Biologist Unmasks Mysterious ‘Monster Larva’

The bewildering C. monstrosa now moves from nature’s curiosity bin to the realm of shrimp. Sorry, little fella. (Photo by Darryl Felder)

In life as in fiction, monsters are rarely what they seem. And now researchers have added to the evidence an ocean oddity that sparked nearly two centuries of head scratching.

This week a team of researchers, led by GW biologist Keith Crandall, reported that a curious crustacean named Cerataspis monstrosa, a larva previously unmatched to an adult animal, is an early developmental stage of a species of deep-water shrimp, Plesiopenaeus armatus.

When the so-called “monster larva” was first found in 1828 inside the gut of a dolphin, baffled scientists described it as a “monstrous and misshapen animal,” the study authors wrote in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

The deep-sea shrimp Plesiopenaeus armatus, which a new study found to be the adult form of the “monster larva.”
(Photo by W. Pequegnat)

The issue of identifying larvae that bear no resemblance to their adult selves does arise—as Dr. Crandall told the GW Hatchet, look no further than caterpillars and butterflies. Answers sometimes can be found by allowing larvae to mature in a lab, or by their affinity for a particular habitat.

But C.monstrosa sightings are pretty rare, the researchers said—mostly it turns up only after being eaten—and as it matures the creature’s preference of habitat changes, too.
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Stellar Find: X-ray emissions may offer clues about star’s composition

The pulsar J1740+1000 is pointed out in this image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The colors represent X-ray emissions of varies energies, with reds being lower and blues higher.
(NASA image, courtesy Oleg Kargaltsev)

A new study of the densely-packed remains of an exploded star may offer new insights into the makeup and inner-workings of these cosmic remnants.

The findings, published Friday in the journal Science, were made by an international team led by GW physicist Oleg Kargaltsev. The team was studying a pulsar—a type of fast-spinning star that emits pulses of radiation and comprises the vast majority of neutron stars.

The pulsar, known as J1740+1000, is relatively young at 100,000 years old and had been considered “fairly unremarkable” among ordinary pulsars, the researchers wrote.

But using space-based cameras aboard NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission—Newton, the team discovered abnormalities in the radiation emitted by the star.

The spectrum of radiation had characteristic dips, called absorption lines, previously seen only in “several strange, exotic neutron stars,” said Dr. Kargaltsev.

Until now, researchers thought the x-ray spectra of ordinary pulsars were “smooth and featureless,” he said. And the findings suggest that, among these stars, absorption lines could be much more common.
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Scenes from a Chemistry Lab

The university last week took the wraps off a spacious and bright chemistry laboratory—carved from a former classroom deemed too hot, too cold and always too noisy—that officials hailed as a taste of the future flavor of lab science at GW.

The new synthetic chemistry lab, in Corcoran Hall, is home to the research of Cynthia Dowd and Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal. The work of both researchers involves creating molecules: Dr. Dowd is developing new molecules to fight diseases, in particular tuberculosis, while Dr. Voutchkova-Kostal’s work is in making industrial processes less polluting and household products less toxic.

GW Today has the skinny on everything you’d want to know about the lab. Below, a peek inside the new space, through the lens of university photographer William Atkins.

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Randall Packer, a biology professor and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences associate dean for special projects, and Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt take a look around the new synthetic chemistry lab. (Photo by William Atkins)

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(Photo by William Atkins)

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GW Provost Steven Lerman was among those surveying the new lab space at an open house last week. (Photo by William Atkins)

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Chemistry professors Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal (center left) and Cynthia Dowd (center right) thank supporters at an open house for the new synthetic chemistry lab, which houses their research. (Photo by William Atkins)

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Chunks of dry ice blow off steam inside a water bath near equipment in the new synthetic chemistry lab. (Photo by William Atkins)

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(Photo by William Atkins)

Randall Packer, a biology professor and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences associate dean for special projects, and Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt take a look around the new synthetic chemistry lab. (Photo by William Atkins)(Photo by William Atkins)GW Provost Steven Lerman was among those surveying the new lab space at an open house last week. (Photo by William Atkins)Chemistry professors Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal (center left) and Cynthia Dowd (center right) thank supporters at an open house for the new synthetic chemistry lab, which houses their research. (Photo by William Atkins)Chunks of dry ice blow off steam inside a water bath near equipment in the new synthetic chemistry lab. (Photo by William Atkins)(Photo by William Atkins)

Just the Facts

$41,210

The amount by which the U.S. deficit rose per second in 2011, as federal spending ($114,253 per second) outstripped revenue ($73,043 per second). Those stats are the openers of a nonpartisan, 100-day project called Face the Facts USA that will lead up to the presidential election. The nonpartisan initiative of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs launched today.

“Although we live in a blizzard of information, the irony is that we are often left without clear facts about our biggest issues,” Frank Sesno, director of the school and chief executive of Face the Facts USA, told GW Today.

“The electorate has good reason to be confused and turned off by the avalanche of assertion and partisan noise making,” he said. “But our hope with Face the Facts USA is that we can draw voters in fueled entirely on the power of information.”

Here’s a video produced by the team to put the deficit number into perspective:

Curious Bone Helps Some Fish Power Their Pucker

A fish, commuting to wor–oh wait, doing nothing. (Photo by Flickr user Katie@!)

The sight of a goldfish grazing—and grazing, and grazing—can start to feel like a reminder that some animals get to drift along, puckering away in simple, rent-free peace.

But Patricia Hernandez sees something else. She sees velocity and hydrodynamics, and nature’s age-old obsession with streamlining design.

In a trio of studies published this year Dr. Hernandez, a GW biologist, and her collaborators reported a new layer of complexity in that puckering, illuminating the role of a curious bone that’s found in one-quarter of all freshwater fish species.

This group of fish, called Cypriniformes—which includes minnows, carp, goldfish and more than 3,000 other species—use the bone to pucker unlike any other fish.

Known as a kinethmoid, the bone is centered behind the upper jaw and is nested in ligaments, rather than linked to other bones. When the lower jaw opens the kinethmoid lunges forward to extend the reach of the mouth, in some cases adding as much as 20 percent to a fish’s head size.
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A Sign of the Times

They were quick to pick up the fist bump.

Justin Fisher, a lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs, remarking to GW Today about his teaching stint this summer in North Korea, through the group Statistics Without Borders. Mr. Fisher, who showed students the greeting over lunch, spent a week in Pongyang teaching survey sampling and computer analysis.

Inspired by Feathers, New Wing Design Takes Flight

Dr. Wickenheiser’s new design for the wings of unmanned aircraft is inspired by birds’ use of feathers in negotiating turbulent gusts of wind. (Photo by Flickr user DSP Photo)

More than a century after Wilbur and Orville Wright launched the era of human flight, a GW researcher is going back to the original flyers—birds—for inspiration in designing the next generation of unmanned aircraft.

Military drones and other unmanned aircraft fly much closer to the ground than commercial jets, where the wind has more surfaces to interact with and turbulence is far less predictable, said Adam Wickenheiser, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

While commercial aircraft try to sense and dodge turbulence, for the low-flying unmanned aircraft “in many situations you have no choice but to run right into it.”

Birds are in a similar bind, with solutions hammered out by evolution. Now Dr. Wickenheiser is hoping to borrow from their biological blueprints to create a feather-inspired wing that could allow aircraft to run more efficiently and with tighter control. Continue reading

View from the Hill

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The number of emails received daily by the average congressional staffer, according to a new survey led by David Rehr, an adjunct professor in GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, exploring communication between the Hill and lobbyists. According to Politico, the study raises an issue for lobbyists: While they aim to score a meeting, Hill staffers would much rather get an email—though one-fifth said they only read half or fewer of their emails.

Shaken, But Not Stirred? Researchers to Model Impact of Earthquakes Inside Nuclear Reactors

Cooling towers stand against a blue sky at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, in Tennessee. (Photo by the Tennessee Valley Authority, via Flickr)

The shimmying of last summer’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia briefly hit the pause button on the work week in the nation’s capital. But at the North Anna nuclear power plant, 11 miles from the epicenter in central Virginia, that pause lasted nearly three months while inspections and cosmetic repairs were made.

The shutdown was triggered automatically and no serious issues were found, but the process cost more than 100,000 hours of labor and $21 million, not to mention lost productivity with the plant offline. A team of GW researchers is now hoping to shed new light on vibrations in nuclear cores and lessen the impact of future earthquakes.

“They didn’t know how the [nuclear cores] reacted because there were no tools to predict the behavior,” said Philippe M. Bardet, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Dr. Bardet and his colleagues Elias Balaras, in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Majid Manzari, in civil and environmental engineering, are angling to change that. Last month the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the researchers more $860,000 over three years to devise a model for simulating the impact of vibrations inside a nuclear reactor.

It’s a tool they hope could be used to help assess damage before a costly cool-down and inspection, and to help engineers design next-generation reactors.

The research, utilizing GW’s earthquake simulator and one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, will be done in collaboration with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois, and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.
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On the Trail of Science, Led by the Trailblazers

I’d never heard someone pour their heart out into a highly scientific lecture, but these researchers blew me away with their passion and dedication to their projects.”

—Undergraduate Andrea Lehn, speaking to the University Honors Program Blog for a recent post about the new course “Science and Medicine: a Priceless Journey,” taught by Nobel laureate and GW professor Ferid Murad and a parade guests, including others from the Nobel ranks.

We had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Murad last year, just as he was transitioning to GW. Check out the article in the Spring 2011 GW Magazine for the scoop on his prize-winning work with the former no-goodnik molecule nitric oxide, and his plans for grooming future laureates at GW.