AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: inewitt

Fat Worms Show Signs of Biofuel Advancements


Image by bramblejungle on Flickr

Scientists from Michigan State University appear to have made a significant advancement in biofuel research, at least if some chubby worms are to be believed. The scientists are attempting to use a gene found in Algae involved in oil production to engineer plants that can store oil not just in their seeds but in the stem and leaves also. Biofuel production has typically focused on plant’s seeds because that is where oil occurs naturally, but plants that can be engineered to store oil throughout the entire plant could hold significantly more oil than plants that can’t.

The scientists tested their new plants by using them to feed Caterpillar Larvae. The Caterpillars fed with the oily leaves from the enhanced plants gained more weight than those fed with regular plant leaves. Christopher Benning, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at MSU, said “If oil can be extracted from leaves, stems and seeds, the potential energy capacity of plants may double. Further, if algae can be engineered to continuously produce high levels of oil, rather than only when they are under stress, they can become a viable alternative to traditional agricultural crops.”

With these advancements in biofuel production, how much longer do you think it will be until Biofuels finally catch up with Fossil Fuels?

Moles Can Smell In Stereo

BSC Photography

We humans can see and hear in stereo. This is what leads to our 3D vision and allows us to find things easily because of our depth perception. Similarly our ability to hear in stereo allows us to roughly locate where a sound is coming from and how far away it is. But humans can’t smell in stereo, and it was widely believed that no mammal could naturally. That is until a study came out which indicates that the eastern mole, which is nearly blind, locates it’s food with the help of stereo smell.


Kenneth Catania, who led the research, said he came into it as a skeptic. “I thought the moles’ nostrils were too close together to effectively detect odor gradients.” Catania’s interest began when he found that the eastern mole could locate food just as quickly as its cousin, the star-nosed mole, which has a far superior sense of touch. In further tests he found that the eastern mole was remarkably quick at locating food placed in a radial chamber, indicating that they had a very sensitive sense of smell. In addition, Catania found that when he covered a mole’s right nostril, it veered to the left consistently, and when he covered the left nostril, it veered to the left consistently. This discovery is what indicated that the moles had stereo smell. Catania says this discovery “suggests other mammals that rely heavily on their sense of smell, like dogs and pigs might also have this ability”

Big Brains Come at a Cost?

Having a big brain can be great. Whipping your friends at trivial pursuit, acing every test you take, and flaunting your vast knowledge to the world. But what is the cost? Researchers recently reported in Current Biology on tests run on guppies

photo credits to iosonoadry

and discovered some evolutionary setbacks to large-brained guppies.

Through tests with large-brained and small-brained guppies, the scientists determined that a large brain can have adverse effects on gut size and reproductive output.

The reason behind this, and the reason why this is important for humans as well, is because of the amount of mass the brain has versus the amount of energy it requires. In humans, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the total body mass but makes up 20 percent of the energy requirement of the body. As Niclas Kolm said  “It is a remarkably costly organ energetically.” The idea is that there is a tradeoff between the brain and other organs, and as the brain gets bigger and requires more energy, the other organs must get smaller.

The group’s research suggest that humans and primates, animals with large brains, have relatively small family size because of the tradeoff between brain size and reproduction ability.


We Need Mosquitoes?!

Picture By maureen_sill, Flickr

Yes, in fact, we do need mosquitoes. And not only mosquitoes but all the other types of insects as well. A recent discovery by Anurag Agrawal, the leader of the study and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, revealed that insects are hugely important because of the roles they play in the evolution of plants. In Agrawal’s study, in which he observed the interactions of plant-eating moths and evening primroses, the primroses treated with insecticide lost through evolution the traits that protect them from insects.


This points to the idea that if plants don’t need to defend themselves against insects, they stop developing the traits required to defend themselves. The real shocker in this discovery, however, was how quickly the primroses adapted to this situation, in just 3-4 generations. Agrawal “was ‘very surprised’ by how quickly this process occurred, and that such surprises, ‘tell us something about the potential speed and complexities of evolution. In addition, experiments like ours that follow evolutionary change in real-time provide definitive evidence of evolution.”
But why are insects important then? Well, it is believed that many plant traits developed solely as a means of defense against insects. Some of these traits are desirable to people, like fruit’s bitter taste. In addition, with farmers trying to breed certain crops to be resistant to pests, this study shows that some genetic trade-offs might make it impossible to get certain traits in pest resistant plants. So bear with those pesky insects, as their relationship with plants is extremely important.

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