Archive for January 2012
We all love living things that glow in the dark, and scientists are no exception. Roger Tsien won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein and – perhaps even more excitingly – evil scientists turned mice fluorescent in a recent episode of the BBC television series Sherlock.
For animals that live in the blackness of the deep ocean, a little bit of bioluminescence goes a long way. For the squid Euprymna scolopes, this bioluminescence is generated by Vibrio fischeri bacteria that live within its light organ. The light organ is incredible, and it helps to hide the squid’s silhouette. This symbiosis is a win–win situation: the bacteria get housed and fed, and the squid gets a built-in cloaking device. Free-living bacteria also generate bioluminescence – but if they’re not in a symbiotic relationship, why do they bother?
For some reason, I’ve a real hankering for Japanese food at the moment. I’ve no idea why – perhaps it’s due to me going through some old photos from when I toured across the country visiting labs about ten years ago. In one of them, I’m standing underneath a large fibreglass puffer fish outside a restaurant (no, I’m not going to post it).
Puffer fish, in case you didn’t know, is quite the delicacy in many parts of Asia. In Japan, it’s known as fugu. I didn’t eat any, though. Why not? Well, the fish is one of the most poisonous animals in the world. It must be skilfully prepared, or it’s potentially lethal: a slight tingling of the lips, and it’s goodnight. Deaths are rare nowadays, but I didn’t want to take the risk. I try to avoid eating anything that might kill me (although I did once – and only once – eat a kebab).
Have you watched the BBC One documentary series Frozen Planet? It’s an amazing show that really highlights the changing nature of the frozen wilderness. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Arctic polar bears as the environment they live in continues to disappear. Understandably, the programme focuses on large, impressive beasts, but I wondered what was happening at the other end of the food chain and wanted to see how microbes are coping with the changing temperature (yes, I’m an absolute scream at dinner parties).
I found a paper in PLoS One that looks at this very subject. Canadian scientists looked at how the communities of bacteria, archaea and tiny eukaryotes changed between 2003 and 2010 in the Beaufort Strait. This timeframe is significant because September 2007 saw Arctic ice shrink to a record low. This was due to the melting of ‘multiyear sea ice’ – ice that stays frozen through the summer months and contains less brine (and, therefore, is less salty) than other ice in the Arctic. In particular, the scientists looked at a layer of the sea known as the subsurface chlorophyll maxima, or SCM, which contains a high number of photosynthetic plankton.