Hello everyone and welcome to another post in the series about biological topics in movies and TV series. You can find a link to the previous post right here. My intention with these is to clarify different claims made in various movies and TV shows I watched, and also to share perhaps some surprising facts mentioned in them. If you’d like for me to watch something specific, please let me know (I’m currently preparing another post focused on the German TV show “Biohackers”). So let’s start with some extremely popular offenders.
Friends – “Lobsters mate for life” In a classical Friends episode, Phoebe claims that lobsters mate for life. They don’t. There are some animals that remain monogamous for life, such as wolves, swans, penguins, and barn owls, but lobsters are not one of them; in fact, male lobsters actually change mates frequently during the mating season.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire During the famous scene in which professor Moody tortures the amblypygi (of species Damon diadema; Amblypygi belong to class Arachnida) with the Cruciatus curse, poor creature starts to squeal in pain, but can amblypyg actually make that sort of sounds? As it turns out, some species of spiders (which also belong to class Arachnida ) can tap on the surface or even vibrate (again, on certain surfaces) to make mating calls or communicate, but the type of screech depicted in the movie, under the spell or not, is physiologically impossible.
The Alienist – “Butterflies inflict pain during the coitus” While I’m still on the topic of invertebrates, let’s divulge into this one. Now, pain is the subject of many definitions, but assuming it’s just an unpleasant physical stimulus, the question is raised whether insects can actually feel it? Until recently, researchers agreed that insects can feel nociception, which is the response to life-threatening stimuli, but most agreed that they don’t feel the pain like we do. A recent study, however, showed that fruit-flies could experience a chronic pain-like state, but the science still has a long way to go to conclusively show if insects can or cannot feel pain. Do butterflies feel pain when mating? Possible, but it seems that, until more evidence comes to light, it’s highly unlikely.
Rouge – “Lions are not afraid of fire” This fun but quite forgettable B flick starring Megan Fox and a CGI lioness off-handedly mentioned that lions are, in fact, not afraid of fire. That didn’t sound right with me so I searched for it and it seems like it’s true. Apparently, not only they’re not afraid but like to check out what’s happening around the campfire. I would like to point out, however, that most of the web-sites are literally copying the same sentence about it, verbatim, and I didn’t find where it originated.
Did you notice similar misinformation or surprisingly correct information in popular movies and TV shows? Please let me know in the comments below, I love reading about movie mistakes!
Ctenophora, commonly known as comb jellies, are a rather perplexing phylum of beautiful pelagic creatures. Their evolutionary position has been debated for many years as is the origin of their nervous system (some scientists believe they are older than sponges and that sponges lost their nervous system, while others advocate the theory about the nervous system forming independently twice, once in cnidarians and once in ctenophores). Ctenophora have two nerve nets: subepidermal and less organized subgastrodermal, which recent research identifies as a mesogleal nerve net. Nerve cells from this layer communicate with muscles by synapses and affect the locomotion of the body. The subepidermal net is denser around the mouth, the pharynx, and under the comb rows (comb rows are strips that run the length of the ctenophore body and contain cilia called “ctenes”). Ctenophore neurons can be iso- and multipolar.
They have sensory cells on the whole surface of the body and those correspond to vibrations and thermal and chemical stimuli: more receptors are located around the mouth and pharynx. Ctenophora also have an apical and aboral sensory organ. Such sensory organ consists of a statocyst, a sensor that contains a statolith that balances on four groups of long cilia connected to the comb rows. These organs help the orientation of the ctenophore body. What’s extremely interesting is that ctenophores use different chemical signalling system than the ones described in the previous posts, mainly because these animals simply lack the neurotransmitters (and genes), such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine; glutamate is the only neurotransmitter currently known to be present.
I gathered all this information from different resources, and some are sometimes contradictory or are generalizing conclusions about the whole phylum from the data of only one ctenophora species. This is the best overview I could manage, to show both the similarities and the differences of the ctenophora nervous system, when compared to the Cnidarian system. These lovely animals are not very well researched and I’m sure many wonderful breakthroughs about their anatomy, physiology, and their place in the evolutionary tree are to come.
Hi everyone, and welcome to my first post of 2021! I hope you had a nice time over the holidays and that your year started well, both personally and professionally. For my first post of the year, I decided to write about my personal experience; how it helped me, and what I learned from it.
If you follow me on social media, then you probably know most of my path in education, but for the new readers, I’m going to write a short recap: I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology and I’m currently finishing Master of Science in Molecular Biology. In my country, a Master’s degree is needed for almost any kind of employment and is a condition for applying for a Ph.D. However, only some classes are obligatory once you reach the Master’s, and in the second year, you only need to hit a certain number of ECTS; you can choose any of the classes as you please. You can choose classes that are completely unrelated to each other or a complete “module” or a couple of classes that are dedicated to a certain topic; I chose Computational Biology.
I was always interested in coding, and coding in Biology sounded like such a good idea at the time. I already took another course, titled “Bioinformatics”, where I initially fell in love with this type of work. It was a very different class, as there wasn’t that much factual studying, but rather we had a problem that we had to solve using various online tools. This class was something new and challenging. Choosing that module seemed like a normal continuation of my interests; another very important reason was also that classes weren’t held every day and also weren’t compulsory. Now, I naturally tried to attend as much as possible, but with my illness and doctor’s appointments, not worrying about doctor’s notes and attendance quotas was a bonus.
There are five classes in the Computational Biology module and I chose four of them: Algorithms and Programming, Computational Genomics, Machine Learning and Statistics, and Mathematical Foundations of Computational Biology. Structural Computational Biophysics, the fifth one, honestly didn’t sound as appealing. Most of those classes were held in blocks (only Algorithms for a couple of weeks, then Statistics, then Genomics), with Mathematics being the only one we had every week for the duration of the whole semester. Very quickly, I realised this may not be it for me; my colleagues got a hang of things quicker than me, and I felt that I’m lacking quite a lot of the prior knowledge, things I should have learned in high school, but my high school course back then didn’t focus on that. There were also memory issues, probably due to rapid changes in the medication I was taking, which was taking a priority above everything else.
The whole module is not perfect (for example, I learned quite a lot of Statistics, but not much about Machine Learning), however, I think it’s quite rewarding, especially since it’s the only opportunity we have to even check out a dry lab. It requires a lot of dedication and a lot of free time; at least now I have a reasonable (beginner’s) understanding of how to use R. What I also had, was the knowledge that sometimes, your first choices may not be the best for you and that it’s quite normal not to be exhilarated about the classes you’re taking. See, if I chose anything else, I would be plagued by the “what if-s” and now, after passing all the classes, I can confidently say I’m happy with the decision I made, but Computational Biology is just not right for me.
I’ve learned a lot and my professors were very understanding, although I honestly believe they also figured out this field isn’t my strength, but they helped me navigate all the tasks anyway. I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this type of research and re-discovered my love for the wet lab. I don’t know how much this knowledge will help me in the actual research, but even if I won’t do profound coding, statistical analysis is always an incredibly important skill to have. If you had a similar experience, don’t be too hard on yourself – sometimes, we have to try out different things, even academically, to realize what kind of research interests us. Of course, at times that can be rather difficult and not everyone has the same options and opportunities. Academia can bring about a lot of stress and pressure, even without us doing the same to ourselves.
In a previous post about my time at the Žumberak Mountains I mainly focused on my time with the Crustacean group, but today I’d like to write a bit more about my general experience out there in the field. As I already mentioned, I was unable to attend for the whole week, and instead opted for four days only, but all of those four days were completely filled with exploring and socializing (which was, at the time, allowed in our country and county).
Žumberak Mountains, and its Nature Park, is only one hour drive away from Zagreb, however, due to the proximity to the Slovenian border, GPS can steer you in couple of wrong directions, so after collecting some extra things for the campsite, I called Petra, one of the camp leaders, to give me right directions. Everything went rather smoothly, until I almost hit a llama that was chilling in the middle of the road, just behind a steep curve. After my initial confusion cleared up, and the llama left the road, I cautiously continued to drive, wondering what all these llamas were doing in the middle of Europe anyway. As it turns out, there is a bio-park in close proximity, and I guess they escaped their enclosure. Couple of kilometres down, the road suddenly turned into a macadam, as I basically entered the woods, followed by the sound of a strong stream that was following the road. Well, the road followed the stream, more or less. That evening wasn’t very eventful – I was mostly talking to colleagues and taking pictures; it was rather cold, so we lit up a big fire in the pit, the only one I experienced during my time in the camp.
As for sleeping arrangements, we had a huge meadow where most of tents were already erected. However, despite bringing my own tent with me (and later borrowing it to my friend Iva), I actually decided to sleep in the car. For one, I was already too tired, and it was way too dark for me to set it up, and I also hypothesized that, since everyone was in a very good mood, people could be loud at night, returning to their sleeping places. Since my strict medication schedule requires interrupted sleep, I rolled down my passenger seat, changed into warmer clothes, and slipped into my sleeping bag. I remember falling asleep slowly, feeling as if I was in a horror movie, as branches were slowly snapping and the big drops of rain were hitting the car.
Just woke up – Instagram vs reality
My next day was a big crayfish adventure, as was the day after it. Honestly, remembering it after all this time, both days somehow melted into one big experience of driving around, asking for directions, walking too much for my taste, and laughing in the car, courtesy of the Crustacean group, who are ones of the funniest people I’ve met. What I would like to write in a greater detail than I did in my previous post, is the “night-hunt”, or night-time crayfish catching & release session. We started the walk when there was still light out, but it got dark even before we reached the stream; during this year, due to heavy COVID-19 restrictions I couldn’t go anywhere, and it seems that I also forgot how dark it can actually get in the woods. Literal pitch black. That, however, didn’t stop the group from catching crayfish (they also visually inspected them for the signs of the crayfish plague). We all had lamps, of course, but like I already pointed out, crayfish are surprisingly fast – catching them with your bare hands definitely requires skill!
My last day at Žumberak was magical as well. It was actually a day off, so most of groups decided to just go see-sighting, including the Crustacean group. We drove for an hour or maybe an hour and a half to reach a road with many stunning waterfalls. We set our own pace, and set to investigate and take as many pictures as possible. I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I wanted because I had a really persistent abdominal pain (at one point, I couldn’t even walk properly anymore, and had to wait in the car), but despite that, I still managed to take some photos and videos. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did!
With the year we have, with pandemic still raging, this expedition is the only one I was able to be a part of, but I surely hope 2021 will bring new expeditions, new adventures, and new opportunities 🙂
Hi everyone, and welcome back to my blog. I took a month+ long break, during which I focused on my health and final exams at my University. At the same time, BIUS – Biology Students Association was preparing for their annual field trip, that I really wanted to be a part of! BIUSis an association that gathers many Biology students from our department and focuses mainly on field trips, excursions, and expert lectures, all in order to complement and expand our Biology-related knowledge about certain topics. BIUS is also a publisher behind In Vivo Magazine, for which I serve as editor-in-chief.
Firstly, however, I would like to write a bit about my love for scientific (and a little less scientific) field trips. My primary love is the lab, after all. However, I grew up in a tiny village, surrounded by a living world – woods, animals, endless fields of tall grass… I actually started to think about studying something science based, perhaps Biology even, way back in the primary school, after wanting to identify all the bugs and spiders I would find in my front yard. During my first two years of Bachelor’s degree, the thought of going out to the field didn’t really cross my mind, but it all changed in the middle of my third year, when I realized that something was lacking in my life, and that something turned out to be raw nature.
This year’s big field excursion lasted for eight days, but I was only able to attend for the last four. Usually, BIUS organizes this kind of excursions twice a year, in May and September, but due to the pandemic, it was completely moved to the end of September, when situation in Croatia improved. Every year, a new terrain is explored, usually switching between continental and marine area. For this year, the leadership chose the Žumberak Mountains which are located on a border with Slovenia, and are approximately one hour drive from Zagreb. Žumberak is a mountain range divided into two parts, the Samobor Hills and the Žumberak Hills, both comprising the protected nature park Žumberak – Samobor Hills. It is home to many plant, fungal, and animal species, some of which are endangered or sensitive.
At first, shortly after arriving I was planning to spend every day with a different group, but in the end, I spent all the days driving around with the Crustacean group. I wasn’t sure how much fun is that going to be, since I knew very little about freshwater crayfish, apart from researching crayfish plague for a little while as an undergrad during an elective lab course. I was already familiar with two members, Lena and Ljudevit Luka, since we are the same generation and took multiple classes together, and I also knew Anita and Karla a little bit; the whole group was very determined to carry out their research but with the sprinkle of carefreeness. I didn’t feel excluded for one bit and they were extremely patient with me taking photographs and filming videos.
So, what did Crustacean group actually do? Anita kindly explained their goals:
monitoring of the species Austropotamobius torrentium, also known as stone crayfish (how many specimens, in which streams are they located, what gender…)
taking swabs of crayfish cuticles in order to check for crayfish plague pathogen; this is later investigated by using the PCR method
taking water samples using special filters in order to check for crayfish presence; this is later investigated by analyzing the eDNA (environmental DNA)
How does that actually look like out in the field? The first thing we did every morning, was to check the map and the roads; sometimes, we drove for more than one hour to reach a destination. Then we walked up to a stream, which sometimes proved to be rather tricky, since some seemed to dry up overnight. The most important thing we did before and after walking in every stream, creek or puddle was to disinfect our rubber boots, in order not to accidentally transfer pathogens to different habitats.
The group was very active even before my arrival, so we checked some permanent streams where they already set up special crayfish traps, that were actually made of old plastic bottles, with some tasty hot dog sausages in them. (Don’t worry, those traps are reusable! They just have to be washed thoroughly.) After taking out crayfish, one by one, they are measured and gently rubbed with a toothbrush, in a special buffer, to collect possible crayfish plague pathogen. Every tube containing that buffer is then labeled and safely stored. Crayfish are carefully released back into the stream, at the same place where they were found.
However, sometimes we went to streams for the first time, which meant no traps. So how do you catch a crayfish then? With hands. Usually they were hiding under rocks, but what most people probably wouldn’t expect, is that they are freakishly fast. Still, even during night-time catching & release, every member of the group was highly skilled in catching them. They could also easily discern female from male specimens, and Ljudevit Luka readily explained how, and also sent additional images (the ones below). In short, the main difference is that male crayfish have gonopods, while females don’t. (Gonopods are modified legs that are substantial during mating.)
In four days that I spent with this wonderful group, I learned a lot and had a really amazing time. I wanted this post to focus mostly on crayfish, but I’m planning to post another one, where I will write a little bit more about travelling, our camping site, and wonderful nature I was able to document. I also took many videos, which I’m currently editing in one coherent, presentable, work, which I initially planned to release at the same time as this article, but life got a little bit in the way. I sincerely hope you liked this write-up, and will read my next one as well!
Here you can find social media of some of the members of the Crustacean group, as well as the KarioAstacidae website, a student project led by Ljudevit Luka and Lena, which focuses on Astacidae populations in Zagreb.
Hydrozoa are the last cnidarian class I’m going to write about. They can exist in two distinct shapes, as hydromedusa and hydropolyp (same as Scyphozoa and Cubozoa). Despite perhaps expecting hydrozoans to be the most advanced in both nervous and sensory systems, they don’t actually have any rophalium. Furthermore, some hydromedusae don’t even have nerve nets. However, they have two nerve rings (outer and inner) on the margins of their bells which are regarded as ganglia by some scientists.
These rings consist of neural pathways which process different sensory inputs (such as light and gravity). Aglantha digitale, a hydrozoan species, has been reported to have as much as 14 distinct neural pathways. A. digitale is also distinct from the other species in the class by having two swimming “modes” – slow (which is a characteristic for all hydrozoan) and escape mode. Transmission through giant ring neurons is responsible for both modes, but the escape mode requires a stronger contraction. The slow swim mode is activated by the input from the pacemaker, which triggers slow calcium spikes. Direct mechanical nerve ring stimulation by tentacles triggers fast sodium spikes. In short, giant ring neurons are capable of generating two different kinds of action potentials.
Gap junctions are also present in (and only in) Hydrozoa, and they transfer electrical signals through the musculature. Furthermore, I would like to emphasize that despite some hydromedusae not having a nerve net, some in fact do, and so do hydropolyps. In polyps, however, some groupings of the neurons could be found around their mouth.
Cubozoa, or box jellyfish, are another cnidarian class. Their name stems from their distinct cube-like shape. Cubozoa are also distinct from other cnidarian because their venom can be fatal to humans. As with all cnidarians, box jellyfish have two nerve nets and, like Scyphozoa, rophalia. However, box jellyfish also have a distinct nerve ring, as well as more developed eyes that consist of a lens, cornea, pupil, and a layer of retinal cells. Altogether, Cubozoa have 24 eyes, which makes them the most advanced cnidarian class in the sensory aspect.
Rophalia are mutually connected via the mentioned nerve ring. This ring is believed to be an integration center for the swimming, visual, and tentacle systems; it is comprised of oversized neurons, as well as some smaller neurites. The communication between the nerve net and jellyfish muscles is regulated by chemical synapses.
Most of the information relating to Cubozoa, I already mentioned in the previous post about Scyphozoa, so I only wanted to relay the main differences between the two. These two classes are so similar that, until recently, they were actually considered one class.
I already wrote couple of posts on this topic, and today I’m focusing on several examples from movies and TV shows I’ve recently watched. The movies I’m going to write about are Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, The Good Liar, Charlie’s Angels (2019 version), and Paranoid TV show. So, if you are planning to watch those, just a warning that there will probably be spoilers below!
Let’s start with the obvious and amusing misportrayal: in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003 movie), Lara is riding sharks in the opening sequence. I think no one would believe this is actually possible, but shark petting videos recently became very popular. However, many researches are strongly discouraging this type of behaviour.
The Good Liar (2019 movie) is an interesting thriller with really good cast that I actually enjoyed. Without giving out too much of the plot, I’ll just mention one scene where Helen Mirren’s character gives the haircut to the character played by Ian McKellen. She uses cut hair for the DNA analysis, factually linking McKellen’s character for the past crimes. Of course, we all know that without the root, there is no DNA to analyze, right? Not quite. Most companies that do DNA analysis require hair with follicles in order to extract DNA for analysis; however, they mostly deal with paternities, so they need the nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, apparently can be extracted from the hair itself. For the movie’s purposes, I think nuclear DNA was needed, so this seems like a movie mistake. But, recently scientists did manage to successfully extract nuclear DNA from rootless hair, but that DNA is often fragmented and complicated to extract. I would also just like to mention that I believe this movie explains trauma and coping surprisingly well for a Hollywoood movie.
In Charlie’s Angels (2019 movie), which I hoped would be more enjoyable than it was, a very interesting premise was introduced; in order to effortlessly communicate, members of the team get a certain tattoo (at least I think it’s a tattoo, but don’t 100% quote me on that) and they can hear thanks to it. So, my first thought was, wow, they really went sci-fi on this one, but it sounded too out there. And then I remembered bone conduction. Simply, bone conduction allows you to hear the transmission, without blocking the outside sounds. And yes, only you can hear it. There are headphones already in use for this type of thing, and they can be also used to help with some kinds of hearing impairments. These headphones are placed on the skull, and I haven’t seen it implemented in a tattoo yet, but it’s actually a neat idea.
Paranoid (2016 TV show) is, in my opinion, really bad, despite only tangential connection to Biology. This show feel anti-medication and anti-psychiatrists, portrays them in a very bad light, and chooses not to mention how much medications and psychotherapy are actually helping people. The premise is also built on one of the cliche “anti-big pharma” representations. I was honestly insulted, despite not working in any of these fields. There is a also a subplot concerning a female character who had provocative photos of her taken 15 years ago, and she is not longer in possession of said photos; she is blackmailed with the possibility of leaking those. Her love interest immediately accuses her of things I won’t write here, but you get the main idea. I mean, am I the only one who sees this as highly problematic This TV show is doing some serious damage to the health care, it is insulting to physicians, it is insulting to patients, and I honestly can’t believe that no one during the whole production didn’t say anything.
I hope you like these kind of posts, because I already have enough material for another one (there are a lot of Biology & science mistakes on the big screen). What is your favourite movie mistake related to Biology?
A nerve net is a type of nervous system that consists of many neurons but there is no brain or cephalization. Nerve nets are found in animals with radial symmetry (Cnidaria) and biradial symmetry (Ctenophora). Despite being called a net, there sometimes exist some groupings of neural cells in some Cnidaria classes, which I will write more about during the next couple of weeks. Cnidaria are specific due to their specialized organelles, cnidocytes, which they utilize to hunt for food or use for securing itself to a surface. Some cnidocytes contain toxins that can paralyze their prey (the burning sensation you may have felt when touching a sea anemone 😉). As a rule, Cnidaria have two diffuse nerve nets, one in the epidermal layer and a second one in the gastrodermal layer. In between these two layers is the mesoglea, a layer that functions as sort of a skeleton. The epidermal net consists of bipolar and multipolar nerve cells, while the gastrodermal net is made up of only multipolar cells.
Cnidarian nerve systems are fascinating but also quite unexplored. What is known is that nerve cells consist of two types of neurons, sensory neurons that respond to stimuli and motor neurons which ultimately trigger a response. Chemical synapses exist and provide the communication between the neurons. Hormones have also been reported in some cnidarians (steroids, neuropeptides) but it is still not known how exactly these signalling molecules work.
In the next couple of weeks, I will write a post about every cnidarian class and also ctenophores, focusing on their nervous and sensory systems. If you have any questions or would like me to focus on something, please let me know!
Sponges (phylum Porifera) are sessile multicellular organisms that live predominantly in seas and oceans. They don’t have tissues or organs, and therefore, they don’t actually have a nervous system. However, they do have bipolar and multipolar cells that resemble nerve cells, which are found in the middle, “jelly-like”, layer. Sequencing of some sponge species showed the presence of many genes associated with neural cells, such as genes that code enzymes for neurotransmitter synthesis and synaptic transmission. It is important to note that these genes have other functions in the organism. It has also been observed that some sponge larvae can respond to outer stimuli and show various “taxis” behaviour – phototaxis (response to light), geotaxis (response to gravity), rheotaxis (response to water current). Phototaxis has been closely studied in species Amphimedon queenslandica (class Demospongiae), a sponge native to Coral Sea.
Potassium channels have been observed in that same species, as well as glutamate, GABA, and NO systems, which have been investigated in Ephydatia muelleri, another species of class Demospongiae. Electrical signalling has been noted in glass sponges (class Hexactinellida). These sponges have bodies comprised of a syncitial tissue and their skeleton is made of silicon dioxide. The scientists were able to measure the action potential (5s long, with 29s refractory period) and deduce this signal relies on potassium and calcium ions. Some scientists even suggest that sponges used to have a nervous system, but lost it during evolution – they introduced several hypothetical scenarios for this event, proposing that sponges lost their nervous system in order to focus on filtering.