BunsenBwog: Call Back to the Future!

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SciFi Standby

Bunsenbwogger Zach Kagan returns to share the progress made last week in the wide world of science.

BunsenBwog has previously reported on Columbia Engineering’s attempt to bring CSI technology into reality. Prof. Ken Shepard and his team have been doing this by sequencing DNA by dragging single strands though nanopores. The problem, however, has always been measuring the minute electrical signals that are emitted as the molecule passes though. Previous optical methods used florescent molecules and a wavelength filter, but it takes time for the the photons to be emitted and the signal to be taken, like exposing a photograph. This may only take 10 milliseconds, but with the the number of molecules in a DNA sequence it can add up. The Shepard group’s innovation is designing an integrated circuit and building the nanopore device around a “patch clamp amplifier chip.” This allows for clean measurements mostly free from background electrical noise, able to measure a DNA molecule in a sigle microsecond!

Looks like it’s a week of science callbacks! A month ago researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center published a paper suggesting that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by deformed tau proteins that propagate from neuron to neuron, deforming more proteins along the way. Now our colleagues at Cornell’s medical college have taken Columbia’s findings and used them to create a computer program that models the spread of the abnormal protein across the brain. So far, MRI scans of patient’s brains support the Cornell model, which may allow doctors to design targeted treatments for the brain’s most susceptible areas.


When a child acts out, it’s easy to blame the parents, but maybe it’s nature and not nurture. Of course, the “nature” in question is artificially produced polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)! The Columbia Mailman School of Public Health study followed 253 inner-city women who have been exposed to PAH (which is released in traffic emissions) while pregnant. Inhaled PAH can be passed from the mother through the placental blood into the fetus, where it binds to DNA molecules. The study found that children of mothers exposed to PAH were more likely to suffer from ADD, anxious behavior, and other behavioral disorders.

The Earth’s geology changes extremely slowly, at the pace of millions of years, and sometimes it feels like the pace of geological research is the same. The research vessel JOIDES Resolution, managed by Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory among others, has returned from investigating the mysterious seamount (underwater mountain), Atlantis Massif. Atlantis Massif is an oceanic core complex created by a slow expansion of plate boundaries and limited amounts of upwelling magma. This causes the seamount to be made up of rocks usually found far deeper under the seafloor, like peridotite. This is the first time that these rock structures have been examined directly and then results will allow scientists to better recognize such structures from seismic survey data. 

Yoga’s good for more than just pants! A new collaborative study, including the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, suggests that yoga can improve mental status of patients with depression and stress-related conditions. Depression and stress are in part caused by an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, and in particular lower the levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA). Low GABA activity often occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. Researchers showed that after 12 weeks of Yoga, patients displayed elevated GABA levels and reported overall improvement in their mental condition.

Car of the future via Wikimedia Commons.

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