Bioscience Day

(In which I play at being Ed Yong.)

Today is Bioscience Day at UMD. While I’m not a scientist, I am a science groupie, so on my lunch break I wandered over to the poster session to see what was being presented, and maybe score a pass to go backstage where the brown M&Ms and orgies are, and scientists would snort blow out of the small of my back before using me up and dumping me in some back alley with nothing but a case of antibiotic-resistant herpes and a couple of coauthor credits talk to the researchers.

For the most part, I lacked the vocabulary and the background to understand what was so cool about the research. But occasionally I understood enough to ask what was going on.

The Taboo Wiktionary: One problem with the sciences is that it uses big words, and so students are tempted to just memorize definitions without actually understanding the underlying ideas. So these folks devised a game similar to Taboo, in which students have to define terms without using certain words.

Attack! We’re right behind you! (Biological Nanofactories Target and Activate Epithelial Cell Surfaces for Modulating Bacterial Quorum Sensing and Interspecies Signaling): This was a rather cool notion. The idea is that bacteria like E. coli don’t attack the host organism until there’s a lot of them. The way this is coordinated is through chemical signals: the bacteria emit chemicals that their neighbors sense, so that each bacterium can tell whether it’s alone or part of a crowd. And if it’s part of a crowd, a bacterium will attack, confident that everyone else is, too.

So what these people figured was, what if you try to mimic the “crowd” signal? If there are only a handful of E. coli in your gut, but you fool them into thinking that there’s a bazillion of them, then they’ll attack. Your immune system will make mincemeat of them, and in the process, learn what that strain of E. coli looks like, in case they come back. I guess this is like beating the bushes to force potential enemies to show themselves.

Drug Delivery by Cucurbituril-Type Molecular Containers: The word that caught my eye was “Cucurbituril”. I seemed to remember that “cucurbit” is Latin for “pumpkin” or “gourd”, and that didn’t seem to match with the chemistry-heavy abstract.

I asked the author, figuring that cucurbiturils were originally derived from some gourd protein or something, but she explained that no, it’s because the molecule is sorta-spherical and has a lot of empty space inside, so it looks a little like a pumpkin. Sense of humor FTW!

Ant diversity from space: The way the title read (unfortunately, at that link they’ve replaced the poster’s title with “Assistant Research Scientist”, for some reason), I thought it was about detecting and mapping ants from satellites, which seemed rather hard to believe. It turns out that while there are some ant structures that can be seen from space (giant anthills in the African savannah, for instance), that wasn’t what they were talking about. Rather, they were using satellite imagery to map conditions like humidity, temperature, soil composition, etc., and from that predict the likely characteristics of native ants. In other words, if you’re looking for ants with a certain set of characteristics, this research can help narrow down the best places to look.

All in all, I found that all of the researchers I talked to were friendly, and more than happy to explain their work to a layman like myself.