The human capacity for language divides our species from the rest of the animal kingdom. Language has not only allowed us to conquer all corners of the globe, but to devise writing, mathematics and all things thereafter.
Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. So wrote Charles Darwin, in his On the Origin of Species. The origin and evolution of animals is one of the most fascinating questions in modern biology.
What the hell is that? Scientists ask this question every day when trying to work out how different living things are related to each other. The answers aren’t easy or trivial. Biological affiliations are used not just to build a catalogue of life but also to understand how life has evolved into its many forms.
When a virus infects a living cell, it hijacks and reprograms the cell to turn it into a virus-producing factory. Now scientists at the University of California have for the first time discovered just how extensive that reprogramming can be, effectively turning bacterial cells into animal or plant-like cells. This might even be how the cells of more complex organisms evolved in the first place.
How do you find your food? Most animal species, whether they rummage through a refrigerator or stalk prey in the wild, obtain nutrients by consuming living organisms. Plants, for the most part, adopt a different feeding, or “trophic,” strategy, making their own food through photosynthesis. There are, however, certain enterprising species that can do both: photosynthesize and consume prey. These organisms, found mostly in certain ocean plankton communities, live a flexible, “mixotrophic” lifestyle.
If I had been given one wish as a child I, it would have been that the Tasmanian tiger wasn’t extinct. To me extinction was a tragedy. I expect that many people feel the same way. But it is not easy to save dwindling populations and prevent extinctions. Sure it takes money, but it also takes knowledge. One simple story about butterflies illustrates the complexity of ecosystems and shows how important research and understanding are to preserving biodiversity.