biology

How to Kick-Start Your Bird-Watching Hobby From Home

Look up! While you were stirring up a tweetstorm on your phone, real (non)human drama was unfolding among the original tweeters—that’s right, the birds. Cooper’s hawks are in hot pursuit of pigeons through the Berkeley canopy. A consortium of bushtits gather on the sidewalk, and a black phoebe lands pensively on your fence post. 

What’s the Big Deal? Experts Unpack the Coronavirus Outbreak

Listen to the news and you may fear a plague or a zombie outbreak. A cruise ship off Japan’s coast has been quarantined with nearly 3,700 passengers. Its American passengers were just evacuated, including 14 infected with the virus. In Wuhan, China, the very doctor who tried, unsuccessfully, to warn people about the disease, is now dead.

Lab Notes: A New Class Brings CRISPR to the People

The announcement came in June. Berkeley Extension, the continuing education arm of UC Berkeley, was offering its first-ever introductory courseCRISPR Genome Editing: From Biology to Technology—on the revolutionary new tool that allows scientists to make precise edits in the genome. A lab and lecture course on CRISPR for anyone who has the interest (and money) to enroll? What a crazy idea. It seemed a bit like offering a workshop on how to enrich plutonium.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Meet CRISPR: Humanity’s Shiny New Tool

One of biology’s wilder facts is that we’re all family. You and me, sure, but also me and a mushroom. Triceratops shared genes with you. So does the virus that makes you cough, and a rosebush. Bacteria left us on the tree of life around 2.7 billion years ago, but the wet world they came from is still ours: One code runs all of life. The same proteins that imprint memories in your neurons, for example, do so in octopi, ravens, and sea slugs. This genetic conservation means tricks from one species can be hijacked. If you stick a jellyfish gene in a monkey, it’ll glow green.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Intolerable Genius: Berkeley’s Most Controversial Nobel Laureate

IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 the senior scientists of Cetus Corp., a Berkeley biotech company, found themselves in a bind. One of their employees, a promising young scientist named Kary Mullis, had dreamed up a technique to exponentially replicate tiny scraps of DNA. He called it polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and if it worked it would change the world and likely earn Cetus a mountain of money. The only problem was Mullis was an interpersonal wrecking ball.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

An Incurable Infection Is on the Rise. A Vaccine Remains Elusive.

Sherry D. Martinez thought she had the flu. The then-45-year-old had all the usual symptoms—fever, fatigue, sore joints—and then some. When it became difficult to breathe, a doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia and sent her home with antibiotics. A few days later, bumps appeared on Martinez’s skin. When she scratched at them, they oozed. Her doctor put her on stronger antibiotics, but still her condition worsened. She developed a rash and severe eye pain.

From the Summer 2019 issue of California.

Molecules of Life: Seeing the Way to Longer, Healthier Living

The Breakthrough

Researchers at Berkeley have produced the first detailed picture of the molecular structure of human telomerase, an enzyme that plays key roles in both the repair of aging cells and the endless cellular rejuvenation typical of cancers. Berkeley biology professors Kathleen Collins and Eva Nogales published their discovery, complete with 3D images, in the journal Nature in April.

The Background

From the Summer 2018 Our Town issue of California.

Nobelist Randy Schekman Is Not Resting on His Laurels

When Randy Schekman looks up from his computer screen, which he now spends more time staring at than petri dishes, his eyes sometimes fall on a faded copy of Cell displayed nearby. The issue is dated June 17, 1994, and the cover depicts a swarm of magnified vesicles—tiny sacs that transport molecules inside cells—resembling a crowd of miniature suns.

From the Fall 2016 The Greatest Show On Earth issue of California.

American Mastadon: Did Forests Edge Out Megafauna, Or the Other Way Around?

Why does North America have so many trees and so few elephants?

One of the many mysteries in the fossil record is the late-Quaternary extinction, that wholesale shift of plant and animal life as the Ice Age ended at the close of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene, a die-off that included about half of the world’s large-bodied animals. Forests grew up, and into the tar pit went the saber-tooth tiger, giant horses, five-ton sloths, and honking big mammoths and mastodons.

From the Spring 2016 War Stories issue of California.
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