Why do fish need sunscreen? [Coffee-byte]

Danio rerio, better known as the zebrafish
Danio rerio, better known as the zebrafish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you remember your last trip to the beach and try to list out the things you took for this trip, chances are that the sun block or sunscreen will feature in there. Why just the beach, using a sun screen is almost a part of our daily routine, whenever we know we will be spending time under the sun. But, as you might have noticed, it is only humans who wear a sun block while the rest of creatures walk, swim and fly on the planet, unprotected. As much as we, humans, like to think that we are the smartest on the planet, we actually are not. The fact is that we have to manufacture our sun blocks in factories, whereas fishes can do it on their own. Why just adult fishes, even fish eggs can do this nifty trick that protects them from harmful sunrays.

Research conducted at the Oregon State University, shows that zebrafish can produce this magic chemical called gadusol, that can protect it from UV-B rays of the sun. Before this research was published, it was believed that fishes take up gadusol from the bacteria and algae that they consume as food and stock it for their own use. But then the questions arises, why would a fish produce a sun block. Before, we I give you the answer, let me tell you that the genes responsible for producing gadusol, named EEVS and MT-Ox are found not only in zebrafish but also in amphibians, reptiles and birds. So, in a way, most animals on the planet can produce their sun block. So, a better question would be, why are all these animals doing this?

More than a sun block

Gadusol is more than just a sun block. It has properties of an anti-oxidant that can help in combating stress and plays a role in embryonic development too, hence the presence in embryonic cells. Scientists are also looking at compounds that are similar to gadusol and could potentially be used to tackle diabetes and fungal infections.

Researchers were able to transfer zebrafish genes into a strain of yeast and produce gadusol in the lab. In the future, this modified yeast could be used to make sun blocks in large quantities and since the product is naturally formed and found, the next generation sub blocks, could even be ingested without any harm.

But its not just the sub block that we are bothered about. Life under the sea hold vital clues to longevity and prevention of cancer too. I can only hope that we unearth these secrets soon.


Osborn AR, Almabruk KH, Holzwarth G, Asamizu S, LaDu J, Kean KM, Karplus PA, Tanguay RL, Bakalinsky AT, & Mahmud T (2015). De novo synthesis of a sunscreen compound in vertebrates. eLife, 4 PMID: 25965179

The Science of Success!

A good player rarely makes a good coach

I never quite understood what it tried to say, till I discovered this whole new genre of Hollywood
Cool Running- Coach and team
movies, where a bunch of skinny, dorky looking teenagers come together to beat the star players of the school in a game of baseball, or football, basically any team sport. This whole feat is however impossible, without the guidance of a rather obscure (career wise, of course) coach who has been ousted by the community or who just knows the game too well to be bothered by some trophy that other coaches crave for. But don’t be fooled by their rather tragic past, or even their rude, unkempt demeanour there is something that makes you root for them despite the fact that their track record is not very good. Logically speaking, they have far too much experience losing, which is why we as the audience is always eager to dismiss them as backbenchers, let alone a team to have potential to win. Why is it, (if not for the empathetic angle created by the brilliant director) that we presume when a team or person has the maximum wins, he is bound to win every time? We even go a step further and presume that if we replicate their story, we are bound to win as well. This is what psychologists like to call a Survivorship Bias.

Abraham WaldConfusing, I know, which is why I hounded the internet for some place that could break it down for me, and I found this TEDX talk by David McRaney - of “You Are Not So Smart”. He starts off talking about the American Operational Research Team that was set up to solve mathematical and statistical problems during the Second World War. During a war you are constantly looking out for your troops trying to have the highest number of survivors, which was what the American Operational Team was set up for. Fighter planes were precious and so were their pilots, and getting them back in workable condition after a bombing was pivotal, except, that their numbers were steadily dwindling. The crafts that came back were asked to mark the areas that had hits, and soon a pattern formed.  There was a concentration of hit in particular areas and the General saw this and immediately ordered those areas to be reinforced with metal. This was exactly the kind of thinking you and I would do, but it was  Abraham Wald, a noted statistician, who also happened to be on the team saw it differently, he intervened and asked for the area that was not hit to get further reinforcement (WHAT!!!).  
His explanation - The aircraft that made it safe and sound came back despite getting hit terribly, meaning that those regions were not vital for the aircraft’s survival. The aircrafts that didn’t return, probably suffered hits in those important places, which is why they didn’t return. This slight change in where the metal reinforcement was added proved extremely valuable to the American Air force, increasing the number of surviving aircrafts dramatically. This bias that you and I or even the General had for that matter is what statisticians like to call, Survivorship bias.     
That was the war; David also spoke about how we see this bias in our everyday lives.  Where we seek advice or consciously listen to those who have made it big in a particular field, or have achieved success in some way. While they tend to give excellent advice on how to succeed, they fall flat when you have to know the details on how not to fail. David further mentions that it is the losers, the failures, and the not so successful stories that we ought to follow and meticulously note to actually gain some useful knowledge, because that is where wisdom truly is.
What did you say
This brings us back to the proverbial English saying ‘the best players rarely make for the best coaches’. When you are a success, you don’t tend to realise the intricacies of what makes for a good player, what works in the case of a good player or a success story, is seldom what can be mapped out into a template for potential candidates to follow. What a coach brings in is mastery, which comes with not just succeeding, but, and most importantly with a lot of failing.
Take for example a simple act of making an omelette. You love how your mom makes it, you observe, get the recipe, and think well let’s do this and you get it right the first time. You try it another time and well, let’s just say, it misses something, and the third time it just refuses to rise. You getting it right once does not guarantee your success the next time around as well.  After a few successes, when you encounter one bump, you tend to cloud yourself by going over all your success, when what you should be doing is going over your failures, or what you did wrong- overcoming the survivorship bias. You may tend to repeat your actions keeping your success in mind, but it is the failure that you need to take notes of. May be you didn’t beat the eggs, may be you put in salt or cheese at the wrong time or your pan was not hot enough. It is through the process of elimination or the errors that you get to succeed, and that’s what Mastery teaches you, and in essence, elimination of the survivorship bias.
So in pursuit of becoming a master of something, you invariably, come across failure and in turn learn how to overcome it in order to produce similar, successful results.

omlette- mouth watering, still perfect
Mouth-watering image taken from https://llindseyeats.wordpress.com
So the moral here is to look at anything without having any sort of bias of your own. It is very VERY difficult, given we are human and not machines, but look at it like this. Say that you look at the whole thing as a set of data. What you have with a player who has kept winning all his life without struggle is limited data, as in something that just gives you one side of the story and what you have with experience and someone who has fallen down a couple of times is a huge bag of data, that gives you both sides of the picture, giving you very valuable set of information you can work with. It is up to us, the people interpreting the data, how to use that information, because in the end it is just a set of random data. So what a really good coach, or a master truly does is looks at the set of data and uses it to his advantage. A master has over the years collected so much information that he can successfully predict, repeat and in the truest sense of the word master the subject of his study.  
I leave you with two extremely interesting ted talks about what I have ranting on about – Missing what's missing - David McRany

Sarah Lewis on How to Embrace the near wins

How many trees does the Earth have?

We have always been told about the importance of forestation, the need for trees and how deforestation is causing climate change. Many of us are willing to and also actively participating to revert climate change.

Keep your world clean and green. 

Save trees,Save the environment!! 

Clean city,Green city!! 

To have a good scenery, there should be little greenery! 

are everywhere and we are all eager to see a greener Earth. But like any other goal that we chase, shouldn't we know where we are starting and what are we aiming at? How many trees does the Earth have and is there a tree census done every decade.

Recently, New York City took up the initiative to map and catalogue every tree on every street of the city. Called, TreesCount!2015, it is a crowd sourced program, looking for the task to be completed through voluntreers. If you would like to be one, you can sign up here. But other than a few instances where cities or organizations such as Terracon or SmartSurvey have tried to use GPS/GIS based systems to carry out a tree census, there are no real global or even country wide efforts made to know the number of trees on our planet.

Estimates of tree have always been made though, with some claiming that the Earth has 400 billion trees. With a population exceeding 7 billion, we have a tree to human ratio of around 60:1. A recent study used satellite imagery and combined it with actual tree counts in various places on the globe and come up with a better estimate that there are actually three trillion trees on our planet, taking the tree to human ratio to an amazing 422:1. 

Thanks to the revision, the Earth might look much greener to you suddenly, but the truth is that thanks to deforestation these forest covers are declining rapidly. Consider the image (courtesy Nature .com) that shows the rapid decline of forest area in South East Asia alone.

Declining forest area in South East Asia. Photo credit: Nature.com

The estimate from T.W.Crowther and colleagues estimates that since the dawn of human civilization (200,000 years), the Earth has lost 45.8% of its tree cover. As per their current estimate, we are cutting down 15 billion trees annually and at this rate we would deforest the entire planet in 200 years! Not very far is it. 

If you know someone who still needs a reason to save the planet, show him/her this post and if the person is still not convinced, there is no need to spend more time on him. You are better off using your time for something more useful.


Crowther, T., Glick, H., Covey, K., Bettigole, C., Maynard, D., Thomas, S., Smith, J., Hintler, G., Duguid, M., Amatulli, G., Tuanmu, M., Jetz, W., Salas, C., Stam, C., Piotto, D., Tavani, R., Green, S., Bruce, G., Williams, S., Wiser, S., Huber, M., Hengeveld, G., Nabuurs, G., Tikhonova, E., Borchardt, P., Li, C., Powrie, L., Fischer, M., Hemp, A., Homeier, J., Cho, P., Vibrans, A., Umunay, P., Piao, S., Rowe, C., Ashton, M., Crane, P., & Bradford, M. (2015). Mapping tree density at a global scale Nature, 525 (7568), 201-205 DOI: 10.1038/nature14967

Genetically Modified Plant can help clear TNT from soil

TNT explosion image credit: giphy.com

As a species, humans hardly grasp the ramifications of their actions. Whether it be the rapid climate change or the shattering effects of war. Even though we realise that we are the main culprits in both these cases, under no circumstances do our actions look like we are on the course of correction. The snail's pace of climate talks or our outright refusal to contribute to dialogue and engage in wars instead are proof enough to show that left to politicians, sooner or later our Earth's environment will soon turn hostile for our own survival and bring our end nearer. 

Plants, on the other hand, are entirely different. Slow yet sure in their approach, these silent beings are always trying to maintain the balance that is being disturbed, thanks to human activities. Since the beginning of our civilization, plants have always provided for us, whether in the form of naturally available fruits or planned growth of crops as our ancestors turned agrarian. As we are also aware, plants have also been the suppliers of valuable oxygen for millions of years, something that keeps us alive every single day. But as our habits changed and we started using fossil fuels, plants quickly adapted to that as well and continued to clean up the air of volatile organic compounds. Studies such as the one done by Thomas Karl and colleagues at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) showed that plants absorb up to 40% these volatile organic compounds (pollutants) and even increase their intake, if the environmental stress is higher. 

Their behaviour in presence of other pollutants such as TNT (2,4,6 - Trinitrotoluene) is unbelievable. TNT is an explosive compound and heavily used in explosives to cause maximum damage. Areas affected with war often turn barren because of the heavy dosage of TNT that is left behind in the soil. When TNT is taken up by the plant, it enters the mitochondria (the power house of the cell) and reacts with atmospheric oxygen to form a reactive superoxide that damages plant cells and restricts their growth. Yet, plants do not give and continue to uptake TNT and break it into substances that they can use.

Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at the University of York, recently studied the reaction in the mitochondria that leads to the formation of the superoxide. Their study found that MDHAR6, short for monodehydroascorbate reductase 6, enzyme is essential for formation of the superoxide and causes damage to the plants. Johnston and her colleagues went a step ahead and created a plant with a mutant MDHAR6 gene so that the enzyme created is faulty and does not react with TNT. Since the superoxide is not formed, plants continue to grow normally, even in the presence of TNT and slowly work towards clearing the contaminated land of explosive compounds.

Mutant Plants growing in soil containing TNT. Image credit: www.futurity.org
Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at University of York have created a genetically modified plant that can grow in soil containing explosives like TNT

Another exciting outcome of this research is the potential to develop new herbicides for use on farm lands. Since, we now know how compounds like TNT can stall vegetative growth, we can experiment with various compounds that can potentially be used to control growth of weeds on farmlands. The study was published in the Science Magazine and is referenced below for further reading.

This finding is also important in the wake of rising resistance to everything that is genetically modified. Asking for a blanket ban on everything genetically modified is not helping our growth. Instead, we must consider each modification on a case to case basis and outweigh the pro and cons before deciding to support or oppose the use of the technology.

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our  blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!


Karl T, Harley P, Emmons L, Thornton B, Guenther A, Basu C, Turnipseed A, & Jardine K (2010). Efficient atmospheric cleansing of oxidized organic trace gases by vegetation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6005), 816-9 PMID: 20966216

Johnston EJ, Rylott EL, Beynon E, Lorenz A, Chechik V, & Bruce NC (2015). Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science (New York, N.Y.), 349 (6252), 1072-5 PMID: 26339024

Your next dose of antibotic - Sugar [Coffee Byte]

English: Macro photograph of a pile of sugar (...
 These tiny grains could be your next dose of antibiotics
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have all heard of antibiotic resistance, notoriously of  the MRSA and the need to use antibiotics sparingly. One major reason that antibiotic resistance scares us is because we do not have sufficient alternatives available with us to combat a resistant strain. For example, the microbes belonging to Burkholderia sp. can be naturally resistant to about 35 antibiotics agents as was shown in this 2004 research paper and therefore provide a small window of opportunity for treatment if contracted. 

The solution to this problem is to develop new age antibiotics. The problem here, however, is that the pace of discovery is much slower than the growing pace of antibiotic resistance and at this rate we will soon have microbes that are resistant to every antibiotic in our armoury. The way out of this is to understand the psyche of the microbes and develop antibiotics that microbes are not going to develop resistance. Are we talking about microbial psychology here? 

Not really. The trick is to use something that the microbe finds too dear to try and develop resistance to. And sugar is the answer. Not sugar as you and I love to consume but sugar that holds the cell wall of microbes together

bacterial cell wall
The figure above shows a section of the bacterial cell wall (Gram Negative organisms) which consists of an outer membrane and an inner membrane. Note the words 'sachharides' and 'glycan' used in the image, which are all forms of sugar needed in large numbers by the organism uses to build up its bodily defenses. The process of building up this cell wall is the target for the popular antibiotics that we use today. 

Researcher Matt Cooper at the University of Queensland and his team of researchers from Taiwan, Belgium and the UK have now developed modified sugar compounds that stop the process of building the cell wall and thereby leading to reduced infection. Unlike traditional antibiotics that need to be isolated naturally and then tested, these modified sugar molecules have a common sugar core and using advanced computing researchers can come up with potentially thousands of compounds that will work as antibiotics in little time. 

Since the core of the antibiotic is still a sugar that the organism needs, the chances that will develop resistance to its own building block will be very little. 


Thibault FM, Hernandez E, Vidal DR, Girardet M, & Cavallo JD (2004). Antibiotic susceptibility of 65 isolates of Burkholderia pseudomallei and Burkholderia mallei to 35 antimicrobial agents. The Journal of antimicrobial chemotherapy, 54 (6), 1134-8 PMID: 15509614

Zuegg J, Muldoon C, Adamson G, McKeveney D, Le Thanh G, Premraj R, Becker B, Cheng M, Elliott AG, Huang JX, Butler MS, Bajaj M, Seifert J, Singh L, Galley NF, Roper DI, Lloyd AJ, Dowson CG, Cheng TJ, Cheng WC, Demon D, Meyer E, Meutermans W, & Cooper MA (2015). Carbohydrate scaffolds as glycosyltransferase inhibitors with in vivo antibacterial activity. Nature communications, 6 PMID: 26194781

How Sahara Desert helps the Amazon Rainforest stay green [Video]

English: Sahara desert from space. Русский: Пу...
English: Sahara desert from space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Sahara Desert is known for its dry and arid regions and the sand dunes that can rise up to almost 600 feet! While this largest hot desert (yes, we have cold deserts too... guess where) can easily be made out from satellites in space, there is more that the satellites have been able to visualise than the dryness of the land.

Watch this short video from NASA below and know how the dryness of Sahara actually helps the Amazon Rainforest stay green.


7.5 million wasps under one roof ? [Video]

Wasp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Can you imagine what it would be to see seven and half million wasps under one roof? Don't worry they are not alive and are well segregated taxonomically. Well, this is what you can expect when you are visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

In its recently released episode of Shelf Life, something that we have sharing at Coffee Table Science, since the day it began, the AMNH takes us to its collection of 7.5 million wasps that is still being catalogued, even though it was donated to the museum in the late 1950's. Why, because cataloging takes a lot of time and 7.5 million is a massive number.

Interestingly, the entire collection was donated by Alfred Kinsey's wife, the same Alfred Kinsey who is known for his revelations of human sexuality. If you would like read more about it, here is our post about How Sexology became a Science.

For now, let's get back to the 7.5 million wasps in this Shelf Life Episode.

This 56 year old woman is happy about having a brain stroke [Video]

Jill Bolte Taylor Brain stroke
Jill Bolte Taylor
Image credit: www.peoples.ru

Every four minutes a person dies in the United States of a stroke! Much like a heart attack, a stroke can happen at any time and to any body, irrespective of their age, sex or standard of living. Strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is affected. This might be due to a a block in the blood vessel or rupturing of the blood vessel, both of which, deprive the brain cells of essential nutrients and more importantly oxygen, and they die. When brain cells die, they take away with them some unique ability they were conferring before the event of the stroke. So, after a stroke, some people lose their control over some muscles, some may forget names, some lose their identity, while most become partially paralyzed. Any which way, stroke is a debilitating condition and usually worsens the quality of life of the person affected and no one can be happy about it. 

Except, Jill Bolte Taylor! A neuroanatomist by profession, Dr. Taylor was studying the brain at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, when at the peak professional age of 37, she suffered a brain stroke! While others would be distraught after going through such a condition, Dr. Taylor, instead, fought through the horror of the stroke and recovered completely in 8 long years. During this period, Dr. Taylor also learnt fascinating things about the brain (some of which she was trained to learn but had not consciously experienced) and how we call function. 

Here is an emotional talk Dr. Jill Taylor gave at TED in 2008. 

If you would like to know more about Dr. Taylor's story, you can purchase her book, My Stroke of Insight on Amazon.

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our  blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!