Tag a Tuna

Bluefin tuna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bluefin tuna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Few marine animals capture the briny deep’s mystery and fragility as well the bluefin tuna.

Bluefin tuna can grow up to three meters in length and over a thousand pounds in weight. They are the Michael Phelps of ocean swimmers, with bodies perfectly contoured for long distance swimming – they can even pull their dorsal fins in to reduce drag. They’re not the fastest (that award goes to the Sailfish, closely followed by the Marlin), but they usually fall somewhere in the top five fastest fish.

Bluefin tuna are cruisers. Pacific bluefin spawn off the coast of Japan and the young fish migrate over six thousand nautical miles to the eastern Pacific. Some tuna make this trip in as few as 21 days. Bluefin tuna return to their natal waters to breed and spawn once more. Atlantic bluefin model a similar pattern, traveling between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.

But bluefin tuna are severely over fished because they are highly coveted for sushi. Bluefin is one of the most tender, flavorful fish available. A single bluefin can sell for $100,000 at fish markets in Japan. They’re caught nearly everywhere they swim, and often before they reach maturity and can reproduce to replenish the population.

A blur of activity as tuna buyers go about their business in the early morning hours at Tsukiji Fish Market. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Laszlo Ilyes.
A blur of activity as tuna buyers go about their business in the early morning hours at Tsukiji Fish Market. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Laszlo Ilyes.

Creating a fishing policy or conservation plan for the bluefin tuna is difficult because no one knows exactly where they swim. This is where the Tag-A-Giant program comes in. A joint project between Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Tag-A-Giant attaches small tags that will signal the fish’s location back to researchers. The researchers have focused most closely on bluefin tuna, but have also followed billfishes and a couple of shark species.

You can follow the Tag-A-Giant team as they capture tuna and attach the tags at their blog.

Bonus fun tuna fact: Bluefin tuna are ectotherms, meaning that like most fist, their body temperature fluctuates with the temperature of the water. But where many people would call ectotherms cold-blooded, bluefin tuna are warm-blooded. They can heat their core body temperature to about ten degrees fahrenheit above the surrounding water. Keeping their blood and muscles warm allows them to work more efficiently, helping the tuna to cruise through a trans-ocean journey like it’s no big deal.

Don’t Judge Plasma by its Color

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

At a Red Cross facility in downtown Boston, centrifuge machines churn in a low hum while nurses tend to paperwork and volunteers fight nausea.

Volunteers are here for more than just a typical blood donation. A needle in each donor’s left arm removes blood, which is then stripped of platelets and plasma and returned to the body through a needle in the right arm. The plasma will later be used later to help patients with hemophilia, compromised immune systems and other disorders. But for the time being, it collected into a bag that hangs like an IV drip over the donor’s left shoulder.

The whole assembly looks like so:

A woman donates blood components.


On this particular autumn day at the Red Cross Donation Center, four volunteers sit along the south wall as their plasma slowly drips into respective plastic bags hanging over the left shoulder. Each person’s plasma is a thin yellow color. That is, every person except one: a young woman in the last chair on the right, whose plasma is a mysterious Hulk-green color.

Typical plasma: 

Yellow Plasma ©transfusionmedicine.ca

Hulk plasma: 

Green Plasma ©transfusionmedicine.ca

Is there something wrong with this woman? Is she an alien? Is she part-squid? Is she maybe suffering from some kind of weird bacterial infection?

It turns out she’s just on birth control. Oral contraceptive pills create a harmless chemical reaction with certain proteins in plasma that turn the yellow liquid to green. Moreover, the green plasma is completely normal. Even plasma that looks orange or “milky,” instead of the typical yellow color is safe to donate.

Plasma is the watery part of every person’s blood, and makes up about half the total volume of blood. Swimming around in plasma are proteins, blood clotting factors and hormones. Plasma surrounds red blood cells, helping transport waste, nutrients and immune cells in case of infections.

This woman’s plasma is actually green because of increased levels of copper – just like the copper Statue of Liberty is green. Inside her body, the birth control hormones trick her liver into producing more of an enzyme called Ceruloplasmin (the same thing happens when women are actually pregnant). This enzyme has six copper atoms in its chemical structure. The boosted presence of this enzyme is enough to turn the plasma green.

There are a variety of chemical reactions that can have a benign effect on blood plasma. For example, if you eat a ton of carrots (and therefore a lot of vitamin A), your plasma will look kind of like SunnyD. If you eat a really high-fat diet, your plasma is going to look like butternut squash soup.

However, even though green or milky plasma is totally safe to donate, technicians are trained to watch out for more nefarious variations in plasma. For example, little particles inside the plasma baggie might indicate a blood-borne infection, and these donations have to be tossed in the garbage.

But despite the suspicious-looking green plasma bag in a room full of yellow bags, this woman’s donation is A-OK. The grateful recipients care much more about the generosity of this woman’s donation than the color of her plasma.

Recommended Reading: “The Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever”

Book cover of “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.” Image provided by Amazon.com

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

As a science journalism student, I am taking the liberty of focusing more on the “journalism” aspect instead of the “science” aspect in this post.

We’ve all heard snippets of Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping. This Tuesday (10/15/13), WSJ reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell are releasing their book “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France and The Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever” that takes a comprehensive look at how Armstrong’s career, including detailed accounts of how he and his teammates doped. To whet our appetite, WSJ released an excerpt of the book that people can read for free. And for me, it worked.

The book shows how the doping scandal was quite elaborate at times. In the excerpt, Albergotti and O’Connell write about a time when the U.S. team bus pulled to the side of the road, and the bus driver went outside with orange traffic cones, so the bus appears “broken down.” Inside the bus, though, teammates were taking turns laying on the ground connected to chilled bags of blood that were hanging from overhead luggage racks, asthe WSJ journalists reported. Blood transfusions are an illegal form of blood doping. The transfusions increase the number of red blood cells– the cells that carry oxygen to muscles– and does give cyclists an edge.

I was enthralled by this excerpt, not only because of the revealing facts, but because of the natural writing style. I found there to be seamless transitions between events in the past and not so distant past. For instance, in the bus scene, Albergotti and O’Connell are actually writing about Landis, one of Armstrong’s teammates, rehashing the experience to federal agents from the FDA and USADA (anti-doping agency).  After they describe the bus scene, they bring the reader back into that Marriott Hotel room where Landis is telling the story to the feds. The transition is natural and the imagery is strong, but not forced. I am picturing the story as movie in my head.

In the following video, Stephen Colbert interviews Albergotti and O’Connell about their book. The video is worth watching (at least to get a few laughs, if you’re not interested in the subject matter). And, for me, the book will be worth reading. After all, it’s a true story about scandal, betrayal, fallen heroes, and account’s from his ex, Sheryl Crow! And perhaps a good example of in-depth reporting and narrative writing.