A different version of this story appears at The Scientist.
Honeybee workers spend their whole lives toiling for their hives, never ascending to the royal status of queens. But they can change careers. At first, they’re nurses, which stay in the hive and tend to their larval sisters. Later on, they transform into foragers, which venture into the outside world in search of flowers and food.
This isn’t just a case of flipping between tasks. Nurses and foragers are very distinct sub-castes that differ in their bodies, mental abilities, and behaviour – foragers, for example, are the ones that use the famous waggle dance. “[They’re] as different as being a scientist or journalist,” explains Gro Amdam, who studies bee behaviour. “It’s really amazing that they can sculpt themselves into those two roles that require very specialist skills.” The transformation between nurse and forager is significant, but it’s also reversible. If nurses go missing, foragers can revert back to their former selves to fill the employment gap.
Amdam likens them to the classic optical illusion (shown on the right) which depicts both a young debutante and an old crone. “The bee genome is like this drawing,” she says. “It has both ladies in it. How is the genome able to make one of them stand out and then the other?
The answer lies in ‘epigenetic’ changes that alter how some of the bees’ genes are used, without changing the underlying DNA. Amdam and her colleague Andrew Feinberg found that the shift from nurse to forager involves a set of chemical marks, added to the DNA of few dozen genes. These marks, known as methyl groups, are like Post-It notes that dictate how a piece of text should be read, without altering the actual words. And if the foragers change back into nurses, the methylation marks also revert.
Together, they form a toolkit for flexibility, a way of seeing both the crone and the debutante in the same picture, a way of eking out two very different and reversible skill-sets from the same genome.
New Scientist published a story yesterday stating that rosacea – a common skin disease characterised by red blotches on one’s face – may be “caused” (more on this later) by “tiny bugs closely related to spiders living in the pores of your face.” Tiny bugs that “crawl about your face in the dark”, lay eggs in your pores, and release a burst of faeces when they die.
This is the terrifying world of the Demodex mite. And by “terrifying world”, I mean your face. For anyone who wants to know more, and who isn’t currently clawing at their cheeks or bleaching their head (health tip: don’t), here’s everything you never wanted to know about your face-mites.
Say hello to my little friend
Mites are relatives of ticks, spiders, scorpions and other arachnids. Over 48,000 species have been described. Around 65 of them belong to the genus Demodex, and two of those live on your face. There’s D.folliculorum, the round-bottomed, bigger one (top image, above) and there’s D.brevis, the pointy-bottomed, smaller one (bottom image, above). These two species are evolution’s special gift to you. They live on humans and humans alone. Other Demodex mites have similarly specific preferences: D.canis, for example, is a dog-lover.
Both species are sausage-shaped, with eight stubby legs clustered in their front third. At a third of a millimetre long, D.folliculorum is the bigger of the two. It was discovered independently in 1841 by two scientists, but only properly described a year later by Gustav Simon, a German dermatologist. He was looking at acne spots under a microscope when he noticed a “worm-like object” with a head and legs. Possibly an animal? He extracted it, pressed it between two slides, and saw that it moved. Definitely an animal. A year later, Richard Owen gave the mite its name, from the Greek words ‘demo’, meaning lard, and ‘dex’, meaning boring worm. The worm that bores into fat. I can only assume that Simon and Owen spent the rest of their lives feeling a little itchy.
These mites are our most common ectoparasites (those that stay on the surface of our bodies, rather than burrowing inside). They’ve been found in every ethnic group where people have cared to look, from white Europeans to Australian aborigines to Devon Island Eskimos. In 1976, legendary mite specialist William Nutting wrote:
“One can conclude that wherever mankind is found, hair follicle mites will be found and that the transfer mechanism is 100% effective! (One of my students noted it was undoubtedly the first invertebrate metazoan to visit the moon!)”
But it’s hard to say exactly how common they are. The first estimate came from a 1903 study, which found the critters in 49 out of 100 French cadavers. The next count, from 1908, found them in 97 out of 100 German cadavers. The nationalities are probably a red herring. What’s clearer is that age matters. The mites aren’t inherited at birth, so each generation picks them up anew, probably from direct contact with our parents. Thanks, parents! If you’re under 20, good news! A French study from 1972 says that you’ve only got a 4 percent chance of carrying Demodex. If you’re old, bad news! You’ve almost certainly got Demodex somewhere.
The mites spend most of their time buried head-down in our hair follicles – the stocking-shaped organs that enclose and produce our hairs. They’re most commonly found in our eyelids, nose, cheeks, forehead and chin. That’s not to say they’re restricted to the face: Demodex has been found in the hairs of the ear canal, nipple, groin, chest, forearm, penis, and butt too. Generally, dry skin is a turn-off for them. They prize bodily real estate that’s flooded with oils (sebum). This explains why they love your face. It might also explain why their numbers are apparently higher in the summer, when hot temperatures ramp up sebum production.
A mite-y existence
How do Demodex mites spend their time? They eat! Some say they eat sebum, but Nutting thought that such a diet wouldn’t be nutritious enough. Instead, he said that they feast on the cells that line the follicle, sucking out their innards with a retractable needle in the middle of a round mouth. On either side of the mouth, D.folliculorum has a seven-clawed organ (a “palpus”) for securing itself to what it’s eating. “All of the structures formed a sharp, offensive weapon,” writes Xu Jing, who first looked at them under an electron microscope. (D.brevis, with its five-clawed palpus, was branded as “less offensive”.)
They crawl! They move about in darkness and freeze in bright lights. The fact that mites have been found on the surface of the skin suggests that they emerge from follicles at night for shadowy strolls across our faces. With their stumpy legs, they’re hardly fast. It would take almost half a day for Demodex to cover the distance from your ear to your nose.*
They don’t poo! The mite has no anus, and stores its waste in large cells within its gut. Nutting saw these as adaptations for a life spent head-down in a tightly closed space. When the mite dies, its body disintegrates and the waste is released. More on this later.
And they have sex! On your face! Their favourite hook-up spots are the rims of your hair follicles. Males outnumber females by three to five times, but this detail aside, Demodex sex lacks much of the horror found throughout the arachnid clan. No traumatic insemination. No cannibalism. The penis and vulva are hidden within the pairs of legs. (Jing wrote that D.folliculorum’s penis “looks like a small candle when it was elongated”. He failed to see D.brevis’s.)
After sex, the female buries into the follicle (if it’s D.folliculorum), or into a nearby sebaceous gland (if it’s D.brevis). Half a day later, she lays her eggs. Two and a half days later, they hatch. The young mites take six days to reach adulthood, and they live for around five more. Their entire lives play out over the course of two weeks.
People with rosacea should look away now
Are they parasites, or something more benign? For the most part, it seems that they eat, crawl and mate on your face without harmful effects. They could help us by eating bacteria or other microbes in the follicles, although there’s little evidence for this. Their eggs, clawed legs, spiny mouthparts, and salivary enzymes could all provoke an immune response, but this generally doesn’t seem to happen.
But like many of our body’s microscopic residents, Demodex appears to be an opportunist, whose populations bloom to detrimental numbers when our defences are down. Several studies, for example, have found that they’re more common in people with HIV, children with leukaemia, or patients on immunosuppressive drugs. Perhaps changes to the environment of the skin also allow the mites to proliferate beyond their usual levels.
In dogs, an overabundance of D.canis can trigger a potentially lethal condition called demodectic mange, or demodicosis. In humans, these blooms have been linked to skin diseases like acne, rosacea and blepharitis (eyelid inflammation). The New Scientist piece will undoubtedly bring this to many people’s attention, but scientists have been talking about such connections for decades. The rosacea link was first put forward in 1925!
Dermatologists have since repeatedly found that Demodex is more common in the cheeks of people with rosacea. In one study, those with the condition had an average of 12.8 mites per square centimetre of skin, compared to 0.7 in unaffected people. And according to an analysis of 48 separate studies, people with rosacea are eight times more likely to have a Demodex infestation. Obviously, correlation not causation, blah blah blah, you know the drill.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence about mite-killing treatments and clinical improvements (here’s the latest involving tea-tree oil), but very little in the way of hard clinical trial evidence. An example: metronidazole is sometimes used to treat Demodex infestations, and there’s evidence from three clinical trials that it’s effective at treating rosacea (a Cochrane review, and everything!). Then again, Demodex can survive high concentrations of metronidazole, so maybe the mites are irrelevant to the substance’s actions.
In the new review, covered by New Scientist, Kevin Kavanagh suggests that rosacea may be caused not by the mites themselves, but by the bacteria in their faeces. After all, antibiotics that kill the bacteria, but are harmless to the mites, can sometimes successfully treat rosacea. But again: more correlations. The bacterial angle is fascinating, though. We know so little about these creatures that colonise our bodies, and now we must contend with our even greater ignorance of the creatures that colonise their bodies. Down the rabbit-hole we go!
And finally, if all of this sounds unbearably revolting, spare a thought for people with acarophobia – the fear of mites and other “small bugs that cause itching.” What words of solace can we offer to them? Here’s Nutting:
“Those patients with acarophobia (approximately 12 have been seen in our laboratory) seem curable if they follow a prescription which includes a relaxing vacation at the beach. If they insist on a follow-up examination for hair follicle mites, the situation is a bit delicate because most will still be positive. Diplomacy will prevail—only two of our 12 have failed to respond!”
Images: top photos from Nutting, 1976, HAIR FOLLICLE MITES (ACARI: DEMODICIDAE) OF MAN.
* One review I read quoted their speed at 16 centimetres per hour. Another said 16 millimetres. Given the stubby legs, the centimetre value surely cannot be right, so I’m going with millimetres.
None of our machines can do what a cuttlefish or octopus can do with its skin: change its pattern, colour, and texture to perfectly blend into its surroundings, in matter of milliseconds. Take a look at this classic video of an octopus revealing itself.
But Stephen Morin from Harvard University has been trying to duplicate this natural quick-change ability with a soft-bodied, colour-changing robot. For the moment, it comes nowhere near its natural counterparts – its camouflage is far from perfect, it is permanently tethered to cumbersome wires, and its changing colours have to be controlled by an operator. But it’s certainly a cool (and squishy) step in the right direction.
The camo-bot is an upgraded version of a soft-bodied machine that strode out of George Whitesides’ laboratory at Harvard University last year. That white, translucent machine ambled about on four legs, swapping hard motors and hydraulics for inflatable pockets of air. Now, Morin has fitted the robot’s back with a sheet of silicone containing a network of tiny tubes, each less than half a millimetre wide. By pumping coloured liquids through these “microfluidic” channels, he can change the robot’s colour in about 30 seconds.
Sticking to surfaces and walking up walls are so commonplace among insects that they risk becoming boring. But the green dock beetle has a fresh twist on this tired trick: it can stick to surfaces underwater. The secret to its aquatic stride is a set of small bubbles trapped beneath its feet. This insect can plod along underwater by literally walking on air.
The green dock beetle (Gastrophysa viridula) is a gorgeous European resident with a metallic green shell, occasionally streaked with rainbow hues. It can walk on flat surfaces thanks to thousands of hairs on the claws of their feet, which fit into the microscopic nooks and crannies of whatever’s underfoot. Most beetles have the same ability, and some boost the adhesive power of their hairs by secreting a sticky oil onto them.
These adaptations work well enough in dry conditions, but they ought to fail on wet surfaces. Water molecules should interfere with the hairs’ close contact, and disrupt the adhesive power of the oil. “People believed that beetles have no ability to walk under water,” says Naoe Hosoda from the National Institute for Material Science in Tuskuba, Japan.
They were clearly wrong. Together with Stanislav Gorb from the Zoological Institute at the University of Kiel, Germany, she clearly showed that the green dock beetle has no problems walking underwater. The duo captured 29 wild beetles, and allowed them to walk off a stick onto the bottom of a water bath. Once there, they kept on walking. Read More
If you grew up on a diet of 1980s cartoons, as I did, you will have seen many a giant robot shoot many a rocket-propelled fist into many a big monster. Sadly, there are no rocket punches in the real world, but I can give you the next best thing: a squid that can grabs its enemies with flashing, writhing, self-amputating arms.
The squid in question is Octopoteuthis deletron, a beautiful red animal with hook-lined arms, which grows to around five inches in length. I’ve written about it before – the males have a tendency to indiscriminately implant members of both sexes with sperm.
There are thousands of termite species, and many engage in chemical warfare. Some squirt noxious chemicals from nozzles on their heads. Others violently rupture their own bodies to release sticky immobilising fluids, sacrificing themselves for the good of their sisters. Their range of weapons is astounding, and Jan Sobotnik from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and Thomas Bourguignon from the Université Libre de Bruxelles have just found a new one.
They were studying the termite Neocapritermes taracua when he noticed that some workers have a pair of dark blue spots in the gap between their torsos and abdomens. When other termites attack their colony, the blue workers bite the intruders and burst, releasing a drop of fluid that soon becomes sticky gel. Watch it happen in the video below – the black dot in the middle of the droplet are intestines and other internal organs).
Some folks just can’t help being loud in bed, but noisy liaisons can lead to a swift death… at least for a housefly. In a German cowshed, Natterer’s bats eavesdrop on mating flies, homing in on their distinctive sexual buzzes.
Based on some old papers, Stefan Greif form the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology knew that Natterer’s bats shelter in cowsheds and sometimes feed on the flies within. What he didn’t know was how the bats catch insects that they shouldn’t be able to find. They hunt with sonar, releasing high-pitched squeaks and visualising the world in the returning echoes. Normally, the echoes rebounding from the flies would be masked by those bouncing off the rough, textured surface of the shed’s ceiling. The flies should be invisible.
And they mostly are. Greif filmed thousands of flies walking on the shed’s ceiling, and not a single one of them was ever targeted by a bat. That changed as soon as they started having sex. Greif found that a quarter of mating flies are attacked by bats. Just over half of the attacks were successful and in almost all of these, the bat swallowed both partners.
Insects have been around for almost 400 million years. That’s plenty of time for evolution to fashion countless horrific deaths for them. Case in point: some insects die because a little worm vomits glowing bacteria inside their bodies.
The worm is Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, a microscopic creature used by gardeners the world over to control insect pests. Its accomplice-in-insecticide is a shiny bacterium called Photorhabdus luminescens, which only lives in the worm’s guts.
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”.)
Imagine trying to talk to two people at the same time. I don’t mean just talking to one and then the other – I mean simultaneously saying different things to both of them. And in one of those conversations, you’re pretending to be someone of the opposite sex. That’s exactly the exchange that Culum Brown from Macquarie University has witnessed off the east coast of Australia.
The speakers were mourning cuttlefish – relatives of octopus and squid, and masters of camouflage. By rapidly expanding and contracting sacs of pigment in their skin, cuttlefish can turn their entire bodies into living video displays. Colours appear and vanish. Mesmeric waves cascade across their flanks. They can even produce different patterns on the two halves of their bodies.
Brown saw a male cuttlefish swimming between a female and a rival male, and displaying different messages to both of them. On his left half, the one the female could see, he flashed zebra-stripe courtship colours to advertise his interest. But on his right half, facing the rival male, he flashed the mottled colours of a female. As far as the competitor was concerned, he was swimming next to two females, oblivious to the act of cross-dressing/seduction going on right next to him. The cheater, meanwhile, prospers.
To become both a lover and a fighter, the male spider Nephilengys malabarensis snaps off his penis inside his partner while they have sex. He becomes better at fending off other males who try to mate with her, because his now-lightened body can fight for longer without tiring. And while he’s playing the guardian, his detached genitals can continue pumping sperm into the female. Through self-castration, he gets more stamina, and he gets more stamina.