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Scientists recreate the song of a cricket-like insect that hasn’t been seen in 150 years

It’s supposed to sound like its ancestors from the Jurassic.

Tibi Puiu by Tibi Puiu

 August 15, 2022

in AnimalsBiologyNews

Reading Time: 4 mins read

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The katydid Prophalangopsis obscura has been lost since it was first found. Credit:  Charlie Woodrow.

Although tiny, some of the noisiest inhabitants of Earth are, in fact, insects. Whether it’s the hum of a bee, the buzz of a fly, or the chirping of a cricket, there’s really no escaping their constant, noisy chatter. Humans are so used to these sounds that most of the time we just ignore them, but here’s an interesting thought: did they always sound like this?

Insects first appeared around the same time as the earliest land plants around 480 million years ago. In no time, they came to dominate the planet. Even today, it is estimated that around 75% of the over 8 million different species of life on Earth are insects, most of which remain to be discovered.

Some of the noisiest insects are thought to belong to an ancient family called Prophalangopsidae, which scientists know about from fossils from the Jurassic period. They’re related to modern crickets and katydids, but there are only eight modern descendants that we know of.

One of them is Prophalangopsis obscura, an insect first described in 1869 by British naturalist Francis Walker. That was also the last time anyone has seen it, despite biologists’ best efforts to track it down. Many still have hope they’ll find one in India, its supposed habitat.

The Natural History Museum’s specimen of P. obscura is the only confirmed member of its species. Credit:  The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

For more than 150 years, this lonely specimen has been sitting in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London. Now, scientists have made P. obscura sing again, digitally recreating its long-lost call in the hopes that it could be used to finally locate the insect in the wild.

“While we’re only dealing with one specimen, it’s one of just a handful of species which survives from a group of grasshopper and cricket relatives that likely dominated during the Jurassic,” said co-author Ed Baker, a bioacoustics researcher at the Natural History Museum in London.

Like crickets, locusts, and grasshoppers, P. obscura more than likely produces songs using a process known as stridulation, or the rubbing together of body parts such as the wings and legs to make sounds. The researchers generated 3D models of each of the lonely insect’s wings and determined their resonant frequency, which they used to recreate the tune of its song based on a library of insect recordings from hundreds of species.

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Eye Doctor’s Tool Offers New Look at Marvel of Moth Eyes

ENTOMOLOGY TODAY  2 COMMENTS

A tool commonly used in ophthalmology finds a new use in entomology: Observing how a moth’s eye adjusts to see in both light and dark environments. Moths such as the winter cutworm (Noctua pronuba, also known as the large yellow underwing), use a light-absorbing pigment that moves position to limit the light within the eye. The process takes approximately 30 minutes and only occurs in live specimens, making it difficult to observe. A new technique using optical coherence tomography, however, opens new doors for studying this process. (Image by Sam R via iNaturalistCC BY-NC 4.0)

By Ed Ricciuti

If you are into puns, you might call it an eye-opening innovation.

An optometrist in the United Kingdom has adapted technology for diagnosing human eye disease to instead scan how the eye of a living nocturnal moth regulates light input. To date, this light-regulation process has been visualized only in still images from dead specimens, but the new technique records in real time the moth eye adapting to changing light as it unfolds, dynamically.

An article by optometrist Simon Berry, MCOptom, published in June in the journal Environmental Entomology, describes the first use of optical coherence tomography (OCT) to view anatomical detail in the compound eye, common to insects, crustaceans, and other arthropods. Like medical ultrasound, OCT technology images biological tissue but does so by using light instead of sound. It is widely used in ophthalmology to obtain cross-sectional information about structures within the eye, making it an important diagnostic tool in the evaluation of human eye diseases. You may have peered into one if you have been examined for macular disease or if you are elderly; it is used routinely in many patients over 70.

Adapting to seeing in the dark is one of the evolutionary problems that nocturnal animals have had to overcome. Conversely, they can be challenged by the bright light of day. “During the night the light levels are low, so their eyes need to be very sensitive; but, they also need a way of adapting to environmental light conditions, and protecting those sensitive organs, if a bright light is encountered,” says Berry. “Human eyes have a pupil that changes size to regulate light input to the eye. Moths use a light-absorbing pigment that moves position to limit the light within the eye.”

In the moth’s eye, photopigment granules are stored between crystalline cone-shaped structures, or Semper cells, beneath the cornea. Behind that layer, the compound eye of nocturnal insects—defined as a “superposition” eye—has a transparent region called the clear zone. To decrease the brightness of light, the dark pigment is extruded from the cones into the clear zone. Like clouds blocking the sun, the pigment restricts the amount of light reaching the rhabdoms, photoreceptive structures in a layer at the back of the eye. In darkness, the pigment migrates away from the zone back into the cone layer. In effect, the concentration of pigment granules lessens to permit more light and increases to reduce it. (Image by Juliet Percival, originally published in Berry 2022, Environmental Entomology)

In the moth’s eye, photopigment granules are stored between crystalline cone-shaped structures, or Semper cells, beneath the cornea. Behind that layer, the compound eye of nocturnal insects—defined as a “superposition” eye—has a transparent region called the clear zone. To decrease the brightness of light, the dark pigment is extruded from the cones into the clear zone. Like clouds blocking the sun, the pigment restricts the amount of light reaching the rhabdoms, photoreceptive structures in a layer at the back of the eye. In darkness, the pigment migrates away from the zone back into the cone layer. In effect, the concentration of pigment granules lessens to permit more light and increases to reduce it.

The migration of pigment is difficult to record because it is a dynamic process, Berry says, and takes place only when a moth is alive. “By necessity, any microscopic examination of the eye requires dissection of a dead insect and will show a snap-shot of the adaptive state at that point in time,” Berry writes his paper. Thus, the fact that OCT is non-invasive is critical to the new method for observing this process.

Moths used in the study were trapped, scanned, and later released. During the experiment, the moths were adapted to darkness in a dark bag for at least an hour. The first scan was completed with the room in darkness to try and ensure the insect stayed dark adapted. A white LED light source was then turned, on and various scans were taken as the insect became light adapted.

Optical coherence tomography is well suited to observing the physiological adaptation process to light in moth eyes because the process is relatively slow, taking approximately 30 minutes to transition between fully dark-adapted to fully light-adapted. (Image originally published in Berry 2022, Environmental Entomology)

Berry found that when a moth is in a dark-adapted state, the clear zone is optically transparent, and light emitted by the OCT passes through it to the rhabdom layer, which serves like the retina of the human eye, resolving wavelengths of light so it can be processed to images by the brain. In a light-adapted state, pigment that has migrated into the clear zone changes its composition so it filters out light.

OCT is well suited to observing the physiological adaptation process to light because the process is relatively slow—circa 30 minutes—says Berry, and during this period the insect’s perception is not optimized for the environmental light levels. For example, if a light source causes an insect to light adapt and then that light source is taken away, it will take a period of time for it to become dark adapted and see effectively in low light levels.

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1. Optical coherence tomography scan: Noctua pronuba, “yellow underwing” moth eye

2. Optical coherence tomography scan: Plusia festucae, “gold spot” moth eye

Optometrist Simon Berry, MCOptom, reports in the journal Environmental Entomology on the use of optical coherence tomography for imaging the eye of a live moth as it adapts for vision in light or dark environments. In two videos here, images from the scans are sequenced to show the process over time. (Videos by Simon Berry, MCOptom)

From the OCT scans, it appears that the beginning of the pigment migration is not instantaneous but rather the pigment migration becomes visible after a short delay. “This may be because it takes time for the pigment to migrate and show in the scan,” says Berry. However, there could possibly be a biological reason why this may occur. The lag before pigment migration means that if the insect encounters a brief flash of bright light, it may be able to recover quickly because the pigment migration has not started. It may not lose its fully dark-adapted state immediately, as humans do, and so its vision not impeded. Conversely, the time lag in transition from light to dark adaption may disadvantage moths with light-adapted eyes for a time period if they move away from a light source into the dark.

“Further research is needed to determine whether the state of light adaption affects moth behavior,” says Berry. “I really do think that OCT can be a useful tool in entomology and could possibly help explain some of moth behaviour around light sources. It opens up another way of examining the compound eye, and because it is non-invasive it can be used to look at dynamic processes like light adaption in ways not previously possible.”

Read More

The Use of Optical Coherence Tomography to Demonstrate Dark and Light Adaptation in a Live Moth

Environmental Entomology

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Eastern Daily Press > News

Farm fields dyed with bright colours to confuse crop pests

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Chris Hill

0Published: 10:12 AM July 1, 2022

Soil is being dyed in different colours to confuse disease-carrying aphids in this BBRO ‘camo cropping’ trial at Morley Farms – Credit: BBRO

Scientists are spraying coloured dyes onto farm fields to confuse crop pests as part of their efforts to find natural alternatives to chemical pesticides.

The “camo-cropping” trial by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) was one of the many industry innovations on display at the Royal Norfolk Show.

Soil is being dyed in different colours to conceal the emerging crop from disease-carrying aphids, which have become an increasing problem in the absence of banned pesticides. 

Ches Broom of the British Beet Research Organisation illustrating “camo cropping” soil dye trials at the Royal Norfolk Show – Credit: Chris Hill

The trial at Morley Farms, near Wymondham, is part of the BBRO’s search for “nature-based solutions” to protect the region’s sugar beet crops.

They include trying to attract beneficial insects and natural insect predators into the crop by planting alternative host plants, such as the aphids’ preferred brassicas, alongside the sugar beet.

Ches Broom, knowledge exchange manager for BBRO, said the “camo-cropping” idea came from a farmer who had used under-sown barley in a sugar beet crop in an effort to stop wind-blow problems – and found they had also reduced pest and virus levels.

“We know it works, but we did have a problem in trying to destroy the barley without knocking back the sugar beet,” she said.

“So we are using food-based dyes instead. We spray the soil, and the aphids flying over don’t see the beet coming through so they are flying past.

“If we have flowering plants or a brassica strip around the field, the idea is that they will miss the sugar beet and go there instead.

“We are trying some weird and wacky things, but it might be the thing that we need.

“As an industry we don’t want to be using too many chemicals. We want natural solutions.”

Beneficial insects such as ladybirds are being encouraged into sugar beet crops as natural predators to control disease-carrying aphids – Credit: Chris HIll

Other innovations at the show ranged from hi-tech commercial machinery created by well-funded research and development teams, to home-made prototype inventions forged in farm workshops.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, which hosts the show’s innovation hub, said: “I think what is really exciting is that innovation can operate at a number of levels.

“It can be the highly-complex, expensive R&D that needs very sophisticated equipment and PhD-level skills, or it can be innovation at farm level – even a change to a business model, or something as simple as spraying a different colour on the land to confuse the senses of insects.”

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Unraveling sex determination in Bursaphelenchus nematodes: A path towards pest control

by Meiji University

Unraveling sex determination in Bursaphelenchus nematodes: A path towards pest control
Scientists discover that sex determination in nematodes of the genus Bursaphelenchus can be attributed to random events rather than well-known mechanisms such as genetic or environmental sex determination. Credit: Associate Professor Ryoji Shinya, Meiji University

The sex and sexual characteristics constitute key aspects of an organism’s life and are determined by a biological process known as sex determination. These ever-evolving mechanisms are broadly classified based on the type of “switch” that triggers them. Genetic sex determination is dependent on sex chromosomes, such as the X and Y chromosomes in human beings, whereas environmental sex determination depends on factors like temperature and the local ratio between males and females. Although most sex determination mechanisms are genetic or environmental, a third type of sex determination, which depends on completely random factors, also exists. This, however, has not been explored completely.

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The sex determination mechanism of Caenorhabditis elegans, a species of nematode, or our common garden-variety roundworm, is one of the best understood aspects of its biology. In its case, embryos with two X chromosomes, or the XX embryos, develop into hermaphrodites, while the XO embryos, which have one sex chromosome—the X chromosome—develop into males. Several species of nematodes have a sex determination mechanism similar to that of C. elegans. Interestingly, however, some nematode species also rely on the XX/XY system for sex determination, with both X and Y types of sex chromosomes, as well on environmental factors. Unfortunately, the mechanisms that cause this variance in sex-determination between nematode species have remained a mystery thus far.

Recently, a group of researchers led by Associate Professor Ryoji Shinya from Meiji University, Japan, Professor Paul Sternberg from the California Institute of Technology, U.S., and Associate Professor Taisei Kikuchi from the University of Miyazaki, Japan, conducted a study to understand sex determination in two nematode species—Bursaphelenchus xylophilus and Bursaphelenchus okinawaensis. Dr. Shinya’s team have long been engaged with nematode research. In this new study, they conducted a sex-specific genome-wide comparative analysis to determine the initial trigger of sex determination in the two Bursaphelenchus species, and genetic screening to determine the genetic cascade that followed the trigger.

In their study published in Nature Communications, the researchers report that there is no difference in the number of chromosomes, or the genome, between males and females in B. xylophilus and between males and hermaphrodites in B. okinawaensis. This suggests that these sexes in both nematode species have identical genomes and no sex chromosomes. Thus, sex determination in these species must be through non-genetic mechanisms.Play

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PlayCredit: Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan

To explore this further, the team conducted an analysis to find out if environmental factors such as temperature, nutrient availability, and population density influenced sex determination in these organisms. They observed that these factors had a minimal effect on sex determination in the larvae of these species, and that none of the larvae turned into males.

Considering that the offspring produced through self-fertilization in B. okinawaensis are essentially isogenic clones, it is clear that genetic differences are not required for sex determination in B. okinawaensis. In addition, even under fixed environmental conditions, genetically identical individuals of B. okinawaensis differentiate into hermaphrodites and males. The team suggests that the sex of B. okinawaensis nematodes is mainly determined by stochastic expression of an unknown trigger gene and/or developmental noise. In other words, sex differentiation occurs as a result of random events during development.

The team also compared the orthologs, i.e., genes related by common descent, of similar sequences in C. elegans, B. xylophilus, and B. okinawaensis. They found that only downstream genes in these three nematodes were conserved, indicating that the Bursaphelenchus genus has a different sex determination trigger than does C. elegans. In addition, they conducted genetic analyses and identified one major sex determining locus in B. okinawaensis, known as Bok-tra-1a. Using bioinformatics and RNA-sequencing, they observed a conservation of putative targets in this regulating gene, further supporting the findings that indicated the conservation of downstream functions. This implies that nematode sex differentiation might have evolved from this downstream regulator.

“Our discovery of a striking new mode of sex determination in the nematode phylum might help not only with lab studies of parasitic nematodes, but also contribute to population engineering,” observed an excited Dr. Shinya.

Indicating the importance of these findings in pest control, Dr. Shinya says, “Damage caused by plant-parasitic nematodes is estimated at 80 billion USD per year. Conventional nematicides are harmful for the environment. Understanding the sex determination mechanisms of plant parasitic nematodes can help in developing sterile strains that are not parasitic but may help reduce nematode populations in a safe and sustainable way.”


Explore further

Parasitic worms reveal new insights into the evolution of sex and sex chromosomes


More information: Ryoji Shinya et al, Possible stochastic sex determination in Bursaphelenchus nematodes, Nature Communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-30173-2

Journal information: Nature Communications 

Provided by Meiji University

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Francis to retire after 45 years at Nebraska Charles “Chuck” Francis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor in agronomy and horticulture, will retire June 30 after a 45-year career at Nebraska.

GPPN Followers:

I have attached the article on Chuck Francis because he has had an extensive international career and I am sure that some of you readers of the GPPN have had him visit your country, he may have been your mentor at the University of Nebraska or you have met him somewhere..

E.A. “Short” Heinrichs

IAPPS Secretary General and Membership Manager

eheinrichs2@unl.edu

Francis to retire after 45 years at Nebraska Charles “Chuck” Francis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor in agronomy and horticulture, will retire June 30 after a 45-year career at Nebraska. Charles “Chuck” Francis

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Science News

from research organizations


Dragonflies use vision, subtle wing control to straighten up and fly right

Date:May 13, 2022Source:Cornell UniversitySummary:Researchers have untangled the intricate physics and neural controls that enable dragonflies to right themselves while they’re falling.Share:

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With their stretched bodies, immense wingspan and iridescent coloring, dragonflies are a unique sight. But their originality doesn’t end with their looks: As one of the oldest insect species on the planet, they are an early innovator of aerial flight.

Now, a group led by Jane Wang, professor of mechanical engineering and physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, has untangled the intricate physics and neural controls that enable dragonflies to right themselves while they’re falling.

The research reveals a chain of mechanisms that begins with the dragonfly’s eyes — all five of them — and continues through its muscles and wing pitch.

The team’s paper, “Recovery Mechanisms in the Dragonfly Righting Reflex,” published May 12 in Science. Wang co-authored the paper with James Melfi, Ph.D. ’15, and Anthony Leonardo of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Ashburn, Virginia.

For two decades, Wang has been using complex mathematical modeling to understand the mechanics of insect flight. For Wang, physics is just as important as genetics in explaining the evolution of living organisms.

“Insects are the most abundant species and were the first to discover aerial flight. And dragonflies are some of the most ancient insects,” Wang said. “Trying to look at how they right themselves in air would give us insight about both the origin of flight and how animals evolved neuro-circuitries for balancing in air and navigating through space.”

The project began several years ago when Wang was a visiting scientist at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, where her collaborator Leonardo was 3D-tracking dragonflies in a large arena. Wang was inspired to scrutinize them more closely.

“When we looked at their flight behavior, we were simultaneously in awe and frustrated,” she said. “The trajectories are complex and unpredictable. Dragonflies constantly make maneuvers, without following any obvious direction. It’s mysterious.”

To study these flight dynamics and the internal algorithms that govern them, Wang and Melfi designed a controlled-behavioral experiment in which a dragonfly would be dropped upside down from a magnetic tether — a premise not unlike the famous falling cat experiments from the 1800s that showed how certain “hardwired reflexes” resulted in the felines landing on their feet.

Wang and Melfi found that by releasing a dragonfly carefully without leg contact, the insect’sconfounding maneuvers actually followed the same pattern of motion, which the researchers were able to capture with three high-speed video cameras filming at 4,000 frames per second. Markers were put on the dragonfly’s wings and body, and the motions were reconstructed via 3D-tracking software.

Then came the most challenging part: trying to make sense of the movements. The researchers had to consider numerous factors — from the unsteady aerodynamics of wing and air interactions to the way a dragonfly’s body responds to its wings flapping. There’s also that persnickety force that all earthly beings must eventually contend with: gravity.

Wang and Melfi were able to create a computational model that successfully simulated the dragonfly’s aerobatics. But one key question lingered: How do dragonflies know they are falling, so that they can correct their trajectory?

Wang realized that, unlike humans who have an inertial sense, dragonflies could rely on their two visual systems — a pair of large compound eyes, and three simple eyes called ocelli — to gauge their uprightness.

She tested her theory by blocking a dragonfly’s eyes with paint and repeating the experiment. This time, the dragonfly had much more difficulty recovering midflight.

“These experiments suggest that vision is the first and dominant pathway to initiate the dragonfly’s righting reflex,” Wang said.

That visual cue triggers a series of reflexes that sends neural signals to the dragonfly’s four wings, which are driven by a set of direct muscles that modulate the left-wing and right-wing pitch asymmetry accordingly. With three or four wing strokes, a tumbling dragonfly can roll 180 degrees and resume flying right-side up. The entire process takes about 200 milliseconds.

“What was difficult was figuring out the key control strategy from the experimental data,” Wang said. “It took us a very long time to understand the mechanism by which a small amount of pitch asymmetry can lead to the observed rotation. The key asymmetry is hidden among many other changes.”

The combination of kinematic analysis, physical modeling and 3D flight simulations now gives researchers a noninvasive way to infer the crucial connections between an animal’s observed behaviors and the internal procedures that control them. These insights can also be used by engineers looking to improve the performance of small flying machines and robots.

“Flight control on the timescale of tens or hundreds of milliseconds is difficult to engineer,” Wang said. “Small flapping machines now can take off and turn, but still have trouble remaining in the air. When they tilt, it is hard to correct. One of the things that animals have to do is precisely solve these kinds of problems.”

The research was supported by the Janelia Research Campus’ Visiting Scientist Program and the Simons Fellowship in Mathematics.


Story Source:

Materials provided by Cornell University. Original written by David Nutt, courtesy of the Cornell Chronicle. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Z. Jane Wang, James Melfi, Anthony Leonardo. Recovery mechanisms in the dragonfly righting reflexScience, 2022; 376 (6594): 754 DOI: 10.1126/science.abg0946

Cite This Page:

Cornell University. “Dragonflies use vision, subtle wing control to straighten up and fly right.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 May 2022. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220513113228.htm>.

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from New Scientist

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Bats buzz like hornets to scare away predators

Tactic is first known example of a mammal mimicking noise made by an insect

greater mouse-eared bat in flight
The greater mouse-eared bat buzzes like a bee when threatened.HANS CHRISTOPH KAPPEL/MINDEN PICTURES

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The whining buzz of a wasp is enough to send many of us running for the hills. Now, it seems that one crafty species has used that aversion to its advantage. Researchers found greater mouse-eared bats mimic the buzzing sound of stinging insects like wasps, likely to scare off predators.

“This is a fascinating study,” says David Pfennig, an evolutionary biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies animal mimicry but who was not involved with the work.

Nature is replete with examples of sneaky animals and plants imitating the traits of other organisms. The innocuous scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides), for example, has adopted the red-and-black stripes of the dangerously venomous coral snake (Micrurus fulvius).

But there aren’t many noted instances of acoustic mimicry, Pfennig says, likely because they’re hard to study, not necessarily because they don’t exist. “We are a very visually oriented species, and there are a lot of sounds we can’t hear as humans.”

Danilo Russo happened upon one of these by accident. An ecologist at the University of Naples Federico II, he was conducting fieldwork in southeastern Italy more than 2 decades ago when he snagged some greater mouse-eared bats (Myotis myotis). The species is native to Europe and about the size of a house mouse. Every time Russo went to grab the animals and remove them from his nets, “they buzzed like wasps or hornets,” he says. It seemed like some sort of defense mechanism, he explains.

One of the mouse-eared bats’ biggest predators are owls, which commonly live in the tree nooks or rock crevices that wasps, hornets, and other buzzing, stinging insects hole up in. It occurred to Russo that the bats might be buzzing to mimic bees and send owls scurrying away. But it took him several years to find the right bat experts to help answer the question.

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NATURE

Megafires Are Catastrophically Destructive, But These Microbes Thrive in Them

DAVID NIELD

2 MAY 2022

We know that there are some truly hardy microorganisms out there – able to survive in deep space and deep underground, for example – but a group of microbes identified in a new study might be the most impressively robust yet.

The research describes fungi and bacteria that have not only survived the 2016 Soberanes megafire in California’s redwood tanoak forests but actually thrived as a result of the fire. Understanding how and why this happens could aid recovery efforts for regions affected by wildfires’ devastating impacts.

Further analysis revealed that microbes that did cling on to life and subsequently flourish are genetically linked, a finding that should offer more clues as to why these forms of life are able to make it through the burning.

""Microbes obtained from fire-burned soil. (Jenna Maddox/UCR)

“They have shared adaptive traits that allow them to respond to fire, and this improves our ability to predict which microbes will respond, either positively or negatively, to events like these,” says mycologist Sydney Glassman from the University of California, Riverside.

The soil samples came from plots researchers established in the mid-2000s to study the outbreak of sudden oak death; they first collected samples in 2013, and they compared their contents with samples taken immediately after the fire in 2016.

Not all of the established plots were affected by the fire, so the team even had access to an unburned control plot for comparison.

Overall, there was up to a 70 percent decline in fungi species richness, while bacterial species declined by up to 52 percent per sample. But some bacterial groups, including Actinobacteria (which helps plant material decompose) and Firmicutes (which helps plant growth and controls plant pathogens), ended up thriving.

As for fungi, the heat-resistant Basidioascus yeast saw a massive increase. The yeast degrades various components of wood, including lignin (the tough part of plant cell walls that keeps them structured and protected).

Penicillium is another genus that did rather well out of the fire, and the team of researchers is now keen to figure out how these various microbes grew in number. It’s likely that different types of microbes used different methods.

Penicillium is probably taking advantage of food released from necromass, or ‘dead bodies’, and some species may also be able to eat charcoal,” says Glassman.

Megafires – the term used to describe the historically significant, large-scale fires of recent years that are becoming more intense and covering a wider area – are happening more often as climate change pushes temperatures up and increases snowmelt.

Even though wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, they used to be low in severity and pass over an area quickly, helping to revitalize the soil, clear away some dead plants, and help others with their reproduction.

Megafires, however, lead to catastrophic ecosystem damage. The 2016 Soberanes megafire, for example, ended up burning around 132,127 acres or 53,470 hectares of land.

At the moment, not much is known about how soils and their microbiomes respond to megafires, partly because it’s so difficult to predict where the flames will spring up and then travel to.

""The Soberanes megafire in 2016. (CalFire)

The next step for experts is to take the survival strategies offered by these fungi and bacteria and work out how they can be applied to restoration efforts – getting forests back into their previous biodiverse state.

“It’s not likely plants can recover from megafires without beneficial fungi that supply roots with nutrients, or bacteria that transform extra carbon and nitrogen in post-fire soil,” says Glassman. “Understanding the microbes is key to any restoration effort.”

The research has been published in Molecular Ecology.

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Do mushrooms really use language to talk to each other? A fungi expert investigates

Published: April 14, 2022 9.19am EDT

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  1. Katie FieldProfessor in Plant-Soil Processes, University of Sheffield

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Nearly all of Earth’s organisms communicate with each other in one way or another, from the nods and dances and squeaks and bellows of animals, through to the invisible chemical signals emitted by plant leaves and roots. But what about fungi? Are mushrooms as inanimate as they seem – or is something more exciting going on beneath the surface?

New research by computer scientist Andrew Adamatzky at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory of the University of the West of England, suggests this ancient kingdom has an electrical “language” all of its own – far more complicated than anyone previously thought. According to the study, fungi might even use “words” to form “sentences” to communicate with neighbours.

Almost all communication within and between multi-cellular animals involves highly specialised cells called nerves (or neurones). These transmit messages from one part of an organism to another via a connected network called a nervous system. The “language” of the nervous system comprises distinctive patterns of spikes of electrical potential (otherwise known as impulses), which help creatures detect and respond rapidly to what’s going on in their environment.

Despite lacking a nervous system, fungi seem to transmit information using electrical impulses across thread-like filaments called hyphae. The filaments form a thin web called a mycelium that links fungal colonies within the soil. These networks are remarkably similar to animal nervous systems. By measuring the frequency and intensity of the impulses, it may be possible to unpick and understand the languages used to communicate within and between organisms across the kingdoms of life.

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Using tiny electrodes, Adamatzky recorded the rhythmic electrical impulses transmitted across the mycelium of four different species of fungi.

He found that the impulses varied by amplitude, frequency and duration. By drawing mathematical comparisons between the patterns of these impulses with those more typically associated with human speech, Adamatzky suggests they form the basis of a fungal language comprising up to 50 words organised into sentences. The complexity of the languages used by the different species of fungi appeared to differ, with the split gill fungus (Schizophyllum commune) using the most complicated lexicon of those tested.

A collection of mushrooms with frilly edges.
The split gill fungus is common in rotting wood and is reported to have more than 28,000 sexes. Bernard Spragg/Wikipedia

This raises the possibility that fungi have their own electrical language to share specific information about food and other resources nearby, or potential sources of danger and damage, between themselves or even with more distantly connected partners.

Underground communication networks

This isn’t the first evidence of fungal mycelia transmitting information.

Mycorrhizal fungi – near-invisible thread-like fungi that form intimate partnerships with plant roots – have extensive networks in the soil that connect neighbouring plants. Through these associations, plants usually gain access to nutrients and moisture supplied by the fungi from the tiniest of pores within the soil. This vastly expands the area that plants can draw sustenance from and boosts their tolerance of drought. In return, the plant transfers sugars and fatty acids to the fungi, meaning both benefit from the relationship.

A clump of soil containing fine, white threads.
The mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi enable symbiotic relationships with plants. KYTan/Shutterstock

Experiments using plants connected only by mycorrhizal fungi have shown that when one plant within the network is attacked by insects, the defence responses of neighbouring plants activate too. It seems that warning signals are transmitted via the fungal network.

Other research has shown that plants can transmit more than just information across these fungal threads. In some studies, it appears that plants, including trees, can transfer carbon-based compounds such as sugars to neighbours. These transfers of carbon from one plant to another via fungal mycelia could be particularly helpful in supporting seedlings as they establish. This is especially the case when those seedlings are shaded by other plants and so limited in their abilities to photosynthesise and fix carbon for themselves.

Exactly how these underground signals are transmitted remains a matter of some debate though. It is possible the fungal connections carry chemical signals from one plant to another within the hyphae themselves, in a similar way to how the electrical signals featured in the new research are transmitted. But it is also possible that signals become dissolved in a film of water held in place and moved across the network by surface tension. Alternatively, other microorganisms could be involved. Bacteria in and around fungal hyphae might change the composition of their communities or function in response to changing root or fungal chemistry and induce a response in neighbouring fungi and plants.

The new research showing transmission of language-like electrical impulses directly along fungal hyphae provides new clues about how messages are conveyed by fungal mycelium.

Mushroom for debate?

Although interpreting the electrical spiking in fungal mycelia as a language is appealing, there are alternative ways to look at the new findings.

The rhythm of electrical pulses bears some similarity to how nutrients flow along fungal hyphae, and so may reflect processes within fungal cells that are not directly related to communication. The rhythmic pulses of nutrients and electricity may reveal the patterns of fungal growth as the organism explores its surroundings for nutrients.

Of course, the possibility remains that the electrical signals do not represent communication in any form at all. Rather, charged hyphal tips passing the electrode could have generated the spikes in activity observed in the study.

Small mushrooms with brown, pointy caps growing out of a mossy log.
What on Earth are they talking about? Katie Field, Author provided

More research is clearly needed before we can say with any certainty what the electrical impulses detected in this study mean. What we can take from the research is that electrical spikes are, potentially, a new mechanism for transmitting information across fungal mycelia, with important implications for our understanding of the role and significance of fungi in ecosystems.

These results could represent the first insights into fungal intelligence, even consciousness. That’s a very big “could”, but depending on the definitions involved, the possibility remains, though it would seem to exist on time scales, frequencies and magnitudes not easily perceived by humans.

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Study Examines Insects’ Role in Plastic Pollution

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When plastic debris pollutes soil ecosystems, some insects may play a role in spreading it by breaking it down into microplastic particles. A new study sheds light on this dynamic by looking at a variety of soil invertebrates—such as the Zophobas morio beetle larva shown here—and their taste for polystyrene. (Photo by Max Helmberger)

By Paige Embry

Microplastics permeate the world. They can float through the air and have been found in Antarctic ice, the deep ocean, drinking water, and inside an array of animals. Microplastic pollution, mostly in the oceans, has been getting a lot of attention in the last few years but microplastics’ ubiquity means that scientists researching them have to find ways to limit contamination—and assess its extent when it inevitably happens. Max Helmberger, a Ph.D. student in entomology at Michigan State University, has researched several soil-dwelling organisms’ ability to create microplastics from larger plastic debris. He says labs have had to come up with “all sorts of creative solutions” to the contamination problem, with at least one dying all their lab coats bright pink so it would be obvious when bits invade a sample. Helmberger says, “Being persnickity is kind of a must in microplastic research because microplastics are everywhere.”

Microplastics come in two basic forms: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are ones that are manufactured in sizes smaller than 5 millimeter (think sesame seed). Nurdles, the pre-production pellets used to make plastic products, are an example of a primary microplastic. Secondary microplastics are tiny bits that have broken off larger pieces. It is this second type of microplastic that Helmberger and colleagues recently studied in relation to insects and other invertebrates. Findings from their research were published in February in the open-access Journal of Insect Science.

Helmberger and his colleagues wanted to look at an array of different types of soil-dwelling organisms and assess their ability to fragment plastic in a fairly short period of time. His chosen animals were Acheta domesticus (a house cricket), Oniscus asellus (an isopod, sometimes known as a sowbug or woodlouse), Zophobas morio larvae (a beetle), and Cornu aspersum (a snail). Helmberger put each animal in an “arena”—a small glass jar. The bottom was filled with plaster of Paris and topped with sand that had been heated to 500 degrees Celsius to burn off organics and plastics. The animals went into the jar with pieces of both pristine and weathered polystyrene, along with one oat flake of real food to sustain them. He left them there for 24 hours.

cricket with plastic
isopod with plastic
snail with plastic

Afterward, Helmberger counted the number of microplastic particles in the animal poop, the sand, and within the dead animal itself. To discriminate between the plastics and other tiny bits of stuff in the sample, Helmberger used two fluorescent stains: “Nile red” and a mix of “calcofluor white” and “Evans blue.” Nile red is commonly used to detect microplastics, but Helmberger says, “Nile red also binds to chitin—which, if you study insects, is kind of a problem.” Chitin is a key component in arthropod skeletons, so he needed a way to differentiate between the plastic and chitin. The white/blue mixture was the answer because it binds to chitin but not plastic. Helmberger weeded out anything that fluoresced for both dyes (or only the white/blue mixture). Each particle that fluoresced only under Nile red and also looked like polystyrene was poked with a soldering iron. If it melted or deformed, he knew it was plastic and counted it. Helmberger also set up various anti-contamination protocols, and they largely seemed to work based on the contamination assessment tests he ran, he says.

Helmberger and team found that the beetle larvae were the fragmentation kings, fragmenting both pristine and weathered polystyrene. The crickets and woodlice fragmented only the weathered polystyrene, and the snails “did not appreciably fragment anything.” A second experiment offered the isopod the option of pristine polystyrene, polystyrene exposed to UV rays (as if it had been sitting out in the sun), and polystyrene that had been soaked in a soil suspension. The isopod far preferred the last, showing that the condition of the plastic may play an important role in how tasty a given organism views a piece of plastic.

These experiments produced some expected results—that the beetle larvae fragmented the polystyrene—and some unexpected ones—the snails didn’t. In at least one other experiment, snails did fragment plastic. The researchers speculate that perhaps the difference lay in the snails, which were different species, or in the time the snails were around the plastic, 24 hours in the new study versus four weeks in the past experiment. Helmberger says they picked 24 hours because it seemed like a more realistic amount of time for an organism out in the world to be in contact with a bit of plastic.

This research adds to the evidence that organisms in the environment may not be just passive recipients of microplastic pollution; some may be active creators of it. It also shows how new, and complicated, microplastic research is with protocols still being developed—whether it’s wearing hot pink lab coats or using a soldering iron to figure out what is truly plastic.

Read More

Soil Invertebrates Generate Microplastics From Polystyrene Foam Debris

Journal of Insect Science

Paige Embry is a freelance science writer based in Seattle and author of Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. Website: www.paigeembry.com.

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Dead or alive: Microorganisms in soil shape the global carbon cycle

by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

<img src="https://scx1.b-cdn.net/csz/news/800a/2022/dead-or-alive-microorg.jpg&quot; alt="Dead or alive: microorganisms in soil shape the global carbon cycle" title="Composition of the soil microbiome and its role in organic matter cycling in different soil habitats. Credit: <i>Nature Reviews Microbiology
Composition of the soil microbiome and its role in organic matter cycling in different soil habitats. Credit: Nature Reviews Microbiology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41579-022-00695-z

Whether dead or alive, soil microorganisms play a major role in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere. But what is the specific role of death for the bacteria, fungi and microfauna that make up the soil microbiome?

That is the topic of a new review by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists and collaborators. The article, appearing in Nature Reviews Microbiology, describes how living and dead microorganisms strongly influence terrestrial biogeochemistry by forming and decomposing soil organic matter—the planet’s largest terrestrial stock of organic carbon and nitrogen, and a primary source of other crucial macronutrients and micronutrients.

By shaping the turnover of soil organic matter, soil microorganisms influence atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and the global climate, as well as help provide crucial ecosystem services like soil fertility, carbon sequestration, plant productivity and soil health.

“Our new understanding of how organic matter cycles through soil emphasizes the importance of both living and dead microorganisms in forming soil organic carbon. It is increasingly possible to leverage this understanding within biogeochemical models and to better predict ecosystem functioning under new climate regimes,” said LLNL scientist Noah Sokol, lead author of the paper.

The soil microbiome is the most diverse community in the biosphere, holding at least a quarter of Earth’s total biodiversity. Tens of millions of species of bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses and microeukaryotes coexist below ground, although only a few hundred thousand have been characterized in detail. A single gram of surface soil can contain more than 109 bacterial and archaeal cells, trillions of viruses and tens of thousands of protists. But the soil microbiome’s influence on biogeochemistry extends well beyond the metabolic activities of living organisms.

“Dead microorganisms accrete in soil as their cellular remains stick to the mineral matrix. Their dead biomass can make up as much as much as 50% of the soil organic matter pool. This means that dead microbial biomass in soil is one of the largest stocks of organic carbon on the planet,” said Jennifer Pett-Ridge, LLNL project lead and head of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science “Microbes Persist” Soil Microbiome Scientific Focus Area (SFA).

New advances in DNA sequencing and isotope tracing are allowing the LLNL team to understand the unique attributes of soil microbes—even those that cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. Though analysis of genetic and biochemical signatures, the team can infer the ecological relationships that control who live, and who die, in complex soil food webs.

Because soil microbial necromass (organic material consisting of, or derived from, dead organisms) represents one of the most globally significant pools of carbon and other nutrients, the authors report that the mechanism and rate of microbial death likely impact terrestrial biogeochemical cycling—an idea they are currently testing in a suite of experiments that are part of LLNL’s Soil Microbiome SFA. The SFA team also is establishing experiments to study how different traits of microorganisms affect organic matter cycling in soils. Team members are working to integrate this trait-based approach into models that predict soil biogeochemical dynamics and enhance the ability to predict changes to the global carbon cycle.


Explore further

Team develops microscope to image microbes in soil and plants at micrometer scale


More information: Noah W. Sokol et al, Life and death in the soil microbiome: how ecological processes influence biogeochemistry, Nature Reviews Microbiology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41579-022-00695-z

Journal information: Nature Reviews Microbiology 

Provided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory 

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