Curiouser and curiouser

Curiosity may have been the death of the cat, but it is the lifeblood of science. Recently Archimedes came across two delightful examples of how  human the events leading to advances in scientific research can be.

Physicist Wah-Keat Lee had finished a day’s work on the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and realised he had a few spare minutes on the beamline. For lack of anything better to do, he scooped up a dead ant and placed it under the powerful X-ray beam.
To his surprise, he found he was able to look right through the ant’s opaque exoskeleton and reveal its insides. Making use of edge enhancement techniques, he saw an internal structure of unimagined complexity. Lee became so enthralled he went looking for entomologists to help him explore the inner world of insects.

With a group of researchers from the Field Museum of Natural History, Lee used the high-intensity X-rays generated by the synchrotron to observe for the first time how insects breathe. What they found will cause textbooks to be rewritten.

The group was able to take X-ray videos which showed that insects can breathe actively, in a manner similar to mammals. Not only is this in complete contradiction to what was previously thought, it also explains how insects can pump enough oxygen to support complex nerve, sensory and muscular systems in the extremities and head.

But that’s not all. The approach used by the group can now be applied to unravelling the internal secrets of many other small organisms, providing information that may be important to human health. All from a small burst of curiosity.

Archimedes listened to a similar story of serendipity at the recent International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne. Tom Wolf from Washburn University in Kansas works with Drosophila, the small fruit fly that serves as the standard genetics laboratory animal. He was mucking around one day and put one of his flies under an ultraviolet microscope.

Much to his surprise he found that Drosophila naturally fluoresce around the facial region. The facial patterns are species specific, and they also vary with the sex and maturity of the fly. In fact, fluorescence appears to have something to do with mating.

Drosophila can mate in the dark, but not if ultraviolet light is removed, Wolf found. What’s more, the mating ritual involves a head-to-head dance, so the fluorescence may help with the recognition of species and sexual receptivity in darkness.

Fluorescent facial markings can be used to keep tabs on the mating habits of separate but nearly identical species of Drosophila—even groups which are in the process of becoming separate species. For example, Israeli geneticists have used facial markings to study the mating habits of flies across the microclimates of a single canyon, discovering that the flies mate only with others from the same

Not only do such tales make a welcome break from the relentless pursuit of a cure for cancer or a more durable paint, they also illustrate why we should support sheer for-the-hell-of-it, curiosity-driven science. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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