Sunday, November 17, 2013

Oh, the places I go! Another reason I love being a Scientific Editor

My job as a Scientific Editor gives me the opportunity to read much more broadly than I did when I worked in the lab. While researching manuscripts for suitability for the journal or while trying to find reviewers, I sometimes end up in very unexpected places. I discussed this briefly in my post about the book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments. I often find myself reading abstracts for papers that sound like fodder for Seriously, Science (formerly known as NCBI ROFL). The premise of this site is simple: post abstracts from PubMed with a simple description of the work. Of course, they tend to choose papers that sound pretty ridiculous on the surface. These are typically the types of papers that would garner criticisms about why such research should be funded. Here are some recent examples: "Study proves 'old person smell' is real"; "Curvy vs. straight - which glass ups your drinking rate?"

As a graduate student I studied the motility of the sperm from Ascaris, an intestinal parasite from pigs; we affectionately called our system "worm sperm". Thus, I understand the appeals and perils of working with an offbeat system. These unusual systems actually have important applications (otherwise they would not likely be funded). For example, worm sperm has a novel machinery for cell motility (more specifically, it uses a completely unique protein to power the movement of its amoeboid sperm), which could help us understand how more traditional cells crawl. Studying simple cells to understand more complex ones is a common approach in cell biology. The idea is that there should be conserved elements that should be comparable between the different cell types; such an approach can allow scientists to generate a minimal parts lists for a cellular process of interest. Thus, brewer's yeast can be used as a model system for a surprising number of cellular processes, even neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's and Parkinson's.

A few weeks ago, I was looking for reviewers for a paper about protein stability during cryopreservation of heart tissues. The work could eventually have an impact on how tissues are stored prior to tissue transplants.  I found myself reading title after title about the stability of proteins after cryopreservation of semen of various types, especially boar and horse semen. The funny thing was -  I was not surprised to stumble upon these papers because I had seen them before. On the previous occasion, I was researching a paper on the proteomics of horse semen. These areas of research might elicit some giggles even from the seasoned scientist, but the work could have important implications for animal husbandry.

I recently evaluated a paper that described the protein in Venus fly traps responsible for digesting arthropods. Interestingly, it is a chitinase, an enzyme that can break down the chitinous exoskeleton of the fly trap's lunch. While searching for reviewers, I found a plethora of interesting papers, such as the mechanics of the opening and closing of Venus fly traps and proteomics to identify the components involved in digestion in a variety of carnivorous plants. I also see a lot of papers about insect venom. For example, we recently received a paper about the proteomics of fishing spider venom. As I learned in the book Wicked Bugs, insects and spiders have some pretty amazing (and terrifying) ways of attacking their prey. Some recently published papers demonstrate that understanding how the venom works can be useful for developing new pain killers as well as novel pesticides.

Every week I seem to find a new and strange corner of PubMed to explore. Sure, I still have some knee-jerk reactions and giggle when I read some of the titles. Generally, though, once I dig deeper to understand what the long-term goal of the work is, I tend to be amazed at the boundlessness of scientific curiosity and the ingenuity of scientists for finding new ways of solving problems.

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