Friday, October 25, 2013

Mighty mouse uses scorpion venom as painkiller

Here we go: two weeks in a row. I think that technically counts as a habit, right?
om nom nom nom nom
Photo by Ashlee Rowe via /
Anyway, this is a pretty cool study out of the Department of Zoology at Michigan State University (actually it looks the lead author did most of the research at the University of Texas but I am choosing to ignore that; cf. sucks, Texas). The adorably vicious grasshopper mouse in this video is obviously unphased by the stings it receives from its lunch: a common bark scorpion. Apparently, the venom of this scorpion is strong enough to kill other mammals of the same size and is extremely painful to larger animals including humans. The venom normally works by specifically binding to and opening one of the sodium channels (Nav1.7) that is expressed in pain receptor neurons. Opening of one of these channels causes depolarization of the membrane and thus an action potential which travels to the central nervous system and creates the sensation of pain. What this group found out is that, in grasshopper mice, the venom also binds to a different sodium channel (Nav1.8). Both channels are found on the same neurons and serve the same function. When the venom binds to the 1.8 channel, however, it has an inhibitory effect which means that it closes the channel and keeps it from opening which prevents action potentials from propagating. In other words, not only is the mouse immune to the venom, but it actually has an analgesic effect. But why doesn't the same thing happen when the scorpion stings other animals? Apparently the venom does not bind to the Nav1.8 channel of other mammals. The reason is a substitution mutation of a single amino acid in the protein structure of the Nav1.8 channel that has only been found in this particular variety of mouse. The authors note that they do not have the full story and there is likely more to the mechanism of the venom that may contribute to the mouse's immunity, but it is a nice illustration of the neverending evolutionary arms race that goes on between predators and prey. The bark scorpion has few predators precisely because of its potent venom, but a single mutation carried by the grasshopper mouse has rendered the scorpion completely defenseless. For the mouse it means that it is not only safe from the venom, but it has access to a food source that no other competing predator can use.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A new hominid fossil may simplify the story of human evolution

My goal this year was to get into a habit of posting something interesting every week. Considering that it is now October and I have posted nothing since school started, I would say that I have not exactly succeeded. But failure is no excuse for giving up and this story sounds like a pretty major development in the area of human evolution. The original study is in Science, but most of the good stuff is behind a pay-wall. The BBC has a pretty good write-up though with some good pictures and an interview with the leader of the research team. What they found was a skull from a hominid that lived about 1.8 million years ago in what is now the Dmanisi region of Georgia. There are at least two things that are interesting about the find. First, it is a nearly complete skull including most of the face and brain-case and even most of the teeth. No skull that is this old has ever been found in such good condition. Second, the scientists are not sure how to classify it because it possesses features that are characteristic of several previously identified hominid species. This means that the skull is either a hybrid of several different species or that those groups are not really different species at all and the differences among them simply reflects individual variation. In support of the latter hypothesis, other skulls have been found in the same area over the years that are from a similar time period and show considerable variability when compared to each other.  
The most likely explanation is that all these individuals are members of a single population of a single species. If that is true, it would suggest that many of the hominid fossils that have been found in Africa and Europe are members of the same species and not of separate species as they have been classified in the past. This is a common problem in paleontology: whenever multiple individual fossils are discovered that are not exactly like each other, it is hard to tell if they are members of the same species. Sometimes, two individuals that are considerably different from each other are placed in separate species only to be reassigned to the same species once more specimens are found that share characteristics of both groups.