Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Dec
29
2005


Fire Salamander: Fire Salamander. Image courtesy Miaow Miaow.

A currently featured Scientist on the Spot is Dr. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota who teaches people about physics through the amazing stories of superheroes in comic books. The magazine New Scientist recently had an article on animal "superpowers" — and some ways that people could obtain them!

For example, the character Wolverine has a heightened sense of smell due to his mutant abilities. Researchers at Florida State University have discovered a gene, called Kv1.3, which could be tweaked to increase our sense of smell. By deleting this gene in mice, researchers have been able to significantly increase their sensitivity to smells, and also their ability to discriminate between different smells. Humans have this gene, and if it could be blocked... Could we develop a superhuman sense of smell?

Wolverine also has a superpower that allows him not only to survive his battles with evil doers, but also to get back to full health quickly — a superhuman healing factor. In the animal kingdom there are a number of animals that have the ability to regenerate lost limbs, such as the sea star or the salamander. Regeneration is more common in invertebrates, but is present in a more limited manner in vertebrates, such as humans. For example, the human liver is a capable of regeneration. Regeneration is possible in these cases because the the cells in the affected area revert into stem cells.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are now using "scaffoloding" that they incorporate into cells to cause the cells to revert, not to stem cells, but to an earlier stage of their development, which can then help regenerate skin and nerves. While this is a long way from regrowing an entire limb, it's amazing progress, and the salamander is here to show us that it is possible.

What other abilities that animals have can you think of that would be of use to people? For example, there is a strain of bacteria (Deinococcus radiodurans) that is thousands of times more resistant to radiation than humans. Even if it is possible to give people "superhuman" senses or abilities, do you think it is okay to do so? Why?

Dec
27
2005

Imagine that you are on a glacier and all around you thousands of black worms rise up out of the ice. It sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it isn't. The worms are ice worms, and they're real.

Ice worms are extremophiles, animals that thrive in conditions that most creatures would not be able to survive, such as volcanos, glaciers and deep in the ocean. Ice worms live in glacial ice. They average around 1 cm long and 1 mm wide, and eat snow algae. Ice worms are the opposite of worms like earthworms, in that instead of becoming less active as temperature decreases, ice worms become more active with cooler temperatures. And there are a lot of them. One glacier can have an ice worm density of 2600 worms per square meter.

The ideal temperature for an ice worm is zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This ability of ice worms to thrive in such extreme temperatures is the focus of a three year $214,206 NASA grant. Researchers hope ice worms can help unlock the secrets of how life might survive on distant ice worlds such as Europa.

Ice worms actually disintegrate through the process of autolysis when they are exposed to temperatures greater than 5 degrees Celsius. (Autolysis in cell biology refers to the destruction of a cell by its own digestive enzymes.) With the glaciers that are the only habitat for these organisms slowly melting due to global warming, ice worms are losing their habitat. If you consider that there are over 7 billion worms in one glacier, their impact on ecologies that are influenced by the glaciers must be significant, both in terms of biomass and in terms of nutrient processing. There is a lot more to learn about these organisms, and the role they play in the ecosystem.

For a time ice worms were believed to be mythical creatures — there is even an amusing poem that features the ice worm. I never knew these things existed — pretty amazing worm, I think.

Nov
11
2005

German scientists have named a new species of lemur after British comic actor John Cleese. Cleese is best known for his work on the TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus, and starred as a lemur-promoting zoo director in the film Fierce Creatures.

The scientists announcing the discovery note that, while the Cleese lemur cannot really walk, it does make some rather silly jumps.

* "Ooh, that was a bit predictable."

Oct
12
2005

A visitor to this website recently posted this question:

How is evolution proved right? How is there proof of this "chance?" There are many other ways people say the earth was created; which is right? Is there a God that created the world? Or did everyone simply evolve? Whatever you believe, how do you prove yourself right?

Here is the Science Museum of Minnesota's official position on evolution.

That said, "proof" is really the crux of the issue.

All explanations of the Earth's creation other than evolution basically say that life is too complicated to explain by natural processes; something outside of nature must have created it. The only way to prove or disprove an idea like that is to look outside of nature. And once you go outside of nature, you're no longer doing science.

Science is a way of looking at the world, asking questions about nature and looking for answers in the natural processes around us. It works on one simple rule: show us the evidence! Show us an experiment in the lab or an observation in nature, but you have to point to something real that can be seen or measured. And then you have to come up with an explanation for what you've seen. You have to test your explanation by doing another experiment or making another observation that supports you. And if the results don't match, you know your explanation was wrong.

In science, a theory is an explanation that accounts for all the evidence. Atomic theory explains how matter works. Gravitational theory explains how gravity works. And evolutionary theory explains how life has changed over time.

Evolution is both a fact and a theory. The word has two meanings. First, it means "the history of life on Earth." And there's no denying that life has changed over the last 500 million years-go to the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery and see for yourself. But evolution also means "the explanation of HOW those changes have occurred." Scientists use the word theory for explanations that account for all the evidence.

And there is a lot of evidence for the theory of evolution. Every fossil that's ever been found; every animal that ever lived; every cell in your body-all of these support evolution. Scientists have been poking and prodding and testing the theory for 150 years, and have written tens of thousands of papers on the subject. Evolution is the best explanation we've ever had for the history of life on earth. (In terms of experiments and observations, it has been said there is more solid evidence for evolutionary theory than for atomic theory-and no one doubts the existence of atoms!)

Evolution happens every day, all around us. The bird flu that's been in the news is an example of evolution in viruses. New breeds of farm plants and animals are examples of evolution. And every baby that is born today will inherit traits from its mother and father, and so also be an example of evolution in action.

Science is really good at explaining WHAT and HOW: what our bodies are made of, how they work, how we evolved. But one thing science cannot do is explain WHY. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is life's meaning? For that, you need religion.

OK, so what is evolution?
Evolution, by the most basic definition, is the profound, ceaseless change in life forms through time.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were the first scientists to call this change in life over time "natural selection," although many others have contributed to the idea. (Changes in the theory of evolution have been made since Darwin's original proposal, yet his main theory stands firm.)

The theory of natural selection is based on three principles:

  • Organisms produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce.
  • Those that do survive tend to be better adapted to local environments.
  • Most adaptations are genetic, so they can be passed from parent to offspring.

Generation by generation, organisms that are better adapted to their environment in some way survive to pass on their advantageous qualities.

Evolution is not purposeful: it does not work toward a specific end or create better or worse organisms. Species evolve by adapting to particular niches in their environments, but the genetic mutations that lead to these adaptations occur by chance. An organism cannot will itself to mutate in a beneficial way. If its niche disappears, the species may become extinct or it may adapt to new conditions, but the failure to do so does not imply some kind of defect.

Evolution does not occur "for the good of a species." It operates at the level of individual organisms over many generations. A whole population does not simultaneously evolve a new trait; instead, the new trait evolves in one or a few organisms, which pass it on until the population is dominated by organisms having that trait.

Even more evidence of evolution
As humans, we share features with all living life forms, past and present. The more specific these features are, the more recently scientists think they evolved. For example, fingernails-a feature we share with all primates-evolved 30 million years ago. We have the same basic anatomical plan as all other vertebrates, which evolved 500 million years ago. And our cells'ability to use oxygen goes all the way back to our relationship with plants, fungi, and bacteria, which evolved over 1,000 million years ago.

Here are other examples of evidence for evolution:

  • Some animals have organs that serve no purpose but have a function in other species. Such a structure is referred to as vestigial. Whales, for instance, possess useless pelvic bones left over from their land-dwelling ancestors. Fossil whales are found with tiny limbs that became increasingly unimportant.
  • Many closely related species live in proximity to one another but are separated by a geographical barrier. (It was observations like this on the Galapagos Islands that helped Darwin formulate his theory of natural selection.) For example, two similar species of fish live separated by Central America: one in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other in the Pacific Ocean. They evolved when the Isthmus of Panama formed and separated their common ancestor's population into two groups. If the fish had not evolved after they were separated, the same species would live on both sides of the isthmus. And if they hadn't descended from a common ancestor, they wouldn't be so similar.
  • As we develop more types of antibiotics, new resistant strains of bacteria evolve through natural selection. Many crop pests have also evolved strategies to cope with our use of pesticides. Some species of grass have even evolved ways of thriving on industrial waste.
  • Through artificial selection, humans have developed new plants and animals. By manipulating genes, we have obtained many different types of crop plants-some produce greater yields, some produce higher concentrations of their own natural pesticides, and some are more resistant to drought. From a very basic canine type, we developed many different breeds of dogs over the last few thousand years. Artificial selection is somewhat analogous to natural selection; the difference is in the selective force-humans, instead of nature.
  • All multi-celled creatures share distinct genes for developing body plans (like plans for limbs, eyes, etc.). These genes, called homeotic genes, are incredibly similar in all animals, even among animals as different as fruit flies and chimpanzees.
Aug
24
2005

Personally, I think lemurs are the coolest animal on Earth. There are amazing birds, super fast cats, intelligent sea mammals, and some bizarre insects, but for me the lemur is the simply the greatest, ever. Not only are they the closest living analogs to our ancient primate ancestors but they also just look neat and seem to have great personalities (although to be fair, I have never met one in person).

Microcebus lehilahytsara. Photo: Robert Zingg

Now primatologists have discovered two new species of lemur, bringing the total known number of lemur species to 49. Lemurs can only be found on the island of Madagascar, and due to the rapid loss of environment on the island are an animal that is considered endangered. A third of the known species are already extinct.

Lemurs have evolved in isolation on Madagascar, as have many other species, since the island separated from the rest of Africa some 165 million years ago. Because of this isolation, Madagascar is home to many unique animals. There are even dinosaurs that were unique to Madagascar.

The new species are a giant mouse lemur about the size of a squirrel called Mirza zaza and a mouse lemur with short, rounded ears, and a white stripe on its nose called Microcebus lehilahytsara.

Jun
01
2005

BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation groups, has released its annual assessment of world-wide bird populations, and the news isn't good. 2,000 different species — more than one-fifth of the world's total — are either endangered or threatened with extinction. Humans are the biggest threat, either through destroying bird habitats, or by bringing pests and predators to new areas where they hunt defenseless birds. But humans are also the birds' best hope, if we can figure out ways to preserve these species before they disappear.

May
25
2005

In recent weeks, scientists have announced the discovery of not one, but two new mammals species:

Scientists describe new species all the time. But usually they're really small, like insects, or live in hard-to-reach places, like under water. New mammals are rare. These two species both come from remote jungle regions, and are shy, timid creatures that avoid humans.

Interestingly, both species were well-known to local people. So these species aren't really "new" — they're just "new to science."