Would you want to find that beetle in your bed one night? Well, probably not — nor would an ant, but if the ant did, it might just go ahead and eat the beetle. That is, unless the beetle were protecting itself — that’s what it’s doing in the picture. Look carefully at the small balls of liquid around the beetle’s body. For an ant, that’s poison.
Actually, if that leaf beetle really were in your bed, you probably wouldn’t notice it. It’s about as small as the ball on your ball-point pen. (You can click on the picture to make it larger — much larger than real life.) But — like so many wonderful products of biology — small doesn’t mean simple. In fact, the little body of that leaf beetle takes sugars that it eats from that poplar plant it’s sitting on, and converts them chemically, into poisons. It’s a very complicated process.
So complicated, in fact, that it baffled scientists for a while. But now they’ve figured out how it works. And it turns out, they also learned a fascinating lesson about evolution. Leaf beetles, you see, evolved into different species that gobble up different kinds of plants. And each one of them developed its own unique poison-making system.
If Dr. Wilhelm Boland at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany found that beetle in his bed, he might just pick it up and put it under a microscope. And now Dr. Boland’s going to tell you all about his fascination with the beetle that battles with sugar.
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