The Kaspari Lab

An achilles heel for bionic plants?

Cool news on the renewable energy front from  Joseph Torella and colleagues published in a recent PNAS.

The upshot: use photovolatic cells to provide electicity to a cobalt-phosphate catalyst that splits water into O’s and H’s, then feed those split-off H’s to an engineered soil bacteria, Ralstonia eutropha, to generate isopropanol (C2H80). Its a closed system–a bionic leaf about as efficient in generating CHOs as corn (without all those Nitrogen inputs).

Now as an ecologist, my thought is that these engineers better spend a lot of time generating new variants of Ralstonia. All that genomically identical biomass in all those bionic leaves across the land is going to be a rewarding target for the first virus that evolves a hankering for pampered Ralstonia.  I wonder if the cellulosic bioenergy folks are running into similar problems?

“We think we can do better than plants”: New “bionic leaf” makes fuel from sunlight – Salon.com.

Patton Oswalt on Grad School

Does anyone act more like an overserious senior citizen with time running out on their chance for immortality than someone in their twenties?

Sounds like grad school to me.

from Silver Screen Fiend, a memoir

From the always dependable XKCD comics

Just go there.

A chaos of surfaces: part 2

The litter biologist, on her hands and knees in the tropical litter, dips low and smells the moist spicy funk of good rot*.  She sees a mosaic of five or six species of leaves, some rounded, some crenulated, in shades of green and brown and the occasional black, one the size of a football but existing only as a lattice of silvery veins, some pinned under a crumbling baguette of a branch sprouting yellow mushrooms and patches of water mold. Slipping her hands into this mixture is like simultaneously sampling an entire produce section of the supermarket: the whisper of dry leaves, the prick of a spine, cool slime, hard crunch, the feathery scuttle of spider making its escape**.

But this is where our foray must stop and our imagination take over. What is that spider seeing? Does she feel first the vibrations of a dozen interconnected leaves before the pink digits slide in, surrounded by an aura of of light?  Does our mite smell the onrush of oxygen rich, dry air as her world caroms about? The maddening thing to the litter biologist is that the 3-dimensional world of litter, so delicate, so easily disturbed, is almost impossible to study without, like Heisenberg’s particles, altering them.

But it must be glorious in there, if a little dark.

FADE IN: A megalopolis at night. The aftershocks have long since ceased, but the damage is breathtaking. Fallen skyscrapers have buried the streets and smaller buildings. Slabs of concrete jut askew into the air, silhouetted in the moonlight. Girders erupt from the rubble.

ZOOM IN: Camera switches to night-vision at an entrance formed where the side of one skyscraper has burst open a four-floor apartment like pomegranate. Debris is everywhere, of every conceivable size. Traceries of rebar frame smaller and smaller chunks of debris, moist from the dripping of ruptured pipes.   Everything is covered by a thin slime, revealing occasional trails and footprints. The way get’s narrower and narrower, impossibly claustrophobic, as crevices, up, down, right and left, glide by. At this point, there is no “correct” path; the point is to just keep going, to find some place where you can breath. Suddenly, you are there. A silent amphitheater opens where one building is improbably supported by two more on either side of the street. Open space swims around you as the camera, looking upward, sees a crack in the ceiling filled with handful of stars, welcoming and bright after the long darkness. Upwards through the crack…

CRANE SHOT: …and into the sky. Slow panorama as you ascend. The world, all of it, bisected by moonlit rivers, is a chaos of surfaces.


* This is something hard to duplicate. Arboretums like the Crystal Palace up the road in Oklahoma City have the obligatory tropical room, full of palms, bromeliads, Heliconias, and hummingbirds. But they smell like a greenhouse. Tropical forests smell like a microbial riot. You will not anytime soon open a Vanity Fair to one of the thick perfume adverts, lift the sticky strip, and enjoy tropical funk. More’s the pity.

**Some litter biologists prefer to wear gloves.

© 2015  Illustration by Brittany Benson

A chaos of surfaces: part 1

We humans are blessed with huge brains. Those brains are plugged into a handful of sensor arrays–ears, noses, and eyes–which stream gigabytes of information. All of this exists in a platform about (in my case) five and half feet off the ground. It is impossible at times not to feel, as many academics do, that we sit in this lofty control tower, operating the levers and limbs that moves our body about, all in service of the care and feeding of these big brains of ours. This attitude, as Ken Robinson says, would certainly explain the sad spectacle of professors on the dance floor at the end of a conference.

To ecologists who hope to understand how their chosen organisms perceive (I was about to write “see”) the world, this Olympian arrangement of head on a platform is a real non-starter*. To a litter ecologist, our critters are tiny, and they are, literally**, underfoot. If the first step to understanding is to walk a mile in another critter’s shoes, when those shoes are size 0.0000000001W, you have a problem.

Now, when I say the mites and collembola—the most common litter critters—are tiny, this is not in any way to suggest they are unusual. In the evolution of animal life, it is we mega-size humans who are the freaks. The average animal is about 1 mm long (about the distance you can reliably hold your thumb and index finger apart after five cups of coffee). This is well within the size domain of mites and collembola (and the size of a gestating human after about two weeks). Put another way, if the standard height of one story of a building is 15 feet, a 1 mm mite would comfortably live in a one-story bungalow 3 mm tall. The standard 6-foot litter biologist, who just stepped on that bungalow, would tower about 600 stories above the now demolished mite dwelling. And not feel particularly good about it.

Our massive brain observation tower does not provide a good perspective of litter life for the  average isopod, collembolan, or spider.  The ecologist walking through a forest sees litter on the way down: leaves and twigs  swirl by on a blustery autumn day or a branch heavy with moss that crashes to the trail 2 feet before you in an adrenalin surging crash. On the rare occasion in a tropical forest you may experience litterfall writ large when a distant tree gives up the ghost in an eerie slow motion thunderclap, preceded by the popcorn snapping of its attached lianas, and ending in a crescendo roar. All of this mixes together and forms the stuff that we kick through, step over, trod upon.


*OK, the one obvious exception are the ornithologists, who study critters whose brains are, on average, even higher off the ground than ours, and share with humans a dependence on sight and sound as the chief way they perceive the world. No small wonder that birds are the entry-level taxon for so much of ecology. We all start out as bird watchers. The downside, we eventually discover, is that, sharing our bandwidth as they do, birds are also a wee bit persnickety about being watched. This does not bode well for data gathering. This is also why many of us, at some point in graduate school, come to our senses and swtich taxa when we discover that we can collect more data on insects/plants/microbes/protozoa in an hour than we can on birds in a month.

**Let’s just get that pun out of the way early.

 © 2015  Photography by Christian Ziegler

Litter Critters: Introduction to the Opilionids

Neosadocus

Illustration and text by Brittany Benson

Opilio is Latin for shepherd.  In some places, shepherds walk on stilts to make an easier time of counting their flocks, so, it was only sensible to give this name to these arachnids.  How long have they  been around?  We have fossils of harvestmen, not much different from those we find today, from about 400 million years ago (Devonian), though they are probably much older.

One can tell what type of environment an opilionid is from without having to have seen in it’s home.  Leg length is a very helpful clue – the “typical” daddy-long-legs that most will think of – that is, small body, long legs, will live in places with access to large spaces, and can cover a lot of ground walking in the short grass or over rocks and stumps.  Shorter legged species will hang out more in the loose leaf litter and under logs, while the tiny, short legged, often flat-bodied ones will live in the deeper, smaller spaces of litter and in crevices.  

Harvestmen are found on all continents save for Antarctica, though they are most diverse in the tropics, especially in humid forests.  They’re also found in a variety of environments – not just the leaf litter and soil.  They have some crazy diversity in morphological features, and, in some, striking coloration.  

Mostly omnivores, they feed on small, soft-bodied invertebrates, dead things, plants, and fungi.   They are the vultures of the arachnid world.

Most reproduce sexually, but several reproduce parthenogenetically.  Courtship behavior of the males, if present, is typically brief and tactile, unlike the elaborate rituals of many spiders, who have to worry about a hungry female.  Some harvestmen will even have paternal care of the young, making Opiliones the only known order to exhibit paternal care (though maternal care is quite common).  Opilionids have a couple of nifty defenses. One is that they can secrete a smelly liquid from the base of the second pair of legs, and the other is that if a predator (or curious child) has a hold of a leg, they can detach the leg and scurry away, leaving the leg grabber with nothing but a twitching leg in their grasp.  

Look for:

-Prosoma and Opisthosoma widely fused without obvious separation (i.e., no “waist” present).  

-Single pair of simple eyes.

-Evidence of past segmentation on opisthosoma (in most).

 © 2015

HENRi: a new take on 2001 A Space Odyssey

The long reach of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is evident everywhere nowadays. The latest, and certainly one that packs the most bang for the buck, is HENRi, which, will stay with you far longer than its 20 minute run time.

It is hard to describe the mind-expanding optimism of growing up in the Space Age, of poring through science fiction’s cheap, newsprint-scented paperbacks, one after the other. Even as the world roiled with conflict, there seemed the real possibility that we could escape, literally.

But 2001 A Space Odyssey is a good place to relive that feeling. Interstellar–another homage that D and I were privileged to see drinking yule beer in Copenhagen’s Imperial theatre–also captures some of its flavor. But HENRi goes someplace else. Someplace just as edifying but…well, just watch it.

© 2015