Blow your enemy away: how halitosis can save a caterpillar’s life

When faced with danger, animals respond to stress in different ways. We humans advertise our internal state by producing pheromones to signal alert, our hands and armpits get sweaty and our heart rate skyrockets. These are involuntary signals that we are we perceive a risk. However we are unlikely to fight our opponent by simply raising our arms and hoping the smell would scare our adversary away.

 

Certain insects, on the contrary, are known to take this approach – by using chemical compounds to discourage their predators from attacking. The tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, relies on plant-derived toxins to gross predators out of attacking. The larvae of this species feed on tobacco plants (Nicotiana spp.) and exhale ingested nicotine to signal wolf spiders (Camptocosa parallela) to keep their distance. Nicotine is toxic for most animals, but hornworms can rely on the gene cytochrome P450 6B46 (CYP6B46) to metabolize it. Part of the nicotine then ends up in the larva’s hemolymph – its circulatory fluid, similar to our blood – from which it can be released into the air to deter predators. Indeed a deadly case of halitosis, but this clever mechanism allows the caterpillar to advertise its toxicity to predators before they take a bite.

Dr. Pavan Kumar and colleagues from the Max-Planck-Institute studied the molecular mechanisms of how hornworms recycle plant toxins for their own defense and the role of CYP6B46 in this process.
Researchers used transgenic plants of Nicotiana attenuate, engineered to produce dsRNA to silence CYP6B46 gene. Larvae feeding on the transgenic plants showed less expression of CYP6B46 and were less able to distribute ingested nicotine to hemolymph.

Spiders preferred CYP6B46-silenced larvae because they exhaled less nicotine due to its lower concentrations in the hemolymph.

“It’s really a story about how an insect that eats a plant co-opts the plant for its own defense,” coauthor Ian Baldwin declared to Live Science.

The use of plant-derived toxins against herbivores has also inspired some of the most modern insecticides. Surfactants are considered less human-toxic and cheaper alternatives to conventional insecticides. The most interesting aspect of this study, therefore, is its relevancy to agricultural practice. According to Dr. Baldwin the method used to silence the CYP6B46 gene in larvae, a procedure called Plant Mediated RNAi, “is the future of pest control for crop plants. Completely clean and targeted against only one type of pest”. It seems that one day we may well see plants protect themselves by regulating gene expression in their own predators.

References: Kumar P., Pandit S.S., Steppuhn A., Baldwin I.T. 2013. Natural history-driven, plant-mediated RNAi-based study reveals CYP6B46’s role in a nicotine-mediated antipredator herbivore defense. http://www.pnas.org/doi:10. 1073/pnas.1314848111.

TED talks lunch break

As I mentioned in my post about electronic appliances, my Mac had a major accident and a fairly long recovery time. Not having a functioning computer was challenging and especially boring. I am a biologist, not a computer science major and yet without my computer I was powerless and useless both academically and socially since most of my interactions (especially when they involves long-distance relationships) are electronically mediated. Thus, long story short, I was bored to death especially during lunch and dinner time when my house was filled solely by the sound of the metal contracting and expanding as a consequence of the heating system. luckily enough a gentle heart provided me with a temporary tablet. I couldn’t really work on it but at least I was able to connect with the rest of the world via internet.

However a tablet isn’t exactly a computer and for a technology impaired person as myself anything that need “setting” is clearly way too outside my comfort zone. So forget java and flashplayer drivers to install to see movies and TV shows online.

My inability in dealing with hardware and software allow the birth of a new exciting and culturally enriching habit, TED talks. They are easy to watch, most of them stays just the time of my lunch break (usually around 30 minutes plus 10 further minutes to report quotes from the talk on my always-at-my-side notebook).

Here are some examples of what I’ve learned during my new fancy lunch breaks.

Matt Ridley gave an interesting talk called: when ideas have sex (http://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html) in which he defined progress as the outcome of our ability to share ideas and skills. Bates in its Ecology of Mind, similarly argues that connectivity is what shape the meaning of an idea or even the concept of an object itself. Authorative and esteemed professors confirm what this average IQ little girl always experience but never wrap her mind around in a comprehensible fashion. Nothing has a value if not shared. Nothing even exists if not communicated. The experiences we have reach a further level of meaning when shared or told.  Meaning comes from common views and norms that are developed by sharing ideas. According to Ridley, what makes Homo sapiens different from other hominids is the unique ability to share culture among groups, not the skills to create an object but the increase in productivity that arise from exchanging and adopting different and possibly more profitable techniques.

I always felt the need to share the underline importance of an event. It can be questioned the relative perception of importance in relation to specific events but in general I was right. Maybe I am not as weird as they always pictured me, maybe I am just a genius in an incredible efficient disguise. So much in disguise that even I don’t know it. I always assumed I was wrong just because others always seemed so tremendously sure that they were right. …said the problem of this world is that the wise people are always in doubt while… are always so sure.

I really enjoy Dan Ariely talks on economic decisions and I owe him the discoveries of the mind-blowing field of behavioural economic. Some of my favourites are http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html; http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions.html and http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work.html.

On a side note, the more TED talks I watch, the more I found significant correlation between the interest of the talks and the importance of the speaker’s nose.

I also really enjoyed Dr. Barry Schwartz talk on choices and happiness and I pulled out a couple of quotes from it: “ the more options there are, the easier is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose”; “opportunity’s cost substracts from the satisfaction we get out of what we choose even when what we choose is terrific”. I can relate in particular with this second statement, probably because I chose a life that lead me to several goodbyes. I chose to follow my dreams but at the cost of being far from home and family. However every choice implies a loss, the mere existence of options means that something will be gained and something will be not gain. Dr. Schwartz argues that too many options increase expectation and turn into dissatisfaction. Even more guilt creeps in as a consequence of expectations. Whenever you take a decision and something goes wrong than is YOUR FAULT since you expect your choice to be perfect.

Dr. Schwartz also said something that I hug tight “everybody needs a fish ball”. Maybe is what others call roots, that safe refuge with no choices, in which you are stuck but protected and thus can focus on the very best it can offers.

TED talks also made me think how ebook are practicle but way less awesome than paper books. You can’t smell the unique combination of paper and ink fragrance, the subtle differences among printing … you can’t write on them, take notes at the side or flip the upper right corner to remark the importance of a page. Ebooks are statics, they don’t follow the course of time, don’t age along with you by turning color. They don’t physically reflect the eras of your soul. You can’t stare at them on a bookshelf while waiting for your friend to get ready and shape a mental image of its preferences and intellectual flexibility. Technology can be personalized but ultimately is dry because it involves less of your senses and if we consider how memories and motions are connected with the sense of smell then an ebook becomes an interesting reading but part of you.

But mostly I liked talks that inspired me and filled me with the kind of joy and hopes I always experience in the field. This is what Hal Whitehead (mentor and former supervisor of mine) talk on animal culture did (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uyGXoMaXns). E.O. Wilson (one of the most famous invertebrate expert and reknown ethologist) reminded me that every ethologist has a place in the world regardless of their skills or field of expertise or the opportunities that others will give (http://www.ted.com/talks/e_o_wilson_advice_to_young_scientists.html).

So I can just say thanks to all these amazingly inspirational people for teaching me so much during every lunch break and keeping me inspired when everything else seem to simply goes wrong.

Superbowl, when American culture hit hard!

Every sport has its own rituals. Every sports player has its unique lucky charm or superstition. Every sport viewer has its preferred spot in the living room and favorite snack to accompany the Superbowl.

Used to the European soccer, and mostly disgusted by the gossip and prima donna attitude of its protagonists, I was ethnologically very interested to the Superbowl event. I got to see it in the campus center, in a common area specifically adorned for this event. Graduates and undergraduates, also specifically adorned for the event, were kept separated mainly to allow grad students to drink alcohol.

Along with beer, other essential ingredients of this sports-watching event are snacks and dips, apparently you have to aim for as many and varied dipping sauces possible. The kind of dipping sauces and nachos chosen are as important as the people with who you decide to share the experience. In our case University made this important decision for us and provided salsa, tortilla chips, popcorn, sandwiches, chicken wings and baked potato skins. Parallelism for old buddies and comforting atmosphere with a touch of heaviness (fried food), probably the one friend whose so in love with the sport to shsss you because you chew too noisily. There’s one in every company, you can’t help but love them.

Now on to the game itself. I have by no mean intention to provide a detailed and explanatory overview of the game of American football; I will just give my impression and will report some of the comments that my peeps made trying to fulfill my gap of knowledge.

The general setting isn’t very challenging there are two teams, one field pitch and one ball that need to be taken to the designated end of the pitch. One team kick and hug the oval ball and the other team try to wall them away from the touch down line. The result is a mixture of metal, blood and sweat around a ball.

My take on the game is that football is mainly about two things, kicking butts (of your opponents) and slapping butts (of your teammates). When on the field it appears only one is the real conundrum, allowing the opponents to break your bones or throwing the ball outside the pitch hoping the dogs will follow the bone.

The uniforms of the players are also peculiar in their resemblance of bikers under steroids. My friends came again in my help and explained how having something more loose to grab would create unwanted consequences. Indeed I can see why you wouldn’t want to have a half naked player towing a big and scary opponent behind. However an aptly comment, compared the slackly uniform’s pants to yoga pants…I bet football player wouldn’t appreciate the comparison.

Along with the unique uniforms, football players share a passion for dancing. I’m quite sure they rehearse more for the victory dance routine that they perform at the touch down than for delivering the touch down itself. I have to admit they get really creative and I wonder if it is part of the branding of a player. Does the sponsor or the trainer or the team management set limitations or preferred moves to perform? I can imagine the player sign their initials besides the caveat of no sex before a game and only dance moved previously approved by a specialized commission, no chicken dance allowed. Or maybe important teams have choreographers who specifically create dancing routines for football players. Mondays and Wednesdays are bar and plié days. Or maybe they simply spend hours in front of a mirror trying different poses? I wonder if they take inspiration from their cheerleaders.

Superbowl

But the Superbowl is not just about the game, is a show in itself. Brands pay a preposterous amount of money to buy advertisement space and the commercials are broadcasted every 3 to 5 minutes, thing that I found very confusing while trying to keep up with the game. The difference between game time and real time allowed the discovery of another football dogma; football involves time travel.

The half game show is always big and sensational and it provides yet another demonstration of the American ability to enlarge everything from food to news to trends, everything is brought to the extreme. Since it is such a big deal, usually the name of the main performer hovers in mystery. In contrast, the beginning of the play is more official and involves singing the national anthem and the Marines’ presence. My surprised and questioning expression about having the army in a sports event lead to the following explanation: “Marines are like Santa Claus, they show up in every official and important occasion”.

I have to admit we didn’t stay for the entire game, we gave up after the first 2 and a half hours of shouting while still arguing over which team had the most mesmerizing uniform’s color pattern. However it was yet another interesting cultural experience that I gladly enjoyed with a bunch of fun people and a very enthusiastic old lady behind us who felt the necessity to scream her joy and disappointment in a fairly continuous manner.

Another beautiful day in New England

MA weather is giving me its best shot, the full experience, the most comprehensive and complete tour, making sure I’m not missing out anything.

I came at the end of a beautiful summer and experienced a mild beginning of autumn. Fall brought the warm colour of the Indian summer with the yellows and reds of the changing leaves.

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Then, the wind naked all the trees that now embarrassed in their nudity, stand a little less proud while their exposed skeletons suddenly reveal busy squirrels running up and down the trunk.

The wind brought the cold and the rain while Sandy was peeking from behind the corner. When she arrived it was a mixture of admiration for Nature’s power and amusement for Americans preparedness, dressed by their tendency to overreact. By the marriage of these two we obtained the hurricane recipe. Here reported in a ratio of 2 cups of panic for every teaspoon of real problem.

When Sandy approached, grocery stores were full of students packing up for the big event. Items mainly included chips, popcorn, peanut butter, candles (highly not suggested), chocolate chips cookies and alcohol. While my relatives in Italy, deviously deviated by international news, were worrying about thermal blanket and water.

In general in the US everything is dealt with face forward. No useless rhetoric, straight to the point. This admirable characteristic and the incredible amount of training they receive, allow American people to be well prepared in any catastrophic situation. I guess is no surprise that most of the movie on eventual world endings are based in the US. However a fine line separates preparedness and alarmism.

UMass Dartmouth decided that a scared student is better than an uninformed one (given that you must have been deaf and blind not have heard about the SUPERSTORM). Thus, bombarding the students on the essential steps to prepare for Sandy was a priority.

Sandy arrived.

She showed up in New York and New Jersey with all Eolo’s fierce and proud. She blew and rained over everything. She turned the subway in a public swimming pool and IPhones in the entire city suggested their owners to close themselves inside. Students whose houses got flooded have been stocked in the public library, after mud fight tournaments have been organized throughout the city. Luckily few deaths and consequences less destructive than Katrina’s ones. In my opinion it depends on the name. If you call a hurricane Katrina, you may well expect grumpiness and direct, aggressive Russian attitude. However if you name what it should be the “Frankenstorm”, Sandy, then you cannot be surprised if has blonde curly hair, long skirt and sing at the night. Unless we got it wrong and it was “Young Frankenstorm”.

In Dartmouth Sandy resembled more a kitten with a cold that sneezed a couple of time. No tsunami and Woods Hole now regrets the 15 hours spent tiding up their research boats. The devastating hurricane for which we prepared for weeks, looked a lot more like a summer rain with rare winds gusts.

In conclusion better prepared than sorry but Americans showed some pretty awesome dramatic skills. I guess after having lived in the Strait of Gibraltar when Levante was blowing, Sandy in MA was a walk in the park. Although some interesting moments deserve notice. I saw a squirrel flying by my window while underneath American students were jogging in their shorts. No thermal blankets were used and power went off for just a couple of minutes. No major consequences aside that my microwave now talks to me and this makes me anxious and irritated at the same time since it never finished its sentence. Apparently he claimed I needed to do something but hasn’t provided any details.

And the rain turned into ice and we had snow.

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It started light, just a few snowflakes to excite us all. Grumpy Indian aside. Then Nemo came and I saw Santa’s place. Again the preparation part resembled a lot the one for Sandy, candle, canned food, purified water, and blankets. I also picked up an interesting habits, I always have to do laundry right before a storm, so that if I’ll be snowed in and rescuers would have to save me then at least it won’t happen in the discomfort of a tanga. During Nemo we had wind blowing at 75 miles per hour with lemon size ice cubes sprayed at eye level. 3 feet of snow fell down and I promptly disappeared as soon as I stepped outside. We fought Sandy with a pumpkin carving context and we fought Nemo with fondue and red wine.Image

The scene the following morning was priceless. Everything in New Bedford was under a thick layer of snow, streets, monuments, people … the more adventurous immediately took advantage of the situation and skied along in front of the town hall. The majority just angrily shovelled the snow from the driveway while cursing alternatively the northern weather and the southern tropical fish. Many honoured the long-standing tradition of building snowmen and we joined the choir by making one directly during the night of the storm.

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After Nemo we had 4 other snow storms but no more blizzards. I personally stopped to check the weather forecast, the amount of people at Market Basket (the equivalent of the European Lidl) is a sufficient prediction of the incoming weather.

I also got to know a rather devious Goth that goes under the name of black ice. Far from being a liquorice ice cube, black ice makes its appearance usually early in the morning or in the evenings when the melted snow turned into a very thin but absolutely lethal layer of invisible ice.

Another beautiful day in New England.

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Electronic appliances and me. A troubled relationship.

It was long I wanted to live by myself. I like to have my spaces and my habits. So moving into my new apartment was an exciting experience.

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By experience, I already knew I would have had to deal with new and unknown furniture that most likely would have had peculiar personalities. What I wasn’t expecting was such a united armed front.

My history is adorned by complicated relationships with electronic pieces of equipment.

The unforgettable, terrible Spanish Lavadora, that was in love with my roommate and clearly hated everybody else and hence flooded the apartment a couple of time refusing to work if not operated by her beloved pajaro boy (the afore mentioned roommate).

The evil Scottish microwave that proudly and loudly showed his highland temperament by making exploding everything I tried to make him cook for me. Even when the food item was carefully inserted into specifically designed containers.

I fail to remember anybody advising me against operate a dryer machine containing wool fabrics. I now possess several Barbie size clothes if anybody is interested.

However I am straying away. Back to my new apartment and its inhabitants. I immediately established a dominance relationship with the microwave as he showed me who was in charge…

I also got to know the lady on the other side of my fire alarm when the device went off while I was cooking soy sauce glazed mushrooms. My fire alarm is way too advanced to simply play a siren sound to report a smoke detection. My fire alarm is way more specific and likes to clarify the situation for you. So that a composed lady with a very high-pitched voice nicely point out: FIRE, FIIRE, FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRE, in a climax towards the ultimate goal of breaking every glass in the apartment so that you can escape from the fire while cutting your feet. Although in that moment I was more scared that somebody would have come to actually helped me since I was just wearing my pajama. The event teaches us two important lessons, first always open a window when cooking glazed mushrooms, and second, more important, always wear a sexy pajama when cooking instead of the fleece one.

With the main light and fan in the living we studied each other for a while before coming to direct confrontation. My fancy fan could be turned on and off ONLY by utilizing a remote. For the first week no troubles, but I should have been les naïve and realized it was a tactic to divert me.

One night I was cooking, not having a gas cap, I made sure the fan was off so that the fire alarm lady would have kept quite. I was pretty much at the dessert when, feeling a bit chili, I decided to turn the fan off. No response. I tried several times but the fan was clearly possessed and didn’t respond to my pleas. The only suggestion I got from my landlord was to play with the button. The game ended in the fan favor and I slept with 3 blankets and a water bottle and the light brightly turned on. Until 3 am when the light decided she had enough and went off…the fan had more resistance.

After my trip to NC I came back at night with the only desire to pass out on my couch/bed in my beautifully clean and tidy apartment. My plan got canceled the moment I step into my apartment and it was cold, very cold. So I tried to switch on the light to regulate the temperature and nothing, pitch black. No electrical power in the house. I asked my neighbors and it turned out the electrical company cut the power in the wrong apartment. I faced two different problems that night. First, my heating is electrical so without power I had to go back to the 3 blankets and the water bottle. Second, before leaving I had consciously frozen every perishable item that was in my fridge, so that I had to throw away all my food and clean from the blood stains from the defrosted and smelly meat.

Lastly but most painfully, my beloved Mac gave up on me. In the new apartment even my computer decided not to work anymore, he entered the longest strike since we first met. It lasted until I brutally formatted it, changed the hard disk and downloaded a new operational system. I was very concerned for him and his health but when even the Mac “geniuses” declared defiance I had to act and I chose the hard way.  My Computer Engineer friends performed the hard disk transplant. I watched it from a distance, with the same nerves racking and powerless feelings caused by a true surgical operation and its uncertain outcomes may give to relatives and friends who hare forced to wait outside. The only difference was that I might be able to understand some medical terminology but I really have no clue about anything related to computers…

However everything ended well and my brand new minty fresh Momo works beautifully. He is also chattier than before since the hard disk is momentarily not screwed in so that it produce a nice Maracas sound with every tiny movement.

As a last note, if you see a parked car in a gas station or in front of a restaurant with a panicked and/or defeated girl inside just staring at the wheel…is probably me while I’m trying to deal with driving an automatic car with too many buttons and tricks and too few instructions.

Halloween and Salem

Although it found its origin in the old medieval age of the continental Europe. Regardless its Celtic and Christian influences, Halloween is probably one of the most representative American’s holiday.

According with the authoritative source Wikipedia, “typical festive Halloween activities in the United States include trick-or-treating, attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires and apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.” Due to my age I decided that trick-or-treating was out of the picture. Image you live in US, you prepared all the treats for the little adorable kid that will knock on your door, dressed up as their favorite heroes. The bell ring, you open the door with a big smile only to face a 27 years old woman asking you to give them candies or else… get the point?

However I wasn’t going to miss all the fun, so I did my best to experience at least some of the typical Halloween festive activities. I went to Salem with a friend to enjoy some serious Halloween spirits. Salem at Halloween looses its historical flair to gain a more fair oriented look. Along with the traditional booth, shops were open until late and coffee and candies shops did their best to embrace the Halloween theme by selling pumpkin items and witches hats and customizing food according to the occasion. There also was a proper fair with carousels and fried dough, apple pie and cider (that in America is NOT alcoholic!) and candied apple.

Yes, in America they love apples.

The town was invaded by a horde of monstery looking grown ups, some more convincing then others. Scary and beloved figures were luring at every corner.

We visited haunted houses were poorly payed and clearly spottable college student were grunting behind not so black drapes.  Overall the houses were incredibly well done but not very scary. Alternatively, my friend and I are not cheerleading enough to scream at every guy who imitates pigs’ noises. In cheerleading mood was also the girl who helped us casting our spell by invoking the purest Nature’s spirits.

Circus aside, it was a very pleasant afternoon and we went home with a nice candies’ booty, rigorously pumpkin and chocolate based.

This happened on the Saturday before the actual Halloween. Sunday was spent preparing for the dreaded “Frankenstorm” and the evening has been devoted to exorcize the fear through pumpkin carving context…but this is another story. Halloween day (the actual Wednesday 31 th of October), while kids from the nearest town came to campus to tricks and treats and the rest of the world was celebrating the occasion properly, I was at the gym for two intense hours of cardio work out trying to exorcize a more threatening event: statistic homework.

Providence

Weekends are supposed to represent a break from work. However to me weekend is just an alternative word for work. When you love what you do is not a big demand to work outside classical office hours however you sort of alienate yourself from the surroundings. In a new country I really wanted to experience and discover a bit, so every time my guilt allow it, I pack up my camera and friends and I let the adventure unravel in front of me. One of these weekend my lab mates, a couple of other friends and I went to Providence. We were undecided between the scallop festival in Cape Cod and Providence, since one of us is vegetarian and the weather was gloomy we decided for the second option. Good choice. We stopped at a famous park on the way and the sky cleared up revealing its blue colour and allowing us to enjoy a dog show. Oh yes, do parade was in town.

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Second step, Providence, Rhode Island. No stamps on the passport but you get somehow the feeling of being in a different state with different laws. Although both Massachusetts and Rhode Island are part of a region called New England so the baseline architectural characteristics are very similar. In providence we stumbled on a cross-cultural fair that was promoting tolerance, an oyster festival and a gay street dancing.

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We also enjoyed very tasty Thai food served by an obnoxious old man, likely to be the owner of the restaurant. After filling our stomachs we saw a movie in an old cinema with leather coaches inside.

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Coffee washed down the waiter attitude and the movie spiced up the day, making us laughing aloud for 2 straight hours. The movie is called “Sleepwalk with me” and I highly recommended it. The movie tells the autobiographic life of an American stand up comedian (Mike Birbiglia) and his inspiration and struggles in trying to be constantly funny but mostly his sleeping disorder. Dry humour at its highest, the movie is a good balance between hilarious momentum and realization of the labyrinth of daily patterns. Although less violent and more comical, the movie has a peculiar fight club atmosphere in it. We walked a lot after this movie, we enjoyed more coffee and I got to add another travel mug to my collection, this time is a tea travel mug.

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Back home we went for tacos at “No Problemo” a very cute place in New Bedford where they cook good Mexican food, play live music and serve blue chips. This is the night when I first tried the s’more…the rest is history.

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