AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: eddiecrinesystem

Using CRISPR to Protect the World’s Chocolate

Cacao tree and bean

Around the world, in places 20º North and South of the equator, cacao is grown.  Growing in tropical environments, cacao trees grow pods that contain beans that are the primary ingredient of chocolate.  Unfortunately, fungal infestations have recently had a devastating impact on cacao farms, causing a wide range of diseases in the trees.  The worldwide chocolate business which employs 50 million people, is at serious risk.

Scientists have begun to develop CRISPR technology that can alter the DNA of cacao plants to make them more resistant to both fungal and viral diseases.  CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that works like a molecular pair of scissors, removing sections of DNA and replacing them with new ones.

Candy company Mars Inc. has supported the Innovative Genomics Institute in using CRISPR to engineer better cacao trees.  It will take five to seven years for the genetically engineered cacao trees to grow their pods, so until then, we can’t be certain that the project has been successful.

The lessons learned by the scientists on this project are important as they translate into work that can be done on other, important food plants such as cassava, rice, and wheat.

For the original article on this project, click here.


Orangutans Observed Using Wire Tools to Retrieve Food: What’s Next?

In the natural world, orangutans have been ranked as one of the most intelligent primates.  Primates are the order that is home to apes, monkeys, and humans.  Orangutans have been observed possessing several human-like characteristics such as long-term memory the use of sophisticated tools.  Just like the other three species of great apes, orangutans have been listed as critically endangered.

In this study, orangutans were presented with a bendable wire and a box containing a treat that could only be retrieved with the use of the wire.  The orangutans consistently managed to bend the wire into a hook shape to successfully retrieve the box.

According to the scientists conducting these fascinating studies, the speed with which the apes solved this puzzle is astonishing.  It reveals just how close humans are to our relatives, the great apes.  The first evidence of homo sapiens using tools dates back to 16,000-60,000 years ago.

If you’ve seen any of the Planet of the Apes movies, these studies are probably as frightening to you as they are to me.  The ever-growing list of parallels between apes and humans is both haunting and enthralling.

To see the original article on this study click here.

The Microbiome of the African Hunter-Gatherer

Photo Credit: Andy Lederer on Flickr

In a study published on August 24th, 2017 on the gut microbiomes of the Hadza people of Tanzania, several key findings were brought forth on how our microbiomes work.  The microbiome is the trillions of bacteria cells that live in and on all multicellular organisms.  Our knowledge on microbiomes is somewhat limited, but that didn’t stop this team of scientists, led by Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford University, who aimed to track the differences between the microbiomes of different peoples and to catalogue the vast array of bacteria that the microbiome is comprised of.

The Hadza, as a hunter-gatherer group, vary their diet heavily depending on the Tanzanian seasons.  During the dry season, they have more access to hunted game. During the wet season, their diet is mainly comprised of berries and honey.  The bacteria present in their microbiomes when tested during the different seasons reflects this change in diet.  Microbes such as the phylum Bacteriodetes varies heavily with the seasons, a trend which has been seen in several other nonindustrialized groups.

The researches then compared their findings among the Hadza to industrialized peoples as well as other nonindustrialized peoples and found that “the groups of microbes that varied seasonally in the Hadza were largely absent in the industrialized microbiomes, but present in the microbiomes of people who live similarly to them.”  This is further evidence on the relationship between the human microbiome and environment that could play a key role in the future as we discover how the microbiome affects human health.

For the original article on this study, click here

Uncertain Future for Newly Discovered Species of Alpine Hummingbirds

The blue-throated hillstar humming bird is so new that there aren’t many photos of it online–this is a hummingbird that resembles the species

The blue-throated hillstar hummingbird (Oreotrochilus cyanolaemusis a newly discovered species of hummingbird located in the Ecuadorian Andes.  These unique birds have several fascinating adaptations to survive at altitudes higher than 3,500 meters, where the air is thinner, temperatures are lower, and the environment is oxygen-poor.

To conserve energy, these birds don’t hover often, instead opting to hop between chuquiraga plants, using their large feet to latch on to branches while drinking pollen and eating the insects they can find.  To account for the thin air during the rare occasion that Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus take flight, they have lengthened tails and wings to provide extra lift.  During the especially cold nights in their habitat, the blue-throated hillstar will enter a state of hibernation called torpor, slowing their metabolism and allowing their heart rate to drop.

According to evolutionary biologist Elisa Bonaccorso of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and her team, the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird is in grave danger; she estimates that there are only 750 individuals left in the wild.  They are spread out in groups over a 100 square kilometer area that is rapidly shrinking due to the expansion of cattle grazing and god and copper mining in this area by local communities.

At this rate, the future is not bright for this brand new species of hummingbird.  There have been no efforts at conservation thus far, but a conservation action plan is currently being designed by the town of Sabadel as part of a nature tourism initiative.

Currently, our blue-throated, Ecuadorian friends are classified as critically endangered.  I hope to keep you, the reader, updated on future conservation efforts to help save these unique birds.

For the original article on this topic, click here.

To look at Bonaccorso and her team’s study, click here.

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