A Failed Relationship/Symbiosis In Action

May 25, 2009
Burmese termite

Does eating trees make you termitier than the sword?

Imagine one day as you’re reading or eating a book, your house is suddenly ripped apart in an untimely predation event, because your house is a termite, and before you can scramble away with your flagella in search of a new termite-house, you’re paralyzed by a huge blob of tree goo. I know, I HATE when that happens. Then again, that’s how I feel when I wake up sometimes—horrified and immobile—but at least it’s not permanent. Unfortunately for one gang of flagellated friends approximately 10 million years ago, the nightmare was real, and the condition really permanent.

Luckily their sacrifice did not go unrecognized (Memorial Day reference!). Scientists from Oregon State University reported Friday the discovery of what is now the the oldest example of a cooperative symbiosis (a “mutualism” if you will) between an animal and a microbe. The story is extra cool because it’s based on ”there it is!” observable-with-your-eyes evidence: in a piece of amber (tree resin of the past/not the ’90s singer of the past), a termite’s gut was preserved just after it was ripped open, revealing the symbiotic protozoans inside. (Many new genera were described, but the press picked only the one with the picture, Microrhopalodites, to mention.) The discovery highlights how organisms have been engaging in cooperative symbioses and co-evolution for a really, really, long time (“really, really” is a technical term that means, um, about 10 million years). Relationship status: It’s complicated with Microrhopalodites. Read the rest of this entry »

“Missing link” or media stink?

May 21, 2009

A newly discovered fossil is more of a case of media malfeasance than an actual missing link. Hyped as the “missing link in human evolution,” the monkey-like Darwinias received a blizzard of media coverage. It was even the Google logo the other day. However, when Carl Zimmer could not find commentary on the fossil from experts not involved in the research*, he made some old-fashioned phone calls and discovered that experts considered most of the evidence in the paper to be “old news.” Today, Zimmer posted a timeline of terribly bungled science hype.

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

I have a hard time even imagining how this behavior could be justified. I’ve sent emails to the contacts listed in the PLOS press release on Darwinius both at PLOS and Atlantic Productions to ask why they took this course of action.

It’s disappointing that such big science news has turned out to be mostly hot air. We don’t get the limelight all that often, and it’s a pity that PLoS squandered it.

Of course, Piled Higher and Deeper said it best.

* Corrected re: Carl’s comment below. Original sentance said that Carl was “unable to get a copy of the peer-reviewed research.”

Carnival of Evolution #10

April 1, 2009

coebutton1Dear Diary,

Have been wandering darkest depths of internet for days. Took a wrong turn at Wikipedia, stumbled over Twitter, and fell off cliff. Am hopelessly lost. Here be Hoxful Monsters, ready to force me to evolve by activating or deactivating my genes. Wondering if I am cute enough to induce locals into altruism via affect hunger, as Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology thinks that passing myself off as poor relative is likely to fail. Cry myself to sleep in strange electronic forest.

Dear Diary,

Was shocked to discover that gorgeously colored birds flicking about Grrlscientist’s place are racists that disapprove of mixed-head-color matings and sexists that think boys can handle stressful times better. Equally low moral character in local bonobos on The Primate Diaries – it’s quite egotistical to think that they most closely resemble human ancestors. The Primate Diaries leaves a bad taste in my mouth!

Dear Diary,

Starving. Searched for newly domesticated rice in Agricultural Biodiversity but alas, no rice until eastern China. Tried fishing for catfish but Grrlscientist scared me away with their complicated evolutionary history and lots of squeaking. Biochemicalsoul sent me frozen fish but since the fish had lost their oxygen-binding proteins they didn’t actually freeze, so they escaped.  I wish Greg Laden and his 300 million year old fish with a poor sense of vertical position were around – I bet I could catch one or the other. Sigh.

Dear Diary,

Everything’s becoming blurry. Maybe it’s sunstroke – Seeds Aside told me to be like ivy and use nectar for sunblock, but I don’t have any nectar. I can’t even tell what is a species anymore. Denim and Tweed says species are a continuum of reproductive isolation and Why Sharks Matter says that species aren’t real anyway! I don’t know what to think. Maybe this group of friendly creationists can help.

Dear Diary,

Friendly creationists were a bust. First Gravity and Levity refuted creation “science” comprehensively and with citations. Then Adaptive Complexity introduced them to the basic evidence for evolution by reviewing the book Why Evolution Is True. When the no-longer-friendly creationists feebly countered with examples of evolutionary frauds, Tangled Up in Blue Guy beat them lightly about the head and neck with the real facts about Haeckel and Piltdown Man and peppered moths and Archaeopteryx.

The sauciest one muttered about half a wing being useless, but Migration demonstrated that half a wing is useful indeed. The final straw was when the Evolving Mind noted that evolution does not inevitably lead to intelligence. They ran away, leaving me alone once more in the internet wilderness.

Dear Diary,

Aieee! There’s something horrifying crashing through the shrubbery and it’s coming closer! I remember that Observations of a Nerd told me to keep my stress low if I wanted high testosterone but now the ladies will never like me. To make matters worse, Anna’s Bones says that the human boner has no baculum bone! What if the crashing is make by the dread Zerg, alien bioengineers luring Dreams In Vitro onto a path of doom?

Dear Diary,

Am wearing a party hat & being stalked by short-faced bear. All that noise was Brian Malow getting DOWN with Lincoln and Darwin for their birthdays. Unfortunately party was so extreme that it ripped a hole in the space-time continuum, dumping us all 150,000 years in the past. Some party guests thought that de-evolution could protect them but instead were immediately eaten by leopards. Am not long for this lifGLAAAAARRRG…

This ancient diary was found by Daniel Brown next to the fossil of a short-nosed bear in a party hat. Oh, For the Love of Science! will continue interpreting it next month.

A killer proto-shrimp with a funny hat

March 19, 2009

This lovely critter is Hurdia victoria, which terrorized Cambrian seas 500 million years ago. Since being fossilized squished Hurdia into paleo-roadkill, scientists have only just reconstructed it from bits and pieces of the Burgess shale already in museum collections.

Hurdia, a primitive arthropod, was pretty monstrous for the time – up to a foot and a half long. It had a toothy circular jaw with little claws, compound eyes and a giant head carapace. Scientists think it might have lurked along the ocean floor, using its monstrous head to funnel trilobites to their doom.

For more Cambrian freakitude, check out the UC Berkeley’s Meet the Cambrian Critters. I adore their slightly cheesy yet completely awesome flash animations.

Thanks, J.P.!

Four new national landmarks!

March 7, 2009

The National Park Service named four new national natural landmarks. The lucky places include a Texas cave, Pensylvania meadows adapted to naturally toxic soil, and a Kentucky Pleistocene fossil site. But my favorite is the Chazy Fossil Reef in Vermont and New York.

The Chazy reef, located on an island in Lake Champlain, is thought to be the oldest fossil reef in the world. It contains gorgeous fossils from the dawn of ocean ecosystems 450 million years ago. From the Smithsonian Magazine:

The Chazy Reef is the oldest reef in the world built by a community of organisms (a few older reefs are made up of one species only). Its foundation was built by Bryozoa, animals that preceded coral by millions of years but exist in similar forms today. The soft-bodied animals, a fraction of an inch long, resemble twigs and gumdrops in shape.

In the next horizon we find the stromatoporoids, extinct relatives of sponges. Then comes an extinct type of algae, followed by actual sponges, more algae and the oldest-known reef-building coral. The coral species found in the Chazy Reef are also extinct. Some looked like flowers, others like organ pipes or honeycombs.

In its heyday, the reef was also home to a bizarre menagerie of other marine life. Large tentacled cephalopods, ancestors of the squid and nautilus, scarfed up trilobites. Crinoids, delicate animals related to starfish that looked like flowers atop a long stem, waved back and forth in the currents. Gastropods, or large snails, proliferated—some of the fossil swirls that “mar” radio black limestone.

The Congo River: Hotbed of weird fish diversity

February 15, 2009

A recent expedition to the Congo River found that fish isolated by waterfalls and the strong current have gotten really, really weird. Check out the elephant fish, which uses its crazy snout to hunt for food on the muddy bottom:

The leader of the expedition, fish biologist Melanie Stiassny, called their findings “evolution on steroids.”

Happy Darwin Day!

February 12, 2009

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth! From his discovery of evolution to his love of barnacles, sometimes I just want to tell Darwin how I feel. Fortunately, Something Positive is right there with me:

How a coccolithophore without its plates is like a grin without a cat

October 29, 2008

ResearchBlogging.orgDear Oyster’s Garter,

I’m a coccolithophore, a single-celled marine plant with a shell made of tiny plates. I come from a long line of mighty ocean warriors. Our massive blooms rule the waves, thriving in nutrient-poor waters where punier plankton fear to tread. (I don’t want to sound too scary, though – we are benevolent overlords, bringing nutrients to the barbarian hordes of the open sea.) My ancestors even created the White Cliffs of Dover!

But I fear that I am not living up to my mighty heritage. I was in the middle of our biggest bloom yet, photosynthesizing and asexually dividing just as fast as my chlorophyll could go. And then all of a sudden – BOOM! I found myself undergoing meiosis – sexual division! My beautiful calcium carbonate plates fell off, I lost half my chromosomes, and I grew unsightly scales and a hideous flagella. To make matters worse, just when I had undergone this shameful division, a horde of viruses attacked my bloom, killing most of my buddies. Am I a coward, doomed to drift alone?


Alone in the Atlantic

Dear Alone,

There comes a time in every young coccolithophore’s life in which your body changes in strange and new ways. New research published in PNAS by Miguel Frada & colleages discovered that when the virus visigoths are beseiging a coccolithophore bloom, some coccolithophores can hide by changing from the diploid (having paired chromosomes) armored non-swimming phase to a haploid (having only one of each chromosome) scaly flagellated phase.

Alone, your disconcerting change saved your life! If you had remained in your attractive plated stage, you would have been killed along with your bloom. But in your haploid phase, the virus couldn’t recognize you. Evolutionary theory predicts that coccolithophores and the viruses that love them should be locked in a “Red Queen” scenario – an arms race with everybody evolving new defenses and infection strategies as fast as they can. But it turns out that you coccolithophores are hiders, not fighters – instead of developing weapons, you use a “Cheshire Cat” strategy of hiding from the viruses right in plain sight.

So, Alone, relax, stop worrying, and enjoy the flagella – remember, in your other phase you can’t swim! Someday you’ll find the right haploid honey to fuse with, regain your plated diploid form, and live to bloom another day.

This is the second “Dear Oyster’s Garter” advice column. I had so much fun writing the first one I just couldn’t stop. As before, the inspiration and style is from my hero, Dr. Tatiana.

M. Frada, I. Probert, M. J. Allen, W. H. Wilson, C. de Vargas (2008). From the Cover: The “Cheshire Cat” escape strategy of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi in response to viral infection Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (41), 15944-15949 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0807707105

The Genius of Charles Darwin

August 12, 2008

Eric and I have been spending our evenings watching Mad Men – the take-home message of which is “OMG I’m SO GLAD that it’s not 1960!!!” If only we were fortunate enough to live in the UK, where we could both get decent Indian food and watch The Genius of Charles Darwin narrated by Richard Dawkins.

The Genius of Charles Darwin is a three-part series, part two of which was broadcast last night. (Alas, only on British Channel 4). In Part 1, Dawkins retraced Darwin’s scientific footsteps through Britain and South America. In Part 2, Dawkins examines human evolution and the implications of natural selection for human behavior. And in Part 3, yet to be broadcast, Dawkins will look at why religious people feel threatened by evolution.

Though people outside the UK can’t get the broadcast, the noble Beagle Project is on the case. They’re liveblogging the broadcasts and compiling media and blog reactions. Peter was kind enough to email me some video clips, but my blogular slackosity means that they are now unavailable. However, Channel 4 has posted a few samples here.

Part 1 liveblog

Part 1 reactions

Part 2 liveblog. Highlight: “Darwin realized that evolution was about attracting mates.   He’s now standing next to a busker in his underpants. In America.”

Evolution in the urban jungle

March 12, 2008

ResearchBlogging.orgI’ve written about my love of urban wildlife before, but this French weed is taking it to a whole new level. In the latest edition of PNAS, French scientists report that a humble sidewalk week has actually changed its reproductive strategy in just a few generations in order thrive amidst the vast concrete plains.

Crepis sancta is a weed with pretty yellow flowers that grows in little patches along roadsides and sidewalks. It has two types of seed: a fluffy one that can float far away, and a heavy one that stays right next to mommy. In the wild, Crepis would want to split its reproductive effort in order to both colonize new patches with the fluffy windblown seeds and to maintains its population with the heavy falling seeds.

But, of course, the wild has soil every which way, and the city does not. Fluffy seeds that land on concrete are dead. In fact, the French scientists found that fluffy seeds in the city have success rates 50% lower than fluffy seeds in the wild.

What’s a savvy urban plant to do? Make more heavy seeds, of course. Urban Crepis do indeed have significantly more heavy seeds than rural Crepis – and it’s managed to evolve this change in only 5-12 generations. In evolutionary time, that’s a New York minute. Next thing you know, Crepis will be ordering takeout and dancing till the sun comes up.

(Note that it’s my very first time officially Blogging on Peer Reviewed Research! Go to Research Blogging for more researchy goodness.)

Cheptou, P., Carrue, O., Rouifed, S., Cantarel, A. (2008). Rapid evolution of seed dispersal in an urban environment in the weed Crepis sancta. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(10), 3796-3799. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0708446105


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