• Christen & Bernadette

AWESTRUCK: When Did Nature Capture You?

Updated: Jul 26, 2020


Bernadette, here.

If you talk to any biologist, environmental lawyer, or other scientifically inclined professional, one thing they likely all have in common is that at some point in their life they were “struck” by something- that is, something in nature “caught them” and they probably find it difficult to describe the experience.


For instance, many people are taken by sunsets, mountain ranges, landscapes, others by studying animal behaviors or studying an anomaly they have seen in nature. I have had quite a few of these experiences, as you likely have, but there are some that regularly come up in thought and conversation. I would like to share one here…


I was “struck” by nature when I was incredibly young -five, in fact. The experience below may seem awfully boring or benign, but the observation and curiosity I had during this moment still resonates with me today.

I was at a baseball game for one of my older brothers. I tended to get bored watching and usually wandered off to play with friends, or just play in nature. One time, I was playing in a large area that contained giant power lines. I remember seeing the large metal structures and wondering what they did, and I also distinctly

remember hearing the hum that my Dad said came from the transformers. My intuition, even at such a young age, thought that this can’t be good for anyone to be around. While playing, a red ladybug flew over near me and landed. I picked it up, brought it close to my face, and observed it closely. It was waddling around, and I remember thinking this bug does not look like all the others that I have seen before by my house. Something was wrong. It was mutated with a deformed body and wings. I wandered around some more, and found others with similar deformities of their bodies, legs, heads, etc. I knew it wasn’t normal. I remember calling my Dad over who investigated them me. He said oh yes, I’ve seen this before, there are actually quite a few in this area. I thought, huh, that cannot be right and shrugged. What can a five-year-old girl do about it anyhow? To this day, I still do not know why those insects were mutated. Was is genetic? Was it environmentally related? Are they still there? These little incidents have occurred throughout my life. Through the power of observation, we can see the beauty in nature and also its unexpected flaws. Just like us, nature is not perfect. Let’s talk about some of nature’s imperfections--- mutations.

How do mutations happen in a broader sense (we will get to a more molecular one later)?

· Mutations can happen intentionally through scientific experimentation (genetically modified

organisms, artificial selection etc.)

· Mutations can happen unintentionally simply by exposure to natural ultraviolet sun rays, or

as a “side effect” of toxic chemicals created by humans. For instance exposure to DDT, which

was synthesized as an insecticide, can cause mutations in rat genes

https://www.nytimes.com/1970/08/04/archives/ddt-found-to-cause-mutations-in-rats.html.

Mutations can happen intentionally through scientific experimentation

It is known that scientists can genetically modify organisms. Check out these beetles growing a third eye https://futurism.com/genetically-modified-beetles-grew-fully-functional-third-eye

Strangely, scientists working in the laboratory found here that by turning “off” a gene that created a horn, they turned “on” a gene that made a complex compound eye. What?

So, what does it mean to be turned “on” or “off”? Organisms have cells that contain a nucleus with DNA

containing genes, not all of which are expressed or used by the cell. Those that are expressed eventually create proteins that are used in the body, and may make up complex organs such as eyes. Those that are not expressed, but rather repressed, lie in wait silently, for one day they may be used again.



…But the lady bugs I observed were not lab-created.

Mutations can happen unintentionally

We know mutations in our genetic makeup can occur unintentionally- maybe through exposure to ultraviolet sun rays or due to errors that can occur when DNA copies itself during replication. The next case, however, is a bit of an anomaly. It left scientists puzzled, and wondering if this mutation was genetic, environmental, neither or both?


In 1995, a group of Minnesota students went out to catch leopard frogs for a project, and made a gruesome discovery- they discovered frogs with missing legs, extra legs, or eyes in different parts of the body. Woah! Imagine finding one of those.


https://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/07/17/deformed-minnesota-frogs-still-largely-a-mystery-17-years-later


This observation sparked scientific investigations into why these frogs appear this way. Frogs are indicator species, and due to their semipermeable skin, they will readily absorb chemicals from the environment around them. The initial thought by many was that these frogs had been exposed to some toxin that triggered these mutations. But what they discovered was a bit more chilling…

These frogs were exposed to parasites (a flatworm trematode) called Ribeiroia ondatrae. As part of their life cycle, these parasites form cysts (metacercariae) in their host (the frogs) around limb buds (where limbs are generated). The cysts interfere with normal limb growth and result in the formation of deformities and legs at different locations on the frog’s body. One group of scientists proved this by implanting small glass beads in tadpoles to mimic the effect of cysts. This experiment also produced deformities but not as severe as those observed in wild.


Were pesticides involved at all in these deformities?

Another group of scientists performed experiments that found there were combined effects of the parasite and pesticides. Scientists found that the deformities were more common in frogs exposed to the parasite Ribeiroia and pesticides when compared to frogs not exposed to pesticides. Yes, pesticides do play a role. But, why and how?


This ultimately lead to one final experiment by Kiesecker and his team that found tadpoles reared in the presence of pesticides had fewer white blood cells (indicating a suppressed immune system) and a higher rate of Ribeiroia cyst formation. https://www.pnas.org/content/99/15/9900.

It’s astonishing that all of these are linked together—pesticides (agricultural runoff, etc.) lower the immune system of frogs, which cause decreased resistance to parasitic infections like those of Ribeiroia.


Some final thoughts…


Just like us, nature is not perfect. As I reflect on this thought, I am reminded that no matter how imperfect we humans are, we serve a perfect God. In fact, until humankind chose to go our own way, we were originally made in the perfect image and likeness of God. He loves us despite our imperfections. And one day we’ll be restored to that perfection.



I still wonder about those lady bugs I examined as a young girl- were those deformities intentional, unintentional? Were they natural, induced by environmental factors, or caused by something else? What do you think? Have you seen any interesting anomalies in nature?


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