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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Such is the essential mystery”*…

 

For about a billion years, life on earth was a relatively simple proposition: it was composed entirely of single-celled organisms (prokaryotes) in either the bacteria or archaea families.  Then, about 2.1 billion years ago, one of those single-celled critters crawled inside another; the two merged, and a new kind of life– multi-cellular (eukaryotic) life– was born…

This inner cell—a bacterium—abandoned its free-living existence and eventually transformed into mitochondria. These internal power plants provided the host cell with a bonanza of energy, allowing it to evolve in new directions that other prokaryotes could never reach.

If this story is true, and there are still those who doubt it, then all eukaryotes—every flower and fungus, spider and sparrow, man and woman—descended from a sudden and breathtakingly improbable merger between two microbes. They were our great-great-great-great-…-great-grandparents, and by becoming one, they laid the groundwork for the life forms that seem to make our planet so special. The world as we see it (and the fact that we see it at all; eyes are a eukaryotic invention) was irrevocably changed by that fateful union—a union so unlikely that it very well might not have happened at all, leaving our world forever dominated by microbes, never to welcome sophisticated and amazing life like trees, mushrooms, caterpillars, and us.

Read the extraordinary story of how one freakish event may well account for all sophisticated life on earth in “The unique merger that made You (and Ewe, and Yew).”

* Lao Tzu

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As we fill out our family trees, we might send microscopic birthday greetings to Carl Woese; he was born on this date in 1928.  A microbiologist, Woese recognized and defined (in 1977) the existence of archaea as a third domain of life, distinct from the two previously-recognized domains, bacteria and “life other than bacteria” (eukaryotes).  The discovery revolutionized the understanding of the “family tree” of life.  And the technique he used to make it– phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA– revolutionized the practice of microbiology.

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Written by LW

July 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion?…”*

 

Animals have evolved a variety of defensive techniques– camouflage, tough skins, fierce looks.  But as National Geographic explains, olfactory defenses are among the most effective.  Consider the hoatzin…

Hoatzins on the Rio Napo in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photograph by Jared Hobbs, All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Hold your nose and meet the hoatzin, a bird with a number of distinctions, not the least of which is that it smells like fresh cow manure. The animal mostly eats leaves, which it digests in its crop, a pouch some birds have high up in their alimentary canal. It’s the only bird known to digest by fermentation, like a cow. This process is what causes its odor and has earned it the nickname the “stink bird.”

Don’t knock it, though. That stink means that even people don’t want to eat the hoatzin…

More on feral fragrance at “5 Animals With Stinky Defenses.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche

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As we hold our noses, we might spare a thought for Hannah Wilkinson Slater; she died on this date in 1812. The daughter and the wife of mill owners, Ms. Slater was the first woman to be issued a patent in the United States (1793)– for a process using spinning wheels to twist fine Surinam cotton yarn, that created a No. 20 two-ply thread that was an improvement on the linen thread previously in use for sewing cloth.

A waxen Hannah, at the Slaters’ Mill Museum in Pawtucket, RI

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The nose knows?…

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have discovered “olfactory white,” the nasal equivalent of white noise, Live Science reports:

Almost any given smell in the real world comes from a mixture of compounds. Humans are good at telling these mixtures apart (it’s hard to mix up the smell of coffee with the smell of roses, for example), but we’re bad at picking individual components out of those mixtures…

Mixing multiple wavelegths that span the human visual range equally makes white light; mixing multiple frequencies that span the range of human hearing equally makes the whooshing hum of white noise. Neurobiologist Noam Sobel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues wanted to find out whether a similar phenomenon happens with smelling…

Spoiler alert:  it does.  Find out how– and learn more about the most mysterious of our senses at Live Science.  (And download the paper from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

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As we reach for our hankies, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Philadelphia tinsmith John Landis Mason received the patent for Mason Jars.  With it’s threaded mouth, metal lid, rubber gasket ring– and the hermetic seal that they can form– the Mason Jar quickly became a staple for food preservation (usually, and ironically, called “canning”).  While they are still used to that end, they have more lately flourished as collectables.

A Mason Jar in use

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What’s in a name? Taxonomy humor…

Ba humbugi

If you’re going to be responsible for determining scientific classification, you may as well have fun with it. From BuzzFeed, some of the strangest and most amusing binomial names (Genus species) in all of taxonomy…

Fifteen more humorous handles at “17 Awesome, Nerdy Examples Of Taxonomy Humor.”

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As we wonder what’s in a name, we might spare a taxonomical thought for Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson CB FRS FRSE; he died on this date in 1948. The Scottish biologist, mathematician, and classics scholar was the father of mathematical biologist.  Starting from the simple premise that “everything is the way it is because it got that way,” Thompson wrote On Growth and Form (1917)– a profound meditation the shapes of living things that has been called by Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.”

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Written by LW

June 21, 2012 at 1:01 am

Welcome, new members!…

Spongebob Squarepants Mushroom: Like its cartoon counterpart, the Malaysian Spongiforma squarepantsii is endlessly resilient, condensing when squeezed then returning to its normal size. It also has a fruity smell, reminiscent to the discoverers of Spongebob’s “pineapple under the sea” home.

Each year, on May 23 (the birthday of Carl Linnaeus), Arizona State University releases its annual list of the top 10 new species found in the last 12 months.  As PopSci reports,

The father of classification would no doubt be pleased with some of the names on this list — they include a mushroom named for a cartoon character, a worm named for the Devil and a jellyfish named “Oh Boy,” because that’s what people should exclaim when they behold it.  The list also includes a terrifyingly skull-looking sneezing monkey; a blue tarantula; a sausage-sized millipede; a night-blooming orchid; and much more…

The rest of the story, and photos of each winner, here.

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As we delight in diversity, we might spare oa thought for Charles Atwood Kofoid; he died on this date in 1947.  Kofoid, a founding staff member at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, classified many new species of marine protozoans– and in the process, helped establish systematic marine biology.

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