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July 29, 2020

The ancient Greeks might have been right

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

The ancient Greeks might have been right

In this bonus episode inspired by a popular UK podcast, Dodi, Conor, and guest Kaycee share fun facts about science from the Pleistocene to now.


DODI: Welcome to this special episode of Discovery Matters. For many people around the world, it is summertime, winter if you're in the southern hemisphere. But everybody who is speaking on this podcast is in the northern hemisphere. So, it's summertime for us, and we're taking a break from our regularly scheduled editorial programming. This show is going to be an homage to another favorite podcast because in order to create a podcast, you have to be a podcast fan. And Conor, am I right you and I love the podcast, No such thing as a fish?

CONOR: There is no such thing as a fish, and it is an amazing podcast. If you haven't listened to it, you totally should.

DODI: Right. So, we're going to do our best to have a No such thing as a fish style fact show. And because we need somebody who's clever and wonderful, we brought our very own colleague, Kaycee Palumbo to join us.

KAYCEE: Hello, very excited to be here and I am as well a huge podcast fan, not only in science but also financial and crime. So, I think they're excellent. Just happy to be a part of this conversation.

DODI: Kaycee, I hope that your facts are going to be scientific crime facts today.

KAYCEE: Okay, we'll try. Game on.

DODI: Game on, let's go. The first fact we're gonna throw right to you, Conor McKechnie. What is your fact?

CONOR: The amazing fact that I've discovered this week is that scientists have revived a 32 000 year-old plant straight out of the Pleistocene. So, they have resurrected and grown plants from 32 000 year-old seeds. And this beats the previous record holder by guess how many years?

KAYCEE: 100.

DODI: 1000.

CONOR: 30 000 years. So, in 2007, a team of scientists from Russia and Hungary and the US recovered some seeds that were frozen. And they were Silene stenophylla seeds, I believe. The scientists were looking at some ancient ground squirrel hibernation burrows, and they found these frozen seeds in ice deposits in northeastern Siberia. And by using carbon dating, they found that the age of the seeds was between 20 000 and 40 000 years old. And they grew them. Amazing. So, they successfully revived one of those seeds and they made a flowering plant from fruit 32 000 years ago.

DODI: Well along the lines of Earth's early life, do you know what cenotes are in Mexico, these pools? They're gorgeous. They're fantastic. If you ever make it to Mexico go swimming in a cenote. They're fantastic for tourists, but they're also a rich place for scientists to go discovering ecosystems from hundreds of thousands years ago. So, there's a scientist, Valeria Souza Saldívar, who is studying the landscape in Mexico in a place called Cuatro Ciénegas, which means four marshes. This is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Souza Saldívar and collaborators discovered traces from hunter-gatherers that date back to 2275 BCE. So, that's a long time ago, and they're still able to track biodiversity. They're discovering species of snails, fish, turtles, and plants from way back, way back, way back when.

CONOR: Wow, old! So, they're digging around in the sediment at the bottom of the pool. Amazing.

DODI: Here it says based on the water chemistry, which is low in phosphorus, iron, and nitrogen and the presence of living stromatolites, they were able to recreate the marine conditions found worldwide millions of years ago.

CONOR: Insanely cool.

DODI: Insanely cool.

DODI: Kaycee, do you have anything ancient to riff on Conor's first fact?

KAYCEE: I'm trying to find something fascinating but instead of going from history, what we could do is go to putting things in context with the galaxy if we kind of tie things together. Going from the water to the world, did you know that the smallest known viruses are called circoviruses? And they are only 20 nanometers, which is extremely tiny. Their genome is 1700 nucleotides in length, and it codes two proteins. An HIV genome is about 10 000 nucleotides. And if you put those numbers in perspective, there are 1011 stars in the Milky Way, and in the universe there are 1080 protons. Tying it back to these little tiny circoviruses that are 20 nanometers. It's pretty amazing the length of the nucleotides.

DODI: So, we cannot see any of that with our naked eye.

KAYCEE: No.

CONOR: How much smaller are they than your normal, everyday, hanging-around-in-the-air virus size? What's the scale here? I mean, is it like teeny, weeny, weeny?

KAYCEE: Circoviruses are 0.00002 millimeters in diameter. So that's the teeny tiny. Now we're reading about the novel coronavirus and how it could be aerosol in nature. When you think about the other types of viruses that are out there, they're exceedingly tiny. So, it's just interesting to note how small some of the things that we're researching are.

CONOR: Does a virus count as an organism? I think it does, doesn't it?

KAYCEE: Viruses are actually not alive. They are inanimate complex organic matter. They really lack any form of energy carbon metabolism. So, they can't replicate or evolve. Viruses are reproduced and evolved only within cells.

CONOR: So, they depend on living things to do their thing.

DODI: You know, I was thinking about scientific vocabulary, and you said circo, and of course, that comes from a Latin root circ, which means ring. So, it kind of means around. And I started thinking about, why do scientists go back to Latin and Greek roots to name new discoveries? Does either one of you know?

KAYCEE: I don't, but I love that it reminds me of Cirque du Soleil. That's how important it is just in general to our cultural wellbeing.

CONOR: I want to say it's something to do with the language of learning in the 16th century, or something being Latin, or what have you. Something along those lines. Is that almost right?

DODI: Go way more practical than that. It's because the languages are no longer spoken. And these meanings do not change. So, it's stability, it's about stability.

CONOR: Okay, languages evolved. And words that meant a certain thing 100 years ago in English mean something completely different today. So, because these languages are no longer spoken...Well, that's clever, isn't it, that you've got some kind of stability in your genius?

DODI: And in fact, Conor, it gives us a chance to tell the audience what Cytiva means. Because that has a lot to do with why we named our company Cytiva.

CONOR: It does, it does. And as we all know, cyto is the Greek for cell. And then iva is kind of a Latin suffix, which connotes life, but also denotes capability and knowledge and understanding. So, it's kind of knowledge and understanding and capability with cells, which is what, you know, predominantly our customers have.

DODI: Let's move to fact #2 in the program, and Kaycee Palumbo, that one's yours.

KAYCEE: Excellent. My fact is that the scientists at the J Craig Venter Center, or JCVI, actually created a living cell with a synthetic genome that was made from scratch in 2010. It was modeled after a living organism. And many of you may have heard of this, but it's the first living cell that was made without having a living parent in how long? Let's guess.

CONOR: Like billions of years, right?

KAYCEE: Yes. 3.5 billion years. And it cost just a mere $40 million to build.

CONOR: Oh, when you do the math on that, it’s $40 million over 3.5 billion years. That's not very much, then.

DODI: Can we know more about the 3.5 billion years ago? How was it done then? What did labs look like then?

KAYCEE: 3.5 billion years ago I think we're back at the ponds, right? They were replicating on their own. But it's interesting, tying back to this, what is considered a life and what will this mean a billion years from now or even 1000 years from now? Because that's how quickly science is now moving. It's moving at such a pace that even within our lifetimes, what will be considered alive may really innovate.

DODI: So, let's then talk about DNA. Do you know if you stretched the DNA in one cell all the way out and made it flat, how long would it be?

CONOR: Is it to the moon and back?

DODI: No, the DNA in one cell is two meters. But if you put all the DNA in all your cells together, then it would be twice the diameter of the solar system. That's according to the BBC.

CONOR: Wow, that is absolutely insane. Those are some serious ingredients that make us who we are and why we are, I think.

KAYCEE: You know, on that ingredient piece, isn't it interesting to think about how 99.9% of human DNA is actually the same? And it's really the 0.1% that codes for all the differences that make each of us unique.

DODI: I read somewhere that we are actually 99% the same as a lot of other species, and just that 1% is different. How close are we to chimpanzees?

CONOR: Yeah, we share 95% of our DNA with some types of primate. But we share 50% of our genes, which make up 2% of our DNA with, guess what?

DODI: Fungi.

KAYCEE: Fruit flies.

CONOR: Fruit flies is a correct answer. But I’m thinking of a plant. We share 50% of our genes with bananas. And coming back to your ancient virus, Kaycee, 8% of human DNA is made up of ancient viruses that used to infect us and make us ill. But they have now been incorporated into our genomes.

DODI: Alright, let's move to our 3rd fact. That is mine. And I think you're gonna like this. This is about a scientist who is studying the microbiome and how it affects our mood. So, the scientist Katya Gavrish calls it the psychobiome. And that gut bacteria might change the way we think, feel, and act.

CONOR: So, you're saying that what's going on in our guts, the bacterial composition, the chemicals, and the enzymes that they release can affect our psychological state, our minds, what we do, and can control us?

DODI: That's right.

CONOR: That's the ultimate. So, the way to a person's brain is through their stomach.

DODI: Or through what comes after it goes in the stomach—our poo!

CONOR: You said that in the most roundabout way.

KAYCEE: Imagine taking that a step further, then. Could our yogurt or our kombucha bring us better moods? It would be interesting to see then out of that what certain things we may ingest to help us.

DODI: Well, in a way it's science bringing forth what ancient Greeks believed, and they weren't sure why they believed it. But they believed that mental disorders arose when the digestive tract was producing too much black bile. So, that's the connection between the gut and the brain. They didn't quite know what was going on, but this scientist is figuring it out.

CONOR: So, there's been a lot of work done on the gut microbiome and how the microbiota affects things like the blood-brain barrier and how it affects inflammation and connections to diseases as varied as autism, conditions like autism, diseases like Parkinson's, and so on. And it's just become really clear that we're a lot more complicated than we think. But did you read the one about the mind control fungus?

KAYCEE: No, what?

CONOR: This is being demonstrated very clearly and we've seen it happen in ants and cicadas. There are fungi whose spores land on ants and cicadas, two different species of fungi on these different species of insect. The mycelium of the fungus grows inside the ant while it's alive and at the right point exerts some form of mind control through chemical releases that forces the ant to climb to a specified height on a plant, anchor itself in a leaf at that height, and just latch on and promptly die there. Then, a mushroom sprouts out of the head of the ant and scatters spores below on what is almost inevitably going to be the ant colony that the ant has climbed out of.

DODI: So, I feel like I'm in the middle of an Attenborough documentary, Conor, as you describe this.

CONOR: I think this is where it first came to a general awareness that this was a case, in an Attenborough documentary where we saw that fungus. It happens in cicadas as well, and it's even more gruesome where this fungus growing inside the male cicada causes its abdomen to disintegrate. And the cicada, high on essentially amphetamines and a hallucinogenic drug which is exerted by the fungus, flies around in a frenzy spreading spores out of the back of its abdomen all over other cicadas.

DODI: Goodness.

KAYCEE: It is. And in the first part of your story, I thought, wow, this is fascinating. We should try and replicate that, use that to help others work alongside each other towards a common goal. But then you talk about the second part, and it's gruesome and horrendous, so we'll have to have a bit more studies on this before it can be utilized effectively.

CONOR: It's zombies. Zombies are real. So, Dodi, no science is good without references. Here are the references for the facts that we've ridiculously compiled in this podcast.

DODI: Thanks, everybody.

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