“Den” of leaves
Dendritic cells get their name from their surface projections, which somewhat resemble the dendrites of neurons, the branchlike extensions that increase the surface of a cell body and receive information from other neurons.
Dendritic cells are found in most tissues of the body, most abundantly in those that interface between internal and external environments, such as the skin, lungs and lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Here, they’re suitably placed to serve their primary function, which is to continuously sample their surroundings for antigens, such as dead cells or invasive microbes. They are a key player in the body’s immune response system.
Once exposed to an antigen, say a virus, the sheets of the dendritic cell entrap it so that it can be degraded by internal lysosomes into peptide fragments and then redisplayed to circulating T cells, which develop the appropriate immune response. 
The image above is an artistic rendering, based on ion abrasion scanning electron microscopy developed at the National Institutes of Health.

“Den” of leaves

Dendritic cells get their name from their surface projections, which somewhat resemble the dendrites of neurons, the branchlike extensions that increase the surface of a cell body and receive information from other neurons.

Dendritic cells are found in most tissues of the body, most abundantly in those that interface between internal and external environments, such as the skin, lungs and lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Here, they’re suitably placed to serve their primary function, which is to continuously sample their surroundings for antigens, such as dead cells or invasive microbes. They are a key player in the body’s immune response system.

Once exposed to an antigen, say a virus, the sheets of the dendritic cell entrap it so that it can be degraded by internal lysosomes into peptide fragments and then redisplayed to circulating T cells, which develop the appropriate immune response

The image above is an artistic rendering, based on ion abrasion scanning electron microscopy developed at the National Institutes of Health.

Even lipstick won’t help
Pig kissing contests are popular attractions at many county fairs and fund-raising events. Participants might want to reconsider. The image above, courtesy of Thomas Deerinck at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego, depicts assorted bacteria on a pig’s tongue.
No outraged claims of grossness here, though. The human mouth is positively awash in bacteria. Fortunately, they’re mostly benign and neighborly, residing on teeth and gums, helping to digest food and occupy oral real estate that might otherwise be filled by invasive pathogens. At least 700 known species of microbes are known to call our mouths home. Not all of them live in all of our mouths. We each possess our own unique, multitudinous microbiomes. 
Just like pigs. Only our kisses are sweeter than swine.

Even lipstick won’t help

Pig kissing contests are popular attractions at many county fairs and fund-raising events. Participants might want to reconsider. The image above, courtesy of Thomas Deerinck at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego, depicts assorted bacteria on a pig’s tongue.

No outraged claims of grossness here, though. The human mouth is positively awash in bacteria. Fortunately, they’re mostly benign and neighborly, residing on teeth and gums, helping to digest food and occupy oral real estate that might otherwise be filled by invasive pathogens. At least 700 known species of microbes are known to call our mouths home. Not all of them live in all of our mouths. We each possess our own unique, multitudinous microbiomes.

Just like pigs. Only our kisses are sweeter than swine.

Slime sublime
Sometimes a closer look reveals a beauty unseen from a distance.
Case in point: The scanning electron micrograph above by Eberhardt Josue Friedrich Kernahan and Enrique Roderiguez Canas at the Universadad Autonoma de Madrid.
The micrograph depicts sludge from an industrial farming process after it has been burned. In the foreground, silver oxide structures (colored pink, purple and green) and structures rich in calcium carbonate (colored brown) can be seen. The background (blue) shows the surface of a zirconia crucible (a container that can withstand very high temperatures), which was used to hold the sample as it burned.
The sludge was burned to measure how much carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur it contained. A wide range of organic and inorganic samples can be analyzed in this way, including soils, sludge, water, fuels, polymers, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. This technique can also be used in environmental studies to verify the quality or contamination of fuels and soils.
The image was among this year’s Wellcome Image Awards winners.

Slime sublime

Sometimes a closer look reveals a beauty unseen from a distance.

Case in point: The scanning electron micrograph above by Eberhardt Josue Friedrich Kernahan and Enrique Roderiguez Canas at the Universadad Autonoma de Madrid.

The micrograph depicts sludge from an industrial farming process after it has been burned. In the foreground, silver oxide structures (colored pink, purple and green) and structures rich in calcium carbonate (colored brown) can be seen. The background (blue) shows the surface of a zirconia crucible (a container that can withstand very high temperatures), which was used to hold the sample as it burned.

The sludge was burned to measure how much carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur it contained. A wide range of organic and inorganic samples can be analyzed in this way, including soils, sludge, water, fuels, polymers, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. This technique can also be used in environmental studies to verify the quality or contamination of fuels and soils.

The image was among this year’s Wellcome Image Awards winners.

Fuzzy mouth
You know how some mornings (or evenings) you can wake up with cotton mouth, a dry and deeply unpleasant sense that your oral cavity is wallpapered in fuzz? Well, the above critter isn’t the reason, but it’s certainly evocative and it does reside in your mouth.
This is a scanning electron micrograph of an oral bacterium, taken by Steve Gschmeissner, an award-winning and much-published English scientific photographer.
This particular microbial masterpiece is singular, but inside your mouth, it’s much more crowded, a veritable zoo of up to 700 bacterial strains, though most people are host to just 34 to 72 different varieties.
Most oral bacteria appear to be harmless, with no impact upon our health. Some are probiotic and actually aid in digesting food. Some protect our teeth and gums, usually by crowding out more harmful species.
Speaking of harmful, two bacterial strains to be avoided as much as possible are Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis. The former feeds upon sugars and starches in the foods you eat, producing a enamel-eroding acids that are the main cause of tooth decay in humans. The latter are usually not present in a healthy mouth, but have been strongly linked to periodontitis, a serious and progressive disease that affects gum tissues and alveolar bone that support teeth.

Fuzzy mouth

You know how some mornings (or evenings) you can wake up with cotton mouth, a dry and deeply unpleasant sense that your oral cavity is wallpapered in fuzz? Well, the above critter isn’t the reason, but it’s certainly evocative and it does reside in your mouth.

This is a scanning electron micrograph of an oral bacterium, taken by Steve Gschmeissner, an award-winning and much-published English scientific photographer.

This particular microbial masterpiece is singular, but inside your mouth, it’s much more crowded, a veritable zoo of up to 700 bacterial strains, though most people are host to just 34 to 72 different varieties.

Most oral bacteria appear to be harmless, with no impact upon our health. Some are probiotic and actually aid in digesting food. Some protect our teeth and gums, usually by crowding out more harmful species.

Speaking of harmful, two bacterial strains to be avoided as much as possible are Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis. The former feeds upon sugars and starches in the foods you eat, producing a enamel-eroding acids that are the main cause of tooth decay in humans. The latter are usually not present in a healthy mouth, but have been strongly linked to periodontitis, a serious and progressive disease that affects gum tissues and alveolar bone that support teeth.

Harden your heart
In 1981, the pop group Quarterflash sold one million copies of “Harden My Heart,” their most popular hit. In the same time period, roughly three-quarters of a million Americans have a heart attack (one every 34 seconds) and 600,000 Americans die from heart disease.
There are lots of ways to hurt the human heart. One is depicted above. In this Wellcome Images Award-winning scanning electron micrograph, Sergio Bertazzo shows the surface of a human heart valve covered by clumps of calcium salts (the spheres colored orange). The process is called calcification and over time, it can cause soft tissues to harden and prevent the valve from functioning properly, resulting in heart disease.
To quote Quarterflash: “Darling in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d go…”

Harden your heart

In 1981, the pop group Quarterflash sold one million copies of “Harden My Heart,” their most popular hit. In the same time period, roughly three-quarters of a million Americans have a heart attack (one every 34 seconds) and 600,000 Americans die from heart disease.

There are lots of ways to hurt the human heart. One is depicted above. In this Wellcome Images Award-winning scanning electron micrograph, Sergio Bertazzo shows the surface of a human heart valve covered by clumps of calcium salts (the spheres colored orange). The process is called calcification and over time, it can cause soft tissues to harden and prevent the valve from functioning properly, resulting in heart disease.

To quote Quarterflash: “Darling in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d go…”

Pretty painful
Kidney stones are formed when salts, minerals and chemicals in urine clump together and solidify. Usually because the urinary contents have become too concentrated, i.e. not enough water mixed in. If the stones are small enough, they typically are excreted without notice. Larger stones, however, can get stuck in the urinary tract and cause problems. Passing them is often quite painful; some require surgery for removal.
The scanning electron micrograph above depicts a stone roughly two millimeters in diameter, about the thickness of a nickel. It was taken by Kevin Mackenzie at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, who also produced and provided the subject matter. It’s among this year’s Wellcome Image Award winners.
It’s pretty.
For painful, there’s the tale of a Hungarian man who had a two-and-a-half pound stone surgically removed in 2009. It was reportedly the size of a coconut.
And then there’s 64-year-old Don Winfield, a Canadian who claims to have produced (and passed) more than 6,504 kidney stones since 1986.

Pretty painful

Kidney stones are formed when salts, minerals and chemicals in urine clump together and solidify. Usually because the urinary contents have become too concentrated, i.e. not enough water mixed in. If the stones are small enough, they typically are excreted without notice. Larger stones, however, can get stuck in the urinary tract and cause problems. Passing them is often quite painful; some require surgery for removal.

The scanning electron micrograph above depicts a stone roughly two millimeters in diameter, about the thickness of a nickel. It was taken by Kevin Mackenzie at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, who also produced and provided the subject matter. It’s among this year’s Wellcome Image Award winners.

It’s pretty.

For painful, there’s the tale of a Hungarian man who had a two-and-a-half pound stone surgically removed in 2009. It was reportedly the size of a coconut.

And then there’s 64-year-old Don Winfield, a Canadian who claims to have produced (and passed) more than 6,504 kidney stones since 1986.

Sperm-inal velocity
The little guys – or maybe not so little – are in the news these days.
Most recently, of course, is the discovery of a 16 million-year-old fossil of a female ostracod with “enormous fossilized sperm in her reproductive tract.” Size is relative since we’re talking about an extinct species of tiny shrimp. 
As long as we’re discussing old sperm, check out Emily Oster’s ruminations on whether actual science supports the popular notion that older men’s sperm really is worse than younger men’s. Her conclusion: Some studies suggest some concern, but the old guys are holding their own.
Finally, in a recent paper published in Cell Reports, researchers at Montana State University describe early efforts to make primitive sperm out of skin cells. It’s apparently much easier than you’d think, though the researchers say the resulting sperm aren’t actually functional.
By the way, here’s a tidbit for your next cocktail party: The average speed of human sperm is 8 inches per hour. Generally speaking, the lifespan of sperm is one to three days, though some plucky individuals might persist for up to five.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Sperm-inal velocity

The little guys – or maybe not so little – are in the news these days.

Most recently, of course, is the discovery of a 16 million-year-old fossil of a female ostracod with “enormous fossilized sperm in her reproductive tract.” Size is relative since we’re talking about an extinct species of tiny shrimp. 

As long as we’re discussing old sperm, check out Emily Oster’s ruminations on whether actual science supports the popular notion that older men’s sperm really is worse than younger men’s. Her conclusion: Some studies suggest some concern, but the old guys are holding their own.

Finally, in a recent paper published in Cell Reports, researchers at Montana State University describe early efforts to make primitive sperm out of skin cells. It’s apparently much easier than you’d think, though the researchers say the resulting sperm aren’t actually functional.

By the way, here’s a tidbit for your next cocktail party: The average speed of human sperm is 8 inches per hour. Generally speaking, the lifespan of sperm is one to three days, though some plucky individuals might persist for up to five.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

The worm has turned
Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.
In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.
Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.
The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

The worm has turned

Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.

In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.

Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.

The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

With luck, no pox redux
The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.
The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.
Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.
Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.
But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

With luck, no pox redux

The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.

The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.

Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.

Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.

But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

Y you can stop worrying
For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.
The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.
But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.
Palca was not alone.
Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.
The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.
So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

Y you can stop worrying

For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.

The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.

But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.

Palca was not alone.

Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.

The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.

So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

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