science conservation earth_day cooperation species life_and_nature habitat pollution biology

An Earth Day Thought: Cooperation Is A Survival Tool

by Michael Keller

Every sunrise is a new breath of life. The morning comes and our star once again bathes us in the energy upon which the whole machinery of being runs. And life responds with every day’s beginning—plants grow; animals graze, browse and hunt; fungi, bacteria and insects slowly bring all of us back into the soil. When the night comes, much of life becomes quiet. Even then, though, many organisms remain at work, taking advantage of the darkness to give birth, take prey, and otherwise make their way in a crammed world. The Earth is beautiful and brutal—such is the nature of life.

Creatures breathe from almost every place on our planet, from the hydrothermal vent communities in the crushing pressure and pitch black abyss of the ocean’s floor to the microbes catching rides through the stratosphere on Sahara Desert dust storms. It’s a constant competition among individuals and species. Yet an exquisite adaptation to succeed in the bloodsport of survival has arisen over evolutionary time—cooperation. Many of us come equipped to work together so that we may individually and collectively live a little better.

"Organisms are inherently competitive, yet cooperation is widespread," wrote Columbia University’s Dustin Rubenstein and James Kealey in a 2010 paper in the journal Nature. ”Genes cooperate in genomes; cells cooperate in tissues; individuals cooperate in societies.”

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Stealing the Secrets of Spider Silk

by Karin Heineman, Inside Science

Spiders put their silk to use in all sorts of ways. Now, Jeff Yarger, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and his colleagues are finding ways that spider silk can benefit humans.

"We’re actually collecting natural silk from spiders that are prey-wrapping,” said Yarger.

The silk that spiders use to wrap and immobilize their prey is different from the silk they use to build webs or dangle from a ceiling. It’s also the least studied. Now scientists are harvesting this silk to find out what makes it different.

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Dolphin-Inspired Radar Improves IED, Disaster Survivor Detection

by Charles Q. Choi

To hunt more successfully, dolphins weave circular nets of bubbles around schools of fish that force their prey to cluster together.

But to create tools from bubbles, which normally scatter acoustic pulses and clutter sonar images, researchers wondered whether dolphins shut down their sonar when making the nets or somehow adapted it to account for the air pockets.

Now, investigations into this novel hunting technique have inspired new technology that can detect hidden bugging equipment and covert explosives, researchers say. The novel scanners could also help find disaster victims buried deep beneath rubble.

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Venom’s Pharmacy: Toxins’ Upside Means Advanced Medicines

by Michael Keller

Could it be that venom is just what we need to heal what ails us?

With the still unfolding news of 1,600 injuries and 42 deaths inflicted so far in China by the Asian giant hornet’s sting, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that there’s an upside to the dangerous cocktail of toxins injected by thousands of creatures around the world.

Yet just when the bad news about the hornets’ deadly collision with humanity broke, another announcement emerged from the scientific community. Chinese and Australian researchers reported in the journal Nature that they had found a compound in the Chinese red-headed centipede’s venom that is a more potent painkiller than morphine and carries no addiction risk. 

Such a discovery might appear to be an anomaly, an accidental kindness from the debilitating and sometimes lethal world of animal poisons. But those engaged in the burgeoning field of venom-based therapeutics development called venomics say that it’s no accident. 

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