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The latest from The Lab at azcentral, a podcast exploring the stories behind bioscience

Our reporting will take you across Arizona to answer bioscience questions big and small. Each episode explores how the answers affect real people.

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that science matters.

The race to understand the coronavirus pandemic put bioscience in the spotlight. Today, the study of things like viral mutations or RNA are part of the daily news, and our daily lives.

So where does our shared understanding of science lead now? What happens when we start looking not just at viruses and vaccines, but at everything the study of life science is helping to create?

Those are the questions that launched this podcast, The Lab at azcentral.

Our reporting will take you across the state to answer bioscience questions big and small. In each episode of each season, you’ll find out how the answers affect real people, in and out of the research world.

In Season 1, you’ll hear the stories behind the weirdest science in the state.

You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to listen.

Wondering how to subscribe? Search for "The Lab at azcentral" on your podcast app, and click on our show. On Apple Podcasts, click the "plus" in the upper-right-hand corner. On Spotify, click the "Follow" button. On Stitcher, hit the "plus" or the "Follow" button. If your notifications are turned on, you'll get a push alert whenever we release a new episode.

Rebecca Mosher, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, splits open a seed pod to explain how her lab studies seed development in Tucson.
Rebecca Mosher, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, splits open a seed pod to explain how her lab studies seed development in Tucson. Melina Walling/The Republic

Latest episode: Pollen crime-fighters

Maybe when you think of pollen, you think of bees, or a commercial for allergy medicine. 

But what about cracking cold cases?

It might sound like a Sherlock Holmes story, but this is real life: unlike some other forms of evidence, pollen sticks around on hair, clothes and objects for a long time. And the unique shapes of pollen grains under a microscope can reveal geographic clues that help detectives track down everything from missing persons to counterfeit goods.

In this episode, you’ll meet the only three forensic palynologists (AKA pollen-science sleuths) in the country. You’ll also meet an ASU researcher working on mathematical models that could make it easier for investigators to pinpoint where pollen samples are coming from.

Along the way, you’ll learn the surprising ways that environmental change and crime-solving technology intersect – and how two species of cedar trees helped catch a killer.

So grab your magnifying glass, put on your trench coat, and follow us into The Lab for the last episode of Season 1.

Content note: This episode is about how scientists use pollen to help solve crimes. We won’t go into graphic detail, but we will discuss some of those crimes, including a case involving the death of a child.

If you ever find yourself in possession of a microscope and an unknown type of pollen, this guide could help you figure it out. (It also has lots of cool images illustrating the shapes of different species’ pollen grains.)

Learn more about forensic palynology and Daoqin Tong’s mathematical modeling research in this piece from ASU.

Read about how U.S. Customs and Border Protection is using pollen as a forensic tool in this CBP magazine from 2016.

Find out more about the Baby Doe case in this explainer.

Episode 5: Fish in the desert

On family trips to San Diego, George Brooks used to collect hermit crabs and sea stars and bring them back to Phoenix. What followed was a lifetime of raising fish in the desert.

He, and others in Arizona, aren’t just doing it for the love of all things scaly, shiny and gilled.

Researchers and community leaders like Brooks see big potential in these small creatures, to solve local problems that have global implications.

In this episode, you’ll hear about prawns in kiddie pools and zebrafish revealing the secrets of the human genome. You’ll also hear about the promise of aquaculture (that’s basically agriculture + water) to bring food systems closer to home while preserving the ocean far from our landlocked state.

How? Come – or swim – along, and let’s find out.

Read more about Phoenix aquaculture pioneer George Brooks in this 2020 story.

Watch George Brooks’ TED Talk.

Learn more about Benjamin Renquist’s genetics-based aquaculture technology company, GenetiRate.

Take a deeper dive into the state of global fisheries and aquaculture with this interactive summary from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

If you haven’t started your own backyard fish pond yet, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has guides to choosing sustainably sourced seafood.

Episode 4: Listening to plants

When scientists are talking to plants, they’re trying to ask them questions. What do you need to grow more effectively? To produce crops more efficiently?

And sometimes, they’re asking something else: Now that you’re in a drought, and you’re not getting any water, how are you going to react?

Yes, they’re asking questions, and they’re getting answers. But the answers are about something bigger than next year’s crop.

In our second episode about talking to plants, you’ll go to a desert farm field and a humid rainforest. You might not believe this, but both of them are in Arizona.

And you’ll hear from one person who isn’t talking to plants at all. She’s talking about the climate they’re living in — the one we’re all living in.

Join us in the Lab, to hear what the plants — and the people — have to say.

Our exploration of plants, and the people who talk to them, really started when we looked at the people taking genes from succulents and using them to help other kinds of crops save water.

We said the story of the original research at Biosphere 2 would probably need to be its own podcast. Our colleagues at The Arizona Republic give you a little taste of why, here and here.

Laura Meredith, who gave us the tour of Biosphere 2 along with her colleague Joost van Haren, worked on the drought experiment there. That research was published in the journal Science.

Antonieta Cadiz, who told us about her family’s encounter with climate change, is an advocate for the group Climate Power.

Episode 3: Talking to plants

In a greenhouse on top of a parking garage and in a field in the middle of the Maricopa desert, a team of scientists and engineers has a mission.

They want to talk to plants.

To do it, teams at the University of Arizona have enlisted the help of robots big and small, from a 30-ton robotic field scanner to tiny sensors that can measure the organic compounds emitted from leaves. They collect enough data to fill thousands of hard drives and turn it into a virtual reality field they can enter on the computer.

But why go to all that trouble? What are plants saying that researchers are so keen to hear?

Join us, and travel into the heart of the machine — and onto the front lines of the climate crisis.

This is the first part of a two-part episode. In the next episode, we’ll look at how talking to plants fit into the bigger picture of technology, climate change and, of course, Arizona.

You can find out more about the world’s largest robotic field scanalyzer here.

Learn more about Bt cotton and using GMO crops to eradicate pests in our story from The Arizona Republic.

Read more of our reporting on bioengineering plants to survive drought and heat stress.

Episode 2: Fighting fruit flies

The world’s tiniest thunderdome? Welcome to The Lab.

Grace Hala’ufia spends hours watching videos of fruit flies. Specifically, mutant fruit flies that are a bit more aggressive than your average winged trash can resident.

Then, she keeps score, carefully tallying every second of every fight.

Why? You’ll have to tune into the first episode of our new podcast, The Lab at azcentral, to find out.

Along the way, you’ll travel from Phoenix to Tucson. You’ll zoom in through a microscope at the inner workings of the brain. And you’ll get a wide-angle view of how researchers, communities and caregivers intersect, all in service of improving human health.

Learn more about Grace Hala’ufia’s work in the lab and on the University of Arizona track and field team here.

Dig in deeper on Daniela Zarnescu’s latest scientific paper on Drosophila models of ALS here. And find out more about her work on her lab website.

You can attend future “Real Talk” dementia and Alzheimer’s conversations here.

Episode 1 | Trailer: Welcome to the Lab

Join us — host Alexandra Watts and bioscience reporter Melina Walling — to discover robots that can talk to plants, fighting fruit flies and more, all in the name of high-stakes issues like climate change and dementia research.

Contact us

We want to hear from you. Send us suggestions using this form — we welcome your contacts, tips and story ideas.

Independent coverage of bioscience in Arizona is supported by a grant from the Flinn Foundation.

Melina Walling is a bioscience reporter who covers COVID-19, health, technology, agriculture and the environment. You can contact her via email at, or on Twitter @MelinaWalling.

Alexandra Watts is an audio producer who covers bioscience in Arizona. You can contact her via email at or on Twitter @_AlexandraWatts.

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