Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Biology, Genetics
What I’ve Learned:

Telomeres in a nutshell: the short of it is bad, and the long of it isn't great, either.
“Telomeres in a nutshell: the short of it is bad, and the long of it isn’t great, either.”

Many things tend to get shorter as we age. Patience. Hairstyles. Time between bathroom breaks.

But something else shortens when we get older, and it’s more important than all the others. Except maybe the haircuts. Nobody likes a geriatric hippie.

This “something else” is a telomere, and it’s a squiggly bit of genetic material stuck on the end of each of our chromosomes, for protection. Sort of like those fiddly plastic things on the ends of shoelaces that stop them from fraying.

(Those are called “aglets”, by the way. That’s not science. I just thought you’d want to know.)

Telomeres play a similar role in our cells — and the cells of most everything else that isn’t a bacterium. When we’re young, the telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes are long. Each time our cells divide, the telomeres get a little shorter, until they’re very small or gone completely. Cells in that state typically don’t divide any more; they’re content to put on a shawl, find a nice rocking chair and wait for the end.

It’s like the aglets on your shoelaces got shorter every time you wore your sneakers, until they finally disintegrated, the laces unraveled and your shoes fell off. Only instead of going barefoot, your hair and skin and brain cells don’t grow back any longer. Which is somewhat more inconvenient, even if you’ve already moved to that shorter hairstyle.

The other more-than-somewhat inconvenient thing about telomere-less chromosomes is that they can lead to cancer. Without those protective bits at the end, genetic material can get chewed away, which is bad. Or chromosomes can link together and loop around, which is also bad. As in, cancer bad. Much worse than frayed shoelaces.

So longer telomeres are better, right? weeeeeell — it depends. In general, yes. Antioxidants in foods like blueberries and kidney beans and artichoke hearts help to lengthen telomeres, and that’s good.

How you get your chromosomes to eat right, I don’t know. Mine are always binging on chips and deoxyribonucleic Oreos.

The thing is, our cells also make an enzyme — called telomerase — that naturally rebuilds telomeres in certain situations. Production of this enzyme is tightly regulated; it’s not normally produced very often or in large quantities. It’s like liquid gold. Or a really good gin and tonic.

In the lab, though, scientists have shown that extending telomeres can reduce signs of aging in mice and worms. Which is great for cowards and lawyers, I suppose — but someday, it could even be applied to humans. That would be sweet.

But there’s a catch. Most of our cells don’t grow constantly. Outside of skin and hair and the insides of our intestines, many cells really shouldn’t be dividing very often. You don’t want lungs the size of life rafts, or a gall bladder you could play volleyball with. Not unless you’re opening a really weird sporting goods store.

So in those cells, if telomerase was always around, the telomeres would keep getting longer. And that might signal the cells that they should divide and divide, out of control. And what are cells dividing willy-nilly, out of control? That’s right: cancer.

So telomeres are tricky. They’re like the Price Is Right showcase game of life: you want as much as you can get, without going over. Because if you do, the consolation prize might be something way worse than Rice-A-Roni.

Image Sources: The Tao of Dana (chromosome telomeres), Heavy (old hippies), Creative Homeschool (aglets), LEXpert (The Price Is Cancer)

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Exoplanets: When one Earth just isn't mega-super enough.
“Exoplanets: When one Earth just isn’t mega-super enough.”

Our planet is pretty okay, as far as it goes. Sure, we’ve come up with stir fry, chili cheese fries and Stephen Fry — but are we really being the best Earth we can be? Some astrophysicists make me wonder.

In particular, the astrophysicists scouring the visible cosmos for worlds circling other stars. Or in a word: exoplanets.

(Don’t let the “ex” part throw you. These are not planets who used to date Earth, then got upset when Earth made googly eyes with Venus, or slept over in the house of Mercury after a sexy session of grab and terrestrial tickle.

Rather, exoplanets are those big hunks of stuff that spin around a star that isn’t the one we happen to circle. Sorry, “Real Housewives of the Solar System” fans. It’s not like that.)

These world-watchers have detected nearly two thousand exoplanets to date, with more on the celestial radar all the time. And until recently, there were pretty well-defined rules for what these faraway planets look like. Basically, planets came in two flavors: rocky and gassy.

(Yes, just the two. Extrasolar planets are interesting. Nobody ever said they were Baskin-Robbins.)

When planets reach a certain size, they tend to accumulate gasses like hydrogen, helium, carbon dioxide or nitrogen. Scientists believed that any planet heavier than about ten Earth masses would largely be composed of gas pulled in by the hefty planet’s enormous gravity. The “gas giants” in our own solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — follow this formula precisely.

Smaller planets, on the other hand, are usually big round balls of rock. Venus, Mars and Mercury all fit this bill, in addition to the hunk of dirt we’re currently riding. As do a number of discovered exoplanets — but only those on the smaller side.

When these exoplanets are the same size-ish as Earth, they’re called “Earth-like”, but that only means that these worlds are generally the same shape and density. There’s no guarantee the inhabitants of any “Earth-like” planets have, for instance, independently invented Happy Hour or Taco Tuesday or Rice-A-Roni, the interstellar San Francisco treat.

(And without those things, how “Earth-like” could those planets be, really?)

The planets significantly bigger than Earth but smaller than our solar system’s gas planets are often called “super-Earths”. Technically, the super-Earth set is a mixture of rocky and gaseous planets, depending on the size and density of each. Like the saying goes, some super-Earths are like your Mars, and some are like Uranus.

(That’s not a saying? Well, it should be.)

The super-Earth label doesn’t mean these worlds are necessarily extra-special. It would be great if some “super”-Earth came up with even tastier chili cheese fries, or a Stephen Fry wittier than a speeding bullet. Or maybe a stir fry that stirred itself. But no. We’re on our own for those.

Recently, though, scientists discovered a new sort of planet that’s thrown them for an orbital ellipse. Named Kepler-10c, it’s a planet orbiting a star about 560 light years away. It appears to be made of rock — but its seventeen times more massive than Earth. The theory said it should be full of gas, but there it was when they looked — solid through and through, mooning us through our telescopes and thumbing its rocky core at us. Scientists have dubbed this jacked-up behemoth a “mega-Earth”, and it’s the only one of its kind yet known to exist.

Personally, I’d have gone with “Andre the Planet”. This is probably why I never get invited to any astrophysicist parties. Maybe this isn’t such a “super Earth”, after all.

Image sources: (planet parade), Metro UK (feathery Fry), Orange County Mexican Restaurants blog (Taco Simpsons) and Crustula (Andre with a whole world in his hand [a whole world in his hand])

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