Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

27Jul/09Off

Beach-Combing Emerald Isle and Topsail Island, NC

(Note: As always, click image for better versions - these are heavily compressed)

Emerald Isle, NC

Last weekend we had a short but nice going away get-away with some friends (psychology graduate students, a parole officer, and a lawyer/rockstar) in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

My dorky goal was to find more fossilized shark teeth (see previous awesome finds here), in addition to the obvious general goal of having a salty time.

Unfortunately, a storm kept most of the cool ocean debris from washing ashore until Sunday morning. Nevertheless, I found quite a few interesting things.

First off: fossil shark teeth!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Fossil Shark Teeth

The Haul:

The Haul 1

The Haul 1

The Haul 2

The Haul 2

The Haul 3

The Haul 3

Skate Egg Case:

Skate Egg Case

Skate Egg Case

Unknown wicked fish jaw:

wicked fish jaw

wicked fish jaw

Shell Fossils in matrix:

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

A cool fossil of what I think is a bryozoan.

Fossil Bryozoan

Fossil Bryozoan

I found a nice piece of fossilized bone. Of what? Who knows? Probably whale or dolphin. Or perhaps mermaid.

Fossil Bone

Fossil Bone

I also found several chunks of what I believe is either anthracite coal, or the next metamorphic step - graphite (I'm no geologist - thoughts?). It's very light weight, very hard, and very faceted - which doesn't come across very well in still shots:

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

One of the coolest things I found is a relation to organisms I will soon be working with in my new lab: starfish!!
I found two of these, both beautifully colored and still alive. They were washed ashore by the storm, so I tossed em back. I have no idea the likelihood of their survival, but I can say they didn't wash back ashore over the next two days. (I'm awaiting the expertise of Christopher Mah of the Echinoblog for species identification).
Update
: it's a Royal Sea Star, Astropecten articulatus. Quoth the EchinoMaster: "Basically..they are your stereotypical "sand star" predatory on infaunal bivalves and pretty common on sandy-muddy bottoms of the Northeast US.  Attractively colored animals to be sure!" Thanks Chris!

Starfish

Starfish

Starfish

Check out those details!

Starfish

Tube Feet Alive!!

We also got to hit the NC Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. It's a pretty rad place, so I was way more interested in pointing my eyes at all the ocean wonders, rather than pointing a camera. But I did get this cool shot of a gator.

Gator

Gator

Ooh - and apparently someone else took a shot of us there - me and John playing with the rays (the ray touch tank was by far the coolest part!).

Petting the stingrays

Petting the stingrays

Topsail Island, NC

A month ago, we also had the opportunity to hit Topsail Island, NC.

Fun was had. Things were seen.

Shark Teeth (Yes - I showed these before).

Fossil Shark Teeth

Great colors!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Ocean smoothed - but still pretty wicked

Mole Crabs (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

And that's it - images are all I have for you at the moment. Enjoy.

I swear, I will have slightly more posts once I get moved to Pittsburgh and settled.

And just because I never show her (she's camera shy), I'm sneaking in this shot of my wife:

A Psychologist

Three Psychologists

26Jun/09Off

Echinodermata For The Win!!

I'm back!!!

Oh...you never realized I was gone?

Ah well, that's ok, because I AM back - back from a stressful few months of wondering where I would end up, how I would feed my babies (i.e. cats) and their baby-momma (my wife - yeah that does sound rather gross), and several dozen unknowns also thrown into the mix.

And after all the trials and tribulations, I can now state with certainty that I got the one job in my new future hometown (Pittsburgh) that I wanted more than anything: a post-doc in the lab of Dr. Veronica Hinman at Carnegie Mellon University.

What will I be doing you ask?

Well, I will be doing none other than studying the evolution of gene regulatory networks (GRNs). Specifically, I'll be looking at GRNs in the context of development using the wonderful sea critters in the phylum Echinodermata. For those of you not in the know, the "spiny-skinned" echinoderms are the asteroids (starfish/sea stars), ophiuroids (brittle stars), echinoids (sea urchins), holothuroids (sea cucumbers), and crinoids (feather stars, sea lillies and such).

Click for larger! Or Click HERE for super high resolution posters.

That's right folks - I am now at least an honorary marine biologist! ... kind of.  I don't know if the real marine biologists would ever deign to allow me such a title, but I can call myself whatever I want.

Many of you may know this already, but the process by which a single fertilized cell becomes a complex organism is an insanely intricate one. DNA is often called a "blueprint" for life, however in reality it's more like a cooking recipe informing each cell which ingredient to add and when, where, and how to add it - all codified into a multi-layered genetic computer program with kernels, plug-ins, sub-circuits, and all sorts of other technobabbly organic craziness.

This is where the "Gene Regulatory Network" comes in - the GRN is that central biological software controlling and allowing life itself. Not only will I be studying the structure of these networks in echinoderm development, I'll be looking at the evolutionary context of the echinoderm networks in relation to each other to suss out how they work and which parts of the networks are conserved (or not) between these amazing creatures that diverged from each other about 500 million years ago.

I'll initially be working on the "endomesoderm" network in the sea star, Asterina miniata. Down the line I'll also be contributing to the development of the sea cucumber as a new model for studying "evodevo".

In celebration, I spent a fair bit of time getting back to my art roots creating the above cladogram in the sand of the Echinoderm phylum (which you can get a poster of here if you're into echinoderms. I rendered it out in pretty high resolution, so you will definitely be getting a high quality poster. I'm pretty proud of it as it took quite a bit of work in the Blender program).

I spent a while trying to find time-lapses or animations of starfish development online, to no avail. Thus I spent a week of much needed downtime to create this computer animation: (note - you can also watch it in High Definition on youtube)

NOTE: The details of the actual metamorphosis of the rudiment into the juvenile are not accurate - it's quite hard to animate these types of changes - and to be honest I haven't actually seen these creatures in the flesh. But it's good enough to get a good idea of how the whole developmental process occurs in this type of sea star.

Anyway, I'm sure I will have much much more to say about the evolution and development of echinoderms in the future so I'll leave it at that for now.

Hopefully, I can at least be an honorary member of the cool kids club, the marine biologists: Kevin, Eric, Andrew, David, Miriam, Christie, Rick, Mark, Jason, Chris, and all the others I'm surely missing.