A Call for Questions: Genetics and Writing

Hi, everybody! It’s the end of March, and April is a fifth-Saturday month, so I’m planning something special for that day. Genetics and biotechnology seem to be big premise concepts in science fiction right now (not surprising, since they’re currently undergoing a revolutionary rise), and as a genetics major, I know a bit more about these topics than most people. Further, I really like to see these things accurately represented in fiction.

This leads to the subject of today’s post. If you are a sci-fi writer, or any other kind of writer, and want to know more about something in your book, please comment with a question about genetics or biotech, what scientists do all day, what techniques are used in labs, or anything else related that you can think of. I’m happy to help with book research, and all questions will be answered in a Q & A style post on this topic on April 22nd.

So feel free to ask away!

What questions do you have? I’m eager to see them. Leave them in the comments!

My Life This March: In Which I Do Lots of Science and Celebrate a Blogoversary

Hey, everybody! It’s the last Saturday of the month, time to wrap up what I did this month. March was kind of crazy for me, and I can’t even remember most of what happened, but here are some of the major things.

Mostly, this month has been full of school. I’m taking 19 credits this semester, rather than the usual 16, and four of my five classes have associated labs. Don’t get me wrong; I love school, and it’s great to finally be taking advanced genetics courses. It’s just been crazy taking that many credits and squeezing in time in the lab.

One of the major things I’ve been doing this month is writing a 12-page proposal for my summer research project. I really thank God that He gave me the inclination to write in my childhood and that I’ve practiced enough that I can now write what everybody said was a pretty killer proposal. But it wasn’t without its difficulties. There are enough articles written on the role of polyamines in rice to fill a two-volume encyclopedia, and I had to boil that down into five pages for the literature review part. But it worked out in the end, thank God, and I was able to submit it for my funding request. We’ll see what happens!

Just because I hadn’t finished the proposal didn’t mean I couldn’t start my research. I’ve been spending a few hours every week in the lab, growing rice and, this week, starting tissue cultures. I’m really excited to try to make this work and to present my preliminary data next month.

Because of the general madness, I didn’t get much writing done this month. I think I picked at Circle of Fire maybe four times, but progress is progress, right? I also haven’t thought much about This Hidden Darkness, which was supposed to be my secondary project, but that’s because I’ve decided to treat my “break” from the Windsong storyline as one long brainstorming session. This may even involve a prequel that won’t make it into the main storyline. So far, I’ve done some thinking about villain motivations and being more creative with my worldbuilding.

Also, this month marks my first “blogoversary”–I’ve been blogging for a year! Yay! *throws confetti* I’ve really enjoyed having this blog since I started it last March. I love interacting with everyone who reads, likes, and comments, and writing about random science and book things that I enjoy makes a great little break from studying every week. I definitely plan to keep it up further this year. Stick around; I have some good things in the works!

So that’s my month in a nutshell; how was yours? Did you do anything exciting, or was it pretty much the usual? If you have a blog, when’s your blogoversary? How much writing did you do this month? Have you ever done a research project? Share in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Starlighter by Bryan Davis

Hello, everyone! It’s the third Saturday of the month, and that’s book review day. I read this book a couple months ago, mostly on a flight from Georgia to New Hampshire, so this review is really long overdue. But here we are!

Image result for starlighter coverImage result for starlighter cover

Information for Readers

Genre: Christian Fantasy

Age Level: YA

Content? Only a little; some blood. No swearing or anything like that.

The Story: Sixteen-year-old Jason Masters has always doubted the stories of humans kidnapped by dragons and enslaved in another world. But when his brother Adrian leaves to rescue them, Jason is framed for murder and must go after him. In the other world, Koren, a young woman enslaved by dragons, discovers her special abilities and a mysterious black egg prophesied to be the doom of humans. Now, Jason and Koren must work together to free the slaves and fight the dragons’ tyranny.

This was a very cool premise, and enough of it was left at the end that I really need to read the three sequels and find out what happens. This was just the beginning of the story, but it was a great start.

The Characters: I really enjoyed the characters in this book. Jason, Randall, Elyssa, Tibalt, Koren, Natalla, Wallace, Arxad, the dragon prince, Magnar, and Zena were all really interesting. Tibalt provided great comic relief. My favorite character was probably Jason; I enjoyed his heroic idealism. I liked all the characters though (except Magnar, that evil dragon), and I’m looking forward to watching them develop more in the sequels.

The Writing: Bryan Davis is quite a good writer. I don’t remember catching any grammatical errors or anything like that, which is always good. He’s also really good at deep third-person POV. And the worldbuilding of the two worlds was really interesting, particularly the blend of technology levels in the humans’ world, though this was a bit confusing initially.

Overall: Very good book; looking forward to the sequels! Definitely recommended.

What do you think? Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Do you want to read it? Share in the comments!

Beautiful People March 2017

Hello, everyone! I am actually getting around to participating in Beautiful People this month, as you can see. I wanted to do it last month, but unfortunately ran out of time. So here I am this month!

What is Beautiful People, you ask? Well, it is a monthly link-up hosted by Cait @ Paper Fury and Sky @ Further Up and Further In. Each month, they post ten questions for character development, and all those who want to participate can answer them for their characters on their blogs. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Aletra
Aletra Kiavar, age 16, mernevna apprentice.

This month, I have a new-ish character to develop. Aletra Kiavar is a mernevna (enchanter) apprentice in the Windsong storyworld. In her time, enchanters are still frowned upon and not able to use their powers openly, and she eventually gets involved in changing that.

  1. What’s their favorite book/movie/play/etc.?

Aletra loves books and learning in general, though at the beginning of her story, she has yet to see a real library. She especially loves reading about history and the healing arts

2. Is there anything they regret doing?

She is the youngest of fifteen girls and mostly regrets letting her oldest sisters boss her around for so long before she left home for her apprenticeship.

3. If they were sick or wounded, who would take care of them and how?

Her mentor would probably take care of her, since he’s the only person around. She’s also, as I mentioned earlier, interested in healing and takes care of him, and could probably take care of herself if needed.

4. Is there an object they can’t bear to part with and why?

Aletra’s journal is where she records all her thoughts and observations of the world and things that stick out to her in her learning. She would be horrified to lose it, pragmatically since it would set her intellectual career back quite a bit, and personally since she often puts her thoughts and opinions in as well.

5. What are 5 ways to win their heart (or friendship)?

  • Give her a book (or scroll).
  • Learn that she’s a changeling and not report her to the authorities.
  • Teach her about nature.
  • Be friends with her mentor.
  • Take her traveling to a city.

6. Describe a typical outfit for them from top to bottom.

She usually keeps her hair up in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Then, she wears a white or light brown dress with a sleeveless bodice laced up over the top. She also has a cloak for when it’s raining. More often than not, she goes barefoot; since she’s a changeling and regenerates fairly quickly, small cuts don’t bother her. She has ankle boots for traveling.

7. What’s their favorite type of weather?

She is fascinated by the unexplained: diseases, ocean tides, and thunderstorms. She often goes outside during thunderstorms and watches the lightning from under the eaves of her home.

8. What’s the worst fight they’ve ever been in?

Before her story, just various scraps with her sisters. The real fight comes later in her story (though I don’t know when or how yet).

9. What names or nicknames have they been called throughout their life?

Mostly just “Aletra,” but later on in her story, one of her friends starts calling her “Thunder Watcher.”

10. What makes their heart feel alive?

Learning, exploring, watching thunderstorms, climbing trees, solving mysteries, and making new friends. She loves activity and constantly wants to do new things.

So that’s Aletra! What did you think of her? Did you do a Beautiful People post this month? (If so, drop the link in the comments!) Are you planning to? Have you done it in the past? Tell me in the comments!

Karpechenko, Polyploidy, and Other Long Words

Greetings, everyone! It’s the second Saturday of the month already, and I am delighted to be here talking about one of my favorite science topics with you. As you may know, or may have guessed from reading my blog and noting the disproportionate amount of genetics posts, I am a genetics major, major DNA nerd, and plant biology minor. I’m going to bring all those things together in this post, so hold on to your hat and let’s have some fun!

As with many of my science posts, our topic today stems from a class I am taking (Evolutionary Genetics of Plants, in this case). My teacher told us a story, which I thought was cool, so I am now going to repeat it to you.

Image result for karpechenko
The story was about this guy.

The guy in the picture above supplies the first of the long words in this post: his name, Georgii Dmitrievich Karpechenko. As you may have guessed, he was Russian. Specifically, he was a Russian botanist and plant cytologist (cell biologist) who did some interesting experiments with plant breeding. Let’s explore them.

Presumably, Karpechenko enjoyed both cabbages and radishes, or else he just wanted to contribute to improved agricultural productivity in his nation of limited farmland, or possibly both. Either way, he wanted to create a plant that produced a cabbage in the shoot and a radish in the root. The logical way to do this (his reasoning presumably went) was to cross a cabbage with a radish.

Here we have to back up a bit and get into some more long words. Cabbage and radish are different species, but not only that, they are in different genera (the first word of a scientific name); cabbage is Brassica oleracea and radish is Raphanus sativus. Usually, the definition of a species is “a population which is reproductively isolated (i.e. can’t breed) from others.” Of course, the only thing in science with no exceptions is that everything has an exception, and Karpechenko was indeed able to breed his cabbage and radish (for reasons we haven’t talked about in class yet) and produce a hybrid plant.

Well, unfortunately for Karpechenko, his hybrid didn’t look anything like either a cabbage or a radish. It was just a weed. Worse yet, it was a sterile weed; it produced seed pods, but no seeds. Fortunately for botany and genetics, though, Karpechenko didn’t give up on his experiments just yet. He kept observing his plants and noticed one day that a branch of one of them was producing seeds, even though the rest of this plant continued to be sterile. Furthermore, when he planted the seeds, they gave rise to fertile (if weedy) plants, and a new head-scratcher: how could this be?

Backing up again: The fertility of plants (or any organism, really) arises from a special cell division process called meiosis, which some may have learned about in high school biology. Most organisms are diploid, that is, they have two complete sets of chromosomes. For example, humans have 23 chromosomes in a set, and a total of 46 chromosomes in two sets. It works the same way for cabbage and radish; each has 9 chromosomes in a set, and 18 chromosomes total. This comes from reproductive biology; in any diploid organism, one of the sets of chromosomes comes from each parent. So in order to reproduce, plants (and animals, and fungi) have to produce haploid gametes, “sex cells” with only one set of chromosomes apiece. (In humans, we know them better as the sperm and the egg.) This is what meiosis is all about.

Image result for meiosis
A summary figure of meiosis. Note the homologous chromosomes separating into different cells; don’t worry about the different colors.

 

In order to reduce the chromosome set number, or “ploidy,” from diploid to haploid, chromosomes line up in matched (“homologous”) pairs and separate into two new cells (see the figure above). These cells then undergo further division to form gametes, the details of which we won’t worry about.

Now let’s think about Karpechenko’s sterile hybrid. This little weed had one set of chromosomes from cabbage and one set from radish, which enabled it to grow and function. However, when it came time for meiosis, it turned out that radish and cabbage chromosomes were different enough that they wouldn’t pair and divide into different cells, and no gametes were formed, which ultimately meant no seeds.

Image result for karpechenko cabbage radish
Karpechenko’s experiments shown as seed pods. “Amphidiploid” is the same thing as tetraploid.

 

So what about that branch that became fertile? Well, it turns out that plants sometimes spontaneously undergo whole-genome duplications, in which, just as it sounds like, the entire genome of the plant is duplicated in the cell. (This happens routinely before cell division, but then it all divides into two cells. In whole-genome duplication, what happens is that the cell thinks it’s divided, but actually hasn’t, and now has four sets of chromosomes rather than two.) This happened in Karpechenko’s plant, in a branch precursor cell, and gave rise to a tetraploid branch, having four sets of chromosomes, two from radish and two from cabbage. Now, suddenly, all chromosomes had homologs to pair with in meiosis, and seeds could form.

Karpechenko had discovered polyploidy, the state of having more than two chromosome sets, which turns out to be a rather important phenomenon in plants. Besides generating greater genetic diversity, helpful to plant breeders, polyploidy results in more DNA, bigger nuclei, bigger cells, and eventually, bigger, more robust plants overall. It’s so useful that plant breeders sometimes induce polyploidy with chemicals to help in developing new varieties. Many important plants, such as wheat and canola, are polyploids.

What happened to Karpechenko himself? Well, in the early 20th century, the Soviet Union’s leadership was not big on genetics. In 1941, Karpechenko was arrested on a false charge and executed, but not before making a major contribution to botany and genetics.

What do you think? Have you heard of Karpechenko before? What about polyploidy? (Isn’t it cool?) Do you have any questions? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #7: The Fellowship of the Ring

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Good morning, everyone, and happy March! This month marks my first anniversary of blogging here at The Story Scientist, and I thought I’d recall where I began, with a book quote analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, I have rather less of the book to analyze for you all, since the first paragraph is only one sentence, albeit a long one. So let’s analyze!

Image result for the fellowship of the ring cover
This is the version that I have.
  • When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. There’s quite a bit going on in just this one sentence. Firstly, we start with the character of Bilbo Baggins, which makes a good transition into The Lord of the Rings for those who have read The Hobbit. The mention of his “eleventy-first birthday” sets the time of the story as many years after the events of The Hobbit, and the mention of talk and excitement indicates that Bilbo has developed a reputation, which is developed in the next paragraph. And what better way to hook a reader than with talk and excitement? We know something’s going to happen, and setting this sentence as its own entire paragraph gives us a moment to take that in before moving on.

Today’s has been a very short analysis, but really, I love Tolkien (as you may have noticed by my having written two other posts about his books–do check them out if you haven’t read them). And so I leave you until next week.

Image result for bilbo baggins lotr
Goodbye!

What do you think? Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? (If not, why on earth–I mean, I highly recommend it.) What do you think of its beginning? Are you hooked by this sentence? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!