FrankenFungus Armed With Venom Toxins Could Join The War Against Malaria

By Christie Wilcox | June 30, 2017 10:04 pm
One of the world's deadliest venomous animals—a female Anopheles gambiae—demonstrating the behavior that makes her so lethal. Photo Credit: CDC/ James Gathany

One of the world’s deadliest venomous animals—a female Anopheles gambiae—demonstrating the behavior that makes her so lethal. Photo Credit: CDC/ James Gathany

People are often surprised when I say that mosquitoes are the deadliest venomous animal in the world (the deadliest animal period, really, if we don’t count ourselves). Mosquito bites—and the venoms delivered by them—kill upwards of 750,000 people worldwide every year thanks to the lethal beasties harbored within them. Most of those are due to microscopic parasites in the genus Plasmodium, which are responsible for the diseases collectively called malaria. Malaria accounts for around 500,000 of those mosquito-caused deaths, according to the World Health Organization—only a fraction of the over 210 million cases of malaria reported every year. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of time, money, and intellectual capital being invested into finding ways to reduce those numbers. And as the vectors, mosquitoes—especially the few species that carry the most devastating diseases—are a key target.

While killing mosquitoes seems like a simple objective, it can be quite complicated in practice. Mosquitoes are hardy little buggers, and rapidly evolve resistance to pesticides. And when effective pesticides can be found, such as DDT, they tend to be a little too effective, killing a wide diversity of insects and causing ecological harm to local biodiversity. In the hope of wiping out disease-carrying mosquito populations, scientists have tried all sorts of methods, from increasing natural predators to releasing sterile male mosquitoes in swarms. But the most recent approach sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction thriller: an international team of scientists has genetically engineered a fluorescent fungus that wipes out mosquitoes using venom toxins from spiders and scorpions. Read More

Spit Take: Surprise! Indian Monocled Cobras Can Spit Venom

By Christie Wilcox | June 29, 2017 1:13 am
A monocled cobra, Naja kaouthia. Photo Credit: Tontan Travel

A monocled cobra, Naja kaouthia. Photo Credit: Tontan Travel

Vishal Santra got more than he bargained for when he peered into a chicken coop in the Hooghly District of West Bengal, India in 2004. He was helping the local community with dangerous snake removals when he was called upon to wrangle an unwelcome guest in a fowl pen: a monocled cobra, Naja kaouthia. Monocled cobras, which can reach lengths of about 5 feet, are highly venomous animals, so Santra knew to avoid a quick strike. But the animal didn’t lunge—instead, from over a foot away, the serpent spat at Santra’s face, getting a small amount of venom into his eye.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Forget The Sharks: How 47 Meters Down Fails Dive Science

By Christie Wilcox | June 23, 2017 12:12 pm

6605799dba35561938a0ab69287af9d8This is a guest post by Jake Buehler, who just so happens to be an AAUS certified scientific diver as well as a science writer based in the Seattle area. 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.”

 

Summer is finally here in the Northern Hemisphere. The days are long, the weather is warm, and the water is inviting. It’s also time for our annual lesson from popular culture that this refreshing invitation is a lie, and that the only thing the sea offers us is electric, blinding terror. Yes, summer inevitably means the advent of a new crop of shark-based survival horror flicks.

This summer, much like the last with “The Shallows”, movie-going audiences will be treated to another shark-centric screamfest: “47 Meters Down.” The British-American film—starring Mandy Moore and Claire Holt—opened in U.S. theaters last weekend. Recent, somewhat ubiquitous trailers for the film outline its terrifying premise: while vacationing in Mexico, a pair of sisters goes cage-diving with great white sharks, only to have the winch suspending their protective cage fail, sending them plummeting 47 meters down to the ocean floor, from where they must escape to the surface before the swarm of sharks—or their dwindling air supply—does them in. It is no doubt that just like with “The Shallows”, we will again be reminded that the persistent blood lust of horror film sharks is altogether different from what science tells us about the behavior of their real-life animal counterparts. But the film and overall premise of “47 Meters Down” commit a litany of science inaccuracy sins completely unrelated to sharks. Frankly, the movie fails spectacularly when it comes to portraying the biology and physics at play during SCUBA diving (which is kind of amazing, actually, considering how much of the film’s plot is directly rooted in the consequences of being underwater). Being a trained AAUS scientific diver, dive science is an area I know a little about, so I made the commitment to sit through “47 Meters Down” so you wouldn’t have to, all to separate the reality of how diving works from…well, whatever it is that the movie plopped out.

AHOY, SPOILERS AHEAD

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Death From Below: Invasive Lionfish Lurking in Deep Reefs, Sending Hungry Reinforcements to the Shallows

By Christie Wilcox | May 23, 2017 6:01 pm
Lionfish on a mesophotic reef off Florida. Photo credit: Mike Echevarria, Florida Aquarium via NOAA

Lionfish on a mesophotic reef off Florida. Photo credit: Mike Echevarria, Florida Aquarium via NOAA

In the last few decades, scientists have come to appreciate the incredible creatures living on the reefs that lie just below conventional diving limits in what is called the mesophotic zone. These incredible biodiversity hotspots are home to more endemic species than shallower reefs, and conservationists are hopeful they may serve as refuges—pockets of relatively pristine habitat out of reach of anthropogenic stressors—where species under threat from pollution, overfishing, and even the effects climate change can hang on while we clean up our act.

In a new paper published today in Royal Society Open Science, scientists have added to growing evidence that these ecosystems do serve as refuges—unfortunately, in this case, they’re harboring large, fertile adults of exactly the wrong species: invasive lionfishes. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts

Older, wiser, deadlier: “blood nuking” effects of Australian brown snake venom acquired with age

By Christie Wilcox | May 19, 2017 7:00 am
A Shield-snouted Brown Snake (Pseudonaja aspidorhyncha) from Northern Territory, Australia. Photo by Christopher Watson

A shield-snouted brown snake (Pseudonaja aspidorhyncha) from Northern Territory, Australia. Photo by Christopher Watson

There’s an age old belief that baby snakes are more dangerous than adult ones. There are generally two proposed reasons why this could be: either a) young snakes have yet to learn how to control how much venom they inject, so they deliver all of their venom per bite, or b) that because the snakes are smaller, they need more potent toxins to successfully take out their prey. The first is misleading, because even if baby snakes did dump all their venom into each bite, they still have so much less venom than adults that it doesn’t matter (and there isn’t any real evidence they lack self-control*). The second, though, warrants closer investigation: do younger, smaller snakes really have deadlier venoms? A new study on brown snakes in Australia says no—and in fact, the opposite can be true. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

I am Lionfish, hear me ROAR!

By Christie Wilcox | May 13, 2017 10:51 am
An invasive lionfish in the Bahamas. Photo by Mark Albins.

An invasive lionfish in the Bahamas. Photo by Mark Albins.

Ok, well maybe more like grunt or drum. Still, this recording comes from the first study to document that lionfishes—the invasive, venomous scourges of the Atlantic and Mediterranean—make sounds.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Acoustics, Lionfish, Sound

Measuring Deadliness | Toxinology 101

By Christie Wilcox | April 30, 2017 7:00 pm

Scientists refer to the study of biological toxins as toxinology. From bacterial toxins like anthrax to the deadliest snake venoms, toxinology examines the chemical warfare between animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. In my Toxinology 101 series, I explain and explore the fundamentals of toxin science to reveal the unusual, often unfamiliar, and unnerving world created by our planet’s most notorious biochemists.

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One of the most frequent questions I receive as a venom scientist (so much so I dedicated an entire chapter of my book, Venomous, to it) is some variant of What is the deadliest toxic animal? While that seems like there should be an easy answer, as with anything in the natural world, defining deadliness is messy. To answer that question, you have to be clear about what you’re really asking. Is the subtext of the question What animal is most likely to kill me? Or What animal should I be most afraid of running intoOr more simply, What animal produces the most potent toxin, because I’m a biochemistry nerd and I’m just curious? Each of those questions is answered a bit differently, and even still, it’s complicated. Read More

Why I March Every Day

By Christie Wilcox | April 22, 2017 8:00 am

As the March for Science has drawn near, scientists and science-lovers across the country have pontificated at length on why they are—or aren’t—marching. But while today’s 400-plus demonstrations around the nation will hopefully resonate with lawmakers, it takes more than rallies to accomplish lasting change. The following is a guest post from Dr. Kira Krend, a biology teacher in Honolulu, HI, on her March for Science—one that she does every day. 

 

13,407 steps.

The display on my fitness watch tells me that this is how far I’ve walked so far today. It’s only 2:33 pm. I haven’t finished setting up for the lab tomorrow, and a stack of ninety-eight tests sits on my bag so I don’t forget to bring them home to grade tonight.  In the next five minutes, I have three students stop by:

“Dr. Krend, can I come to class 30 minutes late tomorrow?” (No.)

“Hey Dr. K., do you have any food?” (I have some apple slices. No? Okay.)

“We found a baby bird downstairs, can you come help us with it?”

Sigh. That last one’s going require me to walk a lot more steps. Setting up for the lab is going to have to wait.

I’ve been watching my liberal scientist-filled Facebook feed blow up with March for Science posts since January. I appreciate the creatively knitted caps, witty slogans on signs, and inspiring reasons they are marching for science around the world on Earth Day 2017. I have no problem with the march today; in fact, the profound belief in the value of the intersection between science and public has been a driving factor in my life.

I decided to march for science before it was cool: I am a Ph.D. who chose to teach high school biology.

Here is my story. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Bee derived molecular shuttle is the newest buzz-worthy venom product

By Christie Wilcox | April 19, 2017 8:00 am
By tweaking a compound from bee venom, scientists may have created a molecular Trojan horse to deliver drugs to our brains. Photo by Flickr user joeyz51

By tweaking a compound from bee venom, scientists may have created a molecular Trojan horse to deliver drugs to our brains. Photo by Flickr user joeyz51

We human beings are quite fond of our brains. They are one of our largest and most complex organs, weighing in at nearly three pounds (2% of our bodies!). Each contains upwards of 90 billion neurons responsible for controlling our gangly, almost hairless primate bodies as well as processing and storing a lifetime’s worth of events, facts and figures. So we protect our brains as best we can, from hats that battle temperature extremes to helmets that buffer even the most brutish blows.

Our bodies, too, protect our brains vigilantly. Select few compounds are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane which shields our most essential organ from the hodgepodge of potentially-damaging compounds that might be circulating in our blood.  The staunchness with which our brains are guarded internally is usually great—except, of course, when doctors need to deliver drugs to brain tissues.

It’s not too hard to get some molecules across, assuming they are small and/or fat-soluble, like many anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, or notorious mind-altering substances like alcohol and cocaine. But larger molecules, even important ones like glucose, have to be specifically pulled across this divide between our blood and our brains. That means that some life-saving drugs, such as chemotherapy agents targeting brain tumors, need help getting into our heads. And that is where the newest venom-derived product—MiniAp-4—comes in. Read More

Jelly Belly: Elusive Deep Sea Octopus Takes Its Gelatinous Meals To Go

By Christie Wilcox | March 31, 2017 7:50 pm
A female seven-arm octopus carrying an egg-yolk jelly. Photo © MBARI

A female seven-arm octopus carrying an egg-yolk jelly. Photo © MBARI

The seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus, lives a hidden life deep in the dark depths of the oceans. These massive cephalopods—females of which can grow to be more than 12 feet long—earned the moniker for their habit of folding one of their eight arms away. What little is known of their daily lives has largely been gleaned from dead animals pulled from the sea by trawls, as inhabitants of the deep sea, their activities are nearly impossible to observe. Now, a new paper in Scientific Reports provides insights into their diet and behavior, finding they prefer to dine on species we tend to think of as less than palatable: jellyfish. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts
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