Milk-producing spider

In biology, organizing living things in categories is called taxonomy. Such categories are established based on shared characteristics of the members. These characteristics were usually visual attributes. For example, a red-footed booby (it’s a bird, silly!) is obviously different than a blue-footed booby, so we put them in different categories, which Aristotle called in Greek something like species.

Biological taxonomy is very useful, not only to provide countless hours of fight (both verbal and physical!) for biologists, but to inform us of all sorts of unexpected relationships between living things. These relationships, in turn, can give us insights into our own evolution, but also the evolution of things inimical to us, like diseases, and, perhaps, their cure. Also extremely important, it allows scientists from all over the world to have a common language, thus maximizing information sharing and minimizing misunderstandings.

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All well and good. And it was all well and good since Carl Linnaeus introduced his famous taxonomy system in the 18th Century, the one we still use today with species, genus, family, order, and kingdom. Then we figured out how to map the DNAs of things around us and this information threw out the window a lot of Linnean classifications. Because it turns out that some things that look similar are not genetically similar; likewise, some living things that we thought are very different from one another, turned out that, genetically speaking, they are not so different.

You will say, then, alright, out with visual taxonomy, in with phylogenetic taxonomy. This would be absolutely peachy for a minority of organisms of the planet, like animals and plants, but a nightmare in the more promiscuous organisms who have no problem swapping bits of DNA back and forth, like some bacteria, so you don’t know anymore who’s who. And don’t even get me started on the viruses which we are still trying to figure out whether or not they are alive in the first place.

When I grew up there were 5 regna or kingdoms in our tree of life – Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, Animalia – each with very distinctive characteristics. Likewise, the class Mammalia from the Animal Kingdom was characterized by the females feeding their offspring with milk from mammary glands. Period. No confusion. But now I have no idea (nor do many other biologists, rest assured) how many domains or kingdoms or empires we have, nor even what the definition of a species is anymore.

As if that’s not enough, even those Linnean characteristics that we thought set in stone are amenable to change. Which is good, shows the progress of science. But I didn’t think that something like the definition of mammal would change. Mammals are organisms whose females feed their offspring with milk from mammary glands, as I vouchsafed above. Pretty straightforward. And not spiders. Let me be clear on this: spiders did not feature in my – or anyone’s! – definition of mammals.

Until Chen et al. (2018) published their weird article a couple of weeks ago. The abstract is free for all to see and states that the females of a jumping spider species feed their young with milk secreted by their body until the age of subadulthood. Mothers continue to offer parental care past the maturity threshold. The milk is necessary for the spiderlings because without it they die. That’s all.

I read the whole paper since it was only 4 pages of it and here are some more details about their discovery. The species of spider they looked at is Toxeus magnus, a jumping spider that looks like an ant. The mother produces milk from her epigastric furrow and deposits it on the nest floor and walls from where the spiderlings ingest it (0-7 days). After the first week of this, the spiderlings suck the milk direct from the mother’s body and continue to do so for the next two weeks (7-20 days) when they start leaving the nest and forage for themselves. But they return and for the next period (20-40 days) they get their food both from the mother’s milk and from independent foraging. Spiderlings get weaned by day 40, but they still come home to sleep at night. At day 52 they are officially considered adults. Interestingly, “although the mother apparently treated all juveniles the same, only daughters were allowed to return to the breeding nest after sexual maturity. Adult sons were attacked if they tried to return. This may reduce inbreeding depression, which is considered to be a major selective agent for the evolution of mating systems (p. 1053).”

During all this time, including during the emergence into adulthood of the offsprings, the mother also supplied house maintenance, carrying out her children’s exuviae (shed exoskeletons) and repairing the nest.

The authors then did a series of experiments to see what role does the nursing and other maternal care at different stages play in the fitness and survival of the offsprings. Blocking the mother’s milk production with correction fluid immediately after hatching killed all the spiderlings, showing that they are completely dependent on the mother’s milk. Removing the mother after the spiderlings start foraging (day 20) drastically reduces survivorship and body size, showing that mother’s care is essential for her offsprings’ success. Moreover, the mother taking care of the nest and keeping it clean reduced the occurrence of parasite infections on the juveniles.

The authors analyzed the milk and it’s highly nutritious: “spider milk total sugar content was 2.0 mg/ml, total fat 5.3 mg/ml, and total protein 123.9 mg/ml, with the protein content around four times that of cow’s milk (p. 1053)”.

Speechless I am. Good for the spider, I guess. Spider milk will have exorbitant costs (Apparently, a slight finger pressure on the milk-secreting region makes the mother spider secret the milk, not at all unlike the human mother). Spiderlings die without the mother’s milk. Responsible farming? Spider milker qualifications? I’m gonna lay down, I got a headache.

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REFERENCE: Chen Z, Corlett RT, Jiao X, Liu SJ, Charles-Dominique T, Zhang S, Li H, Lai R, Long C, & Quan RC (30 Nov. 2018). Prolonged milk provisioning in a jumping spider. Science, 362(6418):1052-1055. PMID: 30498127, DOI: 10.1126/science.aat3692. ARTICLE | Supplemental info (check out the videos)

By Neuronicus, 13 December 2018

Arc: mRNA & protein from one neuron to another

EDIT 1 [Jan 17, 2018]: I promised four days ago that I will post this, while it was still hot, but my Internet was down, thanks to the only behemoth provider in USA. And rated the worst company in the Nation, too. You definitely know by now about whom I’m talking about. Grrrr…  Anyway, here is the paper:

As promised, today’s paper talks about mRNA transfer between neurons.

Pastuzyn et al. (2018) looked at the gene Arc in neurons because they thought its Gag sequence looks suspiciously similar to some retroviruses. Could it be possible that it also behaves like a virus?

Arc is heavily involved in the immune system, is essential for the formation of long-term memories, and is involved in all sorts of diseases, like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, among other things.

Pastuzyn et al. (2018) is a relatively long and dense paper, albeit well written. So, I thought that this time, instead of giving you a summary of their research it would be better to give you the authors’ story directly in their own words written as subtitles in the Results section (bold letters – the authors words, normal font – mine). Warning: this is a much more jargon-dense blog post than my previous one on the same topic and, because it is so much material, I will not explain every term.

  • Fly and Tetrapod (us) Arc Genes Independently Originated from Distinct Lineages of Ty3/gypsy Retrotransposons, the phylogenomic analyses tell us, meaning the authors have done a lot of computer-assisted comparisons of similar forms of the gene in hundreds of species.
  • Arc Proteins Self-Assemble into Virus-like Capsids. Arc likes to oligomerize spontaneously (dimers and trimers). The oligomers resemble virus-like capsids, similar to HIV.
  • Arc Binds and Encapsulates RNA. Although it loves its own RNA about 10 times more than other RNAs, it’s a promiscuous protein (doesn’t care which RNA as long as it follows the rules of stoichiometry). Arc capsids encapsulate both the Arc protein (maybe other proteins too?), its mRNA, and whatever mRNA happened to be in the vicinity at the time of encapsulation. Arc capsids are able to protect the mRNA from RNAases.
  • Arc Capsid Assembly Requires RNA. If there is no RNA around, the capsids are few and poorly formed.
  • Arc Protein and Arc mRNA Are Released by Neurons in Extracellular Vesicles. Arc capsid packages Arc protein & Arc mRNA into extracellular vesicles (EV). The size of these EVs is < 100nm, putting them in the exosome category. This exosome, which the authors gave the unfortunate name of ACBAR (Arc Capsid Bearing Any RNA), is being expelled from cortical neurons in an activity-dependent manner. In other words, when neurons are stimulated, they release ACBARs.
  • Arc Mediates Intercellular Transfer of mRNA in Extracellular Vesicles. ACBARs dock to the host cell and then undergo clathrin-dependent endocytosis, meaning they expel their cargo in the host cell. The levels of Arc protein and Arc mRNA peaks in a host hippocampal cell in four hours from incubation. The ACBARs tend to congregate around donor cell’s dendrites.
  • Transferred Arc mRNA Can Undergo Activity-Dependent Translation. Activating the group 1 metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR1/5) by application of the agonist DHPG induces a significant increase of the amount of Arc protein in the host neurons.

This is a veritable tour de force paper. The Results section has 7 sub-sections, each with multiple experiments to dot every i and cross every t. I’m eyeballing about 40 experiments. It is true that there are 13 authors on the paper from different institutions – yeay for collaboration! – but c’mon! Is this what you need to get in Cell these days? Apparently so. Don’t get me wrong, this is an outstanding paper. But in the end it is still only one paper, which means only one first author. The rest are there for the ride because for a tenure track application nobody cares about your papers in CNS (Cell, Nature, Science = The Central Nervous System of the scientific community, har, har) if you’re not the first author. It looks like the increasing amount of work you need to be published in top tier journals these days is becoming a pet peeve of mine as I keep mentioning it (for example, here).

My pet peeves aside, Pastuzyn et al. (2018) is an excellent paper that opens interesting practical (drug delivery) and theoretical (biological repurpose of ancient invaders) gates. Kudos!

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REFERENCE: Pastuzyn ED, Day CE, Kearns RB, Kyrke-Smith M, Taibi AV, McCormick J, Yoder N, Belnap DM, Erlendsson S, Morado DR, Briggs JAG, Feschotte C, & Shepherd JD. (11 Jan 2018). The Neuronal Gene Arc Encodes a Repurposed Retrotransposon Gag Protein that Mediates Intercellular RNA Transfer. Cell, 172(1-2):275-288.e18. PMID: 29328916. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.12.024. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate

P.S. I said that ACBAR is an unfortunate acronym because I don’t know about you but I for one wouldn’t want my discovery to be linked either with a religion or with terrorist cries, even if that link is done only by a small fraction of the population. Although I can totally see the naming-by-committee going: “ACBAR! Our exosome is the greatest! Yeay!” or “Arc Acbar! Our Arc is the greatest. Double yeay!”. On a second thought, it’s kindda nerdy geeky neat. I still wouldn’t have done it though…

By Neuronicus, 14 January 2018

EDIT 2 [Jan 22, 2018]: There is another paper that discovered that Arc forms capsids that encapsulate RNA and then shuttles it across the neuromuscular junction in Drosophila (fly). To their credit, Cell published both these papers back-to-back so no researcher gets scooped of their discovery. From what I can see, the discovery really happened simultaneously, so I modified my infopic to reflect that (both papers were submitted in January 2017, received in revised version on August 15, 2017 and published in the same issue on January 11, 2018). Here is the reference to the other article:

Ashley J, Cordy B, Lucia D, Fradkin LG, Budnik V, & Thomson T (11 Jan 2018). Retrovirus-like Gag Protein Arc1 Binds RNA and Traffics across Synaptic Boutons, Cell. 172(1-2): 262-274.e11. PMID: 29328915. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.12.022. ARTICLE

EDIT 3 [Jan 29, 2018]: Dr. Shepherd, the last author of the paper I featured, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the implications of his and his team’s findings, answers which you will find here.

By Neuronicus, 22 January 2018

Midichlorians, midichloria, and mitochondria

Nathan Lo is an evolutionary biologist interested in creepy crawlies, i.e. arthropods. Well, he’s Australian, so I guess that comes with the territory (see what I did there?). While postdoc’ing, he and his colleagues published a paper (Sassera et al., 2006) that would seem boring for anybody without an interest in taxonomy, a truly under-appreciated field.

The paper describes a bacterium that is a parasite for the mitochondria of a tick species called Ixodes ricinus, the nasty bugger responsible for Lyme disease. The authors obtained a female tick from Berlin, Germany and let it feed on a hamster until it laid eggs. By using genetic sequencing (you can use kits these days to extract the DNA, do PCR, gels and cloning, pretty much everything), electron microscopy (real powerful microscopes) and phylogenetic analysis (using computer softwares to see how closely related some species are) the authors came to the conclusion that this parasite they were working on is a new species. So they named it. And below is the full account of the naming, from the horse’s mouth, as it were:

“In accordance with the guidelines of the International Committee of Systematic Bacteriology, unculturable bacteria should be classified as Candidatus (Murray & Stackebrandt, 1995). Thus we propose the name ‘Candidatus Midichloria mitochondrii’ for the novel bacterium. The genus name Midichloria (mi.di.chlo′ria. N.L. fem. n.) is derived from the midichlorians, organisms within the fictional Star Wars universe. Midichlorians are microscopic symbionts that reside within the cells of living things and ‘‘communicate with the Force’’. Star Wars creator George Lucas stated that the idea of the midichlorians is based on endosymbiotic theory. The word ‘midichlorian’ appears to be a blend of the words mitochondrion and chloroplast. The specific epithet, mitochondrii (mi.to′chon.drii. N.L. n. mitochondrium -i a mitochondrion; N.L. gen. n. mitochondrii of a mitochondrion), refers to the unique intramitochondrial lifestyle of this bacterium. ‘Candidatus M. mitochondrii’ belongs to the phylum Proteobacteria, to the class Alphaproteobacteria and to the order Rickettsiales. ‘Candidatus M. mitochondrii’ is assigned on the basis of the 16S rRNA (AJ566640) and gyrB gene sequences (AM159536)” (p. 2539).

George Lucas gave his blessing to the Christening (of course he did).

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Acknowledgements: Thanks go to Ms. BBD who prevented me from making a fool of myself (this time!) on the social media by pointing out to me that midichloria are real and that they are a mitochondrial parasite.

REFERENCE: Sassera D, Beninati T, Bandi C, Bouman EA, Sacchi L, Fabbi M, Lo N. (Nov. 2006). ‘Candidatus Midichloria mitochondrii’, an endosymbiont of the tick Ixodes ricinus with a unique intramitochondrial lifestyle. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, 56(Pt 11): 2535-2540. PMID: 17082386, DOI: 10.1099/ijs.0.64386-0. ABSTRACT | FREE FULLTEXT PDF 

By Neuronicus, 29 July 2017

Pesticides reduce pollination

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Close-up of a bee with pollen flying by a flower. Credit: Jon Sullivan. License: PD

Bees have difficult times these days, what with that mysterious colony collapse disorder on top of various viral, bacterial and parasitical diseases. Of course, the widespread use of pesticides did not help the thriving of the hive, as many pesticides have various deleterious effects on the bees, from poor foraging or less reproduction to even death.

The relatively new (’90s) class of insecticide – the neonicotinoids – has been met with great hope because has low toxic effects on birds and mammals, as opposed to the organophosphates, for example. Why that should be the case, is a mystery for me, because the neonicotinoids bind to the nicotinic receptors present in both peripheral and central nervous system in an irreversible manner, which does not put the neonicotinoids in a favorable light.

Now Stanley et al. (2015) have found that exposure to the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam reduces the pollination provided by the bumblebees to apples. They checked it using 24 bumblebee colonies and the exposure was at low levels over 13 days, trying to mimic realistic in-field exposure. The apples visited by the bumblebees exposed to insecticide had 36% reduction in apple seeds.

Almost 90% of the flowering plants need pollination to reproduce, so any threat to pollination can cause serious problems. Over the paste few years, virtually all USA corn had been treated with neonicotinoids; EU banned the thiamethoxam use in 2013. And, to make matters worse, neonicotinoids are but only one class of the many toxins affecting the bees.

Related post: Golf & Grapes OR Grandkids (but not both!)

Reference: Stanley DA, Garratt MP, Wickens JB, Wickens VJ, Potts SG, & Raine NE. (Epub 18 Nov 2015). Neonicotinoid pesticide exposure impairs crop pollination services provided by bumblebees. Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature16167. Article

By Neuronicus, 21 November 2015

Kinesin in axon regeneration

Fig. 8 from Lu, Lakonishok, & Gelfand (2015). License: Creative Commons 2.
Fig. 8 from Lu, Lakonishok, & Gelfand (2015). License: Creative Commons 2.

The longest neuron that a human has is from the spinal cord to the tip of the toes. As a cell, it needs various proteins in various places. How is this transport done? Surely not by diffusion, the proteins would degrade or would arrive at inopportune membrane-moments (I just coined that). Molecular motors, on the other hand, are toiling proteins which haul huge cargoes for the benefit of the cell in an incredibly ingenious manner (they have feet and sticky soles and gears and so on). Notable motors are kinesin and dynein, the former brings stuff to the terminal buttons of the axon, the latter goes in the opposite direction, to the soma. They walk on a railway-like scaffold in a very funny manner, if you are to believe the simulations. Go on, I dare you, search kinesin or dynein animation on Google or YouTube and tell me then that biology is not funny.

And because no self-respectable scientist can work with the molecular motors without adding his/her contribution to the above-mentioned wealth of animations, the paper below comes with no less than 9 movies (as online supplemental material)! Lu et al. (2015) focused their attention on the role of kinesin in injured neurons. The authors dyed several types of proteins in fly neurons and then cultured the cells in a Petri dish. And then cut their axons with a glass needle. After that, they used a really fancy microscope (and a good microscopist, you should look at their pictures) to look at what happens. Which is this: the cut activates a c-Jun N-terminal kinase cascade (the cell’s response to stress), which leads to sliding of microtubules (part of cell’s cytoskeleton), which is com­pletely dependent on kinesin-1 heavy chain. This sliding initiates axonal regeneration (see picture).

I believe the kinesins and dyneins are the most charming, funny, and endearing proteins out there. Yes, I’m anthropomorphizing clumps of amino acids. I know, I’m a geek.

Reference: Lu W, Lakonishok M, & Gelfand VI (1 Apr 2015, Epub 5 Feb 2015). Kinesin-1–powered microtubule sliding initiates axonal regeneration in Drosophila cultured neurons. Molecular Biology of the Cell, 26(7):1296-307. doi: 10.1091/mbc.E14-10-1423. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF | Supplemental movies

Some youtube videos I mentioned before, quite accurate, too: best in show

by Neuronicus, 12 November 2015

The song of a fly… the courtship of another

Drosophila melanogaster image illustrating sexual dimorphism and mating behavior. Credit: TheAlphaWolf (Wikimedia Commons)
Drosophila melanogaster image illustrating sexual dimorphism and mating behavior. Credit: TheAlphaWolf (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that flies sing? True to the dictum that I just made up – ‘where is song, there is lust’ – it turns out not only that flies can sing, but they even have courtship songs! Granted, since they don’t have a larynx, the male flies sing by vibrating their wings in a certain way, which is unique to each fly species, and females listen with the feather-looking bit on top of their antennae, called arista. The behavior has generated enough research that a fairly hefty review about it has been published two years ago in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, pointing to a gene central to the male courtship circuitry and expressed only in the fly’s neurons, the fru gene (I bet it was called that way because when you make mutants you get fru/fru …).

Zhou et al. (2015) used a series of complicated experiments to successively activate or inhibit the neurons which express the fru gene, in order to identify the neural circuitry underlying hearing and processing the courtship songs. This circuitry is different in males and females, which makes sense since the serenading male expects different behaviors from his audience, depending on their sex; the listening males hurry to compete for the intended female and the females slow down and… listen carefully. Mind wondering: if I was the one serenading, wouldn’t I want to drive away the competitors, instead of drawing them in towards the object of my desire? Perhaps I want the competitors to also engage in courtship behavior so I can show off my wing vibrating prowess… Anyway, digression aside, in addition to figuring out which neuron does what, the authors managed to elicit courtship behavior in the listening males by optogenetically stimulating the 3rd and 4th order neurons in the newly identified circuit.

Besides being strangely interesting in itself, the research fills a gap in the understanding how courtship behavior is recognized, at least in fruit flies, which may be very useful information for other species as well, humans included.

Reference: Zhou, C., Franconville, R., Vaughan, A. G., Robinett, C. C., Jayaraman, V., & Baker, B. S. (21 September 2015). Central neural circuitry mediating courtship song perception in male Drosophila. Elife, 4:1-15. doi: 10.7554/eLife.08477. Article + FREE PDF

For the interested specialist, the MATLAB source code for analyzing calcium-imaging data can be found here.

By Neuronicus, 24 September 2015