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On the Web... Kevin Ahern, Ph.D.

Surfing for the Best Biotech Information

MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Everyone knows of the technical expertise at MIT, so it is ironically easy to overlook some of the incredible research being performed there. Fortunately for a Web designer, when the stories are great, the issues of site design/planning become trivial. Such is the case with this MIT-based site, where the technology outshines everything else. The list of fascinating projects is much longer than I have space to report on here, but they include humanoid robots, machine vision, adaptive robots, and much more. The topic that originally caught my eye was artificial-muscle design, which uses linear actuators based on a polymer hydrogel that have characteristics similar to human muscle, according to the site. A video shows a fish robot that powers its movement with glucose. A tour de force of the wonders of science and engineering.
Services: L,N,O (research project descriptions, video); Strong Points: Wow factor; Weak Points: Simple Web design; Rating: Very Good

Oh boy. If you go to Phrenicea (pronounced fren-EE-shuh), you are in for a treat; I guarantee it. Describing itself as “predicting the ultimate outcomes of the Internet and biotechnology revolutions,” Phrenicea is an amusing read, at the very least, and incredible food for thought, at its best. Visitors should start with the “primer,” which describes (sort of) the mind-set of Phrenicea and moves from there to extrapolate that philosophy into as many directions as the writers can. It would be tempting to dismiss this as a bunch of hooey, but the site’s bit of science-fiction flare, combined with an intriguing view of the future, make Phrenicea fun reading and thought-provoking. Scanning through the site, I am reminded that too many views of the future focus on technology itself and not the possible consequences of it. Phrenicea is a true gem.
Services: L,O (philosophical treatise); Strong Points: Fascinating and amusing reading; Weak Points: None; Rating: Excellent

Plant Hormones
Here’s a cute little site I discovered fortuitously, via its database page, which had the banner heading, “Please select the country you wish to search for plant hormone workers.” With such a temptation, how could I resist? First, I discovered that the list of countries with “plant hormone workers” is quite extensive. More importantly, I learned about the plant hormones abscisic acid, auxins, cytokinins, ethylene, and the gibberellins. These are listed as hyperlinks in the panel on the left side of the opening page and provide most of the meat of the site. Other features include a good collection of links to plants and molecular biology-related sites, a discussion forum with a mail archive, and meeting information. An easy-to-read and easy-to-navigate site.
Services: D,L,O (forums, mail archives); Strong Points: Tidy design; Weak Points: Could cover more material; Rating: Very Good

The Ion Channel Web Page
Cells are little kingdoms unto themselves, but, just as no man is an island, so too must cells interact with the rest of the world. One of the most common ways they do is via ion channels, and that is the topic of this research-based site. Put together by Dr. Alan Neely at Texas Tech, this website has a simple, if almost pedestrian, design that provides links to numerous Web resources relating to the topic. A Quick Index is the main feature on the opening page and serves as the connection to the outside site. It is not clear what a link goes to immediately, as text links lead to a description elsewhere on the page, and clicking on an arrow takes one to the relevant external site. A useful site for researchers working with ion channels.
Services: L; Strong Points: Good selection of links; Weak Points: Confusing organization, a bit simple; Rating: Good

Chembank Initiative for Chemical Genetics: Small Molecules Bioactives Database
How does one write a review of a database? I asked myself this question as I tackled yet another one of these monsters for this column. OK, to be honest, there is no good way of reviewing the content of databases, short of knowing the programmer and/or being an expert in the field able to assess how much esoterica is covered. The second-best choice is to evaluate how a database might be useful, assuming its coverage of the topic is reasonable. The latter approach is definitely mine here. The Chembank Small Molecule Bioactives Database is for anyone needing information on drugs or other compounds that have effects in cells. The most common of these include enzyme inhibitors. Is the Bioactives Database comprehensive and/or sufficiently thorough in its coverage? You tell me. I’ll be listening.
Services: D; Strong Points: Useful topic; Weak Points: Nothing but the database available; Rating: Very Good

Monarch Watch (University of Kansas Entomology Program)
If you like butterflies (and come to think of it, who doesn’t?), then you’ll really enjoy the outstanding collection of information at Monarch Watch. From the basic biology of the organisms (in incredible depth) to tips on how to grow them in the classroom, Monarch Watch provides one of the best sources of information on a single organism to be found on the Web. Visitors to the site will learn how there are two distinct populations in North America: the eastern group, which overwinters in Mexico, and the western group, which spends the winter in California. Monarch Watch is a must for biologists, students, and “butterfly huggers” of all ages.
Services: L,N,O (educational material); Strong Points: Outstanding coverage; Weak Points: None; Rating: Excellent

Biomechanics World Wide
As I get older and my lower-back pain gets a little worse from day to day, the notion of a “biomechanic” becomes increasingly attractive; I think I’m due for a 50,000-mile checkup. I probably shouldn’t be too silly, as we are rapidly moving toward a world where such techno solutions may be possible. Biomechanics World Wide is about as close as one can get to such a system on the Web. The site overflows with information about professional societies, “biomechanics”, career opportunities, ergonomics, links to makers of prosthetic devices, and a host of links to other similar sites. There are a few downsides: links are largely organized in a BIG list and I found that a lot of them didn’t work. Hopefully this will get fixed soon.
Services: L; Strong Points: Good categorization; Weak Points: Poor design, broken links; Rating: Good

Introduction of the Interactive Atlas of Zebrafish Vascular Anatomy
Zebrafish is a popular model organism for the study of developmental biology, so it is no surprise that there is a lot of scientific Web space devoted to it. This rather disappointing site (at least by other NIH-site standards) focuses on developmental anatomy. Unfortunately, it suffers from several shortcomings. First, the opening page doesn’t do very much. I wasn’t sure if I’d find any anatomy at all upon arriving at it. Second, the images of anatomy are adequate but nothing exceptional. They are depicted at a fixed size, which isn’t very large on the screen, so they won’t print well. Third the “movies,” which are really just rotations in 3-D are disappointing, with little rotation. What bails the site out are the descriptions, which are accurate and to the point. More work is needed here.
Services: L,O (pictures, movies); Strong Points: Descriptions; Weak Points: 3-D disappointing; Rating: Good