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Researchers have used gene manipulation to create an amazing new mutant wasp with horrifying blood red eyes! A team of scientists at University of California Riverside used CRISPR gene-slicing technology (which sounds more like a salad technology than something used for wasps) in order to permanently alter the eyes of the tiny parasitic jewel wasps (Nasonia vitripennis). Researchers injected DNA and RNA into the nearly microscopic wasp eggs with infinitesimal needles. The resulting red eyes are hereditary and can be passed through successive generations.

The scientists hope to understand how male jewel wasps can somehow ensure that all of their offspring are male—a very unusual ability which geneticists and entomologists would like to understand. However, beyond novelty eye color and sex selection in tiny obscure parasitoid wasps, the researchers are also after bigger game—understanding how to manipulate the genes of all sorts of insects including agricultural pests and dangerous disease-carrying bugs like mosquitos and tsetse flies.

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The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is a large tropical game fowl from the Phasianidae family. The junglefowl is closely related to pheasants, grouse, quail, partridges, and other such birds of the pheasant family. Wild junglefowl lives in a swath of south Asia and Indochina which runs from Tamil Nadu east to the southern parts of China and includes the Philippines and Indonesia.

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These birds display strong sexual dimorphism.  The hen tends to be a drab brownish color with a hint of red on her face—[erfect for blending into the dense jungle.  Yet one look at the resplendent male with his iridescent green tail feathers, burnished yellow-orange back, and brilliant scarlet comb & wattle reveals a critical truth about the junglefowl: this is the progenitor chicken—the wild species from which all of our many beautiful and delicious chicken breeds descend.  Geneticists tell us there may be a dash of gray junglefowl in there, but the domestic chicken is really effectively the same bird.

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Indeed, the wild junglefowl has the same “cock-a-doodle-doo” call and the same truculent streak (but more so, to equip him for living in the tiger-haunted jungles of Indochina).  Not only does he have excellent vision and a needle-sharp beak, the jungle rooster is also equipped with sickle-like spurs on his legs for self-protection and fighting for mates.  Junglefowl are primarily seed eaters, but they opportunistically eat fruit, insects, small reptiles, and mammals.  Cocks exhibit a courting behavior known as “tidbitting.”  If they find a food source in the presence of a hen, they cluck coaxingly, bob their head, and pick up and drop the food in offering to the female.

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Roosters live by Highlander’s  “there can be only one” credo, and fight each other to the death if they come across each other.  Junglefowl can apparently live longer than 15 years in captivity, but it doesn’t seem like they attain such old age often in the competitive and dangerous jungles where they occur naturally.  They enjoy bathing in dust, are capable of short burst of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites.  The female exclusively broods her eggs and cares for the chicks.

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Ironically purebred junglefowl are starting to vanish from the world due to hybridization with feral domestic chickens. But it takes an ornithologist to tell junglefowl from feral domestic chickens anyway (since they are effectively the same animal), so I am not going to stress about this too much.  It seems like chickens at least might be here to stay awhile.

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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

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The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

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Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

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Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

mindanao_bleeding_heart_dov-600x560.jpgIs there such a thing as a Gothic pigeon?  There are a lot of different breeds of pigeond, however the most Medieval-looking member of the Columbidae family was never shaped by human selection. The Luzon bleeding heart pigeon (Gallicolumba luzonica) is a delicate shy bird which lives in tropical forests of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.  The birds eat berries and grubs of the forest floor, which they almost never leave except when they are nesting.  They are a mixture of barred gray above and cream color below, except for their distinguishing feature, which sets them apart from all other birds.

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Gallicolombe poignardée. Famille des Columbidés. Ordre : Columbiformes

Bleeding heart pigeons have a group of scarlet feathers at the center of their breast which make it look as though they have a terrible bleeding hole in their chest.  In female birds this feature is somewhat subdued, however in males it glows incarnadine like a lurid painting of a Christian martyr.  Male birds even appear to have droplets of blood running down from the terrible heart wound.

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The first time I encountered this bird was not in a book (or on a random blog written by some weirdo), but in the Bronx zoo.  I saw a glimpse of a male bird at the back of an aviary and I got all afraid that he had been horribly hurt.  Only when I saw the picture on the exhibit were my fears assuaged.  All of this leads up to the question of why these animals look like they have been shot through the heart. There are lots of folklore explanations (of the dogwood religious just-so story variety), but the real answer is that nobody knows. It is a shockingly metal look for such an unassuming and modest bird.

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Sadly the bleeding heart pigeon is growing scarce as its forest home is cut down and made into plywood. Additionally, people capture and sell the birds into the pet and aviary trade. Like the planet Jupiter, it is valued for its lovely and unnerving red spot. With its mild nature, endangered status, and religious martyr good looks, perhaps the bleeding heart dove is a perfect mascot of the terrible plight of animals in our over-burdened Anthropocene world.

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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

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Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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Today (February 5th) is “National Wear Red Day” yet another phlegmatic pseudo-holiday in the short-yet-ever-so-long month of February. However there is a great fundamental truth buried in National Wear Red Day. Aside from working out day and night or becoming a multi-millionaire celebrity, wearing red is one of the few things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential mates (I am just assuming that you are a classical human being–if you are a futuristic cyborg, or an alien lifeform, or a super-intelligent animal of some other sort, please, please, please leave a comment, even if its a thousand years from when I write this).

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I am somewhat foreshadowing next week’s theme, but primates are the most colorful mammals. For monkeys and apes and hominids, colors carry all sorts of highly-charged hierarchical, social, and physiological messages. At a conscious level, we may be only dimly aware of these signifiers, but they apparently come through loud and clear to our endocrine systems. Administrators at dating sites report a 6% boost of positive replies to people wearing red in their profile pictures. Scientists and psychologists have found similar results in experiments which query men and women about the attractiveness of photographs of people of the opposite gender.

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The power of wearing red extends beyond the bedroom to the business and sports realms. Teams that have red uniforms have been demonstrated to have greater likelihood of victory (although I shudder to imagine how statisticians figured that out). The power of the not-very-imaginatively-named “power tie” is well known (at least anecdotally). Even in battle, red seems to have once conferred an advantage. The troops of great empires have had a way of wearing red garb (although, admittedly, advances in gunnery and tactics seem to have greatly negated–or reversed this trend). The Roman legions wore red. The British redcoats uh, wore red. The Chinese super-lucky national color is red. Kelly Lebrock wore red. So ignore how stupid it sounds. Shrug off your inhibitions (and your national reticence to take orders from a day of the month) and wear red.

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Unless You are Steve Seagal

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Pōhutukawa trees in bloom at Christmas time

Around the world the Christmas season is celebrated with conifer trees–symbol of undying life in the winter darkness….except…in some places Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer! Some places don’t have pine trees.  This introduction takes us wayyyyy down south to the New Zealand archipelago, home of the pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) “The New Zealand Christmas tree.”

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Sort of “Gilding the Lily” but more so

‏Pōhutukawa trees‏ are indeed evergreens (of the myrtle family) but they are not pine trees…or conifers at all.  These hardy coastal trees are known for tenaciously clinging to sea cliffs, but, above all, they are known for brilliant displays of exquisitely colorful flowers.  The blossoms, which are composed of huge spiky masses of colorful stamens, peak just as summer begins—the end of December.   Some flowers are yellow, pink, white, or orange, but the most characteristic specimens have blooms of brilliant red.

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The trees are native to the northern island. Ancient specimens can grow to be 25 meters in height (about 83 feet) and they are wider than they are tall, but invasive animals and agricultural deforestation have reduced the great forests to a spectral shadow of their former glory.  The hungry brushtail possum is a particular menace to the tree since the marsupial invader strips it of all its leaves. Nineteenth century mariners were guilty as well—the tough arching boughs of the tree were ideally suited for building and repairing beams of wooden ships.

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Gasp! Bad Possum! Bad Possum!

Fortunately New Zealanders love the magnificent trees and plant them everywhere.  There are numerous cultivars growing in gardens throughout the lovely islands.  The trees are sometimes decorated at Christmas just like more familiar Christmas trees.  Devoted pōhutukawa conservationists are working to restore the forests. Additionally the trees are not without their own toughness. They are one of the most efficient plants at colonizing naked lava rock where volcanoes have spewed out new lands.

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Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).

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Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

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Grapefruit is one of my favorite fruits.  Incongruously I associate the sweet semi-tropical fruit with the most bitter part of winter.  When I was growing up (on a hill farm in central Appalachia), we had crates of the big yellow citruses during winter–an annual gift from some unknown relative.  My mom would read long novels while the wind roared outside and we set by the wood stove listening.  If my father was home from the oil & gas fields, he would peel grapefruits for us (not that Dad was a roughneck, he was a geologist with poorly organized yet relentless employers).  In order for the fruit not to be bitter and tough it is necessary to peel it correctly, which requires patience and deft hands (not only must you strip off the rind, you also have to carefully pull the leathery endocarp away from the juice-filled vesicles). I didn’t master the fruit on my own until I was an adolescent.  As an aside, I feel like those evil serrated spoons are cheating…plus they don’t work.

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Grapefruit is a human creation—and a comparatively recent one at that.  It was first hybridized in Barbados during the 18th century from two very different ancestral citrus fruits–the giant pomelo from Southeast Asia and the Jamaican sweet orange (itself a hybrid fruit with ancient Asian antecedents). A Welsh clergyman, Rev. Griffith Hughes, first documented the tasty new hybrid in the 1750s.  Apparently it intrigued and scandalized the English planters (or maybe the Welsh cleric?) to such an extent that it was initially called “the forbidden fruit.”  I guess this earns the grapefruit a place with other fruits known as “the forbidden fruit” such as quinces, citrons, figs, apples, and datura (to say nothing of knowledge…or sensuality, or GMOs, or post-humans or other metaphorical forbidden fruit).

A beautiful grapefruit tree

A beautiful grapefruit tree

Grapefruit trees are shapely evergreen trees which grow to a height of 5–6 meters (16–20 feet).  They have beautiful but tiny four-petaled flowers which, when fertilized by bees (or other insects) grow into the large fruits.  The name grapefruit originates from the fact that growers thought the heavy clusters of ripe fruit looked like grapes (throughout much of the nineteenth century they were named “shaddocks” after an enigmatic & profligate ship captain who was evidently some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the high seas) .  The flesh of grapefruits can be white, yellow, pink, or red.  According to farming lore, pink and red grapefruits were of twentieth century origin—the famous “ruby red” grapefruit was patented in 1929.  The subsequent search for richer color lead growers to irradiate bud sticks with neutrons in the hope of creating exciting new mutants!

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues...

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues…

Grapefruits are healthy fruits filled with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and other possibly wholesome phytochemicals (to say nothing of fiber) however they also contain a chemical which inhibits the activity of a human metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4.  This not-very-euphonically named enzyme allows the liver and the intestine to break down drugs–so grapefruit are potentially dangerous to people taking certain prescription medicines.  According to pharmacologists, more than 40% of drugs can interact with grapefruit!  This sort of thing is why biochemistry is so interesting and challenging!  Maybe there is a rightful reason grapefruit should be called forbidden fruit…but until the doctor actively forbids it, I am going to go have some more…

Um, not THAT much more...

Um, not THAT much more…

 

 

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