Among all the types of carnivorous plants, snap traps—represented mainly by the iconic Venus flytrap—have fascinated us for centuries. Even Darwin was mesmerized by the plant describing it as “one of the most wonderful in the world.” After all, when do we get to see plants actively “hunting” for insects? It is the Venus fly trap that reminds us that plants are really alive—and can also be murderous.
Humans have always been in awe of birds: their beautiful feathers, their graceful flight, and their sweet songs. These are just some of the features that distinguish them from other animals. Birds are extremely diverse—with over 10,000 living species on Earth—and are found in all kinds of environments, from extremely hot and dry deserts, to the frigid Antarctic.
Penguins are particularly interesting for scientists as they are flightless birds that can swim and have evolved to thrive in the hostile Antarctic environment where few animals can survive. Now, we are a step closer to understanding their evolutionary history, population sizes in response to historical climate change, as well as the genes involved in their ability to adapt to such extreme climates, with an exciting new study published last month in GigaScience, an online open-access BGI-BioMed Central journal.
Plants are boring. At least that is what I—as well as countless others—thought in school. Animals seemed far more exciting than studying plants. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t find plants interesting. One of the reasons was that I couldn’t see plants moving—with the exception of ‘touch-me-nots’ that rapidly fold inward upon touching—and they aren’t cute and cuddly as mammals are. Later, when I learned that plants produce their own sugars using water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight—a phenomenon we know as photosynthesis and achieved by only a few other life forms— I got a little interested.
But what really piqued my curiosity and captivated me was when I learned that some unusual plants go a step further: they have evolved to ‘eat meat’—insects in particular. We normally expect insects to eat plants, which in turn are preyed on by larger animals, as the food web goes. But when the roles are reversed, it is harder for us to digest that plants can actually play the role of predators.
Few organisms can survive in harsh environments, such as extreme cold or dry conditions, but some species equipped with special adaptations can thrive. The Antarctic midge, Belgica Antarctica, the only wingless insect native to Antarctica, has the smallest insect genome among those sequenced, a likely adaptation to the extreme conditions it is exposed to, according to a new study. Led by Professor Joanna Kelley at Washington State University, US, the study is the first to sequence the genome of an insect found in the poles.
Some of the bacterial diseases that plague us come from animals—Anthrax, Salmonella, and Lyme disease are just a few examples. Known as zoonotic diseases, their transmission is driven by the ability of bacteria, which are constantly evolving, to adapt to and colonize new hosts.