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Darwin Ate an Owl
Darwin Ate an Owl

Episode · 2 years ago

Professor Russell Bonduriansky: An inordinate fondness for flies

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Mark sits down for a cuppa with a renowned evolutionary biologist as he recalls his early research experiences painting tiny insects and collecting rotting meat.

Welcome to Darwin eight an OWL. Hello, Hi Mark, I like that mission. That's pretty fantastic. This is cool, this is interesting, keeps me out of the gym anyway. That's people who we're going to find it endlessly fascinated. Fascinating Darwin ate an OWL. you know mark Horseman here. Welcome to Darwin eight an OWL, the podcast that explores the stories behind the science. For today's episode I sit down for a couple with Professor Russell Bondurianski. He's an evolutionary biologist with an inordinate fondness for flies, but more on that later. Evolutionary biologists want to understand why there's so many different species of plants and animals in the world and why they're so different. How it lifs get to be the way it is? Where the processes? What are the mechanisms? Evolutionary biology is an incredibly diverse field. Our understanding of how evolution works keeps will evolving. Some old, discarded ideas are making a comeback. Well, some new, controversial ideas are shaking the foundations of what we thought we knew about evolution. I asked Russell about his favorite controversy. My favorite controversial idea at the moment is whether it's appropriate to restrict the idea of inheritance and heredity to genes, as we've been doing for the past sen tree, or whether there's a lot of other stuff going on as well that we don't really understand yet. Some people are getting really excited about this already, and I'm one of them, and other people are still skeptical and are still reluctant to go there. Well, we have at the moment are a lot of clues that there are many other things that parents transmit to their offspring and that a lot of these factors can actually transmit biological information and can cause the offspring to resemble their parents and can behave in in some ways like genes, and other ways rather differently. For example, we humans are really familiar with with...

...cultural transmission. Parents transmit family traditions, they transmit languages to their kids, they transmit their favorite dish that they cook and so forth, and there's a there's a lot more below the surface. It's less less easy to recognize. For example, if you think about fertilization, we think about while a Nag and a sperm come together and they they contain genes, but they contain a lot more than genes. There's a cytoplasm as a cell membrane their cells. They're really complex cells with thousands of different kinds of molecules, and there is actually good evidence now that some of those molecules can transmit variation across generations and can cause offspring to resemble their parents and can transmit effects of environment that was experienced by the parents in some cases to the offspring. For example, if the parents were stressed during their life, this can cause the offspring to develop problems in their lives as well, and these effects appear to be conveyed across generations not by jeans but by variation in these other factors that are transmitted from parents to their offspring as well. This is a really interesting idea, the potential for environmental factors to cause changes in offspring traits. Russell is one of the leading experts on non genetic inheritance and much of his research in the past decade has been in this field, which brings us to his beloved research animals. I really like flies. Actually, I probably shouldn't admit it, but I've been working on flies for many years and they're they're wonderful steady systems for a lot of questions in evolutionary biology. Wi flies. Yeah, well, I got into flies a bit, I guess, accidentally. I originally, when I was an undergraduate, I wanted to study turtles and so I went and talked to a professor worked on turtles and I asked if I could volunteer with him and work with him because I knew that he did research at a at a research station in the summer, and this wasn't Canada in Algonquin Park, and he said sure, yeah, come and work with me, but you're going to work on flies. And I said flies. He said yeah, flies, because he had he had observed an interesting kind of fly that lived on discarded Moose outlers. And so I went up there not knowing anything...

...about anything. I was the only one in the lab not doing turtles. Everyone else is doing turtles, actually turtles, and I think snakes, and people are doing snakes. And I found some antlers and there were no flies on them and so I got really frustrated and then I started looking at other bones and I found lots of lies in other bones and I started observing them and then eventually the antler flies also showed up, and so that's that was sort of the beginning of my my career with flies. Your fly expert, I imagine, like if any fly goes past, can you recognize them by sound? No, no, I mean I know certain species. I've studied in in depth a few species, but flies are such an incredibly diverse group really known in the world. Could identify every fly. In fact, probably half of them are not known to science, haven't been scientifically described. So they're they're really an amazing poorly known resource, especially here in Australia. They're really amazing flies, many of them totally unknown and no doubt they're interesting. But why are they useful to you as an evolutionary modal, as a labrate in a way? Well, one reason is so people, of course, have been working with fly called Drosophala melanogaster for over a hundred years. For the UNINITIATED, Drusophila MELANAGASTA is the fancy name for a species of fruit fly, one of the most commonly studied and best understood species in the world. It's a really tiny organism. It's very easy to keep in the lab. You know, people can breed thousands of them. They can do experiments on them. They breed very quickly, they have a generation time of a week or two and so they're really convenient for a lot of things and a lot of the early work, for example in genetics, was done Undrosophla, Nana, gaster and but flies are incredibly diverse and one of the wonderful things about that is that it's possible to discover other species that have really interesting characteristics that could be really useful to address a certain kinds of questions. So the fly...

...that I initially started working on as a student that lives on discarded Moose oundlers, and only discarded Moose Oundlers, was wonderful because it was actually possible to track them in the wild and to discover what happens to them as they get older. It was thought at the time the things like insects just don't age in the wild. They age in the lab chure. You can keep them in the jar for a long time, they will deteriorate and they'll age, but in the wild they just live for a few days, something eats them. There's no senescence. But with these flies, the unique thing about them was that, because Moos ountlers are really difficult to find these flies. Once they find an outler, they stay on it for their entire life and they leave at night to go to the vegetation around the other and then in the day, in the morning, they return to the outler and they do everything on the other and so it was possible to actually track individuals throughout their lives and to observe them aging in the wild. How did you do that? You mentioned trekking individual flaws. These are very big. Other they're tiny. There a couple of millimeters long. It's a bit of a crazy story, this is, but it's an example of how, I think, things often happen in science. People just that accidentally discover things, accidentally get into different paths or these are the crazy stories we love. Yeah, so I was, as I mentioned, I was in a lab where everybody was working with turtles and they were capturing turtles and they were writing numbers on their carapace and then they would they would release them into the wild and every summer they would come back and set out turtle traps and capture these turtles and then they would measure them and they would try to age them and look at their health. And so I didn't know anything about anything, and so I had these flies. I wanted to figure out what they were doing and I realized that they they were running around on these outlers, but I couldn't I couldn't distinguish them. There were hundreds of little flies. They look the same to me. So I thought, well, I'll just paint numbers on them, just like the turtles. And the next question was, well, how do I do that? So I started playing around with various ways to keep them still enough so that I could paint numbers on their back with under the microscope of the...

...tiny, tiny paint rush, and eventually I came up with a way to do that. And so I would paint a number or letter, some sort of a code on a fly and then I would release it back to the outler and then I would come back every day and I would see what it was doing. And that actually proved and it was totally crazy, but it proved to be really effective and a way to obtain little biographies for these flies that I could later analyze and look for patterns of deterioration, for patterns of aging. So did they slow down today? Does their rate of mating drop as they get older. It's as their probability of dying increases, they get older, and that's in fact what I found. So it turned out to be a really useful system for that pine staking that yeah, it was a lot of work. There were some days when I would be in the lab at two o'clock in the morning painting numbers on flies. I could release them all, we've obeyed. They yeah, how many? How many did you do in the indie thing? Oh, thousands of let's just look at your eyes. Go all thousands of a how long it painful to remember? Well, it was actually over several field seasons. I came back. So my first season I just kind of found my footing and found that some of these things could be done, and then I came back the next summer and I spent the whole summer there and I marked thousands of flies, I released them and I collected a lot of really nice data. Yeah, the things you do when you're not fully aware of the consequence act. But did that end up becoming a seminal moment in your career? Yes, I think so. For one thing, it was my entry way into research and I discovered that I was able to do something with these silly flies that I just I just started working on. That hadn't been done before in in any other insect. It was the first time anyone had seen eight insect aging in the wild and so I thought, wow, this is great, I can actually do some science with these, with these crazy flies. But the other the other aspect of that is that I discovered that these flies were actually they had a bunch...

...of relatives, related species. They were also little, tiny black flies. But these other flies lived on Carrion. They lived on dead animals. And in the place where I was doing this work and all, Gouplin Park at Ontario, there are lots of Moose and the Moose get hit by vehicles going down the freeway through the park and so there's a lot of carrying around and there are a lot of carrion flies. GETS BITTER BETTER? Yeah, it's yeah, you know. So I started observing these carryon flies on bones and on carcasses and my phd work ended up being on carryon flies. So you spent an an ordinant amount of time. We've road keeled. Yes, yes, I would go to the carryon dump. The it was a special dump off the main rubbish dump in the park. Where carcasses of Moose and bears would be would be hauled off and I would climb into the pit and I would saw pieces of carryon and bring them back to the research station and set them up and the Carrion would attract the flies and I would observe the flies. I can imagine the smell of that, but can you describe the sound of the Carryon Dump? That's an interesting question. So carryon is actually an amazing thing. I think very few people look really bothered to look closely enough at carrying for obvious reasons. But carryon is an incredibly rich island of resources. You can walk around in the forest and their leaves and trees and grass and a lot of that is very resource poor. It's just a lot of cellulose and carbohydrates. But carryon, you know, it's a piece of rotting meat. There's a huge amount of energy and nutrients and so carrying attracts incredible variety and density of different organisms that that want to use those resources and they lay eggs on the carrion and their larvae develop up in the carryon and there's an incredibly complex ecosystem that develops there and the density of organisms can be such that they make a really, really audible sound. And when you get close to the carry and there's of course the smell factor, but you can also hear all these writhing larvae rolling over each other and scraping against each other and it sounds like there's a there's a really loud rustling noise, like a crackling...

...noise like cellophane and yeah, wow. Well, as I say, welcome to test mania, road kill capital of Australia. Wonderful. Would you think of a applying your you know your research proclivities for carrying here? Absolutely. Yes, I'm actually quite keen to start working on Australian flies in the same group that use carrying as well. Since I came to Australia I've actually been working on flies that breed and rotting tree bark. So it's it's in some ways it's similar, because riding tree bar can sometimes be also very nutrient rich and lots of organisms breed in it, but it's not quite the same as carrying. I'm keen to get back to carry on some day. That they could almost be your epitaph perhaps from keen to get back to carrying some day. Yes, good point. So to transfer this work in the field to the lab, I imagine you'd have to be fairly inventive to rear these animals in laboratory conditions and you're doing things with animals that no one knows anything about. So when I started working on carry and flies, I quickly decided that I could do some interesting things with them if I could bring them into the lab, I could rear them in the lab, I could get fresh young individuals that it just emerged. And so I didn't know how to do this yet and my first thought was, okay, these things are breeding in Moose carcasses and so I need to cut up, you know, I get to an easy get pieces of a carcass of bring them into the lab. And then I thought, well, it might be easier if I just went to a butcher shop and I got some pieces of bone and things like this and I brought those into the lab. So I went to a butcher butcher shop in Toronto and I bought a bag full of cuttings of cow bone and I left them somewhere to Rott and then when they were good and rotten, I took one of these out and it was kind of too big. It wouldn't I need to cut this thing up into small pieces. And so I thought, okay, so I went to the shed and I got a machete and...

I put this piece of really rotten cow bone on this tree stump. I took my Machetti of good night, it's so long, and I chopped the bone and it exploded and and carry and went all over my face and I was covered in rotting cow bone marrow. So that was obviously not a good idea. And since after that, I decided that rotting ground beef would be much easier to work with in the laboratory, and that's what I ended up doing. Some organisms just turn out to be really, really difficult to work with in the lab just because we don't know what they eat, we don't know what sort of condition as they need. But carrying flies often turn out to be relatively simple because they read and writing meat, and so I essentially I was able to read all the species that I observed in the field just on writing ground beef, organic ground beef from the organic shop. But I would leave on the doubt desk in the lab for a couple of weeks until it was really, really ready. As your relationship with other members of your school, well, they hated me, of course everyone. People would slam their doors and complain to my supervisor and I remember the fateful day we were I was in a zoology lab and we were doing parasitology and dissecting road killed wallabies to see what worms are in their intestine, and then we realized that the entire building had just evacuated because we couldn't smell it anymore, but everybody else could. Exactly. Going further back, what brought you to this? It sounds like it wasn't initially an interest in flies. It could have been any organism, even turtles. But what sparked your initial interest in science? As long as I can remember, I've always been interested in biology and I always observed insects and caught insects and frogs and tadpoles and also anything else I could get my hands on as a kid and I would bring it home and I would try to keep it. Where was that? I originally from Ukraine. So I started doing this and in Odessa, Ukraine, and then I moved to Canada and I continued that sort of thing in a bit over there and then inspired by your parents, were they in the same kind of thing?...

No, my parents weren't too thrilled with the whole idea. So it will you one of those kids with I'm managerie and the Abbat as I had. Yeah, I had all sorts of things inside collections. Inside collections I had snakes, frogs, turtles, birds, mice, generables, all sorts of things, snakes. So you always had in your mind you wanted to be, if a naturalist or or was it going to be a scientist? Well, as a child I didn't really know the distinction, but certainly it's certainly a biologist, a naturalist, a scientist of some sort of studying, studying living things. What is it about scientists that inspires you? When you look around a people that you feel motivated by or inspired by? What is what if they got that really drives you? I think for me it was an opportunity to continue my hobbies into my adult life and make a career out of them. But I think that for many scientists that's really what it is. They have a passion for something, something crazy and esoteric, and they find a way to make a living out of it and to keep doing it rather than just giving it up and going into doing something else to have a real life or real adult life. Scientists, in a way, scientists don't want to grow up. I think that for many scientists, I think that's that's a true statement pain. Yeah, something like that. What's your greatest frustration in doing your science? Doing Science, like anything else, you know, there are a lot of practical challenge has and some of them aren't very interesting, very very pleasant. One has to has to obtained funding for science, one has to find students that are interested in doing these kinds of things and there's a lot of a lot of dog work and boring things that have to be done, a lot of office work and actually, I guess if I went frustration at this point in my career, it is that I spend too much time in my office and I don't do the field work that I really I really still love and that was my initial entry way into science. So I missed that aspect of it of just going out into into the wild...

...and just finding new things and observing them. Can you describe one of those shining moments that you work for? For me it's always observing something that's never been seen before, and it can often it's something small, it's some little detail of behavior. Some it's a small organism doing something really strange that I don't understand and that I hadn't noticed before. Maybe no one's noticed before, because we really know very little about about the biological diversity around us, and so for me it's this wonderful opportunity to, you know, look really closely at what's going on and see new things. I really enjoy that. What is your hope for the line of research you're in? Where do you hope it will take not only you, but how it could help society and people in General? I think the kind of fundamental knowledge that the evolutionary biologists seek to gain about the natural world and it's it's really important in some sense. It's important for us to try to understand the world around us, and different science, scientists and different sciences approach different aspects of that and they do it in different ways and some sciences seem quite quite a Sataric, quite abstract of listeningly biology. Many people find it difficult to see the practical uses of that, but there are in fact practical, practical applications. But I think even beyond that that shouldn't be really the guiding principle. It should be about just understanding the world around us. I think driven by curiosity. By curiosity sure, turning over that role con saying what's on to night. Yeah, exactly, Russell. Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure talking to thank you all of this with your future, if it's thank you. Thanks for listening to Darwin Eight, an OWL and production of s spectral media, beaker street...

...and cresness media with host Mark Horsemen. Research and writing by me, margot adler and mark Horseman, recording and editing by Fraser Johnston and Andrew Terrell, sound design and music by Nick Sullivan. You can get new episodes automatically and for free by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. You can get in touch with us on facebook.

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