All About Georgia OTTers

The otter is an amphibious mammal that can be found throughout the United States and other regions of the world. The good news is that these cute animals can be found in our home, Georgia. History reveals that the North American river otter (Lutra canadensis) is an amphibious playful member of the weasel family as are the mink and sea otter. The fur color of a river otter can be described as a dark brown to almost black.

In the United States, many states have experienced a gradual decline in the river otter populations in time. Despite this, otters are resilient creatures, as they were almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800’s, due to their luxurious fur. However, in the year 1911 the “International Fur Seal Treaty” banned the sale of otter fur. This period, in which fur trade was happening internationally, caused otters to be hunted almost to extinction.

Today, Georgia’s river otter population continues to remain fairly widespread throughout much of the state. These otters love to hunt, play, and sleep in rivers or streams in Georgia. The river otter thrives throughout the state of Georgia, including areas throughout north Georgia where its populations were once at risk for diminishing. A main factor that influences the population of river otters is pollution. For instance, in areas where water is very polluted there is a more limited otter population. Like many animals, the river otter abundance is directly dependent on habitat quality and availability. Otters will create dens with lots of vegetation present in various locations, such as near waterways, and these dens function to protect them from flooding or even protect from predators (Malzahn, Caven & Wiese, 2020).

In Georgia, there are several local places where residents and visitors have the chance to see river otters up close. The Georgia Aquarium is a wonderful place to see, interact, and even feed otters! This is a unique opportunity for individuals to touch, feed, and talk to sea otters with a professional trainer. Also, “The North Georgia Wildlife Park and Zoo” offers an interactive experience that is great to learn and see our native Georgia river otter. There are different experience options that include Otter Splash, Otter Experience, and VIP Otter Experience. Both of these places offer a great opportunity to learn more about river otters and how they behave in their natural habitats.

Facts about the River Otter

Resources

Malzahn, J. M., Caven, A. J., & Wiese, J. D. (2020). Characteristics of a river otter (Lontra canadensis) maternal den in the central Platte River Valley, NE.

What is Informed Consent?

Informed consent is the process of obtaining a patient’s or participant’s permission prior to conducting a medical procedure or investigation on said person. It involves ensuring that the participant completely comprehends and agrees to the potential consequences of any procedures that they will undergo. Examples include, a health care provider asking their patient to consent to a surgical procedure before providing it, or a psychologist discussing information about the study with a future research participant prior to enrolling them into an experimental study. As such, informed consent is collected according to guidelines from the fields of medical ethics and research ethics, and centers around the protection of patient welfare and security.

When a healthcare provider recommends specific medical care, the provider must clearly outline all aspects of a given procedure to the patient, who has the option to agree to the entire proceeding or only parts of it. Beforehand, the patient must complete and sign a consent form, which serves as a legal document of agreement and participation. This form will most often contain essential information regarding a procedure, such as the name of the patient’s condition, the form of intervention that the provider recommends, risks and benefits of said intervention, as well as the risks and benefits of any other options (including not conducting the intervention). In order for consent to be properly given, the patient must have received all information about potential treatments, understood the information, had a chance to ask questions, used the information to decide if they wish to receive the recommended treatment options, and agreed to receive some or all of the treatment options. Only in completing these essential steps can informed consent be satisfactorily given in a medical context.

Meanwhile, the main purpose of clinical trials is to study new medical products in people. As such, informed consent for research or clinical trials is also required, as newly-developed medical products may contain unforeseen side effects or risks. It is therefore important for those considering participation in a clinical trial to understand their role as a research subject rather than a patient, allowing them to make educated decisions about their participation in a study. Participants must be informed about what will be done to them, how the research will proceed, what risks or discomforts they may experience, and that their participation is a completely voluntary decision. A potential research subject must also have had the opportunity to read the consent form, ask questions about anything they do not understand, and have had a sufficient amount of time to make an informed decision.

The processes for healthcare and research are similar in nature, with both having three main ideas that must be fulfilled in order for an individual to have given valid informed consent:

  1. Disclosure. The provider has supplied the subject with the information necessary to make an autonomous decision.
  2. Capacity. The subject has both understood the information provided and formed a reasonable judgment based on the potential consequences of their decision.
  3. Voluntariness. The subject has made an autonomous decision without being subjected to unfair external pressures.

In general, informed consent can only be given by adults who are capable of making their own medical decisions. Children and those who are unable to make their own medical decisions, such as individuals with mental disabilities, must have their informed consent given by a parent, guardian, or other surrogate: individuals who are legally responsible for making decisions on that person’s behalf. The duty of obtaining informed consent for participation within a research study by children, who are unable to provide full consent themselves, is endowed in the parents or guardians, who are thought to have the best interests of the child in mind. Issues can often arise, nonetheless. For instance, there is data supporting that informed consent for research by adults for themselves is often faulty, associated with a poor comprehension of the voluntary nature of study participation, or the meaning of language used in the trial, as well as other issues.

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have been put in place by the FDA to preserve the rights of human subjects in biomedical research. An IRB has the ability to review research and can request modifications, approve, and disapprove research to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the research’s subjects. However, an IRB is also able to grant complete waivers of informed consent in the case of research on medical records if it is not practical to obtain consent and as long as there are appropriate guidelines in place to protect the sensitive information. With institutions that serve as “learning healthcare systems,” such as Emory, people may be involved in research that will serve to benefit society, without knowing which studies their records are being utilized for specifically. However, the patient is able to request a record of all disclosures of their HIPAA-protected information for research purposes at any time.

One of the only exceptions to informed consent is in the context of medical emergencies, when a decision must be made urgently and the patient or their surrogate is unable to partake in decision making. Under such circumstances, physicians may initiate treatment without prior informed consent. Even then, the physician should seek to inform the patient or surrogate at the earliest opportunity and obtain consent for ongoing treatment in order to maintain ethical standards.

Overall, informed consent is a procedure that protects patients and participants from undergoing procedures that they may not completely understand nor agree to. Through the key points of disclosure, capacity, and voluntariness, informed consent can also protect individuals from potential mistreatment or falsified information. As a result, the process of informed consent ultimately plays a vital role in medical and research ethics, allowing for more transparency in operations that continue to improve our society and world.

Further Resources

An Introduction to OTTers

Otters

The otter is a resilient and fascinating animal that can be found throughout the United States, as well as throughout most continents. Otters can be found all over the world, from Asia to Alaska, these animals are globally loved. Their scientific name is Mustelidae. This adorable animal is a member of the weasel family, yet they are the only one within the family that can swim. Otters are described as tiny, with short ears, lengthened bodies, and very soft fur. These charming otters are small animals that average about four feet in length and can weigh up to 30 pounds. There have been 13 identified species in total of the otter. Otters live primarily on land that is very close to bodies of water, as they are amphibious. Their fur is dense and soft, and this remains important, as it can play a large role in insulating these animals when they are in water.

Environmental Impact and Otters

It is important to acknowledge that the environment’s health has a direct relationship to the health of many animals, including the otter. Today, many otter populations are still at risk! More importantly, as countries become industrialized, the wildlife can slowly but surely disappear (Duplaix & Savage, 2020). The history of the otter is very unique, because due to their luxurious fur, these animals were trapped, killed, and illegally sold throughout continents. These issues caused otters to have a period of major population loss during the 1960s and 1970s, paired with a slow-growing population recovery (Mason, & Macdonald, 2009).

How Otters Use Tools to Eat

Otters often use tools to eat, and it is important to note that the otter is an expert hunter. Otters are very innovative creatures and are one of the few animals that will use tools to obtain food. Their diet can vary depending on the season; however, they are considered opportunistic predators and thrive on fish. Despite their diet mainly being fish, this doesn’t stop otters from forming dens and adapting to their natural habitat. In fact, sea otters are able to open mussels by smashing them on stones. Click this link to see sea otters eating! Otter habitats can vary based on the species, but these animals thrive in both land and water.

Resources:

  • Duplaix, N., & Savage, M. (2020). The global otter conservation strategy. eScholarship, University of California.

  • Mason, C. F., & Macdonald, S. M. (2009). Otters: ecology and conservation. Cambridge University Press.

How Intellectual Property Gave Rise to the Film Industry

Documenting the history of the film industry through patents and Thomas Edison provides an interesting and entertaining perspective. From the invention of the first movie camera to the movie industry that exists today, patents have played a key role in the industry’s change and growth. The story begins in the early 1890s when Thomas Edison developed a movie camera called the Kinetograph. Although this was not the first camera invented to capture sequential motion, Thomas Edison’s camera was different from earlier inventions because the Kinetoscope used celluloid film.

This allowed Edison to receive a patent for his unique movie camera. Edison also filed and was granted many, many U.S. patents for other motion picture technologies, which provided him ownership of the majority of the existing U.S. patents in the field. The Edison Manufacturing Company used patents to eliminate all of their competition on the East Coast by filing patent infringement lawsuits against them. In 1898 Edison sued a studio called American Mutoscope and Biograph (Biograph) under the claim that the studio infringed on his patent for the Kinetograph. This studio was founded by his former assistant, W. L. K. Dickson. In 1902, the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals rejected his case and ruled that Thomas Edison’s patent meant that he owned the rights to the system that moved perforated film through the camera, not the entire concept of the movie camera.

In response to this decision, as well as the rise in studios and cinemas across the states, Edison and Biograph joined forces with other competitors in 1909 to create the patent licensing company called Motion Picture Patents Company. This company operated in New York and other cities on the East Coast with the intention of protecting patents and controlling the film industry. Motion Pictures Patents Company, also known as Movie Trust, possessed most of the available motion-picture patents for camera and projection equipment from 1909 through 1912. The company dominated the market by refusing equipment to uncooperative filmmakers or theater owners

The authority of the Movie Trust began to weaken in 1912 due to the success of European and independent producers. The end came for the Trust in 1915 when the District Court ruled in the case of the United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. that the Movie Trust had exceeded their patent rights. The District Court ordered that Movie Trust be dissolved, stating that: “While the patent and antitrust laws must be accommodated to one another, ‘it cannot be that the grant of a patent right confers a license to do that which the law condemns.’ A patentee may simply enforce his right to exclude infringement, but he must not use his patent “as a weapon to disable a rival contestant, or to drive him from the field,” for “he cannot justify such use.”

Innovation, and patents, continue to fuel the movie industry today. There are several examples of recent patents in the film industry. For example, The SteadiCam® (US Patent No. 4,017,168), is used in films such as The Shining and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This invention is important for filmmakers that desire to provide a smooth action shot uninterrupted by a cameraman’s movement, and it was patented in 1977 by cinematographer and inventor Garrett Brown. Steven Spielberg has also patented a method and apparatus for producing a screenplay (U.S. Patent No. 8,091,028). Automated Story Generation (U.S. Patent No. 8,422,852), where themes scripts are used to produce a finished product with minimal user input or direction, is another recent and interesting patent in the industry.

Just as Movie Trust possessed most of the movie patents in the industry’s beginning, today Sony and Samsung lead the film industry in number of film industry related patent applications. Recently, Sony recently filed for patent protection of the animation process and technologies that were used in the widely popular Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. The animation style in the film is regarded as original and “envelope-pushing”, which is why Sony desires to protect and patent it. The Walt Disney Company also has a considerable amount of filmmaking patents and has filed for 2650+ patent applications since the year 2000.

The patents that protect these inventions are important to encourage inventors to continuously improve, change, and bring creativity to the industry. This is just one entertaining example of how intellectual property protection and build and support an industry.

 

Sources:

Four Women Who Made Major Contributions to Genetics and Medicine (Whose names you might not know)

Nettie Stevens: Discoverer of Sex Chromosomes

Women like Nettie Stevens, who were born in the early 1860s, didn’t have a plethora of career options to choose from. They could either be secretaries, or they could be teachers. Stevens went down the teaching route. What she really wanted to do, however, was continue her education. Eventually, at the age of 36, she saved up enough money from her teaching jobs, moved from Vermont to California, and enrolled in Stanford University, and later in Bryn Mawr college for her PhD.

Stevens entered the field of genetics at a time when the field was rapidly expanding. Mendel’s seminal work on the principles of inheritance had been rediscovered in 1900, and in a few short years, Thomas Morgan – who taught Stevens at Bryn Mawr – would go on to show that genes are carried on chromosomes. While this might seem unremarkable now, Morgan’s research provided physical evidence for the heredity described by Mendel. However, despite the increasing evidence that physical traits are determined by genes, scientists still believed that either the mother’s environment or the chemical balance of the cytoplasm of eggs determined sex.

Nettie Stevens’ research put the issue to rest. Stevens studied mealworms – insects that resemble garden grubs – and after spending endless hours peering through microscopes, found that during spermatogenesis, the 20 chromosomes of the mealworm form “9 symmetrical pairs and 1 unsymmetrical [pair] composed of [a] small chromosome and a much larger mate.” This asymmetrical pair, she observed, was replaced by a tenth symmetrical pair during the formation of egg cells. She also found that somatic (non-reproductive) cells of mealworms followed a similar pattern: 10 symmetrical pairs of chromosomes in females, and 9 symmetrical pairs and 1 asymmetrical pair in males. This discovery was conclusive proof that chromosomes – in the form of the X and Y chromosomes in most animals – were what led to sex determination, and not maternal characteristics.

Nettie Stevens unfortunately died of breast cancer at the age of 50, a mere four years after she discovered sex chromosomes. Her reputation – both then and now – does not match the significance of her research. Morgan, her mentor and professor, is considered the most influential figure in modern genetics and often gets credited for all chromosome-related discoveries. Morgan’s name appears frequently in relation to his research on chromosomes, but Nettie Stevens’ doesn’t.

Alice Ball: The chemist who developed a cure for leprosy

Alice Ball grew up around chemicals. Her grandfather, James Presley Ball, was a famous African American photographer. Chemicals used in developing photographic prints, such as silver, iodine, chlorine, and bromine were likely part of her life years before she entered a chemistry lab.

Ball was born in Seattle on July 24, 1892. Her family moved to Hawaii in 1903 hoping that the salubrious weather would alleviate her grandfather’s arthritis. Her family moved back to Seattle in 1905, following her grandfather’s death. She earned two bachelor’s degrees in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and the Science of Pharmacy in 1912 and 1914, respectively. She then decided to pursue a master’s degree at the College of Hawaii, now called the University of Hawaii, and eventually became the first female and first African-American chemistry professor at the College.

Ball became an expert in extracting active ingredients from plants, and caught the attention of Harry T. Hollmann, medical director of the Kahili Leprosy Hospital. He had been trying to treat leprosy patients but hadn’t been making much progress. In a pre-antibiotic world, there was no clear cure for leprosy, although a potential candidate had been known for years. Chaulmoogra had been used to alleviate skin diseases, including leprosy, in India and China for centuries. Eventually, in the 19th Century, Western doctors started experimenting with Chaulmoogra oil to see if it could be used to treat leprosy. But success had been limited. Ingestion had proven to be ineffective and injecting the oil had proven disastrous – the viscous oil clumped under the skin to form blisters, due to which the patient’s skin looked as though it “had been replaced by bubble wrap.” What doctors needed was a form of Chaulmoogra oil that could be absorbed by the body.

Enter Alice Ball, the 23-year-old chemist whose master’s thesis was on the extraction of the active ingredient from a root called the Ava root. In less than a year, Ball devised a way to create a water-soluble injectable form of Chaulmoogra oil.

Ball died shortly thereafter, on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24. It is unclear why she died, although it is possible that she could have gotten chlorine poisoning while teaching in the lab.

Ball did not live to see 84 patients in the Hospital get cured because of the extraction method she had developed. She was also not given due credit for her discovery, as Arthur Dean, president of the College of Hawaii, published Ball’s extraction technique as his own. In was only in 1922 that she got credit for her work, when Hollmann, the surgeon who had initially encouraged her to develop the drug, wrote about the extraction process and called it “The Ball Method.” The injectable form of Chaulmoogra oil became the principal method of treating leprosy until the 1940s. In 2000, then Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Mazie Horono declared February 29 Alice Ball Day.

Barbara McClintock: Discoverer of Transposons

From the time Barbara McClintock was a young girl, it was clear that she was not going to grow up to become a conventional woman. She preferred sports over dolls, and her mother even made her bloomers so that she would be able to play all the sports she wanted “unhindered by dresses.” As her desire to pursue higher education grew, however, her mother’s support of her idiosyncrasies became less enthusiastic. Worried that an academic daughter would be unmarriageable, she was reluctant to allow McClintock to go to college. Her father interfered, however, and McClintock went off to Cornell to pursue a degree in Agriculture.

By the time she graduated, McClintock became an expert at preparing cells for the microscope. She began studying maize and became so familiar with maize chromosomes that she noticed that certain sections of the chromosome broke off and reattached to different chromosomes and that this corresponded with changes in the coloration of the maize. McClintock called these regions controlling elements (they are now called transposons). This discovery greatly expanded what scientists believed that genes could do. Previously genes were thought to be stationary – like, as the popular analogy goes, beads on a string. McClintock developed a strong reputation in the scientific community and was elected president of the Genetics Society of America in 1945, becoming the first woman to serve in the position.

However, what McClintock really wanted to study was how genetic expression was regulated. It was a question that had plagued scientists for decades: how could neurons and skin cells can look so different despite having the same genetic code? McClintock hypothesized that if a transposon landed near a gene, it would turn off its expression, and turn it on when it left. She presented this theory at a prominent symposium in 1951, but her theory – lacking data to back it up – baffled scientists. McClintock withdrew from the scientific limelight after the symposium and didn’t publish her research after 1953. In 1983, Evelyn Keller published a popular biography of McClintock that brought McClintock back into the public consciousness. McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine the same year – the first and only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in the category. However, despite the honor, she never succeeded in proving the regulatory functions of transposons, and indeed, subsequent research showed that it is proteins such as transcription factors, promotors, enhancers, and repressors that control gene expression.

Tu Youyou: A cure for malaria

Tu Youyou was born in 1930 to a family that greatly valued education. At university, she trained under a phytochemist who taught her how to extract active ingredients from plants using appropriate solvents. After graduating, Youyou was recruited to the Institute of Materia Medica, Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Her interest in traditional medicine had deep roots. Growing up, she had seen folk recipes being used to treat a variety of diseases and had seen that some of them were quite effective. The Institute of Chinese Materia Medica provided a unique environment for the combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western medicine. It was an institution where historians, who poured over ancient recipes, and chemists and medical doctors, who had modern tools at their disposal, worked side by side.

It was under these conditions that in 1967, Youyou was tasked with developing a drug to treat chloroquine-resistant malaria. Many Chinese and American soldiers were dying due to malaria in Vietnam – and both the United States and China launched campaigns to develop a treatment, and Youyou was recruited to the Chinese campaign.

Youyou’s team collected over 2000 recipes based on over 600 herbs. One of the most promising candidates was Qinghao, the Chinese name for six herbs falling under the genus Artemisia. Handbooks detailing traditional recipes were helpful in refining their techniques of extraction. One recipe, for example, made Youyou’s team attempt a cold extraction instead of performing extractions at boiling temperatures, leading to better results. Youyou extracted the active ingredient from Artemisia annua and it proved to be effective against rodent malarias. In the absence of robust protocols on how to conduction clinical trials in China in the 1960s and 1970s Youyou and her team volunteered inject themselves to ensure that the active ingredient wasn’t toxic. The team then used the drug to treat 21 malaria patients and saw that their fever disappeared. Their drug was 100 percent effective.

Youyou was awarded the Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011 and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for her work, which, the presenter of the Lasker award described as “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.”

Check out our blog honoring five of Emory’s female inventors and their work here.

Sources:

Nettie Stevens

Alice Ball

Barbara McClintock

  • “Barbara McClintock and the discovery of jumping gene” by Sandeep Ravindran: https://www.pnas.org/content/109/50/20198

  • “’The Real Point is Control’: The Reception of Barbara McClintock’s Controlling Elements” by Nathaniel Comfort: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4331511?seq=1

  • The Tangled Field by Nathaniel Comfort

  • The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genus, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean1

Tu Youyou