A Fortnight in ‘Frisco

Well, so much for keeping a regular travel blog.  Little did I realise, but travelling half way across the world to an entirely new place, with an entirely new group of people, and entirely new kind of work, sort of knocks you backwards for a while.  It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in San Francisco, and I finally feel like I’ve caught up with myself.

So, a fortnight ago I set off from rainy Wales, which became rainy London, and I soaked in the padded, rolling English countryside from the train window, only too conscious that it would be the last time I’d see anything like it for the next three months.  A warm sunset with puffy clouds and contrails, like one of Marie Robinson’s paintings, was my last sight of England.

Twenty-four hours of transit was, as could be expected, near hell.  As the hours ticked by beyond our scheduled departure from Heathrow, I was conscious of my dwindling transit time in Houston, and sure enough, I have never seen an airport at quite such speed.  My impression of Houston, Texas was green – a lot more green than I had been expecting.  But no time to explore and I was straight onto my flight across the mountains to ‘Frisco.

It was dark when I arrived, but I was welcomed like a lost friend into my cosy houseshare in the centre of the City.  This Californian attitude is easy and heartfelt, and something that many places could benefit from.  Never mind the acts of blatant generosity (dinner, wine, lifts to the train station), just a smile when you arrive is enough to dispel any gloomy thoughts.

New friends in San Francisco

New friends in San Francisco. Me and my new housie Julie on my birthday.

Well, I was well looked after by my housemates, and the first weekend was spent exploring the city, getting my bearings.  I think I had been in San Francisco less than 12 hours when I saw my first naked man.  Five in fact, in the gay centre Castro, just a 15 minute walk from the house.  Just sunning themselves in the square, they brought towels to sit on, although I’m not sure whether that was for their benefit or for the benefit of succeeding patrons.

The weather has been unseasonably warm for July, I am told.  It has been mid to high 20s and clear most days in the city, although the dense marine layer of cloud blanket and fog usually rolls in around sunset, and perseveres until mid morning.  The weather here is so dramatic and dynamic, it reminds me of this heartbreakingly beautiful time lapse of clouds over the Canary Islands.  It could just as easily be here.

So once settled in San Francisco, Monday was time to start my new job. NASA here I come.  The commute was ridiculously easy, buses and trains door to door – although so few people seem to use it.  The numbers of cars are frightening.  I’m carpooling now with a postdoc in our lab, and every morning we sail down the freeway that is packed bumper to bumper with one-commuter cars.  It seems madness when the pubic transport is so efficient, but then I guess Americans sure do like their cars.  Some of them even have six wheels. Why? Beats me.

NASA Ames is a lot more homely than you might expect.  Nestled right up next to the Moffatt Airfield, the aeronautics heritage is ever-present.  The science buildings are dwarfed by vast wind tunnels and hangars, used rarely now modelling technologies are so much more efficient. I was told that the largest wind tunnel there uses as much energy as the whole of San Francisco when in operation.  Although that fact was later floored by the laser at nearby Lawrence Livermore, which in the few picoseconds of its operation uses as much energy as the whole USA.  Anyway, big machines doing big science.

Airship hangar at Moffett Field

Just an airship hangar at Moffett Field

The second most amazing thing about NASA is how friendly everyone is.  Must be California again.  The lab is made up of a couple of PIs, a few postdocs, and a seemingly endless stream of short term researchers, interns, and summer students.  Even those who are here short term are welcomed, inducted, and given free reign in the labs, permitting the kind of self-driven, self-motivated blue sky research that sets NASA apart from other universities and research institutions.  All specialisations are mixed in together.  I’ve had meetings with algologists, shared beers with geobiologists, visited the golf club with molecular biologists, and my office is sandwiched between the eminent Mars geologists that I spent my academic career referencing and respecting.   I feel so different to the talent base there, and yet so welcomed for the skills I do have.  It is a nurturing environment that I could easily get used to.

My academic home for the summer

My academic home for the summer

And so two weeks have passed already.  I’ve set up my experiments, caught up on sleep, finished all the books I brought with me, and finally unpacked my suitcase.  I’m on first name terms with the guy at the corner shop, and the guy who drives the NASA shuttle bus, and pretty much everyone in California, or so it seems.  I’m looking forward to a profitable and fun six weeks in Frisco, with a short visit to Pasadena for AbGradCon, and then an epic road trip to take in all the sights that differ so much from the English countryside I’ve left behind.  And then, who knows.  I’ve got 2 months to think about that….

 

 

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Artist spotlight – Marie Robinson

So I’m meant to start travelling this evening, and haven’t thought about packing yet, so what better way to distract myself/everyone else, than to draw your attention to some of the most awesome paintings I’ve seen in a long time.

Marie Robinson is a wife of a friend and fellow Morris Dancer, and she paints some astounding stuff, mostly in oils, always in intricate and perfect detail.  Myself, as someone with an aversion to paint and colour, I am astounded by what she can achieve with a few brushstrokes.  On her website, she has a variety of lovely collections, my personal OCD favourite is this pair of spoons.

Spoons - Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons – Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

I love the collections, and there are plenty more over at her website, check them out.

But what really, really, gets me going, is her landscapes.  Again, something I would never be able to attempt myself, they are breathtakingly beautiful in themselves, but what Marie has gone one step further and done something I have been hankering to see for a long time.  Modern landscapes.  Clouds and rolling hills are beautiful, but are not particularly representative of the skies we see every day.  Skies that are criss-crossed with contrails and modern views of rural landscapes are just as, if not more beautiful, in my humble opinion, than the flawless Constables and Turners.

The beauty of Turner’s work is owed partly to the global effects of the Indonesian volcanic eruptions between 1812 and 1815, and he captured a brief, beautiful period of time.  Marie is doing the same today with the effects of our extensive intercontinental air travel, and our gradual spread into rural England.

So, with her permission, I reproduce a few more of my favourites from her website.  I hope you too will be tempted to go and check them out, go to her exhibitions, and buy her beautiful paintings.

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

October afternoon - Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

October afternoon – Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

Marie can be found at www.marie-robinson.com

Radcliffe Camera in Pen and Ink – A tribute…

… to the last eight years of my life.  And it has taken me nearly a year to get round to finishing it, what with that pesky thesis getting in the way.  Anyway, in the vacuum-like calm of the post-thesis lull, I finally got round to tuning back into Radio 4 and picking up my Stabilo again.

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper

 

The Radcliffe Camera, affectionately known as the ‘Rad Cam’, is one of the most iconic buildings of Oxford University.  It is a reading room of the Bodleian Library, being chiefly the home of antiquated law and sociological texts as far as I know.  As a result, I, as a scientist, was treated only to the subterranean delights of the Racliffe Science Library, and none so internally or externally picturesque as the Rad Cam.  Nevertheless, as an undergraduate I found several excuses to work in there whilst revising for finals.  The silence in there is oppressive, and personally not conducive to concentration, as I contemplated the changing pitch in readers’ footsteps as the perused the shelf.  At least I went there, and I spent many more hours working on it, than I ever spent working in it.

 

 

Moving Out and Moving On

Not enough posts from me in the last month or so.  Well, none at all.  But I do have the best excuse of all.  Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email.  Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.

Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers.  After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life.  A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.

The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years.  This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years.  An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet.  Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure.  On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe.  Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months.  The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere.  I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli.  I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.

Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco.  Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there.  I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything.  Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!

As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco.  So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.

 

 

Caught in the Act: the Origin of Sex in the Fossil Record

Sex.  Doing the dirty. A bit of the old in and out.  Making teenage boys giggle and girls blush since the beginning of time.  Or was it?  Has sex always been around? If not, who ever thought that an awkward fumble followed by a nine month wait was a good way of continuing the species? Perhaps sex hasn’t always been the taboo subject that it is now, and we know that there are other ways than doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel, but the origin of sexual reproduction is still far from being resolved.

Why, for example, is it so prevalent?  Why would you go to the effort of finding a mate and performing some intricate act with them, if you can more efficiently clone yourself instead?  Cloning takes just one to make one more, rather than sex, which needs a matching pair to reproduce.  There must be a good reason to keep such an inefficient process going.

And indeed there is.  When it comes down to it, sex is not about the bump and grind, or the fancy feathers and elaborate mating rituals.  It’s all about what goes on in the cells.  Meiosis is the first stage, with a ‘normal’ cell dividing twice to make gametes with half the right amount of DNA – in our case sperm and eggs.  Two gametes, usually from different individuals, come together at fertilisation, making up the full complement of DNA, and then the fertilised egg, or zygote, starts dividing and keeps on dividing until it has the right number of cells to make an organism.  The whole thing is a lengthy and complicated process that is seemingly designed to confuse biology students.

But there is meaning behind the madness.  Sex is what allows organisms to mix up their genes – first during the random allocation of gene variants to gametes, and secondly during the random choice of fertilising pairs – and is the reason that no two sexually reproducing organisms look identical.  One of the greatest misconceptions in evolution is that random mutation in DNA drives the variation exploited by natural selection, when in actual fact it is sex.   Sex effectively shuffles the genetic material of a whole species every time an organism reproduces – a much more effective way of experimenting with variation than waiting a few generations for just one, potentially damaging mutation to one gene.

So, that’s why sex is a more attractive prospect than cloning yourself. But it doesn’t explain how, when, or where it got started.  When was the first time the earth moved? Do we owe the discovery of sex to animals, or were they latecomers to the sexual arena, following in the footsteps of earlier, smaller, and simpler organisms in the deep past?  Scientists have no firm answers yet, but there are a few clues.

When trying to work out when something evolved, scientists have two choices.  They can look at living organisms and use the information contained in their DNA to work out when it first appeared.  Or they can use the fossil record to trace a creature back in time to when it first appeared.  Both methods are useful, but both are beset with problems.  The creature in question may survived until today, or its fossil record may be incomplete and misleading. This is just the case with sex.

Sex is easy to spot and study in living organisms today.  In addition to bizarre sexual practices, like the mid-act cannibalism practiced by many praying mantids, or the colour coded treasuries of Australian bowerbirds, there are some more clear morphological adaptations that can be spotted in living or dead creatures.  First and most obvious, is sexual organs.  Chances are, if you are a sexually reproducing animal, you are going to have some specialised organs to do so whether you’re a barnacle with the largest penis in the world or boast a four-headed member like the modest echidna.

Sexual dimorphism is an indirect consequence of a sexual lifestyle. Most notable amongst elaborately plumed birds, like peacocks or birds of paradise, sexual dimorphism is also extremely realised in terms of body size in certain species of fish.  The male angler fish, arguably the smallest vertebrate in the world, is forty times smaller than the female.

File:Peacock (PSF).png

But all these products of sex appeared at a late stage in the history of cellular sexual reproduction.  If we want to find the origin, we need to look at modern examples of much more primitive creatures.  Many eukaryotic organisms (those with a nucleus, as opposed to bacteria) consist of just a single cell, and still manage to reproduce sexually without all the adaptive trappings.  And these single-celled creatures, called protists, evolved much earlier than animals.  So does sex predate the animals? Possibly.  Assuming that those sexually reproducing protists that are living today have been doing it ever since they evolved, then yes.  But what evidence do we have to prove this is the case?  Like the ancestors of humans haven’t always walked on two feet, perhaps today’s protists haven’t always been reproducing sexually.  We need to turn to the fossil record.

Tracking sex though the fossil record is a tricky business, mostly because of the extreme bias in what can be preserved.  The bulk of the fossil record is a record of hard parts and sex is generally concerned with the softer parts of anatomy (no jokes).  Whether occurring in animals or in tiny protists, the adaptations and cellular products of the sexual process are not made of hard mineralised substances and so are easily decayed away after death.  Sexual dimorphism too is difficult to recognise unequivocally, with different sized skeletons often interpreted as different species, or as younger forms, rather than different genders.  So the fossil record of sex must be built on the rare examples where soft parts are preserved, or the indirect effects that sexual reproduction may have on a species.

Two big clues both come from around a time of major revolution in the biological world, the so-called Cambrian explosion of animal life, around 540 million years ago, when all the animal groups appeared in the fossil record for the very first time.  This was not only a time of extraordinary fossil diversity, but also of exceptional fossil preservation.  Microscopic algae and intricate macroscopic animals are preserved in the finest possible detail. Amongst these, just before the appearance of animals, scientists found tiny remains which looked like balls of cells, with different number of cells in each – one, two, four, eight, sixteen, and so on.  In fact, these fossils looked just like embryos.  The now infamous Doushantuo embryos, named after the formation in China from which they were first described, have been the subject of intense scientific debate for the last 15 years, with many scientists arguing that they are just giant bacteria.  If they are embryos though, then they provide evidence that the sexual processes that must have formed them were well established before the majority of animals emerged.

A second piece of evidence, and one which supports the similar idea that sex got started before animals, is more indirect.  Given that today, sex is responsible for much of the variation we see amongst eukaryotic organisms, it is reasonable to assume that when sex first got started, it would have been marked by a sharp increase in the variation of the creatures alive at the time, which would be recognised as a peak in species diversity.  Looking for peaks in diversity is quite easy in the fossil record, and once compared with information from other time periods, there remains one gigantic spike – the Cambrian explosion itself.  Could the invention of sex by eukaryotic protists have sparked the beginning of the animal kingdom as we know it?  Quite possibly.

The evidence from the fossil record seems to point to an origin of sex just before the evolution of the animals, and as far as we can interpret it, the patterns of diversity of living creatures seems to point in that direction too.   It may be that we will never be able to place an exact date on the origin.  But it is clear that without sex, without that mucky, clumsy, long-winded process that is the bane and the joy of so many, we wouldn’t be here – not just those who are able to read this text, but every animal alive today.

This article was written for, and originally published in, Aberdeen University Science Magazine Issue 3