Guess what time it is! Yes yes I know you’re excited. It’s another Labrat’s Digest, a periodic recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week we’ll be having some fun with glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, weird looking mouse sperm, and asking how smart are parrots, really? Time to jump in!
Forget Magic Mushrooms! These are fluorescent mushrooms.
Did you know that there are over 100 species of mushrooms that give off light? For a long time, scientists have been trying to figure out what exactly has been making these mushrooms glow. Well, now there’s a new study out that seems to have the answer, and finds out even more.
In case you don’t know, mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (singular fungus). This means that the typical toadstool shaped mushrooms that we see actually contain the sexually reproductive cells (spores) of these types of fungi.
Just like fireflies that light up at night, some mushroom species also light up in the same way. In the daytime, they’ll look like perfectly boring old fungus, but when the sun goes down, these babies come out to play!
Bioluminescence (the fancy scientific word for glow-in-the-dark) occurs in different species of animals, plants and fungi; for example there are some types of fish and worms that display this same glow-at-night ability. The glow is caused by the activity of an enzyme known as luciferase which oxidizes a fluorescent compound known as luciferin to give off light.
(Fun fact: the name luciferin is derived from the Latin word lucifer, which means “light-bringer”, just as the Lucifer a.k.a. the Devil in Christianity is presumed to be a fallen angel who was previously the light-bringer)
Even though we knew that luciferase was responsible for bioluminescence, scientists never really had a clear understanding of how it worked, and what the purpose of the phenomenon really was. Until now…
A giant study, consisting of researchers from twelve different institutions and led by led by Ilia Yampolsky have been able to figure out how the mushroom Neonothopanus nambi glows.
Neonothopanus nambi is a poisonous, bioluminescent mushroom. These researchers were able to identify the key genes responsible for the its bioluminescence, and also figure out what enzymes were responsible to creating luciferin, which is needed by the luciferase to create the glow-in-the-dark effect. They also compared mushrooms that glow with those that don’t, and they realized that over a hundred million years ago, a gene duplication happened that set the stage for the evolution of bioluminescence as we know it today.
But this team didn’t just stop there. The researchers also went on to engineer another organism, a type of yeast known as Pichia pastoris. By inserting the gene that codes for luciferase into the yeast, they were able to produce glow-in-the-dark colonies of yeast cells!
Even though this may seem like more fun than function, this type of technology actually has many real-life uses. In the medical sector, for starters, there is the possibility that infected/defective tissues can be engineered to light up for easier detection. Or if you want to think REALLY Sci-Fi, maybe one day we’ll be able to replace street lights with glow-in-the-dark plants or animals. Either way, this is some pretty cool stuff.
What The Shape Of Mouse Sperm Can Tell Us (and why?)?
So here’s a weird one…
Sometimes scientists have trouble telling organisms apart. For example, mice. Often, one species looks like another one, and the only way to tell them apart is by analysing the DNA, which can be a lengthy and expensive undertaking.
UNTIL NOW! In a recent study, researchers have figured out that different species of mice have different shaped sperm cells, and this is a much easier way to distinguish between species.
For this experiment, scientists trapped 58 different species of mice and removed and pickled (yes PICKLED) their testicles in formalin. This way, they were able to analyse individual sperm cells and figure out the shape and size of cells from the different species.
We all know the traditional shape of the sperm cell: little tadpole looking critters with large heads and long tails. But in this research, the team discovered quite a few variations of sperm cells; some had hooked heads, “like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone”, while some were smooth and rounded. They also noticed differences in the midsection of the sperm cells and how much power they had to swim, or in the length of their tails.
Ok but why…?
As mentioned earlier, this can be an easier way to differentiate between species of mice that may look identical. Another thing that the researchers expected was that similar-looking mice would have similar-looking sperm cells. But wrong! According to the team lead Rossi de la Sancha:
You’d expect the sperm of closely related species to be really similar to each other, but they discriminate really nicely. Sometimes the sperm from distantly related species looked more alike than the sperm from close relatives.
Even though it’s pretty weird, this study has two useful implications. First, because some species of mice serve as host for diseases, being able to tell these species apart can help in preventing the spread of these diseases. Secondly, with the world in its sixth mass extinction, many species are being lost completely. Being able to tell species apart is an important step for scientists who are working to protect endangered species. Again, in the words of de la Sancha:
We’re losing species faster than we can identify new ones. This study could make us better able to understand bigger patterns of biodiversity. Using sperm to tell rodents apart is adding one more tool to the toolbox.
Still weird, yea I know.
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