The ‘Wow!’ factor

Ants running treadmills, plants that can ‘strategize’, fungal cheats…  There is a kind of science that amazes anyone who encounters it: through the sheer ingenuity of the methods, the novelty of the results, and the mind-altering nature of their import.

Consider this for instance: some plants produce toxins to kill insects that chew on their leaves; but some species of insects have somehow learnt to circumvent the poison.  So these insects can do very well feeding on the plant, despite the toxin.  Right? Wrong! Prof. Ian Baldwin (in his talk at NCBS on 22nd Feb 2015) showed us videos of caterpillars on two wild tobacco plants, one that produces the toxin, and the other that has been genetically disarmed for the experiment.  A PhD student in the video, mimicking a predator, picks up the caterpillar from the genetically detoxified plant; the caterpillar fights back – a valiant warrior 3mm long, 1mm thick.  She does the same with the caterpillar on the toxin producing plant; the caterpillar goes limp, a picture of pathetic resignation.   It has spent all its energy detoxifying its food, and cannot fight back.  So though the caterpillar has very little competition for lunch, it has a very high probability of becoming lunch itself! You can imagine the plant laughing in the background.

Prof. Baldwin’s talk reminded me of another fascinating talk I attended a few years ago, by Prof. Bert Holldobler.  Among other things, Holldobler’s group explores the chemical language of the ants.  They find out which among the millions of mixed chemicals elicits certain behaviour among the ants; ants following a trail towards a food source for instance.  Prof. Holldobler showed us a video too: after much extraction, purification, short listing and further purification of chemicals, the researchers make a paper highway for the ants, and spray the suspect chemical on it.  The ants walk the paper highway like they were hypnotized.  Well, clearly, the chemical was telling them ‘Breakfast this way’!  He showed us how scientists had poured tonnes of concrete into an ant colony, and excavated it to reveal the giant structure in all its mind-blowing, intricate beauty (Yes, I feel sorry for the poor ants, but it was fascinating all the same!).  He showed us another experiment where ants walk a treadmill and lightly step on a tiny circle that records their weight before returning to their colony in the lab.  There was a hushed chorus from the audience, ‘Wow!’.

What makes these experiments so magical? Perhaps it is the simplicity and elegance of the methods, the clarity of the results, the many further questions that spring up in thinking minds because of them.  But the ‘Wow!’ factor is hard to get; the real story of the experiments – the failures, struggles, many hours of patient toil – are hidden, untold.  As Prof. Holldobler says in an interview, ‘When you hear me talk, it sounds all so straightforward. This is always deceiving. If I would tell you how we came to do this experiment, it would be very boring for you’.

But it is these stories of passion, drive and wonderful discovery that inspire people to devote their lives for science.

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