We don’t know about you, but we’re always quite excited by any news story that starts with the phrase “scientists have accidentally created” – it’s either going to be something incredible or it’ll be the future plot of a Hollywood movie.
The latest accident features the use of some very quirky genetic manipulation. Courtesy of Indiana University (IU), we now have beetles with functional third eyes. As pointed out by a rather marvelous press release by the university, this may make people think of the Three-Eyed Raven from Game of Thrones. This beetle isn’t likely to be a clairvoyant, but it's certain to provide a glimpse into the future of evolutionary biology.
To be fair, it was a little while back that IU scientists, fiddling with this beetle’s genes, accidentally led to one developing a third eye. This time around, they’ve intentionally been conducting their genetic alchemy on beetles, and have now purposefully provoked it to pop out its third peephole.
As emphasized by the team, there's no single “gene” that influences the development of the eyes. Plenty work in unison to produce complex effects, and sometimes altering one can have unintended consequences elsewhere.
This means that finding out how to intentionally trigger the appearance of a third eye in the center of the beetle’s forehead isn’t as simple as finding an on-off switch. Saying all that, however, the team discovered that the silencing of just one single gene led to the fusion of two sets of extra eyes.
Again, other genes play a part in the emergence of an organism’s visual system, but in the case of the beetle, one appears to have a rather dramatic influence indeed.
The fact that an eye appears isn’t the revolutionary part, though. According to a statement by coordinating study author Armin Moczek – a professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Biology – it’s the fact that “the darn thing actually works!”
At this point, you may be wondering why scientists are giving beetles extra visual capabilities. As it so happens, we aren’t sure why the biological blueprints encoded into genes change on occasion. Why do some traits appear in certain situations, but not in others?
The team at IU plan to keep using Onthophagus beetles – comparatively simply organisms compared to humans – to find this out. Already, they’ve learned that “evolving a novel physical trait is much like building a novel structure out of Legos,” according to a statement by Moczec.
In the same way you can use the same Lego bricks to build all kinds of fanciful constructions, by re-using and recombining "old" genes, you can make yourself a brand-new Frankenbeetle.
Their remarkable research can be read in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.