Snippets of Science: Sweet Gum Tree Balls and Shikimic Acid

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These are the dried fruit of the sweet gum tree that we painted metallic to decorate for Thanksgiving. This tree is a huge pain in the a$@ because of these spikey balls, but they sure are beautiful alien looking things. The tiny little seeds inside, though all over our apartment now, are actually a good source of shikimic acid, the starting material to make Tamiflu (oseltamivir), the drug used to treat the flu.

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Shikimic Acid: PubMed
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Oseltamivir: Wiki

Currently, the pharmaceutical industry uses star anise as their main source of shikimic acid. Because of the danger of pandemic flu, they are looking for alternative ways to get shikimic acid so there isn’t a shortage of Tamiflu. Another option beside star anise and these pointy little ankle rollers are genetically modified E.coli. The DNA code for the enzymatic pathway to make the compound is inserted into the E.coli, then you can purify the compound, then start to make Tamiflu. It’s amazing we have the capabilities to do these things!

Sources:

Liquidambar styraciflua: a renewable source of shikimic acid

A New Route to Tamiflu?

Star role for bacteria in controlling flu pandemic? (paywall)

Plants 101: Propagating Plants through Cuttings (for kids and adults!)

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I have this thing with plants. I dream of having a rainforest in my home one day, but until recently, I’ve had a pretty black thumb. I tried to grow many different house plants when I got my first place, but I killed every single one of them. From fungus gnat larvae bursting through the soil after I tried to set up a DIY home irrigation system from leftover LPLC parts, to hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria in the soil of a philodendron making my little condo smell like the end-days of the Permian extinction, it was pretty much a comedy of errors.

Fast forward 8 years later, I have a fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) taller than me, a healthy, full rubber plant (Ficus elastica), and a huge snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) that are my pride and joy, along with several other newer plants dotting our home. I didn’t raise these plants without problems though. For example, the snake plant and I battled a nasty (I mean NASTY) millipede infestation soon after I first bought it (This is where Anna first learned to use tweezers at 2.5-years-old: picking baby millipedes out of the soil. Talk about honing those fine-motor skills).

Plant motherhood is not all glamorous foliage, but the most important thing I learned is that you can’t just buy any plant at Home Depot, water the crap out of it, and expect it to thrive. You have to learn what each plant needs: soil type (airy, dense, sandy, etc), light (high, low, morning, etc), watering (drainage, frequency, dry depth, etc.), general care (humidity, cleaning, pruning, etc).  In doing so, I’ve really come to appreciate every little thing about my plants, from the different types of variegation on each leaf to the climate where they were originally from.

The amazing teacher and science communicator, Naomi Volain, created a beautiful website called Plants Go Global to educate and raise awareness about plants to help solve our planet’s environmental problems. A part of this movement is appreciating the beauty of plants and fighting “plant blindness”- where the plants we see everyday just fade into the background of our view, not focusing on the importance, diversity, and striking beauty of them. I have combatted my own plant blindness by becoming a plant mom at home, and I hope to pass this on to my kids by educating them on everything from house plants to vegetable gardens to plant anatomy and biodiversity. Visit the site for more information!

PlantsGoGlobal.com

Recently, my snake plant was blown over by the wind from an open window and a long leaf snapped off. I decided to use it to make some new plants. The process is so simple that a three-year-old can do it (and she did). Read on below in the discussion for more about the science behind propagation through cuttings, and some tips to do this project with a child.

Materials

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  • Healthy mother plant
  • Pot or container with drainage
  • Proper rooting medium. This replaces soil for the time being (see below for why). The medium needs to be airy, light (not compact), well draining, non-nutritive, and moist. There are several ways to achieve this:
    • 50/50 mix of vermiculite and peat
  • Sharp, clean scissors, shears, or razor blade (though probably not a razor blade if you’re doing this with a three year old!)
  • Large plastic bag (optional)
  • Rooting Hormone (optional, though highly recommended)
  • A warm place

Method (How to make plant cuttings for propagation)

  1. Put your cutting medium into the container.
  2. Lay the leaf down and mark a dot every 4-6 inches (see the image to the right). cuttings snake plant how to
  3. Cut just below the dot with sharp scissors. If you’re doing this with a child, try to show them the picture or describe the process to them without doing it for them. It is a good exercise in following directions. Needless to say, be careful with scissors and young children.
  4. Prepare holes for the cuttings to go into the potting medium (i.e. wiggle a pencil in there to make a line the shape of the leaf). This is so you don’t rub off the rooting hormone when you stick the cutting in there.
  5. (Optional, though recommended) Dip the dot-side of the leaf into rooting hormone (see discussion section for what this is). I would do this step myself for younger children, but older ones can do it, just make sure they wash their hands afterwards. If you dip the wrong side in, it will not grow.
  6. Put the cuttings into the pot, dot-side down, about 1.5 inches deep or so the leaf won’t tip over. If the wrong side gets put in the dirt, it will not grow (which is why the dots are helpful).Untitled_Artwork 95
  7. Water, then cover with a plastic bag to keep it moist.
  8. Keep the medium moist and warm, and soon (2-10 weeks) you will have roots! To check, very very gently tug on the leaf. If there is resistance, you probably have roots.
  9. Gently dig up the roots and plant in normal potting soil. A new plant will begin to grow from a newly formed rhizome and pop up through the soil. Snake plants are slow growers, so this might take a while.
  10. Don’t worry if your cutting dies instead of takes root. It happens. When we did this, only 2 of our 7 rooted (but we did this without rooting hormone because I couldn’t find it after our move).
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Two of seven rooted. It is pretty obvious which ones have roots!
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The roots grow right out of where you cut the plant! The white thing on the bottom of the pointy leaf is a new rhizome. This will grow under the soil, then produce a new plant.
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This is the little baby plant that is growing from the rhizome above. We are still waiting on the other leaf to sprout a baby, but it’s looking good!

Discussion

There is SO MUCH science going on here, it’s crazy. I’ll go through some highlights.

  • This is an asexual process so your new plant and old plant will have the same DNA. Propagation through cuttings is a form of plant cloning. I think this is what they did with Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy II 😉
  • You want the medium that you put the cuttings into to be non-nutritive to discourage pathogen growth. I’ve also read that you don’t want the plant to take up any nutrients to discourage leaf growth and encourage root growth (so it’ll send roots out searching for more nutritive soil).
  • You want the cutting to be big enough that it can still get some energy from photosynthesis, but small enough that it’s stressed to encourage root growth. Four to six inches seems to be the sweet spot for snake plants.
  • Rooting hormone! Although many plants may still root without it, using rooting hormone will up your chances of success. Most commercial rooting hormones are indole-3-butyric acid.
    • Hormones are molecules that cells and tissues use to communicate. In this case, it signals plants to grow roots.
    • Stem cells (not talking about cells in the stem of plants, confusing, I know) are special cells that can form other types of cells. The process of a stem cell becoming a specific type of cell is called differentiation. Plants, humans, and all animals began from stem cells differentiating. In the stems of plants, there are partially differentiated stem cells (Stem cells in stems! They couldn’t think of a different word here?!) that when stimulated, will start differentiating down the path to create more root cells. The injury from cutting the plant is stimulus enough to start this process, but you can help it along by using rooting hormone.

For Kids

We all know the “seed in a ziplock bag in the window” project to begin to teach kids about plants, but there are so many other educational and fulfilling projects to do with them. Having them join in with typical houseplant or garden chores is a great way to teach them about plants, responsibility, and pride in your work (and also handling frustration when 80% of your cuttings die). It is also a great way to encourage a love and appreciation of plants, and to fight plant blindness! Snake plants are a great place to start because they are easy to propagate and hard to kill.

For this project, you want to make sure your child knows the main parts of a plant (roots, stem, leaves). It can be as simple as:

  • Roots get nutrients from the soil
  • Leaves make energy (carbohydrates) from sunlight through photosynthesis
  • Stems help deliver nutrients and carbohydrates throughout the plant.

The snake plant is a little confusing because the stem isn’t obvious, but it’s good to learn about the vast variation in plant life.

Depending on their age and science background, you can introduce some of the concepts above, like stem cells or how cells use molecules (the rooting hormone) to communicate. This is an easy yet powerful project that highlights some key concepts about plants and life.

Check out PlantsGoGlobal.com for more information and ideas about plants!

Sources:

http://growingthehomegarden.com/2009/05/sand-vs-soil-for-propagation.html

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/houseplants/snake-plant/snake-plant-propagation.htm

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Microscope Discovery Sheet for Sensory Bins

Use this free STEM printable to let your child play a fun microscope game while they are pretending to be a scientist! Perfect for preschool to elementary science programs, this is a fun, safe, and creative way to introduce the world of microbes to a child. It’s basically using a drinking glass to see through murky water to visualize the “microbes” below. The set up is simple and this can be combined with several other activities outlined below to keep them engaged and curious. The printable contains microbe illustrations from Baby Medical School: Bacteria and Antibiotics, an adorable introduction to the microscopic world.

Materials

  • Clear plastic bin (or glass casserole dish if you dare)
  • Drinking glass
  • Water with suds or paint mixed in to make it opaque
  • Baby Medical School: Bacteria printable

Procedure

  1. Print out the bacteria printable
  2. Place it under the clear plastic bin.
  3. Fill the bin about an inch with water then mix a little tempera paint mixed in so the water becomes opaque. White paint plus any other color worked the best to make it cloudy for us.
  4. Add a clear, flat bottomed drinking glass to the bin. You should be able to slide the glass around to find the various bacteria.
  5. Describe what bacteria and microscopes are to your kid (see below), then let them at it!

How to explain bacteria and microscopes to your kids: Bacteria are tiny, itsy bitsy things that we can’t see with our eye but are very important. We have bacteria all over us and inside us. Sometimes we get a bad bacteria that makes us sick, but usually the bacteria that live with us work with our body to keep us healthy. There are also bacteria all around us, both indoors and outdoors. Scientist study bacteria to learn how they work, how some can make us sick, and how some can help us. A microscope is an important tool scientists use to study bacteria. It helps them see the tiny little things to learn more about them.

Ways to Play

  • Start playing after you read Bacteria and Antibiotics (Baby Medical School), available on Amazon!
  • Just have them search around a see what they find!
  • Make a game out of it and take turns closing your eyes and sliding the cup somewhere. If you land on a good bacteria (happy faces), you get a point. If you land on a bad bacteria (angry face), you don’t get a point.
  • Set up some cups in another bin next to this one with watered-down paint that they can color mix, suds, or even vinegar and baking soda to play and experiment with. Then have them dump their concoction into the bacteria discovery bin to pretend to check it with the microscope.
  • Have them describe the features of the bacteria they see (colors, spots, etc)

Free Printable

Copy and save this JPG! Please feel free to use this for personal use but please contact me if you would like to distribute it. Enjoy!

Snippets of Science: Glowing Pumpkin Seeds (pepitas) and Protochlorophyllide

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Pepitas, the inside of pumpkin seeds, fluoresce under UV light! It is a stunning coral orange color. This photo doesn’t quite do it justice. The compound causing the fluorescence is protochlorophillide, a precursor to chlorophyll. (Chlorophyll is also fluorescent under UV light, but it glows a deep red.)

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Chlorophyll biosynthesis

The seeds themselves have a slight glow if you shine a black light on them but in my picture at the top, they are crushed with isopropanol (rubbing alcohol), which solubilizes the pigment.  We found this fluorescence by mistake actually. Several things in your pantry fluoresce under UV light (like honey, canola oil, tonic water, and peanut butter) and my daughter and I were scanning our shelves for other surprises. Sure enough we saw a faint glow on some of the hulled pumpkin seeds. I did a little research online and found out about protochlorophyllide. We also saw a similar glow from brown rice that was slightly green on the edge and I wonder if it’s the same molecule!

Sources:

Chlorophyll biosynthesis: spotlight on protochlorophyllide reduction

6 STEM Book Gift Pairings for Babies: A gift guide

Some of the best gifts for babies are books. They help their big eyes focus, help them learn about the world, and expose them to new words every day. Below, find some fun gifts to pair with some of this year’s most popular science books for babies!

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The product links below are affiliate links, buying from them will earn me a small amount of money with no extra cost to you. I appreciate your patronage! Also, I wrote some of the books included below so that’s a bit of a conflict of interest 😉


1. The Atomic Baby

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Nuclear Physics for Babies written by Chris Ferrie and Cara Florance (me!) uses colorful balls to explain the concept of radioactivity. Babies all over the world have been captivated by the Baby University series’ bold simplicity. To go with the theme, hone those fine motor skills and soothe sore gums with Manhattan Toy’s Atom Rattle & Grasper and the Winkel Rattle and Sensory Teether Toy which are both inspired by atomic models.


2. The Atmospheric Baby

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The sky and weather always grab my baby’s attention, and I describe the current atmospheric conditions to her just as something to talk about. If you or a baby in your life also pine for precipitation, this pairing is for you. Weather is part of Jillian McDonald’s beautiful and brightly colored series Hello, World! and would go perfectly with the wildly popular Grimm’s wooden Rainbow Stacker in 6-piece or 12-Piece. (Also available in pastel colors.)


3. The Microbial Baby

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There is a world all around (and on, and in!) us that young ones obviously can’t fathom, but if you or the parents have a tendency for teeny things, look no further. Bacteria and Antibiotics is an adorable introduction to the good and the bad of the microscopic world and also begins to teach about antibiotic medicines. The bright colors and expressive faces on the various bacteria will be sure to engage any baby. Pair this book with any of the adorably ridiculous plush GIANTmicrobes, including E. coliMRSA, or the 4-Pack of the common cold, stomach ache, sore throat, and penicillin for some tactile and fine-motor fun.


4. The Chemistry Baby

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Organic Chemistry for Babies, by Chris Ferrie and Cara Florance, explains carbon’s amazing ability to make a vast amount of molecular shapes. Interlocking Building Disks from EMIDO are great toys to go with this concept. They can lock together to build endless shapes, and are also great for little fingers to grab and mouths to chew.


5. The Gravitational Baby

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This lucky theme has two wonderful books to chose from (or just get both!), Baby Loves Gravity! by Ruth Spiro and General Relativity for Babies by Chris Ferrie. What better toy to let a baby learn about gravity than balls. We have had the set in the link since my first daughter was born and they have been a staple in our home.


6. The Space Baby

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The adorable new release, 8 Little Planets by Chris Ferrie, takes you on a rhyming tour of our solar system explaining the features that make each planet special. Uncle Goose Planet Blocks are beautiful, high quality toys that pair nicely with this book.


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Book Spotlight: The Baby Biochemist: DNA

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The Baby Biochemist: DNA is Volume 1 of The Baby Biochemist series. This best seller takes you and your kids on a tour of the teeny-tiny inner-workings of your body. The book explains what DNA does, what it looks like, and where it comes from! It is a fun and easy introduction to the world of biochemistry and a great springboard for activities like extracting your DNA!

Take a peek inside then buy on Amazon or select local bookstores!

The Best Black Slime Recipe Ever

For the most perfect black slime recipe ever, look no further! Say goodbye to grit and residue with this amazing deep dark goop!

Materials

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Procedure

  1. In one bowl, dissolve 1/2 tsp of borax into 1/2 cup of hot water.
  2. In the other bowl, mix 1/4 cup of glue with 1/4 cup water.
  3. A tsp at a time, mix 4-6 tsp of activated charcoal into the glue/water mixture. It won’t mix in at first, but just keep stirring, it will eventually mix in! Just a minute or so of stirring. Stop adding when it’s black enough for you. Mix until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add 12 tsp borax solution to the glue mixture a teaspoon at a time while stirring. This slow addition of the borax ensures a super smooth slime without the need for lots of kneading. You will know when to stop adding when all of the black glue mixture is in the ball of slime and there is none left in a puddle at the bottom of the bowl.
  5. Pick up the glob and fold and squish a few times. You’re done! After you’re finished playing with it, store it in an air tight container. If it feels gooey after a few days, add a little more borax solution till you get the consistency you like. We think this gradual goo-ing might be due to the activated charcoal absorbing some of the borax (see below for what borax does!).

Discussion

The glue contains a long molecule called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). It is a polymer, which is a molecule that contains repeats of a subunit molecule (for example, “A” is a subunit and “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” is a polymer of A). Borax (sodium tetraborate) is a small molecule that can stick to parts of the PVA through hydrogen bonds. One side of the borate molecule can stick to one strand of PVA, while the other side of the borate can also stick to a different strand of PVA, creating a bridge between the two PVA strands. This is called crosslinking.

Having many crosslinking sites usually makes a polymer more rigid, but the interesting thing about borate/PVA crosslinking is that the bond is transient, meaning it can easily break and reform somewhere else. This causes the slime to act kind of like a liquid and kind of like a solid. If given time, the PVA can ‘flow’ as gravity pulls and breaks the borate/PVA crosslinks. It acts like a slime instead of a true liquid because as the PVA molecules pass by more borate, they can momentarily bond to borate and another strand of PVA, slowing down the flow. If you pull the slime fast, you break all those bonds quickly, allowing the slime to act like a solid momentarily.

This dark black slime is perfect for Halloween. Throw some googly eyes, plastic spiders, or confetti in there for hours of fun!