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Archive - Jun 17, 2009

Bacteria Can Anticipate Events and Prepare for Them

Through evolution, bacteria and other microorganisms can “learn” to anticipate a future environmental event and prepare for it, according to recent research from the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University, and Harvard Medical School. The research findings showed that certain microorganisms' genetic networks are hard-wired to "foresee" what comes next in a normally predictable sequence of events and to begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset. This is analogous to classical Pavlovian conditioning. As an example, E. coli bacteria, which normally cruise harmlessly down the human digestive tract, encounter a number of different environments on their way. In particular, they find that one type of sugar, lactose, is invariably followed by a second sugar, maltose, soon afterward. The research team checked the bacterium's genetic response to lactose, and found that, in addition to the genes that enable it to digest lactose, the gene network for utilizing maltose was partially activated. When the researchers switched the order of the sugars, giving the bacteria maltose first, there was no corresponding activation of lactose genes, implying that bacteria have naturally "learned" to get ready for maltose following lactose. In addition, when E. coli were raised in an environment containing the first sugar, lactose, but not the follow-up with maltose, the bacteria evolved, after several months, to stop activating their maltose genes at the taste of lactose, only turning them on when maltose was actually available. Senior author Dr. Yitzhak Pilpel and his team believe that genetic conditioned responses may be a widespread means of evolutionary adaptation that enhances survival in many organisms, and may also take place in the cells of higher organisms, including humans.

Triumphant Return of the Large Blue Butterfly

An upcoming report in Science celebrates the 25-year effort to restore the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) in the UK, where it reached extinction in 1979. Meticulous research showed that the extinction was caused by a subtle change in habitat that disrupted the unusual life cycle of this spectacular butterfly. Previously, the extinction had been attributed to the work of overzealous collectors. Adult M. arion females lay their eggs on thyme flowers in the summer. After hatching, the caterpillars stay very small and many eventually fall to the ground. They secrete chemicals that attract red ants and fool them into thinking the caterpillars are ant grubs. The ants then carry the tiny caterpillars into their underground nests. In most cases, only caterpillars that have landed in the nest of one particular ant species, Myrmica sabuleti, will survive to adulthood. The caterpillars' secretions are a sufficiently close match to those of M. sabuleti grubs that the ants never discover that they have been duped, and instead continue to protect the caterpillars for 10 months even though they are feeding on the ants' own brood. In early June, the caterpillars form a chrysalis near the colony entrance and then emerge to crawl aboveground two weeks later as butterflies. Using laboriously collected field data, lead author Dr. Jeremy Thomas and his coauthors explored the possible factors that could be causing the butterflies’ decline. They realized that the grass in the butterflies' habitat had grown too long, as farmers had gradually stopped grazing their livestock on these hillsides and a viral infection had killed many of the wild rabbits in the 1950s. The soil on these overgrown grasslands was therefore too cool to support adequate numbers of M. sabuleti ants.