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Quality: HD
Title : Logan
Director : James Mangold.
Release : 2017-02-28
Language : English,Espanol
Runtime : 135 min.
Genre : Action, Drama, Science Fiction.
Synopsis :
What happens when our superheroes get old? It’s essentially something that never happens in our movies, where our heroes are always virile and robust, and if they get a little long in the tooth, we just reboot the series and start over with a younger model. But that’s not the case with Logan, which follows maybe the most famous of the X-Men, Wolverine, as he not only deals with his own broken-down body, but with nursing the longtime leader of the X-Men, professor Charles Xavier. Xavier is now in his 90s and struggles to take care of himself, occasionally slipping into dementia and having trouble recognizing Logan or understanding just what’s going on at any particular time.

And this is just part of what separates Logan from any other superhero movie we’ve seen. I’ll admit that I’ve grown a bit tired of superhero origin stories and crash-and-bang ensemble pictures, but Logan is neither of those things. The characters here feel lived-in and real, and the violence is shocking and gritty. When innocent people are killed in this movie, it doesn’t feel like collateral damage; it’s genuinely disturbing and actually makes us realize that real people’s lives are at stake in this universe.

And even all of this barely scratches the surface. Logan gets involved in trying to save a little girl who’s far more like himself than he’d like to admit, and we eventually follow them as they work with a group of young mutant refugees trying to cross the border into Canada to escape persecution. If that doesn’t resonate with our times, I don’t know what will. The X-Men stories have always reflected racial and ethnic tension and fear, and that’s brought to the forefront here in ways I won’t spoil.

But ultimately, it’s the grounding in reality that makes Logan a special film. We see the broken bodies of our superheroes laid bare, we feel the difficult emotional reality of trying to care for an elderly loved one who has difficulty understanding his own condition and can snap in strange ways at any moment, and we know that nothing can last forever, not even our greatest heroes.

Looking forward

Launch of SpaceX Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket, 14 April 2015, Cape Canaveral, FL. Image credit: NASA

I’m looking forward to the day that my seeds are transported to the ISS on one of these babies! There’s still a long way to go before my project is even ready to apply for a flight position, but I’ve started working with support scientists to schedule all the tests that need to be done. It’s going to be a very busy summer around my lab!

Read more about today’s launch, known as the CRS-6, at NASA’s page about the mission.

An incredible opportunity

I’ve put off this post long enough, not because it’s a bad thing, but rather because it’s such a good thing I’ve had difficulty knowing how to write it. So I won’t, I’ll let these links do the talking:

TL;DR – One of my projects was selected for development as an International Space Station experiment. Ever since we finished our study on gravitropism in the starchless mutant, I’ve wanted to write a proposal for a Station experiment that would serve as the next chapter in that story. In that publication, we showed something new about how plants without the normal gravity sensing machinery respond to gravity. They do so more slowly, and without regard for the angle of stimulation. This raises the question of whether these plants are using the same gravity sensing system as normal plants, which is the question forming the core of our new project.

I struggled with myself about whether it even made sense to attempt such a project, reasoning that my teaching, advising, and service loads only permitted a limited amount of time to do research. And we don’t have grad students or postdocs, who do so much of the technical implementation on these kinds of projects, how could I get the work done? The more I grappled with those thoughts, the more I began to see them as self-fulfilling prophecy of a sort. If the science were good enough to receive funding, the labor, time, and logistical issues should work themselves out. At some point in late 2013, I decided that I would apply to the next NASA Research Announcement for space biology flight opportunities. I was on the hook to myself.

I started to outline the core experiments before the announcement of opportunity came out in February of 2014. As a set of objectives became clear, I started sifting through the pile of unpublished results in the lab and doing additional preliminary experiments to support my arguments. I wrote and wrote. I wrote early in the morning, in between classes, while proctoring exams (some of the most focused time, I’ve found), and late at night. Any scientist, any academic, any writer knows this schedule. Then I submitted it and waited.

And then, in February, I heard.

Now the work and fun begins. I’m assembling a team of students for the summer and preparing a list of tests we need to complete to be approved for a flight experiment. Here’s a great video NASA Ames Research Center produced that describes the process:

I can’t help but feel it’s truly an incredible (= unbelievable) opportunity. I’m going to try to chronicle our progress here, but I’m not sure I’ll have the time. :-P

Seeds can change their coats for the season

Whenever I teach on seeds, either in my non-majors Food class or my Plant Physiology class for majors, I can’t help describing them as the children of the mother plant. I know, not exactly creative, but it helps to paint a picture of the roles of the parent plant and the seed. I like to talk about how the endosperm or other food reserve is like a packed lunch, put there by the caring mother to feed the baby plant as it germinates and becomes able to feed itself. And what kind of parent sends its babies out without a coat? It usually gets a few chuckles, at least, to put this all in human terms.

That coat on the seed? Sometimes it’s a jacket, and other times it’s more like a down coat, and the mother plant chooses based on the temperature. I’m not making this up. In a study published this week, plant scientists link the toughness/thickness of the seed coat to the temperature endured by the mother plant. If the mother experienced warmer temperatures, it will make more of a protein that limits the production of tannins in the fruit. Less tannin makes for a thinner seed coat and faster germination. On the other hand lower temperatures cause the mother plant to make more tannins, leading to a thicker coat. Simple, yet remarkable.

See a news article on this research, or go check out the paper itself.

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Director : James Gunn<br>
Release : April 20, 2017<br>
Language :  en.<br>
Runtime : 0 min<br>
Genre : Action, Adventure, Science Fiction.<br>

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A writing project that bridges two worlds

For the last several months I’ve been working on a manuscript to be included in an edited volume tentatively called Plant Gravitropism: Methods and Protocols. It is part of a series called Methods in Molecular Biology, published by Springer.

rotating stage and camera systemMy contribution focuses on ROTATO, the image analysis and feedback system we use routinely in my lab to measure root gravity responses. The objective of the series is to allow “a competent scientist who is unfamiliar with the method to carry out the technique successfully at the first attempt,” which seems pretty unlikely to me. I can’t think of a single experiment that I’ve every carried out successfully on the first try, but that’s another matter. I’ve been surprised by how hard it’s been to write this, so I thought I’d do some thinking out loud to try to gain a little insight into my struggle.

I think some of my struggle has come from being too close to the method to see it with “beginner’s eyes.” I’ve been working with ROTATO since it was a pile of parts stripped from IBM PCs (we used the computer power supply for 5 V DC and the stepper motor from the floppy drive). I watched over my friend Jack’s shoulder as he wrote the software to make it work. I know the ins and outs of how it works and what makes for a good experiment. Through the years I’ve had a tough time teaching my students how to get good data with it, and I think that’s in part due to the hidden assumptions I make about it. Dragging those assumptions out into the light has been an ongoing process, and writing this paper has been helpful.

Another aspect of the struggle is with how to handle the software part of the method. I am not releasing the code (it’s not mine), and even if I could it wouldn’t do much good because of its dependence on an obsolete frame grabber card. So I’m trying to include enough detail about how it works to allow a scientist/programmer to reimplement the method. But I’m a biologist, not an engineer, so I’m struggling with how much to say and how to say it. I think this is the heart of the issue, that I’m trying to bridge the worlds of biology and engineering.

This is, in fact, what ROTATO is about, and what makes it so important. It takes pictures of a biological response and uses them to control the position of the organ doing the response. It is clever, naive in certain ways, clunky, finicky, crashy, and it works. It has allowed us to learn new things about how roots respond to gravity. So that’s what I’m trying to convey in this methods paper, how to make a ROTATO that works well enough to learn new things, of which there are plenty, I am sure.

Science saves the sourdough

photo of bread bouleDo you like donuts? (Mmm… Donuts…) How about a good, crusty baguette, or a sourdough round? If so, there’s news today that should make you happy: the wheat is going to be OK, at least for now.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know it was ever in peril? You bet it was, thanks to a strain of wheat stem rust known as UG99. Discovered in Uganda in 1998, it has been spreading across Africa and parts of the Middle East, wiping out wheat yields everywhere it’s gone. It’s considered a major threat to wheat yields and as a result, food security.

In two new papers published in Science this week, researchers report two genes that impart resistance to wheat. In one study, they found a gene in barley that made plants resistant, identified a related gene in a wheat relative, and crossed it in. In the other study, researchers found a resistance gene in an ancient cousin of wheat known as Emmer and transferred it using biotechnology.

There is of course a lot of work to do over the coming years to harness the potential of these very basic research findings, but both of these suggest that the tide is turning in the battle against UG99. I, for one, am thrilled that it looks like the sourdough will be saved.

Writing about science for the public

Some good bits of advice for writing about science for the public, including this one:

Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.

I particularly like the focus on telling a people-centered story. This is so far from the comfort zone for most researchers, but I agree that it’s essential to effectively connecting.

Plant RNA not likely to enter bloodstream

A few years back, there was an intriguing report that miRNA from ingested plants was entering the bloodstream of mammals and influencing gene expression. It caught my attention, and I wrote a blurb about it, too. Now a team from Johns Hopkins has repeated the experiment:

…the Johns Hopkins team found what appeared to be the targeted plant microRNAs in the macaques’ blood. But when they ran the experiment several times, they got highly variable results: Sometimes the microRNAs were present in low concentrations, and sometimes not at all. In addition, the samples from before the macaques drank the smoothies were just as likely to have the microRNAs as were the post-smoothie samples…

They don’t completely close the door on the possibility, but it looks more and more like the initial finding was a PCR artifact. Here’s a preprint of the full study, published in RNA Biology.