Category Archives: Fossils

OSU Scientist Reconstructs Four-billion year old (yes, 4-billion) Genetic Code

The following is a news release from Oklahoma State University

(STILLWATER, Okla., August 9, 2016) – An Oklahoma State University microbiologist and a colleague have reported progress in understanding the evolutionary origin of the genetic code used by all known cells. The scientists reconstructed the genetic code of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), believed by some scientists to be the origin of all life on Earth.

Wouter Hoff, with OSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, and Peter van der Gulik, with CWI, the Netherland’s national research institute for mathematics and computer science, published their findings in the journal PLoS ONE. The evolutionary origin of the genetic code has remained a scientific puzzle since its original discovery in the 1960s, which was a seminal breakthrough in understanding the molecular basis of life.

OSU Microbiologist Dr. Wouter Hoff

OSU Microbiologist Dr. Wouter Hoff

LUCA is the proposed single-cell organism that gave rise to the current three domains of life: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya that includes plants and animals. It is believed LUCA lived four billion years ago and may have developed in the extreme conditions surrounding deep sea vents where magma rises to the surface. The properties of LUCA and its possible resemblance to present day organisms are currently attracting intense scientific attention and mainstream news coverage. An influential, but hotly debated, notion is that modern Archaea living in extreme environments most resemble LUCA.

“Our reconstruction of LUCA’s genetic code reveals that the evolution of the set of transfer RNA molecules that are at the center of the genetic code was already almost complete in LUCA,” said Hoff. “Our work reveals that the set of transfer RNA molecules in LUCA closely resembles that in present day Archaea. In this respect, the primordial character referred to in the name of Archaea seems very appropriate.”

To obtain their results, Hoff and van der Gulik used recent genomic and biochemical data in combination with a largely ignored but central biochemical regularity in the genetic code.

“While many questions regarding the origin of the genetic code remain to be addressed, this publication makes a clear step in elucidating part of the evolutionary development of this process that is so important for all living organisms,” Hoff said.

Want more? Click here to read the article Hoff published.

Science Research in Oklahoma

There is so much science happening right under our noses here in eastern Oklahoma. The OSU Center for Health Sciences is just one example. You’ll find research into biomedical and forensic science, healthcare, medicine, and ,my personal favorite, paleontology.

The cool thing is OSU-CHS has a fantastic resource to help you stay on top of what they’re doing. They call it the Research Spotlight. There are videos and information all on kinds of topics. The video below is one example of the research taking place right here in Tulsa!

 

 

Adventures on Turkey Mountain

Turkey Mountain is a popular place to hike, walk, or ride a bike. Thousands of people go there every year but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the science that’s all around them.

Dr. Stanley Rice recently gave me a personal science tour of Turkey Mountain. He showed me tree fossils and explained that Turkey Mountain is the only place in Oklahoma where a certain oak tree grows. This just shows that science is everywhere. It’s also why you’ll often find me checking out rocks, I’m looking for fossils and evidence of ancient Earth.

This is important-If you find fossils on Turkey Mountain please do not remove them.

(Dr. Rice has been featured before on SIO…click here to see his impersonation of Charles Darwin.)

 

This Scientist is OK- Dr. Nick Czaplewski

Dr. Nick Czaplewski is a vertebrate paleontologist at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (see here, here, here, here, and here for stories from the museum).

I spoke with him in Black Mesa. He was one of the instructors with the ExplorOlogy program. They took high school students on a scientific road trip across Oklahoma. In Black Mesa they dug for dinosaurs (see here and here), took a census of the local insect population, and learned how to conduct scientific experiments in the field.

He’s a mellow guy who enjoys teaching kids about science and that makes him an OK Scientist.

Tools for Digging up Dinos

Ever wonder what tools paleontologists use for digging up dinos? Wonder no more. Here’s the second video from my trip to the Oklahoma Panhandle. (Here’s the first.) It was part of the ExplorOlogy program sponsored by the Sam Noble Museum. We went to Kenton, OK and Black Mesa. It’s home to a ton of fossils from about 150 million years ago.

Dr. Lindsey Yann of the OSU Center for Health Sciences explains the main kinds of tools they use to dig up those fossils and why it’s important to study Oklahoma’s past.

Dr. Yann is the volunteer coordinator for the Vertebrate Paleontology lab in Tulsa. It’s a great place to volunteer if you want to see fossils up close but can’t make it to the Panhandle.

Thanks again to the scientists at the Sam Noble Museum and the OSU Center for Health Sciences for inviting me on this trip.

Digging for Dinos

Who doesn’t like digging for dinos? I had the chance this summer to go on a real-life, honest to goodness dinosaur dig in the Oklahoma Panhandle. It was in Black Mesa near Kenton, OK. That’s about thisclose to the New Mexico and Colorado state lines.

I was a guest of Dr. Anne Weil of the OSU Center for Health Sciences. (She’s been featured before here, here, and here.) The dig was part of the ExplorOlogy program run through the Sam Noble Museum in Norman. ExplorOlogy is all about helping Oklahoma students and teachers get a hands on look at the wonderful world of science. The kids spend the night in the Sam Noble Museum, they get an up close look at the OKC Zoo, and they go work in the field on actual science expeditions.

The dinosaur dig in Black Mesa is an example. The students were helping dig up some Apatosaurus bones. That was a huge dinosaur most of us grew up calling a Brontosaurus.

In addition to digging up the dinosaurs the students went hiking and took a census of the local insects in Black Mesa (video to come!!).

I can’t thank Dr. Weil and the staff at the Sam Noble Museum enough for letting me tag along.

If you know a student who is interested on going next summer click here to learn more about the program and how you can register.

 

Free Science Workshop for Teachers

Attention all elementary and middle school teachers…here’s a great opportunity to learn about life sciences and do a little fossil hunting.

Janessa Doucette is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma. She’s hosting a free workshop series called Oklahoma Educators Evolve. It’ll take place on Saturday Oct. 17th and Saturday Oct. 24th. The first one is a fossil hunting trip to the rich grounds at White Mound in Sulphur. The second is a workshop in Oklahoma City. You’ll study the nature of science, biological concepts, and paleontology, “We will provide you with a foundation for these concepts, as well as provide you with a variety of ways to successfully teach these topics in your classroom. Participants will leave this workshop with their very own classroom collection of fossils and fossil casts with which to enjoy science learning with their students!”

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The cool thing is these workshops are FREE and you don’t have to be a science teacher!!! Click here to register. Click here to learn about the program.

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Ancient Dental Plaque

A University of Oklahoma scientist is perfecting the art (and by art I mean science) of studying ancient dental plaque. We’ve highlighted Dr. Christina Warinner before when her research gained national recognition. Now she’s featured in a fantastic video produced by Illumina. The company describes itself as, “a leading developer, manufacturer, and marketer of life science tools and integrated systems for large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function.” 

Dr. Warinner likes to say she’s an “archaeologist of the invisible”. She studies the dental plaque from teeth that are thousands of years old. Bacteria covers that dental plaque, from that she’s able to learn all kinds of things about the person who once used that tooth. Where they lived, what they ate, whether they were healthy or not, etc…

This video is an amazing look inside the process.

What’s a Graptolite?

Remember that Golden Spike? (Click here or scroll down one story.) It marks a boundary between two geologic time spans. In a nutshell, it’s where and when (geologically speaking) a  species makes its debut in the geologic record.
The Oklahoma spike is where Diplacanthograptus caudatus was found. It was a small aquatic animal called a Graptolite that floated around thanks to ocean currents.
Kyle Hartshorn with Dry Dredgers sent along some pictures of Graptolites that were found in Oklahoma. They’re tiny and look like pencil marks in the rock. Hartshorn told me, “Graptolites came in a variety of shapes: long and thin, short and wide, wishbone shaped, spiraled, and more.  There were quite a few forms at the places we went.”
Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

This pic below is of a conodont. It was an small creature that kind of looked like an eel. The conodont below is the yellow-orange speck inside the circle. That circle is about the size of a dime and was drawn around the fossil to help spot it. Conodonts are extremely hard to spot with the naked eye.

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

Courtesy: Kyle Hartshorn

These images are why I can’t help but examine rocks when I’m outside. You never know what you’re going to find, fossils can be all shapes and sizes!!

A Golden Spike in Oklahoma Marks the Spot

A Golden Spike in Oklahoma marks a geologic boundary that has the attention of scientists across the world. The picture below shows what’s called the Katian Golden Spike. It’s been placed near Atoka (about 45 miles southeast southwest of McAlester).

The Katian Golden Spike near Atoka. Courtesy: Dry Dredgers

The Katian Golden Spike near Atoka. Courtesy: Dry Dredgers

So what’s up with a big gold spike being hammered into the rocks? Well, long story short- it marks the beginning of a span of geologic time. This particular spike represents the start of the Upper Ordovician Katian Stage. The Ordovician Period is a span of time that lasted from about 485-million years ago to 443-million years ago. The Katian Stage was the second to last stage of the Ordovician. It lasted about 8-million years.

The spike marks a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point or GSSP. The location for a spike is determined by the first appearance of a particular species in the geologic record. In the case of the Katian Golden Spike, it marks the first place where Diplacanthograptus caudatus was found…a small aquatic animal that just floated around.

Kyle Hartshorn is with Dry Dredgers, “the oldest continuously-operating fossil club in North America”. He was also part of a group that recently toured Oklahoma’s geology and placed the spike in Atoka. He says these kinds of fossils look like little zippers or feathers, “These floating colonial animals were widely distributed by ocean currents, making them excellent tools for stratigraphic correlation.  Other wide-ranging planktonic fossils are also found at the site, including conodonts (teeth-like structures from tiny lamprey-like primitive fish) and chitinozoans (little sac-shaped fossils of unknown origin).”

The placement of a Golden Spike is mostly ceremonial, according to Hartshorn, but it does help scientists who do research there in the future. There are Golden Spikes placed around the world but only six , including the Katian Spike in Atoka, are in the United States.