A tiny fraction of vertebrate species have ever been seen reproducing through parthenogenesis, the fatherless birth of offspring in which the embryo develops without fertilization by a male. Now you can add boa constrictors to that short list: A study in Biology Letters documents the case of a boa that gave birth to 22 offspring over the last two years, all of whom are female and born this unusual way.
“Only with the development and application of molecular tools have we truly begun to understand how common this form of reproduction may be,” lead author Warren Booth [says]. Booth, a research associate at North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology, and his team first suspected something was up when the mother boa constrictor gave birth, twice, to a total of 22 caramel-colored females. The males housed with the female did not carry the gene for this recessive color trait. [Discovery News]
When Booth’s team analyzed the DNA of the young snakes, they found no evidence of paternity by any of the males who’d mated with their mother previously. Furthermore, the chromosomes of the 22 young gave them away.
Imagine taking a course of antibiotics and suddenly finding that your sexual preferences have changed. Individuals who you once found attractive no longer have that special allure. That may sound far-fetched, but some fruit flies at Tel Aviv University have just gone through that very experience. They’re part of some fascinating experiments by Gil Sharon, who has shown that the bacteria inside the flies’ guts can actually shape their sexual choices.
The guts of all kinds of animals, from flies to humans, are laden with bacteria and other microscopic passengers. This ‘microbiome’ acts as a hidden organ. It includes trillions of genes that outnumber those of their hosts by hundreds of times. They affect our health, influencing the risk of obesity and chronic diseases. They affect our digestion, by breaking down chemicals in our food that we wouldn’t normally be able to process. And, at least in flies, they can alter sexual preferences, perhaps even contributing to the rise of new species.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons
The snowy, wind-blown Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda may be inhospitable, but because it is inhospitable, it is an ideal natural laboratory. The last people left this place behind nearly a century ago, but the sheep stayed. And the in absence of human interference in their breeding, the sheep of St. Kilda have shown scientists something peculiar.
It has to do with the relationship between the immune system and reproduction. Andrea Graham and colleagues have studied the islands’ Soay sheep for years and years, and found the average lifespan of the ewes to be about 6 years. However, there’s great variation in there: Some lived just a few years, and some as many as 15.
The short-lived ewes had lower concentrations of antibodies than the longer-lived ones, which suggested why their lives were so short. But why was natural selection not weeding them out? Dr. Graham said the researchers found this to be a puzzle: “What are all these sheep doing with low antibody concentrations?” [The New York Times]
A new study of 218 Chinese men found that even low levels of the controversial plastics chemical bisphenol A (BPA) can lower sperm quality and count.
For the study, which was published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, researchers noted the participants’ sperm quality and urine BPA levels over five years. When compared to participants without detectable levels of the chemical, men with BPA in their urine were three times more likely to have low quality sperm.
“This adds additional human evidence that BPA is bad,” said [the study's first author] De-Kun Li…. “The general public should probably try to avoid exposure to BPA as much as they can.” [Washington Post]
That’s a tough order, because BPA is all over the place. It’s found in everything from sports equipment to medical devices to the plastic lining in canned foods.
Li’s previous studies have shown sexual effects of high levels of BPA, including inducing impotence in male factory workers exposed to it. Those studies were done with men exposed to about 50 times as much BPA as the average U.S. man, so the results might not apply to your average Joe.
During an unusual bureaucratic meeting yesterday, members of California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration sat down with representatives of California’s porn industry to talk about safe sex.
Last year, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed a petition asking Cal/OSHA to tighten health regulations on the porn industry. And the issue was brought to the fore this month when an adult-film performer tested positive for HIV, which brought several porn production studios to a halt while the industry scrambled to determine the source of the infection and to test the performer’s partners.
At yesterday’s meeting, Cal/OSHA officials went over the existing rules, which were originally written to protect health care workers and were only later applied to porn performers. The rules require employers to protect their employees against blood-borne pathogens via “barrier protection,” which in the hospital world probably means rubber gloves, face masks, and the like. In the porn industry, the obvious protective measure would be requiring male performers to wear condoms, but in straight films that hasn’t come to pass (in gay films, condoms are standard).
Earlier today we noted that Robert Edwards won a 2010 Nobel Prize for his work developing in vitro fertilization. But more than three decades after Edwards’ work came to fruition with the first IVF child’s birth, the technique is still somewhat haphazard—two-thirds of the time, it doesn’t lead to a live birth. Now, with a new approach to watching the first day or two of an embryo’s existence, scientists may be able to take a leap forward in both their understanding of a life’s first moments and in the success rate of IVF.
In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, Connie Wong and colleagues watched nearly 250 embryos develop over six days. They made the videos like the one seen above using time-lapse photography at the microscopic level, which showed the key differences between successful and failed embryos.
Successful embryos had an initial cytokinesis, or division of the cell’s cytoplasm, lasting between 0 and 33 minutes, a gap between first and second cell divisions lasting 7.8 – 14.3 hours, and an interval between second and third cell divisions of 0 – 5.8 hours. The pattern was so uniform that it was possible to automate the analytical process, using a computer algorithm to predict whether embryos would go on to develop successfully. [Nature]
For tiny spores, there’s no defeating gravity—unless they work together.
The pathogenic fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum travels from place to place by shooting its spores up in the air to be carried away, the same way many plants and fungi spread. A single spore, however, can barely get airborne before it falls back to the surface. A species isn’t going to spread far with that kind of flight time, but luckily, this fungus has a solution. It blasts its spores en masse, creating a wind current that helps them all drift away to new homes.
From Ed Yong:
Right from its entrance, Disneyland is designed to cast an illusion upon its visitors. The first area – Main Street – seems to stretch for miles towards the towering castle in the distance. All of this relies on visual trickery. The castle’s upper bricks and the upper levels of Main Street’s buildings are much smaller than their ground-level counterparts, making everything seem taller. The buildings are also angled towards the castle, which makes Main Street seem longer, building the anticipation of guests.
These techniques are examples of forced perspective, a trick of the eye that makes objects seem bigger or smaller, further or closer than they actually are. These illusions were used by classical architects to make their buildings seem grander, by filmmakers to make humans look like hobbits, and by photographers to create amusing shots. But humans aren’t the only animals to use forced perspective. In the forests of Australia, the male great bowerbird uses the same illusions to woo his mate.
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Image: Current Biology / John Endler
Most human men would be appalled at the idea of their mothers helping them to get laid. But then again, we’re hardly as sexually carefree as bonobos. While these apes live in female-led societies, the males also have a strict pecking order. For those at the bottom, mum’s assistance may be the only thing that allows them to father the next generation.
Martin Surbeck from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found that bonobo mothers will help to usher their sons into the best spots for meeting females, and they’ll sometimes help their sons in conflicts with other males. Thanks to their help, their sons get more shots at sex than they would otherwise.
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Analyzing the breeding habits of 267 bird species, two researchers have found that it may pay for some birds to stay true to their partners.
Cooperative breeders–birds that help raise each others’ young–appear to be more monogamous. Researchers looked at the number of broods with a half brother or sister, the products of a mother bird’s free-loving ways. Cooperative birds’ cheating rate averaged around 12 percent, while noncooperative birds around 23 percent. Also, the most promiscuous cooperative birds appeared to receive less help from other birds in the nest.
These findings support the theories of evolutionary biologist Jacobus Boomsma (who wasn’t involved in this study), who has tried to explain the puzzle of cooperative behavior that doesn’t directly benefit the helpful individual. Boomsma believes that social animals cooperate to raise their relatives’ offspring as a roundabout way to pass on the family genes, but argues that monogomy is a necessary condition for this to work.
[With monogamous pairings] all siblings are equally related to each other and to each parent. Promiscuity, on the other hand, leads to many half-siblings and lowers the relatedness of individuals in a group. [ScienceNOW]