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Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers

Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers: Tales of Chemistry in Nature

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers
    Book Description:

    The tobacco plant synthesizes nicotine to protect itself from herbivores. The female moth broadcasts sex pheromones to attract a mate, while a soldier ant deploys an alarm pheromone to call for help. The carbon dioxide on a mammal's breath beckons hungry ticks and mosquitoes, while a flower's fragrance speaks to the honey bee. Indeed, much of the communication that occurs within and between various species of organisms is done not by sight, sound, or touch, but with chemicals. From mating to parenting, foraging to self-defense, plant and animal activities are accomplished largely by the secretion or exchange of organic chemicals. The fascinating and fast-developing science that encompasses these diverse phenomena is introduced here, by William Agosta, in a series of remarkable stories absolutely accessible to the general reader yet revelatory to chemists and biologists.

    Among Agosta's characters are the organisms that steal, counterfeit, or interpret the chemical signals of other species for their own ends. We learn of seeds that mimic ant odors to facilitate their own dispersion and flies that follow the scent of truffles to lay their eggs. We read about pit vipers that react in terror when their flicking tongues detect a king snake, and slave-making ants incapable of finding their own food. And we meet ice-age people who ate birch fungus to relieve whipworms and early human hunters who used the urine of wolves to maneuver deer to favorable sites.

    Agosta also chronicles the rapid development of the applied science that makes use of chemical ecology. As researchers deepen our understanding of the biological world, they are making economically significant discoveries (such as enzymes that remain stable in extreme heat), finding ways to reduce our reliance on manufactured pesticides, identifying new uses for traditional medicines, and developing sophisticated new pharmaceuticals effective in treating malaria and several cancers. On the horizon are antiviral agents derived from the chemical defenses of marine species.

    From the exploits of flies to the high-stakes effort to cure human disease, Agosta's tour of chemical ecology grants any reader entrance to the invisible realm where chemistry determines life and death.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3083-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
  3. PROLOGUE The Protos and Their Slaves
    (pp. 3-8)

    The three Proto scouts moved closer. They saw what looked like a Lept camp up ahead but wanted to make sure. Soon they were close enough to spot the entrance and, sure enough, there the Lepts were, going in and out, carrying food. The Protos had been right: It was a medium-sized Lept camp and near enough to their own for a quick attack. This must be the camp of the Lepts they had been encountering in recent days. Two of the Proto scouts turned back toward home to gather reinforcements, while the third stayed behind to guide the raiding...

  4. CHAPTER 1 From Protos and Lepts to Nature’s Special Chemicals
    (pp. 9-24)

    The Protos’ warfare on their Lept neighbors depended heavily on chemicals, but ants are by no means unique in making extensive use of chemicals for communication and warfare. From one-celled organisms to complex plants and animals, many living creatures do the same. As species develop over evolutionary time, it is relatively easy for them to adapt their cellular machinery to producing chemicals for communication, warfare, and other purposes. These chemicals facilitate the way of life of organisms spread all across the biological spectrum.

    Like the signals of the Proto scouts, one large group of chemicals carries messages that pass between...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Paying Ants for Transportation
    (pp. 25-38)

    Just as Lepts and Protos tend their eggs and larvae in nurseries, other insects also help their young get started in various ways. Hatchlings may require a special diet, and their mother often makes sure the right food is nearby when they emerge from their eggs. Solitary wasps select an appropriate caterpillar and lay their eggs deep within its body. On hatching, the wasp larvae find themselves immersed in the nourishment they need and devour the living caterpillar from within. Similarly, fruit flies lay their eggs in the plums or cherries their larvae must eat to thrive. Other parents care...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Getting Pollinated
    (pp. 39-58)

    Just as immobility forces plants to make special arrangements for dispersing their seeds, it also complicates their reproduction. No less than animals, flowering plants depend on bringing sperm and egg together to propagate their species. Their inability to move about presents the problem of how to bring these reproductive cells together. A plant’s sperm cells are carried in pollen grains that ripen on parts of a flower called anthers. Pollen must be transferred to another part of a flower, the stigma, before sperm and egg can come together. In some cases, a single plant or even a single flower might...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Flies and the Misery They Bring
    (pp. 59-78)

    The insects we have been discussing all have good reputations, and all stand high in human regard. Stick insect fans even maintain a page on the Internet to proclaim warm enthusiasm for their retiring pets. Bees and ants pursue their busy lives in communities that have long symbolized industry and diligence. Apart from entomologists, however, many people find other insects disgusting rather than admirable. Among the more repulsive beasts, flies must surely be leading contenders for the most despised of all. Few people find flies engaging, and probably no one keeps them as pets. For biologists, this group of unpopular...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Eavesdropping as a Way of Life
    (pp. 79-96)

    Many creatures have found that getting on in the world is easier if they take advantage of chemicals belonging to others. Some carry this skill to a high art. In earlier chapters a few examples of their schemes have appeared: flowers whose fragrance imitates their pollinators’ sex attractants; seeds that mimic ant odors to facilitate their own dispersion; and flies that follow the scent of truffles to locate egg sites suitable for their truffle-eating larvae. A multitude of other organisms rely on comparable schemes. Some, adopting the flowers’ strategy, counterfeit other creatures’ signals for their own purposes. Others usurp a...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Success through Mimicry and Theft
    (pp. 97-116)

    Just as scuttle flies rely on chemical eavesdropping in exploiting red imported fire ants, tiny parasitic wasps that live among these ants also depend on chemicals for their survival. These wasps, an unidentified species in the genusOrasema, lay their eggs in the leaves, buds, and fruits of various plants regularly visited by fire ants. The eggs yield extremely small larvae, no longer than a small grain of salt (only one-to two-tenths of a millimeter), that attach themselves to ants foraging on the plant. The larvae may identify the ants by odor, and they may be so inconspicuous that the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Bacteria: Chemical Complexities in Simple Cells
    (pp. 117-134)

    Bacteria are among the simplest living organisms, each individual consisting of a single cell that carries out all the necessary functions of life. Like other cells, a bacterium reproduces by dividing in two, metabolizes food to obtain energy, and discards its wastes. Bacteria are typically smaller than the cells of multicellular organisms and, unlike them, lack a nucleus to enclose their DNA. Even these simple organisms have a chemical sense, and as they move about in their environment they respond to chemical nutrients or toxins by moving toward or away from them, respectively.

    Many bacteria perform services we find useful...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Delving into Nature’s Chemicals
    (pp. 135-152)

    For thousands of years, humans have devised practical uses for chemicals found in nature. Egyptian priests depended on natural oils and resins as antibiotics in mummifying human and animal remains. South American Indians prepared plant extracts to tip their arrows with fast-acting poison. The ancient Chinese discovered the secret of silk, magically converting an insect’s cocoon into an elegant textile.

    Each of these discoveries resulted from turning special chemicals to human needs. Such developments are one of the most significant connections between these natural compounds and our own lives. After exploring special chemicals in their natural setting, we should now...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Stocking the Medicine Chest
    (pp. 153-172)

    Prehistoric peoples exploited nature’s special chemicals in impressive ways, and perhaps the oldest of these is to apply these chemicals as medicines. As we shall see, in our modern world this activity has grown into a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry that is responsible for saving thousands of lives each year. This notion of deriving medicinals from nature runs throughout human history and may even predate any early human activity. Consider this brief report: A chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) that seems to have a stomachache chews avidly on bitter stems from a bushy plant she normally avoids. Indigenous people have long prescribed...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Loose Ends and New Beginnings
    (pp. 173-188)

    From looking at special chemicals as drugs and other economically significant products, we return to chemicals in their natural settings. All across the biological spectrum creatures feed and flee, prey and are preyed upon, and seek and identify mates. For these and an inconceivable number of other activities, chemicals are frequently part of the story—carrying messages, supporting a lifestyle, providing the means of attack or defense. Earlier chapters presented activities where the role of chemicals is well known and the compounds themselves have occasionally been identified. Of course, countless other activities exist where a role for chemicals is an...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Complexity in the Real World
    (pp. 189-210)

    In our exploration of living organisms’ special chemicals we have focused on the immediate effects of chemical contacts. A seed broadcasts signals that encourage an ant first to pick it up and then to carry it home. Defensive chemicals in zebra odor repel tsetse flies and protect zebras from the flies’ infectious bites. A house fly’s sex pheromone brings male and female flies together for mating. Most of what we know about the effects of nature’s special chemicals concerns such fundamentally important direct responses. Even the reports in the last chapter involving three and four species concerned mainly direct interactions...

  15. CHAPTER 12 Capitalizing on Ecology
    (pp. 211-220)

    As you will remember, the fruits of our effort to turn chemicals to human uses include anticancer drugs, high-tech materials, and a multitude of other commodities. These products are probably the closest association most of us have with special chemicals, and so this practical topic provides a fitting place for us to end our explorations. In closing then we return to this theme of human use of natural chemicals—the extensive enterprise we previously called biotechnology. In these final pages, we want to emphasize how improved understanding of organisms’ lives can point the way both to new sources of materials...

    (pp. 221-226)
    (pp. 227-232)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 233-241)