Bruce Hammock, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology who holds a joint appointment with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, is fond of saying that in his many talks.
"Science is full of surprises."
His research clearly shows that basic science can lead to surprising findings.
A recently published news story, "From Caterpillars to Kidney Disease: Surprise Discoveries in Basic Science," on the Medical College of Wisconsin website chronicles how Hammock's basic research on caterpillars--how caterpillars become butterflies--led to key discoveries about chronic pain, including diabetic pain.
As an aside, Hammock suggested to communication specialist Karri Stock that the story could include a photo of a caterpillar and a butterfly, and did I have one?
I did, thanks to the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) population explosion on our passionflower vine (Passiflora). A caterpillar was doing what caterpillars do. Then two butterflies came along and started doing what males and females do. The three-in-one photo illustrates the article, along with a photo of Hammock and collaborator John Imig, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
The gist of the news story is that Imig received a $2.3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases "to investigate the development of a drug to treat type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome."
"But what we didn't tell you is that this translational grant is all thanks to some caterpillars in California and decades of research," Stock wrote. "It's a tale of pure curiosity with a great lesson for budding scientists and the public alike: You can't always predict where basic science discoveries will lead."
She related how, more than 40 years ago, a young entomologist in California named Bruce Hammock found a key enzyme (epoxide hydrolase or EH) in the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies. "The enzyme degrades a caterpillar's juvenile hormone, allowing it to move from the larval stage into an adult insect. Early in his career, Dr. Hammock found that if he exploited this EH and prevented larvae from becoming adults, he had on his hands an effective genetically engineered insecticide."
Then came the basic science and fundamental questions that Hammock asked. "Does the enzyme occur in plants? Does it occur in mammals?"
"And it turns out that it does, particularly as soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH) in mammals, including mice and humans, and its distribution suggested it was involved in regulatory biology," Stock wrote. She went on to detail the collaboration of Hammock and Imig. Read the entire MCW story here.
Hammock's work has drawn national and international attention. Groundbreaking neuropathic pain research emanating from the Hammock lab made Discover magazine's Top 100 Science Stories of 2015 ranking among the Top 15 in the medicine/genetics category.
The UC Davis research was singled out for its “Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in the Peripheral Nervous System is a Significant Driver of Neuropathic Pain,” published in July 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (See UC Davis news story).
Highly honored by his peers, Hammock is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, which honors academic invention and encourages translations of inventions to benefit society. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the Entomological Society of America, and the recipient of the Bernard B. Brodie Award in Drug Metabolism, sponsored by the America Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. He directs the campuswide Superfund Research Program, National Institutes of Health Biotechnology Training Program, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Combined Analytical Laboratory.
A native of Little Rock, Ark., Bruce earned a bachelor's degree in entomology from Louisiana State University in 1969 and his doctorate in entomology/toxicology from UC Berkeley in 1973, and then accepted a Rockefeller Postdoctoral Fellowship at Northwestern University. Hammock served as a member of the UC Riverside faculty for six years before joining UC Davis in 1980. In addition to maintaining a vigorous research program, Hammock teaches, mentors students, works with visiting scholars and enjoys rock climbing and kayaking.
And if you get a chance to hear him speak about his research, he's likely to say: "Science is full of surprises."
Because it is.
Monarch 'cats seem to like to wander--and pupate on the most unlikely of places.
We have two small butterfly habitats on our kitchen counter. We pluck the wild caterpillars from our pollinator garden (before the predators and parasites find them), and take them inside. There they munch on milkweed and become chrysalids, those gold-studded green jewels that are nature's miracles. When the adults eclose (emerge), we release the monarchs back into the garden. It's monarch conservation on a small scale.
However, a couple of weeks ago, one of our caterpillars managed to wander out of its habitat and head for a wall. How it got out we'll never know.
It found a cord connecting a cell phone/tablet to an electrical outlet. There it formed a chrysalis on the dangling cord. We never spotted the chrysalis until we happened to walk by and check the charge. Surprise! A chrysalis on an electrical cord?
Yesterday afternoon, a beautiful monarch eclosed. A female. After she dried her wings, did she stay put? No. She crawled to the top of the cord. Hello, world...
Tomorrow (Saturday) we'll release our little wanderer so she can wing it to an overwintering site with the rest of her buddies. Maybe to Santa Cruz?
Thanks for the memories, Ms. Monarch. We hope you make it. Somehow or another, we think you will...
Thank you, Mrs. Monarch.
Thank you for laying your eggs on our newly planted narrowleaf milkweed.
We planted the narrowleafed milkweed last spring, hoping we could coax you to come. We laid out a floral welcome mat for you with some of your favorite (adult) foods: a butterfly bush, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia), and Lantana.
Then we watched. And waited. And watched. And waited.
We saw you nectaring the butterfly bush, the Tithonia and Lantana. We saw Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) chasing you. We saw territorial male sunflower bees (Melissodes aegilis) dive-bombing you. We saw female Valley carpenter bees trying to jerk you around.
You ignored our narrowleafed milkweed. Not a good-enough host plant? Too many oleander aphids for you? Too many lady beetles eating the aphids?
This week we saw your evidence: You did it! You gave us the most beautiful caterpillars we've ever seen.
So, thank you, Mrs. Monarch.
And you, too, Mr. Monarch.
Please come again.
Muir said it well.
Muir (1938-1914), the naturalist and conservationist known as "The Father of Our National Parks," was the driving force behind the establishment of our national parks, including Yosemite National Park.
But have you ever thought about what he said: ""When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe"?
In our yard, we are rearing Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) on their host plant, the passionflower vine. The Gulf Frit is a bright orangish-reddish butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. It's a member of the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae.
We also consider it part of our family. The females and males mate, the females lay eggs on the passionflower vine, the eggs become caterpillars and the caterpillars become adults. That is, if the Western scrub jays and the praying mantids and the European paper wasps let them.
Lately, the caterpillars seem to be multiplying faster than the proverbial rabbits. The Western scrub jays are missing. They no longer sit on the fence and cherry-pick their prey. Why are they MIA? Three resident juvenile Cooper's hawks (as identified by Andrew Engilis, Jr., curator of the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology) possess an appetite for jays (among other prey). The result: too many caterpillars on our passionflower vine. The 'cats are defoliating the plant faster than we expected. In short, it's a veritable population crisis on our passionflower vine.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
We love the caterpillars. We love the butterflies. We love the praying mantids. And we are trying our best to love, or at least like, the wasps after hearing researcher Amy Toth of Iowa State University speak fondly of them at UC Davis. Read the 10 things we should like about wasps. Note that she's trying to popularize the hashtag, #wasplove.
Meanwhile, what about those hawks? It's hawk heaven here. We love seeing them cooling their toes, splashing around in our front-yard birdbath, and communicating with their siblings. It's a sign of the times. California's severe drought means an influx of critters, large and small, heading for urban birdbaths. In addition to hawks, our birdbath draws squirrels, doves, finches, woodpeckers, scrub jays, sparrows, crows, honey bees and even a passing wild turkey with a neck long enough to reach the water.
Lately, it's a hawk birdbath. The jays are gone. The caterpillars are thriving.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
Visitors to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) display in front of Briggs Hall at the 101st annual Picnic Day last Saturday at the University of California, Davis, got a close look at the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar.
While the visitors watched or held them, the other caterpillars kept busy, munching on the leaves of their host plant, the pipevine.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology, has seen lots of Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus philenor) already this year. "There are plenty," he said today. "Don't eat 'em; they're quite poisonous."
Both the caterpillar and the adult are poisonous. The caterpillars of the Pipevine Swallowtail feed on the poisonous host plant, Aristolochia, also known as the pipevine, Dutchman's pipe or birthwort. It contains the lethal toxin aristolochic acid.
Nevertheless, the black caterpillars turn into beautiful adults. Found throughout North America and Central America, they are black with iridescent blue hind wings. Their wingspan can exceed three inches.
"The Pipevine Swallowtail flies from late winter (February-March) to autumn (October, occasionally November) but is much more numerous before the 4th of July than later; typically it has two large flights followed by stragglers the rest of the season, often with a 'blip' upward in August," Shapiro writes on his website. "Usually the host plant stops growing in June, and thereafter there are no sites suitable for egg-laying--unless there is a local catastrophe (usually fire, though weed-whacking will do). Then the plants regenerate rapidly, producing new growth in the off-season, and any females around at the time quickly find and make use of the new shoots. Adults routinely live a month or so."
"This species is warningly colored and inedible to vertebrate predators," Shapiro points out. "It derives its protection from the toxic aristolochic acids produced by the host, which it sequesters; females even pass these along to the eggs, which are also protected (and are brick red, laid in bunches of up to 20, and quite conspicuous)."
"Adults are eager visitors to many flowers, including Wild Radish, California Buckeye, Blue Dicks, Ithuriel's Spear, and Yerba Santa," Shapiro notes. "In summer they regularly nectar at Yellow Star Thistle when there are no native plants in bloom."
We've seen many of the Pipevine Swallowtails fluttering around in the UC Davis Arboretum and gathering nectar from butterfly bushes.
A word of warning from Shapiro: "Don't eat 'em; they're quite poisonous."