Mars-One: Would you take a one way trip to Mars?

Human Settlement on Mars Mars One will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Crews of four will depart Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 9.04.45 AMevery two years, starting in 2024. Our first unmanned mission will be launched in 2018. Join the Global Mars One Community and participate in our mission to Mars. – See more at: http://www.mars-one.com/#sthash.S5t58baQ.dpuf.

Human Settlement on Mars Mars One designed a mission using only existing technology. In the coming years, a demonstration mission, communication satellites, two rovers and several cargo missions will be sent to Mars. A reliable living environment will be waiting for the astronauts when they leave Earth. – See more at: http://www.mars-one.com/#sthash.S5t58baQ.dpuf.

Astronaut Selection and Preparation The global search has begun for the first humans to set foot on Mars and make it their home. In an extensive training period, candidates will learn the skills they will need on Mars and on their journey there. The combined skill set of each astronaut team member will cover a very wide range of disciplines. In 1000 years, everyone on Earth will still remember who the first humans on Mars were. More than 200,000 men and women from around the world responded to the first call for astronauts. – See more at: http://www.mars-one.com/#sthash.S5t58baQ.dpuf

You Make It Happen The whole world will watch and experience this journey. We are all explorers. Everyone, including you, can participate in space exploration. This can be your mission to Mars! Join our global effort by sharing our vision with your friends, supporting us and perhaps becoming a Mars astronaut yourself. – See more at: http://www.mars-one.com/#sthash.S5t58baQ.dpuf

All information comes from: http://www.mars-one.com/. Please see this website for updates.

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Article: Controlling Genes with your thoughts

Controlling genes with your thoughts

Date:
November 11, 2014
Source:
ETH Zurich
Summary:
Researchers have constructed the first gene network that can be controlled by our thoughts. Scientists have developed a novel gene regulation method that enables thought-specific brainwaves to control the conversion of genes into proteins (gene expression). The inspiration was a game that picks up brainwaves in order to guide a ball through an obstacle course.

It sounds like something from the scene in Star Wars where Master Yoda instructs the young Luke Skywalker to use the force to release his stricken X-Wing from the swamp: Marc Folcher and other researchers from the group led by Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Department of Biosystems (D-BSSE) in Basel, have developed a novel gene regulation method that enables thought-specific brainwaves to control the conversion of genes into proteins — called gene expression in technical terms.

“For the first time, we have been able to tap into human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network and regulate the expression of a gene depending on the type of thought. Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we’ve been chasing for over a decade,” says Fussenegger.

A source of inspiration for the new thought-controlled gene regulation system was the game Mindflex, where the player wears a special headset with a sensor on the forehead that records brainwaves. The registered electroencephalogram (EEG) is then transferred into the playing environment. The EEG controls a fan that enables a small ball to be thought-guided through an obstacle course.

Wireless Transmission to Implant

The system, which the Basel-based bioengineers recently presented in the journalNature Communications, also makes use of an EEG headset. The recorded brainwaves are analysed and wirelessly transmitted via Bluetooth to a controller, which in turn controls a field generator that generates an electromagnetic field; this supplies an implant with an induction current.

A light then literally goes on in the implant: an integrated LED lamp that emits light in the near-infrared range turns on and illuminates a culture chamber containing genetically modified cells. When the near-infrared light illuminates the cells, they start to produce the desired protein.

Thoughts Control Protein Quantity

The implant was initially tested in cell cultures and mice, and controlled by the thoughts of various test subjects. The researchers used SEAP for the tests, an easy-to-detect human model protein which diffuses from the culture chamber of the implant into the mouse’s bloodstream.

To regulate the quantity of released protein, the test subjects were categorised according to three states of mind: bio-feedback, meditation and concentration. Test subjects who played Minecraft on the computer, i.e. who were concentrating, induced average SEAP values in the bloodstream of the mice. When completely relaxed (meditation), the researchers recorded very high SEAP values in the test animals. For bio-feedback, the test subjects observed the LED light of the implant in the body of the mouse and were able to consciously switch the LED light on or off via the visual feedback. This in turn was reflected by the varying amounts of SEAP in the bloodstream of the mice.

New Light-sensitive Gene Construct

“Controlling genes in this way is completely new and is unique in its simplicity,” explains Fussenegger. The light-sensitive optogenetic module that reacts to near-infrared light is a particular advancement. The light shines on a modified light-sensitive protein within the gene-modified cells and triggers an artificial signal cascade, resulting in the production of SEAP. Near-infrared light was used because it is generally not harmful to human cells, can penetrate deep into the tissue and enables the function of the implant to be visually tracked.

The system functions efficiently and effectively in the human-cell culture and human-mouse system. Fussenegger hopes that a thought-controlled implant could one day help to combat neurological diseases, such as chronic headaches, back pain and epilepsy, by detecting specific brainwaves at an early stage and triggering and controlling the creation of certain agents in the implant at exactly the right time.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by ETH Zurich. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Marc Folcher, Sabine Oesterle, Katharina Zwicky, Thushara Thekkottil, Julie Heymoz, Muriel Hohmann, Matthias Christen, Marie Daoud El-Baba, Peter Buchmann, Martin Fussenegger. Mind-controlled transgene expression by a wireless-powered optogenetic designer cell implant. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5392 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6392

Science In The News: Singing Loud for Love

Newly Discovered Crickets Make World’s Highest Pitched Love Song

Science In The News: Blonde Hair Caused By DNA Mutation (A to G)

Photo of a young boy with curly blond hair.

A new study that found blond hair is the result of a small genetic “tweak” could provide clues for how to genetically treat illnesses.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN SCHOELLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Karen Weintraub

for National Geographic News

PUBLISHED JUNE 1, 2014

For thousands of years, people have both prized and mocked blond hair. Now, a new study shows that many can thank a tiny genetic mutationa single letter change from an A to a G among the 3 billion letters in the book ofhuman DNAfor their golden locks.

The mutation “is the biological mechanism that helps create that [blond] color naturally,” said David Kingsley, a professor of developmental biology at Stanford University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who led the research. “This is a great biological example of how traits can be controlled, and what a superficial difference blond hair color really is.”

Kingsley, a brunet, said the study, published today in Nature Genetics, also offers a powerful insight into the workings of the human genome. The mutation doesn’t alter the protein production of any of the 20,000 genes in the human genome, he said. Instead, in people of European ancestry, it causes blond hair through a 20 percent “turn of the thermostat dial” that regulates a signaling gene in the hair follicles of the skin.

Elsewhere in the body, that signaling gene is involved in the formation of blood, egg, sperm, and stem cells. Turning such a gene entirely on or off could be devastating. But a tiny mutation that tweaks the gene’s activity in only one area—in this case the skin—allows for harmless changes, he said.

Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist at Harvard University and Broad Institute who was not involved in the research, said the study is a “beautiful demonstration” of this kind of tweaking, which has previously been poorly understood. To find a single letter change and prove that it is a big driver of blond hair is a major scientific accomplishment, she said.

Photo of a young girl with blond hair.

Blond hair, like this young girl’s, is caused by a single DNA base pair change.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN SCHOELLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

A Subtle Change With Big Results

To find the blond-hair gene mutation, Kingsley and his team looked at an area of the genome previously linked to blondness in people fromIceland and the Netherlands. They painstakingly identified the exact letter change that gives a person blond hair.

The researchers tested what that letter change did in human skin cells grown in a petri dish. The cells showed a reduction in activity in the switch that controls the signaling gene. Then Kingley’s group bred lines of mice that either had the mutation or didn’t have it. The single-letter change didn’t create blond mice, but those with the mutation had coats of a lighter color than those without.

Learning the mechanism behind something as common—and as universally recognizable—as hair color, can help explain how genes work in other contexts, such as illnesses, where the stakes are higher, Kingsley said. “Understanding these principles will help people … trying to find drugs for diseases.”

Hopi Hoekstra, a professor of genetics at Harvard who was not involved in the research, said the new finding confirms what researchers had long suspected: that small changes in gene expression caused by only a single DNA base pair change can lead to major changes in traits.

Hair color “is a great starting point to do this type of molecular dissection” because it’s simple to see whether the mutation results in a change in appearance, she said. “But it highlights how difficult this is going to be for more complex human traits, like mental illness, which we’ve never been very good at measuring.”

The blond hair mutation—or variant—is not genetically linked to any other traits, even eye color, Kingsley said, showing that none of our stereotypes about blonds are true. In contrast, many other human variants, such as some that cause red hair, are known to affect the protein structure of genes, and therefore trigger changes everywhere in the body the gene is expressed. Red hair, fair skin, and lighter eyes tend to travel as a package, he said, and may even be genetically paired with greater sensitivity to pain and temperature changes—though probably not fiery temper

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140601-blond-hair-color-gene-mutation-science/#at_pco=cfd-1.0&at_ab=-&at_pos=5&at_tot=4&at_si=538ec1589b359e1d

Science in the News: Dolphins help to save girl

Dolphins Guide Scientists to Rescue Suicidal Girl

Science in the News: One-Way Voyage to Mars -Would you go?

One-Way Mars Trip: 1,058 PrivateMartian Colony Volunteers Pass 1st Cut

By Megan Gannon, News Editor   |   December 31, 2013 12:52pm ET

Mars One 2025 settlementMars One announced Monday (Dec. 30) that it has picked 1,058 aspiring spaceflyers to move on to the next round in its search for the first humans to live and die on the Red Planet.

The Netherlands-based nonprofit wants to start launching groups of four on one-way trips to Mars by 2023, with the long-term goal of creating the first permanent settlement on Mars. More than 200,000 people applied for a spot on Mars One’s list of future colonists by the time the initial application window closed on Aug. 31. The only requirement to apply was to be over age 18. Those who get to move on to the next, more rigorous selection phase were notified by email.

The group’s co-founder Bas Lansdorp said in a statement it was challenging to separate “those who we feel are physically and mentally adept to become human ambassadors on Mars from those who are obviously taking the mission much less seriously,” adding that some even appeared nude their application videos. [Images of Mars One’s Red Planet Colony Project

 Of those who made the first cut, 297 are from the United States. Canada is the second best represented country with 75 candidates, followed by India with 62 and Russia with 52. All told, Mars One is looking at applicants from 107 different countries, according to figures released by the group.

Nearly 77 percent of the people who made the first cut are employed, while about 15 percent are still in school. About 55 percent of the applicants are male and most are quite young: 357 are under 25 and 415 are under 35, while just 26 are over 56. The oldest person to make it to the next round is 81.

“The next several selection phases in 2014 and 2015 will include rigorous simulations, many in team settings, with focus on testing the physical and emotional capabilities of our remaining candidates,” Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s Chief Medical Officer, said in a statement.

Mars One officials have said in the past that they plan to broadcast a reality TV show to track the astronauts’ selection and training process (and raise funds for the missions). Lansdorp said Monday that the group is still in negotiations with media companies over the rights to televise Mars One’s activities.

“We fully anticipate our remaining candidates to become celebrities in their towns, cities, and in many cases, countries,” Lansdorp. “It’s about to get very interesting.”

Earlier this month, Mars One unveiled plans for the first private unmanned mission to the Red Planet. With expertise from Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Mars One hopes to send a robotic lander and satellite to the Red Planet in 2018 as a precursor to their manned missions.

To help get the robotic mission off the ground, the group also launched their first crowd-funding campaign through the website Indiegogo, which you can learn about here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/mars-one-first-private-mars-mission-in-2018

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us@SPACEdotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

Would go on a one-way voyage to Mars? Why or Why not? 

Science in the News Article: Top 10 New Species of 2013 Announced

My personal favorite is the  sweet eyed Olinguito found in Ecuador! It just goes to show that we still have a lot to learn about the other living organisms in which we share the planet with.

May 22, 2014 by Sci-News.com
An awesome mammal from Colombia and Ecuador, a leaf-tailed gecko from Australia and a snail with semi-transparent shell from Croatia are among the new species identified by the SUNY-ESF International Institute for Species Exploration as the top 10 new species discovered in 2013.

Established in 2008, the annual top-10 list calls attention to discoveries that are made even as species are going extinct faster than they are being identified.

“The majority of people are unaware of the dimensions of the biodiversity crisis,” said Dr Quentin Wheeler, president of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration.

Scientists believe 10 million species await discovery, about 5 times the number that are already known to science.

1. Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a new carnivorous mammal from Colombia and Ecuador:

The Olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina, in the wild. Photo credit: Mark Gurney.

This animal resembles a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear. It lives secretively in cloud forests of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. It is an arboreal carnivore that belongs to the family Procyonidae, which includes the familiar raccoon.

The olinguito is smaller, though, typically topping out at about 2 kg. It is the first new carnivorous mammal described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

2. Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii), a new tree from Thailand:

Dracaena kaweesakii and its flowers. Credit: Warakorn Kasempankul / Parinya Siriponamat / Paul Wilkin.

The Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree grows up to 12 m tall. Beautiful, soft, sword-shaped leaves with white edges and cream-colored flowers with bright orange filaments are the hallmarks of this plant.

The tree is found in the limestone mountains of the Loei and Lop Buri Provinces in Thailand and may also be found in nearby Burma. Valued as a horticultural plant, its small number – perhaps 2,500, and the fact that it grows on limestone that is extracted for the manufacture of concrete, has earned this species a preliminary conservation status of endangered.

3. Andrill anemone (Edwardsiella andrillae), a new marine anemone from Antarctica:

In an underwater image, Edwardsiella andrillae anemones protrude from the bottom surface of the Ross Ice Shelf. They glow in the camera's light. Image credit: Frank Rack / ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Edwardsiella andrillae is a small creature, less than 2.5 cm. It has pale yellow body and two dozen tentacles.

It lives under a glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and was discovered when the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) sent a remotely operated submersible vehicle into holes that had been drilled into the ice.

4. Skeleton shrimp (Liropus minusculus), a new crustacean from an island off the coast of Southern California, the United States:

Liropus minusculus, male. Image credit: SINC / J.M. Guerra-García.

This shrimp, the smallest in the genus, was identified from among specimens originally collected from a cave on the island of Santa Catalina.

The Skeleton shrimp has an eerie, translucent appearance that makes it resemble a bony structure. The male’s body measures just 3.3 mm; the female is even smaller at 2.1 mm.

5. Orange penicillium (Penicillium vanoranjei), a new fungus from Tunisia:

Penicillium vanoranjei. Image credit: Cobus M. Visagie / Jan Dijksterhuis.

The Orange penicillium was named as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, specifically His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange.

This species produces a sheet-like extra-cellular matrix that may function as protection from drought.

6. Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius eximius), a new lizard from Australia:

The Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko with regenerated tail. Image credit: Conrad Hoskin.

Discovered on rocky terrain in isolated rain forests of the Melville Range of eastern Australia, this species has an extremely wide tail that is employed as part of its camouflage. With longer limbs, a more slender body and larger eyes than other Saltuarius species, the gecko has a mottled coloration that allows it to blend in with its surroundings.

Native to rain forests and rocky habitats, the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed gecko is a bit of a night owl. It is found on the vertical surfaces of rocks and trees as it waits for prey. Surveys of similar habitat near the area where this species was found did not reveal additional populations, so this may be a rare species.

7. Amoeboid protist (Spiculosiphon oceana), a new one-celled organism from Mediterranean Sea:

Two specimens of Spiculosiphon oceana. Image credit: Manuel Maldonado.

This species was discovered in underwater caves 30 miles off the southeast coast of Spain. It grows up to 5 cm long – a giant in the world of single-celled organisms. It gathers pieces of silica spicules, which are actually sponge fragments, from its surroundings and uses them like so many Lego blocks to construct a shell.

It ends up looking much like a carnivorous sponge as well as feeding like one, extending pseudopods outside the shell to feed on invertebrates that have become trapped in the spiny structures.

8. Clean room microbe (Tersicoccus phoenicis), a new aerobic, gram-positive bacterium from French Guiana and Florida, the United States:

Tersicoccus phoenicis. Image credit: Leibniz-Institute DSMZ / Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

Tersicoccus phoenicis was independently collected from the floors of clean rooms in Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Center Spatial Guyanais, Kourou, French Guiana. While frequent sterilization reduces the microbes found in clean rooms, some resistant species persist.

Found in the cleanest places on our planet – where spacecraft are assembled, this bacterium could potentially contaminate other planets that the spacecraft visit.

9. Tinkerbell fairyfly (Tinkerbella nana), a new insect from Costa Rica:

Micrograph of Tinkerbella nana magnifies the delicate fairyfly structure. Scale line - 100 μm (Jennifer Read / Natural Resources Canada)

This species was named for Peter Pan’s fairy sidekick. It measures just 250 micrometers and is among the smallest insects. It is the latest addition to the 1,400 or so known species of the parasitoid wasp family Mymaridae.

The Tinkerbell fairyfly was collected by sweeping vegetation in secondary growth forest at LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica.

10. Domed land snail (Zospeum tholussum), a snail with semi-transparent shell from Croatia:

The cave-dwelling snail Zospeum tholussum. Image credit: J. Bedek.

This snail was discovered about 980 m below the surface in the Lukina Jama-Trojama caves of western Croatia.

It measures only 2 mm in length and moves slowly, creeping only a few mm or cm a week.

The species lacks eyes as they’re not necessary in the total darkness of the caves, and has no shell pigmentation giving it a ghost-like appearance.

Only one living specimen was collected in a large cavern among rocks and sand with a small stream of running water nearby, however many shells were also found in the area.

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/science-top10-new-species-01938.html

World’s Biggest Dinosaur Discovered

May 17, 2014 | by Lisa Winter
Read more at http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/%E2%80%9Cworld%E2%80%99s-biggest-dinosaur%E2%80%9D-discovered#PYvu2t7RE1B5SleW.99

A farmer in Chubut, Argentina made an incredible dinosaur discovery about three years ago. While working out in his fields, he stumbled across some fossilized dinosaur remains. Paleontologists from the nearby Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio excavated the area and found about 150 incredibly well-preserved bones from seven individuals of a species that is likely the largest to ever walk the Earth.

The remains come from a newly-described species of titanosaur, which are large herbivorous sauropods. It lived in the late Mesozoic about 95 million years ago. This behemoth will not have a name until the findings are published in a scientific journal, but the researchers have claimed they will choose a title that pays tribute to the region, the farmer, and the dinosaur’s incredible size.

It is estimated to be an astonishing 40 meters (130 feet) long from head to tail and 20 meters (65 feet) tall. A creature this large would have likely weighed in at a hefty 77 tonnes (85 short tons), which is over eleven times more than Tyrannosaurs rex.

Researchers are currently comparing this species to Argentinosaurus, which is currently regarded as the largest dinosaur ever. However, Argentinosaurus is believed to weigh about 7 tonnes (7.7 tons) less than this new species, and has likely been officially dethroned as the largest terrestrial animal ever.

Understanding the true size of the dinosaurs is always open for some debate when there isn’t a complete skeleton. Assumptions must be made about the size and shape of missing bones, based on what they know about related species. However, there may be many more clues that have not yet been surfaced at the dig site.

José Luis Carballido, who is leading the dig has said in a press release on the museum’s website that the team is “[s]till working on this extraordinary site. We estimate that one fifth of the excavation process is completed, so there is still much work to do and probably much to discover.”

The researchers also found more than 60 teeth belonging to carnivorous species, who likely scavenged on the dead titanosaurs. Carballido claims that this opportunity came at a price, as the giant herbivores likely had incredibly thick skin that would have broken the carnivores’ teeth, though the teeth would have grown back.

Other fossils from the site indicate that when this giant dinosaur lived, the local landscape was quite green and lush with flowers and trees. The titanosaurs likely gathered near a source of water, and may have died after getting caught in mud.

The researchers note that the farmer’s family has been very accommodating during the excavation process as many pieces of large digging equipment have been brought in onto the land.

[All images credited to: Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio]


Read more at http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/%E2%80%9Cworld%E2%80%99s-biggest-dinosaur%E2%80%9D-discovered#PYvu2t7RE1B5SleW.99

Science in the News Article: How corkscrew vaginas and female penises evolved

Menno Schilthuizen, author of "Nature's Nether Regions" (Viking, 2014), looks at saki monkeys at the Prospect Park Zoo.

Menno Schilthuizen, author of “Nature’s Nether Regions” (Viking, 2014), looks at saki monkeys at the Prospect Park Zoo.
Credit: Megan Gannon for Live Science

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A male ruddy duck with a sky-blue beak coasted across a pond here at the Prospect Park Zoo, brightening a rudely cold spring day.

“There’s a very nice sexually selected bill color,” Dutch biologist Menno Schilthuizen said, poking his head over the wooden-post fence.

At some point in the species’ history, female ruddy ducks decided blue bills were sexy, and evolution favored the flamboyant feature. But evolution just as carefully selected another extravagant male trait, which, at the time, was hidden: a long, corkscrew-shaped penis. [The 7 Weirdest Animal Penises]

In his new book, “Nature’s Nether Regions” (Viking, 2014), Schilthuizen takes a sweeping look across the animal kingdom — from ducks tohermaphroditic snails that have sex all day to sharks that use one of their penises, or “claspers,” (they have two) to flush rival sperm out of the female’s vagina — to illustrate an amazing diversity of genitalia that has been largely unappreciated, even among scientists.

A sluggish start

“I think a lot of evolutionary biologists and people working on sexual selection were not fully aware of the genital diversity that exists,” Schilthuizen told Live Science in an interview at the zoo, commenting on the study of the evolution of sex parts, which has only taken off in the last 25 to 30 years. “The information was there, but it was contained within the field of taxonomy, where it was used extensively for identifying and circumscribing species.”

Many bumblebee species, for example, share the same wardrobe, and the only way for taxonomists to tell them apart was to capture a male and examine its penis, Schilthuizen explained in his book. But it took decades for scientists to realize that species-specific sex parts weren’t part of some lock-and-key design, but rather something more complex.

Back to the ruddy duck: While most birds don’t have any penis whatsoever, ducks do, and these prodigious members unfurl explosively when it’s time to mate. Only recently did scientists discover that some female ducks have long, corkscrew-shapedmenno-schilthuizen-zoo vaginas that spiral in the opposite direction as the male’s member. This allows the female to fight back against undesirable, notoriously aggressive males, since the duck’s penis won’t fit so easily. In this way, duck genitals look less like the byproducts of choosy females than the consequences of a sexual arms race, where male and female parts have evolved in response to each other’s ever-advancing equipment.

Charles Darwin might bear some of the blame for this tunnel vision. For all his contributions to the study of evolution, Darwin’s focus on secondary features unconnected to sex organs may have limited how biologists began investigating sexual selection.

“Because Darwin had paved the way with colorful feathers, rather than genitals, people who work on sexual selection had immediately started working on bird plumage and external features of precopulatory sexual selection, things like these colorful furs,” Schilthuizen said, this time pointing at the orange coats of the perky marmosets hopping between branches behind the glass of an indoor display. And sexual selection of bright colors and bizarre nether regions are not simply special cases of natural selection. [Why So Many Animals Evolved to Masturbate]

“It’s really sort of like chasing a moving target,” Schilthuizen said. “It’s not a kind of evolution that has an optimum or an end point, which adaptation to the environment often does have. The environment is usually much more static than the other half of the same species that co-evolves in response. That’s, by definition, a very dynamic kind of evolution.”

Female penises, male vaginas

When talking about genitals, scientists risk wading into a “semantic morass,” as Schilthuizen calls it in his book. That was perhaps apparent in April when a group of researchers announced the discovery of four news species of cave insects in which the females have a penis — or technically, an organ called a “gynosome,” which acts like a penis — and the male organ more closely resembles a vagina with valuable packets of sperm.

Shown here, the female penis structure of the cave insect Neotrogla aurora.
Shown here, the female penis structure of the cave insect Neotrogla aurora.
Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al.

“It’s such a good way of illustrating that sexual roles are not about whatsex chromosomes you have or what kind of sex cells you produce, but it’s really about how much you invest in the offspring, and that is what drives not only the intensity but also the direction of sexual selection,” Schilthuizen said.

For the role-reversing cave insects of the genus Neotrogla, the males’ sperm packets, or spermatophores, offer hard-to-come-by nutrients to the females to produce eggs and nourish their offspring. [See Photos of the Genital-Reversed Cave Insects]

“The male has become the sex which invests most nutrients in the offspring, so the male has become the choosy sex, and the females compete over access to the males with their large nutrient spermatophore,” Schilthuizen said. “That has set in motion the evolution of an intermittent organ in the females to either forcefully or otherwise persuade the male to give up that spermatophore.”

Human bias

Perhaps our tendency to anthropomorphize even tiny cave insects makes Neotrogla‘s gender-reversed arrangement seem bizarre. But if human bias distorts the way we look at animals, it also distorts the way we view ourselves.

As recently as the 1960s, many people — biologists even — held on to the rather romantic notion that the female orgasm was unique to humans and perhaps functioned as a way to promote bonding between couples. But for many animals, courtship extends beyond flaunting a flashy coat. Most female mammals have a clitoris, and likely experience orgasms during sex, though the organ might take on a shape wildly different from the human variety. Female spotted hyenas, for example, give birth through their 7-inch-long (18 centimeters) clitoris that looks more like a pseudopenis.

So what sets humans apart? Human males don’t have spines on their penises as chimpanzees (humans’ closest living relatives) and other large primates do, and females don’t experience conspicuous swelling of the vagina when they are fertile and ready to mate, Schilthuizen said, giving two examples. But one could revert the argument and find features on any animal that make it special.

“When everything is bizarre, then nothing is bizarre,” Schilthuizen said. “We have a tendency to still use what is familiar as the norm, and we need to realize that very few animals, because of this diversity, can be directly compared to humans or other animals that we are familiar with. And at a certain point, I wouldn’t say you become blasé, but you become aware that this unpredictably is more characteristic of sexual evolution than anything else. When you realize this, you stop being surprised.”

At the same time, with more knowledge about the multitude of intimate arrangements in the animal world, the most mundane creatures seem more fascinating.

“Even the chipmunks and squirrels that you see in the park here — once you know that they have sperm plugs and asymmetric penises and things like that, you look at them in a very different way,” Schilthuizen said.