Deceit in Nature

As a species, we can be quite hard on ourselves. Nature is often separated from Homo sapiens and put on a pedestal of purity and goodness while we lament our species’ wickedness. I’m not going to touch that philosophical debate with double-layered lab gloves on, but I’m here to tell you that, as humans, we’re hardly the pioneers of deceit and cruel treachery. I’ll save war, murder, and rape for another post (with triple-layered gloves), but today I want to show you some of the fascinating ways nature has us beat with how underhand and brilliantly sneaky it can be.

The fundamentals of life come down to survival and reproduction. If you survive long enough to reproduce, you pass your genes on. If you don’t, you’re an evolutionary dead end…literally. Consequently, any adaptations that increase the ability of organisms to survive (avoid predators, catch prey, save energy, etc) and reproduce (avoid angry rival males, kill angry rival males, woo females, efficiently invest energy into making and raising babies, not accidentally kill your babies, etc) are selected for and propagated. There are no morals or rules of conduct in nature, so this leads to a wide array of ridiculous behaviors that would certainly be frowned upon in human society.

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The Spanish Influenza of 1918

If I were to tell you that the single most deadly event in recorded human history took place in the 1900’s, what would you think it was? Probably one of the Great Wars – which would be close, but not quite right. The event took place from 1918 to 1919, but the killer was no human; the weapon neither bullets or gas. It was an enemy so small it cannot be seen by the naked eye: the 1918 Spanish Influenza virus, also known as “La Grippe.” During its year-long reign, this tiny virus killed between 50 and 100 million people across the globe. It killed more people in a single year than the Black Death did in the entire 14th century, more than either World War, and well over 6 times the population of New York City. Some even say that more Americans were buried in France having died of influenza than had been killed fighting on the battlefield. We get outbreaks of the flu every year without batting an eyelash, so what went so terribly wrong in 1918?

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Bizarre Animal Courtships: The Power of Sexual Selection

In preparation for Valentine’s Day, humans across the world are investing in chocolates, flowers, lacy garments, and, for those who have read 50 Shades of Grey, perhaps a few additional supplies. For some of us, it’s the perfect excuse to stuff our faces with chocolate and sulk over singledom. In my case, I sat around craving chocolate and randomly announcing disturbing aspects of animal mating behavior to my resigned friends and family. In honor of this lovey-dovey holiday, I present a blog on how the epic battle to get laid has led to the development of some extremely peculiar methods of winning over a potential mate and competing with rivals.

The struggle is real, ladies and gents, and you’re not alone!

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ANTHRAX: Bacillus anthracis

There’s nothing quite like a mail-order disease to propel a pathogen into notoriety. In 2001, several envelopes containing spores of the bacteria Bacillus anthracis were shipped across the United States, infecting those exposed with anthrax. This was hardly the first time B. anthracis cropped up as a prominent pathogen or agent of biological warfare; the bacterium has a sordid history as a major player in biological warfare in the past century, along with a biblical history of outbreaks.

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ALS: The Ice Bucket Disease

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

I was recently challenged to participate in the latest viral social behavior: the ice bucket challenge. The activity raises awareness for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now more commonly known as ALS. I have decided to respond to the challenge with this blog post rather than pouring water over my head, since I’ve come to realize that watching over twenty ice challenge videos has taught me next to nothing about the disease!

ALS is both the most common and most aggressive type of adult motor neuron degeneration. The death of upper motor neurons in the motor cortex and lower motor neurons in the brainstem and ventral horn of the spinal cord result in a progressive loss of muscle control. This progression is characterized by stiffness, overactive reflexes, muscle twitching, muscle atrophy, and finally full paralysis. Approximately 15% of patients also suffer from cognitive and behavioral problems known as frontotemporal dementia due to the death of neurons in the prefrontal and temporal cortex in the brain[1,5].

Finally, it is a heterogeneous disease: the age, site of onset, rate of progression, and the presence and degree of cognitive dysfunction can vary widely between patients. The disease is fatal within 3-5 years of onset[5].

ALS bucket time

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Ebola

No other disease has captured the modern imagination with such sensational horror as Ebola. The possibility of infection being transported into dense cities and the western world along with the possibility of bioterrorism captures our attention. However, much of the disease’s infamous reputation is due to sensationalized stories of the outbreaks along with the popular perception of the disease causing a disconcerting amount of bleeding from every orifice. In actuality, the disease’s outbreaks are relatively rare (although increasing) and the presentation itself only includes external bleeding in less than half of the cases. Still, with a mortality rate ranging between 40-90% and no current treatments, Ebola is not a disease to be taken lightly.

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Venom: Nature’s Deadliest Creatures

Animals have been evolving toxins for millions of years, perfecting the art of paralyzing prey, killing targets, and deterring predators. While poison is either ingested or inhaled, venom is toxin delivered directly into the target’s circulation by means of a bite, sting, or other rudely penetrative means. Even the more mild venoms from tiny insects are impressively efficient; a bee can create havoc in an animal hundreds of times its own mass (a 1/10 gram bee compared to a 70 kilogram human).

Despite the fact that some of us experience complete mental breakdowns the minute a venomous creature passes by, humans have been harvesting and utilizing animal venom for hundreds of years. The key to many of these toxins is their astonishing specificity; they bind to an exact spot on a specific protein in only certain types of cell to achieve an precise, and devastating, effect. This incredible feat is far beyond our own ability to engineer, and so we study these toxins, altering them for use in life-saving therapies and medicines. In order to celebrate these amazing chemicals (and because venomous animals are too cool to pass up), let’s see how some of the deadliest venoms work.

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