Happy Humpday! December 06, 2017

As always, we’re here with some Humpday fun – our chance to help you laugh and learn and, y’know, take a moment to relax. Today’s post is all about that intersection of folk wisdom and hard, empirical science – and what an intersection that is! We as humans have been passing along lore and wisdom, fables and parables for hundreds upon hundreds of centuries. The purpose of this is not only to exchange entertaining stories, but to pass along knowledge important to the survival of our species. And for at least the last 3,000 years, as these stories have been told, exchanged, learned, repeated, and sung… we humans have been highly dependent upon camels. And so, if you find yourself in the Gobi –a rain shadow desert covering parts of northern and northwestern China, and southern Mongolia– talking about surviving the desert with camels, you’ll likely hear that camels can smell water  fifty miles away! This is a piece of wisdom that has probably been tossed around for those last 3,000 years — and we’re here with the science behind it.

According to The Guardian,
“[Camels] have a magic about them as they tramp off in single file across miles of desert in search of water and then, seemingly against all the odds, find an oasis.

In fact, the wild Bactrian camels of the Gobi desert are reputed to be able to find water up to 50 miles away. How camels can divine water in this way has given scientists the hump for ages. But now a British team may have sniffed out the secret, and it is right under our noses, lying in the ground.

The John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich would not seem an obvious place to investigate camels or deserts. It is world renowned for research on microbes, and last year unravelled all 8,000 genes in Streptomyces, a soil bacterium stuffed with an amazing medicine chest of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs vital to the pharmaceutical industry. It was while they were pinpointing what each of these Streptomyces genes does that the scientists knocked out a musty smell. This particular gene was responsible for making geosmin, which gives an alluring fragrance of rain on soil or the musty scent of florists.”

And it’s that very musty scent that attracts camels from miles and miles away, just to take a drink of water. And what does our soil-based organism (SBO) Streptomyces get out of the deal? Why, they get to hitch a ride on the camel, and ensure the spread of their species. This may sound like some sort of menacing microbial migration, but fear not, dear reader (DR) — as mentioned in the above-quoted article, Streptomyces provides a bevy of benefits to the animals (including humans!) that ingest it. As a matter of fact, don’t even get this writer started on the Holy Grail that is soil-based organisms. That being said, let’s roll out the red carpet for today’s camelfact!

Drumroll, please…


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