Why This Blog?

There are scores of science blogs out there, so why one more? Why should you be here, reading it? My intent and hope is to provide as easy-to-understand a commentary on as interesting and relevant a complement of scientific topics as possible.

As a scientist, I have two literary responsibilities. One of them is to present my results to the scientific community via (usually highly technical) peer-reviewed journal articles. Unfortunately, this medium is relatively inaccessible to practically anyone without a background in the area (indeed, even other scientists from different disciplines usually need to wade with effort through each other’s writings). What’s more, most research journals are still not freely available without a costly subscription, further raising the material out of reach of the general public.

But it is imperative that at least some of this material be more widely and correctly understood. That’s where a science educator’s second responsibility comes in: to circumvent the technical jargon and use their familiarity with the field to make the findings of investigations readily available to anyone, regardless of their educational background. I’d like to share with you the exciting implications that unfold from current biological research.

Why do I feel that it is so important to share and clarify this scientific material (other than the fact that I think it’s downright cool)? Scientific topics, and especially some aspects of evolutionary biology, are currently misunderstood to an alarming extent among the general populace. This misunderstanding even threatens to feed back through political decisions to negatively affect education, which would be unfortunate and only destructive.

Chiefly, the recent rise in popularity (in some countries) of ideologies such as intelligent design (a terminological offshoot of creationism, the idea that the natural world was deliberately established in its current form by an intelligent supernatural entity) is responsible for propagating a great deal of inaccurate information about science. Although it often presents itself as science, the ideology of intelligent design is not scientific, for the simple reason that it is driven by a desire to validate a religious (and therefore biased) agenda. The resulting misinformation that is circulated leads to a very skewed view of science.

As a scientist, I feel that it is my responsibility to present a more scientifically sound interpretation of observations, and to promote a rational way of thinking in general, which is at the very heart of scientific research. This blog is not an attack on religion per se, and I have no quarrel with people’s individual beliefs. However, whenever any ideology misrepresents science, it is important for scientists to present a more balanced view and to clarify misunderstood concepts.

I’m also writing this blog out of the sheer enjoyment of sharing the wonders of the natural world. I’m a science geek, as my wife, family and friends will eagerly point out, and few things give me as much pleasure as the opportunity to present the intricacies of biological complexity and to recount the way in which the function and probable origin of biological systems has been inferred.

I’d also like to share my first-hand experiences from a wide range of fascinating research projects in which I’ve had the fortune to be involved over the years, from the hunt for photosynthetic microbes at crushing deep ocean hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean, to investigating how moths pollinate or cheat on their succulent plant hosts under the blazing Utah sun, to recording the diversity of rainbow-colored bacteria that tolerate saturated brines at rusty salt springs in remote Canadian wilderness, to understanding why moss plants grow better after elk walk over them in the Rocky Mountains, to coaxing fluorescent pink bacterial growth from dry sand dunes in the middle of Manitoban forest, to watching deep-ocean and salt-resistant bacteria withstand jaw-droppingly high levels of toxic metals in the laboratory in an effort to isolate species that may help us to clean up industrial waste sites.

Therefore, I hope that you will enjoy the posts on this site, and I thank you for stopping by. I always welcome feedback to improve it, to make it more interesting or clear. I am also more than happy to discuss any aspect of the material with anyone, for which the comment threads should be a useful medium.

I dedicate this blog to all the inspiring science educators with whom I have had the great fortune to be associated over the years. Thank you all!

2 Responses to Why This Blog?

  1. Maryke Kruger says:

    Hi there
    Thanks very mutch for this blog – it is wonderful!
    I am a microbiologist – Cooling Water Microbiology – which is no-where as interisting as extremophiles although we do have some enviroments where microbes are not suppose to grow but they do – I find them the most fasinating of all creation. In your one article about the caveman genes you metion that there is some bacteria/Virial DNA incorporated intou human Genes – facinating ! – Can these Bacterial DNA create a “backdoor”” to enable them to infect human hosts ?

    • Thank you for your comments, Maryke.

      I recall how interesting are some of the microorganisms that are isolated from cooling water systems of various kinds. It just goes to show that some microbes are evolved to survive in nearly any environment conceivable on this planet; you just need to set up a culture under the right conditions — a cooling water system is basically that, right? — and you will fish out all sorts of bizarre forms. There was hardly a set of conditions in which at least some bacteria in samples from the field would not grow when media were inoculated. They’re quite amazing.

      As for your question regarding human genes in bacteria and vice versa, it’s really fascinating — I know that genetic material of human origin has been found to have been laterally transferred to _Neisseria gonorrhoeae_ and _Neisseria meningitidis_ (Anderson and Seifert, 2011) ( http://mbio.asm.org/content/2/1/e00005-11.full.pdf ). In this case, the 685-bp human sequence involved, L1, appears to be a retrotransposable element, the mobility of which may help to explain its interspecific transfer.

      Regarding the influence of this phenomenon on infection, I’m not sure what influence it has, as human genes have only recently been detected in bacteria, and it’s a new field for research. However, I do know, as perhaps do you as well, that infection by those bacterial species that exhibit occasional intracellular infection (e.g. the exceptionally small and cell wall-lacking mycoplasmas) is a complex cascade of events involving many different cellular surface elements. Some of the adhesin molecules that these bacteria express on their surface and use to facilitate adhesion to the human host cells may mimic mammalian structural proteins (Rottem, 2003) ( http://physrev.physiology.org/content/83/2/417.full ).

      On a slightly unrelated note, but of interest to this blog in an evolutionary context, several species of _Mycoplasma_ have been shown to persist and remain viable within host cells for up to 48 hours (Rottem, 2003). Although sustained reproduction of these bacteria within human cells has yet to be demonstrated, you’ll note that their extended intracellular survival demonstrates that they are capable of some of the first steps required in establishing a stable endosymbiosis, similar to the ancestors of mitochondria.

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