Consed or not consed…that is the question.

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2013-06-25 12.54.45

Pink DNA sequencer at the Genomics Institute in St. Louis.

Once upon a time, in my grad school years, I used to do a lot of microscopy of the fancier kind. At some point, that involved taking care of a deconvolution microscope and the associated Silicon Graphics computer running on Unix. I wanted to be prepared to handle that beast, so I talked to a fellow nerd, who recommended learning Linux. For a few months, I battled with Linux- I installed Red Hat, typed into terminal windows, and learned several commands. It helped a bit when the big machine arrived, but it was not really necessary, so I stopped trying. However, I did notice that it was a skill that impressed certain people.

That pride came rushing back today when we were introduced to Consed, one of the programs dedicated to sequence finishing. It needs to be started from a terminal window typing commands, so we received a short intro about Unix, and I felt pleased that I knew how to do it. It is one of those examples of pieces of knowledge acquired along the way of life.

Today we started officially the second part of the workshop. In the morning we had some free time to practice annotation, which was good. While there is still a long way to go, I could feel that I was getting more comfortable with the thinking behind the analysis, and my speed was hampered only by not remembering which link I had to click on to get the DNA sequence, or the predicted sequence, or whatever piece of information needed. The consensus of the group was that students will need some intense and extensive time to learn the system.

Screen shot 2013-06-25 at 3.18.33 PM

Consed screenshot.

Consed was introduced after we were given a tour of the Genomics Institution, an amazing building with amazing machinery and even more amazing science. We saw the famous pink sequencer, dedicated to the breast cancer genome project. We learned of all the projects the center is involved with, and the gigabytes of information generated weekly through next generation sequencing. Then we were introduced to Consed, and a group of young wizards gave a tutorial about how do they improve the raw sequences.

It was a whirlwind of windows to open, alignments, tracings, tags, comparisons, and decisions to make. However, the program is so visual, that after a while it became almost pleasing to solve the problems with the DNA sequences. Not sure why, maybe because it is more straightforward, but most of us in the group expressed they felt better today than yesterday.

The day flew by again- I get some exercise through a quick morning run in the Forest Park (a joy), otherwise the day is dedicated to work, work, work, with lots of food to sustain us; but we joke about the amount of glucose that we must spend with brain work in the cold cold air conditioned computer room! And it is time to go to sleep again- tomorrow is the last day!

2013-06-25 06.04.41

Sunrise over Forest Park.

Don’t believe everything you see or Blast

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The Gateway Arch, according to my camera.

I was too tired last night to update the blog. After another intense day of annotation, discussions, and lectures, we did the must-do touristy thing in St. Louis: visiting the Gateway Arch. It was an impressive view, and then we had some fun in the group squeezing in the small trams resembling space capsules. From the top, the view was amazing, but a bit of a letdown as the windows were so small and the glass not so clean, so the pictures did not turn out stellar. While waiting in line, I played with the stitching feature of my new Nexus 4 phone. I love my phone, and I love the camera, but trying to pan a geometrically defined and narrow structure with unsteady hands standing in line was not easy. The picture you see here is one of my attempts to capture the magnificence of the structure.

The resulting picture connects directly to the message conveyed in the second day of the workshop, still dedicated to annotation: don’t believe everything the programs tell you.

We kept working on our sandbox projects, getting them ready for submission. In the meantime, we listened to presentations by GEP students, GEP faculty, and the usual lunch lecture by Sally Elgin. Every time we have a lecture, the computers in the room become shared, stopping us from use them in the meantime. While this system probably help people to concentrate on the presentation at hand instead of working with the sequence, it does limit sharing and updating. I keep my laptop open while taking notes in Endnote, and know better than to open any page other than the GEP, Flybase, or Blast 🙂

With some practice, the mechanics of annotation become easier, and eventually it becomes almost like a game. We were warned several times to not forget or let students forget science when looking at the results. We had a good lecture explaining how Blast works, and all the possible pitfalls of believing Blast too much, as the algorithm does its miscalculations. The value of RNA ref sequences was also discussed (may be for real or may be noise, depending on the quality of work, which end of the sequence it belongs to, or simply the kind of sequence it is). We got to know another database, Blat, and we were ushered back to look really closely to the sequence and THINK about what do those sequences actually mean in the evolutionary context.

The information overload continued with Sally Elgin’s lecture about the Drosophila chromosome 4 and its unique characteristics of having 80 genes (in melanogaster) in spite of having a prominent heterochromatin nature. There was an optional activity regarding chimpanzee sequences called Chimp Chunks, but I preferred to stay in the computer lab and fight my way through another sequence with multiple isoforms. The majority of participants I talked to expressed they felt better with annotation, but they thought they would dedicate some more time to annotate in the sandbox before moving on.

Today we get started with finishing, which seems rather intimidating. I hope to update with more info and links later on, but I need to rush for morning practice now. Until next time!

Annotation Day

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A screenshot from today's annotation.

A screenshot from today’s annotation.

Well, it is almost 11 pm and I am catching up with emails and blog posting at the hotel lobby. As Sally promised, the day was indeed intense. Once inside the computer lab of the Biology building, we sat down facing shiny large Apple displays (all analysis takes place on Macintosh computers, to some chagrin of the PC-only crowd) and started to crank. Actually we started with an intro lecture about annotation of Drosophila species, which is the first powerpoint here. This particular project is based on Drosophila, a model organism that I have never touched in my life except for illustration of some classic genetics concepts and experiments. But the way the project is designed, the workflow is applicable to other systems. We were given a basic annotation workflow suggestion:

  1. Identify the likely ortholog in D. melanogaster
  2. Determine the gene structure of the ortholog
  3. Map each exon of ortholog to the project sequence
  4. Use BLASTX to identify conserved region
    • note position and frame
  5. Use these data to construct a gene model
    • Identify exact start and stop base position for each CDS
  6. Use the Gene Model Checker to verify the gene model
  7. For each additional isoform, repeat steps 2-5

So we claimed fosmids containing genomic sequences from different Drosophila species,and started to play. The Gene Browser used is a mirror of the UCSC gene browser, once we get the alignment, we start to map the genes.

For me, newbie as I am to the whole business, it was amazing how real things become, once you are actually using the information to achieve a goal. For example, the realization that a piece of DNA has indeed 6 ways to be read, depending on the reading frame. That introns indeed exist and have to match the beginning and the end showing the donor (GT) and acceptor (AG) sequences. That codons can be interrupted by introns and one has to check, zooming in deep to the nucleotide level, that it is completed afterward. But as many said, the gamelike feeling of the beginning should be promptly corrected with the deep science behind those sequences. The biology, the conservation, the function of genes and the proteins they encode, are all aspects to be considered when annotating DNA.

I felt profound empathy with my students today. How many times, after going over some deep and complicated topic, I would give them 5 minutes to discuss and practice, and then move on to the next topic? I realize now how important is to pause, and give students time to go over the motions, to practice and just be able to process the information. Luckily we had breaks, and sometimes I just had to politely shoo away the helpful TAs. I needed time for myself, to try to do it on my own, and then ask questions.

There were discussions of many aspects of annotation today, how to handle gene families, repeats, and even transposable elements. I took notes, and asked questions. Luckily, I did not beat myself up choosing a too complicated assignment- I chose a relatively easy one, which gave me some satisfaction. I guess after some years brushing with teaching faculty I learned about scaffolding 🙂 Tomorrow will be another day…

The night ended (after dinner) with a discussion of possible ways of implementation. Many ideas were offered, from research courses to research retreats, or even modules in lower and upper level classes. My reflection was about how to incorporate this into a molecular bio or even gen bio class from day 0- start looking at real sequences from the moment the concepts are introduced. Maybe too steep a learning curve? I will have to think about a good strategy to implement. On the other hand, it could be part of an arc of application to the different levels of biological concepts from gene to protein.

And this is all for today, dear readers…am fading. Good night!

“No rest for the wicked…

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and the righteous don’t need it!”


Washington University in St. Louis

With those words ended Sally Elgin’s presentation last night kicking off the GEP workshop. After few hours of sleep, getting up at 4 am,and flying to St. Louis, my brain foggily registered that some very intense days were in front of the group. However, it is such an exciting possibility, especially by the combination of learning some cutting edge research techniques at such a prestigious university, together with a group of educators coming from a variety of schools, mostly small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and like myself, a private non-profit. Even after such a short time we discussed similar issues: few resources, lots of courses to teach, a a strong desire to share with our students the experience and joy of research.

I am writing this at the breakfast table, in a hurry- we are heading for a full day of computer work with annotation, so I am not sure how much and how quickly I will be able to write. But for now, visit the course material page, from where most of the materials we will be using are.

Will be back soon!

The Science of “Chunking,” Working Memory, and How Pattern Recognition Fuels Creativity | Brain Pickings

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Hippocampal areas predict math performance?

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Hippocampal areas predict math performance?

Well, seems like wherever I look these days, there is a reference to the hippocampus. In my previous post I referred to a recent article about hippocampal neural generation in adults, and now this article says that “(…) improvement of arithmetic problem solving in children aged 8-9 years old in the context of a math tutoring program depends on particular pre-tutoring anatomical and neurophysiological features. In particular, the pre-tutoring volume of the hippocampus and the intrinsic functional connectivity of the hippocampus with dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices predict performance improvement in math. No behavioral measures, including psychometric intelligence, working memory, or mathematical abilities, predict performance improvements after math tutoring.”

That same Science magazine issue had an article about the effect of fetal conditions (obviously linked to the life of the mother, stress level, nutrition etc) on a variety of outcomes. So far the evidence is strenuous and the main effects seen are related to metabolic pathologies (type 2 diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance). But I just have to wonder how the development of the hippocampus is affected by maternal conditions.

As I am not familiar with neither neurobiology nor  K12 research, would love to hear your insight on this!

Hippocampus overload.

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painting of a seahorse

Hippocampus means seahorse. This painting is by my friend Alex Lago, former college classmate turned artist.

Yesterday I stumbled upon this article in Science magazine. I thought it was very clever how the presence of higher levels of C14 due to the surface nuclear explosions between 1945 and 1963 helped determining that adult neurogenesis takes place in the brain. The area where this rather robust formation of new neurons takes place is the hippocampus. Quote: (…) a subpopulation of neurons renews consistently and continually, whereas another population is nonrenewing. Spalding et al. estimate that one-third of adult hippocampal neurons are turning over. This amounts to 700 new neurons added per day, for an annual turnover rate of 1.75% (or 0.004% of dentate gyrus neurons). This turnover rate was not significantly different between men and women and declined only modestly with age.

Hippocampus! I had just read about the hippocampus in Chapter 5. This is an important brain structure required for the formation of explicit memories, those that we are conscious of. Implicit memories, albeit not conscious, may be powerful and motivated by feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. Explicit memories can be semantic (facts, labels, names etc) and episodic (basically stories- more likely to contain errors, even when we think we remember them well).

The authors of the Science article state: Adult neurogenesis in this region might add a particular functionality not achievable by other types of plasticity. By staying “forever young,” the dentate gyrus could command unique solutions to computational problems only found in the brain region central to learning, memory, and many higher cognitive functions considered essential for humans.

Well, that was cool to read. I went back to Zull’s book to finish the chapter. He talks about the  connection between hippocampus and both centers of pleasure (such as basal ganglia) and the amygdala. It adds to the idea of learning framed within emotions and feelings, and how factors such as stress and PTSD can affect memories through hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Low levels of stress may enhance long-term memory, while chronic stress may damage the memory centers through the action of cortisol.

The final reflection is about how, at the end of the day, everything is connected. Rote memorization is helped by feelings or other associated memories, and having the memory of concrete facts or dates may help remember a story easier.

Frequent Players Of Video Games “See The World Differently”

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Frequent Players Of Video Games “See The World Differently”

This is interesting. I have been thinking for a while about engaging students who are gamers and get their feedback and ideas about online course design. On the other hand, this is obviously heavily tilted toward visual learners. Still, interesting 🙂

Memories, feelings, and learning: entering Ch. 5 of Changing the Brain

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Orange bike on Windansea Beach in La Jolla, CA. Overexposed and then photoshopped to make it slightly psychedelic. Somehow it felt fitting for this article, mixing reason and emotion.

Apologies if you saw a draft published- I was sitting on a very long graduation ceremony and was making notes on my smartphone, and then clicked on an icon I thought was “save” but it was “publish.” Some scrambling ensued. I am writing now from my laptop.

As I advance deeper into the book, I feel myself more and more engaged.  It reads almost like a detective novel, slowly and steadily unraveling the mechanics of the brain, easily combining biological descriptions of anatomical structures with personal stories of students and colleagues, as well as reflections about teaching and learning.
Chapter 5, titled  A feeling of this business, starts with a personal story about a biology professor who insisted in incorporating math into his biology classes, something very logical that did not earn him popularity among students. That hit home-much has been said how the lack of math and physics in biology education has damaged the future experts of the discipline. But what really hit home was a comment of this professor: that when asked by a student how did he know what to do to solve an equation, he couldn’t answer. “I cannot really explain…I just feel it.” And this is something I often feel: a sense of what is the right way of doing something. Often it becomes almost artistic- a sense of balance or something aesthetically pleasing. When designing an experiment, for instance, positive and negative controls line up with the samples in a matrix that is not only scientifically sound, but also complete in the artistic sense. There are no overhangs or holes.

Zull goes on explaining how emotions and feelings, although similarly sounding, are not the same. Basically, emotions become feelings when we become conscious of them. He cites William James’ example of meeting a bear: emotions transmitted by the amygdala make you run like hell, but it is only later when we feel the fear. Which makes perfect sense. The few times in my life when I have been in direct danger I acted coolly, and fear came only later.

After this there is a section dedicated to the hypothalamus- the center of homeostasis in our brain, but also a center of control, which, upon receiving signals from the limbic system (fear, particularly) is able to release hormones and other cellular mediators to act in our body. Typical example is the adrenalin rush, the classic flight or fight response of the sympathetic nervous system.

What I really like is how Zull’s book jumps from the descriptions of brain structures back to teaching scenarios. How do we know if a certain fact is true? In a way, it is a feeling– and if that feeling if certainty is challenged, we feel fear, so we try to prove we are right- and the more we do it the more confident we feel. And so we learn.

I hope you realize that I am reading this book slowly, because I am writing about it, so I need to be able to paraphrase and summarize it. Along the way, associations pop up, ideas blossom, and I get distracted in the good way, but then find my way back to the book. It is a great intellectual experience, which I am able to do because I am on a week vacation away from home. I will stop now, as this requires some processing before moving on.

As for the Gettysburg address memorization project, I just hit sentence #6. “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” I am absolutely blown away by the usage of words in this speech. It plows forward, inexorably, with s sense of purpose and no distractions. Amazing writing.

Be back tomorrow.

The Art of Changing the Brain: Ch.4 we are lifetime learners if motivated



Skiing has been one of my latest sports to try, in spite of my fear of heights and my dislike of cold. Pure intrinsic motivation from my part 🙂

I took a day break after finishing chapter 3 of the Changing the Brain book, with the idea of a balance between the different parts of the brain that need to be stimulated for effective learning. This morning, as I started reading chapter 4, I had to smile as it delved into several topics I have been reading about recently. One had to do with the primitive survival mechanisms of the brain based on fear and pleasure. The example for the second was sugar, of which I learned recently a lot from the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody interested in healthy eating and the role of big food corporations in contributing to the epidemic of obesity. The other topic was about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, which was much discussed as part of the Gamification MOOC I took some months ago. My positive view of the MOOCs is very much due to the excellent experience of taking that course.

But I am digressing. Zull winds his way in this chapter from the structures of the brain “in charge” of survival mechanisms, such as the limbic system for pleasure/fear, and the neocortex for more advanced mechanisms involving understanding and control. After describing the structures of the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, the site of “fear,” and the ‘septum,” of pleasure, he discusses how emotions can affect learning (positively or negatively). Note: Zull simplifies (on purpose) the description of brain areas and their associated functions, and I am not focusing too much on it either, so for a better description of these structures it is better to use a more detailed source. It all connects with the feeling of being in control of the learning process, which is more pronounced when the motivation is intrinsic (true interest, emotional connection) than extrinsic (rewards such as a high GPA). Movement (even anticipated or imaginary) bring pleasure to the learning process, leading to the idea that active learning is more engaging than passive learning. The chapter closes where it started, the idea that learning is a continuous process modulated by wants, needs, and emotions. and therefore it is our trade and art…paraphrasing de Montaigne, my trade and my art is living.

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