These Flowers Change Color on Demand


In the future, your garden might change colors every day. That’s if a Colorado-based company can meet its goal of designing a petunia that goes from pink to blue and back again with the sun’s rhythms. 

“We’re gardeners and we thought, ‘A color-changing flower? That would be pretty sweet to have in the garden,’” says Keira Havens, the CEO of Revolution Bioengineering. She and her partner Nikolai Braun are raising money through an Indiegogo campaign to create a new kind of flower they’re calling “Petunia Circadia.”

“All plants have circadian rhythms like people and animals where they kind of follow the sun,” Havens says. In the “Petunia Circadia,” the flower’s pigment molecules will be linked to this daily rhythm, causing it to change colors every 12 hours or so entirely on its own. 

This sounds like science fiction, but it’s not far off. Havens and Braun have already engineered a petunia that goes from white to red on command when given a sip of beer. Why beer? The color change is activated by ethanol, and alcohol is a good source of this stuff. “It’s an easy molecule to use and it’s pretty ubiquitous,” Havens says. “The whole point was to make something everyone can use.” These beer-drinking flowers are a gift for backers of the Indiegogo campaign. A contribution of $42 gets you a single plant; additional contributions get you more. They’ll arrive white and, once given a drop of beer, turn red over 24 hours and remain that color for about a week, or until watered again with regular H2O. The catch? Shipping isn’t set to start until the spring of 2017.

These shade-shifting flowers are a poster-child for a larger mission: raising awareness about genetic engineering, and removing some of the stigma that comes with it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are mired in controversy, which Havens says is hampering potentially valuable research. Case in point: She turned to Indiegogo for fundraising because no horticultural company wanted to be associated with the GMO drama. “There’s this unnecessary fear around GMOs,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion about what the technology is and what it does and what it can do. You can use it to do whatever you want, so we wanna make beautiful things with it.” She says biotechnology could someday be used to create new smells for flowers, or polka-dotted petals. 

Revolution Bioengineering is working with British artist and designer Helen Storey to create a dress that incorporates the color-changing flowers that will be on display in London next summer. “It will be a commentary, and start a discussion on how what society does impacts nature and how nature can come back and inform society,” Havens says.  

The campaign sits at around $18,400 and has a long way to go to reach its $75,000 goal by April 9. 

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?

Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:

The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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