June 2010

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…has been spent in utter bliss with Lisa. Happy 14th Anniversary, sweetheart!  Here she is in her natural habitat…

LisaKitchen

…and with her three (yes, three, I admit it…) babies.

Family

I would like to claim a full half of the credit for our wonderful children, but they technically have slightly more than 50% of her DNA, so she gets most of the credit (although to be fair, I should get some credit for being suave and debonair enough to win her heart). For a complete explanation of all that she has given our children beyond just her superior genetic material, let’s break into song. Here is a “A Biologist’s Mothers Day Song” (a little late, I know, but bear with me here…). It is not hard to imagine one of our own little nerdlings producing something similar someday. Happy Anniversary Lisa! You have easily made this the best 32.5% of my life.

It is my pleasure to present cartoonist Karen Romano Young. Karen is currently sailing on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. The Healy is an icebreaker that is pushing its way through the ice during NASA’s ICESCAPE expedition. I will be posting anything Karen sends my way. If you want to see more of her work you can visit her site or pre-order her book Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. My friend and writer extraordinaire Ann Downer Hazel brought Karen’s work to my attention and all of us should be grateful to her for that! Karen is also guest blogging on Ann’s blog Science + Story. Check it out! Here’s the comic (click on it for a bigger version).

KarenYoung01

If you aren’t reading Cartoon Boy, you should be. Especially since the most recent episode features dung beetles. Wearing sombreros, no less. Frankly, I can’t wait until the action figures start coming out. Anyway, here’s the link. It’s already up to 11 episodes so start at the beginning. You know its going to be a good strip when there is an invertebrate featured prominently in the very first panel of the very first strip!

CartoonBoyCartoon Boy and this image (completely used without permission) are (c) John Kerschbaum

The school year ended for the boys last week and the last few weeks of classes were pretty hectic. First the boys had to produce a project for LAMPS (which I think stands for Literature, Arts, Music, Performance and Science). Jack and Isabel Kruse did a project on steam boats which was pretty cool while Maxwell and Peter Kruse teamed-up to create a comic featuring Peter’s character Chunky Chicken. The boys worked like the French cartooning team of Depuy and Berberian, each writing, drawing and inking different aspects of this five-page instant classic. You can download a pdf of the comic here. Max drew the cover which he colored in Photoshop.

ChunkyCover

Also at the end of the school year is Jack’s birthday. While we were on sabbatical we filmed a birthday movie with his friends in Indiana. This year for his birthday we made a movie with his Pennsylvania friends. This movie is an accurate reflection of many of Jack’s current interests. It involves a battle ax, an explosion, frosting and friends.

The traditional image of the origin of life on Earth has all life evolving from a single-celled, universal common ancestor (or UCA). But some have theorized that life may have arisen multiple times on the primordial Earth, suggesting a much messier beginning for life as we know it. This idea has been bolstered by the fact that single-celled critters (and, as we are discovering, many multicellular critters) can swap genetic information in non-reproductive exchanges called horizontal transfers. Fortunately, the question of a UCA versus multiple origins is a testable hypothesis and thanks to Douglas Theobald the results are in. Theobald compared 12 proteins from the three domains of life (4 proteins each from Archaea, Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes) and his results suggest that a Universal Common Ancestor is 102,860 times more likely than having multiple ancestors.

I’m convinced. To celebrate our universal heritage with our microscopic brethren, I would like to present Great Microbiologist, a little video I came across on another blog that combines two great domains of intellectual life: Legos and science.  Enjoy!

Theobald, Douglas L. (2010) A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry. Nature, 465, 219–222

There are a handful of idioms relating to human explosions and most aren’t good. You can get so angry you blow your top, your plans can blow-up in your face and you can only bottle-up your frustration for so long before you explode. These are metaphorical eruptions but there are a handful of comic characters that do have the ability to go ka-blooey as part of their modus operandi. Perhaps most famously, is the super villain Nitro, the Living Bomb, who can blow himself to atoms and then reassemble himself. He pulled this stunt a few years ago outside a school and precipitated a Civil War in the Marvel Universe.

NitroCovers

Nitro lords it over Captain Marvel and blows-up Iron Man. All three are (c) Marvel Comics

This, of course, works as a super power as long as you can put yourself back together, but if you can’t, blowing yourself-up is a done-in-one kind of stunt. As Daffy Duck demonstrates in the clip below, the results can be spectacular…

…but it’s only good for one round of applause. Given that nature lacks a live studio audience, what would motivate a critter to self-detonate? The answer, of course, is the greater good!

Ants are social insects that live in colonies. They’re tremendously successful organisms and display a wide variety of fascinating physical and behavioral adaptations. There are farmers, soldiers, workers, architects and even ants that act as food storage units. In each ant colony a single queen lives with millions of her offspring. However, only the queen can reproduce. Why would her kids give up the ability to make babies and pass their genes onto the next generation? Many behavioral biologists think that by working to ensure the survival of their bothers and sisters, worker ants are also promoting the survival of copies of their genes into the next generation. This, for ants, may be the greater good. In that context, it’s not that surprising to find ant species with a number of bizarre, self-sacrificing adaptations, including self-detonation.

CamponotusAntCamponotus saundersi

The world of ants is a violent one. Colonies routinely seek each other out and fight territorial wars that result in devastating carnage. The Malaysian ant Camponotus saunderi will mix it up with the best of them and, if the battle should start to take an ugly turn, they will blow themselves up. To understand how, lets consider a unique aspect of their anatomy.

CSaundersiGlandsDiagram of Camponotus saundersi highlighting her absurdly large mandibular glands in blue. Modified from Maschwitz and Maschwitz, 1974.

Most ants have glands in their head associated with their mandibles, the big pinching mouthparts that ants use for cutting and chewing their food. In many ants, including C. saundersi, these mandibular glands secrete alarm chemicals that alert the colony to danger in the same way the smell of smoke might alert you to the possibility of a fire nearby. Unlike most ants, however, the mandibular glands of C. saundersi are enormous, extending from the animal’s mouth, through the thorax and into the abdomen. They are also full of sticky goo. If worse comes to worse, and the battling C. saundersi have no other choice, they violently contract the muscles of their abdomen and squeeze their mandibular glands until they pop out of their body and explode into a spray of enemy-immobilizing glue.

camponotuscartoon

Unlike Nitro, C. saundersi cannot reassemble themselves afterward. But, if they can turn the tide on their enemies they may make it possible for their genes to live on in the sisters and brothers they saved. At the very least, they go out with a bang.