The UK landscape, naked mole rat genome and plant pollination tricks

Termites and biofuel: Mike Scharf from Purdue University and colleagues explored how enzymes found in the guts of termites could be useful in breaking down biomass—that is, branches, leaves and other woody debris—to hasten the production of biofuels. As he said in a recent press release, “For the most part, people have overlooked the host termite as a source of enzymes that could be used in the production of biofuels. For a long time it was thought that the symbionts were solely responsible for digestion…Certainly the symbionts do a lot, but what we’ve shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by those symbionts. When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it’s like one plus one equals four.” Read more at “Termites’ digestive system could act as biofuel refinery.” UK landscape exposed: The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology published a land cover map of the United Kingdom this week, compiling more than 70 satellite images taken between 2005 and 2008. As Damian Carrington wrote on the Guardian blog, “It takes every scrap of land in the UK, down to a resolution of 25m, and identifies the habitat there. From mountains, heathers and bogs of Scotland to the broad fields of the barley barons of East Anglia, the environmental ‘DNA’ of the nation is revealed.” Read more at “Map lays bare landscape of UK in intimate detail.” Montana’s oil spill: On July 2, an Exxonmobil pipeline spilled into the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S. A Nature News article has noted that the ecological damage will be difficult to assess while standing pools of water—caused by recent flooding— remain along the river. According to a recent POLITICO article, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, “who has a master’s degree in soil science, said he’s concerned about the oily sheen that has been spreading over the wetlands, and about the effects of biomagnification as contaminants move their way up the food chain.” Read more at “Flooding complicates Montana oil spill response.” Naked mole rat’s genome: Joao Pedro De Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool, UK and other researchers have mapped the genome of east Africa’s naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) to explore its anti-aging characteristics. As Michael Marshall reported in a recent New Scientist article, “The mole rats’ long lifespans [they can live up to 30 years] means that, like other long-lived creatures, they must have some means of staving off the harmful effects of ageing. There is evidence that they can rapidly recycle damaged proteins, keeping their systems running at tip-top efficiency.” Read more at “Coolest mammal...

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Ecological research in images

(Click the below image to view the photo gallery.) This week, the American Museum of Natural History launched the exhibit “Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies” which explores the images produced by scientists while performing research. The images range from bug genitalia to staghorn coral (see video at the end of this post). As quoted in a recent Wired Science article, “‘A lot of people come to the museum under [the] impression that we just look at stuff in dusty jars, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,’ said zoologist Mark Siddall, curator of the museum’s new exhibit. ‘There’s a lot of solid, cutting-edge research going on here with incredibly advanced technology.’” Dave Mosher explained in the Wired Science article that images like these are a large part of any scientific endeavor, but often times, these images are filed away—never to be seen by the public. Of course, there are journals that publish images alongside the research articles. While they are all accessible through searches, these images are not typically displayed like those that are being featured in the AMNH’s new exhibit. The above photo gallery presents only some of the images that have been featured in the Ecological Society of America’s journals over the last decade or so. Click on the image to scroll through and learn a bit about the research corresponding with each image. Many of the images featured in ESA journals are taken by the researchers themselves. Browse all of the cover images on ESA’s journals...

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Pollination from the plant’s perspective

If plants had a perspective, they would probably think of pollinators as more than just extra-friendly house guests. That is, plants would be more likely to view pollinators as the mutual friend who likes to set up blind dates. Bees might limit pollen to its use as a protein source for the hive, and birds might devour the flesh of a fruit and eliminate the seed as waste. However, many flowering plants, as Bug Girl pointed out in a post in honor of National Pollinator Week, have evolved alongside these pollinators for only one purpose: reproduction. “Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine,” she wrote. “That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie.” Sometimes the pollinator-plant relationship is mutualistic, and in many cases, one species or another is dependent upon the other for its survival. Take the agave plant. Probably the most well-known species is the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana), the nectar of which is used as a granular sugar substitute and to make tequila (one of the “finer” products of pollination, along with chocolate and coffee, mentioned by Bug Girl ). Leptonycteris nivalis, known as the greater long-nosed bat or Mexican long-nosed bat, and the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), are the primary pollinators of this economically and ecologically valuable plant. This agave-bat relationship is mutually beneficial. The bats, hovering in place like a hummingbird, use their long muzzles to feed on the high-fructose nectar of the agave. At the same time, the plants’ pollen collects on the bats’ fur. The bats then travel from plant to plant, spreading pollen as they drink from the nectar-filled stalks that bloom each night across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The bats also migrate based on the blooming time of these plants. They arrive in Texas—particularly in Big Bend National Park, where a single colony resides in the Chisos Mountains—shortly after agave plants, such as the century plant (Agave havardiana), begin to bloom. Unfortunately, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-nosed bat are endangered—and as their numbers decline, agave plant reproduction becomes more limited. A little farther north, however, some species of agave plants—those that are not harvested for tequila— have evolved to attract both bats and moths to serve as pollinators. Agave plants have several ways of advertising their nectar: the scent, the color of the flower and the shape, or morphology, of the structure...

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The story of the fig and its wasp

Inside the rounded fruit of a fig tree is a maze of flowers. That is, a fig is not actually a fruit; it is an inflorescence—a cluster of many flowers and seeds contained inside a bulbous stem. Because of this unusual arrangement, the seeds—technically the ovaries of the fig—require a specialized pollinator that is adapted to navigate within these confined quarters. Here begins the story of the relationship between figs and fig wasps. The queen of the fig wasp is almost the perfect size for the job—except, despite her tiny body, she often times will lose her wings and antennae as she enters through a tight opening in the fig. “The only link the fig cavity has to the outside world is through a tiny bract-lined opening at the apex of the fig, called the ostiole, and it is by means of this passage that the pollinating fig wasp gains access to the florets,” as described in Figweb, a site by Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Once inside, the queen travels within the chamber, depositing her eggs and simultaneously shedding the pollen she carried with her from another fig. This last task, while not the queen’s primary goal, is an important one: She is fertilizing the fig’s ovaries. After the queen has laid her eggs, she dies and is digested by the fig, providing nourishment. Once the queen’s eggs hatch, male and female wasps assume very different roles. They first mate with each other (yes, brothers and sisters), and then the females collect pollen—in some species, actively gathering it in a specialized pouch and in others, accumulating it inadvertently—while the wingless males begin carving a path to the fig’s exterior. This activity is not for their own escape but rather to create an opening for the females to exit. The females will pollinate another fig as queens. The males will spend their entire lifecycle within a single fruit. While this tree-wasp relationship may not be common knowledge to all fig-eaters, it is well-known to biologists as one of the most solid examples of coevolution. “One of the best activities to do with an introductory biology class is to pass around Fig Newtons, let them take a bite and then tell them the story of the fig wasp life cycle,” said tropical plant ecologist Greg Goldsmith as we recently hiked through a cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica. “It’s a fascinating story.” After learning the story of the fig and its wasp, the most common question is, “Do we eat wasps when we eat figs?” The short answer is that it depends—that is, some figs are parthenocarpic, meaning they are...

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The evolution of beer yeasts, seedy pants and vampire bat venom-turned medicine

Beer yeasts: Researchers at Lund University in Sweden tracked the history of two yeasts—Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Dekkera bruxellensis—used in alcohol fermentation to pinpoint their role in ethanol production. They found that, around 150 million years ago, competition with other microbes, and the overall increase in sugar-rich fruits, encouraged the yeasts to withstand high ethanol concentrations—an adaptation that would allow them to survive in places other microbes could not. “Now, scientists are closing in on just how and why yeast evolved to [ferment sugars into alcohol],” wrote John Roach in an MSNBC article. “No, it wasn’t to get humans drunk.” Read more at “The why of yeast’s buzz-giving ways” or the press release “Wine yeasts reveal prehistoric microbial world.” Camouflaged cuttlefish: “Cuttlefish are masters of camouflage. Like their relatives, the squid and the octopus, cuttlefish can change the colour of their skin to perfectly match a bed of pebbles, a clump of algae, or a black-and-white chessboard,” wrote Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (see below video of previous research). Alexandra Barbosa from the University of Porto found that cuttlefish use visual cues to alter their appendages as well. In other words, when the cephalopods were placed against backgrounds of various striped patterns, they adjusted their tentacles to match the pattern that they saw. Read more and see photos at “Pocket Science – will all camouflaged cuttlefish please raise their tentacles?” Seedy pants: One of the most topical quotes this week—“I wish nature would stop getting it on in my eyeballs”—was uttered by a fellow allergy sufferer. Allergy season is in full force in temperate locales, such as some parts of the U.S. East Coast, as trees flood the air with pollen in the hopes of reaching a female counterpart. There are several ways that pollen travels, such as the wind, but most of us have probably never considered the role of pants in tree pollination. Yes, pants not plants. As quoted in a recent NPR article, “‘Because of his great mobility,’ [British botanist Edward] Salisbury wrote (projecting from his personal data set), ‘man is probably the most active agent—though usually an unconscious one—for [the] external transport of seeds.’” Read more at “Strange Things Happen To Guys Who Wear Pants.” Vampire bat venom: Scientists have tapped vampire bat saliva as a potential medication for treating stroke in humans, and the drug is actually called “Draculin.” It was announced this week that the drug would enter Phase 2 tests. “When vampire bats bite their victims, their saliva releases an enzyme called desmoteplase, or DSPA, into the bloodstream, which causes blood to flow more readily,” wrote Patrick Morgan on Discover’s blog...

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