Friday, March 31, 2017

Dracula Blenny

The Fanged Fish that Drugs Its Enemies with Opioids

Anthony O'Toole
Not unlike the ant-decapitating fly and the satanic leaf-tailed gecko, the fang blenny’s name does not disappoint. This tiny fish wields two massive teeth that it uses to gouge chunks out of much larger fish and, in a bind, scrap its way out of the grasp of a predator. And one particular group of fang blenny even injects venom, just like a snake, to give its attackers that extra what-for.

That’s all very, very bizarre behavior for a fish—behavior that today gets even more bizarre. In the journal Current Biology, researchers have revealed what makes the fang blenny’s venom so unique: It’s packed with opioid peptides, which target opioid receptors, much like heroin and morphine do in the human brain. Unlike with snakes or stingrays or the infamous lionfish, the venom doesn’t incapacitate the victim with pain. Instead, it sends the fish’s blood pressure plummeting, messing with its coordination and giving the blenny a chance to escape.

The fang blennies have, generally speaking, evolved into rascals. Their ancestor probably used its fangs to scoop flesh out of bigger fish, much like the non-venomous bluestriped fang blenny does today. It’s a visual mimic of a cleaner fish, which allows it to get in close without raising an alarm. Then it strikes. “A total asshole move, of course, since that bigger fish is going to take this out on the next innocent cleaner wrasse it encounters,” says biologist and study co-author Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland.

Anthony Romilio
The bluestriped fang blenny gets by without venom, but the researchers found that its venomous cousins probably evolved their toxins in a curious way. Usually when evolving venom, the story goes: start producing toxic secretions with a ho-hum way of delivering them, then over evolutionary time develop a progressively more sophisticated system. Fangs, for instance. But the bluestriped fang blenny’s venomous cousins are the total opposite. They started as the ancestor that used its teeth to dig out flesh, then developed the venom to go along with it.

And what they’ve ended up with is a unique venom, one that weaponizes opioid peptides. When the researchers injected it into rats, the critters’ blood pressure plummeted by 37 percent. “You can imagine that if your blood pressure dropped by such a percentage you would feel very faint,” says venom biologist Nicholas Casewell, also a co-author, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. “You’d feel dizzy, perhaps nauseous, you might want to sit down, you wouldn’t be up to doing very much at all.” Whether or not the fang blenny’s fishy victims feel this isn’t certain, but it certainly messes with their coordination.

One study from the 1970s showed just how effectively this little fish can ruin the day of much larger predators. A scientist created a sort of fish cage fight, featuring fang blennies and various predators. The hunters would inevitably gobble up the blennies—then proceed to flip out. They’d quiver and open wide, releasing the blennies. And apparently they learned their lesson well. When the scientist provided the predators with another blenny, they’d avoid the thing. For the blenny, it’s a precarious strategy: To properly fight back, it has to get swallowed first. Something like a stingray, on the other hand, has the luxury of fighting its foes by lashing out while not inside a mouth.

Richard Smith
What’s so curious about the fang blenny is that the effects of its venom are fundamentally different from other venoms. “Pain is a fantastic thing for predators to learn to avoid you,” says Casewell. “They get stung once and they don’t try again. But with the fang blennies there seems to be no potent pain.” That, though, comes with a caveat: The researchers were working with rats, not fish, so the effects on fish predators other than shake-of-the-head-open-wide aren’t so clear.

These are opioid peptides, though, so does that mean the venom is actually acting as a painkiller? Well, on top of there being no discernible need to soothe the ills of its enemies, that wouldn’t make much sense for the blenny from a physiological perspective either. “To have a strong painkilling effect these peptides need to be inside the central nervous system,” says Casewell. “I don’t believe for a minute that the fang blennies are injecting their venom directly into the central nervous system of these fish.” Instead, the massive and immediate drop in blood pressure is probably what shocks the predator into releasing the fang blenny.

Not bad for a little fish. But then again, it’s got a name to honor.

Take Your (Well-Behaved) Dog to Work

In a first for the government, dogs will be welcome at the Interior Department

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with his wife, Lolita, and their Havanese dog, Ragnar. (Courtesy of the Department of Interior) 

The Cabinet secretary who rode a horse to work on his first day is letting his employees bring their dogs to the office.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will announce in an email to employees Thursday morning the start of “Doggy Days at Interior,” a program that will launch with test runs at the agency’s Washington headquarters on two Fridays in May and September.

The new policy will make Interior the first federal agency to go dog-friendly — and cement Zinke’s status as the Trump administration’s most visible animal fan. Zinke earlier this month arrived at his new workplace astride Tonto, a bay roan gelding who belongs to the U.S. Park Police and resides in stables on the Mall.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives for his first day of work at the Interior Department in Washington on Thursday, riding Tonto, a 17-year-old Irish sport horse. (Interior Department via AP) 

President Trump, meanwhile, remains pet-less, a status that makes him the first U.S. leader in 150 years without a companion animal and leaves the White House without a first dog or cat. Vice President Pence and his family keep two cats and a rabbit at their Naval Observatory home, though those critters keep a relatively low profile.

Zinke, a fifth-generation Montanan, retired Navy SEAL and former congressman, said his dog policy’s primary goal is to boost morale at the far-flung Interior agency, which includes the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and six other departments. Interior ranked 11th in employee morale of the 18 largest federal agencies in last year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, with just 61 percent of its 70,000 employees saying they’re happy in their jobs.

 Ragnar, Ryan Zinke’s dog, poses at the Interior Department with an image of one of Zinke’s idols, former president Theodore Roosevelt. (Tami Heilemann) 

“I’m taking action to establish a pilot program for Doggy Days at Interior!” Zinke will say in his 9 a.m. missive to Washington-area employees, which shows two photographs of him with his wife, Lolita, and their 18-month-old black and white Havanese dog, Ragnar.

“Opening the door each evening and seeing him running at me is one of the highlights of my day,” Zinke’s email says. “I can’t even count how many miles I’ve driven across Montana with Ragnar riding shotgun, or how many hikes and river floats Lola and I went on with the little guy. But I can tell you it was always better to have him.”

The new policy, which has never been tried in the risk-averse federal government, puts the Trump administration in the vanguard of public institutions with dog-friendly policies. Members of Congress have been bringing their dogs to the U.S. Capitol since the 19th century, but few other taxpayer-funded workplaces have gone to the dogs.

Private companies, on the other hand, are increasingly touting their dog-friendliness as an employee perk. Among the most prominent are Kimpton hotels, the biotech firm Genentech and Google, which says in its code of conduct that “affection for our canine friends is an integral facet of our corporate culture.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) walks to work with his bichon frise/poodle mix, Bruin, in 2010. The dog made the weekly trip from Washington to California with Lewis. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post) 

In a survey conducted last year by Banfield Pet Hospital, the nation’s largest chain of veterinary clinics the vast majority of U.S. employees and human resources managers at pet-friendly companies said the policies improved morale, lowered stress and decreased guilt about leaving pets at home.

Zinke, an avid hunter and fisherman, promised on his first day as secretary earlier this month to bring a dog-friendly office policy to Interior. The pledge, along with his promise to preserve public lands, drew loud applause as he addressed employees in the headquarters cafeteria.

“It’s a very exciting initiative that’s close to his heart,” said Heather Swift, a Zinke spokeswoman. “Every day he visits a different hallway in the building to introduce himself and somebody asks him when we’re going to have puppy days.”

Ragnar plays with an Interior Department staffer. (Tami Heilemann) 

But there are obvious concerns about having dogs at the office, which is why the policy is launching slowly as a pilot, officials said. Zinke’s staff has been consulting with agency attorneys in recent weeks to work out parameters for the dogs, including whether they’ll need to be leashed or be limited to a certain size. It’s likely they’ll be to be fully housebroken, vaccinated and have no history of aggression.

Other possible complications when Fido reports to Interior: Fleas, bites, people with allergies, and pets who may, in a new environment, relieve themselves indoors.

“I understand some of you may have concerns about this policy,” Zinke’s email says. Employees who “would rather not interact with dogs at the workplace” will be allowed to telework when dogs are around or have “other flexibilities.”

Ragnar was a frequent visitor to Zinke’s Capitol Hill office and rode on his campaign bus when Zinke was running for Congress. Ragnar is also the secretary’s fishing companion, though he does not join him on hunting trips.

Some Like It Hot

Now I'm Marilyn Monroe

Martian Potatoes

Peru, NASA say this spud’s for you if you’re planning to farm on Mars

The Japan Times   AP  Mar 31, 2017

In this March 16 photo, a potato plant grows inside a Mars simulator in Lima. The simulator mimics the harsh conditions found on Mars. | AP 

LIMA – If human beings finally reach Mars, they may find themselves depending on the humble, if hardy potato.

Scientists in Peru have used a simulator that mimics the harsh conditions on the Red Planet to successfully grow a small potato plant.

It’s an experiment straight out of the 2015 Hollywood movie “The Martian” that scientists say may also benefit arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change.

“It’s not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist noncultivable areas on Earth,” said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology who is working with NASA on the project.

The experiment began in 2016 — a year after the Hollywood film “The Martian” showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes on the red planet.

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box: Frosty below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.

Though thousands of miles away from colleagues at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California providing designs and advice, Peru was in many ways an apt location to experiment with growing potatoes on Mars.

The birthplace of the domesticated potato lies high in the Andes near Lake Titicaca, where it was first grown about 7,000 years ago. More than 4,000 varieties are grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where potatoes have sprouted even in cold, barren lands.

The Peruvian scientists didn’t have to go far to find high-salinity soil similar to that found on Mars, though with some of the organic material Mars lacks: Pampas de la Joya along the country’s southern coast receives less than a millimeter of rain a year, making its terrain somewhat comparable to the Red Planet’s parched ground.

International Potato Center researchers transported 700 kg (1,540 pounds) of the soil to Lima, planted 65 varieties and waited. In the end, just four sprouted from the soil.

In a second stage, scientists planted one of the most robust varieties in the even more extreme conditions of the simulator, with the soil — Mars has no organic soil — replaced by crushed rock and a nutrient solution.

Live-streaming cameras caught every tiny movement as a bud sprouted and grew several leaves while sensors provided around-the-clock monitoring of simulator conditions.

The winning potato: A variety called “Unique.”

“It’s a ‘super potato’ that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing,” Valdivia said.

NASA itself also has been doing experiments on extraterrestrial agriculture, both for use on spacecraft and perhaps on Mars.

Ray Wheeler, the lead for advanced life support research activities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said plant survival in the open on Mars would be impossible given the planet’s low-pressure, cold temperature and lack of oxygen, but showing plants could survive in a greenhouse-type environment with reduced pressure and high carbon-dioxide levels could potentially reduce operating costs. Most research on growing plants in space has focused on optimizing environments to get high outputs of oxygen and food.

“But understanding the lower limits of survival is also important, especially if you consider pre-deploying some sort of plant growth systems before humans arrive,” he said.

In the next stage of the experiment, scientists will build three more simulators to grow potato plants under extreme conditions with the hope of gaining a broader range of results. They will also need to increase the carbon dioxide concentrations to more closely imitate the Martian atmosphere.