Category Archives: Evolution

Antibiotic resistance… the NEXT generation

MRSA- Picture courtesy of CDC's Public Health Image Library

MRSA- Picture courtesy of CDC’s Public Health Image Library

Antibiotic resistance is a growing- and serious- problem. Most antibiotics work by interfering with cell functions, but certain types of bacteria (like MRSA) have evolved in such a way that these antibiotics just won’t work. Researchers all over the world are working on this problem, and it seems that scientists at MIT have made a pretty significant breakthrough.

By using a genome-editing system called CRISPR, researchers have been able to target the genes that allow bacteria to resist antibiotics. And by targeting the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance and disrupting them, they were able to kill over 99% of the resistant bacteria. Using this method, they also successfully increased survival rates of waxworm larvae infected with a nasty form of E. coli.

Currently, research in mice is in progress. The goal is that one day, this technology could be modified to work on humans. As recent research hasn’t yielded many new classes of antibiotics, this method may ultimately play an important role in stopping the spread of antibiotic resistance in the human population.

Read more about it here:

Invisibility cloaks: Out of science fiction and into reality

iStock_000042489660LargeInvisibility cloaks are becoming one step closer to reality, thanks to cephalopods. Octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish have the ability to change the color and texture of their skin to match their surroundings, and by studying these animals, researchers at MIT and Duke University have created a material that can change color and texture on demand.

In cephalopods, muscle contractions change the shapes of pigment sacs and skin texture into a large variety of colors and patterns. This new octopus-inspired material works by using voltage changes to activate molecules in the elastomer. Essentially, you’d use a remote control to change color and texture. When you turn it off, it returns to its original state. Watch the video in the link here.

Besides being very popular with Harry Potter fans, this technology is really important. A system that can modify its camouflage with a touch of a button could be extremely useful, and even life-saving. Researchers are interested in developing anti-fouling coating for ships, and military camouflage could be revolutionized. Can you think of other applications where changing the texture or color of an object could be useful? Post your ideas in the comments below!

See some other ways the octopuses are awesome:

Malaria: Are malaria parasites smarter than we think?

tiger-mosquito-49141_640Smart parasites? It sounds ominous, but new research into malaria parasites is giving scientists a better understanding of disease transmission. It seems that the malaria parasite is able to increase its own transmission rate by ‘relapsing’ during the times that the host animal is bitten by the insects that are capable of spreading it.

Researchers worked with domestic canaries infected with Plasmodium relictum, which is the most common parasite involved in cases of bird malaria in Eastern songbirds. They found that when the canaries were bitten by uninfected mosquitoes, parasite numbers in their blood increased, which in turn resulted in higher infection rates of the mosquitoes.

Pretty efficient. So how can understanding parasite evolution help us? Ultimately, understanding the factors that lead to these ‘relapses’ could help researchers develop better ways to control the disease. While it’s not yet known whether this type of transmission is present in humans, there are many other human pathogens that can also relapse after dormant periods (such as HIV, Herpes Simplex, and Mycobacterium tuburculosis), so it’s possible that this research could help scientists understand potential triggers for relapse in these diseases, as well. Read more about it here:

Teaching fish how to walk teaches us about evolution

google free bichirIn an incredible research study, scientists studied juvenile bichir (a type of fish) on land to understand the evolutionary changes that may have taken place about 400 million years ago. That’s right- teaching fish how to walk is teaching researchers about evolution! These African fish are unique because they have lungs AND gills, and juveniles will sometimes walk on their fins. Researchers believe that bichirs walk in a way that is similar to early tetrapod ancestors.

When scientists looked at the differences in walking ability between bichirs raised in an aquatic environment versus bichirs raised in a terrestrial environnment, they found that the terrestrial animals became much more efficient at walking. What’s more, their anatomy began to change to facilitate walking!

Watch the video here- it’s interesting!

This research suggests that organisms’ anatomy is changed in response to environmental changes. This is called developmental plasticity. The theory is that developmental plasticity gave early ancestors of tetrapods the ability to walk onto land. Once in a terrestrial environment, the animals were forced to evolve more quickly to keep up with the environment.

This research is amazing, because scientists pretty much created a snapshot of evolution right in the laboratory! They also provided a pretty good basis for the argument that plasticity was important in the evolutionary steps that led to walking. Read more about it here:

Shocking discovery from an electric eel!

eel-228748_640Electric eels are fascinating animals, not only because they look pretty cool, but also because they can generate electricity and deliver shocks of up to 600 volts. But they’re not the only fish that can produce electric fields, and recently, research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison has yielded some surprising information about the evolution of this ability- and what it could mean for other species.

Researchers analyzed the genes of the electric eel as well as other electric fish from unrelated families. It appears that there are a limited number of ways to evolve electric organs, and in at least six different fish, their electric organs evolved in the same way.

So… why should we care? By understanding the way electric organs were created through evolution, scientists may be able to gain the information needed to one day create electric organs in humans or other other animals. The zebrafish, a commonly used research animal, may play a role in attempts at this type of modification. If humans were able to have electric organs, they could possibly serve to power pacemakers, neurostimulators, or other implanted medical devices. Read more about it here:

Zoonotic diseases: It’s not all bad news

iStock_000007898418SmallZoonotic diseases are diseases that can be spread between animals and humans. And they’re more common than you may think- did you know that about 60% of all human pathogens are zoonotic?

You probably know about many of these. You may know that you can contract Lyme Disease from a tick bite, or West Nile Virus from infected mosquito bites. You might know that you can get salmonella from handling reptiles and amphibians, and you’ve definitely heard of H1N1, the swine flu. And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve also heard of MERS, hantavirus, and tularemia. (Warning: creepy.)

But it works both ways: humans can also transmit diseases to animals. It’s known that humans can spread the flu to companion animals, and new research shows that MRSA bacteria that infects dogs and cats is genetically similar to the MRSA bacteria that infects humans. Read: this bacteria likely originated in humans, and then spread to animals.

And although it’s scary to think of diseases crossing the species barrier (ebola or rabies, anyone?), there’s a silver lining here that shouldn’t be ignored. By studying routes of transmission and impact of diseases on both humans and animals, researchers can hopefully use these similarities to their advantage. A treatment that works on animals could potentially work on humans, and new therapies in humans could help our pets, too.

**Disclaimer: Photo was chosen because it was cute, not because the author condones kissing frogs. In reading this, you release the author from any responsibility if you decide to kiss a frog and contract salmonella, tapeworm cysts, or mycobacteriosis. Just don’t.

Octopuses are awesome. See why…

iStock_000013309695SmallOctopuses are pretty awesome. Not only can they camouflage themselves by changing colors and imitating other animals to blend into their surroundings, but they can teach researchers about the brain’s ability to store and recall memories. Studying the octopus has led to new understanding of linguistics (ever wonder what an octopus and your tongue have in common?), and the venom from some species of octopus has been important in the understanding of new opportunities in drug development. And their arms can detach, taste whatever they’re touching, and also act like penises.

Intrigued? I think I’ve found the ultimate octopus video that proves how much octopuses kick ass. I promise, watch this one, you won’t be sorry. And if you don’t laugh, you may want to have yourself checked out. Click here to watch it.

We can learn a lot from animals, and sometimes, a little bit of humor is all it takes to get people to remember that! And there’s no doubt: octopuses kick ass.

Why “Not tonight, I have a headache…” is never the case with men

iStock_000016171517SmallIn yet another example of the similarities between mice and men, researchers have found that males of the mouse species aren’t very likely to turn down sex, even when they’re not feeling that great. On the other hand, feeling under the weather definitely affects a female mouse’s sex drive. When experiencing pain, female mice had much less sexual motivation than usual. But when males were experiencing pain, it didn’t have any effect on the frequency of sexual behaviors displayed.

Sounds pretty similar to a lot of human relationships. The husband of a friend of mine was in the emergency room, waiting for x-rays on his broken ankle, but still suggested that she draw the curtains so they could have a little fun. She thought he was crazy; he thought it was a valid option.

While it’s too early to draw conclusions about complex human behavior from one mouse study, the results do suggest that sexual repression in females may be more biological than emotional in some cases. Could this be evolution at work? Interesting. What are your thoughts?

Zebra evolution might prompt new fashion trends!

zebras pixabayPast research has suggested a mechanism for the formation of distinct stripes (did you know that stripes are magnetic?), but new research helps to explain the evolution of these beautiful patterns.

Researchers at UC Davis looked at the geographical ranges of zebras and some of their closest geographic relatives, and surprisingly, they found that camouflage, temperature, or environment variations weren’t nearly as significant as the presence of flies. It appears that in parts of the world where biting flies are more of a problem, the amount of body striping is increased.

The evolution of the zebra’s stripes may have just gotten more interesting! We know that horseflies avoid striped surfaces, and understanding how and why certain animal characteristics evolved can be really important. Not only can it help us in conservation efforts, but we can potentially use this information to develop new techniques that can help humans and companion animals! I see some zebra-striped fly sheets in my horse’s future…

Are there animals in YOUR medicine cabinet?

Dog and pills.How have animals helped YOU today? If you’re not familiar with research, you might not have any idea. But did you know that most of our medical advances wouldn’t have been possible without animals? It’s amazing to learn about the ways they’ve helped us!

Antibiotic ointment, aspirin, cold medicines, penicillin, anti-depressants, blood pressure and cholesterol medications, insulin, anti-coagulants, anesthesia, HIV drugs, chemotherapy, dialysis, CT scans, MRIs, prosthetics, organ transplants, and thousands of other medications and procedures were developed and determined to be safe for your use, thanks to dedicated researchers and the animals they work with.

The list goes on. I will guarantee that every person reading this has benefited from at least some of these advances. What’s more, I’ll bet your pets have benefited as well! And that’s a wonderful thing! Think of the symptoms we can alleviate due to medications, the life-threatening emergencies that we can SURVIVE, and the illnesses that our children may never get, thanks to vaccines. Polio, measles, cervical cancer, rabies, chicken pox, whooping cough, tetanus, Hepatitis B- and that’s just the beginning of the list!

EMBRACE it. Be thankful for it. The next time you reach into your medicine cabinet, take a minute to think about the scientific advances that led to the development of the medication that’s about to help you!