Glowing proteins shed light on gene expression

Written by Shelby Whitehead

The comic book superhero Hulk is best known for the green color of his skin, which is caused by a special protein called Green Florescence Protein (GFP).  Although the Hulk is fictional, GFP is real and considered one of the most useful tools in modern science.

During a lecture at the Alumni Memorial Building on Thursday, Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize recipient for the discovery and development of GFP, claimed the discovery of GFP revolutionized how scientist understood, studied and manipulated gene expression.

GFP is used to study cell structure, create florescent silk fabrics and detect underground landmines to name a few.

“We are at the golden age of science. We just have to do something with it,” said Chalfie.

GFP is a protein that causes certain cells to glow bright greem under ultraviolet light.  The mechanics of GFP were first understood by biochemist Osamu Shimomora who discovered the protein’s interaction with a certain level of carbon in seawater is what cause florescent jellyfish to glow.

Chalfie explained that the discovery came from a problem his lab was having with studying nematodes, tiny transparent and worm-like creatures. The only way to study nematodes was to kill them.

“First, I work on a transparent animal. The other thing is we wanted to know where [on the genome] genes were expressed.”

Prior processes for studying the genome took a greater period of time to prepare a small sample.

“You got this static picture of what was happening because once you kill it, nothing is going to change… We were thankful for this static picture—but we wanted more,” Chalfie said.

Specifically, Chalfie wanted a way to study the nervous system in the nematodes and how the unique gene expression was related to that process. GFP integrated into the nematode genome allowed Chalfie and his lab to actually see a green glow in the genes active in the nervous system of the living organism, shining light on a biological process that was previous shrouded in darkness.

Chalfie said he was instilled with scientific myths where he was first studying biology in 1962, and only through the discovery of GFP did he realize how wrong those ideas where.

“I thought if you don’t happen to be a genius, don’t event start… Scientific ability is innate,” Chalfie said. “I was told scientists’ experiments work all the time—which, I’m judging by the laughter, everyone knows isn’t true.”

Edited by Taylor Owens

Featured image by Nima Kasraie


Dr. Michinari Hamaguchi discusses research in science and technology, emphasizes more interconnected communities

Former president of Nagoya University and President of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) Dr, Michinari Hamaguchi, spoke in the Toyota Auditorium in the Howard Baker Center on Thursday, March 23.

JST’s mission is to help create and fund innovative research in the general areas of science and technology. Since 2008, JST has assisted with 115 projects across 46 countries.

Some of these research opportunities are done on a grand scale, including the assistance in Malaysia’s infrastructure allowing for a low-carbon society. Other research opportunities are not what most would expect, such as “Synesensor” which is cloning and repainting old historic art pieces. Another project, “Mobility Society,” is designed to help assist the growing population of elderly people out of their home in Japan.

One notable case of JST’s projects is the ‘Revitalization Promotion Program.’

The Revitalization Promotion Program was an effort commenced after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on the east coast of Japan. This program matched the locals who were affected with Academy-Industry Coordinators and Universities. This connection allowed for the needs of the locals to be met by members of JST and local enterprises leading to an easy rehabilitation of the areas affected by the natural disaster.

Connection was a persistent theme in Hamaguchi’s lecture. His goal for the agency is for a more interconnected community of researchers. Hamaguchi said he would like to “bridge the gap” between countries through connecting younger generations.

“I want more researchers to transfer from different countries,” Hamaguchi said.

Closing these gaps should lead to more innovation and overall productivity within research and development in the fields of science and technology for not only Japan, but for the U.S as well.

“Right now the United States and Japan probably has one of the strongest relationships as it is politically, and militarily,” Alex Colton, a student studying Political Science, said. “But scientifically, this could also expand our knowledge.”

In regards to bridging the gap in research communities, JST’s ambition in finding researchers to connect and work with could also benefit aspiring researchers from UTK.

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo

Featured Image by Adrian Godboldt

Dr. Moersh explains the evolution of drone technology, discusses usage on Earth-like landscapes

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV’s, may soon be common use to study various Earth-like landscapes.

Dr. J.E. Moersh spoke on Friday about how drone technology is evolving into a more sophisticated craft, and will soon be advanced enough to start testing in non terrestrial atmospheres.

“These little guys hold a camera better than we can, and fly around a grid and map out an area in about three times less the time we would take,” Moersh said.

At the start of the lecture, Moersh passed around his own personal drone, showing the audience were the camera dock was, and explained that even as the drone itself shook and adjusted to wind during flight, the camera itself never wavered and provided a perfectly still image.

He then proceeded to show the audience various drone models in action through video, showing landscapes of various countries and continents.

In regards to how hard it is to have permission to fly them, Moersh said, “It was actually almost impossible to fly them in any parks in the U.S., but abroad, they were mostly all for it. We got the footage and testing we needed, and in return, they got a 3D map of their own territory.  It was a win-win.”

When it came to Mars, he explained that it would be relatively easy to start testing drone flight on mars through simulation and through testing in our own atmosphere.

“Mars has the 1/3rd of the atmospheric density we have here on Earth.  Flown high enough in our own atmosphere, it wouldn’t be hard to replicate those conditions,” said Moersh.

After the lecture, Amanda Womac, an attendee, said, “This could be how research is conducted in the future, with drones in the field and scientists in the lab.”

For more Science Forum lecture information, visit this website.

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo

Featured Image by Ryan McGill

Lecturer discusses “taxi” services, emphasizes importance of studying ancient encosystems

Dr. Colin Sumrall of the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences held a lecture on Friday about the Paleozoic Seas, discussing how the creatures that lived in them used to use one another as “taxis” or living surfaces.

Sumrall emphasized the importance of studying ancient ecosystems in order to better understand our own modern ones.  He further explained that this task can often be difficult, as most of the organisms he discussed were extinct.

“If I were to give you an example,” Sumrall said, “If you don’t have a fossil record and I were to ask you ‘how big can a land vertebrate get’, you’d say an African Elephant… but with a fossil record, we know of vertebrates that are 10 times as big.”

The nature of a fossil itself is quite grim, according to Sumrall.  Should a fossil be particularly in good shape, it is very likely that the specimen fossilized was buried alive in that position.  On the other hand, it allows scientists a glimpse into the timing of events occurring.

Most of the lecture was focused on discussing edrioasteroids, one of the more commonly found encrusters in Sumrall’s study. They require a hard substrate for attachment, and rapidly disarticulate after they die.  They are effectively immobilized after they find something to attach to.

Credit: Thomas Ferrell

“When they glue themselves down, it’s like they’re using superglue, in fact, this is were super glue came from,” Sumrall explained.

Edrioasteroids were also studied to not overgrow members of the same species, but did overgrown members of other species. Because of the fact that they cannot move, they effectively spread through means of growth, often covering another unfortunate species.

The final part of the lecture discussed evidence to find epibionts, or organisms that live attached to others. Sumrall spent time across the world finding fossilized epidbionts and discussing their relevance.  After studying them for 30 years, he explains that he is one of the only people who studies the subject.

William Futrell, a UT student thought the subject of the lecture was interesting. “While this lecture really isn’t specifically for anything I’m doing, it allows me to know more about the living ecosystems around me and how ancient creatures lived in various places,” he said.

More information about these lectures and future meetings can be found here.


Featured Image and photos by Thomas Ferrell

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo

Club Week: Student Space Technology Association creates out of this world projects

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Every Tuesday evening in Hodges Library, students can be found on all floors either studying, working on projects or just hanging out with friends. However, members of the Student Space Technology Association at UT can be found working on peculiar projects such as high-altitude balloons or rocketry. These students belong to a club that primarily focuses on space and engineering.

Also known as the Volunteer Space Program, this club gives students the opportunity to work as a team in order to complete a variety of projects. They work on anything from building rockets and weather balloons to designing a space station while working out the logistics of how to get it into orbit around the Earth.

“Our primary function is an engineering team,” said Grayson Hawkins, one of the group’s key members. “We design and build space-related technology.”

SSTA members got a chance to meet with US astronaut and Navy Captain “Butch” Wilmore. //Photo courtesy of SSTA

Since its creation, the Student Space Technology Association has gained 42 members with all types of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors being represented by both undergraduates and graduate students alike.

The group is currently working on their last project for the semester; a rocket that will, according to Hawkins, use “… a PVC/concrete G-class motor that will burn KN/SO (Potassium Nitrate/Sorbital) solid fuel.” The rocket is being made entirely from scratch, as well. Although the designs are in the early stages as of now, they are confident that they will finish it by the end of the semester.

They also have a competition team that will be entering a NASA mission architecture design competition where they are tasked with creating an Earth-independent space station using a projection of NASA’s current budget. More information about this competition can be found at their website.

One aspect of their club structure that they take pride in is their allowance of non-executive members to be given the opportunity to lead certain projects they work on. This way, they help give students the ability to learn how to lead their own projects while gaining experience necessary for future projects.

They also stress the need for advocating space as a reachable frontier. On their website, the club states that, “Within the past few years, it has become more and more evident that humankind is within centuries of becoming a multiplanetary species. Aside from devoting our own lives to achievement and the progression of space technology, the Student Space Technology Association’s greatest legacy will come from the inspiration of the next generation of engineers, mathematicians and physicists.”

“Everyone is enthusiastic and passionate about the rapidly growing U.S. space/satellite industry and about NASA and advancing the space frontier,” Hawkins said. “Real fun stuff for space nerds.”

Information about the Volunteer Space Program can be found at their website, and on their Facebook page.

Featured image courtesy of SSTA

Edited by Jessica Carr

UT Professor explains link between birds and dinosaurs

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Colin D. Sumrall, assistant professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, gave a lecture on Friday, Oct. 9, about the link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds.

Sumrall’s presentation, given to a healthy mix of both students and members of the community, expanded upon the scientific belief that modern-day birds have gradually evolved from dinosaurs over time. Throughout the presentation, Sumrall gave in-depth analyses of dinosaurs and tried to answer the question; how did dinosaurs evolve into birds?

“During the extinction, a meteor came down and wiped out the dinosaurs,” Sumrall said. “That’s what happened, right? didn’t.”

Sumrall explained that not only did the dinosaurs not all go extinct after a meteor hit the Earth roughly 65 million years ago, but that they gradually evolved into birds, and demonstrated this by showing various specimens and fossils whose characteristics increasingly started to resemble birds rather than dinosaurs.

A replica of Archaeopteryx lithographica. Photo by Daulton McCartney.

“The dinosaurs that immediately went extinct were the big ones,” explained Sumrall. “Not only did the smaller dinosaurs survive, but their physical characteristics evolved to help them adapt to their ever-changing environments; with the development of feathers, restructuring of skeletal makeup, most notably the pubis, and in some cases, elongated claws.”

To help explain the point of his lecture, Sumrall showed a picture of a featherless chicken.

“Doesn’t that look just like a dinosaur,” Sumrall asked. “It’s arms are a little different, but that’s just what chickens look like.”

But why do people still find it hard to believe that birds and dinosaurs are relatives?

“If a meteor hit the Earth and all mammals except for bats went extinct, what would future paleontologists think of our life,” Sumrall asked.

He then claimed that if life in 65 million years were to find a fossil of a whale or a sea lion, they would not think that it was a mammal, much like people in the present-day find it hard to believe that birds are related to dinosaurs.

Sumrall believes that people are just looking at it wrong. They tend to miss that birds are in the same category as dinosaurs in the same way that humans are in the same category as all mammals.

After the presentation, the audience asked Sumrall questions, ranging from 3D printing of fossils to falsified fossils found in China. However, the question that got the biggest response was about the impact that actually holding a fossil has on his research. Sumrall’s response highlighted that simply learning about evolution through texts is fine, but it becomes so much more clear when presented with an authentic fossil or specimen.

Sumrall concluded, “It’s really nice to be able to hold a specimen.”

Featured image by Daulton McCartney

Edited by Jessica Carr