Human parasite’s goody two shoes cousin helps coral

28 08 2008

Malaria is one of the most important infectious diseases under study today. It has been with us since early medical history, and still persists as a major global threat.

The disease is caused by a parasite – a multicellular microorganism. Not just a simple bacteria, the malaria plasmodium is a complex critter that still remains quite mysterious. It is very hard to work with in the laboratory: it doesn’t culture well and the risks involved are immense.

The discovery of a non-infectious relative (albeit, rather distant) by Australian researchers is exciting news for many.

Paydirt hasn’t quite been hit as far as medical research. However the fun isn’t just for medicos, but the evolutionary biologists as well.

Chromera velia is clearly related to Plasmodium parasites, but rather than being a blood-borne obligate parasite of mammals and insects that rarely sees light of day, it is a plankton-like photosynthesising obligate symbiont of corals.

These long-lost cousins are so very different, it could almost make the ghost script of the next Wil Farrell comedy (or not, besides its been done before).

Can they really be from the same origin?

The evidence is convincing.

For more information, take a read of a great interview (it says so in the title) with the scientists responsible for the discovery, as well as the University of Sydney press release.

Image: Copyright University of Sydney. Use only for non-commercial and educational purposes with attribution.


The tree of life just got bigger

11 08 2008

The natural world is an amazing place.

Ever changing and full of new discoveries, some French scientists have just made a migraine for taxonomists, high school teachers and textbook publishers – they’ve decided to tack on extra bits to a cornerstone piece of high school biology – the Tree of Life.

If you have access you can go to the source at Nature.

Meanwhile, there is Australian Life Scientist, and Scienceblogs coverage by Scientist, Interrupted, Not Exactly Rocket Science and ERV.

Not only has the discovery that Viruses get sick pushed them into the “alive” category, it has produced a whole new category of “virophages” that infect them. Although one might protest that virophages are still technically viruses (nucleic acid hijackers), let’s not get too carried away with our gardening.

Aside from the nightmare that this new piece of information will probably take several years before it is accurately represented in high school texts – this is an exciting and amazing discovery.

From ERV:

Sputnik isnt just a cool virus that can ‘infect’ other viruses– its representative of all the cool stuff we dont know. All the cool stuff thats floating about, right under our noses, just waiting for someone to discover … Sputnik represents the fact we have no friggin idea whats out there

Evidence claims cat’s innocence

4 07 2008

via Australia Life Scientist

I don’t think these guys could have done research any cooler for me. They’ve combined my favourite fields all together – evolutionary biology, emerging infectious diseases, animal biology, genetics and bioinformatics.

Wasn\'t me, Honest Lah

What they’ve done is analysed the genome of the coronavirus that causes SARS –remember that? – and claim they have vindicated the poor beleagured civet cat as the natural reservoir of the disease.

Good news for the civet cat. (Maybe not, it’s possibly back on the menu).

And definitely not good news for chiropterologists and spelunkers – as bats have been implicated as the cause.

Bat’s just can’t get away from having a reputation as a “big bad”. If it’s not silly business such as  getting tangled in hair or stealing goats. There are a bunch of real viral diseases with human health impact that bats are known for being a natural reservoir for – many from Australasia. SARS is just one of the more recent additions.

Is this good news or bad news for bats and research?

Image credit: original caption; photo by Top Tripster cc-sa (Flickr)