Nani gigantum humeris insidentes

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants… The other day I have ‘added’ one more Giant. I have won DeLill Nasser Award for Professional Development in Genetics.

The Genetics Society of America established the award in 2001 to support travel costs for young geneticists to attend national and international meetings and enroll in laboratory courses. The honor is named for longtime GSA member and former National Science Foundation program director in eukaryotic genetics, Dr. DeLill Nasser. Dr. Nasser, who died in 2000, was at NSF for more than 22 years and was considered the “patron saint” of genetics and friend of many geneticists. She championed the funding of the genomic sequencing of Arabidopsis and research in Drosophila. Founded in 1931, the GSA is a professional membership organization for geneticists and science educators. Its more than 4,000 members work to advance knowledge in the basic mechanisms of inheritance, from the molecular to the population level.

To have such a prestigious award is not only huge honor  for me but also serious responsibility.

on the way to UConn

I am on the way to University of Connecticut for invited seminar. I am going to talk about chromodomains in plant retrotransposons and how we can use these tiny sequences in out attempts to figure out evolutionary history of plant genomes.

Plant chromodomains

I was working in this area for a few years now and have published  four papers :} Two pet-projects are on there way, but now I am very slow since my primary projects have nothing to do with neither plants or retrotransposons. Oh, well… I will come back to you guys [waiving to the mosses and ferns] one day! I will…

Workshop: the DNA Reactions and DNA/Chromosome Dynamics

I am going to go to the DNA Reactions and DNA/Chromosome Dynamics Workshop tomorrow (Woods Hole, MA). Whole Labor Day weekend was spent for poster preparation. I am more or less satisfied by the result. However, on Tuesday I have had two variants: (i) in color; (ii) in red-black-grey colors. Whole group voted for colorful variant, but my heart (brain, liver and kidney) with the second one.

I think red-black-grey variant was aesthetically superior.

Anyway, colorful poster is printed and folded. Ready to go!

(i) colorful variant

(ii) red-black-grey variant


Deceptive butterflies

Many butterflies we used to see as children at the meadows hide a [dirty] secret. One of the most beautiful and well known butterflies in Europe Large Blue or Arion Blue, scientific name Maculinea arion, is one of them.

The truth is all Maculinea butterflies (4 or 5 species according modern taxonomy) are deceptive creatures. It is hard not to notice the beautiful imago butterflies with navy blue or sky blue wings covered with tender black spots. Plus, Maculinea arion is fairly large species, the wing span of this species can rich 16-20 mm. Not surprising, Maculinea arion was in every naturalist collection of Victorian England. However, until late 70th little was known about their unique and fascinating life cycle. Their struggle for survival and the ways they took in their evolutionary history to turn the world around.

In  60th-70th scientist of Great Britain realized that Maculiena arion population is declining with deteriorating speed. At first collectors were to blame. In 1979 no Maculinea arion could be found on the Islands. By that time scientist already figured out that the main reason for extinction of this species is its exceptional sensitivity to the changing environment due to double specificity: the host plant which is very important for survival of the larvae during first three stages of the development and the ant host which ensures further development of the larvae in the ant nest. If either of these factors affected (plants due to early mowing before larvae left the plant; ants due to destruction of their habitat), the butterflies can not finish their cycle and population unavoidably will decline.

To be more specific, the adult Maculinea arion females lay their eggs only on specific plant, thyme, in the summer. The larvae stays on the flowers only three stages and while still very small eventually falls to the ground. The Maculinea larvae produce special chemicals and sounds to lure red ants and fool them into thinking the larvae is ant grub. The fooled ant following its instincts then carries the tiny larvae into its nest. The important point here is that Maculinea larvae can mimic only chemicals and sounds of certain red ant species, all other species will not be so easily fooled by these disguise, which means that only certain number of larvae has the chance for survival to adulthood – only those who ended up in the right nest of the right species. Ideally, the ants never discover that they have been fooled, and instead continue to protect the butterfly larvae for several months and feed them [or, in majority of cases, let the larvae to eat their own brood].

Maculine arion life cycle, from MacMan project.

Mission accomplished

The good news! One of my papers was accepted for publication in Molecular Biology and Evolution. This is one of the best journals publishing evolutionary biology research. To be honest, this paper suck too much blood from me that I do not want even celebrate the positive final of the [never-ending] struggle.

The paper entitled: Vertical evolution and horizontal transfer of CR1 non- LTR retrotransposons and Tc1/mariner DNA transposons in Lepidoptera species.

In a few words, there are two forms of inheritance  – vertical, from parents to children, and horizontal – between non-related organisms.  The vertical inheritance is somewhat familiar to everybody, we all have features we got either from paternal or maternal lineages. The most obvious could be the color of hair and eyes, inherited disorders, etc. The horizontal inheritance is very common among bacteria. For example, the resistance to the certain antibiotics can be acquired from non-related bacterial cells or even from different bacterial species co-existing in habitat. The horizontal inheritance among bacteria is possible thanks to the existence of the special circular DNA ‘chromosomes’ [called mobile elements; mobile  plasmids; etc.] which can travel from one cell to another. These mobile plasmids carry special genes which make bacteria-recipient resistant to the particular antibiotic. BTW, these features are very widely utilized in modern molecular biology, [bio]medical engineering, and biotechnology. The horizontal inheritance was unknown for eukaryotes (non-bacterial species, including human) till about 25 years ago. However only in post-genomic era of biology, when we gain the access to the enormous amount of genetic information, we were able to detect numerous cases of horizontal transfer of genes between various eukaryotic  species/groups.

In my research I tried to address one of the key problems in ‘horizontal inheritance among eukaryotes’ – possible mechanisms involved in the process. The  major problem is that we and other eukaryotes do not have any special highly-tuned systems for horizontal transfer of genes, which means – all reported cases of horizontal transfer were spontaneous and, most probably, did not utilize any universal ‘schemes’. One of the possible mechanisms could involve package of the random DNA into virus particle and subsequent transfer between species. In this paper we explore a little bit more complicated potential pathway for the horizontal transfer between butterflies from the genus Maculinea and moths from the genus Bombyx.

I think my next post will be about Large Blue Maculinea butterflies…

Maculinea arion or Large Blue butterfly completely extinct in the UK in 1979. After 25-year effort to restore this amazing butterfly in UK, researches finally announced triumph in 2009. Meticulous research showed that the extinction was caused by a subtle change in habitat that disrupted the unusual life cycle of this spectacular butterfly. Previously, the extinction had been attributed to the work of overzealous collectors.