A Decaying, Giant and Misshaped Penis

What a wonderful day for Science! Today I was introduced to the exotic and wonderful plant- Amorphophallus titanum (or Amorpho- misshapened, phallus- phallus/penis, titanum- giant).  Native to the rainforests of Sumatra and Indonesia, this behemoth can stand erect at a staggering height of 20 feet and even reach a diameter of five feet. Although the ‘Titania’ I saw today at the University of Illinois’ Plant Biology Greenhouse was close to four feet tall, its most distinctive feature was certainly present in the room: its smell.

The Amorphophallus titanum standing erect to bystanders

Despite the flower’s formal, Linnaean name (Amorphophallus titanum) , a common name used to distinguish this plant is the The Corpse Flower. The flower is characteristic for smelling like rotting meat, enough to send Ron Jeremy out of the tropical rainforests. Using two sulphur compounds, this giant flower attracts carrion flies and flesh-eating beetles as a means for pollination. As many chemists and biologist will know, sulfur-containing compounds are suprisingly heavy, which restrict this odor from becoming airbourne.

Despite this shortcoming, the Corpse Flower is equipped with two remarkable features to attract its strange pollinators. (1) By retaining the compounds in a chamber, the flower heats these heavy compounds up to 100 degrees, which when in bloom, the flower will render the sulphur compounds volatile. (2) The phallus (or more formally known by Botanists as the spadix) noted at the center of the flower diffuses the acrid and distasteful compounds throughout the rainforest. This mechansm is similar to the reed diffusers one would find at Bed Bath and Beyond.

What a remarkable plant!

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Fighting Fire with Fire in Virology and Behavior

Some would characterize the Rabies virus as a lethal, zombie-inducing parasite. A victim could easily be spotted by a mouth foaming in virus-infected slobber or even with a confused, aggressive temperament. The remarkable capability for this virus to infect the mammalian brain and hijack its host’s behavior presents an intriguing mechanism of the natural world. In order to enhance transmission rates, the parasite will aggravate the host’s nervous system and coax into biting another victim. Though rabies captures the attention of many neuroscientists and brains alike, the virus is being accompanied by a fierce, more exotic viral parasite lurking within the American wilderness.

Rabies- A True Parasite of Ethology

The monster is called V-RG. Its punctuated, rather embellished name may describe its function or even hint of its laboratory roots.  In order to barrage the spread of rabies, the United States Department of Agriculture has engineered a well-known form of poxvirus known as Vaccinia. This special strain of Vaccinia expresses a major Rabies surface antigen named Rabies-Glycoprotein. Hence, from the name alone, one can determine V-RG stands for Vaccinia- Rabies Glycoprotein. Once the virus has been manufactured, the USDA packages it inside baits and distributes them throughout the American wilderness, which await the digestion by a raccoon, fox or possibly a redneck in Kentucky.
V-RG packaged within a tasty crumpet-like baits. Many times containing fish oils and other attractants. Photo courtesy of cdc.gov. 

Since all viruses require a host or cell for its own existence,  all viruses, by definition, are obligate parasites. This truth can  can be exemplified by similar viruses of V-RG: smallpox, Varicella-Zoster (chickenpox) or shingles.  The enticement in using ilk similar to the viruses that caused notorious pandemics or diseases rests at the molecular level.  The genomes of all poxviruses are composed of large dsDNA segment(s) in which genes stand abreast with individual promoters, and in many cases, are transcriptionally regulated by splicing or specific transcription factors. This large and ‘spacious’ genome allows researchers accessibility for gene insertions and deletions, which allows the addition of the rabies’ virus surface glycoprotein.

Yet, the most intriguing feature of  V-RG resides within its mode in being a parasite. While V-RG vaccinates the American wilderness, its existence is perpetuated through our artificial selection, that is our [Humans] intentional preference on which genes exist among an organism. This is generally contrasted against the distinguished concept of Natural Selection in which traits or genes exist depending upon its fitness within nature. Though humans have embraced the notion that genetically-modified organisms (or GMO’s) may be beneficial within our many of our industries, have we imagined or thought a genetically-modified parasite could operate upon our own intelligence and technology? Nevertheless, I believe we should be reminded of the damage parasites have caused and exercise caution when introducing an elegant and exotic form of poxvirus into the World.

A Victim of Smallpox virus. The lesions (or pocks) are jammed with virion particles. Poxviruses exploits the integumentary system (skin) in order to exit the host and spread

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