Santa Cruz Good Times

Saturday
Feb 06th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Dropping Some Science

walrusA look at the year in scientific research around Santa Cruz

From the faraway icy surface of Pluto to the depths of Antarctica’s frozen tundra, Santa Cruz scientists had their fingerprints all over this year’s most interesting findings. There were possible breakthroughs at UCSC in the search for an AIDS vaccine and better ways to test for Ebola, and important research into bat fungi and the sounds of elephant seals. Here are five key takeaways from Santa Cruz’s year in science.

1. Mercurial Findings

For over a decade now, health-conscious people worried about mercury have known what they could do to minimize their risk of getting contaminated—namely, reduce servings of certain kinds of fish, like tuna. But in the past year, scientists have discovered that methylmercury, the element in its toxic form, might be closer to us than we ever thought before.1.

First came reports from UCSC researchers like Peter Weiss-Penzias, an atmospheric chemist, that the elemental compound consistently shows up in fog. Next was the revelation from UCSC biologists that methylmercury was showing up in the molted top-layer fur of elephant seals. Researchers estimate that each individual seal sheds about half a pound of methylmercury each year.

More alarming yet was a report this month from the Puma Project on campus, which has been consistently testing and finding mercury in the whiskers of pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains. More than one-third of Santa Cruz-area mountain lions had mercury levels above the human-health threshold, and fog seems to be the culprit, as it disrupts the food chain. Experts also found higher-than-expected mercury levels in pine needles and some spiders. Generally speaking, mercury is a toxin that can cause problems for children and pregnant women, even stopping brain growth in fetuses. It’s too early to say, though, if and how mercury is affecting the animals that the researchers are testing.

2. Plastic Fantastic

Jim “Homer” Holm, executive director for Clean Oceans International in Santa Cruz, has long been a supporter of cleaning up the Pacific and getting plastics out of the sea. This past October, his group paid to bring the prototype of a plastic-to-fuel machine to Cabrillo College for a demonstration and give some sharp college kids the opportunity to test it out themselves. Weighing in at 500 pounds, the PTF 100, which was built in Michigan, can turn small pieces of plastic into valuable fuel. “What’s in it for me?” Holm told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Clean oceans are in it for me.”

3. Toxins in Bloom

UCSC scientists were warning about the massive toxic algae bloom coming to the West Coast back in early June. It has all been part of the the trending warmer El Niño waters in the past year that has venomous, tropical sea snakes washing ashore in Huntington Beach and young sea lion pups starving. On top of that, local biologists announced this month that domoic acid, an algal toxin, is leaving some sea lions brain damaged, with impaired spatial memory. That deficit, biologists say, would probably make it harder for the sea mammals to find food and avoid getting lost at sea.

4. Map Making

One of the most exciting things happening up on the hill is not necessarily a discovery that happened this year—but rather a series of developments that might lead to something over the next several years. Over the past decade and a half, UCSC researchers have done pioneering work mapping the human genome to better understand the blueprints our bodies are built with.

But like people, all genomes are different, creating an overwhelming body of information—each human genome has over 3 billion base pairs. This past year, the UCSC Genomics Institute received a $1 million grant from the Simons Foundation, a charitable group supporting research, to map this genetic variation to get a better sense of what different individuals have and don’t have in common, and where that variation is. This past September, the institute announced a partnership with Microsoft that will allow for faster calculations. It also received a couple of big grants, including $2 million from the Keck Foundation.

5. Light Fixture

UCSC’s astronomy department is regarded as one of the nation’s best, and this year astronomer Francis Nimmo was part of a mission to send the first-ever satellite 3 billion miles to Pluto, while Professor Garth Illingworth was part of a project that examined light from billions of years ago.

Illingworth has long been an expert in the early days of the universe. Using the Hubble Telescope, he has studied light that is 13 billion years old and looked at galaxies in the early days of the universe, literally peering across space and time. This year, he teamed up with Yale University astronomers to look at 13-billion-year-old light from the 10-meter telescope at University of California’s Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Combined with images from Hubble and the Spitzer Telescope, these new images reveal secrets of the universe’s toddler years. “One of the most dramatic discoveries from Hubble and Spitzer in recent years is the unexpected number of these very bright galaxies at early times close to when the first galaxies formed,” Illingworth said in May. “We still don’t fully understand what they are and how they relate to the very numerous fainter galaxies.”


UPWARD-FACING SEAL It was a big year at UCSC for elephant seals. Some researchers learned about the sea mammals’ ability to recognize the bark of their rivals, while others made troubling discoveries about mercury in their skin. PHOTO: CLAYTON ANDERSON, NMFS 19108

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

On the Run

Is there hope for California’s salmon?

 

Chinese New Year of the Red Fire Monkey

Monday, Feb. 8, is Aquarius new moon (19 degrees) and Chinese New Year of the Red Fire Monkey (an imaginative, intelligent and vigilant creature). Monkey is bright, quick, lively, quite naughty, clever, inquiring, sensible, and reliable. Monkey loves to help others. Often they are teachers, writers and linguists. They are very talented, like renaissance people. Leonardo Da Vinci was born in the year of Monkey. Monkey contains metal (relation to gold) and water (wisdom, danger). 2016 will be a year of finances. For a return on one’s money, invest in monkey’s ideas. Metal is related to wind (change). Therefore events in 2016 will change very quickly. We must ponder with care before making financial, business and relationship changes. Fortune’s path may not be smooth in 2016. Finances and business as usual will be challenged. Although we develop practical goals, the outcomes are different than hoped for. We must be cautious with investments and business partnership. It is most important to cultivate a balanced and harmonious daily life, seeking ways to release tension, pressure and stress to improve health and calmness. Monkey is lively, flexible, quick-witted, and versatile. Their gentle, honest, enchanting yet resourceful nature results often in everlasting love. Monkeys are freedom loving. Without freedom, Monkey becomes dull, sad and very unhappy. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), the Chinese official title of Marquis (noble person) was pronounced ‘Hou,’ the same as the pronunciation of ‘monkey’ in Chinese. Monkey was thereby bestowed with auspicious (favorable, fortunate) meaning. Monkey years are: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016.  

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of February 5

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Wine and Chocolate

West Cliff Wines gets its game on, plus a brand new chocolate cafe on Center Street

 

How would you stop people from littering?

Teach them from the time that they’re small that it’s not an appropriate behavior. Juliet Jones, Santa Cruz, Claims Adjuster

 

Dancing Creek Winery

New Zinfandel Port is a ruby beauty

 

Venus Spirits

Changing law could mean new opportunity for local spirits