Can spiders die of over-eating? Asking for a friend

I found one of my Texas S. triangulosa, Jacinta, in her cage this morning, lying on the floor next to a completely drained and shriveled waxworm, unmoving. I nudged her, and she was lying bloated in a puddle of bodily fluids, dead.

This is not good.

So, like the title asks, can spiders lack self-control to the point that they’ll suck prey dry until they rupture? I may be treading new medical frontiers here.

Eye of newt, toe of frog, might as well fling some tardigrade genes into the cauldron

I have to love speculative science — it’s in my contract as a popularizer — but I also like solid, well-established science and the cautious determination of incremental advances in our knowledge. Looking at both ends of the continuum and everything in between sometimes exposes some very poorly thought-out leaps in people’s assumptions, though, and then it’s also in my contract that I have to be grumpy and point out the flaws. This morning I’m feeling my grumpy side.

Let’s start at the beginning, with some nice work in tardigrades. Tardigrades are cool, obviously, and have a reputation as being tough customers who can survive all kinds of stresses that the environment throws at them. Freeze them, dry them out, throw them in outer space, zap them with radiation, and they can cope…at least, they cope far better than we do. Part of this ability is that they’re small and relatively simple, and being tiny and compact in itself is an advantage, but in addition, their cells have a sophisticated battery of proteins evolved specifically to enable them to handle stressful cellular situations without giving up and dying. It’s a sensible approach to take apart the tardigrade genome and puzzle out the genetic strategies they use to optimize cellular protection from stress, as Kunieda and others have done.

They scanned through the tardigrade genome looking for differences with other, less resilient animals, and found that sometimes that change involved deleting pathways that triggered stress responses. For instance, the genes in purple below are present in us, but missing in tardigrades.

Gene networks involved in the regulation of mTORC1 activity. Magenta indicates genes absent in the tardigrade genome and green indicates retained genes. The interconnected eight genes mediating environmental stress stimuli to downregulate mTORC1 were selectively lost, whereas all components involved in sensing and mediating physiologic demands were present.

This absence makes sense. It is desirable for our cells to kick the bucket when hit hard by environmental stresses; one kind of instance where this could happen is in cancer, where cells are in a poor physiological state, and it’s better for them to die and be replaced by healthy cells. Tardigrades, on the other hand, are already in possession of only a few tens of thousands of cells, and may be trying to cope with a systemic stress that affects every cell in their body, so this approach is not such a good one for them.

They also identified unique genes found only in tardigrades, such as this one, called Dsup, short for damage suppressor. This gene makes a protein that is associated with the DNA, and which has a high affinity for DNA; it’s also expressed in tardigrades with a high resistance to radiation damage. So, the immediate question is…is this protein responsible for radiation protection, and how does it work?

Since tardigrade cells have a lot of mechanisms for dealing with stress, and they want to just look at this one protein, the authors extracted the tardigrade gene and transfected it into a human cell line in order to determine its effects on a cell lacking all the other stuff a tardigrade cell provides.

They chose to use HEK293 cells (HEK is short for human embryonic kidney). A word of caution: these are cancer cells, not normal human cells. They are a popular cell culture choice because they proliferate readily in a dish, and are easily transfected with foreign DNA. They are hypotriploid — having nearly 3 times the number of chromosomes of a normal human cell — and contain adenovirus DNA that has turned them into madly dividing cancer cells. That doesn’t matter for the Kunieda study, though, since they just want to add a tardigrade protein to see what new properties it confers on the cells.

So they hit untreated HEK293 cells and HEK293 cells incorporating the tardigrade Dsup gene with X-rays, and found that the Dsup gene protected the chromosomes — they saw 40% fewer single-strand DNA breaks. They also saw that Dsup reduced the number of double-strand DNA breaks in these cells. They also did good controls, for instance knocking down Dsup expression in transfected cells, and seeing the protection going away.

Distribution of the numbers of γ-H2AX foci per nucleus is shown. Each dot represents an individual nucleus of a HEK293 cell (Control) or a Dsup-expressing cell (Dsup) under non-irradiated and irradiated conditions. ***P<0.001; NS, not significant (Welch’s t-test).
[γ-H2AX looks for phosphorylated histones that form around double-stranded DNA breaks]

Good stuff. Good fundamental cell biology. There’s a lot of work here, but that’s what you have to do to tease out the role of various components of the stress response.

But then it gets weird as it percolates up into the popular press. This was a focused bit of research designed to assess how tardigrades defend themselves against radiation that used a human cell line as a tool, and suddenly, that’s the newsworthy part of the work. It starts with a Nature news article — they should know better, and it does start with a relevant discussion of the work, and then we get the section where it just has to be explained how it could affect humans.

This makes the new paper’s findings “highly interesting for medicine”, says Jönsson. It opens up the possibility of improving the stress resistance of human cells, which could one day benefit people undergoing radiation therapies.

Wait a moment. Just think it through. You, a doctor, have a patient with cancer that you’re going to treat with radiation therapy. Do you really want to make their cells more resistant to radiation? Sure, their healthy cells, but if you’ve got a way to transfect healthy cells with Dsup that does not similarly help cancer cells, you’ve probably got better molecular tools to target cancer cells selectively than radiation anyway.

Then, the line that’s going to spawn a lot of crap, from Kunieda himself.

Kunieda adds that these findings may one day protect workers from radiation in nuclear facilities or possibly help us to grow crops in extreme environments, such as the ones found on Mars.

Oh jeez. This is where Live Science steps in and builds a fantasy of genetically modified humans colonizing Mars.

Will we one day combine tardigrade DNA with our cells to go to Mars?

Chris Mason, a geneticist and associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell University in New York, has investigated the genetic effects of spaceflight and how humans might overcome these challenges to expand our species farther into the solar system. One of the (strangest) ways that we might protect future astronauts on missions to places like Mars, Mason said, might involve the DNA of tardigrades, tiny micro-animals that can survive the most extreme conditions, even the vacuum of space!

This is what prompted me to dig into this line of research. I read this hypothetical, and my cortex immediately sneezed “Bullshit!” in an acute skeptical reaction, and I had to read further. It’s the combination of an imaginary Mars colony and an imaginary radical re-engineering of the human genome to produce customized genetic humans to labor under conditions of extreme environmental hostility that set me off. None of this is realistic. None of the evidence so far is at all adequate to justify this kind of speculation. There is only the glimmering of consideration for the ethical consequences of such experimentation, if it were even feasible. Is genetically modifying your offspring so they can more efficiently farm potatoes on Mars likely to be something they desire? Hey, though, it’s an opportunity to bamboozle a gullible audience with buzzwords!

One way that scientists could alter future astronauts is through epigenetic engineering, which essentially means that they would “turn on or off” the expression of specific genes, Mason explained.

I detest the casual abuse of the word “epigenetic”. I’m doing “epigenetic engineering” right now — my metabolism undergoes the usual seasonal shifts as we move into winter. You’re doing it too. Cells are constantly going to “turn on or off” the expression of specific genes as an expected consequence of basic biology. It sure sounds sciencey though, doesn’t it?

Alternatively, and even more strangely, these researchers are exploring how to combine the DNA of other species, namely tardigrades, with human cells to make them more resistant to the harmful effects of spaceflight, like radiation.

This wild concept was explored in a 2016 paper, and Mason and his team aim to build upon that research to see if, by using the DNA of ultra-resilient tardigrades, they could protect astronauts from the harmful effects of spaceflight.

This is where I get really irritated. See that phrase, “explored in a 2016 paper“? The “2016 paper” is the Nature news article I cited above. The only “exploring” of the concept is that one line from Kunieda, almost certainly prompted by a journalist prompting him to say something about the relevance of his research to humans, because they don’t understand basic biology.

Then there’s that bizarre claim about building upon tardigrade research to use tardigrade DNA to protect astronauts from radiation. It’s not a quote, so I expect the Live Science journalist just invented it to say some random something to justify the article, but I would just ask a simple question of whoever made it up.


What specifically is being experimented on to improve astronaut’s resistance to radiation?

I’m going to guess that the real answer would be nothing, at least not yet. Let’s keep on eye on those wacky basic biologists who are studying core processes in genetics and cell biology with work on weird organisms that aren’t humans at all, and hope that sometime in decades to come some methods will emerge that will be applicable to human medicine. But until then, nope, nobody is shooting up astronauts with magical tardigrade DNA.

I guess we have to kill all the superstar scientists now, too

A study of “star” scientists in biology discovers an unsurprising fact: their fields undergo a substantial change when they die.

In the first two years after a star’s death, publications in their subfields increased modestly. But as the years passed, breaking the numbers down by author showed a startling change: Papers by newcomers grew by 8.6 percent annually on average. At the same time, papers published by collaborators took a nosedive, decreasing by about 20 percent a year. After five years, growth from newcomers was so substantial, it made up for the deficit from the collaborators.

In other words, large swaths of these fields had essentially been turned over.

Strangely, the article doesn’t dwell much on the likely cause: funding. It doesn’t even have to be intentional, but reviewers and study sections at the funding agencies tend to be biased by the presence of those who have already been funded, and big labs will have an undue influence because they have so many former students cheerleading for their mentors. This stuff also affects hiring — if you come from a famous lab, you’re more likely to get interviews and jobs.

That’s always been my impression, nice to see the inertia of big-name biologists measured.

Today was supposed to be a feeding day…

But I don’t think my spiders would be able to move. Look at Texanne here; she’s so bloated she’s not going to step out of that corner, I don’t think.

A few others are purging themselves into egg sac construction.

Anyway, I’ll check on them tomorrow, and as soon as they get active again I’ll throw them some more bugs full of ichor. The menu for Monday is mealworms.

What exactly is Trump hiding in his tax returns?

He has just asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether he should release his returns. I find this mystifying. Sure, everyone has a right to privacy — if I were asked to hand over my tax information to some random person, I’d resist on principle, but if I were given a subpoena and told to hand them over to authorities, I’d comply. I gave them to the IRS, after all.

This zealous refusal is peculiar and excessive, which makes me even more curious about what’s in there. There are two alternatives: 1) his tax returns are scrupulously honest and accurate, but he finds the truth embarrassing, so embarrassing that he would risk his reputation, low as it is, to hide them. Or 2) he lied, and they contain so much irresistible bait for investigative journalism that he fears he’ll be in legal jeopardy if they’re exposed.

I’m inclined to believe there are skeletons in there.

His defense is that a ruling against him would open the doors to all kinds of legal shenanigans against the presidency, although that’s never harmed a president before, and that he is above the law and gets to do whatever he wants while in office. That’s worrisome: he has incentive to never give up the presidency, and when he is expelled in 2020 or, dog forbid, in 2024, he’s going to fight like hell against the law.

Our greatest ally was unexpected

A decade ago, when vocal atheists were busy denouncing Christianity and other religions and furiously writing books against them, who would have thought that evangelical Christians themselves would deliver the death blow to their faith?

It’s amazing. All the values they claimed to have, that they claimed were sacred and intrinsic to their religion, casually discarded and converted to praise for a wealthy, corrupt boor. They just took everything we said was wrong with Christianity and validated it.

Unfortunately, at the same time, much of atheism decided to abandon the moral high ground and join the Christians in anti-feminism, anti-immigration, racist bullshit, so we can’t claim victory. It seems to be a general failure of humanity.

The Great Escape

Today was not a good day. My mission was to sort out the prisoners the newly emerged spiders into separate containers, and also to try to document the morphology of 4 day old Steatoda triangulosa. I started out well enough, using a small paintbrush to delicately pluck out the babies and move them, and then to snap their picture.

First problem: somehow, my scope had drifted out of whack, and the eyepieces were no longer parfocal with each other, or with the camera tube. This demanded immediate fixing, especially since the photos were coming out blurry and bad.

These were not acceptable. So I spent an hour fussing over the optics, tweaking the eyepieces, taking a bunch of photos of the tips of watchmaker forceps, etc., etc., etc., until I thought everything was nicely aligned. Then resume shifting spiders.

I was feeling pretty darned competent, deftly plucking up itty-bitty baby spiders, lifting them by their dragline to a new home, and then tossing them a few fruit flies. I got so confident that I deftly knocked over the source container, sending baby spiders flying all over the floor. Oops. Sorry, neighbors. Don’t worry, they won’t go far. I was down on my hands and knees trying to find them, but nope, they are very tiny and I’m pretty sure they made it to the Swiss border. I expect they’ll colonize the space under my benches quite nicely.

Well, that was about ten spiderlings lost in the architecture. So I decided I’d check out this large collection of egg sacs brought back from Texas. At a glance, though, I could tell they’d already all hatched out — after embryogenesis, they molt, and you can see the rumpled white sheet they’ve discarded inside, and then before they emerge, they molt again, leaving their spider-shaped cuticles behind. To be sure, I opened up the sacs and looked carefully, and nope, nothing but shed leg chitin everywhere.

No more spiderlings to deal with today. I do have some egg sacs in the adult cages that will probably hatch out in ten days or so.

Oh well. While I was down on my hands and knees, I did discover a previous escapee near the floor and baseboards. She was looking good!

I don’t know what she’s been living on, but she’s grown. I like to think my lab is a healthy, biologically rich environment, though, so it’s good news. I thought about scooping her up and putting her in the incubator, but instead decided to throw down some fruit flies. She snapped them up fast!

Don’t tell the custodian.

This has been a klutzy day, so I’m out of the lab for a bit, will focus on preparing for class tomorrow instead.

Deep Rifts have become gaping, uncrossable chasms

Krista Cox, chair of the Leadership Council of the Feminist Humanist Alliance, has a few words about what the hiring of David Silverman means. This is a good summary of the Silverman Situation–it’s a rift so deep we’re separating into different continents.

Enter the newly hired executive director of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), a global federation of atheist groups and individuals who endeavor to “make the world a safer place for atheists.” On October 11, 2019, AAI announced that it had created the new ED position and hired former American Atheists president David Silverman. A week and a half later, on his “Firebrand for Good” YouTube page, Silverman declared that we, as a culture, are post-sexism. He went on to state that the gender pay gap is fake, the glass ceiling has been smashed (because it’s “better visually” for companies to hire women now), and that since second-wave feminism won, modern feminists can stop being so angry about inconsequential nonsense.

Silverman’s comments confirmed what I feared about the nontheistic movement, and his hiring both surprised and concerned me.

Silverman’s recent anti-feminist and anti-social justice statements, as well as associations with antagonists of both movements, are legion, but I’ll limit my coverage to just a few. On September 20 he wrote he is “no longer a progressive feminist” and admitted to being “red-pilled,” a reference to a quarantined Reddit forum for Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) widely known to be anti-feminist and rife with misogyny. In a September 22 podcast episode titled “Feminist Tyranny,” Silverman asserted personally or agreed with the host (MRA-adjacent Sargon of Akkad) on a number of concerning ideas, including that women are using feminism and the #MeToo movement to “secure personal privilege” and that social justice is a “cancerous social movement” that “has to be undone.” Around the same time he did an interview with female MRA Karen Straughan and the men behind Mythcon, the conference that controversially gave platforms to several anti-social-justice atheists; he retweeted an October 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Social Justice Warriors Won’t Listen, but You Should” that mocked concepts like white fragility and systemic complicity in white supremacy and misogyny; and on October 17 he shared a video suggesting that more rape allegations are false than we think (part of a video series that includes “Feminazi vs. Reality”).

“Bye regressive left,” Silverman tweeted on September 23. “I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism.”

A few years ago, Silverman’s supportive words for feminism and social justice convinced me to become a lifetime member of American Atheists. Can I get my money back? (Not really, AA did a good thing in giving Silverman the axe…I would be really pissed if he was still in charge there.)

This is way too familiar, though.

It’s becoming a repeated refrain: man holds himself up as a feminist; man experiences consequences for misogynistic actions; on reflection, man decides social justice warriors are the real problem.

I’d say you could kick me out of the movement if ever I become as hypocritical and repugnant as David Silverman, but it’s not much of a promise since I was de facto expelled already, years ago. I’d say “By regressive right”, except that “regressive” and “right” are synonyms, making it redundant.

Hey, you think they’ll finally let Dave into CPAC?