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Naturebites

NYT Nov 20 2017, 23:29 IST
Beets, it turns out, have evolved another, separate way of being red from most other plants. John Karsten Moran/NYT

Beets, it turns out, have evolved another, separate way of being red from most other plants. John Karsten Moran/NYT

Naturebites

RIOT OF RED

How beets became beet-red

As the seasons change, a riot of red shows up in the world around us, showcasing some of the most vivid hues that plant biochemistry can create. The red pigments in maple leaves are the same kind that light up the cranberries. But beets have evolved another way of being red. In a paper published in New Phytologist, biologists reported that they have discovered a key step in the evolution of this process. The pigments that give red beets their incandescent hue are called betalains. They're made using an amino acid called tyrosine, the starting material for thousands of compounds made by plants.

Plants modify tyrosine by adding other molecules to create an array of useful substances. Intrigued by the process, Hiroshi Maeda, the senior author on the paper, collaborated with experts to study how the plants make betalains from tyrosine. A tyrosine-making enzyme, which in most plants gets turned off after a certain amount is made, stays on longer in beets, producing an overload of the amino acid. This, it turns out, is likely the pivotal change that gave beets the starting
material they would need to develop their special red.

INVASIVE SPECIES

Hunting bad ants

Tobias is a Labrador with one job: sniffing out invasive Argentine ants wherever they hide. He's really good at it, and with his help, a fragile island ecosystem may be spared a repeat inundation with the pests. Santa Cruz Island is 25 miles off the coast of Southern California, USA. The island's rich, rugged environment is threatened by Argentine ants, one of the world's most successful and wily invasive species.

The ants are nearly impossible to get rid of; it had never been done with an infestation as large as Santa Cruz's. But Christina Boser, an ecologist, devised an aerial assault, dropping tiny sugar water beads spiked with diluted poison from helicopters. The campaign, largely in 2015 and 2016, appears to have killed off the ants. Still, if even one colony has survived, this elaborate effort might have been wasted. That's where Tobias comes in.

Once he pinpoints the faint pheromone scent left by this particular species of ant he will sit down and look at his handler, Kyren Zimmerman, who is with the non-profit Working Dogs for Conservation. In March, Tobias and Kyren underwent weeks of training. Then they took a choppy ferry ride to the island and got to work. By summer's end, the pair hadn't found any new ant colonies - a great sign that the eradication really worked.

COOL BEGINNINGS

A volcano's super-eruption

A supervolcano's underground ocean of magma is not the seething, red-hot molten lava you might imagine. Instead, it is likely at a low enough temperature to be solid. That is according to a new analysis of volcanic leftovers from an ancient California super-eruption, which shows that the magma melted shortly before the volcano erupted. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, might help scientists forecast when such volcanoes pose a threat.

The super-eruption in question occurred 7,65,000 years ago, carving a vast volcanic depression that is 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, now known as Long Valley. In the process, it ejected a giant quantity of ash and hot gas over one nightmarish week. "It would have completely wiped out everything within 50 km of the caldera," said Brad Singer, a geologist and the study's co-author. Scientists do not expect Long Valley to erupt again, but given enough time another supervolcano will likely scar our planet.

DOCUMENTARY

Blue Planet II

Blue Planet II is a 2017 British nature documentary series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. It is narrated and presented by British naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. The seven-part documentary sequel comes 20 years after the original series, which set out to explore the deepest and darkest realms of the world's oceans.

Blue Planet II features more aquatic animals and has used ambitious filming techniques to capture them in their natural environment over a period of five years. Some never before seen animals have been caught on film for the first time, like the Hoff Crab. It also shows new landscapes such as the so-called boiling sea phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. To watch the documentary, visit www.amzn.to/2zIrWCk.

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