Parasitism in the Alien Movies

Parasitism in the Alien Movies

What makes the Alien franchise so impactful is how utterly terrifying the titular Aliens are.  These creatures are so grotesque and foreign to audiences, particularly in their reproductive strategy, that fans are simultaneously horrified and fascinated by what is on screen.  Perhaps unknown to many viewers, the lifecycle of Xenomorph XX121 from the films is not so unlike that of many common parasites found on our planet. The rest of this essay will compare the biology of the Xenomorphs to parasitoid wasps and nematomorph worms from Earth to illustrate how close to reality the biology of these aliens is and to discuss this exceptional instance of science inspiring artists.

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The Standard Model High School

From supernovas to rain, humans to amoebas, all matter can be broken down into three key particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons. But over the years, scientists discovered even more particles, and that neutrons and protons could be broken down into even smaller parts, called elementary particles. Physicists created a theory called the Standard Model to interpret how elementary particles comprise the universe. The model is often depicted as a gigantic equation or as a periodic table of particles as a way to describe complex particle interactions. Strangely enough, some of these interactions are reminiscent of a time in our lives that we’re all too familiar with – high school.

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Biases in Science News: Tracking Down the Source of Exaggerations

Image Credit: Public domain

Image Credit: Public domain

How often have you seen a news headline about a study on the benefits of red wine or dark chocolate only to hear later about a new study that contradicts the first one? While many science stories have strong data and evidence to back their claims, other news headlines come from the type of data that can’t provide a definitive proof of cause-and-effect. [1]. A recent study [2] looked at how journalists write science stories and how these stories can end up as misleading headline science.

The authors determined how statements made in press releases influenced the presence of exaggerations in news stories. An example would be saying that “eating dark chocolate causes fewer heart attacks” instead of indicating that there was a correlation between a group that ate more dark chocolate and the number of heart attacks occurring in that group. This study would only demonstrate a correlation between heart attacks and eating dark chocolate and does not prove that eating dark chocolate was the cause for fewer heart attacks. Researchers looked through 534 press releases prepared by research journals and the corresponding 582 news articles, then identified any statements or advice not included in the manuscript.

Results show that 25% of the press releases included more explicit advice compared to the original paper. 20% of the press releases also misinterpreted a correlation study as a study that presented a cause-and-effect relationship. The results also demonstrated that journalists would not tend to include over-exaggerations if the exaggerations were not part of the original press release.

This paper shows how exaggerations in press releases can create misleading headlines in science news stories. Since journalists may not have the expertise or time to fact-check statements from a press release, any information included in a press release should be precise, and any claims made should not be exaggerated from the original study. Headline news is crucial for communicating science, but if the stories are inaccurate or over-exaggerated, it can erode people’s trust in the scientific method.   

- Erica K. Brockmeier
Toxicology post-doc / Aspiring science writer
@EKBrockmeier

 

References:
[1] Aschwanden, C. Science Isn’t Broken. Five Thirty Eight Science and Health (2015, Aug 19). Accessed on 2017, Feb 24. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken

[2] Sumner, P. et al. Exaggerations and Caveats in Press Releases and Health-Related Science News. PLoS ONE 11(12), e0168217. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0168217 (2016).

A New Age for Birth Control: Reversible Male Contraceptives on the Horizon

A New Age for Birth Control: Reversible Male Contraceptives on the Horizon

In November of 2016, you may have seen a version of a headline like this: “Male birth control study nixed after men can’t handle side effects women face daily”. Steeped in some truth (a study was indeed cancelled after men experienced harsh side effects similar to what many women experience) and masked by outrage (from readers and authors who didn’t know that the severity of side effects far exceeded those felt by women), the news clearly struck a chord with many people who wish for the burden of birth control to be shared by men and women.

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Why Communicating Science Matters: How the Scirens are Shaping Perspectives

In 2014, Taryn O’Neill, Tamara Krinsky, and Gia Mora formed the Scirens, the screen sirens for science. Their mission is to inspire science literacy in the general public through entertainment fueled by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) storylines and featuring, as they put it, “diverse, multi-dimensional female characters." The Signal to Noise Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with the Scirens and discuss their mission to encourage science literacy and create science-infused entertainment.

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Sandwiches and Surface Markers: How to Analyze Flow Cytometry Data

Sandwiches and Surface Markers: How to Analyze Flow Cytometry Data

Every cell in an organism has unique functions which require specific proteins. For example, cells in eyes need proteins that can detect light, and immune cells use a variety of different proteins to detect and kill invading pathogens. To categorize each type of cell from a big group (say, from a blood sample, which contains many different cells), we can classify them based on their proteins. Now imagine you want to look at many different proteins on a lot of individual cells, and you want to do it fast. How can a scientist analyze almost twenty proteins on each cell, from millions of single cells, in less than an hour? This isn’t the imaginary dream of a tired graduate student, or a magical machine available only to the richest labs­—this is flow cytometry. 

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Stem Cell Dentistry: Revolutionizing Visits to the Dreaded Dentist’s Chair

Stem Cell Dentistry: Revolutionizing Visits to the Dreaded Dentist’s Chair

Can you imagine a trip to the dentist to treat a cavity that didn’t involve a filling, a root canal or dentures? What if there was a way that we could encourage your teeth to repair themselves? ‘Stem cell dentistry’ could revolutionize your future trips to the dreaded dentist’s chair after recent scientific breakthroughs – regenerative stem cell fillings and growing new teeth from scratch using stem cells!

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Across the Bench with Erica Brockmeier

You use chemicals every day like soaps, lotions, and toothpaste. Once those chemicals wash down the drain, are they safe for the next animal (like a fish) that might come into contact with them? Erica Brockmeier studies how animals respond when they are exposed to toxic chemicals. The goal of her project is to develop a system to more efficiently determine what type of chemicals that animals (including humans!) are exposed to.

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Across the Bench with Virginia Schutte

When I first heard the term “science mediator,” I envisioned some intense and serious discussion about science policy issues, not an afternoon art session and morning cup of tea. But Virginia Schutte’s role is just that: as a mediator, she works with scientists to help bring their ideas to life and also works with the public to help them engage with scientists about their work and what it means for them.

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Sick in Space: Stress Compromises Astronauts’ Immune Systems

Two days before the launch of a routine space shuttle mission, a 47-year-old healthy astronaut submitted a saliva sample and ended up testing positive for the varicella zoster virus — the virus responsible for chickenpox and shingles. This was, to say the least, unexpected. Following chickenpox infection, the varicella zoster virus remains dormant in our nervous system and often doesn’t reactivate in healthy people under 60. So why would it reappear in a 47-year-old who is among the healthiest, most physically fit individuals of our workforce? Furthermore, why would it emerge before launch, before any potential dangers of space even presented themselves?

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The Usual Suspects: Pathogens That Cause Infectious Disease

We are constantly faced with news reports about infectious disease, but the sensationalism surrounding these diseases often drowns out important information. This article is the first of a three-part series exploring the basics of infectious disease, the factors contributing to disease incidences, and the steps scientists are taking to understand the origins of emerging infectious diseases.

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Disembodied Voices: Haunting Hallucinations and Their Origins

Do people actually hear voices, or are the sounds just figments of their imagination? Those who truly hear disembodied voices are likely experiencing a particular type of hallucination. Historically, hallucinations have been a powerful tool in storytelling, popping up in everything from the Euripides’ Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s plays and more modern-day stories of demonic possession [12]. Sometimes these voices appear to have good intentions, like those which inspired Joan of Arc, while others seem to taunt or even torture, like those which ‘possess’ their victims, forcing them to do unthinkable things [3]. Hallucinations have captivated us for centuries, but the neurobiological basis for these phenomena is not well understood.

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Of Songs and Circuits: Freshly Made Neurons Make For Freshly Made Music

Image Credit: “WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW” by Gary L. Clark is licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The study of how new neurons are made in the adult brain (adult neurogenesis) has received much attention because newborn neurons can integrate into and reshape preexisting neural circuits, making circuits “plastic.” It's not clear, though, how neural plasticity relates to the behavior produced by a particular neural circuit. Songbirds exhibit seasonal plasticity: during breeding season they have an increased number of neurons called Higher Vocal Center neurons (HVCs), which connect different regions of the brain important for producing songs. The relationship between cyclic addition/removal of HVC neurons and song production in male white-crowned sparrows was addressed by Rachel Cohen and colleagues. To compare the number of newly added HVC neurons to song quality in breeding versus non-breeding sparrows, they first had to count the number of newly added HVCs. They then compared this to the types of songs the sparrows sang. Cohen and colleagues found a direct correlation between song structure and HVC neuron number. When HVC neuron number goes down, song structure degrades (corresponding to non-breeding birds), but as new HVCs are added, song structure recovers (corresponding to breeding birds). Generation of new HVC neurons was also correlated to increases in the amount of a steroid hormone known to be important for neuron survival. The authors provide highly suggestive evidence that the underlying basis for circuit plasticity in this song circuit is the regeneration of HVC neurons, a process controlled by hormones. The seasonal plasticity of songbird neural circuits may also serve as a new model for understanding how number of neurons and the connections they make produces specific types of behaviors.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

References:

Cohen, R.E., Macedo-Lima, M., Miller, K.E., Brenowitz, E.A. Adult neurogenesis leads to the functional reconstruction of a Telencephalic neural circuit. J Neurosci 36, 8947-8956 (2016).

Monstrous Mutations in Our Creepy, Crawly Friend: The Fruit Fly

Monstrous Mutations in Our Creepy, Crawly Friend: The Fruit Fly

The unforgettable final scene of The Fly features a poor little fly stuck in a spider's web, screaming “Help me! Help me!” before being crushed to death. Although scientists in the real world don’t have disintegrator-integrator devices that could accidentally swap body parts between humans and flies, there are many remarkable genetic mutations that scientists can study to better understand how our bodies develop and why we have certain diseases. Many of these were first discovered in the fruit fly. Here are a few of these monstrous mutations for your viewing pleasure - hope they don’t give you nightmares!

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Microbial Art Brings Microscopic Life into View

Microbial Art Brings Microscopic Life into View

Earlier this year, the American Society for Microbiology hosted its second annual Agar Art competition. In this competition, individuals created art using Petri dishes filled with bacterial growth agar, a gelatinous substance containing nutrients needed for bacterial growth. Microbes are etched onto the agar surface, invisible at first, but then after a period of growth, the microbes reveal themselves creating designs on the agar plates. Each piece is accompanied by a caption describing the imagery and the science used in the making of the agar art. After the submission process, the public votes for their favorite piece(s) on social media.

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