Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Backyard as Laboratory and Workshop Series 6: Spontaneous Generation: Life Arises from Non-Living Things - Fact or Myth?

Dr Abe V Rotor
 Self-Administered Test (True or False, 25 items)
Living with Nature School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid with Ms Melly C Tenorio 
738 DZRB AM Band, 8 to 9 evening class, Monday to Friday

One hot summer night following the first heavy rain in summer, swarms of gamu-gamu (gnats and midges) sweep into residential areas, attracted by light. They incessantly circle streetlights and campfires in frenzy and suicidal attack. Driving becomes difficult in low visibility, the windshield dimmed with their sticky bodies. The scene is one of Homer’s Iliad (the movie Troy), or the proverbial story of a moth meeting glorious death in a lamp. Toads and house lizards have their fill the whole night.  To other predators, it is a change in diet that comes once a year. So with some cultures that gather them for food. Winged termites are very rich in  protein and are claimed to have aphrodisiac property. Where did these creatures come from?   

“Thunder and lightning produce mushrooms.” Old folks would say and I believed in them when I was a child.  It is fairy tale come true. For indeed wild mushrooms inhabit rice straw, banana stalks, tree stump, bamboo grove, and termite mounds (punso).  To a mushroom hunter, imagine the amazement and joy of discovering mushroom colonies that could easily fill a wide brimmed hat or a woman’s skirt. That experience is relived, as I sometimes find mushrooms growing in the backyard after a heavy monsoon rain accompanied by thunder and lightning.    

Were lost cities like that of the Aztecs' in ancient Mexico the testimony of an epidemic caused by spontaneous generation of disease pathogens? 

One of the great puzzles in biology is spontaneous generation. Where do all these living things come from?  Here are some observations to ponder and research on.

1.  Maggots devour a whole carcass leaving but its skeleton.  These larvae of flies appear in sheer numbers as sudden as they disappear altogether. 

2.  Annual plants like saluyot (Corchorus olitorius), kamkamote (Ipomea sp.), spinach (Amaranthus sopinosus), and gulasiman (Oleracea), spontaneously populate barren fields and gardens, growing  wild and thick like jungle, until a brush fire razes them to the ground as the Southwest monsoon leaves.

3.  Lately, five towns and cities in the country which include Metro Manila, were declared emergency areas as Dengue or hemorrhagic fever spread to epidemic proportions. The resurgence of Malaria is also quite alarming in other areas, such as in Palawan. What really triggers an epidemic. Can these and similar diseases spread without their vectors?  If it is so, how could they spontaneously rise and infect people?

 4. There is a story popular among children of the legendary Pied Piper who rid the city of Hamlyn in Germany of rats by luring them to their death to the sea. 

Bubonic Plague vector, Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla chopis)
 It gives us a scenario of rats overrunning the city: rats in the homes, in schools, churches, on the streets, even in the most protected places like the residence of the mayor who promised him a handsome reward but denied after. I could only imagine the unbelievable rate of reproduction of the pest, although these were not rats but lemmings, which normally do not cause serious damage. Such incident linked to the Bubonic Plague or Black Death that killed one-third of human population in Europe in the Middle Ages, spawned beliefs that rats grow out of living and non-living things. Many of such stories survive to this day. 

5. Mad cow disease started in Britain in the nineties. It found its way to many countries of Europe, then to Japan and the US. Short of invading the whole northern hemisphere, the disease associated with human JCD Syndrome disappeared as sudden as how it appeared,  And yet in its country of origin, the prion, the causal material - a protein, resides in the victim and may take twenty years to reach the central nervous system.  
If prion is a special protein why does it behave like a living thing?  

7.  But the belief of spontaneous generation caused worldwide panic when an estimated 100 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu virus whic in 1918.  Although the worse hit were the US and India, the toll was estimated to be one out of six people living on earth at that time. The most vulnerable victims were the strong and healthy.  The virus triggers the immune system that turns itself against the patient, so that the more resistant a patient  is the more he is prone to die of the disease.  Which leads the medical world to wonder why the very young and old had better chance to survive. Then after two years the pandemic just fizzled out as if it were a passing wind. Hence by 1920 virtually all cases  were closed.  Today the virus is kept alive in controlled laboratory condition for study.   

Theories arose, among them is that the virus rode of a passing meteorite before reaching the earth.  Or was it a prototype that mutated with indigenous strains? 


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