Mustard Saga

Mustard is of course not a simple creation of nature. This spicy ingredient of our kitchen not only pushes our recipes to the sensory limits, mustard has some military purpose actually out there. Actually it has earned the title “mustard oil bomb” considering its defensive potential. This gorgeous invention wasmade out of necessity to win a race long time ago.


The milleniums-long evolutionary arms race

The time goes back to about 80 million years ago. It was the Cretaceous period right after the Jurassic age. Dinosaurs were happily roaming around on earth. In the plant community something remarkable was going on as well. The newly arrived flowering plants were testing their existential capacity among the then omnipresent gymnosperms, the great great grandparents of today’s pines, firs, cedars. However, the impressive appearance of attractive flower-bearing plants of course drew attention and made them famous among the insects. The following interactions led mostly to longstanding beneficial and mutual relationships. However, it is not that every visitor was nice or desired. Plants soon decided to draw some barrier from them. They started to produce toxic products that will deter those intruders. The insects did not wean off silently. They started to retaliate. Some were successful and some were not.  Thus began an evolutionary arms race in the gardens of earth. And that has been never-ending and the outcome is awe-inspiring.

Brassicales vs. Pierinaes 


Pierinae butterfly

The Brassicales plants ended up with a compound called glucosinolate to discourage the Pierinae butterflies. However, this product itself was not toxic.The punch was given on demand. Whenever there was a wound, they secreted a protein named myrosinase which will catalyze the process of breaking harmless glucosinolate into something that was really shocking to those butterflies. The glucosinolate-myrosinase cooperation is known as the mustard oil bomb. This innovation was helpful no doubt, however, for probably the next 10 million years as Pierinae butterflies were experimenting hard not to mention. By that time they struck back with a smart solution, a catalytic protein named nitrile specifier protein that can break glucosinolate, leaving no scope for generation of toxic products downstream, to bamboozle them at lunch. This is the so-called coevolution where healthy (you have the right to disagree!) competition can produce wonderful results. However, as I told before, it was a forever story. As both Brassicales and Pierinae kept evolving to keep up the standard of their respective arms-kit in order to survive and thrive all the following 80 million years till date. The repeated innovation and selection led to bursts of diversification in both Brassicales and Pierinae.

Evolution is not blind 

Like most other flowering plants Brassicales has gone through ancient whole genome duplication events. The first one happened around 77.5 million years ago by the time glucosinolate was invented already. Each genome duplication events are followed by gene losses. The resultant birth-death dynamics determines the evolutionary fates and nature of the resultant bursts of diversification. Interestingly at this point, the glucosinate-myrosinase system related genes have been specifically preserved when most other gene duplicates lost over time. This points out that ancient evolution was not a random event, rather a guided process where the selection process was based on preservation of key innovations for better adaptations. Around 32 million years ago, specifically Brassicaceae plants went through another round of whole genome duplication event and following bursts of diversification using the same principle. All these duplication also involve gene duplication and that is not mere duplication. As in this way the glucosinolate biosynthesis pathway has diversified and so their defensive versatility. Slowly slowly thus expanded the repertoire of plants producing mustard. Although now we have an idea about the origin of mustard oil, nobody knows yet, exactly when we discovered the bombing power of mustard to enlighten our curries!

Reference: The butterfly plant arms-race escalated by gene and genome duplications

Pea aphid, who are you?

Pea aphid enjoying a drink

If you haven’t met pea aphid yet, then here is your chance. They have a life style so different and worth discovering. If you ignore them from their size or status then they might address you ‘ignoramus’! In fact they are kind of famous or notorious among part of our world. How, that we will know soon. They love to sip. And as they are really strict about sipping rather than eating, they have managed a permanent straw like mouth part (or stylet) for that. Diet wise they are pure vegan and only prefer a few plants like pea, clover or alfalfa as per record. But their huge sipping/sucking festival each summer, though green, costs million dollars of crop damage. Well there are also some horror stories when a pea aphid looses its sanity and goes cannibal. Yes they might suck from each other or from animals if there is nothing green to sip around.  What else are they doing besides their sipping rituals? They are propagating. And that is fairytalish! Yes, in cool autumn when the nights are longer, the mother and father pea aphid mate. But these two are special, they have wings. The imminent precious fertilized egg when hatches the next spring, surprise! all are daughters. These daughters are again superwomen. When grown up, they are capable of skipping the egg hiatus. They give birth to baby aphids straight out. Productivity is their motto. Each capable of hitting 100 in the reproduction scoreboard. Which is really helpful given the short time they are allowed to propagate. I know coming this far you have started to admire this smart little creation. Since we are living in an era when if I admire you I want to know your genome. Pea aphid became so fascinating, some couldn’t stop but studied their genome. I think I am going to write another post about some more interesting facts about this ancient sipping specialist and its smart survival strategies there in the field. By the way, it has an impressive name for human understanding. The so-called scientific name of pea aphid is Acyrthosiphon pisum and yes they are more ancient earth dweller than Homo sapiens for your information.

Longevity asks care

European Storm Petrel

In a perfect world, an European storm petrel could live more than thirty years as has been noted sometimes. These migratory sea birds are a little larger than say sparrows. But they are really the long living ones out there among the birds. However, that varies and varies enough. No doubt individual lifespan depends upon their genetic composition. But longevity additionally demands care and that also at the gene level. Over the course of evolution, the packaging strategies to protect our genes have advanced impressively. Telomeres are one of them. As you can see in the second picture so nicely.

Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white)

‘Telos’ means end and ‘meros’ means part. Thus telomeres serve as a protective cap at the end of gene segments (chromosomes). The concept is that the longer the telomere the better it is for the cell or the organism. As the length is not constant. It shortens gradually during the life course. So it really matters what the length is at the beginning. Measuring the telomere length dynamics in the early days of long living birds like storm petrel or king penguin has revealed that chick mortality is directly related to telomere length. In addition telomeres are sensitive to oxidative stress. Hence any condition generating stress might cause additional crisis. This points that prenatal care is important. And this has also been noted to be related to increased telomere loss. Hence reaching a ripe old age is not only in genes. Taking care from the beginning is equally important. All these eventually decide the fittest in the survival game.

Reference: Variation in early-life telomere dynamics in a long-lived bird: links to environmental conditions and survival

Another green solution for the blue planetarians

Hello my dear fellows on this blue planet! I hope you are well hydrated! and I hope you are having clean water! Yes, I am scared about those not so probiotic rather harmful microbes in our environment. Everyday we need to purify water to get rid of contaminants and this is not a mundane job if you consider the range of water contaminants including microbes recorded so far. While look at our green neighbours, always lucky blessed with everything from top to bottom. They not only collect their water with their roots, purify it on the way as well. They use sophisticated filters in their xylems (wood tissue) to make some clean water for their own cells. So if you get a microscope of high magnifying power and check their filter membranes, you will see something like as below,

By the way, I am going to inform you about a recent paper in PLOS ONE journal. The paper if you attempt to read (you might also check the video) is quite simple and interesting. They suggest using plant’s natural water transport system (porous xylem tissue/young sapwood of coniferous trees like pine) as point-of use-device in our water purification.  They have proved its purification capacity (99.9%) as well. So now you just need the items below to make some clean drinking water yourself. Isn’t that great news?


Yes it is not an out of the blue innovation. As I was surfing the net, I noted that there are sporadic mentions about the use of this capacity of plants like pine and birch specially as a survival strategy in wilderness. But the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA) researchers’ team has directly addressed it supported by scientific proofs and as a means of water filtration even at home. So after food, fuel and fiber we are returning again to our amazing green neighbours for purifying fluids. Research in the field of water purification has a long history and this green solution is an interesting addition still waiting for further improvements and customization for the blue planetarians.

The Crow and the Pitcher

the crow and the pitcher

Photo Courtesy: ‘Aesop’s Childhood Adventures’ by Vincent Mastro

Once upon a time (between 620 and 560 BC) Aesop, a slave lived in ancient Greece. He was also a storyteller and as we all know, his stories are world-famous till today. ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’ is one of those favourite stories and suggests Aesop to be an intense naturalist as well. In the story, a thirsty crow was searching for water over a dry land. At last he found a pitcher. But there was only a little water in it, at the bottom and out of his reach. Then he applied his presence of wit and raised the level of water by dropping pebbles into the pitcher. Thus he satisfied his thirst and saved his life. Psychologists and ornithologists of AD 2014 are now using this story (The Aesop’s fable paradigm) literally to estimate the cognitive ability of rooks and crows of the Corvidae family in using tools for utility purpose in order to understand the evolution of animal cognition as well. Crows are clever we all know. The study concludes that their cognition level is comparable to that of 5-7 year old children. Not bad! Good luck for crows! and as I told you just see a mere tale can stretch how long!

You can read the papers on rooks and crows, read the feature or check the funny video.

The Premise…

‘Fairy Tales These Days’ needs to make its first step,…I mean pending first step! It was so hesitant to make its earthen debut for so many unnecessary concerns. It might be famous procrastination of writers or typical creatures! Whatever, at last it is ready to plunge into the open ocean of uncertainty, to land among the mortals. See, this is the problem of our real world where uncertainty is a great relief (or even the magic charm!) but often unrecognized and criticized to hell. We wish for a fairy tale aroma in our own existence, kind of forever type security excluding the uncertainty part. Something immortal and forever thing is our goal (for god knows why, after all we know we are mortal at the end of the day! or that may be the reason behind; psychologists can better explain.). Fortunately however, we have enough options for that though indirectly. Starting from a pure biological legacy, to something very intangible but carrying inevitable individual signature having everlasting promise of durability. Life is not limited in a lifetime as evident everywhere here. However, the journey is uncertain and always under construction. Of course that is not a great news for the protagonist! But, believe it or not, fairy tales continue and are for ever and that is why life is unofficially beautiful in spite of all of those official failures, losses and limitations.

The weblog wants to explore some of those tales winding up and down the path of uncertainty! Welcome everybody! including humans, fairies, gnomes and goblins; don’t be shy, read and interact; together we make fairy tales dear, clear and forever!…