"The greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification of structure." Charles Darwin

Friday, May 29, 2015

Inoculating bioluminescent mushrooms

Panellus stipticus, also known as bitter oyster, is a bioluminescent fungus. Unlike the other bioluminescent systems, such as fireflies and dinoflagellates, the molecular mechanism of bioluminescence in the fungal lineage is largely unknown. Interestingly, since Panellus stipticus is a white-rot fungus inhabiting hard wood, which contains specialized enzymes that degrade lignin, this species was selected by the Joint Genome Institute for whole genome sequencing through the 1000 Fungal Genomes project. These genomic resources will be very useful when comes to resolve the genetic basis for bioluminescence in Panellus.

This spring we decided to inoculate some logs with Panellus mushroom plug spawn purchased from a mushroom company called Everything Mushrooms.

We followed the procedure for growing shiitake mushrooms, and inoculated a few maple and pear tree logs. According to experience of growing shiitake mushrooms, it will take about a year for the vegetative mycelium to spread throughout the log. Hopefully we'll have mushrooms next spring. Interestingly, the special techniques of inducing the growth of mushroom fruit bodies involve either knocking on wood with a hammer (mimicking tree falling?) or soaking the logs in ice water for 36 hours (mimicking wintering?). Since Massachusetts has very cold winter, these procedures may not be necessary. Fingers crossed. Hopefully we'll get something growing next year. We also gave away an inoculated log to a interested neighbor who walked by as we were doing this.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Luminous arthropods

The phenomenon of bioluminescence has evolved at least three times within arthropods. These known luminescent arthropods include fireflies, Sierra luminous millipedes, and the South American luminous giant cockroaches (Lucihormetica luckae). Except in fireflies, the molecular mechanisms for bioluminescence in arthropods remain largely unknown. This will be a very interesting area of research in the near future.

Lucihormetica luckae (Blaberidae) from Ecuador. It is still debatable whether these South American giant cockroaches are truly luminescent or instead just fluorescent, but it's interesting to note that the producers of the Disney movie WALL-E might have borrowed the idea from this organism to create the image of Eve.

Our lab also had a lot of fun catching some local fireflies in a night field trip last fall.

There is also an interesting article recently appearing on National Geographic about bioluminescence in diverse lineages of life (click the link below).

Saturday, March 14, 2015

General Relativity turns 100

Science magazine celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein's general theory of relativity, a theory that forever changed our view of the universe.
See papers from this special issue:

Friday, March 13, 2015

Scientists figured out how chameleons change colors

When we consider colors seen in animals and plants, we would assume they are due to the presence of pigment molecules that absorb light at different wave lengths. For example, plants are green because Chlorophyll absorbs strongly the blue and red portion of the visible light spectrum, and leaves out the green. It is also known that some animals can rapidly control their body color to blend in or stand out from their environmental background colors.

Cuttlefish represent a well-known case deep from the ocean, where they can alter body color to camouflage themselves, attract mates, or warn off potential predators. This is achieved by actively controlling several groups of blue, red, yellow, brown, and black pigmented chromatophores. The pigmented chromatophores can be folded when retracted, and the collective action of these chromatophores then give rise to the remarkable color patterns on the skin.

The mechanism for color change in cuttlefish has been thought as a general mechanism for color and pattern change seen in animals. Until recently have scientists revealed a new mechanism in chameleons for controlling body colors without using pigments. It turns out that chameleons does it through a clever way of manipulating reflection.  Rather than moving pigments around in the cell, chameleons actually use a tunable lattice of guanine crystals to reflect certain wavelengths of light.  Its like the iridescence of a blue morpho butterfly, but customizable! Here is a nice viedo clip introducing this fascinating study:

The original research paper can be found here:

Friday, January 9, 2015

When insects learn math...

"2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, ..." It is obvious to us that these are primer numbers, which are greater than 1 and have no positive divisors other than 1 and themselves, although it is quite amazing that some insects have also learnt about prime numbers, and have been using this knowledge for their own adaptive advantage in the challenging natural environments.

Periodical cicadas, also known as magicicadas, are insects native to North America under the order of Hemiptera. Unlike other cicadas, periodical cicadas spend a very long larval developmental stage underground feeding on xylem sap from plant roots, and only emerge every 13 or 17 years as adults in large quantity. Adults live only for a few weeks. They mate, lay eggs, and their their life cycle is then complete. It was thought that by adopting an emergence period of a prime number (13 or 17), periodical cicadas avoid the possibility of potential predators receiving periodic population boosts by synchronizing their own generations to divisors of the cicada emergence period. The molecular basis for the precise life periodicity in these periodical cicadas remains a mystery.

Magicicada septendecim


Massive number of periodical cicadas emerged in Massachusetts in 2008

Friday, January 2, 2015

Anastassia demonstrates the “Floating Disks” experiment for BioTeach

Weng Lab UROP student Anastassia strikes again! Anastassia made a short lab video for BioTeach geared towards K-12 students, demonstrating photosynthesis. We hope the younger generation is going to fall in love with plant sciences!

Click here for all the materials and instruction you’ll need to replicate this experiments.