding.
One evolutionary explanation posits that these species haven’t blended through the generations because any off spring would have a blend of wing patterns. This would be a free-for-all for other predators who only identify danger in the distinct red or white-winged patterns of Melpomene and Cydno respectively. Therefore, being an easy target means hybrid butterfly babies don’t live long enough to pass on their own mixed genes.
But why won’t Melpomene and Cydno get it on? The recently published journal PLOS biology attributes this lack of romance to genetics. The team of researches believe to have found which parts of the genome determine mating preferences.
It’s also understood that there is a link between wing patterning and mating preference. The genes that are said to have an influence on mating preference are located very close to the Optix which is responsible for the colouring of the butterfly species’ wings. Although this is not firmly understood, scientists are optimistic that cameras and machine learning will help identify exactly what the processes are.
This case in genetics is called ‘reproductive isolating’ and it’s definitely a great topic for biologists to explore in their personal statements and interviews.
The maternal bond between mother and child is like no other. Incredibly, research is now suggesting that part of a mother’s off spring stays with her forever as foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and find themselves a home in the mother’s tissue.
Over many millions of years, the mechanics at play between baby and mother have allowed for optimal development for her baby to grow. What is most intruiging is that some of the foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and due to their malleable nature, are able to develop into tissue by receiving information from surrounding cells in their ultimate landing spot.
Researchers are referring to this as ‘microchimerism’ after the creature called ‘Chimera’ in Greek mythology which is depicted as having a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a snake tail.
Researchers are now attempting to put this phenomenon into an evolutionary perspective and to work out why this transferal of cells from foetus to mother has come to be. Although our understanding is in its primitive stages, there is speculation that these cells may influence the mother’s ability to get pregnant again.
There are, however, theories that these cells that enter the mother’s body behave like cancer cells and put the mother at greater risk of certain cancers.
Biologists and Medics could use this fascinating topic of microchimerism to make a super memorable personal statement!
Meet Aloxotl (pronounced ah-loh-shottle) – most likely the cutest little amphibian you’ve ever seen. A quick google search reveals it and ancient Aztec religion revered it. This gorgeous little creature is almost unbelievable, but don’t underestimate how important its potential may be in revolutionising human history.
Aloxotls are neotenic and do not fully mature unlike their other salamander counterparts. This means they live out their lives underwater in a ‘Peter Pan’ style prolonged youth. They have been invaluable assets to genetic science and scientists are close to the point of having fully mapped out their entire genome.
This salamander is special because of their uncanny ability to regenerate almost every part of their body including parts of their brain, and in lab environments their gills are able to transform into lungs under the right circumstances.
Studying Aloxotls provides geneticists with incredible insights that could eventually be adapted to human medicine. One ability this friendly-faced amphibian has is to convert cells at the site of injury back into stem cells where they become much more malleable. Although this process has been hitherto mysterious, a fully mapped out genome will give scientists the co-ordinates to zero in on the exact communication between different genes.
However, this story of hope and wonder comes with a serious slice of caution pie. Aloxotl’s in their natural habitats are severely endangered as Mexico City has expanded evermore over the Mexican landscape.
Although Aloxotls can survive in artificial tanks, preserving a wild population is essential if scientists want to be able to apply their insights to the human genome.
Students considering any Biology related degrees should definitely spend more time researching the particulars of the Aloxotl genome and its implications on stem cell advancement. Geographers and Earth Scientists might want to consider the environmental frame of this story as an example of species endangerment through human destruction of natural habitats.
Fuel for your all night-er to make your coursework submission deadline? A necessary pick-me-up before your French oral? Coffee for many of us is the answer. But it’s important to consider the sustainability of this beverage that has been a staple in most of our busy lives.
According to recent papers that have been published in Science Advances and Global Change Biology, a large proportion (around 75) of the world’s coffee bean species are close to extinction. Many types included are wild and have never been harvested and cultivated, but there is one variety by the name of Coffea Arabica that plays such a vital part in today’s global coffee culture, that without it the face of cafés will be altered forever. The team behind Global Change Biology estimate that the population of Arabica beans could reduce by half in 2088.
So what can be done to save the Espresso? Well, firstly, it’s important to be conscious about one’s environmental impact. Global warming and rising temperatures put pressure on coffee farmers to reach new physical heights so being aware of one’s carbon footprint is a good first step. Aiding the environment will also help wild strains whose populations tend to be concentrated in one particular environment which when destroyed by rising sea levels and dried out terrain will lead to species extinction.
Biologists might be intrigued to hear about genetic interbreeding between Arabica beans and other wild varieties. Certain wild varieties have been identified as having particular genetic traits that could be advantageous to Arabica bean populations. Breeding a more sturdier kind of bean could be essential to keeping up those Flat White orders on the daily.
So it appears that we are at a critical point with coffee. Sustainable living and making choices for the environment could be enough to turn the tide and keep our coffee consumption possible in the future.
Biologists, Geographers and social sciences students would be wise to use this story as a spring board for more in-depth research into ecological sustainability and our relationship with the environment.
Natural Scientists and those with otherworldly interests will be in awe of man’s latest achievement in the cosmos. This all comes from China’s recent botanical miracle on the moon which has further cemented the nation’s status as a major player in space exploration. China’s Chang’e 4 Biosphere experiment has proved literally fruitful as cotton shoots have successfully sprouted and started to grow on the moon. This was confirmed by an image released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
A mixture of plants, fungi and insects including rapeseed, potato, arabidopsis, yeast and fruit fly eggs have all been transported and carefully selected to make up a self-sustaining micro-ecosystem. Despite risks of contamination of the moon, these biological stuffs are sealed in an air-tight canister that has been meticulously constructed by a collection of Chinese universities.
The experiments findings will help scientists understand how to grow various flora in the harsh extra-terrestrial environments where there is low gravity. To be able to harness this will be hugely beneficial to astronauts going on long-term missions as well as more distant goals such as terraforming the moon and mars for future humans to migrate to.
Man’s future in space is a fantastic application of scientific knowledge and one that scientists of all persuasions should consider for their personal statements. I don’t know about you – but I’ll be twiddling my thumbs waiting for those fruit fly eggs to hatch!