What Did Evolution Get Wrong [Video]

About 6 days and 90 years ago, the Criminal Court of Tennessee sentenced a high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, guilty of teaching human evolution in school. The Scopes Trial or the Scopes Monkey Trial, as it is famously known, was a big event for its time and set the tone for debate whether evolution should or should be taught in schools. While the debate continues even today and people continue to argue over the merits and demerits of the evolution theory, we came across this short video from BBC Earth Unplugged that actually questions the theory of evolution, in a fun way.

Disclaimer: Neither the BBC Earth Unplugged nor Coffee Table Science are attempting to question the theory of evolution, it's just that these are interesting questions that need to be asked so enjoy the video.




If you have liked video, do let us know your thoughts on it below. There are some interesting posts on our blog about the fast moving tiger beetles and extreme sex seen in animals, just like the marsupial mouse above.

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Its official then! Mosquitoes do like biting some people over others

A mosquito biting
English: A mosquito biting the photographer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Are you the target for mosquitoes on a hiking trip? Does your family disagree with you when you say that you are being targeted by these buzzing creatures? Thanks to the paper published by G. Mandela Fernandez-Grandon and colleagues in PLoS One, you now have scientific evidence to tell everybody that you were always right about biting preferences of mosquitoes.  Three questions immediately spring to mind, a when you read something like this. One, how do you prove something as bizarre as this? Second, do scientists really spend time studying something like this? What else do we know about the biting behaviour of mosquitoes? Let’s dwell into them one by one.

How do you prove something like this?

First of all, to prove this you need a bunch of trained mosquitoes at your disposal. Well, mosquitoes are not like chimps who can be trained, so you need a mechanism to let them fly and pick their subjects and then monitor their behaviour. Well, there are Green Fluorescent protein mutant varieties of mosquitoes but the authors of the PLoS study used a simpler option.
Y Tube Olfactometer



                    Image credit: G. Mandela Fernandez Grandon
                    Source: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122716.g002
Called, the Y-tube olfactometer, this simple device is designed to allow two stimuli to be placed in the Y shaped arms. The mosquito flies in through the release chamber (at the top) and then actually has an option to choose between the two stimuli being presented to it. The study involved releasing a bunch of 20 mosquitoes in each go and two separate stimuli were placed at the end of the device. The researchers found that when the stimuli were non identical twins, mosquitoes seemed to be prefer one over the other (most mosquitoes were attracted towards one of the twins) whereas in case of identical twins the group of mosquitoes was split in halves, with both individuals attracting almost equal number of mosquitoes. These results were obtained after replicating the experiment 10 times for each set of identical/ non identical twins that were involved in the study.

Mosquitoes prefer biting some people over others

                                                                  Image credit:  www.desciphered.com 

Since identical twins share the same genetic information, researchers now strongly believe that the reason why mosquitoes choose one person over the other might actually lie in our genes. While it is still early to know which genes actually are responsible for this effect, with next-gen sequencing at our disposal, it will not take us very long to pin point the genes in the near future.

Do scientists really study something like this?

Short answer, Yes. 

Long answer, scientists are not looking at this question just because it is intriguing or because somebody has a point to prove.  Understanding the factors that affect mosquito bites will help scientists come up with mechanisms that can be used to deter them. So, hypothetically, if we understand that expression of a particular odour keeps mosquitoes away, then a drug could be designed that will enhance the production of such an odour and can be administered in areas where mosquito bites are causing lethal diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya etc. A long acting drug like this would be much more effective in curbing these diseases than the mosquito repellents that we currently use.

What else do we know about the biting behaviour of mosquitoes?

There is quite a bit that has actually been done in the lab to understand the biting behaviour of mosquitoes. Ansell and colleagues (2002) found that Anopheles gambiae, the major malarial vector in Africa, prefers biting pregnant women over non-pregnant women. Similarly, Lacroix et al 2003 mosquitoes like biting people who have malarial infection rather than those who don’t. People with a greater body mass also act like mosquito magnets was found by Port et al 1980 and later confirmed by Logan et al 2010. More importantly, home remedies like eating garlic or vitamin B does not really have effect on mosquito bite deterrence as was discovered by Rajan and colleagues in 2005 and Ives and colleagues in 2005 respectively. But if you are an alehead, then Lefervre and his team (2010) are sure you are actually inviting Anopheles gambiae to bite you.


If you would like to know more about malaria and how we have responded to it, then there is a nice post about Living with malaria on our blog. Also, Justin Boddey at WEHI, Australia speaks to us about how his team has found a new way to stop the spread of malaria. 

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!

References:

Fernández-Grandon, G., Gezan, S., Armour, J., Pickett, J., & Logan, J. (2015). Heritability of Attractiveness to Mosquitoes PLOS ONE, 10 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122716

Ansell J, Hamilton KA, Pinder M, Walraven GE, & Lindsay SW (2002). Short-range attractiveness of pregnant women to Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 96 (2), 113-6 PMID: 12055794

Lacroix R, Mukabana WR, Gouagna LC, & Koella JC (2005). Malaria infection increases attractiveness of humans to mosquitoes. PLoS biology, 3 (9) PMID: 16076240

Logan, J., Cook, J., Stanczyk, N., Weeks, E., Welham, S., & Mordue (Luntz), A. (2010). To bite or not to bite! A questionnaire-based survey assessing why some people are bitten more than others by midges BMC Public Health, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-10-275

Rajan TV, Hein M, Porte P, & Wikel S (2005). A double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial of garlic as a mosquito repellant: a preliminary study. Medical and veterinary entomology, 19 (1), 84-9 PMID: 15752181

Ives AR, Paskewitz SM, Inter-L&S 101, Biology Interest Groups, & Entomology Class 201 (2005). Testing vitamin B as a home remedy against mosquitoes. Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, 21 (2), 213-7 PMID: 16033124

Lefèvre, T., Gouagna, L., Dabiré, K., Elguero, E., Fontenille, D., Renaud, F., Costantini, C., & Thomas, F. (2010). Beer Consumption Increases Human Attractiveness to Malaria Mosquitoes PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009546


11 Things you never knew Astronauts do in space

astronaut in space
Image credit: www.airandspace.si.edu
Gennady Padalka, the Russian astronaut, recently completed the feat of spending a record 804 days in space, more than any other human being. Aboard the International Space Station, Astronaut Padalka is the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) that is closest thing to home that astronauts have in space and orbits the Earth fifteen times everyday. Although, movies like Gravity and Interstellar might have created a grim image of how life is in outer space, here is a list of 11 things you did not know that astronauts do in space.

  1. Watch Star Trek 
Latest Star Trek film (2009)
Image credit: www.gstatic.com

For those who are fans of Star Trek movies but locked out in space, you do not have to wait for an entry pass to Earth to catch up on the latest releases. Astronaut Michael Bratt was thankful to Paramount Pictures for letting him watch the latest edition of Star Trek on his laptop that was beamed via Mission Control in Houston. Find it hard to believe, you can even go to NASA website and read it for yourself. 

2.    Follow Guidelines for Fun

While becoming an astronaut requires months and years of hard work and following protocols to the last letter, space agencies such as NASA have also framed some policies for having fun when aboard space shuttles or the International Space Station (ISS). Flight plans for astronauts often include schedules for relaxing, exercising and even spare time. While looking outside the many windows is a popular past time among astronauts, they also get weekends off aboard the ISS and  can choose to play cards or read books or do something of their own liking in their spare time.


3.       Enjoy Zero gravity

The most amazing thing about space is the lack of gravity and astronauts do not let go of any opportunity to make most of it. Lack of gravity lets astronauts do many somersaults,  drink water without spilling them or eat potato chips just like Homer did when he travelled in space. 

Zero gravity fun
Image credit www.yive.co 

4.       Wash your hair 

While it may seem like a casual thing to do, here on Earth, washing your hair in space is something only a handful of people might have done. Why else, would you want to record such a mundane act and broadcast it via NASA’s official channel, if not to make your girl friends jealous.

                                  

5.       Cry

While the philosophical question about the tree falling in the deep forest being heard or not is still being answered by the greatest minds of the century, Astronaut Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency experimented with what it would be like to cry in space.

Well, Chris is a grown up man and does not cry at work, no matter how much homesick he might be feeling, so he tried wetting his eyes with drinking water and waited for simulated tears to roll down his cheek. The lack of gravity meant that this never happened and if you were to bawl in space, you would end up with a blob of tears jiggling like a jelly near your eyes.

                                    


6.       Play Football 

The FIFA Football World Cup is a popular event not only among fans on planet Earth but also among astronauts on board the ISS. What’s more, there is an International Football Cup played on the ISS, every now and then, and even if you miss the goals, you simply cannot miss the celebrations that follow. 

                                     


7.       Move without any effort

Somersaulting in the zero gravity must be a lot of fun but what is even better is moving without having to put in the slightest of effort.  This is definitely something for lazy bums like us where you can move around the house without having to lift a finger. Only thing is, the house needs to accelerate. Any ideas on how to get this done? 


                                   

8.       City watching

Staring at the dark space from the many windows of the ISS or looking at the stars is truly delightful. But what if you are feeling a little homesick and want to see something that is more human. Well, you can spot countries from up above and even cities or volcanoes from the ISS and this kind of Finding Waldo is a lot of fun. Don't believe me, watch this clip below.

                          

  

9. Hang Out 

If staying inside the Space Station becomes a bit boring, there is always an option to take a walk out. Its just that people make a big deal about it and call it a Space Walk.

This picture of Bruce McCandless taken in 1984 has become quite synonymous with the words Astronauts in Space. 

Hanging out in space
Bruce McCandles Hanging out in space
Photo credit: Wikipedia


10.   Take snapshots

If you can have a treadmill, an exercise cycle and other things for yourself, then why not a high end digital camera as well on board the ISS.  This is what Chris Hadfield did with his spare time  and you can see some of his pictures here.

                                      


11.   Do a trialathon

If you are the kind of exercise buff, you can even complete a Trialathon in Space. Just like Sunita Williams did. While it was not exactly ‘swimming ’ that Williams did during this event but actually working out on specially designed strength training machine, running and biking were actually done by the astronaut on the ISS.

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!



What makes mustard so tasty?

What makes mustard so tasty?
Want to take a bite?
Image credit: mutterkrause.com 
Remember our last post about how plants can actually hear caterpillars munching on their leaves? Well, if you have not read it, you can quickly get the  gist by watching this video below. Unless you know the history, you will not enjoy the post. So, all new readers, do watch the video below and others can simply skip it and head straight to know what makes mustard is so tasty. 



Before we get to the story, let me me ask you a question. What do you do when an acquaintance clings on to you everywhere you go. Might be the office, the grocery store, probably even your coffee shop and starts eating into your space. You may be patient for a while but soon you decide to do something about it. While talking is always an option, it is not necessarily the first thing that we do. Rather, our first and probably sub conscious response is to do something or say something, that might irritate this person and push him away. Don't you agree? Apparently, our friends, the plants,  are not very different.  Their response, too, is the same. 

When a caterpillar troubles a plant such as mustard or horseradish, the plant reacts by producing irritating substances called glucosinolates that are disliked by the caterpillar and eventually, the pest stays away from the plant because the food available does not agree with its taste buds or its gut. Interestingly, these glucosinolates are something that our (human) taste buds appreciate and that is why mustard, horseradish and wasabi are something that you commonly find in salads and sandwiches. Insects like caterpillars and butterflies are a real headache for plants because of their sheer numbers and great appetite. Therefore, these plants even go ahead a step and create multiple copies of these genes that help them make these bitter fighting tools that will keep the pests away. A common roadside weed such as thale cress which is abundantly found around the world has at least 52 genes that work only for production of these glucosinolates. 
Thale cress plant has 52 genes for producing glucosinolates
Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a weed,  carries 52 genes
that can produce bitter tasting flavours so that it can keep pests away.
Image credit: Wikipedia. 


Not only this, others members such as mustard, horse radish of the Brassicaceae family, to which Thale cress, also belongs, are now known to have evolved in a way where they can produce different variants of the glucosinolates from different starting materials. (This means we have different salad dressings waiting to be explored.) So, if a particular substrate such as phenylalanine is not available, some plants can even use tryptophan or even methionine to produce a variant glucosinolate that will help it counter the pest attack. Needless to say, these plants have ensured that these genes are passed on to the next generations and the genes keep evolving to make more diverse glucosinolates as years go by.

But that is not the end of the story. It is just one side of the story. The truth is that the slow, sloppy caterpillars were not ready to give up easily. While plants were busy duplicating and distributing genes that make the bitter flavourants, caterpillars were actually developing genes that could help them digest these flavours. Through years of trial and error, these caterpillars finally managed to digest the bitterness and continue chewing on leaves. The ones who succeeded simply took to these plants and colonized them. This was the actual reason why plants had to develop alternate methods of developing glucosinolates so that they could get rid of colonizing caterpillars. 

This cycle of combating and evolving has been on for around 90 million years and is helping both these species get tougher each day. Termed Co-evolution by Ehrlich and Raven, this phenomenon was hypothesized half a century ago in the year 1964. It is safe to assume that such interactions take place all the time on the planet and are the basis for the biological diversity we can see on out planet today. Modern scientific methods are making it easier for us to track these changes even at a genetic level, something that Chris Pires and his colleagues did at the University of Missouri and published in PNAS recently. Now, you know that years of co-evolution is why mustard is so tasty. 

This also means that the taste of mustard is also likely to change over the years. But you wouldn't know because it would be at least a few million years before one can notice it and neither you nor me will be around to taste. 

If you would like to know more about such wonderful discoveries from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!
References: 

Edger PP, Heidel-Fischer HM, Bekaert M, Rota J, Glöckner G, Platts AE, Heckel DG, Der JP, Wafula EK, Tang M, Hofberger JA, Smithson A, Hall JC, Blanchette M, Bureau TE, Wright SI, dePamphilis CW, Schranz ME, Barker MS, Conant GC, Wahlberg N, Vogel H, Pires JC, & Wheat CW (2015). The butterfly plant arms-race escalated by gene and genome duplications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 26100883

  Ehrlich, P., & Raven, P. (1964). Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution Evolution, 18 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2406212

Biggest Display in a Museum [Video]

Visiting a museum Image credit: www.artgoestoschool.com
Visiting a Museum
Photo credit: www.artgoestoschool.com 
Take a moment and try to remember your last visit to the museum and try to fish out the unique memory of the largest real object on display......


Do you have it already? If not take a little more time and try to at least remember a short list of items that were on display. Did the display have a longsword, or a long rifle, probably a chariot,  or even a stuffed elephant. For those, who have seen dinosaur skeletons, you are well aware that they are replicas and not the real skeleton.

So, coming our question about the largest real object that you have seen. Only if you have been a visitor to the American Museum of Natural History in New York would you reply, the Giant Squid. Measuring up to 30 feet in length, the Giant Squid is one of the biggest displays at the AMNH and is a display you simply cannot miss (pun intended).

And the visit gets even sweeter, when you know the story behind the display. If you would like to know about the Giant Squid at AMNH, simply watch this video below about The Voyage of the Giant Squid released this month in the Shelf Life Series of the AMNH.



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Top 5 Extreme SEX in animals


Leather whips, silk ribbons and fur straps, if you were under the impression that kinky was something exclusively human, think again, nature gets far more freaky than our conservative beds. When it comes to having wild sex, animals and insects take it to a whole new level.  From diving water beetles that catch the females, risk her life, just so that she copulates; to mating plugs that literally means the male severs off his own genitals, sacrificing his life to secure paternity. Here is a look at some really cringe worthy wild sex stories, from the wild.

 Cannibalism


What is common between a praying mantis, Issei Sagawa, and the black widow spider? If sexual cannibalism was your vague guess, then you’re right. Sexual cannibalism is something of a normal phenomenon among the arachnid. And it is generally the male who gives his all (quite literally) to his mate. While many get cannibalized by the larger, more aggressive female, some like the Australian redback spiders, readily sacrifice themselves, to ensure their paternal success. The redback spiders, somersaults into the mouth of the female, who readily consumes the male whole. If you want to read about that stuff, here is a great link. 



Necrophilia
Image courtesy blog.nus.edu.sg

Necrophilia can arouse many terrible thoughts, and the thought that animals engage in it is just appalling. But the truth is that on some occasions, animals indulge in necrophilia as well. During the Terra Nova Expedition, George Murray Levick, wrote in his notes, that juvenile penguins often tried to copulate with carcasses of dead female penguins. The first recording of necrophilia in mallard ducks bagged the Ig Nobel Prize in biology in 2003. KeesMoeliker observed a mallard drake, copulating with the carcass of recently deceased drake for almost 75 minutes, while taking short brakes in between. Here is the link to the paper published.




Rape 


Now this may be a taboo for humans but rape is pretty common in the wild. Take the notorious mallard again, mating season means pairing up of one male and female, leaving several mallards, unattached, meaning they don’t produce offspring that season. But mallards have overcome that difficulty, and sneaked in a cheaky loophole. They have resorted to mounting (forcibly of course) a lonely female, and sometimes, females not restricted to their species. forceful copulation is also observed within chimpanzees and even bottlenose dolphins - where young males move in packs and many a times forcefully copulate with lonely females. This sort of behavior is also seen in diving water beetles as well. These are aggressive aquatic predatory beetles, and their aggression is also reflected during the mating season. The diving beetles have no 
courtship ritual, which just means that a male beetle will ambush and grasp any unsuspecting female diving beetle, catching her unaware and takes her straight to the water where he shakes and forcefully mounts her. Males have exceptional suction cup on their front feet that allow them a good grip on the female, who is kept underwater for a really long time, till she finally stops resisting. This ordeal can take up to six hours, before the female is finally released. This is extreme even where the beetles are concerned and very often leads to the female drowning. Here is a great link to know more about these kinky little fellas.  




Mating plugs


Mating plugs are seen as one of the most effective tools for polyandrous species, or where forceful copulation is rampant. Mating plugs are seen in rats, mice, squirrels, butterflies, spiders, reptiles and even kangaroos. While some may just smother the female genital tract with gelatinous goo, others take it a bit further. Like the male dark fishing spider that severs off its appendage, using it as a mating plug. This means that the males mate just once in their lifetime. (Here's a fun article to read about Mating Plugs)


Traumatic insemination

Imagine the next time you have sex, your partner jabs you at random point, ejaculating each time, covering you inside and out, with his seminal fluid, don't believe me, ask a bed bug. And if the constant jabbing was not enough, how about extra spiky male genitals that have barbs on them, to ensure paternity? Such is the case with Bruchid beetle or bean weevil, Cowpea seed beetles have a rough time with sex as well, (at least as far as the female is concerned). The male beetles have spiky pines on their penis which during copulation does a lot of damage to the female, sometimes increasing her rate of mortality. 
If you want to read about why beetles do have a spiky penis, here is a fun article.


While these may sound terribly extreme, with the female having to bear the brunt of it all, it is interesting to see how the sexes within species have developed coping mechanisms to overcome the assault, leading to the other sex having to step up their game. This is best seen in diving water beetles, the ones that risk drowning the reluctant female beetle in the attempt to successfully copulate with her. While females, over the years, have evolved smoother more slippery backs to dissuade males, males on the other hand have evolved better suction cups and tiny fur to have better grip while mounting females. This arms race has lead to scientist look at the battle of the sexes, where sexes within species go to great lengths to ensure they dictate terms of sexual contact; things like when is the time for sex, how to have sex, how many times and whom to have it with. While in some species this is mainly left to the female, and the male woes her with his charm, in many other species, males have taken it upon themselves to dictate the terms. when this happens it creates a conflict, and in this case, a sexual conflict. What is interesting is, that like us, animals, insects, birds, plants and even fungi tend to have an opinion on whom they'd rather do it with, and that in my opinion where things gets super interesting. 

If you would like to know more about such wonderful discoveries from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!


References: 
Andrade, M. (1996). Sexual Selection for Male Sacrifice in the Australian Redback Spider Science, 271 (5245), 70-72 DOI: 10.1126/science.271.5245.70

C.W. Moeliker (2001). The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos DEINSEA, 8, 243-247 Bergsten J, & Miller KB (2007). 

Phylogeny of diving beetles reveals a coevolutionary arms race between the sexes. PloS one, 2 (6) PMID: 17565375 Kuntner M, Gregorič M, Zhang S, Kralj-Fišer S, & Li D (2012). 

Mating plugs in polyandrous giants: which sex produces them, when, how and why? PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22829900 Hotzy C, Polak M, Rönn JL, & Arnqvist G (2012). 

Phenotypic engineering unveils the function of genital morphology. Current biology : CB, 22 (23), 2258-61 PMID: 23103188