Making Drugs to Fight Malaria

The term ‘vector-born disease’ refers to infections that are transmitted from one animal to another by a vector. These vectors are usually small blood-sucking organisms such as insects and alike. And yes, perhaps the most annoying blood-sucking insect known to mankind- the mosquito, is also a major vector for many diseases. Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue, Yellow Fever, Zika and many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitos. Generally, these diseases are transmitted when a mosquito bites one infected animal (e.g. a human that has the malaria parasite in his/her blood), takes up the parasite with the ingested blood and then injects this parasite to the next person as it takes a subsequent blood meal. In the case of malaria, the parasite a mosquito transmits belongs to Plasmodium genus. Plasmodium parasites replicate in liver and red blood cells of the infected hosts and cause these cells to burst and die. Recurrent bursts of parasite growth in red blood cells are what leads to the waves of high fever, which is a typical symptom of malaria.

False-colored electron micrograph of a Plasmodium
False-colored electron micrograph of a Plasmodium

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The Habit of Addiction

ResearchBlogging.orgAny form of addiction can become a vicious circle. From an outsider’s point of view, drug addiction may seem like a completely irrational behaviour why on Earth would anyone want to spend money on something so damaging and dangerous? But for regular drug users this question, while still present, is no longer interpreted in the same way and it is not because they chose it so but because the drug abuse has tweaked the brain circuits responsible for survival instinct.


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Cloudy With a Chance of Icy Bacteria

What is the link between plants, frostbite, artificial snow and clouds?

Bacteria may not be the first thing that come to mind, at least it wasn’t for me, but then again, considering the abundance and diversity of microbes, it may not be the most surprising of answers.

Recently I came across an article which contained a term “ice-nucleating bacteria” in its title and as I knew little about ice nucleation and nothing about its relation to bacteria I decided to investigate further. As ever, the amazing feats of microbes did not leave me disappointed!

Pseudomonas syringae on a leaf surface. Image by  J. Kremer and Sheng Yang He
Pseudomonas syringae on a leaf surface. Image by J. Kremer and Sheng Yang He

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The Tails For Metamorphosis

ResearchBlogging.orgMarine tubeworms are sessile organisms found in variety of ocean ecosystems. Among the many different species of tubeworms some are real record breakers. If you ever heard of a tubeworm then you most likely have heard about Riftia pachyptila, usually called the Giant tubeworm, which can reach more than 2m in length and lives near deep-sea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. The Giant tubeworms can experience temperature changes from the near boiling waters coming off the hydrothermal vents to just above freezing temperatures of the deep-sea waters. Tubeworms don’t have digestive system and rely on microbes to provide ready-made nutrients. In a special organ, called trophosome, tubeworms harbour thousands of symbiotic bacteria which provide them food. In the case of the Giant tubeworm these bacteria are adapted to metabolise sulphur-rich compounds (coming from the vent fluid), which ultimately leads to production of organic molecules that are taken up by the tubeworm.

Riftia pachyptila
Riftia pachyptila

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When Parasites are Wonderful and Relationships are Weird

So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum

From On Poetry: A Rhapsody by Jonathan Swift

I’ve said ‘weird and wonderful’ in this blog perhaps far too many times but over billions of years evolution has led to so many incredible things in nature that I never cease to be amazed. And here again I found myself the other week reading a story that just blew my mind! If I say upfront that the story is about parasitic wasps, most people will probably not get too excited about it. Neither parasites nor wasps are the first things that even I would associate with being wonderful. Weird maybe, but wonderful??? But do bear with me here for a moment and I hope I can convince you otherwise.

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BAM’ing with Bacteriophage

ResearchBlogging.orgYou know, I sometimes think that animals are just walking colonies of multiple kinds of cells that evolved to live in a symbiotic relationship with one another. Seriously, it is highly unlikely that we would be able to survive without all the viruses and bacteria that live in and on us. We need these little microorganisms for all sorts of things from immune system development to nutrient acquisition. Moreover, increasing amount of evidence shows that our microbiome and virome are an essential part of who we are, and perhaps humans would be a very different species today if some of these animal-microbe interactions would have not occurred during the course of evolution.

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Water Striders Escape a Predator with Gilt

ResearchBlogging.orgChanging the environment one lives in may require significant changes in animal’s morphology and behaviour. This is especially the case if we are talking about such drastic change as a switch from living on land to living in or on water. Some 200 million years ago ancestral species of a group of semi-aquatic bugs, known as Gerromorpha, had made such transition and over time, evolved traits allowing them to live on the surface of water. One of many new challenges facing animals living on water is being exposed to predators not only from above but also from below. Insects within the infraorder Gerromorpha have adapted their leg morphology to both be able to glide on the surface of water and escape the water-dwelling predators. The more ancestral-like species of Gerromorpha have midlegs which are shorter than hindlegs and move in a similar pattern like the closely related terrestrial species, whereas the more derived species, e.g. water striders, have longer midlegs and move with rowing-like leg motions. It is quite difficult to identify the exact genetic factors which determine development of adaptive such traits because these traits are often a result of both genetic and epigenetic modifications as well as are usually not a single gene determined. However, a recent study by a research group from The Institute of Functional Genomics of Lyon has been able to find a link between the morphology of water strider’s legs, an anti-predator response and the genes involved.

Water strider pushing off the surface of water to escape the predator below
Figure 1. Water strider pushing off the surface of water to escape the predator below

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The Mechanics of a Hummingbird’s tongue

ResearchBlogging.orgHummingbirds have incredibly high metabolic rates. Their hearts can beat more than 1000 times per minute, they inhale more than 200 times per minute and their oxygen consumption during flight can be 10 times grater than that of an elite marathon runner. Clearly all this work requires a lot of energy, which the hummingbirds get by feeding on nectar and consuming more than their own weight of it each day. As quick and efficient acquisition of nectar is essential for hummingbird’s survival their tongues have shape that allows to preform its function perfectly. The tongue of a humming bird consists of two rods and each rod has many hook shaped hairs (called lamella or lamellae for plural) attached to it (figure 1 and video 1).

Figure 1. Structure of a hummingbird's tongue. In the dorsal vie of the tongue (C) you can see the two rods in red and the hook-like curled lamella
Figure 1. Structure of a hummingbird’s tongue. In the dorsal vie of the tongue (C) you can see the two rods in red and the hook-like curled lamella

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What’s Home for One, A Grave for Another: Bats Who Live Inside Carnivorous Plants

Carnivorous plants have always captured people’s imagination: the Krynoids in Dr. WHO, Cleopatra in Addams Family, Snargaluff in Harry Potter… to name but a few. And perhaps the excitement isn’t that surprising considering that typical plants for most of us are but a picture in the background of our daily lives.

Pitcher plants from Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haekel
Pitcher plants from Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haekel

There are many different ways, each perhaps more ingenious than the last one that carnivorous plants have evolved to catch their prey. The infamous Venus flytrap uses small electrical currents, that are induced by an insect brushing against the tiny hairs on its trap, to snap close its “jaws”; bladderwort uses vacuum to suck its victim into a tiny cell that will end up being its final resting place. Perhaps, compared to these exotic examples, the pitcher plats with their puddles of liquid to drown the insect in don’t seem as exciting but, as ever, the looks may be deceiving. Pitchers often have distinct colorations to attract insects, they secrete nectar on the rims of their pitfalls to lure the poor creatures for a “free meal”. When an insect attempts to land on the rim it turns out that the rim is made up of tiny downward pointing scales and is covered with liquid which makes the landing platform very slippery and by the time the mistake can be registered the insect is already falling down into its doom. At the bottom of each pitfall a pool is liquid solution, which consists of various digestive enzymes and bacteria, that will eventually and inevitably digest the insect leaving the plant to absorb all of its nutrients.

Interestingly, some pitcher plants are better at catching the insects than others and indeed, some pitchers grow in areas that have far too few suitable insects to make the carnivorous life-style a sustainable one. So how do they survive? Well, it turns out that what may be one’s grave can be another’s home. Namely, a type of pitcher plant called Nepenthes rafflesiana elongate, which grows in the jungles of Borneo, has evolved special characteristics to accommodate the living of Hardwicke’s woolly bat inside it. The pitcher of Nepenthes r. e. is larger and longer than some closely related species and the level of digestive liquid at the bottom of the plant is usually significantly reduced. Indeed, in some cases pitchers have been found that are large enough to comfortably accommodate inside a mother and its juvenile baby bat. In addition, the slender shape and a special lignified girdle of the pitchers allow the bats to settle head first inside the trap without slipping down to the bottom.

A woolly bat inside Nepenthes r. e.
A woolly bat inside Nepenthes r. e.

One may wonder what’s the benefit for the plant to have a bat living inside it if it blocks the insects from being lured into the traps. It turns out that the plants benefit from its inhabitants by being used as lavatories! The faeces of bats are rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, which can be absorbed by the plant to be used in its own metabolism. In addition, some pitcher plants are also pollinated by the bats. Bats are actually not the only animals that make use of pitcher plants, a similar mutualistic relationship between tree shrews and another species of pitcher plant, Nepenthes lowii, also exist (those interested see here).

It turns out, that not only the shapes some pitfall traps are especially accommodating for the bats to live in, but also the trap has special reflective properties to make it easy to find. Bats use echolocation to track and catch insects they feed on, however, this ability has also been adapted to find the suitable pitchers for nesting. Recently, it has been shown that the back walls of the pitchers that have mutualistic relationships with bats, also have significantly better acoustic signal reflection compared to those that don’t. Consequently, in the cluttered jungles the echolocation signal is more likely to come back from pitchers that are suited for roosting making them easier to find.

Bats echolocate the suitable pitcher plants
Bats echolocate the suitable pitcher plants

Grafe, T. Ulmar, et al. “A novel resource–service mutualism between bats and pitcher plants.” Biology Letters 7.3 (2011): 436-439.
Schöner, Michael G., et al. “Bats Are Acoustically Attracted to Mutualistic Carnivorous Plants.” Current Biology (2015).

How to Keep your Fungal Garden Healthy


Leaf-cutter ants are absolutely fascinating little creatures. Found in North and South America, their colonies can contain up to 5 million ants and the queen of the colony can lay almost 30,000 eggs every day. These tiny workers have substantial impact on the ecological communities they live in: mixing the soil, selectively choosing which plants leaves to cut and which seeds to carry significantly modifies the environment they live in. And it is not for decorative purposes that they work so hard to bring those leaves back to their colonies (one piece of a leaf can weight up to 50 times the ant’s weight!). Leaf-cutter ants also belong to a group of fungus-growing ants, which, as their name implies, spend their time and resources on culturing fungi (process called fungiculture). Fungiculture has originated 50 million years ago and is an example of symbiosis, a mutually beneficial interaction between two or more organisms. Leaf-cutters bring the leaves back to the colony which provides a constant source of nutrition for their ‘fungal garden’ (this is the actual term used for the specialised space in the colony where the fungus is cultivated). As an added value the ants also take care of the fungal garden by cleaning it from any invading parasites as well as facilitating fungal spore dispersal. In return, ants eat the fungus, which is their primary food source (so it’s almost like a personal ant veggie garden). Continue reading