Everyone has their favorite microscopic creature—you all do have a favorite, right? Mine is unquestionably the tardigrade. Tardigrades, also called water bears or moss piglets, are microscopic invertebrates that are composed of five segments: one head segment and four body segments, each with a pair of legs. They are 0.1–1.2mm in length, making them easy to see under low magnification, and have a brain and well-developed nervous system. Tardigrades are found in just about every environment on earth. Termed “extremophiles”, they have adapted to survive in even extremely harsh environments. Your neighborhood pond? The Himalayas? Antarctica? Deep sea? Tardigrades live in all those places.
Although many of us fell in love with these microscopic animals the first time we saw them—because there is no denying that they are darn cute— there are other good reasons why scientists are so fascinated by these creatures. Tardigrades are incredibly resilient. And by resilient, I mean almost indestructible. Continue reading “The Amazing, Indestructible—and Cuddly—Tardigrade”
Keeping up with the pace of scientific discoveries being published each week can be difficult. Here I share a few scientific publications that piqued my interest over the past week:
Pollinators influence evolution of plant traits
To explore the plant-pollinator relationship, researchers studied field mustard, a relative of oilseed rape, under the influence of three pollination conditions: by hand, by bumblebee and by hoverfly. After nine generations, the plants were visually changed. The ones pollinated by bumblebees were taller than the original plant; the ones pollinated by hoverflies, shorter. In addition, the bumblebee-pollinated field mustard developed more fragrant floral compounds and more UV-reflecting petals while the hoverfly-pollinated plants became more self-pollinated. While this experimental was done in isolation from other plants, the research suggests a pollinator can influence the traits evolved by a plant.
Calculus from Neanderthals reveal diet and probable self-medication
The calcified plaque on teeth of five Neanderthal skulls was scraped, PCR amplified and sequenced to examine what could be learned of diet, behavior and disease. One specimen was eliminated because the DNA did not amplify, one due to environmental contamination, leaving two specimens from Spain and one from Belgium that were used for analysis. The Belgian individual had rhinoceros, sheep and mushrooms caught in its teeth while the Spanish Neanderthals consumed mushrooms, pine nuts, forest moss, and poplar as well as plant fungus. The last two items were of interest because these sequences were found in the Neanderthal suffering from a dental abscess. Poplar contains the active ingredient in aspirin and the fungus was Penicillium from which the first antibiotic was derived. Researchers also compared the bacterial sequences of oral microbes across hominid species and sequenced a draft genome of the 48,000-year-old oral bacterium Methanobrevibacter oralis subsp. neandertalensis.
The desiccation tolerance of water bears explained
The microscopic tardigrades are a creature that inspire microbiologists and others with their cuteness (hence the nickname water bears) and their resilience under dry conditions. However, little was known why they can survive desiccation. New research reveals that unlike other organisms that use sugar to resist drying, tardigrades use disordered proteins to protect itself. These proteins lack stable 3D structures and form glass-like protection under desiccation. Not surprisingly, these proteins are called tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins or TDPs. By transferring TDPs into yeast, researchers were able to increase yeast tolerance to drying as well as enhance survival.
Blood type determined in 30 seconds using a paper-based assay
Matching blood type usually involves centrifuging blood samples to test both red blood cells and plasma, and takes about 30 minutes. However, a rapid test would be useful in emergencies while an alternate test for those without the funds for lab facilities would be beneficial. What about paper infused with dye that could show blood type in seconds, no centrifugation needed? In fact, researchers have developed a paper-based assay that uses microliter volumes of whole blood to determine blood type with a visual indicator. Using immobilized antibodies and a green dye, the blood will clump in the presence of an antibody that is recognized, turning the paper blue to show it has the marker for A (left side of chip) or B (right side of chip). Type AB will have both markers while type O has neither, turning the paper brown on both sides of the chip. Rare blood types and five Rhesus markers can also be analyzed using this paper-based chip assay, starting with a small sample of whole blood.
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