Thursday, February 21, 2013

Spider Silk: Al Gore Describes USU's "Creepy" Science

Transferring silk-producing genes from spiders to goats, silkworms, E. coli bacteria and alfalfa is "creepy"? Former U.S. vice president Al Gore says some folks seem to think so.

And, no, he's not making a clever pun about arachnids. Gore describes "creepy" as a vague uneasiness some have about emerging research. In his recently published book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Gore describes this feeling as "a comparably indeterminate 'pre-fear' that many feel when contemplating some of the onrushing advances in the world of genetic engineering."

Gore cites synthetic spider silk research, pioneered by USU molecular biologist Randy Lewis, as an example of "creepy" science:

"A method for producing spider silk has been developed by genetic engineers who insert genes from orb-making spiders into goats which then secrete the spider silk -- along with milk -- from their udders. Spider silk is incredibly useful because it is both elastic and five times stronger than steel by weight. The spiders themselves cannot be farmed because of their antisocial, cannibalistic nature. But the insertion of their silk-producing genes in the goats allows the farming of the goats.

In any case, there is no doubt that the widespread use of synthetic biology -- and particularly the use of self-replicating artificial life forms -- could potentially generate radical changes in the world, including some potential changes that arguably should be carefully monitored." 

Is production of synthetic spider silk creepy? Here at USU, we think it's cool.

Spend a little time with Professor Lewis' "spider goats" and they don't seem creepy at all. In fact, at a USU Science Unwrapped event in Nov. 2011, Lewis and his team set up a pen of transgenic and non-transgenic goats and asked visitors to identify which had received spider silk genes and which hadn't. (No one could tell the difference.)

At USU's Science Unwrapped event "Spider Silk: Ancient Biomaterial for the Future," guests enjoy a visit with Lewis' lovable "spider goats."

Applications Lewis envisions for the manufactured spider silks include artificial ligaments, tendons, bone and skin, as well as more effective vehicle air bags -- safe enough for babies and young children -- and lighter, stronger and more comfortable body armor. A member of Lewis' research team is investigating the glue spiders secrete to cement strands of web together -- a glue that, someday, could be used to heal human faces marred by trauma or disease and prevent debilitating disfigurement.

Creepy? In a good way. We'd call it, "life-enhancing."

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Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fossil Detective: Aggie Develops New Technique to Study Ancient Life

Imagine, 500 million years from now, future intelligent life forms unearthing your fossilized, flattened skeleton and, without the benefit of images of you or any other human, trying to determine what you looked like.

That’s similar to the task before Utah State University student Michael Strange, who is investigating a tiny creature that inhabited Utah between 550 million and 250 million years ago. He’s among a group of USU students who presented to Utah legislators Jan. 31 during the state’s 2013 Undergraduate Research Day on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City.

USU geology student Michael Strange is among Aggies who presented at the 2013 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah's Capitol Hill Jan. 31 in Salt Lake City.

Strange is studying rare fossils of extinct animals called Hyolitha, mollusk-like marine creatures that roamed the shallow waters of prehistoric Cache Valley and other areas of the Cambrian world. Using digital photography, the undergraduate geology major developed a new technique called False Color Treatment or “FCT” to interpret soft-tissue preservation. His findings are shedding new light on these ancient, enigmatic critters.

“Using a macro lens, I capture photos of the fossils that expose traces of soft tissue,” says Strange, who conducts research with faculty mentor Dave Liddell, professor and head of USU’s Department of Geology.

Strange’s photographic process requires patience and finesse.

“I usually submerge the fossil in alcohol or water to make the details more visible,” he says. “Lighting is the biggest issue. You have to get the right intensity and the right angle.”

In his images, soft tissue appears as a light brown color.

“I use a graphics editing program to convert the soft tissue color to bright red, which makes it pop out and easier to see and interpret,” Strange says. 

To the naked eye, hyolith fossils reveal a cone-shaped conch — a few centimeters long — that housed the animal. Two whisker-like appendages called “helens” (hee’ lens) that protrude from the rounded opening of the hyolith’s shell may have helped the creature propel itself.

Image of a hyolith fossil processed by Strange using a technique he developed called 'False Color Treatment.' Red areas indicate traces of soft tissue including never-before-seen masses around the ends of the two appendage-like ‘helens.’ 

 But Strange’s FCT process has uncovered a new finding about hyoliths: masses of soft tissue, not visible in any other known images of the creatures, surround the ends of the helens.

“I suspect this tissue might be remnants of the animals’ respiratory organs,” he says.

Strange collected many of the fossils on his own, hiking high into Cache Valley’s steep Wellsville Mountains to explore the Spence Shale, a part of the Langston Formation.

“Field collection is a lot of fun, except in the middle of July when temperatures exceed 100 degrees,” he says. “But that’s how field work is.”

Strange, who plans to pursue a doctoral degree in paleobiology, adds he’s fortunate to work with Liddell who “knows more about the Spence Shale than anyone and is always ready to lend a hand or answer a question.”

In addition to his research, Strange, who is the recipient of the geology department’s Clyde T. Hardy and Peter T. Kolesar scholarships, is helping the department develop its geological museum, which will eventually open to the public. Among its recent acquisitions is a giant clam fossil discovered in 2012 by paleontologists from USU Eastern.

“I hope to continue doing research and possibly pursue an academic career at a university or museum,” says Strange, a Cache Valley native who graduated from Sky View High School in 2009. “USU has been great. I really like it here.”

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Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Safe in Space: Aggie Physicist Studies Best Suit Material for Astronauts

If you leapt into space without the benefit of a spacesuit, things would get ugly fast.

Your blood and body fluids would boil, then freeze. While being pummeled by speeding rock particles and possible space junk, you’d swell up like a balloon as your skin and internal organs rapidly expanded. Mercifully, you’d lose consciousness within seconds from lack of oxygen.

On a brighter note, astronauts in high-tech space gear describe spacewalks as thrilling, watershed experiences. Utah State University physics student Kelby Peterson aims to keep it that way.

USU physics student Kelby Peterson adjusts a UV lamp and elliptical reflector she designed to simulate radiation in space. She's among Aggies who presented at the 2013 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah's Capitol Hill Jan. 31 in Salt Lake City. 
“Space is a dangerous place,” says Peterson, a USU Undergraduate Research Fellow. “Spacesuit and spacecraft design is fascinating because there are so many things you have to think about.”

Peterson is among a group of USU students that presented to Utah legislators Jan. 31 during the state’s 2013 Undergraduate Research Day on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City. In the Capitol Rotunda, the Sandy, Utah, native displayed a small sample of mylar — a common spacesuit material — that flew on the outside of the International Space Station for 18 months and took a punishing blow from a micrometeoroid.

The sample Peterson is studying is one of a group of samples from a USU experiment delivered to the ISS aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in March 2008. The experiment was part of ‘SUSpECS’ — short for “State of Utah Space Environment and Contamination Study.” SUSpECS is part of a larger NASA study called Materials International Space Station Experiment or “MISSE” aimed at finding material suitable for crafting future space vehicles and instruments.

Peterson’s faculty mentor J.R. Dennison, professor in USU’s Department of Physics, led the experiment. The SUSpECS samples returned to Earth with Space Shuttle Discovery in Sept. 2009.

Peterson’s sample is about the size of a dime. She says the tiny sample’s mishap in space is sobering because an astronaut makes a much bigger and more likely target.

“I calculated the probability of a human being hit by a micrometeoroid as twice that of my mylar sample,” she says.

In the lab, Peterson is trying to simulate the ultraviolet radiation of the space environment and determine when, in the sample’s cosmic journey, it was struck. The undergrad has constructed a powerful UV lamp with an elliptical reflector, which she operates with a welding mask, to see how the radiation affects mylar samples without atmospheric protection.

From MISSE-initated studies such as Peterson’s, NASA is trying to find the best materials for increasingly long space missions.

“We’re talking spacecraft and instruments that will travel for decades,” says Peterson, a 2011 graduate of Utah’s Itineris Early College High School and a New Century Scholar. “It’s a tremendous challenge and a new level of thought.”

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on a 2001 spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Aggie researcher Kelby Peterson is studying a material sample from a NASA-funded USU experiment that flew outside the ISS for 18 months. NASA photo.
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