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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fossilized Swedish Ferns: Don't Step on My Toe, Sis!

       The beauty of this 180 million-year-old fossilized fern from southern Sweden shows cells in various stages of mitosis. It combines both rocks and plant organelles frozen in a volcanic flow.

      The study was published last week in by Benjamin Bomfleur, Vivi Vajda, et al:


      The fossil had been languishing in a Swedish Museum drawer since the 1960's. The amazing thing about the specimen is the degree of cell detail shown with nuclei intact, distinct cytoplasm, and cells dividing, preserved as a hot brine of minerals replaced the cell structures. What a mitosis show!

     The fossilized fern in the family Osmundaceae is essentially identical to the modern day Royal Fern, with little change in genome or DNA content. Like the classic horsetail fern, this Royal Fern is the same today as during the Jurassic Era. It is quite comparable to the cinnamon fern of the eastern U.S. and Canada.

     This living fossil cinnamon fern reminds me, on a different scale, of mudcracks and other features seen on aerial images and segues to this amazing view of Moab, Utah, just published this week by the U. S. Geological Survey:

    The wind deposited and eroded features includes numerous fins and arches show in the southwest and northeast portions of the image around the central city of Moab. These features on the ground in the Jurassic Entrada Sandstone look amazing and represent such change:

   So, on one hand, here's a Jurassic fossil fern that hasn't changed in 180 million years, and a Jurassic-deposited landscape that is being eroded and changed every day. Recent collapses of arches in nearby Arches National Park allude to this change.

    Isn't geology grand in all the contrasts and similarities? Have you been to these places? Were you in awe, wonder, happy and rich in fossils?

A fossil and Utah fan,

Word Woman (Scientific Steph)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Shamrock Shake, Waverly Person, and the Moment Magnitude Scale

     Next week marks the 1/2 year anniversary of Partial Ellipsis of the Sun. Thanks for your support, humor, questions, and blog ideas. I've enjoyed reading every single comment.

     Yesterday's 4.4 magnitude earthquake in the Los Angeles area and a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Iquique, Chile, prompted today's topic. I thought I would shake things up a bit after the "Shamrock Shake" and the quake in Chile that prompted the evacuation of 100,000 people.

      I am curious about whether you realize the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as most countries except Russia, no longer uses the Richter Scale as a measure of magnitude. The Moment Magnitude Scale, abbreviated MMS or Mw was developed in 1979 and more accurately reflects differences in energy released, particularly those above 7.0 on the old Richter Scale. Yet, the Richter Scale is more accurate for quakes of magnitude 3.5 and less.

       Both the Richter Scale and the Moment Magnitude Scale are calibrated similarly for medium sized quakes (3.5 - 7.0). The numbers for quakes higher than 7.0 are generally revised upward. The March 27, 1964, Alaskan earthquake is now a 9.2 (It was 8.4 on the Richter Scale.) Note the 33 foot scarp with dessicated, white marine organisms along the newly created flat portion:

     This 4 minute video about the Alaska quake was just released by the USGS to honor the big L anniversary:

         50Th Anniversary of 1964 Alaska Quake: USGS Video

     The May 22, 1960, Chilean earthquake, the largest seismic event recorded, has been recalibrated to a 9.5.

      Both scales take into account a logarithmic scale such that the increase from one step to the next is a 32 fold increase in energy and the increase from two steps apart is 1000 fold for those medium earthquakes. The MMS moves off much higher for quakes in the upper ranges. (See video at the end of this blog for more detail).

      Dr. Waverly Person, (yes, that's his real name) former Director of the USGS Earthquake Information Center here in CO, was responsible for converting quakes to the new scale, the one that hardly anyone knows. Just like our petrography friend, Dr. Nicol, that first name of Richter sticks. All the reports I read today included the Richter Scale.

      If you are interested in a spaghetti-based video explaining the differences between the scales, watch here:

               What happened to the Richter Scale?

         The moral of this tale: get in there early in the name game!

         And be safe in a shake!

         Looking forward to p and s waves coming from you this week.


Word Woman (Scientific Steph)



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Even If It's Greek to You, It's Greek to You: An Early Analog Computer

      I have been dreaming of Greek mathematicians, blue waters, and green islands this week in our swirling March snowstorm. And, especially of things that have been described, by Dr. Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University as "more valuable than the Mona Lisa." Though that comparison doesn't work all that well for me, I am intrigued.

     The Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, Greece, in 1900 is an early analog computer from the first century B.C. (A 2013 dive to the shipwreck site found many sephoras with DNA samples and other artwork.)The 30 or more bronze gears, including the largest one with 223 teeth, was used to predict eclipses, celestial events, and lunar cycles. The discovery and subsequent analysis via x-rays is described in this 7 minute video:

                     ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM

     The original mechanism of a very intricate, integrated collection of gears is kept in Athens, Greece. The device could mechanically replicate the irregular motions of the moon, caused by its elliptical orbit around the Earth, using an extremely clever design involving two superimposed gear-wheels, one slightly off-center, that are connected by a pin-and-slot device: 

     Replicas in the U.S. are at the Children's Museum in New York and the Computer Museum in Bozeman, MT. This degree of complicated gear meshing in clock- like fashion was not again replicated until the 14th century. Hmmmm, why not?!

     The writing around the gears is in Koine Greek, also known as the Alexandrian dialect, common Attic, or Hellenistic Greek.


     Well, yes, it's all Greek to me (and likely to you). And even if it isn't Greek to you, it's Greek to you ;-).

Clockwork green? ;-)

Happy early Pi Day on Friday everyone! 

Looking forward to your timely thoughts, 

Word Woman (Scientific Steph)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

PP1: An Enzyme that Really Gets Around

        My bogarted zircon article was explored in the comments last week so let's radically switch gears and party the human enzyme PP1, an enzyme I had not even heard of until yesterday.

        [To review from high school biology and chemistry: An enzyme is a substance produced by a living organism that acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific biochemical reaction (such as the generic enzyme shown above).] Enzymes are a complicated-looking group of structures (see above). The Wikipedia introduction to the specific enzyme PP1 is:

         Phosphoprotein phosphatase 1 (PP1) belongs to a certain class of phosphatases known as protein serine/ threonine phosphatases. This type of phosphatase includes metal-dependent protein phosphatases (PPMs) and aspartate-based phosphatases. PP1 has been found to be important in the:

1. control of glycogen metabolism
2. muscle contraction
3. cell progression
4. neuronal activities 
5. splicing of RNA
6. mitosis 
7. cell division
8. apoptosis
9. protein synthesis,
10. and regulation of membrane receptors and channels.

        In other words, this complex, New Year's Eve party-looking enzyme is part of so many processes in the human body that changing one part of PP1 for one disease (such as a cure for cancer) can radically affect the PP1 which is involved in other processes in the body (such as a cure for Alzheimer's disease):

         Brown University researchers yesterday published this press release about PP1 advances yesterday:

         From the photo and gif of enzymes above you'll note these are wildly complicated, interactive human structures. Below is the illustration that accompanies the Brown University article: (The main researcher is Dr. Rebecca Page, though the team includes several Brown scientists).

                                               Credit: Page lab / Brown University

             The enzyme PP1, the tan mass above, is everywhere in the body and has a role in nearly every biological process. That function is shaped by more than 200 regulatory proteins that bind to PP1, including one called PNUTS, the blue/purple and pink structures above. And, certainly learning more about PNUTS will cost significantly more than peanuts. And, note my great restraint in making no PNUTS or PP (1 or otherwise) jokes. I will leave that up to you.

              Unravelling how regulatory proteins bind to PP1 is a large part of understanding and possibly curing diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. And, yes, it is a very long and winding road from this Brown University research to cures for these human diseases.


              This topic is quite new to me. I would appreciate your insights, thoughts, suggestions on this newly developing area of research.


Word Woman (Scientific Steph)
Agent for Change