SciTech Now Episode 229

Researchers studying the zebrafish are making new discoveries in developmental biology; SciStarter founder, Darlene Cavalier, is crowdsourcing science research; the innovators behind RaceYa share their educational toy cars; and a dangerous flesh-eating bacteria is becoming a public health problem in warm coastal waters.

TRANSCRIPT

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Coming up... Finding clues to human development in zebrafish...

We can disrupt genes, and then we look at the life embryo, and now you can see, okay, these cells are not behaving anymore like they were supposed to, and then this way, it gives us a tool to identify what these genes are normally doing.

...citizen science...

We have online crowd-sourcing projects where you can do this from the comfort of your home, 2:00 A.M. in the morning if you feel like clicking through some images.

You can help scientists identify neural networks in the brain.

...and finally, a flesh-eating bacteria.

Once it gets into your bloodstream, it can reproduce very, very rapidly and get into other tissues and other places in your body, and that's when it becomes really, really hard to control.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello.

I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

The organs of one aquatic organism may hold clues for human development.

By studying the zebrafish, the researchers are making new discoveries in developmental biology.

Here's the story.

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City has been described as cutting-edge technology integrated with broad-based expertise to ask sophisticated questions.

The research undertaken here falls in the category of basic or fundamental, which often leads to the question, what exactly does that mean?

I like to think of basic research as the engine for discovery.

You need to make discoveries.

And once those discoveries are made, they can serve as the basis or the foundation as a process so that those ideas can be translated, developed, and then eventually applied for human health or medicine.

And zebrafish are playing a role in that process in Tatjana Piotrowski's Stowers laboratory.

These familiar-looking members of the minnow family are used as model organisms for studying developmental biology.

Basically, how cells form tissues and tissues become organs.

A zebrafish embryo grows outside its mother and remains transparent, so its developmental processes can be easily viewed.

It's quite fascinating to look at embryos under a microscope because you can actually see single cells move, interact with their environment.

You can see how organs form, whether the brain forms normally, whether the heart beats normally.

Tatjana and her team are especially interested in investigating a sensory system called the lateral line that's found in all aquatic vertebrates.

It's important to the schooling behavior of fish and allows them to detect prey or potential predators.

The lateral line gets its name from the way multiple copies of its main sensory organ, the neuromast, are dotted along a fish's body and around the eyes.

And each sense organ possesses receptor cells, which are called hair cells because they have cilia sticking out into the environment, which look like little hairs, and as water flows across these cilia, it actually sends a signal to the brain, and so that's how the animal measures the water movement.

The lateral line gradually develops from a group of around 100 cells called the primordium.

The primordium first forms behind the fish's ear.

It then begins migrating toward the tail tip.

It's divided into the leading edge and the trailing edge.

It raises, really, a lot of interesting questions.

So, for example, how does a group of cells know which direction to migrate?

Do they just follow the cell in the tip, or does each cell know which direction to go?

There are several theories about how small cell clusters that look like rosettes eventually become neuromasts.

And testing requires a whole lot of fish.

Adult zebrafish will lay up to 200 eggs per week.

And this allows us to do large-scale genetic mutagenesis screens.

What this means is, we are disrupting gene function randomly by -- with mutagens that we can apply on the adult fish.

So, we can disrupt genes, and then we look at the life embryo, and now you see, okay, these cells are not behaving anymore like they were supposed to, and then this way, it gives us a tool to identify what these genes are normally doing.

Okay, so, why is the Piotrowski lab focusing on a sensory organ in fish?

Well, because neuromast hair cells, by which fish sense water movement, are actually very similar to those found in the human inner ear.

However, our inner-ear hair cells turn sound vibration into electrical activity, which nerve fibers transmit to our brain, allowing us to hear.

If you disrupt particular genes in the zebrafish electrolyte hair cells, they stop functioning, and the same genes cause deafness in humans, for example.

A zebrafish's hair cells are just as susceptible as ours to damage and death, from overexposure to noise, or the wear and tear of aging.

But unlike us, they have a secret weapon.

It's called regeneration, in which new hair cells regularly replace any that have been injured or killed.

Once we understand how regeneration happens in a fish, we will then be able to also compare it to a mouse and see where this process is blocked in a mouse or even in other animals such as humans.

Way I like to think about it is, the model system is a way of learning how things are put together, to understand cues and instructions, and then you can compare and contrast those.

They're often instructions that are used primarily in a fish that also play a role in a human they weren't aware of.

But if you don't make the discoveries, you don't have a way of moving forward.

And, unfortunately, sometimes 90% of what we do doesn't work, but the 10% that do can shape the future of mankind.

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Science may seem like a members-only club for experts and academics, but recent efforts are opening the field to anyone who's interested.

Here to tell us how ordinary citizens are helping find extraordinary data is Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a crowdsourcing site for science research.

Now, some people have heard of Kickstarter and trying to get money from strangers to fund your idea, but SciStarter's not asking for money, more time.

Time and talent.

Exactly right.

We have over 1,000 opportunities in SciStarter.

These are where researchers or anybody who has a curiosity and wants to work with crowd to gather evidence can post their opportunities on SciStarter, and then we help people find those opportunities to donate their time and talent.

I don't have a science background.

What kind of things can I help in?

It is unbelievably broad.

If you're a bird-watcher, there are a ton of projects for you to get involved in.

If you're a concerned citizen, I mean, the Flint, Michigan, episode is a great example of how a researcher from Virginia Tech University provided funding and technical expertise but needed people in Flint, Michigan, to provide data to him, and that is basically a crowdsourcing project.

We have online crowdsourcing projects, where you can do this from the comfort of your home.

2:00 A.M. in the morning -- if you feel like clicking through some images, you can help scientists identify neural networks of a brain.

And fun things, too -- just getting to know the personality of your dog and at the same time contributing to canine research, too.

What are humans able to do that now you'd think computers can solve that.

Why are humans necessary?

Well, first of all, identifying anomalies is one major thing.

So we have a new project that's forthcoming called WeCureALZ.

And so when I say 'we,' SciStarter helps make the connection, but it's not our project.

And so this is Pietro Michelucci, who is a cognitive scientist who's looking to hopefully cure Alzheimer's someday.

He's combining two platforms that are very complicated, and yet I'm gonna try to boil this down.

One is called Stardust@Home.

So this is a popular citizen science project that takes a million images of stardust that was collected when a satellite flew through the tail of a comet.

So microscopic stardust.

So it's an online virtual microscope, so people can sort through these images, and they know what to look for.

They're instructed on what to look for there.

Combines that with a platform called EyeWire, which is a very popular citizen science project, another online citizen science project, that uses the power of the crowds to start to identify the neural network of the brain.

So Dr. Michelucci is putting these two platforms together to help people start to identify blood flow in vessels and where it's being basically clogged and to look at microscopic evidence of where those clogs are happening as a first step.

That can't be done with computers right now.

And there's even a project that was looking at basically the cure to cancer.

Yes.

This is from Cancer Research UK, and they actually have a number of projects along those lines, but one was done as a test at first.

It was called Cell Slider.

So for the testing part of it, they took some slides of tumor images, and they put them online with clear instructions to help people understand what a cancerous tumor looks like, what a healthy cell looks like.

And this was organized through another popular platform called Zooniverse.

So people were able to click through images to look for healthy and unhealthy images.

So what those researchers were doing was really trying to get a sense of, 'Can people be accurate about this?

Can we really put this out to the crowds?'

They were kind of skeptical.

They wanted to see two things -- a level of accuracy and the amount of time saved.

Why not just have their professional researchers continue to do this?

So for that particular project, they were able to quantify every bit as accurate as their professional researchers and half the time.

And because of that, they've invested some time and money in their own platform to roll out much larger crowdsourcing efforts.

The example I used earlier with WeCureALZ, they expect that to cut down by -- in the hundreds.

So really speed this rapid pace of discovery.

But then we're seeing more and more projects where the definition of who the expert is can be called into question.

The expert could be somebody who who is local, who is very knowledgeable about their own situation.

Take a fisherman or a farmer.

They probably know their own situation better than anybody and can start to notice changes in climate.

Changes in the fact that their fish aren't showing up as they had before or they look deformed or something's different here.

More and more projects are being initiated by individuals who are curious and who need help from the public to start to gather evidence.

What starts to happen, then, is, in order for that evidence to be taken seriously, legitimized, and used by people who are in positions to make decisions, we start to look at other barriers to entry for people, which include, you know, good scientific method that's described articulately to people so they feel their time is being valued if they get involved in this project so that they can begin to understand the outcomes of, 'What happens with my data if I share this?'

And I can't say that always happens with the professional research projects, too.

Sometimes we wonder, 'What happens with that data?'

And then, also, access to tools -- tools that give valid data that can be calibrated and that are accessible to people.

This is where we start to see the 'do it yourself' movement.

An exciting, new, I would say emerging area of citizen science is this mashing up of the maker movement and the citizen scientists coming together to kind of take down some of those barriers that we've seen before.

Where do you see citizen science going?

5 years from now, 10 years from now, if we have this conversation, is it gonna be some sort of large-scale breakthrough that was brought on because of citizen science?

No doubt.

And, again, we've already started seeing those large-scale breakthroughs that are brought on because of citizen science.

What I would like to see happen, and this is something we're starting to test out with Arizona State University in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, is the ability to start to help formalize -- if the volunteers are interested in this path, how do we start helping to give them formal credit for what they're doing?

Mm.

They're advancing areas of research for which, by and large, the researchers involved in that are, you know, rising through the ranks of their profession.

They're getting their papers published, and they're getting their promotions, and they're heading towards their tenured position, and that's all well and good.

And we're solving problems in the interim, which is very exciting.

But what about these people?

When you asked me about the demographics... When we meet people involved in these projects, I'm surprised at how many did not go to college.

When I bring up that issue, and the example of the farmer and the fisherman -- they may not have formal education.

For whatever reason, they chose a different path.

Or they may be somebody like me.

I didn't study science in college.

I was a late bloomer to my interest in science.

And so when I came back up and said, 'I like science.

I'd like to connect in a more meaningful way,' I couldn't find the opportunities.

I didn't know where the on-ramps were.

That's why I started SciStarter, to say, 'Hey, everybody, science degree or not, come.

There's something for you, and you're very much valued, and you're really needed for these projects.

Darlene Cavalier of SciStarter.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

I'm Abigail Edgecilffe-Johnson, and I run RaceYa, which is a vehicle for STEM.

We use customizable radio-controlled cars to teach kids about science and engineering.

We're looking at curious kids between about 8 and 12 to 14.

But because we're a racecar, we tend to skew about 6 to 16, and occasionally 45.

It's very important to us that we get girls involved in STEM as well, but we don't consider ourselves to be a very 'girly' toy, because we don't think that there is any place that girls can't be.

So we want to create a toy that says to both boys and girls that they should be playing together.

We were very intentional about the way we branded RaceYa, and it's about making something that's really accessible to all kids, but so they can bring to the car what they want.

So, the car is a platform, and then they kind of create and learn and build on top of it.

And just like you would -- you know, the case for your iPhone is how you express your personality, the way you make your car and decorate your car is how you express your personality.

So we're not trying to put any kind of gendered language on the car.

We're letting kids come to it of their own.

The really important thing to us is that we're building a toy that is fun right out of the box.

So, we're not about the process, we're not about being super complicated.

Right out of the box, the kid can take the toy, play with it, and explore.

And every kid, when we get this in front of them, the first thing they say after they've played with it is, 'Okay, what else can it do?'

And I love being able to say, 'Let me show you.'

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A health alert along southern beaches in the U.S. is alarming visitors and residents alike.

The culprit is a dangerous flesh-eating bacteria most commonly found along warm coastal waters where people swim and fish.

Up next, we take a look at this public-health problem, and what steps can be taken to prevent it.

A word of warning.

Some of what you're about to see may be a little uncomfortable to watch.

actually are endemic to low-salinity estuaries like Tampa Bay.

They are autochthonous, so they don't need to come from a human source, or any other type of inclusion.

They are naturally found.

They are halophiles, so they like the salt water.

Dr. Robert Ulrich is a microbiologist who has studied this highly dangerous bacteria.

He warns shellfish can sometimes be tainted with the microbe.

The oysters, being filter feeders, they take particulate matter out of the water column for nutrient sources.

And unfortunately, when they take these particulate nutrients out of the water, they also take out of the water.

And they don't expel it, and it becomes concentrated in their tissues.

When served raw or undercooked, oysters can become very dangerous.

If you're immunocompromised, you're nearly 80% more likely for this organism to enter your bloodstream.

So, that's when it causes the septicemia, septic shock.

Once that happens, the mortality rates are currently up near 50%.

Experts say to never eat raw oysters.

Instead, steam or fry them to kill any associated bacteria.

They can also be acquired through skin punctures or skin wounds, bathing in waters containing these organisms.

This really only has a high incidence of occurring with immunocompromised patients.

Most importantly, patients with damaged livers.

Typically, in healthy individuals, if you ingest a decent amount of it just causes gastroenteritis, which is diarrhea, stomach, abdominal pain.

And unfortunately that's another reason why it's often underreported.

The more virulent strain of contain capsules, which is a polysaccharide or sugar coating around the cell wall.

This makes the organism more resistant to the immune system.

And human blood makes an ideal host for this super bacteria.

This bacterium is endemic to brackish water.

Unfortunately, our bloodstream is saline, as well.

It does have salt in it as well.

And it's somewhat similar environment to where these organisms are found.

So they're quite happy, if they're not being attacked by the immune system, once it gets in your bloodstream, to divide.

When acquired through a wound in the skin, attacks soft tissue.

The problems it causes the most are called cellulitis and necrotizing fasciitis.

Cellulitis is basically just an infection of the lower layers of your skin.

Necrotizing fasciitis is the reason why it's got the moniker flesh-eating bacteria.

'Cause it does necrotize or kill soft tissues.

And once it becomes septic, once it gets into your bloodstream, it can reproduce very, very rapidly, and get into other tissues in other places in your body, and that's when it becomes really, really hard to control, even with antibiotics.

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Richard Corley was a trucker from Winterhaven, Florida.

They called him Pine Tree.

Lot of people don't even know his real name.

He was a true outdoorsman.

That was his life.

When he was off the road from driving, he was either hunting or fishing.

Richard and his brother Brian shared many outdoor adventures together.

In September of 2015, Richard and some friends went to Fort Myers on a fishing trip.

But when he returned home, something was wrong.

Sunday afternoon, my sister called me, and she said he had come home, and he thought he had the flu bug.

He was sick to his stomach.

He had told her about the cut on his leg.

And he had a little spot up above where the cut was, and he thought something had bit him.

Then the next morning, my sister, she had pulled the sheet off to check the spot.

Didn't look good.

Really had festered up.

Black, real big.

So I told her, I said just call an ambulance and have him go to the hospital.

By Monday afternoon, had taken over Richard's body.

From that morning till 1:00, it had spread from below his knee up to his groin, and was going into his stomach.

By early Wednesday morning, Richard was gone.

We made the decision to clean him up, take the tube out of his mouth, get him all cleaned up and let us say our goodbyes to him.

And once they did that, it -- two minutes, he had -- It was over.

He made the 12th person this year in Florida to die of this bacteria.

And, you know, I know there's certain different ways you can catch it or whatever, but, you know, it just seems like there's not a whole lot of information out there.

The Florida Department of Health keeps up with the reported deaths from this flesh-eating bacteria.

is not a hugely common illness, and on average in Florida, we have about 21 cases a year.

Mackenzie Tewell is an epidemiologist in Hillsborough County, Florida.

The people who have the most severe outcomes with including amputation, skin grafts, who develop sepsis or infection of the bloodstream, or even death, are people with underlying health conditions.

The most severe illness we have the interaction with is hepatitis, other liver conditions like cirrhosis, individuals who consume heavy amounts of alcohol.

Heart disease and diabetes are two others that we often see with individuals with severe outcomes with We would suggest, if you have a health condition, are immunocompromised, have something going on in your health, or you have an open wound, that it's probably not the best time to go into brackish waters, to go fishing, to go the beach.

From the perspective of having lost a brother to this deadly bacteria, Brian wants more to be said about

From April to September, in the hotter months, is when this bacteria moves into the water.

People that come down from up north to the salt water, and they're riding WaveRunners or fishing, and I guarantee a lot of people don't know about this.

And that's all it takes is, you know, to have a cut or something and get in the brackish water back there or whatever, where this bacteria's at.

I just think -- you know, just to try to inform people more about it is why, you know, we've been talking about it.

You know, I don't want to see somebody's little kid die from it.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...