Hurricane Harvey: Why Is It So Extreme?

Spoiler Alert: It may have to do with climate change.

Experts say Harvey has been stuck longer in one place than any tropical storm in memory. That is just one of the hurricane’s extremes; the storm is off the charts by many measures.

Scientific American wanted to learn why, and asked meteorologist Jeff Masters for help. Masters is the co-founder of Weather Underground, a web site that meteorologists nationwide go to for their own inside information about severe weather. Masters also wrote a fascinating article on why the jet stream is getting weird.

 

Read about it here!

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Flotillas of fire ants add new layer of horror to post-Harvey flood havoc

What kind of fresh new horror is this? Fire ants, who’s bite is painful and itchy, don’t die when flooded. They form a flotilla using the body of dead ants. That’s right, the dead ones create a raft for the live ones to float away.

Want to have nightmares of ants crawling all over you while you are drowning in flood waters? Read more about it here!

And don’t touch the flotillas of fire ants. Kill it with fire (I’ve been told detergent is better. Less satisfying but better).

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Those are all floating fire ants. All of them.

All the trees will die, and so will you

The title of this post is not my own, but it kind of has a point. Not “everything dies” but rather, a lot more apocalyptic.

A brown-black beetle (the polyphagous shot hole borer) breeds inside trees. It drills networks of tunnels, which then get infected by a fungus it carries to feed it’s young. Eventually the tree dies, the beetle moves on and the whole cycle starts again.

This would be a cute horror story, if the beetle wasn’t on track to kill 26.8 million trees across Southern California. Which is going to directly link to the death of humans. Interested? Find out why here.

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The Endangered Species Act may be heading for the threatened list.

Well this is nuts. Not surprising… but nuts none the less.

“A Senate hearing to “modernize the Endangered Species Act” unfolded Wednesday just as supporters of the law had feared, with round after round of criticism from Republican lawmakers who said the federal effort to keep species from going extinct encroaches on states’ rights, is unfair to landowners and stymies efforts by mining companies to extract resources and create jobs.

The two-hour meeting of the Environment and Public Works Committee was led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who said last month that his focus in a bid to change the act would be “eliminating a lot of the red tape and the bureaucratic burdens that have been impacting our ability to create jobs,” according to a report in Energy and Environment News.”

The article goes on to discuss how it will likely be dismantled. Call your representatives!

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Computers discover how to talk to other Computers… without humans…

Alice and Bob were trying to talk to each other without allowing anyone to eaves drop. Eve’s job is to figure out what Alice and Bob are saying to each other. Seems like the usual love triangle, likely the next chick flick movie due out this fall, right?

But Alice, Bob and Eve are all artificial intelligences. And Alice and Bob were not given a program to keep their conversation encrypted. They wrote it themselves. And no one knows how it works, except Alice and Bob.

I’m not saying that this is the beginning of Skynet, but it is pretty creepy. Do we consider AI biological research? Should we?

Read about it here.terminator_28453_4db5a1135e73d67af40067b5_1303953272-640x360

The trees are dying

In Hawaii trees are dying at an alarming rate due to an unknown and uncharacterised disease.

Since 2010 66 million trees have been killed in the Sierra Nevadas due to an invasive pathogen called Sudden Oak Death.

In Montana Bark beetles and mountain pine beetles are killing trees at a rate 10 times higher than normal.

These are a few but not exhaustive examples. Want a better summary of the trials facing our american forests? Read about it over at the Guardian.

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Save the Bananas!

Interesting facts: All commercial bananas in the US/Europe/Canada (really all imported bananas) are all decended from one banana grown on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (Chatsworth House).

They are all clonal, which makes them particularly susceptible to a coevolving disease.

Such as Panama Disease, which is now killing off bananas in the thousands.

What’s more, this has happened before… and may result in there being no bananas left on our grocery shelves.

Read more about it over at the BBC.

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Beware of Sea Tomatoes

Arctic lakes are not known for their cute and cuddly organisms. But to be fair, they must endure crazy extremes. During the summer they are blasted with 24 hours a day of ultraviolet radiation, and during the winter they endure months of icy blackness, and low levels of life-sustaining nutrients all around.

And yet, some life seems to thrive in this environment. Take for example, the sea tomato. Sea tomatoes are round, plumn and look adorable. However, they are actually colonies of toxin-producing cyanobacteria. And they are piling up on the bottom of Greenland’s lakes. Although sea tomatoes are not uncommon in general, the sheer size and abundance of these particular pile ups are unusual.

Read about it over at Eos. So strange…

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When infection is unavoidable, fruit flies ramp up recombination

So, you wanna head back to my place after this and make some recombinant offspring?

Imagine you find yourself in the midst of a large-scale epidemic, similar to the scenarios portrayed in movies like Contagion or Outbreak (or both!). The disease is extremely contagious, and the probability of becoming infected is high. Now imagine that scientists fail to discover a cure. There is no Dustin Hoffman-led team of military virologists available to develop a vaccine and save humanity, and the disease persists, with the potential to infect subsequent generations. In this harsh, disease-ridden environment, how could you ensure that your future offspring would survive?

It turns out, if you were a fruit fly, you might rely on recombination.

Disease is thought to have played a major role in shaping the reproductive strategies of animals. The Red Queen hypothesis predicts that species experiencing parasite-related selection pressures are more likely to evolve sexual reproduction, along with increased rates of outcrossing and recombination. This is because, in the ongoing evolutionary arms race between hosts and parasites, a little bit of genetic variation can make it a lot harder for the parasite to “win.”

But while strategies for increasing genetic variation may improve disease resistance, they often come at a cost. Increased recombination, in particular, can reduce fitness by breaking up locally adaptive combinations of alleles. One potential way to get around this issue is to increase recombination rates only when the risk of infection is high. However, we have yet to observe direct evidence of parasite-induced recombination in animals.

In a study recently published in Science, Singh et al. sought to investigate the capacity of fruit flies to plastically increase recombination in response to infection. To do this, the researchers infected Drosophila melanogaster females with a variety of parasites, and observed the proportion of recombinant offspring the females produced.

In order to track recombination events, researchers took advantage of the known genetic basis of two visible phenotypic traits. The ebony locus and the rough locus occupy nearby positions on the same chromosome in D. melanogaster, and recessive mutations at each of these loci have easily identifiable effects on the phenotype. For this study, the researchers generated females heterozygous at both ebony and rough.

Next, the researchers infected females with one of several different types of parasites. Two distinct (but similarly disturbing-sounding) methods were used to infect flies, depending on the type of parasite involved. In some trials, the researchers stabbed adult flies in the thorax with a needle covered in disease-causing bacteria. In other trials, the researchers housed larval flies with female parasitic wasps, allowing the wasps to inject their eggs directly into the larvae. Seriously, these flies must have been terrified.

A parasitic wasp (Leptopilina heterotoma) probes for fruit fly larvae with her ovipositor.

A parasitic wasp (Leptopilina heterotoma) probes for fruit fly larvae with her ovipositor. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Martin)

Finally, the researchers backcrossed infected females to double-mutant males, and examined the resulting offspring. Sorting through thousands of individual flies, researchers identified recombinant offspring as those that exhibited one mutant trait but not the other.

As predicted by the Red Queen hypothesis, infected females produced significantly more recombinant offspring than non-infected females. The researchers saw this pattern across all types of infection studied, including infection by species that parasitize D. melanogaster in the wild. Furthermore, the effect persisted across host life stages, with females producing more recombinant offspring even when infection occurred during the larval stage of development.

The study also provided some insight on the underlying mechanism for making more recombinant offspring, which – surprisingly – appears not to involve an actual increase in recombination rate. Instead, the culprit looks to be some form of transmission distortion, whereby recombinant gametes are promoted at the expense of non-recombinants.

This study highlights the remarkable ability of individual organisms to rapidly respond to changes in the environment, as well as the central role disease has played in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of animals.

But the reason I’m REALLY excited about these findings is because of their potential to reinvigorate the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre.

Picture this: 50 years after the emergence of an unprecedentedly deadly cross-species pathogen, the majority of the planet’s human population has been wiped out. The only people remaining are the highly recombinant offspring of those infected with (and ultimately killed by) the disease. In a world where survival of the fittest reigns supreme, these exceptionally disease-resistant individuals must attempt to rebuild society as they contend with resource shortages, lawless bands of savages, and the unknown genetic ramifications of the extreme levels of heterozygosity within their population.

It sounds like the beginnings of a pretty solid screenplay to me.

While you’re waiting for my movie to hit theaters, you can read the full text of the Science article here. And check out the video below (courtesy of Dr. Michael Martin), which shows a parasitic wasp female attempting to deposit her eggs in some (probably pretty freaked out) fruit fly larvae.

Natural selection at the movies: Only the bad guys evolve

You can thank evolution for making xenomorphs so gosh darn scary.

You can thank evolution for making Xenomorphs so gosh darn scary. (Flickr: Maggie Osterberg)

It’s almost Halloween, and if you’re anything like me, you celebrate the season by watching scary movies. Although the horror movie marathon is a typical annual tradition of mine, this year I set out with a specific task: to identify as many movies as possible where the villain is somehow associated with evolution by natural selection. As it turns out, there are a lot of them.

Think classic horror films like Alien and Jaws, and also more recent movies like Chronicle, Resident Evil, and Slither. The trend also isn’t restricted to horror movies, with references to natural selection cropping up everywhere from science fiction/adventure films like Edge of Tomorrow to sports dramas like Rocky IV. Nor is it limited to movies alone- television shows like The Walking Dead can give you your fix of “survival of the fittest” references on a weekly basis. Even the urbandictionary.com definition of the word “villains” involves natural selection.

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