Any depth of understanding of biology and ecology is accompanied by this inevitable conclusion: parasites rule the world.
They’re the “man behind the curtain” as fans of Oz would put it. They are the directors and stage managers of the grand production that is life on this Earth, nature’s finest puppeteers, and that we think we have any modicum of control over any species’ physiology in comparison (including our own) is downright laughable.
The latest reminder of our inadequacy when it comes to manipulating biology comes from a fresh paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, scientists describe how the parasitoid wasp, Dinocampus coccinellae, is able to manipulate its host, the ladybug Coleomegilla maculata: it uses another parasite, a never-before seen RNA virus.
Life as a fish larva is tough.
Your odds of survival are slim to none. First off, you can’t swim all that well, so you’re mostly-drifting around in the ocean hoping that, when it’s time for you to settle down, you find yourself somewhere suitable. You’re also really, really small — the perfect morsel for tons of other species, from jellies to krill and even other fish. And your parents? They just abandoned you, sent you and your hundreds of siblings into the harsh real world without giving you anything to help you survive.
Unless you’re a larval pufferfish, that is. Your mom and dad may not win any parenting awards, but they didn’t leave you with absolutely nothing. Your mom did something that would make other reef fish larvae incredibly jealous, and that just might save your life: she gave you poison.
Tuna are some of the most popular fishes on Earth. Globally, more than 4.3 million tonnes of tuna are caught every year, valued at more than $5.5 billion dollars. Yellowfin tuna, the species most commonly labeled as ahi in sushi restaurants nationwide, is the preferred tuna in developed nations like the US and the UK, but the world’s favorite sashimi may soon be stricken from the menu, as scientists have found that mercury levels in tuna are rising at a rate of 3.8% or more annually. More importantly, the rapid rise suggests a growing global problem that may lead to unsafe mercury levels in many fishes, even ones that are now considered completely safe. Read More
It seems like the outcry against a potential trial of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has become a national news topic nearly overnight. Though Oxitec has been considering the plan for years, a recent town hall received attention from the Associated Press, and BOOM — suddenly, it seems like everyone is talking about GM mozzies. As I explained in my last post, the bulk of the conversation is centered around fear of GM technology, though the fears of “mutant DNA” causing human health problems are completely baseless. But the science doesn’t seem to matter: people just don’t trust GMOs, no matter what anyone says about them. Read More
In the past few days, a new “GMO scandal” has hit the headlines. The UK biotech firm Oxitec has proposed the release of special genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to help with current mosquito control efforts. Or, according to the media:
The Washington Post actually called them “genetically modified killer mosquitoes” in their headline, warning that they “may attack Florida Keys”. George Dvorsky for io9 cautions that “Millions Of Mutated Mosquitoes Could Be Unleashed In Florida—On Purpose”. It’s safe to say news of the FDA’s deliberations on whether to allow these “Frankenstein mosquitoes” are causing quite the stir. There’s even a Change.org petition to fight the release, with nearly 140,000 signatures.
While these mosquitoes are genetically modified, they aren’t “cross-bred with the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria” (that would be an interkingdom ménage à trois!)—and no, they cannot be “used to bite people and essentially make them immune to dengue fever and chikungunya” (they aren’t carrying a vaccine!). The mosquitoes that Oxitec have designed are what scientists call “autocidal” or possess a “dominant lethal genetic system“, which is mostly fancy wording for “they die all by themselves”. The males carry inserted DNA which causes the mosquitoes to depend upon a dietary supplement that is easy to provide in the lab, but not available in nature. When the so-called mutants breed with normal females, all of the offspring require the missing dietary supplement because the suicide genes passed on from the males are genetically dominant. Thus, the offspring die before they can become adults. The idea is, if you release enough such males in an area, then the females won’t have a choice but to mate with them. That will mean there will be few to no successful offspring in the next generation, and the population is effectively controlled. Oxitec hopes to release millions of autocidal Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Keys because that species is a vector for deadly diseases, and Oxitec is hoping that reducing mosquito populations will protect residents. You would think that would be a good thing—but the headlines and rhetoric of the media suggest otherwise. Read More
In December, I had the amazing opportunity to spend almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon at the Tambopata Research Center to do research for a book I’m writing on venoms.
The Amazon is home to some of the most notorious venomous animals on Earth. There’s the bullet ant: an animal whose venom is so painful, it is said to be like getting shot. Then there are the wandering spiders: large, aggressive arachnids known for their deadly bite. And that’s not even getting into the various snakes with venoms potent enough to kill in less than an hour.
But while I was expecting the cornucopia of venomous animals, I was completely unprepared—and amazed—by the array of defenses employed by the Amazon’s flora. It seemed even the most gentle of plant species was armed with some kind of spine or spike, and if it wasn’t, you could pretty much bet it had enlisted an army of ants instead.
It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2014…
…I have posted 33 posts
…that received over four hundred thousand views
…from 218 countries/territories
…with 595 comments
The most popular post of the year was my scathing interrogation of Discovery Channel’s nefarious tactics, with my complete shredding of Sharkageddon not far behind. Second most popular was my step-by-step analysis of the death of Marius the giraffe. Last year’s posts on how dolphins might not be getting high on tetrodotoxin and my open letter to Discovery Channel for their terrible Megalodon fauxmentary stayed in the top ten this year. Other critiques also did very well, as my comments on George Will and Rosie O’Donnell also landed in the top ten. Other popular posts included 19 things more deadly than sharks at the beach, why the trust hormone increases deceit, and how sea stars see.
Perhaps the highlight of the blogging year, though, was winning the second place prize in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize, The Strange Quark, for my piece and about how allergies may have evolved to save your life. I’ve also been busy outside of the blog—I successfully defended my dissertation this month, exchanging “Ms.” for “Dr.”. The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, which I am co-editing with Bethany Brookshire and Jason Goldman, will hopefully be coming out near the end of 2015, and I’m in the final stages of writing my first non-fiction pop-science book on venoms. I just got back from almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon—stay tuned for more stories from that next year.
Overall, it’s been an incredible year, and I look forward to the challenges, surprises, and joys of the year to come. Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2015!
Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia
This is a guest post by PhD student and science writer Jake Buehler. He blogs over at Sh*t You Didn’t Know About Biology, which is full of his “unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth’s under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories.”
Today is Thanksgiving. While as a holiday it is unique to the US and a few others, in many ways, Thanksgiving is universal. Basically every culture throughout history has had a celebratory feast before the dark of winter sets in. Harkening back to ancient harvest celebrations, Thanksgiving is about expressing thanks for all the good things in our lives. Though it has nearly been commercialized to death with Black Friday sales and overdone parades, underneath all that fluff is a holiday geared towards gratitude, a time to reflect upon one’s life and all of the little things there are to be thankful for. Read More
Two weeks from Friday, I’ll be defending my dissertation. It’s a moment five and a half years in the making, one that I’ve been excited for and nervous about for years. I should be eagerly anticipating the moment I step up to that podium, and even more eagerly anticipating the moment I step down, when if all goes well I’ll transition from PhD Candidate to University of Hawaii Alumnus. Instead, the thought of being an alum of this school leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Right now, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is in bad shape. Years of budget mismanagement have led to a terrifying crisis, in which the main teaching departments are struggling to afford the instructors and teaching assistants they need to meet the demand of their students. The Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, Kathy Cutshaw, has been giving a “budget roadshow” presentation showing that the university it outspending its tuition revenue by almost $31 million. The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Reed Dasenbrock, has pushed the colleges to immediately cut spending to rectify this, though such cuts are deep and harm the quality of education that can be provided to the university’s students. The Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, however, keeps telling the media that the university as a whole is “in the black.” There is no transparency, no explanation for Dasenbrock’s sudden urgency, and no reason why dozens of TAs are fearful of the future—of what is coming next fall even if, as Dasenbrock is now saying, it doesn’t come this spring.
UH is not the only university in the country with systemic budget problems. It’s not the only university where graduate students are not unionized, leaving them unprotected. It’s not the only university where politics and greed have trumped the mission of the school to provide a quality education. And it’s not the only university where the graduate students have been compelled to rise up and fight back. But it’s not any university—it’s my university.
Ani DiFranco once sang “We have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say. ‘Cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.” I love the University of Hawaii. I love the lab that has been my home away from home, the colleagues that have become my family, and the school that has allowed me to get to this point in my career. It is because I love UH that I have to tell its story. I have to explain why almost 100 students marched around campus yesterday morning in red, screaming for change. Those students and I have only just begun to fight to save the school they love as dearly as I do. We won’t give up, not until we have a university that we can be proud of. Read More