Monday, October 6, 2014

Life together in amazing places

This has been a fascinating week for symbiosis, the study of how organisms live together.  My pal Joe Francis is a microbiologist, and he's enthusiastic about how microscopic creatures play important roles for everything else in the world.  He thinks that we really should be thinking more carefully about these symbiotic relationships if we are ever to understand God's great design for living things.  I think he's quite right about that.  Think about God's desire for relationship with us: He sent Jesus to die and rise from the dead so that He could have a real relationship with us.  That's an amazing commitment to relationships, and I would expect any creation made by that Creator should be chock full of relationships.  Everywhere we turn, we should find intricate interdependencies between organisms.

Recently, I saw an interesting story about bacteria called clostridia and how they might relate to peanut allergies.  It seems that food allergies are on the rise in developing countries, which totally fits with my own experience.  Growing up in the 1980s, I don't think I knew anybody with a serious food allergy, but I can think of a bunch of people I know now that have kids who are allergic - some severely - to various foods.  What's the deal?  Well, it's unexpected: a new report in PNAS by Stefka et al. suggests that clostridia might have something to do with these allergies.  The researchers took some mice treated with antibiotics and compared their food sensitivity to mice that had not been exposed to antibiotics.  The antibiotic-treated mice showed more sensitivity to food than untreated mice.  They found that the clostridia helped the mouse's intestines keep proteins out of the blood that would otherwise cause immune reactions (allergies).  So our obsession with antibiotics to cure disease (which alone is not a bad thing) might just have contributed to a rise in food allergies, because we've been killing off helpful bacteria along with the bad stuff!  It sounds like we need a better strategy for coping with disease-causing bacteria.  Doesn't that make sense from a design standpoint?  God designed us to live with our bacteria, and when we take medicine that indiscriminately kills all bacteria (good and bad), we should expect negative consequences.

I also got an email from a reader who was interested in rhizobial symbiosis.  Rhizobia are bacteria that form close relationships with legumes, like peas or clover.  Rhizobia are immensely important for life on this planet because they make nitrogen available to the rest of us.  Nitrogen is a colorless gas that makes up about 3/4ths of the air you breathe, but it's an extremely stable gas and very hard to use.  Rhizobia are able to take that atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to the rest of us.  Why is that important?  Because every living thing on this planet needs nitrogen.  Nitrogen is part of our proteins, which is what makes are cells do their thing.  Without proteins, we couldn't live, and without nitrogen, we couldn't make proteins.  See how important rhizobia are?

Now the fun thing about rhizobia and their plant symbiosis is that the bacteria seem to be able to move around from one species to another.  Naively, we might expect that the rhizobia collected from a closely-related group of legume species would be closely-related themselves.  That's not always the case, though.  Rhizobial genomes actually contain a number of different elements that allow symbiosis genes and nitrogen-fixing genes to move around.  This allows for the bacteria to share genes with other rhizobia, a process called horizontal transfer.  So that boils down to this: Just about any rhizobia can form a relationship with just about any legume, provided the symbiosis genes are available from somewhere (like another rhizobia living with that legume species).  It's an amazing design.  It's almost like God wanted to make sure that no matter what changed in the world, there would always be nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Read all about it in Roberts's PLoS Biology paper.

One final article came from another reader interested in anthrax.  Some of you might remember the anthrax letters that killed five people back in 2001.  Anthrax is a nasty bacterium that infects via inhalation and quickly spreads through the body, dumping toxins everywhere and killing the host extremely quickly.  Basically, if you're infected with anthrax, by the time you realize it's not just the flu, it's probably too late.  Anthrax bacteria are remarkably similar to other soil bacteria, which raises an interesting question: What's anthrax doing when it's not killing people?  A new paper from Ganz et al. in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases reports that grass grown in plots where anthrax is present in the soil was 45% taller than grass grown in control plots without anthrax.  Wild!  You could interpret that as an adaptation to attract a mammalian host, because cows and sheep will go for the taller grass, which increases the likelihood that they'll acquire an anthrax infection.  But I just find it fascinating that anthrax is capable of doing something other than killing us.  It doesn't explain everything about anthrax, but it's really interesting anyway.

So that's all for symbiosis this week.  Isn't God's design amazing?  Makes me glad to be a scientist.

Read all about these studies here:

Stefka et al. 2014. Commensal bacteria protect against food allergen sensitization. PNAS 111: 13145-13150.

Roberts. 2014. Symbiosis Plasmids Bring Their Own Mutagen to the Wedding Party. PLoS Biology 12(9): e1001943.

Ganz et al. 2014. Interactions between Bacillus anthracis and Plants May Promote Anthrax Transmission. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8(6): e2903.


Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Joy of Discovery



Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a large audience at Granger Community Church and present my views on creation and evolution.  What made this particular event interesting is that I had only 15 minutes to do all that.  Faced with this impressive time limit, which normally would be quite difficult for academics like me, I opted to forego trying to make a detailed argument and just go with a visceral, passionate plea for being a young-age creationist like me.  Personally, I think it worked out just fine.  The audience laughed and applauded and seemed to appreciate what I said.  I just hope the little taste I gave them inspired some of them to check out some of my other work, where they can learn about all those details I had to leave out.

So what does that have to do with that weird mushroom-looking thingy up at the top of this post?  That is Dendrogramma, and that is a big reason people get into science in the first place.  Ultimately scientists are curious folks, and we all get a charge out of new discoveries.  Wow, did I get a charge out of this one!

Now, I'm a little late to the reporting party on this one, so I'll just give a quick rundown of the facts.  According to a paper published in PLoS ONE by Just et al., these peculiar creatures were dredged from the ocean bottom off Tasmania in 1986.  They are definitely animals, but they don't look like anything previously known to science.  The authors classified their discoveries in a new family Dendrogrammatidae, but they declined to go any farther.  The specimens are probably a whole new phylum of animals, but we don't know for sure.  They could be really, really weird-looking worms or jellyfish or something like that.  Having DNA sequences would help clear that up, but the samples were treated with formalin, which makes recovering DNA difficult.  The authors note that they look sort of like fossils known from the Ediacaran fauna, but they note this only as a suggestion not as a classification.

So what?  It's cool, that's what.  Sometimes I get the sense that because I'm a creationist, I'm supposed to react to news like this by posting some kind of rebuttal, but for me, more often things are just cool.  I like that.  I like the joy of discovery.  The endless creativity of our master Creator is just thrilling, and the fact that we're still finding things like this is amazing!  Sometimes, passion, excitement, and celebration is good enough, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Creationists can enjoy science, too.

And if you're really into details, you can read them all in the free article:

Just et al. 2014. Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with Similarities to Some Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara.  PLoS ONE 9(9): e102976.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons, originally published in Just et al.)

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Resuscitation and some old fleas

I've recently been enduring "encouragement" (that's a nice word) to revive and resuscitate my blog, mostly from one person who continues to suggest articles I ought to write and even tells me what he thinks I could say.  It's kind of like the persistent widow and the unjust judge, which makes me the unjust judge.  In the face of his relentless enthusiasm for my opinion (which I admit is a little odd), I have decided to try posting something once a week.  That's a schedule that might be too ambitious, but hopefully I can come up with something every week that's worth writing about and the time to write about it.

The past few weeks have had some interesting science stories, from alleged genetic testing on Jack the Ripper (which Smithsonian mag finds legitimately doubt-worthy), to the world's largest sauropod (behold Dreadnoughtus), to a 24-year old woman born without a cerebellum (How is that possible!?  Check it out.), but being the odd bird that I am, I'm going to talk here about a report of Cretaceous fleas.

Why fleas?  Well, as you know, I'm a young-age creationist.  As such, I believe that God created the world in some form of physical goodness, which it no longer displays because of human sin.  Beyond that belief, I find it somewhat difficult to pin down the specifics, especially as a biologist.  I look at biology, and I find predators, parasites, pathogens, and poisons that make me wonder whether such features were part of that original creation or not.  For example, what about ebola or anthrax?  Are these things that Adam would have to watch out for?  Or lesser things, like mosquitoes or fleas?  Were such creatures always the way they are now?

That's my context for being interested in a paper by Gao et al. in BMC Evolutionary Biology reporting an exquisite fossil flea with a distended abdomen.  There are other fossil fleas from the Mesozoic, but what caught my eye this time was the distended abdomen.  The authors suggest that this flea had just feasted on blood before it died.

Another point of context: As a young-age creationist, I view a big chunk of the fossil record as the remnants of the Flood of Noah's day.  Instead of depicting millions of years of development, I think that Flood-deposited fossil record tells us something about what the world was like just before the Flood.  So when Gao et al. interpret their results in terms of flea evolution and the origin of modern fleas' blood sucking adaptations, I look at this as a hint about what fleas were like just before the Flood.  And fleas were apparently blood-sucking parasites then too.

What do these fleas mean for creationist interpretations of earth history?  Well, there's sort of a tendency among my fellow creationist (and me too) to view the Fall as an event where God basically allowed things to fall apart.  That idea would suggest that the modern world of disease and death developed slowly as life on this planet adapted to the new reality of death, which was absent from God's original creation.

In recent years, though, I've been thinking that this idea doesn't work very well.  Our modern world of death is too well-designed to be some random adaptation to death.  Death works too well.  I'm beginning to think that if the Fall brought physical death to creation (which I think it did), then it must have involved a considerable re-design of what the original creation was.  I think these pre-Flood fleas fit this idea of re-design quite well, in that they were blood-sucking parasites.  There's no hint here of a pre-blood-sucking-parasite existence, which suggests that fleas were fleas from the moment God re-designed the world at the Fall.

Or maybe fleas aren't part of the Fall at all?  I don't know.  That might be a little too radical.

Read all about it:

Gao et al. 2014. The first flea with fully distended abdomen from the Early Cretaceous of China.  BMC Evol Biol 14:168.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Upcoming Origins conferences

I'm just now getting a little bit settled from the big Colorado trip, and I wanted to update everyone on the major announcement from the Origins2014 conference.  We've planned out the next three conferences, and here they are:

Origins 2015

July 23-25
Truett-McConnell College, Cleveland, GA

Origins 2016

July 21-23
Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA

Origins 2017

July 20-22
Venue TBD

The 2017 venue is still up for grabs, and we are considering proposals now.  If you'd like to host a conference in your area, email me and I'll tell you what we need to know.  We'll make our final decision on 2017 at the next conference.  God willing, we'll keep this pace up and start planning two years in advance instead of just one.

The 2015 call for abstracts will be available shortly.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Origins 2014 abstracts published

I'm at the Origins 2014 conference right now, and I wanted to let everyone know that the geology and biology abstracts are published now at the JCTS website.  Check them out!

Origins 2014 biology abstracts
Origins 2014 geology abstracts

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.