The Standard Deviation: New Life, New Sex, New Look

Nathan Smith 1 May 2014

This is the Standard Deviation, in which I will look at the weird and wonderful science stories that appear in Cambridge and beyond, in an attempt to enlighten some arts students and prove that science students can write. I will also try and further my aim to make fungi look cool.

It’s currently Week 2 of Easter term: the sun is shining, flowers are everywhere, the monsters that are Tripos Exams are slowly bearing down on us.  Research in Cambridge has indicated that metabolic reactions occurred before the origin of life, meaning those Natscis, Medics, and Vets praying for the destruction of all life so that they have nothing to revise will find themselves sorely disappointed.  The research, carried out by Dr Markus Ralser and co. involved recreating the chemical makeup of Earth’s earliest ocean and found such molecules as amino acids, lipids, and nucleic acid.

Leaving Cambridge and traversing the Atlantic Ocean to South America, two new discoveries have surfaced. The first is the sex-swapped insects of Brazil. These creatures have a female penis known as gynosome and the males a “vagina-like” organ the phallosome. The female uses her unique organ to suck out sperm from the male. A bit like a straw.  The second, less phallic, discovery is a plant able to disguise itself. The vine Boquila trifoliolat, native to Chile and Argentina, has the ability to change the appearance of leaves to match its host trees. Size, shape, colour, orientation, vein pattern: all are changeable characteristics of the vine's leaves. Researchers propose that it acts as a defence mechanism against herbivorous insects.

Finally, because it’s not a complete column without a fungal fact, a group of fungi known as the Glomeromycota can form a symbiosis with approximately 80% of land plants, trading much needed nutrients such as phosphorous in return for carbon from the plant. It’s pretty groovy.