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MTS40 - John Wooley - Exploring the Protein Universe

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John Wooley is Associate Vice Chancellor of Research and Professor of Chemistry-Biochemistry and of Pharmacology at the University of California San Diego. Wooley is a leader in the young field of metagenomics: the science of gathering vast numbers of genes from the oceans, soils, air, and the human body.

A generation ago biologist knew the sequences of a few thousand genes. Since then that figure has jumped to several million genes and it's only going to continue to leap higher in years to come. This wealth of data is allowing scientists to get answers to fundamental questions they rarely even asked a generation ago.

They're starting to understand how thousands of species of microbes coexist in our bodies. They're investigating how hundreds of genes work together inside a single cell and they're starting to get a vision of the full diversity of the billions of proteins that life produces, what scientists sometimes call the protein universe.

John Wooley has been at the center of this revolution, investigating some of these new questions and leading pioneering projects such as CAMERA, the Community Cyberinfrastructure for Advanced Marine Microbial Ecology Research and Analysis, to organize the unprecedented amount of data that scientists have at their disposal so that they can master that data rather than drown in it.

In this episode I spoke to Wooley about how metagenomics has revolutionized research on everything from marine ecology to human health, and how he and his colleagues cope with an influx of data on millions of new genes.

Download: mp3 (32.44 min | 22.7 megs)

photo for show art (right) provided by calit2

MTS39 - Paul Turner- Pandemic in a Petri Dish

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Download MTS39

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In this episode I talk with Paul Turner, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University.

2009 saw the emergence of a new strain of H1N1 flu. Scientists soon determined that the virus had leaped from pigs to humans and then spread to millions of people.

When viruses make this kind of leap it's a reason to worry. In 1918 when a strain of flu leapt from birds to humans, 50 million people died in a matter of months. So far the new H1N1 flu strain is behaving like a relatively ordinary flu. Still even ordinary flu is a matter of serious concern. Over 4,000 people in the US alone have died from the new H1N1 flu strain and scientists can't say for sure what it would take to turn this new strain into a global killer.

It's a sobering reminder of how mysterious virus evolution remains. Over the past century a number of viruses have made the leap from animal host to humans including SARS and HIV and scientists worry that the next great plague may be a virus that we don't even know about yet.

Paul Turner is learning how new viruses emerge by watching them evolve in his lab. Fortunately the viruses he studies don't make you sick. Instead they attack E-coli and other single celled hosts. But these viruses are teaching Turner and his colleagues about some of the fundamental rules that govern how viruses evolve to attack new hosts. Turner hopes that what he and his colleagues learn about those rules may help future generations of scientists fight against the next generation of viruses that can make us sick.

MTS38 - Jonathan Eisen - An Embarrassment of Genomes

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Jonathan Eisen is a professor at the University of California, Davis Genome Center. Over the course of his career, he has pioneered new ways of sequencing microbial genomes and analyzing them.

I talked to Eisen about some of the weirdest creatures he's studied, such as bacteria that only live on the bellies of worms at the bottom of the ocean, and how we may be able to exploit their genomes for our own benefit. We also discussed the new movement for open access to scientific literature, a subject that's a particular passion of Eisen, who is academic editor in chief at the open-access journal PLOS Biology.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Carl Zimmer's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download: MTS38 (.mp3 | 36 megs | 53 min.)

MTS37 - Hazel Barton - Cave Dwellers

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Hazel Barton is the Ashland Professor of Integrative Science at Northern Kentucky. She explores some of the world's most remote caves to study the remarkable diversity of microbes that thrive in their dark recesses. I spoke to Barton about how she first became captivated by these bizarre organisms, what it's like to do delicate microbiology when you're hip-deep in mud, and why she wants to explore caves on Mars in search of Martians.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Carl Zimmer's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download:  MTS37 (.mp3 | 22 megs | 24 min.)

MTS36 - Dennis Bray - Living Computers

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Dennis Bray is an active professor emeritus in both the Department of Physiology and Department of Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. He studies the behavior of microbes--how they "decide" where to swim, when to divide, and how best to manage the millions of chemical reactions taking place inside their membranes. For Bray, microbes are tiny, living computers, with genes and proteins serving the roles of microprocessors.

In this interview, I talked with Bray about his provocative new book, Wetware: A Living Computer Inside Every Cell.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Carl Zimmer's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download:  MTS36 (.mp3 | 27 megs | 37:29)

MTS35 - Michael Cunliffe - The Ocean's Living Skin

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Michael Cunliffe is a microbiologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick in England. He studies the microbes that live in the thin layer of water at the very surface of the ocean. His research is shedding light on an ecosystem that's both mysterious and huge, spanning three-quarters of the surface of the planet.

In this interview, I talked with Cunliffe about the discovery of this sea-surface ecosystem, and the influence it has over the Earth's climate.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Carl Zimmer's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download:  MTS35 (.mp3 | 15.4 megs | 13:21)

MTS34 - Pratik Shah - Combatting Pathogens with Polyamines

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Pratik Shah is a graduate student in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and he’s a 2009 recipient of ASM’s Raymond W. Sarber award, granted to recognize students for research excellence and potential.

His research focuses on polyamines and polyamine biosynthesis and transport systems in Streptococcus pneumoniae.  He’s studying polyamines with the goal of finding potential targets for pneumococcal vaccines and prophylactic interventions against pneumococcal disease.

In this interview, I talked with Pratik about why polyamines may hold the key for new ways to combat pathogens, his plans for the future, and about advice he would give to young people considering grad school.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Dr. Merry Buckley's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download:  MTS34

MTS33 - Abigail Salyers - The Art of Teaching Science

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Abigail Salyers is a Professor of Microbiology and the G. William Arends Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her research focuses on the ecology of microorganisms in the human body and the comings and goings of antibiotic resistance genes, particularly genes in Bacteroides species.  Dr. Salyers is ASM’s 2009 Graduate Microbiology Teaching Awardee.  If you’ve ever tried teaching or mentoring, you know it’s not always easy, but for an eminent scientist, teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level must be incredibly difficult.  After all, once you reach a certain level of knowledge in any field, it can be hard to relate your knowledge to people who know relatively little about it.  Dr. Salyers has tackled 100-level biology courses with as many as 300 students, taught one-on-one at the lab bench, and been an instructor at an intensive summer course in microbial diversity, all while rising to the top of her field in research. 

In this interview, I talked with Dr. Salyers about the most influential teacher in her own life (you might be surprised to learn who that is), about whether antibiotic resistance is getting the kind of play it deserves, and about why the baboon vagina is an interesting study system.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Dr. Merry Buckley's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

Direct Download: MTS33

MTS32 - Arthur Guruswamy - Mycobacterial and Fungal Pathogens

Arthur Guruswamy is a clinical microbiologist in Virginia’s Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services and the winner of ASM's Scherago-Rubin Award in recognition of an outstanding, bench-level clinical microbiologist.  His particular interest lies in mycobacterial and fungal diseases, including tuberculosis.

In his work, Mr. Guruswamy places a lot of emphasis on helping others.  A while back, he traveled to his native Sri Lanka to train clinic staff in the use of a rapid, low tech method for identifying cases of tuberculosis.  Using this method has probably saved many lives, since staff Mr. Guruswamy trained can now treat their patients quickly and avoid the three to four week wait for culture results. 

Mr. Guruswamy is also involved in ASM’s Minority Mentoring Program so he can offer younger scientists the kind of assistance he says he got from other ASM members back at the beginning of his own career, when he arrive in the United States with less than $50 in his pocket. 

In this interview, I asked Mr. Guruswamy about his work at the state lab in Virginia, about tuberculosis in this country, and about why he saw more unusual clinical cases during his time working at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota than he has during any other phase of his career.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Dr. Merry Buckley's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

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Direct Download:   MTS32

MTS31 - Frances Arnold - Engineering Microbes

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Dr. Frances Arnold is a professor of Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (most of us know it as Caltech).  Dr. Arnold’s research focuses on evolutionary design of biological systems, an approach she is currently applying to engineer cellulases and cellulolytic enzymes for manufacturing biofuels.

This country’s energy security can look pretty bleak when you think about it: the need to address global warming, strife in oil-rich nations, and depletion of fossil fuels combine to paint an uncertain future, and although ethanol has a lot of friends in Iowa and D.C., ethanol isn’t going to end our energy woes.  In the future, our energy supply will probably be cobbled together from a number of different fuels and sources.

Dr. Arnold is interested in engineering microbes that can grant us a biofuel that packs more of a caloric punch than ethanol.  She likes isobutanol, which can be converted into a fuel that’s more like the hydrocarbons we currently put into our fuel tanks.  To develop proteins that make the comounds she wants the way she wants, Arnold and her team take a gene that needs tweaking to do the job, introduce directed mutations into it, and select the mutant proteins that do the job best.  

In this interview, I talked with Dr. Arnold about how she got into alternative energy during the Carter administration (and got out again during the Reagan administration), what she sees in the P450 enzyme, and how she explains her work to people outside her field.

To listen, click the play button below. You can subscribe for free to Dr. Merry Buckley's Meet the Scientist podcast via iTunes, through the RSS feed with a podcast aggregator or feed reader, or by email alert.

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Direct Download:   MTS31

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