Posts Tagged ‘events’

Inspiring Australia and the barcode of life, conferences

// February 7th, 2011 // Comments Off on Inspiring Australia and the barcode of life, conferences // Science Communication

Couple of interesting conferences coming up this year. The first one is Inspiring Australia in Melbourne from March 28-29. ‘Tis a science communication conference, tackling topics like social media, politics, and a whole bunch of exciting sci-comm stuff. Registration opens today, and it will be good.

The second conference is the Consortium for the Barcode of Life which will be hosted in bonny old Adelaide in November this year. Adelaide Uni scored the gig after competition with 19 applicants from around the globe. Previously the event has been hosted in Mexico City, Taipai and London.

DNA code is a bit like a barcode to begin with: Information hidden in a mysterious pattern that only a computer can analyse. The barcode of life refers to specifically to a certain small section of DNA which can be used to compare species. The section changes between species, but stays the same within members of the same species, and is accurate for most mammals and bees.

The consortium is to discuss and co-ordinate how to take DNA samples from all the animals IN THE WORLD, and have them on a giant database. Then when future scientists find a weird animal, they can take a sample, scan it in and *beep*, one lemur for $9.99. It’s a neat idea, and totally exciting that Adelaide is hosting this International event.

Science that’s only skin deep

// December 3rd, 2010 // 2 Comments » // How Things Work, Recent Research, Science Communication, Sex and Reproduction

I’m a guest blogger for the RiAus, and this post also appeared on their fancy website. To tell the truth, I really wanted to call this post “Hormonally Yours” in homage to the Shakespeare Sisters (anyone?) but I’ll save it for another post.

Recently I was in Arnhem Land, visiting some Indigenous communities with a couple of friends. While I was there, I got pretty jealous of everybody’s darker skin. “It’s so well suited for Australia,” one of my friends lamented. “I should be in Norway or something.”

Pale skin like mine is not great for Australia. I tan pretty easily, but only after being burned bright red. While I was in the NT I slathered sunscreen religiously, but still managed to get a highly embarrassing burn on my lower back when I was building a sandcastle (an epic sand turtle, actually. Totally worth it.)

Anyway, enough about me and my weirdly tanned lower back (it’s been months! Why won’t it go away?) Let’s talk about Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist. In 2000 she suggested a new reason why skin colour varies so much. It’s not an adaptation to protect against skin cancer and sunburn, like I always thought it was.

It’s real job is to keep us highly fertile by maintaining a delicate balance between two key vitamins: Vitamin D and Folic acid.

Pica's skin tone matched her UVB exposure like her scarf matched her dress. Image by Monja Con Patines

Vitamin D is obtained through some foods, but mostly from drinking in sunshine. UV light turns cholesterol into Vitamin D, which then goes to either your liver or kidneys to be converted to an active form.

Once active it helps white blood cells like macrophages kill bacteria, and helps control levels of calcium and phosphate – important for building healthy bones.

Deficiency in Vitamin D causes rickets, a disease resulting in soft, easily broken bones and deformity which can lead to early death.

So getting enough UV (specifically UVB light) is important to not dying, and therefore having reproductive success later in life. It’s been backed up by Yuen, A. (Vitamin D: In the evolution of human skin colour DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.08.007)

Natural selection favours soaking up UV.

Penny stayed under foliage at noon to protect her folic acid. Image by Monja Con Patines

Folic acid is obtained in leafy vegetables and fortified cereals. Rather than being made by UV, the light can destroy folic acid by literally breaking it apart. (Jablonski, N. The evolution of human skin coloration DOI: 10.1006/jhev.2000.0403)

Critical for DNA synthesis, folic acid is essential during pregnancy when a lot of new cells are being made.

Folic acid prevents against 70% of neural tube defects in embryos. Its destruction by UV is bad news.

Natural selection favours avoiding UV.

So there’s an ideal amount of UV light that needs to get through the skin – enough to produce Vitamin D, but not too much to destroy all the folic acid. Getting the balance right for the environment you’re in means higher fertility, which drives natural selection

This is what Nina Jablonski thinks caused the evolution of skin colour through the sepia spectrum we see today. Dark skin, with high melanin, stops more UV light. That’s exactly what you want if you live in a place with a lot of sun, like places near the equator. Light skin lets more UV in, which is great if you live somewhere overcast and not very high on UV.

Understanding how your skin colour (NOT your race) influences these two vitamins is important in being healthy. It’s more important now than ever, because we humans travel a LOT.

Sadly, Australia is pretty high in UV and I am pretty white. Thank god for sunscreen.

Things are rarely that simple though, and I imagine there’s a few different things going on that connect UV light to skin colour.

On Tuesday the RiAus is holding an event called Skin Deep: Exploring human ancestry. They’ll be showing a preview of a new SBS documentary about skin colour scientific research, as well as results from the Genographic Project. Basically they took DNA samples from a lot of volunteers and some national identities, and now they’re giving us the goss on who’s related to who’s secret love child.

I’ll be there, I’d love to see you (though seats are limited.) I’ll be the one tweeting in the corner. Follow me @CaptainSkellett

Would love to hear from anyone who took part in the Genographic Project, and anyone who didn’t. Who would you most like to be related to? For me it’s David Attenborough, then I can dream of inheriting his voice.

Biodiversity weekend at Questacon

// September 10th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Science Communication

This here is Charles Darwin studying some stick insects. This vision greeted me in the entrance hall of Questacon, Australia’s national science and technology center. The insects were crawling all over this guy’s face. He’s one of the very talented Excited Particles who are, as their name suggests, particularly excited about science. Sometimes fire. But then, who isn’t excited by fire? They also do highly entertaining science shows.

This weekend, Questacon are holding an event for the International Year of Biodiversity. There’s critters from the zoo, aquarium and reptile sanctuary, and specialists on native Australian plants. If you’re in Canberra (or Sydney, it’s not that far) check out the program. If not, don’t die of FOMO.

It’s getting close to the end of the year, so make the most of the biodiversity while it’s still hot. Next year’s offerings are the International Year of Forests (snore) and the International Year of Chemistry (yippee!!!) In fact, they have also have a weird year that started in August and is running till August 2011 called the Year of Youth, which gets young people involved in making important decisions about the world. Sounds good, I think.

Man I’m excited about the Year of Chemistry. More excited than a particle, I’d wager. We should make us some old school explosions! I’ll start hoarding the gunpowder now.






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