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Top 10: Alison Dawn Scott

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Out of The Laboratory comes a Top 10 unlike any other: Alison Dawn Scott counts down the Top 10 Scientific Journal Articles of 2014 that should be made into sci-fi films. – Eds.

10. Theshocking predatory strike of the electric eel

This paper demonstrates how “high-voltage discharges of electric eels remotely activate motor neuron efferents in nearby animals.” Not only can electric eels can send a shock to freeze and capture their prey, their jolts can also make prey involuntarily convulse and give up their cover. “The electric eel has evolved a precise remote control mechanism for prey capture, one that takes advantage of an organisms’ own nervous system.” What if an electric eel was large enough to remote control humans?

9. Cephalo-traumatic secretion transfer in a hermaphrodite sea slug

Adorable Siphopteron sea slugs demonstrate “the first instance of traumatic mating where gland secretions are injected directly into the mating partner’s head, a mechanism that we term ‘cephalo-traumatic secretion transfer’.” Due to the strange placement (right in between the eyes!) of this recently observed secretion transfer, the authors “speculate about the central nervous system as a target for sophisticated neurophysiological manipulation.” The idea of mind control via cranial injections of reproductive fluids is too tempting to ignore.

. Photon Hunting in the Twilight Zone: Visual Features of Mesopelagic Bioluminescent Sharks

This article had me at “mesopelagic twilight zone.”  Here we’ve got sharks with bioluminescence and “bizarre jaws… likely to be rapidly projected forward to capture elusive prey.” One such species is the hideous/terrifying viper dogfish (Trigonognathus kabeyai), which lives just below the ocean’s sunlight zone and can use its bioluminescence to communicate. Maybe we could get a sequel to Super Shark with a frenzy of scheming, glowing viper dogfish.

7. Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology

Legendre et al. took some soil from the Siberian permafrost, thawed it out, and added amoebas to the mix. What they found was a giant virus capable of infection after being frozen for at least 30,000 years.  The plot device of a long-frozen organism unearthed only to wreak havoc on mankind has been done before (e.g. The X-Files’ “Ice”) but these real-life viruses represent a whole branch of microbe diversity we know nothing about. The potential for both real-life and sci-fi terror is made clear by the authors: “Our results thus further substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling.”

6. Species-specific ant brain manipulation by a specialized fungal parasite

These fungal insect pathogens modify ant behavior, secreting compounds to take over their central nervous system. With fungus-derived chemicals driving, infected ants leave their nest, climb onto a twig, and hold on tight. “This death grip involves atrophy of the mandibular muscles leading to a locked jaw preventing the cadaver from falling.” The fungus then bursts through the ant corpse, forming reproductive structures and dispersing spores. A single fungal species secretes cocktails of brain-altering chemicals custom-tailored to the different ants it parasitizes. De Bekker et al. identified numerous compounds involved, including guanidinobutyric acid which is “known to be involved in epileptic discharges and convulsions in rodents” and has “neurological effects on mammals.”

5. Programmable self-assembly in a thousand-robot swarm

Cooperation among individuals within colonies has long been a subject of interest of biologists, and recently biologically-inspired design has gained traction. Researchers from MIT designed “a thousand-robot swarm capable of large-scale, flexible self-assembly of two-dimensional shapes entirely through programmable local interactions and local sensing, achieving highly complex collective behavior.” For now these robots aren’t made for surveillance, suppression, or any other unsavory business, but the potential is there.

4. A cut above the rest: targeted genome editing technologies in human pluripotent stem cells

Targeted genome editing is exactly what it sounds like, and is a technically impressive accomplishment. Naturally, there are side effects and “we still do not understand how to control mutation accumulation during culture and the implications of these mutations in vivo.” The authors suggest that because accidental mutations “may have long-term delayed adverse effects… long-term evaluation of the safety of cells that have undergone genome editing in primates is highly recommended.” I’ll just emphasize “genome editing in primates” and leave you with your imaginations.

3. Males shorten the life span ofC. eleganshermaphrodites via secreted compounds

Nematode worms Caenorhabditis elegans are either female hermaphrodites (capable of self-insemination) or male. This paper investigated the effects of males on hermaphrodite longevity, observing apparent rapid aging in hermaphrodites. “Movement was slowed, paralysis increased, and a general decrepitude was observed… We termed this phenomenon male-induced demise (MID).” Males need not even be present to harm hermaphrodites, as MID  “required only exposure of hermaphrodites to medium in which males were once present.” According to the authors, “male-induced demise also occurred in other species of nematodes, suggesting an evolutionary conserved process whereby males may induce the disposal of the opposite sex.” I’m dreaming of a misandrist sci-fi thriller wherein female hermaphrodites get wise to male-induced demise and purge their species of males altogether. Nematodes optional.

2. Total Synthesis of a Functional Designer Eukaryotic Chromosome

“Rapid advances… suggest that it will soon become feasible to engineer new eukaryotic genomes, including plant and animal genomes, with synthetic chromosomes encoding desired functions and phenotypic properties based on specific design principles.”  This is beyond genetic discrimination or genotype modification a la Gattaca, we’re talking completely synthetic designer genomes.’

1. Functional Activity of Plasmid DNA after Entry into the Atmosphere of Earth Investigated by a New Biomarker Stability Assay for Ballistic Spaceflight Experiments

Turns out you can slather some DNA on a rocket, send it into space, expose it to temperatures reaching 1000°C, and some of it will still be functional when it comes back to Earth. Glaringly obvious movie premise: What if the DNA that came back on a rocket wasn’t from our planet to begin with?

References:

  1. Catania, K. (2014). The shocking predatory strike of the electric eel.Science346(6214), 1231-1234.
  2. Lange, R., Werminghausen, J., & Anthes, N. (2014). Cephalo-traumatic secretion transfer in a hermaphrodite sea slug. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1774), 20132424.
  3. Claes, J. M., Partridge, J. C., Hart, N. S., Garza-Gisholt, E., Ho, H. C., Mallefet, J., & Collin, S. P. (2014). Photon Hunting in the Twilight Zone: Visual Features of Mesopelagic Bioluminescent Sharks. PloS one, (8), e104213.
  4. Legendre, M., Bartoli, J., Shmakova, L., Jeudy, S., Labadie, K., Adrait, A., … & Claverie, J. M. (2014). Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), 4274-4279.
  5. de Bekker, C., Quevillon, L., Smith, P. B., Fleming, K., Ghosh, D., Patterson, A. D., & Hughes, D. P. (2014). Species-specific ant brain manipulation by a specialized fungal parasite. BMC evolutionary biology, 14(1), 166.
  6. Rubenstein, M., Cornejo, A., & Nagpal, R. (2014). Programmable self-assembly in a thousand-robot swarm. Science, 345(6198), 795-799.
  7. Li, M., Suzuki, K., Kim, N. Y., Liu, G. H., & Belmonte, J. C. I. (2014). A cut above the rest: targeted genome editing technologies in human pluripotent stem cells. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 289(8), 4594-4599.
  8. Maures, T. J., Booth, L. N., Benayoun, B. A., Izrayelit, Y., Schroeder, F. C., & Brunet, A. (2014). Males shorten the life span of C. elegans hermaphrodites via secreted compounds. Science, 343(6170), 541-544.
  9. Annaluru, N., Muller, H., Mitchell, L. A., Ramalingam, S., Stracquadanio, G., Richardson, S. M., … & Linder, M. E. (2014). Total synthesis of a functional designer eukaryotic chromosome. science, 344(6179), 55-58.
  10. Thiel, C. S., Tauber, S., Schütte, A., Schmitz, B., Nuesse, H., Moeller, R., & Ullrich, O. (2014). Functional Activity of Plasmid DNA after Entry into the Atmosphere of Earth Investigated by a New Biomarker Stability Assay for Ballistic Spaceflight Experiments. PloS one, (11), e112979.