Nov 10, 2012

Mount St. Helens: Rising From the Ashes

Life erupts once again from the once lifeless mountain

When Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980, it wasn't a surprise that it happened, but even today the extent of the damage is hard to fathom. The eruption knocked down 100-foot trees like matchsticks and killed just about everything in its path. There have been several smaller eruptions since then, but nothing like what happened in 1980.

Evolutionary biologist and ecologist John Bishop knows Mount St. Helens well; he has been working on the mountain for 20 years. "It began with the largest landslide in recorded history that uncorked an explosion that was directed horizontally and leveled the forest 13 miles out," recalls Bishop. "It was just a barren landscape, gray-and-pumice-colored, covered with rocks."
Today, dead tree trunks still litter the landscape. But, if you take a closer look, you'll see another kind of eruption; an eruption of life on the mountainside. For Bishop, it's a blessing. "It's a rare opportunity for scientists to get to study a devastated area and how it comes back from scratch in such detail," he says.

With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Bishop is documenting the return of living things to the once lifeless mountain. "Up until the last 10 years, the landscape has been completely dominated by lupins," says Bishop. He says these flowering lupin plants are able to create new soil from volcanic ash. That new soil has created a habitat for the Sitka willow. But, Bishop says there is a problem. "One of the things we've realized about these willows is that they're not getting big. And that's important because they create habitat for birds and mammals."

The culprits are small invasive weevils that are on the attack. They've taken up residence inside the willows' stems, stunting the plants' growth or killing them. Bishop says there is a lesson in all of this. "Seemingly insignificant organisms, like insects that consume plants, play an extraordinarily important role in the sorting out process of deciding, essentially, which plants are going to stay in the landscape and which ones are going to disappear."

Bishop points out that the imbalance between plants and insects on Mount St. Helens should be expected in rudimentary systems and will cause instability until a more complex community of plant and animal species is sustainable, or until the day Mount St. Helens itself changes the equation once again.

Aug 18, 2012

Dragonflies: The Flying Aces of the Insect World


Miles O’Brien: This dragonfly is grabbing the meal on the go.

Stacey Combes: This attempt is so fast that unless we film it in high-speed we can’t see whether it caught the prey. But when it gets back to its perch, if we see it chewing we know that it was successful.

Miles O’Brien: With support from the National Science Fundation, Harvard university biomechanist Stacey Combes, wants to understand how dragonflies pull off these complicated aerial feats; hunting, and even reproducing in midair. She and her team set up their lab near a pond outside Boston, right in the heart of dragonfly country.

Student: All right, I got one. I lost it.

Miles O’Brien: Clearly it's not easy to catch a dragonfly.

Student: I got one.

Miles O’Brien: Check out this frog. In this specially built netted enclosure, Combes’ team set up eight high-speed cameras. Then they release a dragonfly and some tasty fruit fly prey to watch what happens next.

Stacey Combes: They’ll go up in midair, catch the prey with their hands, or with their feet turn upside down and glide back to stick. And the whole capture will take maybe a second, or a second and a half. This one’s missing about half of its left front wing and yet it still does an amazing job catching the fruit fly in midair.

Student: It only takes about half a second for this to happen.

Stacey Combes: They caught, you know, about 90 or 95 percent of the prey that we gave them. And interestingly, they’re one of the most ancient groups of insects. They’ve had a long time to evolve their skills as predators.

Miles O’Brien: About 300 million years. These four-winged insects predate dinosaurs. They can fly straight up, straight down, hover like helicopters, and disappear in a blur. And their eyesight?

Amber DesLauriers: Almost its whole head is eye.They can see pretty much all the way around their head, except right behind them.

Miles O’Brien: Dragonflies mate and lay eggs in flight.

Stacy Combes: Do you see her like just dipping in the water?

Student: She’s trying to lay eggs; the male’s trying to mate with her.

Miles O’Brien: Combes says engineers are looking to the dragonfly for inspiration in small scale aircraft design.

Stacy Combes: There's a lot of interest in building, you know, robotic, smaller robotic devices.

Miles O’Brien: And she says better understanding of dragonflies could lead to more effective mosquito control strategies.

Stacy Combes: They may consume 30 mosquitoes a day. They could even consume hundreds a day.

Miles O’Brien: And that’s an idea that could really take flight.

Miles O’Brien: For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.

Discovery Files: Slow V. Go!

Slow V.[1] Go!

Michigan State University researchers show that more adaptable bacteria that are oriented toward long-term improvement prevailed over competitors that held short term advantages.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Take Your Time -- It's Evolution.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

An evolutionary study of generations of bacteria reads a lot like the fable, 'the tortoise and the hare.'[2] Led by the University of Michigan, it showed that if you're a bacteria, sometimes it's better to be a slow, adaptable tortoise than a fitness-oriented hare.

In the fable, the hare is all like full of himself and instantly gets way out front. So far ahead, he figures he can take a nap. By the time he wakes up, the tortoise is plodding across the finish line.

How does that relate to bacteria? The MSU study recorded evolutionary change over an unprecedented 52,000 generations of bacteria grown over 25 years. The team was able to clone two distinct lineages from a population of frozen E. coli[3]. Welcome to bacterial family feud! And here we go!

One lineage makes a mutational move early in the game that gets them ahead initially, but closes off certain routes for later improvement and eventually winds up extinct. The other lineage is less fit early on, but over the course of several evolutionary moves, produces more beneficial mutations, overcoming its short-term disadvantage. By maintaining greater potential for further adaptation, the tortoises prevail.

Turtle power!

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.
[1] Slow V.
“Slo-V” is a slow flying model aircraft. For more information, please visit

[2] the tortoise and the hare
it is a fable attributed to Aesop. The story concerns a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise and is challenged by him to a race. The hare takes a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, he finds that the tortoise has won the competition.

[3] E. coli / Escherichia coli
A bacterium commonly found in the intestines of humans and other animals, where it usually causes no harm. Some strains can cause severe food poisoning, esp. in old people and children. 大腸桿菌

Aug 7, 2012

Curiosity Has Landed on Mars


Things are looking good. Coming up on entry.

Vehicle reports entry interface.

We're beginning to feel the atmosphere as we go in here. Alright, it is reporting that

we are seeing G's on the order of 11 or 12 Earth G's.

Bank reversal 2 is starting (cheering). We are now getting telemetry from Odyssey.

We should have parachute deploy around Mach 1.7.

Parachute has deployed (cheering).

We are decelerating.

Heat shield has separated, we are locked on the ground.

We're down to 90 meters per second at an altitude of 6.5 kilometer descending.

Standing by for backshell separation.

We are in powered flight (cheering).

We're at an altitude of 1 km descending.

Standing by for sky crane. Sky crane has started

Signal from Odyssey remains strong.

Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars (loud, sustained cheering).

We got thumbnails (cheering).

Aug 2, 2012

What's Up for August 2012?


What's Up for August? View Mars as the rover Curiosity lands on its surface this month.

Hello and welcome. I'm Jane Houston Jones at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

On August 5 at 10:31 p.m. Pacific time NASA's Mars rover named Curiosity will touch down in Gale Crater. The best time to view Mars this month is right after sunset. Saturn, Mars and the bright star Spica [1] form a trio almost all month long. Look low in the west, 30 degrees above the horizon. You should be able to see the difference in color between the three. Saturn appears golden. Spica is blue-white. And Mars is rusty red.

On the 21st the moon joins the lineup.

On the night of the 5th, Mars sets a few hours after sunset everywhere in the U.S.
You can find a Mars viewing party on this night by checking with your local planetarium, science center or astronomy club. If you get a chance to view Mars through a telescope on that night, you might be able to see the dark Martian feature called Syrtis Major [2] near the center of the planet.

Although you can't see Gale Crater, Curiosity's landing site, through the telescope, it's near the limb to the east of Syrtis Major that night.

On the opposite limb is the rover Opportunity, who's been exploring Mars since 2004.
The most popular meteor shower of the year, the Perseids [3], peaks on a summer weekend Saturday night through Sunday morning, August 11th and 12th.

The constellation Perseus [4] rises in the northeast soon after sunset. Just follow the Milky Way from the south to the north to find it.

You'll see dozens of fast, bright meteors, some leaving persistent trains or smoky trails.

You can find information about Curiosity's landing at and And look for MarsCuriosity on Twitter and Facebook.

You can learn about all of NASA's missions at

That's all for this month. I'm Jane Houston Jones.


[1] Spica 角宿一

[2] Syrtis Major
It is a "dark spot" located in the boundary between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars. For more information, visit at

[3] Perseids 英仙座流星雨

[4] Perseus 英仙座

Jul 10, 2012

The Discovery Files: Sleep Study

Want to nail that tune that you've practiced and practiced? Maybe take a nap with the same melody playing during your sleep, provocative Northwestern University research suggests.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

To sleep--perchance to learn

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

A Northwestern University study has participants sleeping during class. Specifically, testing the effects of brain stimulation during sleep on skill enhancement. Participants were given two simple random melodies to learn to play on a key press. After working on the task, they were allowed a 90-minute nap. As subjects entered the stage of sleep associated with cementing memories the "slow wave"[1] stage, researchers played one of the tunes in their ears, but not the other. Could these external cues enhance learning? The researchers say, 'yes' noting that afterward, when asked to recall the tunes, participants made fewer errors in the sequence that was presented during sleep.

Does this mean you could, say, learn a new language while you sleep? Not really. The findings show you must study and learn the language first. But stimulation during sleep does seem to provide enhanced memory of a skill you have already recently learned. So you may be able to reinforce those language skills.

The team is thinking about ways their findings could apply to other types of learning as well, such as different types of motor skills, habits and behaviors.

Seems like the only skill I've improved on while sleeping is sleeping itself.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.


[1] slow wave
Sleep is divided into two types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). NREM is further divided into four stages. Stage 3 and stage 4 are similar and both fall into the category of slow wave sleep. They are deep sleep stages.

Read more:

Jul 6, 2012

Word of the Day, “Boy"

By Henry Hsu

This word is simple and easy. The definition of boy in the dictionary says:
a boy is a young male human, a child or a youth.

Actually boy is a profound and difficult if we use it as a compound word. Now I arrange some of them in sequence from simple to difficult to introduce and to see how much do you know about the boy.

Boy! Isn’t it hot!

1. Atta boy, used as an exclamation or interjection means excellent, marvelous, fabulous, etc. Usually being spoken from the senior to the junior, for example, Nina! When you found your son has done something great in school, never forget to praise him by saying “Atta boy”!

2. Soldier boy, it means when young men grow up to 20 years old or more, they need to serve in the army for a period of times for their country. When in serving, we call them “soldier boy” in Taiwanese we say: 阿兵哥. For example, soldier boys are usually released from barracks at weekend.

3. The boys in blue, I have 3 explanations for you to guess which is correct,
A. The boys wearing in blue clothes.
B. The boys suffering from melancholia.
C. The police. Usually used in the US, the people in blue uniform execute the enforcement power. (The same meaning as cop or the police.)

4. Boy wonder, this phrase has two meanings: one is a child prodigy or a child with high talent. The other is a promising young man who is very successful in every walk of life. For example, Jim is a boy wonder in our club, he is good at calligraphy.

5. Boy racer, something bad or illegal or speeding and joyriding on the street at night or midnight, especially endangering the public securities. For instance, it would be dangerous when you meet boy racers at night. You’d better keep them away.

6. Teddy boy (teddy bear, bower boy, wide boy), it refers to a noisy violent person who causes trouble by fighting, threatening, extorting, bully etc. Synonyms are hooligan, rascal and gangster. For example, a teddy boy broke the window of my car I could do nothing but accepted bad luck without complaint.

7. Boys’ town, it is a building in which many juvenile delinquents such as bully boys are kept to reform or to re-educate. (The same as reform school, reformatory, or youth detention center.)

8. Backroom boy, a man who does important work or has good idea to carry out a significant plan or project but is not seen or known about by the public. They are anonymous. (Also called think-tank, a group of intelligent elites or heroes behind the curtain.)

9. Blue-eyed boy, this means the man or boy in a group who is most praised and favored by his superiors or someone in authority. Therefore he receives a better treatment than others.(The same as fair-haired boy.) For example, Ching-Yang is always a blue-eyed boy in his superior’s eyes.

10. Boy night out, it refers to a gathering or a party held at night which is particular for male only, females are not allowed to attend. Any volunteer want to make a sentence with boy night out or girl night out? (Stag party or hen party)

11. One boy is a boy, two boys half a boy, three boys no boy. This phrase is from Chinese slang. Any one wants to make a wild guess what it means? This phrase means one monk carries a bucket of water with his hand to drink, two boys on their shoulders, 3 boys none of them is willing to carry so no water to drink.

Apr 27, 2012

Leaf-cutter Ants

Farmers, pharmacists and energy experts!
Leaf-cutter ants put on quite a show.

In established colonies, millions of "workers" cut and carry sections of leaves larger than their own bodies as part of a well choreographed, highly functioning society.

"Anyone who has ever come across a trail of ants cutting leaves and watched that trail run through the forest can recognize how charismatic, and what kind of large impact they have on the tropical ecosystems in which they occur," says bacteriologist Cameron Currie.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Currie and his team study ants and their complex, productive societies to help address some of human society's most pressing challenges, such as better drugs and cleaner energy.

But for Currie, the research is more than just finding solutions to problems. "My doctoral work on leaf-cutting ants was not from an 'Oh, we can discover enzymes for bio-energy,' or 'Oh, we can discover antibiotics for medicinal use.' It was from a fascination with understanding the interaction of organisms in the natural world," says Currie from his lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For example, these ants may have been the planet's first farmers. The insects chew up the leaves they cut and integrate them into a fungus garden, which then becomes both their food and their living space. This "mutualism" between the ants and the fungus was discovered in the late 1800s.

In the wild, primarily in Central and South America, large colonies may have as many as five to 10 million workers, with up to seven different castes, or job categories. Different-sized animals do different tasks. The queen, far larger than the others, may lay 50 million eggs over a lifetime. Soldiers protect the nest; workers gather leaf material. "Minima" or smaller workers are specialized for moving around in the small spaces of the fungus garden.

"This includes elaborate behaviors for tending their food crop. So, they actually groom it, and clean it, and prune it," explains Currie.

There is also a specialized group of ants that are the trash workers, who carry the old garden material and put it in specialized refuse dumps.

A third "player" is also crucial in this symbiotic city.

Bacteria found on the bodies of the ants produce antibiotics that help maintain the health of the fungus garden. "Our current evidence indicates that the ants have been dealing with diseases in their fungus gardens for millions of years," says Currie.

Over the years, these bacteria appear to have evolved new antibiotics to keep the gardens healthy. This co-evolution could help researchers create new antibiotics for humans.

Energy experts

Leaf-cutter ants are also adept teachers in energy research. The Currie Lab works with a wide range of experts at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a multi-institutional partnership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working to create fuel from the non-edible parts of plants, known as cellulosic ethanol.

"Our understanding of the process of breaking down that plant material to produce digestible nutrients for the ants is very limited," says Currie.

Figuring out how the ants do it could lead to cleaner replacements for petroleum.

"We hope to both reduce society's dependence on fossil fuels and generate those fuels from a feedstock that isn't part of the food chain," explains Tim Donohue, professor of bacteriology and director of GLBRC. "We think biofuels have a clear position in replacing the fossil fuels that go into the automotive and aviation sector, and we hope that we'll be able to generate fuels that are efficient, cost effective, [and] equally important, sustainable, from an economic and environmental perspective."

GLBRC is supported by the office of science in the U.S. Department of Energy. Donohue says the success of this renewable energy work could also provide farmers and foresters with a second revenue stream from their agricultural products; essentially another income from what is now a waste product.

Still fun to watch!

The nonstop work of these social insects can be mesmerizing to just about anyone who observes them. There's a display of a live leaf-cutter community in the lobby of the Microbial Sciences Building on the Madison campus, and an Ant Cam.

"The display is really a great thing for education," says Joseph Moeller, a lab technician in the Currie Lab. "We have lots of people of all ages, always interested in the types of things these leaf-cutter ants can do, and interested in how we travel down to Panama and Costa Rica to collect these ants to come back and study them."

For Currie, who has had his share of bites from angry "soldiers" over the years, the discoveries never get old.

"Working on leaf-cutter ants, doing field work is a major passion," he says. "The connection of seeing your study organism in the field, what it is doing, watching the ants carry leaves, it's captivating, and very exciting seeing the ants in their ecosystem, and their role and their function."

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Feb 28, 2012

The Discovery Files: Past Restored?

Wetland restoration is a billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States that aims to create ecosystems similar to those that disappeared over the past century. But a new analysis of restoration projects shows that restored wetlands seldom reach the quality of a natural wetland.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Carbon Blueprint.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: wetlands) America's wetlands--ecological treasure troves of biodiversity. Keys to carbon storage, water purification, erosion control and fish production. During the last century, over half the wetlands in North America, Europe, China and Australia have disappeared at the hands of humans. A study out of UC-Berkeley shows that often the only way to restore wetlands to their original quality is not to destroy them in the first place.

But what about the long-established practice of "wetland restoration?" You know, destroy a natural wetland area through land development, and build a new man-made wetland to take its place. Sounds like a fair trade-off. But the authors of this study show that there may be some serious flaws in that logic.

They say a restored wetland may look natural, but it can take hundreds of years before it accumulates the plant varieties and carbon resources of the original it was meant to replace. On average, a restored wetland is 25 percent less productive than a natural one and in colder climes, as much as 50 percent less even after more than 50 years.

(Sound effect: wetlands) The theory that we can create wetland ecosystems as effectively as nature--may be "all wet."[1]

The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.


[1] all wet
Completely wrong, mistaken.