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

Pic of the Day: Neil on teaching creationism

Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s picture is from Wikimedia released under PD and the quote is from a “Letter to the Editor” of New York Times retrieved from the Hayden Planetarium website on Nov. 2, 2016.

Lucy’s 9 vertebrae are actually 8

Lucy. Left: picture of the real skeleton. Middle and Right: reconstructions. Courtesy of Wikipedia

As Google reminded us, today is the 41st anniversary of the finding of Lucy, the first discovered member of the species Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy lived in Ethiopia about 3.2 million years ago and the most extraordinary fact about her is that her fossil represents the first evidence of bipedalism in a hominin (we are also hominins).

Lucy is one “missing link” (not ‘missing’ anymore, obviously) between the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees and humans because she has ape-like features (jaw, forehead, long arms, small cranium) and human-like features (knee, ankle, lumbar curve, pelvic bones) and walked upright.

Meyer et al. (2015) wanted to do a comprehensive reconstruction of Lucy for display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. During this work they noticed that one vertebrae of the total of nine found is kindda small compared to the other ones. So they set to measure vertebrae form all sorts of other species, alive and extinct, and after some factor analysis they concluded that out of Lucy’s nine found vertebrae, the little one is not actually hers, but belongs to a different species from the genus Theropithecus (a baboon ancestor).

This finding is functionally uninformative and their “work does not refute previous work on Lucy or its importance for human evolution, but rather highlights the importance of studying original fossils, as well as the efficacy of the scientific method.” In other words, give the poor anthropologists not reconstructions but the original fossils to work with (most people worked with Lucy’s reconstructions which missed some details, thus allowing this pesky vertebra to remain miss-cataloged for 40 years).

The new alignment from doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.05.007

This is the first paper of pure anthropology that I have read in full and let me tell you that I found a lot of curious things, unrelated to Lucy. Like, for example, from an anthropologist’s point of view, an adult is someone with the third molar completely erupted. We should then look into the people’s mouths before giving them the keys to the wine cellar, because some 21-year olds are definitely not adults. Also, instead of a medical doctor, get an anthropologist to teach anatomy, because oh boy do these people know their skeletons! Here is an excerpt from the Methods section: “The overall size of the A.L. 288-1am partial vertebra was calculated as the geometric mean of six linear dimensions: lamina superoinferior height and dorsoventral thickness, pars interarticularis width, interarticular facet height, and superior and inferior articular interfacet maximum transverse widths. The pars interarticularis geometric mean includes three variables from the pars interarticularis: lamina superoinferior height and dorsoventral thickness, and pars interarticularis width” (p. 175).

All in all, nice!

Reference: Meyer MR, Williams SA, Smith MP, Sawyer GJ (August 2015, Epub 6 Jun 2015). Lucy’s back: Reassessment of fossils associated with the A.L. 288-1 vertebral column. Journal of Human Evolution, 85:174-80. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.05.007. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 24 November 2015


Pic of the day: Evolution

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Dobzhansky was, in his words, an “evolutionist and creationist”, a geneticist with deep faith in God.

Reference: Dobzhansky, T. (Mar 1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,  American Biology Teacher, 35 (3): 125–129. DOI: 10.2307/4444260. Article | FULLTEXT PDF via Research Gate

Viruses are as alive as crystals

Crystal of ultrapure bismuth. Photo credit: Intangir (public domain)
Crystal of ultrapure bismuth. Credit: Intangir. License: PD

The biology hype of the week is the notion that viruses are alive. Well, the true answer to that is… maybe. But that’s not catchy enough for headlines, is it?

Let’s start, as usual, with the source. Nasir & Caetano-Anollés (2015) published a paper where they did a lot of computer sniffing in existing proteomics databases to find out that viruses express a few dozen unique protein folds and they share several hundred more with cells. In other words, some of the viral proteins are unique. Using this information and some neat math they managed to calculate an evolutionary tree, that is, they classified the viruses via genetic relatedness to themselves and living organisms. That’s the strictu sensu of the term “tree of life”. From this taxonomy exercise, the authors speculate about when and how viruses might have appeared. They concluded that viruses appeared as RNA chunks spat out of cells. To give you a little background, there are two main hypotheses about the origin of viruses: appeared before cells as free floating RNA, or they were pieces of RNA that have been kicked out of a living cell, so after the evolution of cells. All well and good, I’m not going to open that can of worms, which hypothesis is more supported from data and so on.

Now, and this is the contentious part, verbatim:

“Here, we put forth the bold conjecture of a universal tree of life (uToL) that describes the evolution of cellular and viral proteomes. […]. Thus, viruses should be considered “living” organisms that simply survive by means of an atypical reproduction method that requires infecting a cell” (p. 18).

It’s their opinion. Not a fact. Not – and this is important – a direct consequence of their awesome taxonomy exercise. For a formal definition, a conjecture is an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information (Oxford Dictionary).

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a neat paper, and, frankly, I don’t have a horse in this race: I don’t care whether viruses are alive or not. But I do care to distinguish between fact and opinion, an intellectual exercise that seem to have eluded the science websites and science popularization zines and e-zines like EurekaAlert, IFLS, ScienceAlert, Gizmodo, Daily Mail, Wired, Popular Science, R & D Magazine, Laboratory Equipment, and many others, who ran titles saying “Viruses are alive” in just so many words. Note that even the authors themselves put the word “living” between quotes. Know the difference between opinion (that is, we think that because x makes y, maybe x is blue) and a scientific fact (x makes y, y makes z, therefore x must make z and we know that not only because it’s logical, but also because no other wretched letter wants to make z, believe us we tried, we made sure z is where we put it, because we put dye on it, we measured it, chopped it, looked at it with 5 different instruments, and we cannot make z without x though a poor grad student tried and tried in vain, we even modeled z, and yes, it is made by x, otherwise known as we eliminated all other testable bloody possibilities that we could think of. Unless q makes z in humans, but we can’t measure that. Or r makes z under Jovian gravity, but we didn’t get a grant for that…. get my drift what a scientific fact is?).

Now, rant is not over. The authors argue that viruses have a sort of metabolism and they replicate, so they meet the requirements for being classified as alive. For the sake of the argument, I can posit that either these two conditions are not enough for something to be considered alive, or we have then to conclude that cave crystals are also alive. Crystals only grow in the appropriate environment of a saturated solution and bits shattered off from them go into an inert mode waiting for appropriate conditions. Crystal growth can even be looked at as a sort of metabolism. So, if they are willing to characterize crystal growth as somewhere on the continuous scale of life, viruses can be there as well. Using their analogy, the living, metabolically active form for crystals is when they are growing in a saturated solution; and bits breaking off or the bulk waiting for solution conditions to change is just an atypical reproductive scheme. It even gets more interesting with some of the more modern more complicated crystal growth theories with preassembly into nanocrystals, editing or incorporating defects, etc. Ok, I’m getting tired and I made my point anyway. Rant over. Happy debating!

Reference: Nasir, A. & Caetano-Anollés, G. (25 September 2015). A phylogenomic data-driven exploration of viral origins and evolution. Science Advances, 1(8): 1-24. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500527. Article | FREE PDF

by Neuronicus, 29 September 2015