Friday, June 23, 2017

Icebergs and ants, two stories I tell my students

Seeker, formerly DNews, posted two videos recently about stories I tell my students.  The one that caught my eye first was The Insane Plan to Tow an Iceberg to the Middle East.

A United Arab Emirates company wants to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to the desert for drinking water, but is their plan feasible?
A United Arab Emirates Company Wants to Tow Icebergs From Antarctica to Combat Drought
"Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it doesn't get more desperate than the Emirates Iceberg Project - a new plan to lug giant ice cubes halfway across the world to combat drought in the United Arab Emirates."
I first encountered this idea back in the 1960s while I was reading the Time-Life book "Water."  Fifty years ago, it struck me as a science fiction project, complete with nuclear powered tugboats, but for at least the past decade, I've been telling this story as a way of illustrating the impracticality of using polar ice as a source of water.  After all, if the idea has been around for 50+ years, why hasn't anyone actually tried it?  It isn't better than the alternatives, such as desalinization, that's why.  Now that this video exists, I can show it to my students and say, "See, I'm not making this up."

The other video is one I could have used this week, as I lectured about fungal symbioses in the biodiversity class I teach in the summer.  Watch Ants Are Growing Food and They're Better at It Than We Are.

Believe it or not, ants started farming way before we did. How do they do it?
Ants Mastered Sustainable Agriculture 30 Million Years Ago
"Ants cultivated designer crops in controlled environments millions of years before humans figured out how to push seeds into the ground to grow food, scientists reported in a study Wednesday. It has long been known that dozens of ants species tend and harvest fungi in subterranean farms, mostly to feed a colony's larvae. A few species have taken that process to the next level, modifying fungi so thoroughly they can no longer survive in the wild, much in the way some genetically altered crops consumed by humans are not viable without pesticides or other inputs."

Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants
"The evolution of ant agriculture, as practised by the fungus-farming 'attine' ants, is thought to have arisen in the wet rainforests of South America about 55-65 Ma. Most subsequent attine agricultural evolution, including the domestication event that produced the ancestor of higher attine cultivars, is likewise hypothesized to have occurred in South American rainforests."

Symbiotic adaptations in the fungal cultivar of leaf-cutting ants
"Centuries of artificial selection have dramatically improved the yield of human agriculture; however, strong directional selection also occurs in natural symbiotic interactions. Fungus-growing attine ants cultivate basidiomycete fungi for food. One cultivar lineage has evolved inflated hyphal tips (gongylidia) that grow in bundles called staphylae, to specifically feed the ants."
Unlike towing icebergs, which I really think is a cool (pun intended) but stupid and impractical idea, studying ant agriculture would be worthwhile.  As Barry Commoner said, "Nature Knows Best."  Speaking of worthwhile, I think I will show this video to my class next week.  I haven't tested them on the material yet, so my students can still use it.

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