Cornell Gets Infected Tomorrow

By Carl Zimmer | November 7, 2006 9:56 am

Attention all Loom readers in the Cornell University area: I’m heading up to Ithaca to give a talk tomorrow on a subject near and dear to my heart–how parasites turn their hosts into puppets and slaves. I’ll be at the David Call auditorium in Kennedy Hall at 4 pm. The lecture is open to the public and will, of course, include a very creepy Powerpoint. Details here, map here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Talks, The Parasite Files

Comments (4)

  1. snaxalotl

    correction. zombie carl will be appearing at cornell, giving a speech dictated by his parasites. you’re not fooling anyone, parasites … carl seems to know just a little too much about the subject

  2. Dave Matthews

    Great talk today!

    The most interesting part scientifically was the question about which of a
    parasite’s traits are evolutionarily adaptive and which are only incidental.
    The blind watchmaker’s watch vs. the spandrel.

    The most powerful approach to this question is genetics. Knock out or
    modify the trait genetically (or find natural genetic variations), and test
    whether it affects the parasitic interaction.

    This approach is quite easy to do in some cases, but not (yet) in most of
    the fascinating examples you discussed. It’s easier for bacterial and viral
    parasites (aka pathogens, same thing). Primarily because their short
    generation times allow accelerated evolution. In addition some viruses like
    influenza have high mutation rates and correspondingly large numbers of
    progeny per generation. John Barry’s The
    Great Influenza
    is excellent about influenza virus evolution.

    You didn’t mention the evolution of hosts in response to the parasites.
    (It was only an hour’s talk.) For example the selection of hemoglobin genes
    resistant to malaria’s sickle-cell-anemia effects. In the world of plant
    parasites there are fascinating examples of “gene-for-gene” coevolution, one
    resistance gene in the host corresponding to each of the parasite’s genes for
    virulence, and vice versa, a coevolutionary arms war. This is an ongoing
    coevolution in real time, year to year. Right now a new mutation in the wheat
    parasite, stem rust
    , threatens to spread worldwide before plant breeders
    can find and deploy a resistance gene to prevent devastation. Norman Borlaug
    and millions of research dollars are involved in this effort.

    - – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
    David E. Matthews, Ph.D. USDA-ARS Plant Genome Database Curator
    Cornell University Email: matthews@greengenes.cit.cornell.edu
    Department of Plant Breeding Phone: +1-607-255-9951
    409 Bradfield Hall Fax: +1-607-255-6683
    Ithaca, New York 14853, USA GrainGenes: http://wheat.pw.usda.gov

  3. Dave Matthews

    Parasitic plants are another topic you didn’t have time to mention. Orobanche,
    the broomrape
    , is amazing. A snapdragon with no leaves, nothing
    green, just the showy flower spike and an organ that saps all its nutrition
    from the host (tomato, sunflower, others).

    How does a parasitic plant find its victims, the hosts for its next
    generation? Each Orobanche flower makes thousands of tiny seeds,
    nearly microscopic. These seeds sift down into the soil and wait. For
    years. Until a root of their host plant grows very close, ca. 2 mm. Not
    until then will the seed germinate, detecting a specific chemical exuded from
    the root. The minuscule germinated root invades the host’s root, and by
    summer there’s a fine Orobanche flower spike and a very sick tomato.

    Orobanche is an economically important parasite in
    some places, e.g. for tomato in Israel and chickpea in southern Europe. A
    related species, Striga
    (witchweed)
    is a serious problem for maize and sorghum in sub-Saharan
    Africa, and has become established in North Carolina where eradication
    efforts have been ongoing for twenty years.

  4. Dave Matthews

    Great talk today!

    The most interesting part scientifically was the question about which of a
    parasite’s traits are evolutionarily adaptive and which are only incidental.
    The blind watchmaker’s watch vs. the spandrel.

    The most powerful approach to this question is genetics. Knock out or
    modify the trait genetically (or find natural genetic variations), and test
    whether it affects the parasitic interaction.

    This approach is quite easy to do in some cases, but not (yet) in most of
    the fascinating examples you discussed. It’s easier for bacterial and viral
    parasites (aka pathogens, same thing). Primarily because their short
    generation times allow accelerated evolution. In addition some viruses like
    influenza have high mutation rates and correspondingly large numbers of
    progeny per generation. John Barry’s The
    Great Influenza
    is excellent about influenza virus evolution.

    You didn’t mention the evolution of hosts in response to the parasites.
    (It was only an hour’s talk.) For example the selection of hemoglobin genes
    resistant to malaria’s sickle-cell-anemia effects. In the world of plant
    parasites there are fascinating examples of “gene-for-gene” coevolution, one
    resistance gene in the host corresponding to each of the parasite’s genes for
    virulence, and vice versa, a coevolutionary arms war. This is an ongoing
    coevolution in real time, year to year. Right now a new mutation in the wheat
    parasite, stem rust
    , threatens to spread worldwide before plant breeders
    can find and deploy a resistance gene to prevent devastation. Norman Borlaug
    and millions of research dollars are involved in this effort.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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