SciTech Now Episode 247

In this episode of SciTech Now, wildlife volunteers in Oregon set out into the desert to remove barbed wire and fencing from nature; how complex scientific ideas gain acceptance; the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, may not be integral to all cells; and a team of researchers uses the unique properties of the Jersey shore to study hurricane intensity.



Coming up... unchaining wildlife...

There is so much landscape out here that is not in its entire natural state.

It just needs a little nudge to get on a different trajectory.

...shaping our understanding of the universe.

Now you can make a prediction, and within 5 to 10 years, it's testable.

The match in sophistication is really what's making it a golden age.

Discovering a cell with a missing part.

These are eukaryotes which lives in environments without oxygen.

And we were looking for their mitochondria and how they changed.

And, finally, investigating summer storms.

There's been a lot of research on hurricanes over the deeper ocean, but we're really the first to have the resources in the water, underneath these storms on the coastal ocean.

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.

There are no cattle left on the Pine Creek Conservation Area in Central Oregon.

But there's plenty of barbed-wire fence.

Now a group of Backcountry volunteers are determined to remove the dangerous, derelict fencing from the area before it becomes federally protected wilderness.

Here's the story.

[ Birds chirping ]

Early mornings are quiet in the High Desert.

Unseen birds are sparing with their calls.

A silent rabbit chances breakfast in the tall, dry grass.

As the desert wakes up, so does the camp on Hedgehog Ridge, high above the John Day River Valley.

One by one, volunteers with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, emerge from their tents and greet the morning with strong coffee and small words.

Hard to fix...

They begin preparing for a day of backcountry and barbed wire.


And before the sun rises too high, the group heads out.

I can cut only from the other end.

I'm Fred Sawyer.

Yesterday was my birthday.

I was 66 years old.

And, so, on my birthday, I got to come out on this ONDA trip and four-wheel-drive up here to Pine Creek Conservation Area.

We're pulling fence.

Pulling fence posts, rolling wire, lugging the steel posts that are up the hills to get them to where we can get them out with a vehicle on the edge of the wilderness area.

And that's what the whole job is about.


Barbed-wire fencing has been on this land since the late 1800s, soon after the first white settlers began putting down roots in Central and Eastern Oregon.

Volunteers, like retired La Pine science teacher M.J. Hare, are giving up one of the final weekends of summer to help pull some of the last remaining fence off this land.

Even when I was teaching, I would bring my bags with me and run out and change my clothes and hop in the car and off I'd go to one of these trips.

So it's been part of my life for quite a while.

Jefferson Jacobs is leading the trip.

There is so much landscape out here that is not in its entire natural state.

It just needs a little nudge to get on a different trajectory.

Fencing can be a good thing, keeping grazing animals out of sensitive environments, but when barbed wire becomes obsolete and is left out on the range, it can create serious problems for wildlife.

Removing unneeded fence from Pine Creek and other protected areas, like Hart Mountain and the Steens in Oregon, has long been a conservation priority.

It can alter how wildlife move through the landscape and can exclude them from important things, like springs or easy travel routes or predator-free areas.

The group's volunteers have pulled and hauled more than 500 miles of obsolete fencing across the state.

Other conservation groups from Washington to Wyoming have undertaken similar work.

And some of the volunteers have witnessed the more gruesome consequence of old fencing.

We came across a big-horned sheep that had got its horns tangled in the wire.

I mean, it was long past.

But, still, it must have been a horrific way to go.

And it was definitely a reminder of why the fence needs to go.

The group has taken down fence in this area before.

In the past, they were able to remove about a mile of it per day, but not on this trip.

This fence is kind of left for last, 'cause it is a hard, hard fence.

It runs deep in a canyon, down scree slopes and along rocky ledges.

Watch your step here.

Every pulled post and barbed-wire roll is packed out of the canyon.

And by the end of the day, the group is exhausted.

Today was a little bit on the brutal side.

We were on a side of a hill.

It got hot today.

[ Laughs ] It's the steepest place I've ever removed fence.

This is the hardest fence pull we have ever done.

I don't think anybody up there would say otherwise.

But there's a quarter mile less fence on Pine Creek.

With the shared exhaustion comes the camaraderie of shared experiences and a feeling of ownership, responsibility, and affinity for this small corner of Central Oregon.

It's the reward of looking over your shoulder as you're leaving and not seeing any fence and how beautiful that looks -- just open and free.

And the next morning, they'll head down into the canyon once again to pull more fence and return another stretch of rangeland to wilderness.

Humanity's passion for discovery has been exemplified by scientists and philosophers, like Galileo and Einstein, but how have their scientific ideas shaped our understanding of the cosmos today?

Joining me now to discuss the scientific theories and how they gain acceptance is theoretical astrophysicist and Yale University professor Priya Natarajan.

So, theoretical astrophysicist is always one of those like, 'What does that mean?

What do they do?

They theorize about what?'

How do these ideas become accepted by the general public?

I think the first hurdle is that when scientists propose radical ideas -- For example, now that we have an inventory of our universe, we know that the primary constituents are these very peculiar things.

They are dark matter and dark energy, both of which are invisible elements.

And, so, the scientific community itself grapples and has a lot of difficulty dealing with the new proposals.

So, the idea of dark matter was inferred by looking at the gravitational effect that dark matter, although it's invisible, exerts on the motions of stars and galaxies.

So it's everywhere.

It's smeared everywhere, but it's clumped in certain places in the cosmos.

And, so, it's those regions where it's clumped that we have a really good handle on mapping it.

So, one of the properties that we explored is from Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which is the presence of mass, whether it emits radiation or not, just mass, would deflect light rays.

So, the presence of a huge concentration of dark matter would deflect light rays -- that is, the light from galaxies behind this clump.

So it would kind of go around it.

It'll go around it and it will give us a distorted view of what those galaxies actually look like.

And because there are patches in the universe where dark matter is not so clumped, we know what it should look like when there's not so much distortion.

So, given that we know what a 'normal' patch should look like, we can infer what this distorted patch means for the amount of dark matter that is distributed.

You know, for a non-scientist who's like, 'Look, I can't see it, I can't believe it,' but a group of you-all who are debating in academic journals about whether this distortion should exist or not, why is it hard for scientists to embrace the possibility of something radical?

Well, I think that there's a history in particular -- right? -- of all these 'unseen quantities' going away.

So, there was this idea of miasma, which is this invisible fluid that causes diseases, before we had the pathogen idea for diseases, or ether -- that was a medium that was needed for light.

So, all of these invisible elements actually vanished.

They were shown to be nonexistent.

So, I think there's the first resistance is that.

At the end of the day -- right? -- we're human beings, and our psychology is such that we are a little averse to change.


So, for example, you know, Einstein is key example.

He came up with the most radical ideas, right?

He transformed our understanding of gravity and space-time and black holes and all of that.

But he resisted the implications when he understood the physics.

So, he was so wedded to the idea of a static universe that when his equations implied that the universe should be expanding and there was incontrovertible observational evidence, he was a holdout.

It took him a long time.

And, finally, he said, in 1929, after discovered the expansion, sort of that galaxies that were farther away from us were hurtling away faster, Einstein famously stood up at a seminar, in 1929, and said, 'Okay, I was wrong.

The universe is expanding.'

However, some colleagues of mine recently discovered an unpublished manuscript, which was incorrect, so Einstein actually didn't end up submitting it, dated 1931, where he was still trying to recover the idea of a static universe.

So, you know, publicly, he accepted it, but, emotionally, he struggled with the idea.

The comfort that a static universe gave -- right? -- was something that was hard for him to get over.

Similarly with the idea of a black hole.

The fact that the black hole is this peculiar object that encases a singularity, a place where all known laws of physics break down, he just thought, 'This is not natural.

Nature would not permit such a perverse object.'

And it took him a long time to actually accept that, you know, black holes became real.

And, of course, they became really real with the LIGO detection right now.

You know, we're literally talking about a genius and his resistance to what was a series of facts.

What about the general American population or just the population on Earth?

When we talk incontrovertible scientific evidence, we're very, very doubtful.

Right. And I think that's one of the goals of my new book, 'Mapping the Heavens,' where I've been really puzzled and fascinated at why Americans are so resistant to new scientific ideas and scientific ideas and science in general.

So the general disbelief in science.

So, one thing that I wanted to do with my book was to show how, in the process of science, everything is really provisional.

So our current state of knowledge is the best to date what we know and that when we have more data -- So, it's the interplay of ideas and instruments.

When we have better data, more data, then, you know, our picture, our theoretical picture, can either get honed and refined or, very occasionally, the theory can get completely overthrown, right?

By in large, we have reached a level of sophistication in our understanding that things really do get just honed a little bit.

And I think the public has a lot of difficulty comprehending the fact that things can change.

But these changes are not hugely disruptive.


They are part of refining our understanding and getting a deeper understanding.

It's part of the training that we have to be open-minded.

And part of what I wanted to show is that despite our training, a lot of us struggle when we face -- So, it's just, you know, the psychological part of us which is resistant to change.

In the last few years, we've had these major moments, at least scientifically, of the gravitational waves or the Higgs boson, or the 'God Particle.'

I mean, these are big, massive leaps, and the scientific community's still kind of adjusting to that.

'Okay, I guess that really happened?

That really did happen?

Okay. What does that mean for all my research and everything that I've been pursuing for 20 years.

So, I think we are a little bit ahead in terms of acceptance, and the public soon follows.

And I think the scientists have now realized that we actually have a responsibility to the public to explain what is going on.

These are momentous discoveries.

And it's often said -- It's a cliché. It's said that 'we're in the golden age of cosmology.'

We actually are.

And the reason for that is that both the ideas, our theoretical ideas, and technology and instruments have reached a sophistication that now matches.

It used to be that you could theorize about all kinds of things, you know, many, many possibilities, and they were not all testable right away.

It would take 50 years to test something.

Now you can make a prediction, and within 5 to 10 years, it's testable.

The match in sophistication is really what's making it a golden age, but with technology moving at the pace that it is, I think we may soon be at a time when technology is going to outpace our ability to generate new ideas and that new ideas will, therefore, have to be generated in a different way.

I think that's already starting to happen in fields like astronomy.

It used to be that, you know, there were individual, lone geniuses, right?

And now the work is done in big scientific teams.

So it's sort of distributed intelligence and expertise.

You need the expertise of many different people to sort of combine and synergize to come up with a new idea or to test it.

Priya Natarajan, from Yale University, thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

Eukaryotic cells are what make up you, me, and other living things, and they almost always have a power-generating organ called the mitochondria -- or so we thought.

Now the discovery of a cell without a mitochondria is showing scientists how flexible living organisms can be.

Here's a look.

Anna, thanks for joining us here.

Hey. Hello.

First, can you explain what are eukaryotic cells?

Where can we find them?

What kinds of cells are they?

Oh, eukaryotic cells we can find everywhere.

Of course, we have eukaryotic cells, but also plants and fungi and animals.

Those are the ones which we, most of the time, think about eukaryotes.

When we think eukaryote, we think about big animal, big plant.

But there are also eukaryotes which are single-celled, and there is a lot of them.

A lot of them are parasites, a lot of them in the water.

Some are algae.

So, they could be, like, really small, from single-cell organisms, up to human, elephant, everything what is big, too.

But the main difference with bacteria is that eukaryotic cells has a nucleus, whereas the prokaryotic cell does not.

But, generally, eukaryotic cells are pretty much the same in form and function where we find them?

Yes, although, of course, it's hard to say that human being is the same as yeast, because yeast do everything within one cell, and our cells are diversified.

So each group of cells do a little bit different thing, whereas if the organism is only one cell, the cell has to do pretty much everything for it to fulfill the life.

So, those yeast and those kinds of eukaryotic cells are more self-sustaining.


Then, within the cell, we have smaller organs, one of which is the mitochondria.

Can you explain what the mitochondria does?

Right. In eukaryotic cells, as I mentioned, there is a nucleus, but there are also other organelles.

You can define them as small organs, and one of them is mitochondria, which many, many cells -- It's a creator organelle for many cells, eukaryotic cells and the main function in organisms which live in environments when there is a lot of oxygen, so, basically, like we are now, for example.

Okay. Land animals and things like that?

So, the organisms we see most of the time -- they live in environments where there is enough oxygen to use mitochondria for energy generation.

So, that's the function, like, main function we think about when we define mitochondria.

Although, they do also many other things which are important for the cell.

So, the mitochondria brings in oxygen to produce energy?

Well, mitochondria are using oxygen as a part of the process of energy generation.

And that energy fuels the cell to do everything that it needs to do?


Now you and your team have discovered a eukaryotic cell that functions without a mitochondria, which seems like a car going without a gas tank.

How did you discover that?

And how does it work?

I mentioned that the organisms which live in environments with oxygen -- they really need mitochondria for the energy generation.

But there are environments where there is less oxygen or almost no oxygen -- for example, our ducts -- where organisms which live there -- they don't use oxygen in energy generation.

And then they don't use mitochondria for the function most of the time.

And we were looking for their mitochondria and how they changed.

We knew before -- I think for the last 30 years -- Scientists working on that and looking on changes in mitochondria which happen when they live in different environments, especially depleted on oxygen.


And they are, of course, different, because they don't do the same as our mitochondria, although they originate from the same -- This is the same organelle still, but very reduced and changed.

Did you question whether this still sort of qualified as a eukaryotic cell?

No, because it has a nucleus.

So, that's the -- The definition is mainly by the nucleus.

It should have, also, other organelles.

Mitochondria is not the only organelle.

There are also other membranes inside the cell, and it has other typical eukaryotic characteristic features.

So, we don't have this eukaryote, just those organisms have different, very divergent mitochondria.

And what does this tell us?

Are we learning any new insights or does this inform any future research?

What I would say, given right now, it's a broader context.

So, there is this group of organisms which have this mitochondria.

But, like, the one we discovered -- the surprise part of the discovery was that it really doesn't have anything left, because so far, every organism which was checked for it and believed, initially, that maybe it doesn't have anything, in the end, scientists were able to identify some remnant mitochondria.

And, in this case, we couldn't find any.

For biology, for evolutionary biology, this is an interesting discovery, because it shows how divergent it could be, eukaryote, how flexible is eukaryotic cell, what is in the organelle which was believed to be indispensable?

And we found out there's some special circumstances it could actually be lost.

Okay. So, a new take on the eukaryotic cell.

Thank you so much, Anna, for joining us.

Thank you.

Despite well-known storms, like Superstorm Sandy, the intensity of summer hurricanes has actually decreased significantly in the past 20 years.

A team of researchers at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, is using underwater robots, satellites, and high-frequency radar systems to investigate this phenomenon.

'Jersey Roots, Global Reach.'

So says a sign at the Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, the COOL Lab, for short.

The lab's work puts Jersey front and center.

Researchers say they've figured out why experts have been misforecasting the intensity of summer hurricanes in our region.

Hurricane-track forecasts have really improved over the last 20 years, but the intensity forecasts of these hurricanes has lagged.

Case in point, Hurricane Irene.

The August 2011 storm wreaked havoc inland, but weakened to tropical-storm status, falling short of expectations along the Jersey coast.

Why? The researchers say it's because that same water that draws us to the shore every summer sits on top of a cold bottom layer.

A storm's intensity mixes it all up so the water near the coast cools before the eye of the storm gets there.

And since hurricanes are powered by warm water, this cooling leads to a less-intense storm.

Researchers say that pattern holds for every summer hurricane as it crossed mid-Atlantic coastal waters over the past three decades.

The key is to have that two-layer flow in the ocean -- right? -- so you have that increased shear in mixing that friction in the ocean.

And you don't see that in, say, off of North Carolina or in the Gulf of Mexico.

That's not as typical conditions.

So, you can really only study this in places like off the coast of New Jersey.

You can also study it off the coast of China, so in the Yellow Sea.

The team used NOAA's offshore buoys, plus satellites and high-frequency radar systems and what they call underwater robots.

A glider, like this one behind me, measures ocean temperature, salinity, and currents.

The team at Rutgers deploys them all over the globe, including a handful in New Jersey.

They travel under storms, collecting data in real time, and unlike a buoy, the team can control its movements from land.

There's been a lot of research on hurricanes over the deeper ocean -- where they form and how they propagate toward land -- but we're really the first to have the resources in the water, underneath these storms on the coastal ocean.

Researchers say that when a storm's intensity is lower than originally forecast, the state wastes money and manpower on emergency preparedness, and people are desensitized.

Some New Jerseyans didn't heed warnings ahead of Superstorm Sandy, figuring they weathered big, bad Irene just fine.

We want people to have faith in the forecasts that are made so when emergency managers tell people to evacuate, they actually listen.

And, so, this team is playing defense.

A lot of the deep-ocean research on hurricanes -- we can think of them as the attackmen, you know, going out and deploying, you know, floats, some gliders on the deep ocean to go out to the storm, but we act as that goalie along the coastline to protect that coastline.

A job that will only get more important as sea levels rise and intense storms migrate northward.

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... ♪♪