From CSULA CS Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search


See also the Museum of unintended consequences.

Ants Are Not Just Food to Pitcher Plant

The carnivorous pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata, found in Borneo, has a perplexing double life: Although it eats ants, it also serves as home to one ant species.
Now a new study reports that the resident ants — Camponotus schmitzi — hunt down mosquito and fly larvae that breed in the plant, preventing the larvae from stealing its nutrients.
“The digestive fluid of the plant is not that aggressive, so mosquito larvae and fly larvae can survive,” said Mathias Scharmann, a doctoral student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and an author of the study, which appears in the journal PLoS One. (At the time of the research, he was a student at the University of Würzburg in Germany.)
The researchers analyzed the pitcher plant’s stable isotopes to identify the origin and abundance of its nitrogen, a nutrient crucial to its health.
“We saw that indeed, these carnivorous plants get more nitrogen from insect tissue than the soil,” Mr. Scharmann said. “That means that somehow the ants give something to the plant.”
They found that plants colonized by the ants received more nitrogen than those that are not colonized.
Besides hunting larvae, the ants help the plant in other ways: keeping its traps clean and providing another source of nitrogen, in the form of their waste matter.

Wily Cockroaches Find Another Survival Trick: Laying Off the Sweets

Instead of taste buds, roaches have taste hairs on many parts of their bodies. The three North Carolina researchers concentrated on those around the mouth area and on two types of nerve cells that sense tastes and respond by firing electrical signals to the brain. One responds only to sugars and other sweet substances; the other responds only to bitter substances. Whenever a molecule of something sweet attaches to a sweet detector, it fires electrical impulses and the roach brain senses sweetness, which makes it want to eat whatever it is tasting. Whenever a molecule of something bitter attaches to the bitter detector, that cell fires and the brain senses bitterness, which makes the roach want to avoid that substance.
But somehow the roaches had changed so that the glucose made the bitter detector fire.
“Basically,” said Dr. Buczkowski, “when cockroaches taste glucose, they’re repelled by it because it tastes bitter to them.”

Flesh-Eating Plant Cleaned Junk From Its Minimalist Genome

The onion, for example, has around five times more DNA than you do, with a genome that’s around 15 billion DNA letters long. The wheat genome is slightly bigger still. And even these genetic titans look positively svelte next to the record-breaking genome of the Japanese “canopy plant”—a pretty, white flower whose 150-billion-letter genome is the largest of any plant.
The bladderwort, however, has a paltry 82 million letters in its genome—40 times fewer than you, and 2,000 times fewer than the canopy plant. For comparison, the thale cress, a plant that geneticists chose to focus on for its “small” genome, has almost twice as much DNA. …
The floating bladderwort (Utricularia gibba) grows in ponds and lakes, and produces yellow, orchid-like flowers. Below the surface, it captures prey with pressurised bladders that can rapidly open to suck in passing animals, including insects, tadpoles and even small fish.

Mudskipper, fish out of water


Parasitic ants

Deslippe figure1 ksm.jpg

Cockatoos pass the marshmallow test of self-control



Tardigrade eyeofscience 1024.jpg

Tongue-eating fish parasites


The horned lizard fends off predatory coyotes by shooting five-foot streams of its own blood from its eye


Flies Use Alcohol to Protect Their Young From Body-Snatchers

Fly wasp.jpg


Tardigrade eyeofscience 1024.jpg

The Private Lives of Plants

A BBC documentary, by David Attenborough.

Baby wasps secrete disinfectant to preserve cockroach prey

After an emerald cockroach wasp lays an egg on a captured cockroach, the wasp larvae that hatch secrete antimicrobial substances that disinfect the prey, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The secretions help prevent bacterial growth in the decaying cockroach, allowing the baby insects to devour the prey without being harmed.

Also in Discover.

Top preditors: Why the beaver should thank the wolf

Scientists call this sequence of impacts down the food chain a “trophic cascade.” The wolf is connected to the elk is connected to the aspen is connected to the beaver. Keeping these connections going ensures healthy, functioning ecosystems, which in turn support human life.
Another example is the effect of sea otters on kelp, which provides food and shelter for a host of species. Like the aspen for the elk, kelp is a favorite food of sea urchins. By hunting sea urchins, otters protect the vitality of the kelp and actually boost overall biodiversity. Without them, the ecosystem tends to collapse; the coastal reefs become barren, and soon not much lives there.
Unfortunately, sea otters are in the cross hairs of a conflict equivalent to the “wolf wars.” Some communities in southeast Alaska want to allow the hunting of sea otters in order to decrease their numbers and protect fisheries. But the rationale that eliminating the predator increases the prey is shortsighted and ignores larger food-web dynamics. A degraded ecosystem will be far less productive over all.
Having fewer fish wouldn’t just hurt fishermen: it would also endanger the other end of the trophic scale — the phytoplankton that turn sunshine into plant material, and as every student of photosynthesis knows, create oxygen and sequester carbon. In lakes, predator fish keep the smaller fish from eating all the phytoplankton, thus sustaining the lake’s rate of carbon uptake.

Ancient flower lives only on two Spanish cliffs, and uses ants to survive

Borderea chouardii.jpg
Borderea plants are either male or female and not both. They need some way of carrying pollen from male flowers to females. They live high in the mountains, so wind seems like an obvious candidate. But when Garcia placed several sticky microscope slides next to a male flower, none of them picked up any pollen at all. So, not wind.
What about insects? Between 2008 and 2009, Garcia spent 76 hours just watching B.chouardii to see which insects visited its flowers. The majority were ants: Lasius grandis and Lasius cinereus in particular. That seems to fit, for B.chouardii has many of the traits you’d expect of an ant-pollinated flower. Low-growing, nectar-filled flowers that can be reached by a non-flying insect? Check. Small flowers that aren’t attractive to bigger insects? Check.
The ants are rare visitors but effective pollinators. Across 17 years of observations, Garcia has found that around 83 percent of the female flowers eventually bear fruit. But the plant then has another problem: How does it disperse its small, yellow seeds? It can sow itself: Borderea grows away from light, and some the fruits end up headfirst in new crevices. Two-thirds of the seedlings germinate in this way. The two ants that pollinate B.chouardii might also contribute, since the plant has been found growing from their nests.
But the main seed disperser is another species of ant entirely – Pheidole pallidula. Garcia demonstrated this by setting up seed “cafes” – plastic seed-filled vials that were glued to the cliff. Only P.pallidula visited the vials, and dragged the seeds off to nearby crevices. It prefers the seeds of B.chouardii to those of related species, and it eats two thirds of the seeds it collects. The rest are left to germinate.
Garci’s careful observations suggest that Borderea takes part in a “double mutualism” – partnering up with some ants to both pollinate its flowers and another to disperse its seeds. It’s a risky strategy. Even though three species of ants are involved, Garcia says that the plant is “putting all its stakes on just one kind of mutualist.” If ants disappear, perhaps if the surrounding cliff-sides become unsuitable for them, then B.chouardii would go extinct. “It is difficult to imagine other animals playing the ants’ role,” says Garcia.
But Borderea has another trick to mitigate its risk of extinction: an extraordinary lifespan of up to 300 years! In 17 years of monitoring, Garcia and other scientists have only counted 139 seedlings – just 8 per year. This is a plant that lives life in the slow lane. Its population is small and grows at an infinitesimal rate, but it’s in no rush.

Amoeba: The World's Smallest Farmers

Researchers have already discovered several animals that farm: ants and termites that grow fungus, damselfishes that tend algae, and intertidal snails that tend fungus. Dicty, the first microbe shown to farm, is less sophisticated. The fungus-farming ants, for example, carefully tend their crops, fertilizing them and killing pests. "It's really amazing the amount of care they give to their crop. An amoeba cannot do that," Brock says.
Koos Boomsma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen who did not work on the study, is not surprised that farming is scattered through the tree of life. "But if I would've had to predict where I would have next expected farming to be discovered, I would never have predicted a slime mold," he says.

The enemy of my prey’s enemy is my friend, or Why parasitic wasps need each other

A.ervi pea aphid.jpg

The wasp study, by Dirk Sander and Frank van Veen at the University of Exeter, illustrates this well. They set up cages of plants and insects, resembling communities found in the British countryside. The cages contained broad beans, which served as food for two species of aphids – the black bean aphid and the pea aphid. The cages also contained two parasitic wasps – Lysiphlebus fabarum and Aphidius ervi – which lay their eggs inside aphids so their young are born into a living banquet.

The wasps are choosy body-snatchers. L.fabarum only lays its eggs in the black bean aphid, while A.ervi only targets the pea aphid. If the two wasps were present in the same cage, they both did fine. If Sander and van Veen removed L.fabarum, then A.ervi didn’t notice. But if A.ervi was missing, then L.fabarum always went extinct within about six weeks.

The reason for these trends is simple: the pea aphid naturally outcompetes the black bean aphid. Without A.ervi around to control the pea aphid, its numbers explode and it crowds out the black bean aphid from the broad bean plant. And with no black bean aphids, L.fabarum has nowhere to lay its eggs, and becomes extinct.

This ecological Rube-Goldberg machine means that the two wasps are effectively cooperating with one another, even though they never actually interact. The loss of one can lead to the extinction of another, via a circuitous route that involves no fewer than four steps (wasp to aphid to plant to aphid to wasp). The message is clear: if we lose animals at the top of the food web, we can expect the unexpected.

Reference: Sanders & van Veen. 2012. Indirect commensalism promotes persistence of secondary consumer species.

Bacteria transform the closest living relatives of animals from single cells into colonies

In Nicole King’s lab, a bacterium is making a group of tiny cells stick together. That might seem a little humdrum for a group whose members can build electric grids, create snow, and cripple nations. But King’s bacteria should not be overlooked, for they are recapping one of the most important events in the history of life: the move from one cell to many.

Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden

(For example)
In a study of 16 lactating women published last year, Katherine M. Hunt of the University of Idaho and her colleagues reported that the women’s milk had up to 600 species of bacteria, as well as sugars called oligosaccharides that babies cannot digest. The sugars serve to nourish certain beneficial gut bacteria in the infants, the scientists said. The more the good bacteria thrive, the harder it is for harmful species to gain a foothold.

Nematode bacteria transform into killers when vomited up inside nematode victims

When the worm infiltrates an insect, it vomits out the bacteria. These reproduce madly and produce toxins that kill the insect, converting its fallen cells into nutrients that nourish the worm. The bacteria also make amino acids that the worm needs to reproduce, and antibiotics that kill other bacteria trying to colonise the insect. (In the US Civil war, soldiers were sometimes contaminated with P.luminescens, which gave their wounds a mysterious blue shine and protected them from blood poisoning – they called it the “angel’s glow”.)

This elegant partnership hinges upon a startling transformation. In the worm, P.luminescens lives a languid existence. It’s tiny and extremely hardy, it forms small colonies, and it grows so slowly that it might as well be dormant. This is the M-form. Once inside an insect, it transforms from Bruce Banner into the Hulk. Its cells get bigger, its colonies get larger, it glows more brightly, and it becomes violent and destructive. It unleashes a torrent of chemicals that kill insect cells and other bacteria, and others that spur the development of the worms. This is the P-form.

Zombie-ant parasitic fungus kept in check by hyperparasitic fungus

The modus operandi of the Cordyceps fungi is the stuff of nightmares. These parasites grow inside their insect hosts by feeding off the non-vital organs, and manipulate the hosts' behaviour so that they can reproduce. When it is ready to produce spores, the fungus grows into the brain and releases chemicals that make the host climb a plant then attach itself near the top. It then kills its host by devouring its brain, before sprouting a mushroom from the top of its head, which disperses its spores as widely as possible.

Cordyceps fungi can decimate entire ant colonies, but some colonies can keep an infestation at bay and survive for long periods of time. A new study now reveals how they do so. It turns out that the zombie-ant fungus is itself parasitized by another fungus, which limits its ability to reproduce and prevents it from overwhelming the colony. This microbial defence system allows the two species to stably co-exist and ensures the long-term survival of the colony despite a high rate of infection.

Behaviour-altering virus makes parasitic wasp seek out company for her babies

Leptopilina boulardi is a wasp that lays its eggs in fly maggots. When the wasp grub hatches, it devours its host form the inside out, eventually bursting out of its dead husk. A maggot can only support a single grub, and if two eggs end up in the same host, the grubs will compete with one another until only one survives. As such, the wasps ensure that they implant each target with just one egg. And if they find a caterpillar that has already been parasitized by another L.boulardi, they usually stay away.

Usually, but not always.

L.boulardi is sometimes infected by a virus called LbFV, which stands for L.boulardi filamentous virus. And just as the wasp takes over the body of its maggot target, so the virus commandeers the body of the wasp. It changes her behaviour so that she no longer cares if a maggot is already occupied. She will implant her eggs, even if her target has an existing tenant. After infected wasps are finished, a poor caterpillar might have up to eleven eggs inside it.

The virus’s manipulation is extraordinarily specific. An infected wasp moves much less, and grows slightly slowly, but her odds of survival stay the same. The virus barely harms her health. Nor does it affect her ability to detect the scent of a maggot or a mate. It only seems to affect her attitude to the one-egg-one-maggot rule.

How does it do this? We don’t know. Why does it do it? That much is clearer: by changing the wasp’s behaviour, the virus spreads itself. The virus is heritable, and female wasps transmit it to their own eggs. From there, the virus can jump into any other eggs in the vicinity. So if a wasp implants a maggot that carries someone else’s egg, the virus gets a new lineage of wasps to infect.

Julien Varaldi from the University of Lyon first discovered LbFV in 2003, and he has spent the last decade unveiling the quirks of its wasp-management ability. Now, he has found another twist in its relationship with its insect vessels.

The same French countryside is home to a closely related wasp called Leptopilina heterotoma. It targets the same flies as L.boulardi and both species will lay eggs in maggots occupied by the other. If they do, they compete, and L.boulardi typically wins. Varaldi kept maggots in vials with equal numbers of both wasps, and he found that 92 per cent of the insects that eventually burst out of the doomed larvae were L.boulardi. The same thing happened when Varaldi set up more realistic cages containing flies and both wasps. In every case, L.boulardi monopolised the maggots and L.heterotoma died off.

But the LbFV virus turns the tables of this competition. The virus never infects L.heterotoma, and when it infects L.boulardi, it weakens its competitive edge. In the vial experiments, the grubs of both wasp species suddenly did as well as one another. In the cage set-ups, L.heterotoma actually managed to eliminate L.boulardi on three of five trials.

Why? The virus makes L.boulardi waste its eggs. Under normal circumstances, it lays one egg per host, and saturates the supply of available maggots with its spawn. If L.heterotoma lays in these infected caterpillars, its young are bested by L.boulardi’s within their shared host. But thanks to LbFV, L.boulardi puts its eggs into too few baskets, leaving plenty of maggots for L.heterotoma to attack unimpeded.

This discovery helps to explain why there’s room enough in the same French fields for both wasps, even though they compete for the same hosts. Other scientists have suggested that they might keep to different schedules, or stick to restricted areas. Instead, Varaldi’s study suggests that the key to this tenuous co-existence could be a inherited, mind-controlling virus. Using a mathematical model, Melanie Hatcher, Jaimie Dick and Alison Dunn predicted an interaction exactly like this in 2008. They showed that if a parasite has more harmful effects on the ‘stronger’ of two competing species, it’ll allow a ‘weaker’ one to persist, or even dominate an ecosystem. The case of the virus and the two wasps is a perfect example of the trend that they envisioned through equations.

Cyborg snails power up

Parasitic wasps vaccinate aphids by spreading anti-wasp bacteria

Surprising virus evolution

The standard way for [a virus] lambda to get into a cell is to latch onto its outer membrane, attaching to a particular kind of molecule on the surface of E. coli. It can then inject its genes and proteins into the microbe.

Mr. Meyer set up an experiment in which E. coli made almost none of the molecules that the virus grabs onto. Now few of the viruses could get into the bacteria. Any mutations that allowed a virus to use a different surface molecule to get in would make it much more successful than its fellow viruses. “It would have a feast of E. coli,” Dr. Lenski said.

The scientists found that in just 15 days, there were viruses using a new molecule — a channel in E. coli known as OmpF. Lambda viruses had never been reported to use OmpF before.

Mr. Meyer was surprised not just by how fast the change happened, but that it happened at all. “I thought it would be a wild goose chase,” he said.

To see if this result was just a fluke, Mr. Meyer ran his experiment again, this time with 96 separate lines. The viruses in 24 of the lines evolved to use OmpF.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of the evolved viruses and were surprised to find that this transformation always required four mutations. In all the lines that could grab OmpF, those four mutations were identical, or nearly so. No single mutation could allow the viruses to start latching onto OmpF. Even three out of four mutations brought no change. Only after they developed all four mutations could the viruses make the switch. …

Some critics have argued that full-blown evolution would not be able to mimic the highly artificial Dutch experiment. The chances that a single virus would acquire so many mutations at once are certainly small. In the case of lambda viruses, Mr. Meyer estimates the chance of all four mutations arising at once is roughly one in a thousand trillion trillion. [emphasis added]

Yet the lambda viruses repeatedly acquired all four mutations in a matter of weeks. “There’s this thinking that it all has to come together at once,” Dr. Lenski said. “But that’s just not how evolution works.”

Fly, wasp, alcohol arms race


[Hagfish] are disgusting feeders. They burrow deep into corpses and eat their way out, and can even absorb nutrients through their skin. And if they’re threatened or provoked, they produce slime – lots of slime, oozing from the hundreds of pores that line their bodies. ...

The hagfish in the videos are attacked by sharks, conger eels, wreckfishes and more. In less than half a second, the predator’s mouth and gills are filled with slime. It leaves, gagging and convulsing, slime hanging in long wisps from its head. Even voracious seal sharks turn tail. ...

Hagfish are well known for their ability to tie themselves in knots, which can travel down the length of their bodies. This could help to clear their own bodies of slime (they can choke on their own mucus) or free themselves from the grip of a predator.

The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life

Nuclear and mitochondrial genes must produce proteins that work together. This has some significant implications.

Life on us

Unique life form is half plant, half animal

From Zoologger in NewScientist.

Ciliates [use] their hair-like cilia to motor around rapidly in water. Most get their food by eating other organisms, rather than by synthesising the nutrients themselves. This marks them as quite animal-like.

Some Mesodinium species are different, though. They engulf other microorganisms, generally algae called cryptomonads. The two then form a partnership: the algae produce sugars by photosynthesis, while the Mesodinium protects them and carries them around.

Such hybrid organisms are animals and plants at the same time. One such species, M. rubrum, only eats red algae and is often found in the algal blooms that form the famous red tides. …

M. chamaeleon takes in algal cells, just like M. rubrum, but it doesn't keep them permanently. Nor does it digest them immediately, as a hungry animal-like organism might. Instead, the cells remain intact for several weeks before being broken down, during which time they keep producing sugar by photosynthesis. M. chamaeleon also changes colour depending on whether it is hosting red or green algae or both.

"It is quite unusual," says Moestrup. Other Mesodinium species either retain their captured cells for ages or digest them immediately.

The ability to take in other cells and put them to work is called endosymbiosis, and is one of the most important inventions in the history of life. Some 2 billion years ago, a single cell swallowed a bacterium and used it as an energy source. The descendants of the enslaved bacterium eventually became the mitochondria that now power all complex cells, including ours. Without endosymbiosis, there wouldn't be any multicellular life.

While the first endosymbiosis may have been a lucky chance, the process now seems to be common, at least among the more complex single-celled organisms. Some are so good at taking in cells that over the years they have switched symbionts. "It happens quite regularly," Moestrup says.

Ocean sunfish get cleaned by albatrosses

Flesh-eating plant traps worms with sticky underground leaves

Plants have evolved to eat animals at least six times, and over 600 species of them now do so. They catch their prey with slippery water-filled pitchers, fast-snapping traps, sticky leaves and sucking bladders.

Glowing bacteria

From Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The glowing waters are the work of bioluminescent bacteria – microbes that can produce their own light. ...

Creating light takes energy, and it’s not something that’s done needlessly. So why do the bacteria shine? One of the most common answers … is that the bacteria are screaming “Eat me!” at passing fish. A fish’s guts are full of nutrients, and it can carry bacteria across large distances. The bacteria, by turning themselves into glowing bait, get a lift and a meal. …

The shrimp and other zooplankton aren’t out to eat the bacteria themselves. Instead, they’re after what the microbes are sitting on. The bacteria cluster around bits of food floating around the ocean. They only glow when they gather in enough numbers, so their light is indicative of a big enough morsel. …

For the bacteria … the benefits are clear: they get to bathe in the slosh of nutrients within a fish’s guts, and they get to travel a thousand times further than they could manage on their own.

Zombie ants

From Parasite of the day.
For the fungus (which had infected an ant) to successfully reproduce, the ant must die - but it must die in a particular position to maximise the viability and dispersal of the fungal spores, specifically in the humid understory, hanging from the underside of a leaf, about 25 cm (about 10 inches) above the ground. But once the fungus maneuver the ant into position, how does it get the host to comply and stay there? The researchers made fine histological cross-section of the infected ant's head and found that once the fungus has made the ant locks its mandible in place, it busily gets to work dissolving the muscles which control those mandibles, ensuring that the ant will be locked in a death grip forevermore. A few days after the ant dies while gripping onto, the fungal stalk emerges from the head of the ant, ready to spray its spores down to the soil below to create more drunken "zombie ants".


From NYT
Midsize cane toads lure younger cane toads, which the bigger toads then swallow whole. A mother caecilian, top right, stays by her young and literally feeds them herself. Tamarin monkeys don't eat their offspring, except when they do. The female redback spider makes a meal of her mates.

Flowers and bees

From Smithsonian Magazine.

[The bees] evolved first, …, at least 12 million years before the orchids. “The bees evolved much earlier and independently, which the orchids appear to have been catching up,” says the study’s lead author, Santiago Ramirez, a post-doc at the University of California at Berkeley. And as the bees evolve new preferences for these chemical compounds, the orchids follow, evolving new compounds to lure back their bee pollinators.
Illustrates making use of a service that already exists.

Free will: the neuroscientists versus the philosophers

Zombie moths

[A] sexually transmitted virus … infects corn earworm moths, transforming females into infertile but sexually irresistible zombies, which then spread infection to unsuspecting smitten males.

The females attract males through a pheromone, Burand said, and in experiments infected females were found to be sending out five times as much as uninfected ones. The experiments also showed that males chose infected females twice as often as their healthy counterparts.

In the normal mating scenario, the male leaves behind not only his sperm but a protein that causes the female to stop wafting out her scent, so she mates only once per night.

When she's infected, Burand said, the male chastity-inducing protein stops working, and instead of mating with one male per night, a female will mate with about 12. But since the virus renders her infertile, the only organism to benefit from her newfound promiscuity is the virus.

Liquefying virus uses one gene to make caterpillars climb to their doom

It is dawn in a European forest, and gypsy moth caterpillars are looking for somewhere to hide. With early birds starting to rise, the caterpillars will spend the day in bark crevices or buried in soil. But one of them is behaving very strangely. While its peers head downwards, this one climbs upwards, to the very top of the highest leaves. It has come to die.

At the top of its plant, the caterpillar liquefies. Its body almost seems to melt. As it does, it releases millions of viruses, dripping them onto plants below and releasing them into the air. These viruses are the agents that compelled the caterpillar to climb, and eventually killed it. They are baculoviruses, and they cause a condition known aptly as Wipfelkrankheit – the German for “tree top disease”.

By ensuring that their hosts die in a high spot, the viruses benefit in two ways. First, that’s where uninfected caterpillars pupate and turn into adults. Female gypsy moths don’t fly. When they emerge, they walk over the same bark and leaves that their infected peers, now dead and molten, have laced with viruses. They risk infection with every footfall, and they might even contaminate their own eggs. The high position also allows the viruses to spread on gusts of wind. They can travel over long distances before descending upon fresh hosts in bursts of infectious rain.

Bacterial suicide bombers


What makes C. hypocistis unusual is that while most fruit-bearing plants rely upon vertebrate animals to disperse their seeds, C. hypocistis mainly uses a beetle. Researchers found that the seeds collected from beetle frass (fancy name for insect poop) are just as viable as seeds which are collected directly from the fruit. While rodents and rabbits also frequently consume C. hypocistis fruits, because they have a tendency to eat immature fruits and deposit their dung (with any viable seeds) at ground level, they are not as effective as the beetles. Not only do the beetles consume only fully-ripened fruits, they also have a tendency to bury themselves into the sand during midday, which can bring the seeds closer to the roots of the host plant.

Animal infrared sensors

Among the back-boned vertebrates, there are only four groups that can sense infrared radiation. Vampire bats are one, and the other three are all snakes – boas, pythons, and pit vipers like rattlesnakes.

Last year, Gracheva and Cordero-Morales showed that the serpents’ sixth-sense depends on a gene called TRPA1, the same one that tells us about the pungent smells of mustard or wasabi. Boas, pythons and vipers have independently repurposed this irritant detector into a thermometer.

Vampire bats evolved their ability in a similar way, but they have tweaked a different protein called TRPV1 that was already sensitive to heat. Like TRPA1, TRPV1 also alerts animals to harmful substances. It reacts to capsaicin, the chemical that makes chillies hot and allyl isothiocyanate, the pungent compound that gives mustard and wasabi their kick. In humans, it also responds to any temperature over 43 degrees Celsius. The vampire has simply tuned it to respond to lower temperatures, such as those of mammal blood.

Dolphin (and fish) detect electric fields

More Wasp tricks

From "Parasitic Wasp Employs Zombie Ladybug to Guard Cocoon."

Dinocampus coccinellae hatches inside the belly of a host [ladybug] following some makeshift, catastrophic surgery by its parent … Normally, the host organism mercifully dies at this point, but DC’s ladybug is not so lucky. Not only does it live, but a little behavior modification forces it to hang around and “guard” its parasite-baby as it grows into adulthood beneath its protective bulk. Scientists believe that secretions left by the larva when it bursts out might play a role in reprograming the host.

But then the ladybug dies right? Surely once the wasp reaches adulthood, our long-suffering host can at last rest in peace. No such luck. This is the insect world, after all. The researchers found that 25 percent of the manipulated ladybugs recovered normal behavior following their ordeal.

Genes that determine gender even in adults

Polination tricks

Ants as meat farmers

Sensing magnetic fields

From Humans have a magnetic sensor in our eyes, but can we detect magnetic fields?

The connections between light, cryptochrome and a magnetic sense were laid out by Klaus Schulten and Thorsten Ritz in 2000, in a bravura paper that united biology and quantum physics. They suggested that when cryptochrome is struck by blue light, it transfers one of its electrons across to a partner molecule called FAD. Electrons normally waltz around in pairs, but thanks to the light, cryptochrome and FAD now have lone electrons. They are known as a “radical pair”.

Electrons also have a property called “spin”. In a radical pair, the spins of the two solo electrons are linked – they can either spin together or in opposite directions. These two states have different chemical properties, the radical pair can flip between them, and the angle of the Earth’s magnetic field can influence these flips. In doing so, it can affect the outcome or the speed of chemical reactions involving the radical pair. This is one of the ways in which the Earth’s magnetic field can affect living cells. It explains why the magnetic sense of animals like birds is tied to vision – after all, cryptochrome is found in the eye, and it’s converted into a radical pair by light.

Subsurface life

From Not Exactly Rocket Science
There are more microbes in the subsurface (bacteria, and the extreme archaea) than there are up top, and collectively, they might even outweigh all surface life. Put every tree, elephant and human on a giant scale, and they’d be balanced by the microscopic masses that lurk underground.

To H.mephisto and the other nematodes, the subterranean world is an all-you-can-eat larder. They feed on bacteria and other microbes that grow in rich mats on the rocky surface. There are up to a trillion such cells for every one nematode, a feast that could keep H.mephisto going for around 30,000 years. There’s no risk of starving underground.

There’s clearly more going on below our feet that anyone had previously thought. “The nematodes eat the deep subsurface bacteria and the bacteria will certainly feast on dead nematodes,” says Borgonie. Nematodes aren’t the only threats that the subsurface bacteria face. In deep Swedish groundwater, Pedersen has found hordes of viruses that infect bacteria, often in numbers greater than those of their prey. The bacteria aren’t the only inhabitants of this underground world – they’re just part of its food web.

J. Craig Ventner

We live on a microbial planet. There are one million microbial cells per cubic centimeter of water in our oceans, lakes and rivers; deep within the Earth's crust and throughout our atmosphere. We have more than 100 trillion microbes on and in each of us. The Earth's diversity of life would have seemed like science fiction to our ancestors. We have microbes that can withstand millions of Rads of ionizing radiation; such strong acid or base that it would dissolve our skin; microbes that grow in ice and microbes that grow and thrive at temperatures exceeding 100 degrees C. We have life that lives on carbon dioxide, on methane, on sulfur, or on sugar. We have sent trillions of bacteria into space over the last few billion years and we have exchanged material with Mars on a constant basis, so it would be very surprising if we do not find evidence of microbial life in our solar system, particularly on Mars.


This is from (Zimmer, Carl (2011). A Planet of Viruses (Kindle Locations 346-356). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.)

Many … viruses, such as rhinoviruses and influenza viruses, reproduce violently. They make new viruses as fast as possible, until the host cell brims with viral offspring. Ultimately, the cell rips open and dies. HPV uses a radically different strategy. Instead of killing its host cell, it causes the cell to make more copies of itself. The more host cells there are, the more viruses there are.

Speeding up a cell’s division is no small feat, especially for a virus with just eight genes. The normal process of cell division is maddeningly complex. A cell “decides” to divide in response to signals both from the outside and the inside, mobilizing an army of molecules to reorganize its contents. Its internal skeleton of filaments reassembles itself, pulling apart the cell’s contents to two ends. At the same time, the cell makes a new copy of its DNA—3.5 billion “letters” all told, organized into 46 clumps called chromosomes. The cell must drag those chromosomes to either end of the cell and build a wall through its center. During this buzz of activity, supervising molecules monitor the progress. If they sense that the division is going awry—if the cell acquires a defect that might make it cancerous, for example—the monitor molecules trigger the cell to commit suicide. HPV can manipulate this complex dance by producing just a few proteins that intervene at crucial points in the cell cycle, accelerating it without killing the cell.

Jennifer Frazer (4/2011) on Bombardier Beetles, Bee Purple, and the Sirens of the Night

Solar powered animals

With algae inside them, the [salamander larvae] become solar-powered animals, capable of directly harnessing the energy of the sun in the style of plants. …

When the salamanders are still larvae, and well before they become adults, most of their algae disappear. The adults, after all, have opaque bodies and spend most of their lives underground—conditions that are less than ideal for a light-dependent alga. Kearney thinks that the dying algae could provide one final boon to their hosts, providing them with an extra burst of nutrients.


Rolling animals, powered by the wind

Explosive Moss

Migrating insects

From NewScientist Zoologer.

When migratory moths and butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in autumn in northern Europe, they immediately start flying south. When the next generation emerges on the Mediterranean coast the following spring, they start flying north. How do these creatures know where their breeding grounds are, when none of them lives to make the return trip?

It seems they don't. After the adults emerge, they simply travel in a hard-wired direction until they become sexually mature. How far an insect migrates depends on the length of this genetically determined phase. Migrants don't decide where to land based on the weather or the vegetation: they land when they reach the insect equivalent of puberty.

Many will land in unsuitable locations and fail to breed, but that's not a huge problem as long as a few of them end up somewhere sensible. A mating pair of insects produces thousands of eggs. The offspring that migrate to inhospitable climes will die, but the chances are that hundreds of their siblings will land somewhere more appropriate. Insects only need about 1 per cent of their offspring to survive to sustain the species.

There is evidence that climate change is already altering insect migration patterns. Steadily increasing numbers of migratory moth and butterfly species are being recorded arriving in a cliff-top garden at the Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset, on England's south coast. From data collected between 1982 and 2005, it appears that for every 1 °C increase in temperature, an extra 15 species will arrive (Journal of Entomology, vol 104, p 139).

Bacteria that cause snow and rain

Anthrax as controlled by phages (viruses)

From Scientific America.

My Comment.
What I would love to see is a diagram that shows the various entities and processes involved. There are at least 4 levels: phage, bacterium, earthworm, and mammal. What is the role of each and when is that role played out? I gather from the article that it's not even as simple as that since different phages change how anthrax acts under various conditions.

This is a beautiful example of a complex system that we are beginning to understand. It would be very useful as an illustration of how complex systems function.

See more extracts from the Scientific American article on this subpage: Anthrax and its phages.

Original article in PLoS one.

Popular reports:

Assassin bugs stalk and lure their hapless prey

From New Scientist.
To lure spiders into their clutches, [assassin] bugs pluck the silk threads with their forelegs for up to 20 minutes in a manner that closely resembles the behaviour of trapped prey, says [Anne Wignall at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia]. "The spider thinks it's getting a meal, but instead gets eaten itself."

Moths hitch rides on wind currents

From NPR.

Every year, an enormous migration takes place in Western Europe. Millions of moths fly for days, riding wind currents southward in the fall and north in the spring.

Scientists thought these insects were simply blown to their destinations, but now they've discovered something remarkable: The moths actually select the fastest wind currents, and even change course to shorten their trip.

See Moths hitch rides.

When Built-In Antifreeze Beats a Winter Coat

From Sean Carroll in the NY Times.

To tolerate freezing, it is crucial that insects minimize the damage that freezing (and thawing) would normally cause.

Insects have evolved a variety of cryoprotective substances. As winter approaches, many freeze-tolerant insects produce high concentrations of glycerol and other kinds of alcohol molecules. These substances don’t prevent freezing, but they slow ice formation and allow the fluids surrounding cells to freeze in a more controlled manner while the contents of the cells remain unfrozen.

For maximum protection, some Arctic insects use a combination of such cryoprotectants and antifreezes to control ice formation, to protect cells and to prevent refreezing as they thaw.

Whatever Doesn’t Kill Some Animals Can Make Them Deadly

From Sean Carroll in the NY Times See Toxins

Sea slugs can produce chlorophyll

The green sea slug, which is part animal and part plant, produces its own chlorophyll and so can carry out photosynthesis, turning sunlight into energy.
See Sea slug.


From A Gazillion Tiny Avatars by Olivia Judson in the New York Times.

Viruses are extremely diverse; there are zillions of different kinds. Some, such as MS2, a virus that attacks bacteria like Escherichia coli, have as few as four genes. Others, such as the gargantuan Mimivirus, have more than 900. (Mimivirus mostly attacks amoebae, although it is also suspected of occasionally causing pneumonia in humans.) And each time we look in a new place, we find more and more viruses that are different from those we have known before.

Fortunately for us, most viruses don’t attack humans; they attack bacteria and other microbes, which they kill on a colossal scale. In the oceans alone, viruses are reckoned to kill about 100 million metric-tons’-worth of microbes every minute. One hundred million metric tons! Given that a typical bacterium only weighs a tiny, tiny fraction of a gram (and there are a million grams in a ton), that is one huge number of dead microbes. (For anyone who doesn’t use the metric system, one metric ton is a little bigger than the American short ton; there are just over 28 grams in an ounce.) Viruses are thus important, if tiny, avatars of the grim reaper.

Which has several interesting consequences.

One is that viruses play a fundamental role in regulating the food chain. This is because death-by-virus is different from death-by-predator. When a predator kills a microbe, it consumes it: the microbe’s cell is incorporated into the predator’s body. In contrast, when a virus kills a microbe, the microbe’s cell bursts open, or “lyses,” releasing new viruses and a lot of cellular debris back into the environment. This debris can then be consumed by other microbes. In other words, by lysing their victims, viruses are constantly making food available to other life forms.

A second consequence of all this viral activity is the role viruses play in evolution. An ability to resist viral attack has sculpted the genomes of all known organisms, from bacteria to humans. (Why, then, do viruses remain dangerous? The answer to this is complex, but part of the reason is that they are often able to stay one step ahead of their hosts, because viruses tend to evolve very fast. So if the host evolves a new way to detect and disable an intruder, sooner or later the virus will evolve a new way to evade the trap. This is one reason viral diseases are so hard for us to treat.)

But here’s what I find most interesting of all. Viruses don’t just cause other organisms to evolve. They are also important sources of new genes. The reason is that as viruses move in and out of host cells, they sometimes take a few host genes with them, or leave some of their own behind. Thus, although viruses are among the most destructive forces of nature, they are also among the most potent forces of creation. …

See also, Moreira, David and Purificación López-García (2009) "Ten reasons to exclude viruses from the tree of life," Nature Reviews Microbiology, April 2009 | VOlUME 7. Also see some responses and the author's response to the responses.

Sea urchin "see" with their entire bodies


Sea urchins may use the whole surface of their bodies as compound eyes, scientists now suggest.

See Sea urchin for the complete story.

Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too

From NY Times.

The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

See Intelligent plants for the complete article.

Assembling Gradient Sensors

From Science

Bacteria cluster thousands of transmembrane chemoreceptors at opposite ends of the cell, allowing them to detect and follow food molecule gradients. Might the formation and maintenance of such clusters occur via stochastic assembly? To test this idea, Greenfield et al. used photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM) to count single fluorophore-tagged receptors with an optical resolution of 15 nm. They analyzed 1 million receptors and observed that many were present as singletons or small clusters in lateral regions of the cell (shown at left). A mathematical model in which the receptors are inserted randomly into the membrane, but can then be captured and incorporated into existing clusters, accounted for the observed distribution and predicted that the density of new clusters would be highest at a point farthest from a large cluster. Hence, through stochastic assembly, a cell with a large cluster at one pole will form a new large cluster at the opposite pole. Receptor clusters of appropriate size and stability thereby assemble without any specific cellular machinery to position the receptors.

Upward growing root systems

From Science.

Land plants have evolved a variety of specialized adaptations to gather nutrients from unlikely substrates, such as Amazonian trees whose roots grow upward on the bark of neighboring trees. The latest discovery—the snow roots of an alpine plant—comes from 2800 m in the Caucasus Mountains. Onipchenko et al. found that the herbaceous plant Corydalis conorhiza (a member of the poppy family) produces extensive networks of roots that grow upward and laterally into the snowpack that carpets the high slopes until the July thaw. Isotope experiments showed that these roots, which are anatomically distinct from the normal roots that grow downward into the soil, take up nitrogen directly from the snow-pack, thus exploiting a resource that would otherwise disappear down the mountainside during the brief summer.

Adding oregno to corn

From Science.

Many plants emit signals to augment their defenses against attack by insects; some of these signals are known to work by attracting predators of the attackers. Maize roots under threat from larvae of the western corn rootworm normally emit the terpene caryophyllene, which serves to mobilize nematodes that then kill these larvae. However, most cultivated maize has lost the capacity to produce this terpene.
Degenhardt et al. have engineered transgenic maize plants that carry a caryophyllene synthase gene from oregano. This manipulation restored the production of this compound, with the consequence that nematodes reduced the number of rootworms by more than half, resulting in much less root damage. This finding confirms that nematodes can be recruited effectively by caryophyllene and provides the basis for a pest biocontrol strategy to improve cultivated plants.