Category Archives: frogs

On The Ways That Brains Change

from reference 1

It is well known that nervous system plasticity (the mutable quality of brains) underlies animals’ ability to change their behaviors. However, it has been widely thought that such plasticity consists mostly of changes at synapses, the sites of communication between neurons, or in the intrinsic excitability of individual neurons – how likely a cell is to increase or decrease its voltage or to fire action potentials. New research challenges this view by showing that another type of alteration can be at work: single neurons can change the type of neurotransmitter they release in response to stimulation1.

Specifically, this work addresses tadpole camouflage. Tadpoles can rapidly change (increase or decrease) the amount of pigmentation in their skin in order to blend in with their surroundings. The research I here refer to demonstrates that when frog tadpoles (Xenopus laevis) are stimulated with bright light, the number of dopamine-secreting (dopaminergic) neurons in the animals’ brains increases, allowing them to adapt more rapidly to subsequent exposure to light.

When exposed to just hours of direct light, dark-reared tadpoles responded by doubling the number off dopaminergic neurons within a part of their central nervous system called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Furthermore, these new dopaminergic neurons seem to integrate into the existing pathways for changing pigmentation. The authors were able to selectively destroy existing SCN dopaminergic neurons, eliminating the tadpoles ability to change pigment, and then rescue this ability with light exposure.

It remains unclear if this phenomenon is purely a developmental one, operating only prior to adulthood, an important caveat. None the less, the ability to change cell type is an as-yet unexplored form of neural plasticity which will have widespread implications for neuroscience research. Furthermore, this work may have even more direct application to human experience.

In human beings, the malfunction of certain dopamine-mediated signalling cascades (cell-level combinations of molecular interactions) have been implicated in seasonal affective disorder (winter depression). It is also well known that dopamine is intrinsically involved in the rewarding feelings delivered by food, sex and drugs. It may thus simply be the case that a lack of light stimulation leads to a lack of dopaminergic neurons, and thus to fewer episodes of rewarding experience during the winter months.

1. Dulcis D, Spitzer NC. Illumination controls differentiation of dopamine neurons regulating behaviour. Nature 456: 195-201, 2008.

Towards What Are We Evolving?

A group of researchers has found that our choice of diet has had an effect on our genomes. Specifically, they’ve found that individuals from groups with traditionally high-starch diets have more copies of the gene for Salivary Amylase, the enzyme which breaks down starches in our mouths and stomachs, as compared to those with low-starch diets. This is fascinating news because it is the beginning of an answer to the question: towards what are we evolving? What are the selective pressures acting on our genes to produce further iterations of our species’ existence? In general, this is an extremely difficult question to answer, if not impossible.

There are some examples of human intervention into evolution; our efforts at breeding plants and animals have yielded several well known successes (including the development of a transparent frog, see below) and we also use evolution to design molecules with specific properties (ref. 1). These, however, are examples where many generations can be generated rapidly and only those individuals with desired traits are allowed produce offspring.

Transparent Frog (HO / REUTERS)

Fitness is the term that is generally used to quantify how likely an individual is to be reproductively successful, and is thus a most relevant concept in determining the direction in which evolution is nudging us. When the environmental variables and set of possbile behaviors are simple, it is possible to make predictions concerning fitness. For instance, a salt marsh is an environment in which organisms are subject to varying levels of salinity. It is a fair bet that after continued but not overwhelming exposure to increased levels of salt, an initially non-salt-tolerant plant will become salt tolerant. This is the case because the individuals with some salt tolerance are presumably more fit than others, and their offspring will retain that advantage.

When one tries to analyze what makes a human being fit, however, there are several obstacles. First, the set of circumstances we’re adapting to are quite complex, meaking it no minor task to pick out which elements might be most important. Second, we define what constitutes fitness through our influence on social structure. Third, even if we’re somehow genetically most-fit, we can choose to thwart evolution by not having any children. One might think that the rich constitute a good candidate for the title of most-fit, but they certainly do not reproduce the most. If anything, the group with the highest reproductive success is the poor.

Even if we believe that Darwinian evolution is the dominant force in defining how we will change over the coming epochs, we must admit that it plays some roll. In attempting to understand the future of our species, and how to act in our own best interests, we must acknowledge the forces at work in shaping our selves. Darwinism is clearly important for analyzing broad trends, such as in the research presented above. However, the fast-and-faster acting influence of cultural evolution which currently influences every aspect of our lives, will undoubtedly be of paramount importance to understanding humanity as well. Our challenge is now to understand how the effects of cultural evolution will play out, feeding back on our biology.


1. Farinas ET, Bulter T, Arnold FH. (2001) Directed enzyme evolution. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 12(6):545-51
2. Perry GH, Dominy NJ, Claw KG, Lee AS, Fiegler H, Redon R, Werner J, Villanea FA, Mountain JL, Misra R, Carter NP, Lee C, Stone AC. (2007) Diet and the evolution of human amylase gene copy number variation. Nat Genet. 39(10):1256-60.