It Turns Out That Single-Celled Organisms Are Having Sex Too

Gisela Giardino, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gisela Giardino, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

So much for the stereotype of the chaste, pious diatom. (Wait. Is that not a stereotype?) Scientists examining tiny single-celled organisms say we've been wrong to assume they* lead lives of quiet, sexless desperation. The researchers described their microscopically racy findings in the journal PLOS One.

The tiny specks called diatoms are neither plants nor animals but somewhere in between; they're algae. There are more than 200,000 species living in the water all over the world, each with its own unique and beautiful frustule, or hard silica scaffolding.

Anatoly Mikhaltsov, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

To date, scientists have sequenced the genetic code of only two diatoms: the peapod-shaped Phaeodactulum tricornutum and the round, or centric, Thalassiosira pseudonana. The genes of T. pseudonana contained some sex-related code, but researchers believed it was vestigial, like our wisdom teeth or the wings of a kiwi bird.

"Everybody said Thalassiosira pseudonana was asexual, because they'd never seen anything else," corresponding author Kimberly Halsey of Oregon State University said in a statement. "The general thinking was that it just lost the ability or need to go through sex."

Not for lack of trying on our part. Previous experimenters have tried all kinds of things to get the little specks to get busy, from turning off the lights to adding more salt to the water.

"Lab efforts to induce sex in centric diatoms have ranged from sweet talk to torture," Halsey said. These efforts weren't entirely fruitless; once in a while, the diatoms might show some interest. But it wasn't clear why, or if the tiny organisms would do it on their own.

Halsey and her colleagues decided to take another close look at T. pseudonana. They went back over its genome, studying any gene that could be related to sexual activity, then stared long and hard at the diatoms themselves.

What they found surprised them. The diatoms had genes that would allow them to differentiate—that is, to become one sex or another. Lead author Eric Moore says he was startled by this realization.

"In fact, I was convinced my cultures were contaminated before I realized what was actually going on," he said. 

Moore, Halsey, and their colleagues also discovered the secret to getting T. pseudonana in the mood: a little aphrodisiac known as ammonia.

While many of us know ammonia as an awful-smelling cleaning agent, it's not hard to find it in the wild, as a component of urine and other waste. Exposing the diatoms to ammonia was all it took to get the cells to start making eggs and sperm.

The authors say the diatoms may be regularly soaking in ammonia and, consequently, getting sexy.

"Our discoveries solve two persistent mysteries that have plagued diatom researchers," Halsey said. "Yes, they have sex, and yes, we can make them do it."

 

*The single-celled organisms, not the scientists. The sex lives of the latter are none of our business.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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The Northern Lights Storms Are Getting Names—and You Can Offer Up Your Suggestions

A nameless northern lights show in Ylläs, Finland.
A nameless northern lights show in Ylläs, Finland.
Heikki Holstila, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

While all northern lights are spectacular, they’re not all spectacular in the same way. Aurora borealis, or “northern dawn,” occurs when electrons in the magnetic field surrounding Earth transfer energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere. The molecules then emit the excess energy as light particles, which create scintillating displays whose colors and shapes depend on many known and unknown factors [PDF]—type of molecule, amount of energy transferred, location in the magnetosphere, etc.

Though the “storms” are extremely distinct from each other, they haven’t been named in the past the way hurricanes and other storms are christened. That’s now changing, courtesy of a tourism organization called Visit Arctic Europe. As Travel + Leisure reports, the organization will now christen the strongest storms with Nordic names to make it easier to keep track of them.

“There are so many northern lights visible in Arctic Europe from autumn to early spring that we started giving them names the same way other storms are named. This way, they get their own identities and it’s easier to communicate about them,” Visit Arctic Europe’s program director Rauno Posio explained in a statement.

Scientists will be able to reference the names in their studies, much like they do with hurricanes. And if you’re a tourist hoping to check out other people’s footage of the specific sky show you just witnessed, searching by name on social media will likely turn up better results than a broad “#auroraborealis.”

Visit Arctic Europe has already given names to recent northern lights storms, including Freya, after the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, and Sampo, after “the miracle machine and magic mill in the Finnish national epic poem, ‘Kalevala.’” A few other monikers pay tribute to some of the organization’s resident “aurora hunters.”

But you don’t have to be a goddess or an aurora hunter in order to get in on the action. Anybody can submit a name (along with an optional explanation for your suggestion) through the “Naming Auroras” page here. It’s probably safe to assume that submissions related to Nordic history or culture have a better chance of being chosen, but there’s technically nothing to stop you from asking Visit Arctic Europe to name a northern lights show after your dog.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]