Be Amazing! Blogs

2012 03.07

Soda Geyser Car is a summer science hit

Be Amazing!'s Soda Geyser Car has become a summertime hit!   Powered by Mentos candies and diet soda, it goes up to 150 feet and up to 30 miles an hour, spewing the soda fuel all the way.   It's an outdoor event.  Check out the video!




DiscoverThis.Com is featuring the Soda Geyser Car right now.  Click here.
2011 02.03

2011- The International Year of Chemistry

Making Crystals - It's  Real Chemistry



The United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of CHEMISTRY, and in honor of that, here is a cool chemistry experiment that will amaze your friends—cool crystals that grow overnight!  This experiment involves boiling water, so you will need an adult assistant (adult assistants are great whenever there is dirty work to do).  


Here's what you'll need:




  • borax (available as a powder in the laundry aisle of most large grocery stores—borax is also used in things like detergents, cosmetics and "science slime.”)
  • pipe cleaners 
  • string
  • glass jar
  • pencil
  • tape
  • adult assistant that can boil some water (and some boiling water)
  • food coloring (optional)


Try it!


First you'll need to create a crystal-growing borax solution.  This is your adult assistant's job.  A "solution" is made when you dissolve something into a liquid.  For instance, if you stirred salt or lemonade powder into water, you would be making a salt solution or a lemonade solution.  In this case, you'll be making a solution out of borax, a powder used in detergents and cosmetics.  Borax is like soap.  It is good at cleaning things, but you should not eat it or get it in your eyes.  


Tell your adult assistant to boil some water.  Warn your assistant that it is important to be careful to avoid burns.  Once the water is boiling, tell your adult assistant to remove it from the heat source and carefully start to stir in borax powder.  You'll want to start with about three Tablespoons of borax powder for every cup of water.  You need to "supersaturate" the solution.  That means that you want to keep adding borax and stirring until the water can’t dissolve any more.  Hot water can dissolve more borax powder than cold water because the molecules in hot water are moving faster and are farther apart, so they can more easily surround individual borax molecules.  When the water cools down, it can't hold as many borax molecules, and they start to come out of solution--in other words, they will stick to your pipe-cleaner to form sparkly crystals!


Once your solution is "super saturated" (You can't dissolve any more borax, and there is a little bit left in the bottom) let it cool down a little until it is safe to handle.  If you want, you can add a few drops of food coloring.  While it cools, bend your pipe-cleaner into the shape you want.  The shape will need to fit easily into your glass jar with a little room to spare.  


Tie a string to your pipe-cleaner, and tie the other end of the string to the pipe cleaner, like this:




When the solution is cool enough to be safe, have your assistant carefully pour it into a large glass jar.  Lower your pipecleaner into the jar of liquid.  The Pipe cleaner should be totally submerged in the liquid, but no closer than an inch from the bottom of the jar (otherwise, when crystals form, the pipe cleaner might get stuck to the bottom of the jar.)  Put the jar someplace where it can sit, undisturbed for a day or two. You'll be able to watch crystals form!


Here is a picture of the pipe cleaner hanging from a pencil in the crystal growing solution.  We added yellow food coloring to this solution.




After about 24 hours, you can lift your crystal shape out of the growing solution.  Let the crystal hang in an empty jar or place it on a paper towel for a little while to dry.  Wow!  Check out your amazing crystals!  It is OK to touch your crystal shapes, but be sure to wash your hands afterward before touching your eyes, nose, mouth, pets, or babies.  Hang your crystal shape in the window and watch it sparkle!  Isn't Chemistry amazing?!

  

You can make any crystal shape you can think of.  Here are some ideas:




Crystals that spell I ♥ C (for I love chemistry, of course!)









Did you try this experiment?  Send pictures of yourself and your cool crystals—we might even post them on the website!  Mail pictures to science.is.cool@beamazing.com


2011 02.03

2011 - International Year of Chemistry

Happy New Year!  This is a special science year—2011 has been declared the 

INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF CHEMISTRY!


 The theme of this year of chemistry (made official by the United Nations) is "Chemistry—our life, our future.”

Chemistry is the science of matter and the changes it undergoes.  That means atoms, molecules, crystals, energy, reactions, and all kinds of other cool science stuff.  Here at Be Amazing, we LOVE chemistry, and we want you to love it, too.  Throughout the year, we will be featuring cool activities, highlighting awesome science experiments, and offering special science deals on all things chemistry!  

Do you like Chemistry?  We want to hear from you!  Send us pictures and stories of your experiments.  We might even feature them on our blog!  Send your adventures in chemistry to science.is.cool@beamazing.com 

In honor of this very special year, we are highlighting chemistry in our kits and experiments.  If you like chemistry, you might like:


4400  - Magic Crystal Garden Lab-in-a-Bag




4425 - Shaker Slime Lab-in-a-Bag

2010 11.06

All About Amber

Have you ever heard of amber?  Amber is a translucent gemstone that is used in jewelry.  But do you know where amber comes from?   


Amber is fossilized tree resin!  Some trees (especially coniferous trees such as pine trees and redwoods) produce a thick, sticky substance that oozes out of breaks and cracks in its wood.  This sticky substance is called resin.  Scientists are still arguing about why trees make resin.  Some scientists think that trees make resin to protect themselves against bugs and other things.  Other scientists say that trees just make resin by accident.  Who knows?  Maybe someday YOU will figure it out!  Here is a picture of resin dripping from a pine tree:


From Wikipedia Commons

When resin gets buried underground, it can turn into a fossil.  Over a long period of time (scientists think tens of millions of years) resin that is very far underground experiences very high temperatures and pressures.  The very high temperatures and pressures "boil off” some of the chemicals in the resin and cause others to polymerize.  This means that the smaller molecules link up like train cars in a train.  Over time, this polymerization forms amber.


Because amber started out as a thick, sticky liquid, it sometimes contains things trapped inside, like pieces of plants, rock, or even bugs!   Here is a picture of a spider that was trapped in an amber gemstone.  


from Wikimedia commons, uploaded by Elisabeth from the Netherlands


Amber comes in different colors, ranging from white to pale yellow to brownish-black.  Amber of other colors has also been found, such as red, green, or even blue (although blue amber is very rare and very expensive.)  Most amber is a golden color, sort of like honey.  This is the color people mean when they say something is "amber-colored.”   Amber can be melted and burned, and in the past people used to use it as medicine or in perfume.  


Amber was important in our understanding of electricity.  As far back as 600 BC, a philosopher from ancient Greece (Thales of Miletus) noted that rubbing fur on amber made the amber attract light objects, like hair.  Later, scientists discovered that the fur was leaving electrons behind on the amber, giving the amber a slight negative charge.  In fact, the words "electron” and "electricity” actually come from the Greek word for amber!  


Amber was recently in the news.  Scientists excavating amber in western India found many pieces of amber with ancient insects, arachnids, crustaceans, plants, and even mammal remains trapped inside.  The scientists think that the specimens are about 50 million years old.  Because some of the fossil insects  are similar to fossils found in Central America, this amber might change what geologists think the arrangement of continents in the ancient world may have been.  



Spider found in the Cambay amber deposit of western India. (Photo by David Grimaldi/AMNH)

 


From electricity to insects to ancient geography, amber is amazing—just like you!  




2010 10.25

Giant Jelly Monster Eyes


Disappearing monster eyes 

This activity is a neat experiment, a cool decoration, and a fun party trick.  "Disappearing Monster Eyes” takes the old "peeled grapes as eyeballs” trick up a notch.  "Clear spheres” (Monster Eyes) are similar to the substance found in disposable baby diapers.  Both belong to the family known as Superabsorbent polymers.  Superabsorbent polymers do just what you would think they would do—absorb lots and lots and LOTS of water.  Clear Spheres absorb more than 300 times their weight in water, to turn overnight from little beads to big, squishy marbles made of goo that look just like (you guessed it) MONSTER EYES!  For a spooky activity (and very cool science experiment) you can do at home, try growing "Disappearing Monster Eyes” overnight just by adding water.  For an eerie Halloween decoration try setting out a cauldron of hydrated "eyeballs” instead of peeled grapes.  But here is the coolest part:  if you put your hydrated "Monster Eyes” in a clear bowl and then cover them in water, they will virtually disappear.  Really!  For a fun Halloween party activity guaranteed to delight and disgust, invite your friends to reach into a cauldron of water-covered Monster eyes.  Your friends will only see water, but when they reach in and feel the slimy "eyeballs,” they will gasp, "Whoa!  Yuck!  What ARE those things?!”  You can tell them…”Monster eyes—I harvested them myself!”

        



Trying "Monster Eyes” on for size


How does it work?

"Monster Eyes” (Clear Spheres - found in Be Amazing!'s Amazing Spheres  kit) seem to disappear in water because of something called the "angle of refraction.”  Light usually travels in a straight line.  However, when light travels through air into glass or water, the path that it is travelling in is bent.  You can observe this yourself.  If you dip a long stick halfway into water, the stick will look like it is bent. 



Of course, the stick isn’t really bending—the light is.  

 In the case of super absorbent polymers (like Clear Sphere "Monster Eyes”) there is so much water in them that light isn’t really bent at all as it travels out of the water, through the Monster Eye, and back into the water.  Because the path of the light isn’t bent between the water and the polymers, the Monster Eyes seem to disappear.   Amazingly cool!



Disappearing monster eyes make a great Halloween decorations



Do you have science ideas or questions?  We’d love to hear from you.  Email us at Science.is.cool@beamazing.com 


 

2010 10.14

Yoda, the Jedi Bat

Science in the News:  

Yoda the Jedi bat, and his cool animal friends




Do you ever feel like you never see anything new?  Then you should go to New Guinea!  New Guinea is located north of Australia, and is the world's second largest island.  It is about the same size as the state of California.  Even though it is not very big, New Guinea has an amazing amount of biodiversity. That means that there are lots and LOTS of different animals and plants there.   






In 2009, two scientific teams from an organization called Conservation International (along with their partners at New Guinea's institute for Biological Research and A Rocha International) spent two months in the forest-covered mountains of New Guinea looking for new plants and animals.  In only two months, they found and documented 200 new species that had never before been described.  





Among the animals identified by the research teams were a tiny, pointy-nosed frog less than an inch long;  a funny, tube-nosed, fruit-eating bat that looks a lot like Yoda from the Star Wars movies, a katydid with bright pink eyes;  and a new kind of ant with spines on its back that scientists think live at the top of very tall trees.   Here are some pictures of these animals:




All photos used by permission of Conservation International, copyright Piotr Naskrecki/iLCP 

(the ant picure is copyrighted by Andrea Lucky)


Many plants and animals become endangered because their homes and environments are being destroyed.  Conservation International feels that it is important to find, describe, monitor, and protect the Earth's amazing array of plants and animals.  


Maybe someday you will discover  a funny new bug, a tiny monkey, or an unusual flower.  You might even name it after yourself!  


2010 10.14

Fizzy Halloween Drinks

Halloween Party Science—more fun with dry ice


Last week we used dry ice to create a "smoke-breathing jack-o-lantern.”  This week we will be using dry ice for more Halloween science fun perfect for parties.  



Dry Ice and you—a science safety review:

Dry ice is available at most major grocery chains.  Just ask for it at customer service.  Before your experiment, keep the dry ice in a cooler with the lid slightly open.  Don’t store it in a tightly closed container, or the rapidly expanding carbon dioxide could burst the container.  


It’s also important to remember that you should never touch dry ice with your bare hands—always handle it with tongs or special gloves.  Dry ice is so cold that it can freeze your skin on contact, and it feels like a very bad burn.  Your best bet is to recruit an adult assistant to do the dirty work.  You’ll be making fizzy Halloween drinks by adding dry ice.  DON’T drink the liquid until the dry ice has all disappeared.  You don’t want to freeze your insides!


Brew a Bubbling Beverage—Try it!

This experiment is especially fun because it doubles as both a decoration and a drink!  Dry ice can carbonate a liquid in just a couple of hours.  This means it can turn a boring old everyday drink into a fizzy Halloween brew, just like a soda.  



Carbonating a drink is easy.  Just pour the liquid into a large bowl, pot, or (best of all) cauldron, and add some dry ice (remember to use tongs!)  You’ll need about a pound of dry ice for every gallon of tasty beverage.  The bubbling cauldron will be a great decoration for your Halloween party while it bubbles and smokes, and afterward your guests can enjoy some delicious homemade root beer or sparkling cider.  Here is a picture of dry ice in action, fizzing up a witches brew.  


For a mad scientist take on a Halloween party, try adding a drop or two of food coloring to white grape juice in individual mason jars, and adding a chunk of dry ice to each.  After the drinks stop "smoking” and the dry ice has totally disappeared, you can offer the solutions to your friends along with your best mad scientist laugh:  "Here, have a drink…if you dare…Mwah-ha-ha-ha!”


Click here to check out the video of the bubbling cauldron!


Do you have science ideas or questions?  We’d love to hear from you.  Email us at Science.is.cool@beamazing.com 


2010 10.06

Smoldering Pumpkins!

If anyone asks, today our experiment is "an exploration of sublimation using a gourd of the Cucurbita genus.”  In other words, we are going to make a smoke-breathing jack-o-lantern using dry ice!  



You can usually get dry ice from most major grocery chains.  Just ask for it at customer service.  

Before you start--science safety smarts:  This experiment is really cool and lots of fun, but requires an adult assistant.  Before your experiment, keep the dry ice in a cooler with the lid slightly open.  Don’t store it in a tightly closed container, or the rapidly expanding carbon dioxide could burst the container.  It’s also important to remember that you should never touch dry ice with your bare hands—always handle it with tongs or special gloves.  Dry ice is so cold that it can freeze your skin on contact, and it feels like a very bad burn.  Your best bet is to recruit an adult assistant to do the dirty work.  

Try it!

To do this experiment, you’ll need a carved pumpkin, some water, some dry ice (a couple of fist-sized pieces will do), and some tongs for picking up the dry ice.  Carve the jack-o-lantern face up high on the pumpkin so the pumpkin will be able to hold water.  


Experiment components




Pour enough water into your pumpkin to cover your piece of dry ice.  


Soren B. adding water to his jack-o-lantern

Last, ask your adult helper to use tongs to put a piece of dry ice into the pumpkin.  Remind your assistant to NEVER touch dry ice with bare hands.


Soren’s adult assistant adds dry ice to the jack-o-lantern with tongs.


Voila!  A smoke-breathing jack-o-lantern that is sure to amaze your friends!  

Isn’t science great?


How does it work?

Dry ice is solid (frozen) carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) is what you exhale from your lungs when you breathe out.  At normal room temperature and pressure, carbon dioxide is a gas like the air all around you, but if it gets very, very cold, carbon dioxide freezes and looks like regular ice (frozen water).  Dry ice is different than regular ice though.  For one thing, it is much, much colder.  Water freezes at 32˚F (0˚C), but carbon dioxide has to be cooled down a lot more.  Dry ice is very, very cold—about -100˚F (about -70˚C)!  So why is it called DRY ice?  First, imagine what would happen if you put a bunch of regular ice in a cup and then left the cup out overnight.  What do you think you would find in the cup the next morning?  You would find a liquid.  Melted ice is…water.  Carbon dioxide has a funny property when it is allowed to sit at normal room temperature.  Instead of melting like regular ice, it turns immediately into a gas.  Scientists call this sublimation.  People noticed that the "melting” dry ice didn’t leave a puddle of liquid the way water does, so they called it "dry.”  It’s easier to see dry ice sublimate if you put it a piece in a bowl water.  Water with dry ice in it bubbles and fizzes as the carbon dioxide bubbles rise to the surface and escape as a smoke-like vapor.  Amazing!

Join us again next week for more Halloween experiment fun!


 

 

2010 09.02

Physical or Chemical Reactions: What is going on with Insta-Snow®?

We’ve had a number of questions from teachers about the science behind our popular Grow Snow Classroom kit, so we thought we’d help you take this cool science experience to the next level, from awesome hands-on experiment to dynamic classroom discussion.

The Grow Snow Classroom Kit:  what is it?



The Grow Snow Classroom Kit contains a special powder called Insta-Snow.  Insta Snow ® is a specially designed substance that belongs to the class of compounds called "superabsorbent polymers.”  It is similar to the substance found in disposable baby diapers, but its special formula was created just for kid’s science kits like Grow Snow.  Insta Snow® absorbs water (lots of water--up to thirty times its weight!) instantly, expanding immediately into a fluffy, white substance that looks just like real snow (it is actually being used in the film industry for winter scenes as a stand-in for the real thing.)  Because the Insta Snow® reaction is so fast (you can’t get any faster than instantly) and so visually impressive (you won’t believe how much it expands) it is ideal for introducing critical thinking and the scientific method to students.  For instance, after your students try the initial Grow Snow experiment, you could ask them questions, help them to hypothesize, and watch them test their theories.  For instance, you could ask your students:

"You’ve seen what happens when we add water to Insta Snow® powder.  What do you think will happen if we add food coloring to the water before we pour the water on the snow?”  ((Result: the "snow” absorbs the dye as well, and becomes colored.)  

Or,

"Insta Snow® powder absorbs water, but what do you think will happen if we use other liquids, like oil, soda pop, or salt water?”  

The Grow Snow classroom kit paves the way for open-ended experimentation and provides an introduction for a number of science topics, but one question we’ve been asked more than once is, 

"Is the Insta Snow® reaction a chemical reaction or a physical reaction?”  


It is an interesting question with an even more interesting answer, and in this blog entry we’d like to show you how to turn this question into a lively classroom discussion that effectively teaches these concepts along the way.  

First, a review of the terms:  What are chemical and physical reactions?  

Scientists came up with the terms "chemical” and "physical” reaction to describe and distinguish the ways they saw matter changing. 

 In a physical reaction, the form of matter changes, but the substance itself stays the same.  In other words, an ice cube may melt into a puddle of water, but both the ice cube and the puddle are still H2O.  Some other examples of physical reactions are carving something from a block of wood, squashing an aluminum can, or crushing a large sugar crystal into powder.  In each case, the chemical composition of the substance stayed the same, even if its form changed.  Physical changes can involve: 


  • A change in state (such as melting/freezing or evaporating/condensing), 
  • A change in shape (such as pulling a ductile metal like gold into a wire, or crushing or breaking a solid)
  • Mixing of two substances (such as sand and salt, or sugar and water)
  • Change in size (expansion)

In a chemical reaction, the fundamental substances change.  Often there is a rearrangement of atoms or a change in molecular bonds.   For instance, if you burn propane fuel, one molecule of propane reacts with five molecules of oxygen to make three molecules of carbon dioxide and four water molecules, as shown below:   



Another example is the old classroom volcano reaction, in which mixing baking soda (a base) with vinegar (an acid) make a salt, water, and carbon dioxide (in other words, lots of "lava” and lots of fun!) 

While it sometimes obvious whether a reaction is physical (carving wood) or chemical (burning wood), it can sometimes be a little tricky.  How can you tell them apart?

Scientists have compiled a list of "oftens.”  That is, the two types of reactions often have distinguishing characteristics.

Chemical reactions 

  • Often involve the formation of a new substance, like a gas or insoluble solid
  • Are often accompanied by the appearance of light or sound
  • Often involve a temperature change (creation or loss of heat)
  • Often involve a color change

Physical changes 

  • Often involve a form change
  • Are often reversible


However, even defining a reaction by these "oftens” can sometimes be a little tricky.  For instance, melting an ice cube (a physical change) is a reversible reaction, since you can freeze the resulting water and regain your ice cube, but grinding a wooden baseball bat into sawdust (another physical reaction) is not reversible (unless you are Harry Potter.)

Gray Areas

Even more interesting are reactions that are gray areas.  For instance, some people would say that dissolving table salt (NaCl) in water is a physical reaction since you can just allow the water to evaporate and get the salt back out, but others would say that it is a chemical reaction, since you are breaking the ionic bonds of the sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-) ions to each other, and instead forming ionic bonds between sodium ions and water molecules and between water molecules and chloride ions. 

The Grow Snow reaction

The Grow Snow reaction is one of the chemical/physical reaction gray areas.  Grow Snow is a flexible lattice, sort of like a big, 3-dimensional net made of rope.  You could think of it like a fisherman’s net.  Associated with the "rope” are lots of ions, including sodium ions.  When a dry Grow Snow crystal meets water, water molecules wiggle into the crystal "net” and bind to the ions.  Like a fisherman’s net filling with fish, the crystal lattice stretches and spreads out to accommodate the water molecule "fish” trapped inside. 

 Figuring out the classification of the Grow Snow reaction is a little tricky because it has characteristics of both "often” lists.  Like a physical reaction, it is reversible (just let the hydrated "snow” sit out for a while, and you’ll see that the water evaporates, regenerating powder that can then be rehydrated) and involves a form change (expansion.)  However, like a chemical reaction, there is a temperature change (try holding Insta Snow® powder in your hand and pouring water onto it, and you’ll see what we mean)  and involves the formation of new bonds (sodium ions to water.)

So which is it, a chemical or physical reaction?  Even the scientists at Be Amazing have thought of different arguments, but we would probably say that if we had to choose, Grow Snow hydration is more of a physical reaction.  Of course, the most important thing isn’t telling your students the answer, but helping them to learn to think (and talk about) science.  

The classroom experience

Demonstrate or let your students experiment with the Grow Snow reaction, and then teach them the terms "chemical reaction” and "physical reaction.”  Write the "often” lists on the board, and discuss some of the more straight forward reaction types.  Once they understand the concepts, ask your students how they would classify the Grow Snow hydration and why.  Encourage them to explain their thoughts, and refer them to the lists to help guide the discussion.  This is a great opportunity to introduce science thinking as well as science facts, and to help your students develop critical thinking skills.

Happy mentoring!


You can find our more information about the Grow Snow classroom kit by clicking here: Grow Snow Classroom Kit


2010 08.26

3 Great Summer Science Experiments

THREE FUN SCIENCE ACTIVITIES FOR SUMMER

School’s out for the summer, but science fun is always in.  If you are looking for some cool summer fun, here are three great activities perfect for summer science discovery

 

Create a spectacular soda fountain using the Geyser Tube 

Have you heard of the Mentos® Candies/Diet Coke reaction?  The combination of these two ingredients results in an amazing, foaming reaction that shoots straight into the air for the coolest chemical reaction you’ve ever seen.  It has been featured on many different TV shows, including The Late Show with David LettermanLive with Regis and KellyThe SimpsonsMythBusters, and many more.  Just drop some mint-flavored Mentos® Candies into a two liter bottle of Diet Coke and watch the soda volcano erupt!  The Geyser Tube  was created especially for this amazing experiment, and allows you to control the timing of the reaction and to safely load and dispense the candies directly into the bottle for the most amazing eruption possible (up to 25 feet high!)  You’ll definitely want to head outside for this experiment, though.  Watch this video to see why:


Watch a video of the Amazing Geyser Tube

 

Add water to create an instant blizzard in a cup with Insta Snow® Powder

When the weather heats up, you can use this amazing powder to instantly create some cool winter fun anytime.  Insta-Snow® powder allows you to make amazingly realistic snow just by adding water.  Insta-Snow® belongs to a special class of compounds called the superabsorbents, and is related to the special powder found in disposable baby diapers.  Insta Snow® powder, on the other hand, was created with cool kid scientists like you in mind.  Pouring water on a pinch of this powder makes the powder expand to over 100 times its original size to make a fluffy, white substance that looks just like the real thing.  You can use Insta Snow® to create winter scenes for your toys and action figures, to amaze your parents and fool your friends ("check out this special dehydrated snow…”) or as the basis for fun science experiments.  If water makes Insta Snow® grow, what else do you think will work?  Oil?  Milk?  Salt water?  Soda?  What do you think will happen if you add food coloring to the water before you add Insta Snow® powder?  The possibilities for summer science discovery are as great as your imagination.


Watch the Insta-Snow® video


Capture the power of the sun with amazing beads that 

change color in sunlight


With so much sunshine around, you should capture some and put it to work.  Energy Beads start out white, but absorb UV energy to change color in sunlight.  Take them back indoors and they will fade back to white.  The color change happens again and again.  The Energy Beads Bracelet kit comes with thirty color-changing beads and yarn to make a super UV-detection bracelet.  The kit instructions include great ideas for summer science fun.  You can act as a UV detective to determine whether light sources have UV or other light energy.  You can also use energy beads to test the effectiveness of your sunscreen or sunglasses.  You’ll learn the difference between UV and indoor lighting, and end up with an awesome color-changing bracelet to show your friends. 

 

Do you have other summer science ideas or questions?  We’d love to hear from you.  Email us at Science.is.cool@beamazing.com

2010 07.29

Bubbles everywhere

Bubbles make the world a better place. I love bubbles.
2010 04.22

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?  It is an award given once a year to the world’s greatest contributors to science in the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.  The Nobel Prize is generally considered to be the highest, best, and most prestigious prize a scientist can be awarded in those areas.  In the past, Nobel Prizes have been given to the scientists that contributed to the discovery of DNA, the scientists that discovered HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and the scientists that figured out how your nose and brain work together to smell things.  Albert Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel prize in 1921 for his discovery of the law of Photoelectric Effect.  The road to a Nobel prize starts with people asking questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to find answers to their questions.  In other words, scientists are curious just like you!  In honor of cool, curious kids and scientists everywhere, today let’s learn about the science behind a recent Nobel prize.

 

In 2008, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their "discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.”  "GFP” is just what it sounds like:  it is a protein that glows green.  The protein absorbs light that has a specific amount of energy, and then emits (releases) light of a different energy, an energy that we can see.  You won’t believe where GFP came from—jellyfish!  Specifically, GFP comes from a jellyfish called Aequorea Victoria that lives in the pacific waters west of North America.  Here are some pictures of of an Aequorea Victoria jellyfish.  Adult jellyfish are usually 3 centimeters across or larger.

 

           

 Aequorea Victoria .  Pictures are used with the permission of Sierra Blakely, the author and copyright holder (2008).

 

Some jellyfish and other animals naturally make proteins that glow.  When animals glow, scientists say that they have "bioluminescence.”  Animals use bioluminescence for a number of reasons, such as talking to each other, attracting prey, and defending themselves against predators.  GFP was named "Green Fluorescent Protein” because it makes parts of the jellyfish glow green.  Scientists studied the protein and figured out how to make other things make the same protein.  Suddenly they could make bacteria or yeast glow green, or worms, or even fish.  Other scientists figured out ways to make the GFP even better for their research.  The water that the jellyfish lived in was cold, so at first GFP only worked well in cold temperatures, but scientists figured a way to make the protein work well in warm temperatures, so a mammal’s cells can now make GFP—even human cells!  Scientists figured out ways to make the protein glow even brighter and to be stronger, and other scientists figured out how to change the protein just a little bit so that instead of glowing green, it could glow yellow or blue, or even red! 

 

This is a picture that was "painted” on a petri dish using bacterial colonies whose DNA has been modified so that they make different kinds of GFP or a second kind of fluorescent protein that originally came from a kind of coral.  When the petri dish is held under the right kind of light, the bacteria glow in different colors, making a picture of an island sunset and a palm tree.  Aren’t bacteria beautiful?


 

 

A San Diego beach scene drawn with bacterial colonies that make fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and a coral protein.  The artwork was done by Nathan Shaner in Roger Tsien’s lab in 2006, and was photographed by Paul Steinbach.  Roger Tsien was one of the Nobel Prize winners for his work with GFP.

 

 

Now GFP is a really important tool in scientific research.  Scientists use it every day.  One way that they do this is to hook a GFP protein onto another protein that they want to study.  When they shine the right kind of light onto the cell that is making the proteins and look under a microscope at them, they can see parts of the cell glowing, and they know that the protein they are studying is moving to specific parts of the cell, like the nucleus or the cell membrane.  People have even used GFP for fun reasons.  People figured out a way to make almost all of the cells of animals make GFP, and now you can buy a pet fish or even a mouse that glows green under black light.  Amazing!

 

If you’d like to learn to grow your own bacteria on a petri dish (they probably won’t glow, but they may turn out to be different colors) check out our "Yuck!” science kit, with which you’ll also get the chance to make lots of other cool and gross stuff.

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