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College of Arts and Sciences Biology

Dr. Universe: Why are animals symmetrical?

Dr. Universe: a cat in a lab coatIf we drew an imaginary line straight down the middle of the human body, it would look pretty similar on each side.

We see this kind of symmetry in lots of animals, from cats and birds to worms and frogs. In fact, about 99 percent of animals have bilateral or two-sided symmetry, says my friend Erica Crespi, a biologist at Washington State University who studies frogs and asks a lot of big questions about how animals develop.

Imagine if animals like frogs, birds, cats, or humans didn’t have their two-sided symmetry. Birds might have a hard time flying with one wing. Frogs might hop in circles » More …

In the company of penguins, whales, and pteropods

Researcher in red coat in snow field Luana Lins, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences, is fresh off a month-long visit studying polar organisms as part of the National Science Foundation’s Training Program in Antarctica for Early-Career Scientists. When she wasn’t counting bacteria or extracting the DNA of pteropods, Lins was visited by penguins, watched whales, and toured the drafty hut assembled in 1902 by Robert Falcon Scott. She saw precious little fresh food and not a single vascular plant.

“Antarctica is beautiful, magical and harsh,” Lins said on her return. “I left with an extreme awareness » More …

It’s in the genes

Omar Cornejo and Joanna Kelley in their WSU labWhen Omar Cornejo got his genomic analysis back from 23andMe, he and his wife, fellow population geneticist Joanna Kelley, were both a bit surprised and vindicated. Venezuelan, Cornejo expected to see the alleles, or variations of a gene, from Native American, western European, and North African populations. But he was unaware that his family’s deep history also included ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa.

That just goes to show the importance of broadly sampling the genome, says Kelley. “The lesson is that if you just look at the mitochondria, you’d assume this person is from Africa. But if you look at just the Y chromosome, you’d assume that this is a Native American.” » More …

Bear Watching

Chukchi Sea polar bearThe headlines paint a dire picture: By the 2030s, global warming could completely melt Arctic sea ice, imperiling the 19 known polar bear populations that range across the United States, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway.

Could, as some fear, the trend spell extinction for Ursus martimus? » More …

Self-fertilizing fish reveal surprising genetic diversity

Luana LinsAs weird animals go, the mangrove killifish is in a class of its own.

It flourishes in both freshwater and water with twice as much salt as the ocean. It can live up to two months on land, breathing through its skin, before returning to the water with a series of spectacular 180-degree flips. » More …

A mother’s microbial gift

Illustration by Colin JohnsonOld assumptions about human breast milk are giving way to new thinking about microbes in milk and their role in children’s health and our immune systems.

It happened again, most recently at a conference in Prague. After she gave her talk, a scientist came up to Shelley McGuire, a pioneer exploring the microbial communities found in human breast milk, and told her, You don’t know how to take a sample. Your samples must have been contaminated. Human milk is sterile. » More …

Biology graduate earns internship at PNNL, working to combat cancer

Vincent Danna (’17) was in middle school when he lost all of his hair.

He suffers from a condition known as alopecia universalis, which is when the immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles. His personal struggle led him to want to become a dermatologist and help those who experience serious skin diseases and other ailments.

“It sounds silly,” he said, “but my experience really spiked my interest in wanting to help other people through medicine.” » More …

Biology student selected for national pre-health workshop

Smiling student in building lobbyAs a result of resources and mentorship she received at Washington State University Tri-Cities student Catalina Yepez not only began the initial steps of realizing her future dream of becoming an eye doctor. The opportunities also led her to be selected for an opportunity open to only 30 students nationwide.

Yepez was selected to participate in a week-long workshop that prepares students for medical school and careers in optometry at the University of California, Berkeley, this summer.  » More …

Patrick Carter named director of School of Biological Sciences

CarterPatrick Carter, an expert in evolutionary physiology, has been named director of the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

A WSU faculty member since 1996, Carter began serving as interim director for SBS in June and officially began his tenure as director on Oct. 1. » More …

Researchers see popular herbicide affecting health across generations

Supp. Fig. 1 partial, map of US usageFirst, the good news. Washington State University researchers have found that a rat exposed to a popular herbicide while in the womb developed no diseases and showed no apparent health effects aside from lower weight.

Now, the weird news. The grand-offspring of that rat did have more disease, as did a great-grand offspring third generation.

“The third generation had multiple diseases and much more frequently than the third generation of unexposed rats,” said Michael Skinner, a Washington State University professor of biological sciences. At work, says Skinner, are epigenetic inheritance changes that turn genes on and off, often because of environmental influences. » More …