Small Intros to Big Questions: How many types of cells make up a human?

The average human body is made up of 37 trillion cells — that’s roughly 4.3 million times the population of New York City. This cellular world is vastly diverse, and biologists are constantly discovering new types of cells with novel functions. But what exactly makes one cell type different from another? How many different kinds of cells comprise a person? Is it possible to change one type of cell into another?

Continue reading “Small Intros to Big Questions: How many types of cells make up a human?”

Small Intros to Big Questions: Did evolution have to happen this way?

Equilibria will occasionally post lightning introductions to our favorite big questions in biology. This is our first, and is in collaboration with Josh Cofsky, a PhD student in Jennifer Doudna and John Kuriyan’s labs at UC Berkeley. 

The world teems with an incredibly diverse array of lifeforms, each shaped by millions of years of evolution. Biologists and philosophers have long pondered: was the evolution of the particular varieties of life that we observe on Earth today a predetermined process, or a product of chance? Or, perhaps a bit of both?

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The cancer cell next door

We know a lot about what can go wrong inside cells during disease. But what about the healthy bystanders?

Your body is a mosaic of cells, all squished together to form the tissues and organs that allow you to digest, think and breathe. The proper function of these organs depends entirely on the health and behavior of the individual cells that make them up, and disease occurs when cells don’t behave normally. For example, cancer is caused by cells that divide over and over again when they should not. But what happens to the innocent bystanders, the well-behaved cells next door to the troublemakers, during disease?

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A cutting-edge tool reveals the secrets of a salamander with superpowers

Scientists at Yale use gene-editing technology  to understand the remarkable regenerative abilities of an adorable amphibian.

In 1864, a small shipment arrived in Paris from French colonialists in Mexico. It consisted of six fairly unremarkable animals — three female deer and three small dogs — and thirty-four monumentally strange animals that were like nothing to have set foot in France before. These aquatic organisms had buggy eyes and bizarre, lacy gills, and carried with them a strange name from the New World: axolotl.  

Continue reading “A cutting-edge tool reveals the secrets of a salamander with superpowers”

Splitting up is hard to do. Physics helps.

Biophysicist Sophie Dumont injects her quantitative training into cell biology to solve foundational mysteries.

In 1999, Sophie Dumont couldn’t stop reading about cells. It was problematic; she was a PhD candidate in theoretical physics at the University of Oxford, and had plenty of dense material to parse through for her thesis. But cell biology posed a series of tantalizing mysteries to Dumont, which she believed, as a trained physicist, she was in a unique position to solve. A year later, unable to shake her obsession with biology, she packed up her belongings, flew across the Atlantic Ocean, and began a PhD in biophysics at UC Berkeley.

Continue reading “Splitting up is hard to do. Physics helps.”

The Frenemy Inside You: tales of bacterial cooperation and collusion

You are roughly half bacteria. In terms of cell number, that is. It’s a disorienting reality to swallow, but the body that allows you to dance and digest is utterly dependent on the work of millions of bacterial collaborators. They colonize your gut, pulling off complicated chemical reactions to produce nutrients necessary for your survival (biotin and vitamin K, to name a few). They patrol your skin, forming complex communities that ward off dangerous disease-causing interlopers. And, research published last week shows that they may also affect brain development and the efficacy of cancer drugs. Continue reading “The Frenemy Inside You: tales of bacterial cooperation and collusion”

A day in the life: Maya

A few days ago, I met a friend for a beer, and he asked me (as politely as possible) what scientists actually do on an average day. Ask and you shall receive! In a series called Day in the Life, we and our peers will share what we do to fill our time. Find them compiled here.

Here’s what I did today:

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How do biologists take a cellular census? Lasers.

This is the first in a series of posts describing techniques that scientists use regularly. Find more under the “Tools and Techniques” tab above. 

Tools and Techniques: FACS (Fluorescence Activated Cell Sorting)

It’s 9am, and I am getting ready to play with lasers. (Yeah, occasionally I have to pinch myself as a reminder that this is a real-life job). Continue reading “How do biologists take a cellular census? Lasers.”