Using carbon dioxide and sunlight to make fuel…for cars!

Most of what you read on this blog will be related to evolution in some way, but I’m stepping out of my comfort zone just because this seems like a big deal. A couple weeks ago I touted the energy efficiency of kleptoplastic sea slugs, but a group of researchers at the UCLA Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering may have them beat. James C. Liao and his colleagues have just published a study in Science showing they were able to produce liquid biofuel using just sunlight and CO2 as the sources of energy and carbon, respectively. In order to do this, they combined man-made technology to capture sunlight with biological carbon fixation to convert the light energy into fuel. Another way to look at this is as a separation of the two major parts of photosynthesis, the light reaction and dark reaction. In this case, the light reaction happens in solar panels, the dark reaction in bacteria. This makes it potentially even more efficient that natural photosynthesis, which nature has only been optimizing for about 3.5 billion years.
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Do Sex Starved Flies Drown Their Sorrows in Alcohol?

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent study suggesting male fruit flies sexually rejected by females turn to alcohol (Shohat-Ophir et al. 2012) has received a lot of colorful (and questionable) media attention. The New York Times poetically suggests that males are “using alcohol as a balm for unfulfilled desire”, TIME magazine says “When she says no, the bottle beckons more brightly — for men and for fruit flies” and a blog for the LA Times eloquently proclaims this “confirms that the proclivity to get shit-faced after being sexually rejected isn’t exclusive to dive bar sad-sacks”. Colorful interpretations aren’t unique to the media; below is a figure from the Science perspective paper (Zars 2012):

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Giant squid use their enormous eyes to see in the dark

The cleverly named giant squid (Architeuthis sp.) and colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) are the two largest known living invertebrates. They can each grow to the length of a school bus (~45 feet), although the History Channel TV show MonsterQuest claims to have footage of Architeuthis estimated to be as long as 108 feet. Whether or not this sensational claim is true, what we do know is that the eyes of both of these giants can reach the size of a soccer ball, nearly three times as large as those of any other living animal and even disproportionately large relative to their body size. It is known that neurons, and therefore eyes, are metabolically expensive to produce and maintain (Laughlin et al. 1998). So what is causing these squid to invest so much more energy into producing eyes than any other known animal?

A fictional illustration of a giant squid attacking sailors from the original edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. {{PD-1923}}

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Dinosaur gets a new glossy sheen

” Question #1:What color were the dinosaurs? 

Dino checks

Answer: No one knows. Animal’s skin colors are produced by organic pigments which are not preserved in the process of fossilization…. Basically, it is impossible to know what the dinosaurs’ coloration was (using today’s science). ”

I found this particular answer off of the children’s website ZoomDinosaurs, which I chose partly because of the awesome checkerboard T-rex that came with it, and partly because of the caveat that the problem regarding the color of dinosaurs is impossible to solve “using today’s science”. It leaves hope that one day, the answer will be found.  Working scientists know how many questions are still unanswered, and how rapidly technology can change a field of study. So most (not all) scientists are properly cautious to avoid suggesting that something in science is “impossible”. I think the general public, though, is more likely to think science has all the answers, and what scientists don’t already know is unknowable (which, is probably our fault as scientists and educators more than anyone else’s).

Once again, the impossible is now possible.
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Solar-powered sea slugs are energy-efficient thieves.

Every animal needs energy to live, and they usually get it by ingesting other living things. We’ve all seen videos of predators hunting down and killing their favorite prey, or docile herbivores munching on grass, leaves, or berries. But one group of animals has evolved a strategy to harness energy that’s a bit more complex and far more clever than simply finding something and eating it. Sacoglossan sea slugs are close relatives of the more colorful and better-known group of slugs called nudibranchs.

Nudibranchs are carnivorous – they prey on sponges, cnidariansbryozoans, and even cannibalize other members of their own species. Sacoglossans, on the other hand, are more like their hippie vegan cousins. They feed on green algae using a specialized tooth-like feeding structure common to all snails and slugs called a radula. A sacoglossan sea slug uses its radula to pierce cell walls, allowing it to suck out all those sweet, sweet algal juices.

Close up view of functional chloroplasts in the tissues of Elysia crispata.
Photo courtesy of Patrick J. Krug.

Okay, so some sea slugs are vegan, but what’s so clever about that? Continue reading

What Good is Half of Half of an Eye?

ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of us in academic fields, there are always a handful of famous quotes that come up over and over again ad nauseam. In evolutionary biology, I feel personally fortunate if I can make it through a half dozen lectures without seeing geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s quote “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution“. Another required quote, if you study eye evolution, comes from Charles Darwin himself:

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” (Darwin, Origin of Species, Chpt 6)

This has been quoted and misquoted more times than I care to count. Some people have cited this as evidence that Darwin did not believe something as complicated as the eye could have ever evolved through natural selection; such people clearly did not read the sentences immediately following:

“Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.”
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Whatever Happened to Megalonyx?

In 1797, American Vice President and paleontologist Thomas Jefferson presented a collection of fossils to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. These bones belonged to limbs of an animal with massive claws, so Jefferson named the creature Megalonyx (mega=big, onyx=claw). Jefferson suggested the mystery beast was probably a lion, albeit a much larger lion than had ever been reported from Africa.

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