Old Biophilia

Noteworthy News
July 11, 2010, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Nerdy News

Sorry for the recent lack of posts….I’ve been back in the classroom and away from the blog, trying to convince a large group of non-majors why biology is cool. Here are a few headlines that distracted me from  doing actual work caught my eye this week:

  • Stars of the deep: A biological voyage to the unexplored water of the Mid-Atlantic range just returned and revealed a wealth of unexplored biodiversity — including a rare basket star, a swimming sea cucumber and a moutaineering sea cucumber, an electric blue worm and a blind, brainless, purple, primitive worm that me be the link between those of us with backbones and those of us without.

    A rare basket star Photo Source: National Geographic

  • Still gushing: As of today (Sunday), it’s been a horrible 83 days since BP ruined the Gulf. The flow of oil is currently unimpeded as BP attempts to install a new cap. If you’re in a good mood today and hope to maintain that happy feeling, then do not click here to read the projected path of the oil over the next 365 days (Mom: it might be a good time to sell your NY beach house).
  • The Secret Love Life of Fireflies: The spectacular display of fireflies has a purpose — they produce bioluminescence as a mating tool where males cruise around looking for chicks while displaying a very specific pattern of flashes. In fact, some fireflies do this synchronously, sometimes lighting up a whole forest all at once (spectacular!), and now we have evidence that this complex behavior helps females to recognize males of her own species by “eliminating the visual clutter” of other flashing males. Check it out in this week’s issue of Science.
  • Another Reason to Step Away From the Computer: Go for a “Forest Bath”. Forest Bathing has become a popular therapeutic practice in Japan, and scientists are finding that being amongst plants decreases pulse rate and lowers blood pressure and may even increase white blood cells. Of course this could be linked to stress reduction, but scientists are proposing that is is related to phytoncides — airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect them from rotting and insects.

    Don't you feel better already??

  • Help the Itty Bitty Kitty’s: Consider heading over to my favorite blog and taking Butterbean’s Daily Donation Challenge to support the Tacoma Humane Society.

Weekly dose of cuteness
July 2, 2010, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Weekly Cuteness

Introducing Teuthowenia megalops, or as my trusted source for cuteness calls it,  Eddie McBlobbules, “the inside-out-seahorse-in-a-ball-nerd of the deep”.

Actually, he is a paralarval squid that is found in the North Atlantic Ocean. The polka dots that add to his cuteness are actually chromatophores —  a special type of pigment-containing, light-reflecting cell that helps certain animals (fishes, cephalopods, amphibians, crustaceans) to camouflage or communicate.

Fungal fuel
July 1, 2010, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the fungal world, It's a microbial world!

endophytic fungus that produced biofuel

Once again, Fungi may come to the rescue! A study published by Strobel et al. found that the endophyte Gliocladium roseum produces a complex mixture of volatile hydrocarbons and derivatives that closely resemble those found in fossil fuels. Dr. Strobel has been called the “Indiana Jones of Fungus Hunters” because of his forays into the wild to search for for fungi with novel bioactive compounds. This biofuel-producing endophyte was discovered living in trees the Patagonian rainforest. According to Strobel, the combination of fuel substances produced by G. roseum are unique and promising. Even better is that this fungus is producing hydrocarbons directly from cellulose — a far better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment. I look forward to the day that I can power up my car with this “myco-diesel!

Culture of endophyte that produces biofuel

Endophytes are sneaky little buggers. Relatively little is known about them because they live their life hidden inside plants (more specifically, in between plant cells!). But unlike pathogens, they do not produce symptoms or signs to alert us to their presence. They are extremely common (found in almost every plant species we’ve looked for them in) but their relationships with plants are not well understood. They might be good for their plant partners — they can create a barrier to keep attackers at bay. Or, they can be bad for their plant partners — plant leaves with lots of endophytes tend to lose a greater amount of water.

Why be a fungus hunter? Endophytes are a major source of bioactive compounds, including antiobiotics. For example, Dr. Strobel discovered a specimen that grows on the Yew tree that produced Taxol, the world’s first billion- dollar anti-cancer drug.

a variety of cultured endophytes from Strobel's lab

(oh, and by the way, taxol can be isolated from both the plant AND the fungus, suggesting some horizontal gene transfer is going on here!)

Click here to read about some of the other compounds produced by endophytic microbes that have been studied in Strobel’s lab.