Starvation-sleep link?

Recent research suggests that sleep may not be an absolute necessity–if starvation looms. An August 31 study published online in PLoS Biology shows that fruit flies remain active and alert when in a foodless environment. The research team speculates that the lack of consequences from sleep deprivation may be tied to lipid metabolism.

But don’t stop eating to burn the midnight oil–another recent study links late nights to Alzheimer’s.

Read more here: Hungry flies ok with less sleep.

Big girls + little boys = gravity defying spider action

Spanish researchers have found evidence that the combination of behavior and gravity may determine the itty-bitty body size of some orb weaver males. The males use “bridging”, or crawling along a single strand of silk to another location, to get around, a behavior that appears to favor smaller size. Females, however, are larger because this gives them a reproductive advantage: producing more eggs. This has led to what is called extreme sexual dimorphism, or large differences in size between males and females.

Source: BBC News – Spider size is a question of gravity.

First pigment-making animal is an aphid!

How cool is this? A species of pea aphid appears to have picked up the genes for making carotenoids from fungi–making it the first known animal to manufacture their own. This adds to the evidence that DNA can transfer laterally from bacteria, yeast, or fungi to animals. The evolutionary story is just getting more and more interesting!

N.A. Moran and T. Jarvik, “Lateral transfer of genes from fungi underlies carotenoid production in aphids,” Science:328:624-7, 2010.

2010 “deadline” missed for reversing loss of biodiversity

The United Nations has declared the International Year of Biodiversity–a year that was supposed to be a milestone. The 193 nations participating in a treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) had agreed to “achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.”

But in a statement released early this year, Ahmen Djoghlaf, the executive secretary of CBD, states that we’re a long way off. He writes “The more than 100 national reports received so far from Parties have demonstrated that we continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate.”

While this is serious news on many fronts, it has also provided scientists with the impetus to better understand the benefits of biodiversity and the ramifications of its loss. Here’s a great feature article written by Susan Milius that covers the topic in detail. If you don’t read anything else this year, read this.

via Losing Life’s Variety – Science News.

Bee dance may be more complex than thought

Bees use a complex “waggle” dance to communicate with hivemates about the direction and distance to sources of food. Through a sequence of waggles and vibrations, the dance communicates direction relative to the sun, distance from the hive, and quality of the food source–all in the complete darkness inside a hive.

Discovery and decoding of this remarkable form of communication won Karl von Frisch the nobel prize in 1973. Now, UCSD professor James Nieh has built on this research by finding that some members of the bee audience may stop the dancer if they know about predators or other risks at the food source. By doing so, the hive improves its collective intelligence.

Studies of bee waggling have led to discoveries about the complex communication patterns of true social insects such as bees, wasps, and ants. The “stop” signal is only the second known example of a sophisticated insect society using “negative feedback” — signals that tell others to stop a behavior.

Sources: The Nieh lab at UCSD

Hives stayin’ alive –

A cricket pollinating? Is there no end to the madness?

We’re familiar with the pollination services provided by bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, and even bats–but a cricket? They usually eat flowers, not pollinate them.

Well, the fabulous diversity of life surprises once again.  A new species of raspy cricket has been caught on camera pollinating orchids! This behavior is previously unknown in crickets. The nocturnal insect belongs to the Glomeremus genus and was found on the island of Reunion. The study has been published in the Annals of Botany.

Video is available on BBC news; take a peek! You might be surprised at how much the behavior looks like that of pollinator! Form does follow function after all! 😉

via BBC News – New cricket species filmed pollinating orchids.

Reproductive morphology and speciation in beetles

For those of you who are wondering what the heck I’m doing with my life, here’s a video about entomologist David Kavanaugh, who predicted that a new beetle species would be found on the Trinity Alps. I’m hoping to develop research somewhat along these lines, using montane grasshoppers in the sky islands of the Rocky Mountains. Let’s just hope they let me into grad school! 🙂

Unfortunately, I’m unable to embed the video, but here’s the link. At about 12 minutes, you can see some of the techniques for examining and characterizing insect genitalia. QUEST on KQED Public Media.

Insect cells provide the key to alternative swine flu vaccination

Limited supplies of chicken eggs equate to limited supplies of egg-produced vaccines–a major problem should a pandemic occur. Furthermore, many people (myself included) are allergic to a protein in egg whites and resist using vaccines grown in embryonated chicken eggs. Egg allergy is second only to milk allergy in children and adults.

What’s a health-minded girl to do? Well, insects may come to the rescue. Ta-da-da-DAH!

H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine can be produced more quickly using insect cells, scientists in Vienna have found. The team took just ten weeks to produce recombinant influenza virus-like particles (VLPs), which resemble virus particles but lack the viral nucleic acid, so they are not infectious. This outcompetes conventional production methods which take months.

The research was published yesterday in the Biotechnology Journal.

via ScienceDaily.

Mosquito harmony

Mosquitoes may have retained their annoying buzz in order to attract mates, says a report published online on December 31st in Current Biology.

“There’s no doubt many of us have wondered why it makes its presence so obvious,” said Gabriella Gibson of the University of Greenwich at Medway and one of the researchers on the study. “Surely, after all of these centuries of blood-feeding, selection should have favored a more stealthy approach that would leave mosquitoes less vulnerable to the defensive attacks of its unsettled host.”  However, sounds to attract a mate of the right species would be under stronger selection than the ability to silently approach a host, she said.

The study’s results help to explain how genetically diverse mosquito forms manage to reproductively isolate themselves. The complexity of malaria control is due in part to the mosquito’s genetic plasticity, which enables it to survive in a broad range of habitats.

To establish the identity of mates, male and female mosquitoes harmonize with each other.  “They can do this even if they each sing a different note, say a ‘middle C’ and a ‘G’ four tones higher,” said Ian Russell at the University of Sussex. “By listening and subtly altering their pitch to minimize the dissonance, they achieve their goal of ‘singing’ in a perfect harmony that we, but not they, can hear.”

The researchers have now shown that two mosquitoes don’t harmonize successfully if they are of the same sex or if they are not the same type of mosquito.

via To a mosquito, matchmaking means ‘singing’ in perfect harmony.

New antifreeze molecule found in Alaska beetle

More about insects enduring the winter cold: researchers at University of Alaska Fairbanks have isolated a previously unknown molecule that allows an Alaska beetle able to survive temperatures below -100 F. The new molecule, called xylomannan, has little or no protein, which makes it completely different in form and mechanism than other known biological antifreezes. Continue reading