Monday, March 22, 2010

Building a Future as Green as the Past - a podcast with Dr. Michael Rosenzweig

For those of you who missed Prof. Rosenzweig's talk on Reconciliation Ecology here in Fresno last week, I am working on posting an audio recording on the Darwin's Bulldogs podcast soon. Meanwhile, here is a shorter version of his ideas in the form of an interview podcast from the University of Arizona, with accompanying slides, many of which we saw in the talk last week. Enjoy the interview, and share your thoughts.

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Why are there so many bird species in the Himalayas?

This week, the CSU-Fresno Consortium for Evolutionary Studies brings you another public lecture in our Evolutionary Biology Lecture Series. On the evening of Thursday, March 25, 2010, join us at the Satellite Student Union on campus to hear Prof. Trevor Price of the University of Chicago tell us about his work on the origin, distribution, and maintenance of high bird species diversity in the Himalaya. The public talk starts at 7:30 PM, and you can download the flyer for the talk below. On the following afternoon, Dr. Price will give us another talk in the Biology department colloquium series.

I will try to share podcasts of both the talks - probably over spring break which starts next week. I still have the last few talks recorded that I mean to podcast as well. In my vast spare time...

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Texas Textbook Massacre - the horror (in cartoons)


Friday, March 19, 2010

Jane Goodall on Bill Moyers Journal

A friend texted earlier this evening to alert me that Jane Goodall would be on PBS tonight! Bill Moyers hosts this wide ranging interview with Jane Goodall which first aired on his show last November, and was rebroadcast on PBS tonight. Its amazing how much energy / spirit this lady has, having led such a remarkable life. Here's the entire interview, in two parts, followed by a short piece about her Roots and Shoots program. May she help you out of your depression, induced by the state of conservation or otherwise!

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria "talk"

Another wonderful TED talk! Relevant to our discussion of Bacterial diversity and communication in Biol 1B this week.

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David Gallo on life in the deep oceans - a TED talk

A lecture accompanied by some astonishing deep sea videos that I showed in intro bio class this week when we were discussing the potential origins of life at hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rebecca Skloot brings Henrietta Lacks to the Colbert Nation

I'm still reading Skloot's fascinating account The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I started reading during Black History Month, and will finish soon before Women's History Month ends.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Jellyfish are coming! En Masse! To... Fresno? Come check it out this friday!

Why yes, we have a Jellyfish mass occurrence... well... occurring on the campus of Fresno State this friday afternoon! Well, ok - I'm not talking about some biblical flood in the valley (its been a wet winter, sure, but not that wet!) or that long anticipated Big One, the earthquake that cleaves coastal California off and converts all our homes here in the valley into beachfront property! No not that - that's not happening this friday (as far as I know). But the jellies will be here in spirit and data form rather than physically present, as we get a seminar from Dr. Michael Dawson of UC Merced just up the road from us. Should be a fun, fascinating talk - here's the relevant info, and you can click on the title below to read the abstract and get further details:

Phylogeny and Ecology of Jellyfish (Scyphozoa) Mass Occurrences
Friday, March 12, 2010
3:00-4:00 PM
Science II, Room 109

And afterwards, you might ask Dr. Dawson what a marine biologist like him is doing in the Central Valley of California... do they know something we don't?

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A California Quail, caught in flight

Not the greatest of photos, but not bad for one of my very first pictures of this bird (I think, anyway). I caught this bit of action yesterday at the Sierra Foothill Conservancy's McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve, where they will be hosting an open house this Saturday, March 13th. If you live in the Fresno area, and haven't discovered this beautiful little valley, I urge you to go there on Saturday, enjoy the birds (we saw quite a few apart from this quail, including two Bald Eagles yesterday) and the wildflowers, and consider becoming a member of the Conservancy to help them protect more such habitats in this area.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Having Your Land & Sharing It, Too: A World of Reconciliation Ecology

The California State University, Fresno Consortium for Evolutionary Studies, Tri Beta Biology Honors Club, and the Department of Biology invite you to a special public lecture on March 16, 2010, at 7:30 PM in McLane Hall, room 121 as part of our ongoing Evolutionary Biology Lecture Series.

Eminent evolutionary ecologist Prof. Michael Rosenzweig is renowned for his contributions to the theoretical and empirical foundations of evolutionary ecology. He founded and continues to edit the academic journal Evolutionary Ecology Research. He is the author of a several books including "Species Diversity in Space and Time", and the popular "Win-Win Ecology" where he lays out his perspective on conserving biodiversity in places where we humans live and work, not just in remote protected areas. This approach, which he called Reconciliation Ecology, draws upon principles of evolutionary ecology in an interdisciplinary framework to develop new solutions to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our planet.

Given the recent spate of depressing news about conservation in the US (about which I have recently complained, nay ranted) it is my pleasure to invite you to this talk about reconciliation ecology, which is sharply relevant right now. And since this is a public lecture, please feel free to share this announcement, and bring bring your friends and family along too!

Here's the abstract of his talk, and you can download the flyer via the link below:
Life is in peril. A mass extinction threatens to take more than 90% of the world's species. Evolution will not be able to replace these species, neither in kind nor in number. Our religious and ethical responsibilty to protect our world is challenged as never before.

But there is good news: we can prevent this mass extinction with a method called Reconciliation Ecology. Reconciliation Ecology means working out ways for us to have our land and share it too.

Reconciliation Ecology is not a pipe dream. It is widely practiced all over the world. And it is successful. Reconciliation ecology puts nature back into the everyday lives of people, surrounding us with living wonders we usually associate with a vacation in a National Park. It is not expensive and it redesigns our own habitats so that we can keep them, keep living in them, keep using them for our needs, keep earning profits in them... while at the very same time making them havens for wild species of plants and animals.

The new habitats we engineer to satisfy both our desires and the needs of nature will not resemble those of a thousand years ago. This will surely put new evolutionary pressures on the species we harbor. They will change in ways we are only beginning to study. But surely it is better to meet them halfway, better to give them a chance to adapt to us, than to let them vanish utterly and leave our grandchildren with an impoverished world that bears evidence that we did not choose to fulfill our responsibilities.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Cycle of Academic Life: How Grad School is just like Kindergarten


Ooze like an amoeba, float like a bird - wish we could still do that when stressed!

Here's another fun weird science story from NPR, about a creature that might be in the dirt in your own backyard:
20100305 Me 03 by Npr
Download now or listen on posterous
Naegleria-NPR.mp3 (1426 KB)
Naegleria gruberi
Courtesy of Lillian Fritz-Laylan
Naegleria gruberi grows a pair of flagella when under stress. But unlike a sperm tail, it puts these appendages out front, and swims by breast stroke. The organism is stained to emphasize its anatomy.
If you prefer to read the story rather than listen to it aloud, here's the transcript via
While that behavioral and morphological flexibility is remarkable enough in something we might, from our lofty hominid perch, consider rather "primitive" and "simple", what graduate student Lillian Fritz-Laylan and colleagues found in its genome is perhaps even more surprising. Whle the NPR story focuses on the physical transformation of the organism, cool as that is, the full story is much richer and has far more significance for our own origins from a common eukaryotic ancestor. As they describe in their paper in the current issue of Cell, Naegleria gruberi turns out to have almost 16000 protein-coding genes, which is over two-thirds of what you and I have! A single celled organism with that many genes - no wonder it can transform itself so radically.

Here's an image from the paper illustrating that transformation, which takes a mere 90 minutes or so (far cooler special effects at half the duration of Avatar, if you ask me!):

Figure 1: Schematic of Naegleria Amoeba and Flagellate Forms. Naegleria amoebae move along a surface with a large blunt pseudopod. Changing direction (arrows) follows the eruption of a new, usually anterior, pseudopod. Naegleria maintains fluid balance using a contractile vacuole. The nucleus contains a large nucleolus. The cytoplasm has many mitochondria and food vacuoles that are excluded from pseudopods. Flagellates also contain canonical basal bodies and flagella (insets). Basal bodies are connected to the nuclear envelope via a single striated rootlet. 

Is it just me, or does that upper image, of the amoeboid form, remind you of someone? And... I just realized... that someone also has two apparent flagellae at the top of his head, which unfurl during times of stress!! What better proof do you want of our shared ancestry with Naegleria, eh? No? Oh, what - you mean citing widely published and viewed cartoons is not good enough evidence for you (even though that is a standard of evidence good enough for a third of the good people of Texas)? You want all the boring science-y stuff instead? Well, go read the paper then, which the journal Cell has graciously made freely available!

The paper (luckily for you) turns out to be far from boring. It is indeed quite fascinating because, apart from presenting the complete genome sequence of this remarkable free-living protist, Fritz-Laylan et al also describe several genetic modules for aerobic and anaerobic metabolism (for these guys can do both), amoeboid motility, and a number of other structural and functional necessities of the ecologically diverse lifestyles common to their clade. Further, comparisons with genomes of other protists allow them to predict which genes might have been present in the genome of the common ancestor to all eukaryotes. As the first representative of a fifth (out of 6) major clade of eukaryotes whose genomes have been sequenced thus far, Naegleria holds great promise of generating fresh insights into the early evolution and diversificatiion of eukaryotes. While their lineage diverged from the one we hail from about, oh, a billion or so years ago, understanding their genome brings us closer to understanding and reconstructing the genome of our shared ancestors, those early free-living eukaryotes that gave rise to us both. For it turns out that they contain over 4000 protein families that are similar to ones we have, and therefore were likely found in that common ancestor! That ancestor was presumably also quite versatile and equipped with a set of flexible modules to deal with the diverse environments of that time. And that remarkable flexibility probably underlies the extraordinary diversity of organisms that subsequently evolved from that ancestor. How fascinating and wonderful is that! (Even if some of us later lost the ability to transform ourselves and float away when under stress!)

Let me end with a video where the lead authors talk about what Nargleria's genome can tell us about our own ancestry:

Fritz-Laylin, L., Prochnik, S., Ginger, M., Dacks, J., Carpenter, M., Field, M., Kuo, A., Paredez, A., Chapman, J., & Pham, J. (2010). The Genome of Naegleria gruberi Illuminates Early Eukaryotic Versatility Cell, 140 (5), 631-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.01.032


The uncanny valley and our fear of faces almost, but not quite, human

20100305 Atc 12 by Npr  
Download now or listen on posterous
20100305_atc_12.mp3 (3646 KB)

Hat-tip: Carl Zimmer

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

A message to California's legislators from CSU faculty

If you are a faculty member in the CSU system, you should consider writing your legislators today to demand that they restore funding to the CSU. Here's a letter I just sent to congressmen and senators representing my home area:

Faculty 2010 Action Item

To: Michael N. Villines, Juan Arambula, Dave Cogdill, Dean Florez
From: Madhusudan Katti

I am a faculty member in the California State University system. As students, parents, faculty and staff are preparing to raise public awareness of the destructive effects that CSU budget cuts have had on public higher education, workforce development, and the state economy, I am writing to implore you to support Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal that includes the partial restoration of $305 million to the CSU.

The erosion of state support for the California State University system has been devastating. State support for the CSU has been cut by $625 million (21%) over the past two years which represents a reduction of more than $1500 per student. As a result of these enormous cuts student fees have increased more than 40%, thousands of course sections were cut, all of our employees have been furloughed, and, for the first time ever, we were not able to admit students for the spring term.

Despite these drastic actions, we are bursting at the seams. My students are desperate to find classes. The scarcity of available courses slows their progress toward their degrees, increasing the financial pressures they face today and in the future. Sadly, some of these students are dropping out and forgoing the education that is so essential to our state’s economic recovery. When the choice to drop out of school is forced upon students, they are 6 times more likely to live in poverty and 85% more likely to be incarcerated both of which are far more costly to the state than adequately funding their education.

I am well aware of the budget problems facing our state and the difficult decisions that will have to be made to deal with them. I am hopeful however, that I can count on you to be among the visionary California leaders who understand that the health of our economy and the strength of our tax base relies upon having an educated citizenry. I am counting on you to defend restored funding for public higher education for our students, because it is in the best economic interest of our state.


Madhusudan Katti

This was in response to the following call for action from the Chair of our Academic Senate:

Many of you are aware that our advocacy efforts by CSU Faculty last fall resulted in Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal to restore $305 million to the CSU budget next year. While that was a significant victory, we must now make sure that our legislators know that supporting that proposal is critical to the CSU, our students, and our state. To that end, I am hoping that you will take a moment to send your legislators an email asking them to support restoring funding to public higher education in this year's budget.

The Chairs of the 23 Academic and Faculty Senates of the CSU system are participating in San Francisco State's initiative to get word to our legislators.  By following the link below, you can instantly send your representatives a pre-drafted letter or you can write something more tailored to your individual experience.

Urgent Message to Legislators

The link will work for faculty on and off campus, so feel free to forward it to faculty on other campuses. I am hopeful that this effort will make this week's advocacy activities resonante even more strongly with our elected officials.

Dr. Michael  Botwin
Chair, Academic Senate 
Professor & Chair, Dept. of Psychology

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A rally for higher education in California, at Fresno State tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the statewide day of action to protest against what is happening to higher education in California these days. I just found this quite good advert from our campus rallying people to join the action tomorrow. Won't you join us?

(and in this instance, I'll overlook the egregious, but all too common in the US, misspelling of GANDHI which made me cringe while watching this clip! Really - what's so hard about that simple name that Americans can't ever seem to get it right??)

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Signs of spring at McKenzie Preserve

Images captured on a Sunday morning hike in the Sierra Foothills Conservancy's McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve.

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