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Zombied Snail

Leucochloridium paradoxum are a parasitic flatworm that prey on birds.
The worms begin their lives as eggs in bird droppings, and are consumed by snails along vegetation floors. Once consumed, the worms infect the snail's brains, take control of their mind, then "hypnotize" them into climbing just high enough to become bird food - where the cycle repeats.

Zombied Crickets

Gordian worm live inside crickets for long periods, feeding on the cricket's diet. Once fully grown, they inject chemicals into the cricket's brain "brainwashing" it and forcing it to kill itself by jumping into the water. Once in water, the worm wriggles out of the writhing body and swims off in search of a mate.

Zombied Ants

David Attenborough speaks on the amazing Cordyceps fungus that infect insects in the jungle. Each fungus attacks only one species of insect, first by altering their behavior and then bursts from their bodies to grow and eventually produce another generation of highly infective spores.

Eric Bland, Discovery News

Oct. 21, 2008 -- The same cells electric eels use to shock predators and prey can be engineered to power implanted biomedical devices , say researchers from Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"We now understand how the natural electric eel cells work," said David LaVan of NIST. "Now we can think about how we can use those cells to power medical devices."

Natural electric eel cells generate and release electric pulses of more than 500 volts with eight different channels and pumps.
By pumping positively charged potassium and sodium ions out of the cell, the number of negatively charged ions inside the cells rises. Opening certain channels causes electrons to flood out of the cell, producing enough electricity to stun the eel's victim.
Using computer models, the scientists experimented with different combinations of those eight pumps and channels. A cell with four pumps and channels was easier to make but only about four percent as efficient at converting sugar to electricity.

Surprisingly, by eliminating one pump (an "evolutionary leftover," as LaVan calls it) and adjusting the ratio of the other pumps and channels, the scientists designed a cell that was both powerful and energy efficient.

"It's like having a Ferrari that is also the most fuel-efficient car in the world," said LaVan. Natural electric eel cells are about 14 percent efficient at converting sugar into electricity, compared to 19 percent for the engineered cells.

The pumps and channels are powered by the same fuel that drives every human cell: adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Stripping off one phosphate group drives cellular activities and in the process turns ATP into adenosine diphosphate, or ADP. Sugar helps recycle ADP back into ATP.
Scientists would divert the sugar naturally produced in the body into the implanted electrical generator. Each individual cell would produce an estimate 150 millivolts.
Lining up those cells and sandwiching them between an insulting material, a four-millimeter cube could produce three volts of electricity, enough to power a retinal implants, for example. A typical TV remote battery produces about 1.5 volts.
Sugar is plentiful. Sunlight is even more plentiful. Eventually, the researchers want to use photosynthesis , the process plants use to turn sunlight into sugar, instead of using the body's own supply.
"Those pieces [that plants use for photosynthesis] exist, but we will have to sit down and rework them," said LaVan. "That's still an open question."
Another open question is whether these cells can actually be built; so far the powerful and efficient cellular powerhouses are only present in virtual reality.
Actually creating them can be done in two ways, said Atul Parikh, a scientist at the University of California, Davis.
One way is top-down -- essentially breeding live electric eels, harvesting their cells, and reconfiguring them to power implanted devices.
The other way is to engineer the cells from the bottom up, growing them into a designed configuration. The bottom-up method will likely be harder, but it would produce power more efficiently, said Parikh.
However the cells are created, Parikh said they could be used not only to power biomedical devices, but also energy outside the body.
"This could be a new way to make solar panels more efficient or bring us closer to a hydrogen economy," he said.
Basic prototypes could be developed within a couple of years, and an actual device could be implanted in as little as five years, if everything goes smoothly.
"The practical implications of this are huge," said Parikh. "The notion of biobatteries is very real."

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2008

Recently identified electrical activity on Saturn's largest moon bolsters arguments that Titan is the kind of place that could harbor life.

At a brisk -350 degrees Fahrenheit (-180 Celsius), Titan is currently much too cold to host anything close to life as we know it, scientists say
But a new study reports faint signs of a natural electric field in Titan's thick cloud cover that are similar to the energy radiated by lightning on Earth.

Lightning is thought to have sparked the chemical reactions that led to the origin of life on our planet.

"As of now, lightning activity has not been observed in Titan's atmosphere," said lead author Juan Antonio Morente of the University of Granada in Spain.

But, he said, the signals that have been detected "are an irrefutable proof for the existence of electric activity."

Frozen, Prebiotic Casserole

Morente's team studied data returned from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which broke away from NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2005 to become the first probe to go below Titan's clouds. (Read "Voyage to Saturn" in National Geographic magazine.)

As soon as the probe entered the moon's atmosphere, a strong wind tilted the device about 30 degrees.

This accidental motion enabled Huygens to detect the Earthlike electrical resonances that it otherwise would have missed, which Morente and colleagues describe their study, published in a recent issue of the journal Icarus.

Jeffrey Bada, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes the process that allowed lightning to spark life on Earth is universal and could happen in many environments—including on Titan.

Confirmation earlier this year of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes makes the Saturnian moon the first place other than Earth where open bodies of liquid have been found.

Hydrocarbons are organic molecules, and the fact that they exist in large quantities on Titan suggests that life could take root there under the right conditions.

"If you had lightning taking place in the atmosphere of Titan, you could make what we call precursor molecules," said Bada, who was not involved with Morente's study.

"To go any further than that," he said, "you need liquid water."

Titan's water is currently frozen into chunks as hard as granite. If those ice "rocks" were to melt, however, the environment could become more hospitable to the building blocks of life.

With liquid water, the planet could host the formation of amino acids and then full proteins, which drive all biochemistry and set the stage for more complex molecules.

"I look at Titan as a big, frozen, prebiotic casserole," Bada said, referring to the state before the emergence of life.

"The idea that life could be widespread in the universe, I think, is very credible."

A Field of Its Own

Advocates of theories about life on Titan note that various celestial events could temporarily warm up the moon enough to melt its ice into water.

Perhaps this happened in the past, they say—or it could happen in the future.

But study author Morente said it's impossible to precisely assess such possibilities with the scientific knowledge available today.

What astronomers do know is that Titan does not have its own magnetic field, he said. The moon instead orbits within Saturn's magnetosphere at differing distances from the planet.

This means that the strength of Titan's magnetic field is constantly changing, leaving its surface more vulnerable to damaging cosmic rays.

Without stable protection from radiation, Morente said, "the existence of life is very unlikely."

Soothing Pond




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