This month’s highlights blog features all the best content published in our research journals in May. This month we have: keen as mustard, deep sea survivors, cellular self-destruction, first evidence of flower-visiting by birds and Blooming heck, that hurt! Dangerous jellyfish blooms are predictable.
Keen as mustard
Detection of chemical warfare agents currently relies mainly upon the collection and analysis of soil samples. This Proceedings A paper shows that white mustard plants grown in soil contaminated with the nerve agent VX absorb and retain it in an extractable form. The paper presents a method for the detection of the nerve agent VX and its hydrolysis products by gas chromatography- and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry of ethanol extracts of contaminated white mustard. The ability of plants such as S. alba to absorb nerve agents and sufficient marker compounds protects against the removal of evidence of use, as CWAs can leach from soil over time. It also suggests that green manures might be useful for remediating nerve agent-polluted sites.
Fossils of deep-sea creatures are notoriously rare, as such very little is known about the geological history of deep-sea communities. This Proceedings B study collected a large number of 180 million-year-old deep-sea animals including starfish, sea urchins and snails from the Austrian Alps near Salzburg. This is the first example of such a dataset and it suggests that the deep sea has played a much greater role in producing and preserving marine biodiversity than expected. In contrast to the previously held idea that present-day deep-sea animals mostly originated from shallow water ancestors, the new discovery provides evidence that a number of animals, in fact, evolved in the deep sea before spreading to shallow waters. It furthermore suggests that the deep sea was more successful in sheltering animals against extinction that shallow coastal seas.
Cellular self-destruction? Blame the parents
In mammals, maternal resources such as nutrients and oxygen are transferred to the embryo through a specialised organ, the placenta. Functional genomic imprinting is necessary for the transfer of maternal resources. However, imprint-free embryos are unable to establish a viable placental vascular network necessary for this task. Studies on placental cell death during pregnancy complications such as intrauterine growth restriction and pre-eclampsia have so far focused exclusively on apoptosis. However, new research published in Open Biology has shown that autophagy is also involved as a mechanism in placental cell destruction. The findings indicate that the parental origin of inherited genes determines the placenta’s cellular death pathway: autophagy for androgenotes (having only a paternal genome) and apoptosis for parthenogenotes (having only a maternal genome). As imprinting disorders are involved in the cause of these pregnancy complications, understanding the underlying control of autophagy in pathological placentae, in addition to apoptosis, may contribute to future therapies to combat these.
First evidence of flower-visiting by birds
Birds are important pollinators, but the evolutionary history of ornithophily (bird pollination) is poorly known. This Biology Letters article reports a newly discovered bird skeleton from the middle Eocene fossil site Messel in Germany preserves stomach contents containing numerous pollen grains. This fossil constitutes the earliest and first direct fossil evidence of flower-visiting by birds, and indicates a minimum age of 47 million years for the origin of bird-flower interactions. The fossil species does not belong to any of the modern groups of flower-visiting birds, and the origin of ornithophily in some plants may thus have predated that of their living avian pollinators.
Blooming heck, that hurt! Dangerous jellyfish blooms are predictable
The potentially fatal Irukandji syndrome is relatively common in tropical waters throughout the world. It is caused by the sting of the Irukandji jellyfish, a family of box jellyfish that are almost impossible to detect in the water owing to their small size and transparency. Using collated medical records of stings and local weather conditions, this Journal of the Royal Society Interface paper shows that the presence of Irukandji blooms in coastal waters can be forecast on the basis of wind conditions. On the Great Barrier Reef, blooms largely coincide with relaxation of the prevailing southeasterly trade winds, with average conditions corresponding to near zero alongshore wind on the day prior to the sting. These conditions are consistent with hypotheses long held by local communities and provide a basis for designing management interventions that have the potential to eliminate the majority of stings.