Category: Tools and Techniques

Research Organism Superheroes: Hawaiian Bobtail Squid

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A Hawaiian bobtail squid swimming in front of a submerged hand, appearing as if to fit into the palm of the hand.
This adult Hawaiian bobtail squid swimming in front of a submerged hand illustrates its small size. Credit: The labs of Margaret J. McFall-Ngai, Carnegie Institution for Science/California Institute of Technology, and Edward G. Ruby, California Institute of Technology.

The Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) is only about as big as a golf ball, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its superpower—an invisibility cloak to be exact. Thanks to its symbiotic relationship with the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri, it’s able to seemingly disappear from its predators when swimming at night.  

These super-squid live in the shallow coastal waters in the Pacific, like those around the Hawaiian Islands. They’re nocturnal, so they hunt their prey—small shrimp and other crustaceans—at night and hide, often by burying themselves in the sand, during the day while they rest. Although Hawaiian bobtail squid live their short 3-10 month lives around one another, they generally only interact for breeding, and even then, they only reproduce once in their lifetimes and die soon after reproduction.

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Martin Burke: Replacing Lost Proteins to Treat Disease

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As a medical student, Martin Burke, M.D., Ph.D., helped care for a young college student with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease that affects the body’s ability to make sweat and mucus. Dr. Burke had just studied CF in class, so he relayed what he had learned to her. He had a lot of information to give—doctors and researchers know the exact amino acid changes in an ion channel protein called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) that cause CF.

A portrait shot of Dr. Martin Burke standing in front of complex machinery.
Credit: UIUC News Bureau, Fred Zwicky.

“At one point in the conversation, she stopped me and said, ‘It sounds like you know exactly what’s wrong with me, so why can’t you fix it?’” Dr. Burke, now the May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), never forgot this question. In fact, it’s inspired his career-long search for new ways to develop therapies for diseases without effective treatment options.

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Developing Low-Cost Lab Techniques: Q&A With Abraham Badu-Tawiah

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A headshot of Dr. Abraham Badu-Tawiah.
Credit: Ohio State University.

“I never thought I could make an impact on chemistry and students’ lives. But now, I’m the head of a lab with several Ph.D. and undergraduate students and a postdoctoral researcher; and we’re developing simple, low-cost lab techniques that can be adopted by labs across the world,” says Abraham Badu-Tawiah, Ph.D., the Robert K. Fox Professor of Chemistry at Ohio State University in Columbus. We talked with Dr. Badu-Tawiah about his career progression, research, and advice for students hoping to launch a career in science.

Q: How did you get started on the path to a career in science?

A: In Ghana, where I grew up, education works differently than in the United States. High school students are assigned subjects to study primarily based on their grades, and once assigned a subject, it’s difficult to switch. I was assigned to math, physics, and chemistry, which put me on a path toward being an engineer. I was happy to be studying science, but after the death of my brother, I wanted to study medicine more than engineering.

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Research Organism Superheroes: Fruit Flies

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A fruit fly on a yellow fruit.
Credit: iStock.

Those pesky little bugs flying around the overripe bananas in your kitchen may hold the key to understanding something new about how our bodies work. That’s right, the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is a widely used research organism in genetics because of its superpower of reproducing quickly with similar genes to people.

Researchers have been studying fruit flies for over a century for many reasons. First, they’re easy to please—just keep them at room temperature and feed them corn meal, sugar, and yeast (or those bananas on your counter!). Second, they reproduce more quickly and have shorter life cycles than larger organisms. A female can lay up to a hundred eggs in a day, and those eggs develop into mature adult flies within 10 to 12 days. A third reason is the simplicity of the fruit fly’s genome, which only has four pairs of chromosomes compared to the 23 in humans. And on a logistical note, the male and female flies are easy to tell apart (genetic studies often require separating males and females, which isn’t an easy feat in all organisms).

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Science Snippet: Zooming In on Nanoparticles

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A circle divided into six different, brightly colored slices, each with a different style of nanoparticle. In the center is a gray circle with the word nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles come in many different shapes and configurations. Credit: Adapted from Stevens, et. al., under Creative Commons License 4.0.

Nanoparticles may sound like gadgets from a science fiction movie, but they exist in real life. They’re particles of any material that are less than 100 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter) in all dimensions. Nanoparticles appear in nature, and humans have, mostly unknowingly, used them since ancient times. For example, hair dyeing in ancient Egypt involved lead sulfite nanoparticles, and artisans in the Middle Ages added gold and silver nanoparticles to stained-glass windows. Over the past several decades, researchers have studied nanoparticles for their potential uses in many fields, from computer engineering to biology.

A nanoparticle’s properties can differ significantly from those of larger pieces of the same material. Properties that may change include:

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Curiosity-Driven Science: Q&A With Saad Bhamla

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What do worm blobs and insect pee have to do with human health? We talked to Saad Bhamla, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, to find out.

Q: What did your path to becoming a scientist look like?

A portrait shot of Saad Bhamla.
Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech.

A: I grew up in Dubai and did my undergraduate work in India, which is where I was first introduced to science. The science faculty members seemed to be having so much fun and would say things like “for the love of science,” but I couldn’t figure out what joy they were getting until I got a taste of it myself—then I was hooked. I like the idea that you can create a legacy doing science because someone can come along 100 years later and build on your work.

After undergrad, I went to Stanford University and earned my Ph.D. in the lab of Gerald Fuller, Ph.D., and then stayed at Stanford for postdoctoral work (postdoc) in the lab of Manu Prakash, Ph.D. In 2017, I joined the faculty at Georgia Tech. On paper, I’m a chemical engineer, but I describe myself as more of a biophysicist.

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Research Organism Superheroes: Tardigrades

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A brown, barrel-shaped body with rolls, eight legs, pointy claws, and a round mouth against a green background.
A 3D rendering of a tardigrade. Credit: iStock.

“Water bear” or “moss piglet”? No matter what you call them, tardigrades have secured the title of cutest invertebrate—at least in our book. They’re tiny creatures, averaging about the size of a grain of salt, so while you can spot them with the naked eye, using a microscope is the best way to see them. They earned their nickname of water bear and their official name (which comes from tardigradus, Latin for “slow walker”) because of the way they lumber slowly and deliberately on short, stubby legs.

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