Thomas R. O'Donnell

Those wild and crazy snails are back, with lessons about sex

In University research on April 27, 2016 at 11:50 am
 In a study involving multiple generations of a freshwater snail in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Iowa found that polyploidy doesn't appear to be an asset—nor is it a drawback—for females bearing offspring without the help of a male. Instead, it's the snails' sexuality that creates the advantage: Asexual females, the study found, grew twice as fast during the late juvenile phase and reached reproductive maturity 30 percent faster than female snails that mated with males. Photo by Justin Torner.

In their cups: University of Iowa researchers grew multiple generations of tiny freshwater snails in the lab to study whether having multiple genomes provides advantages. Photo by Justin Torner from the U of I news website.

The snails are back. Or more precisely, researchers using snails as a model to understand the biological benefits of sexual reproduction are back with results.

I wrote about the research about two years ago, when conservative news outlets began ridiculing an $876,000 National Science Foundation grant to study “snail sex.” Two University of Iowa researchers, Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon, were among those receiving the grant.

Although multiple conservative outlets had reported and commented on the grant, none had asked the researchers to explain its significance. I was the first writer to contact them for any more than a cursory question. To me it was an example of a gap in science reporting in Iowa and conservative bias against government spending.

The bottom line: The tiny New Zealand snails are good models to study the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction, the true purpose of the study. The snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, have two genetic lines, one that reproduces sexually and another asexually, allowing the scientists to compare their genes for signs of advantages or disadvantages to sex.

Now results are coming out of this and related snail research, and the results are surprising. Sex and its biology, it turns out, aren’t as simple as scientists thought.

Ernest Moniz is coming to Iowa next month. Here’s why you should care.

In Government on April 25, 2016 at 7:10 am
Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.

I’m not a fan of Bill Nye. I certainly endorse his science advocacy and education efforts, but he’s of my sons’ generation, not mine, and his lack of deep academic credentials leaves him open to the kind of challenge Sarah Palin recently made. (I’m not saying Bill Nye isn’t a scientist, as Palin did. I’m saying there are other science spokespeople with stronger resumes and greater accomplishments.) So I didn’t make a big deal out of Nye lecturing at Drake University April 14.

But I am excited about the pending visit of a real science superstar: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He’s coming to Ames on Friday, May 6 to speak at the dedication of the Ames Laboratory’s Sensitive Instrument Facility. (I wrote about the SIF and the high-tech tools it houses earlier this year.) He’ll stay overnight and deliver the undergraduate commencement address at 1:30 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, May 7.

It’s exciting because, as I’ll explain, Moniz is probably the most consequential energy secretary in history – a big influence on world peace and climate stability.

Big bots storm castles in Iowa competition

In STEM on April 4, 2016 at 7:35 am
FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at Cedar Falls' McLeod Center.

FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at UNI’s McLeod Center.

It was mechanical mayhem in a medieval milieu.

In Cedar Falls March 24-26, 52 teams of high school students (mostly from the Midwest but also three from China and one from Brazil) pitted their mechanized marvels (OK, I’m laying off that bottle of Old Alliteration) in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Iowa Regional tournament. Eleven Iowa teams competed.

At the McLeod Center, where the University of Northern Iowa Panthers usually chuck balls at baskets, robots instead fired “boulders” at mock parapets. It was just one of several missions the machines, each built from scratch, carried out on a theme of attacking and overcoming a castle’s defenses.

This was Iowa’s first FRC regional competition. Teams that did well in Cedar Falls will go on to the championships in St. Louis at the end of April.

My son, Thomas, is on Team ASAP (4646), a collection of Des Moines-area students, and I attended the three-day robot bash. It was a raucous, nerdy – but cool – celebration of technology and engineering. I knew before I got to Cedar Falls what the robots had to do. How they did it, much less that they did it at all, was extraordinary and inspiring.

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