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5/2/15 Cover

Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things


Wild Things

A protein battle underlies the beauty of orchids

Phalaenopsis orchid

The shapes of the petals and lip of this Phalaenopsis orchid are governed by competition between two different protein complexes, a new study finds.

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One of the main characteristics that make orchids so attractive to us and to pollinators is shape. Unlike a flower such as a daisy, orchids don’t have a uniform pattern of petals and sepals. Instead, one of the orchid flower petals has been modified into a lip that can serve as a landing zone for, say, a bee.

The formation of the lip and the standard petals, a new study finds, is governed by two competing sets of proteins. And when researchers modified those proteins, they changed an orchid’s shape. Hsing-Fun Hsu of National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan, and colleagues report their findings April 27 in Nature Plants.

In plants, flower development is controlled by a group of genes called MADS-box. About 60 million years ago in orchid ancestors, some of these MADS-box genes got duplicated, and those new versions of the genes changed in ways that gave them new functions. In studying those genes, Hsu and colleagues found two groups of proteins, the “L” complex and the “SP” complex. How much of each protein complex a flower makes determines whether the lip or the standard petals are dominant.

A mutant version of one orchid called Oncidium Gower Ramsey has petals that are all shaped like lips, and it expresses only the L proteins, the researchers found. In other species, the team found that the balance between lip and petal was reflected in the expression of the two protein complexes. The scientists then used a virus to manipulate the expression of the L complex in Oncidium and Phalaenopsis orchids, which converted lips into standard petals.

“This experiment nicely shows that during orchid evolution two copies of duplicated developmental genes acquired a new function by specifically promoting lip identity,” Barbara Gravendeel and Anita Dirks-Mulder of the University of Applied Sciences Leiden in the Netherlands, write in an accompanying commentary in Nature Plants.

Orchids are somewhat of an evolutionary oddity in that they manage to lure in pollinators without offering some kind of food reward in return. Usually pollinators figure out pretty quickly that there’s no point in visiting flowers that don’t provide them with some benefit. But there’s something about orchids that keeps luring them in. Understanding the genes and proteins that underlie the shape and allure of orchids could help scientists figure out how these plants manage to attract bees, flies, moths, mantises, butterflies, gnats and bats — and us.

Animals

Evidence of ‘yeti’ probably came from a Himalayan black bear

By Sarah Zielinski 2:21pm, March 17, 2015
Last year, a genetic analysis revealed two hairs from an unknown species of bear in Asia. A new study finds that they belong to rare Himalayan black bears.
Animals,, Evolution

Getting stabbed is no fun for land snails

By Sarah Zielinski 2:39pm, March 16, 2015
When hermaphroditic land snails mate, they stab each other with “love darts.” But being darted comes at a price, a new study finds.
Animals,, Ecology

Flowers make the menu for nearly all Galapagos birds

By Sarah Zielinski 12:38pm, March 11, 2015
Almost every species of Galapagos land bird has been found feeding on the nectar and pollen of flowers. Such an expansion of diet has never before been observed.
Animals,, Biophysics

How a young praying mantis makes a precision leap

By Sarah Zielinski 2:56pm, March 6, 2015
Videos of juvenile praying mantises flying through the air reveal how the insects manage to always make a perfect landing.
Animals,, Climate

Insects may undermine trees’ ability to store carbon

By Sarah Zielinski 11:08am, March 4, 2015
Insects eat more leaves on trees grown in carbon dioxide-rich environments than those grown without the extra CO2. That may undermine forests as carbon sinks in the future.
Animals

Delicate spider takes down tough prey by attacking weak spots

By Sarah Zielinski 3:05pm, February 27, 2015
The Loxosceles gaucho recluse spider can take down a heavily armored harvestman by attacking its weak spots, a new study reveals.
Animals

Where an ant goes when it's gotta go

By Sarah Zielinski 12:17pm, February 24, 2015
Scientists found black garden ants defecating in certain spots inside their nests. The researchers say these spots serve as ant toilets.
Animals

Five surprising animals that play

By Sarah Zielinski 2:33pm, February 20, 2015
No one is shocked to find playful behavior in a cat, dog or other mammal. But scientists have documented play in plenty of other species, including reptiles and insects.
Animals

Cliff swallow breeding thwarted by bird version of bedbugs

By Sarah Zielinski 12:15pm, February 18, 2015
A 30-year study of cliff swallows in Nebraska finds that the birds will abandon nests, rather than have a second brood, when their homes are infested with swallow bugs.
Animals

Fertile hermit crabs turn shy

By Sarah Zielinski 11:00am, February 13, 2015
Male hermit crabs that aren’t carrying much sperm are bolder than their more fertile brethren, a new study finds.
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