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Cyclops Beetles Grow Third Eye But Get No Enlightenment

“Be careful what you wish for” is a good maxim for the rest us to live by, but genetic scientists might be wiser to go with “Be careful what you mess with.” A group in Indiana decided to mess with dung beetles (already a mess in some opinions) and changed the genes in beetle embryos that control the growth of that horn in the middle of their head. The horns disappeared but popping out in their place were third eyes. Were the beetles enlightened? Were the scientists?

We were amazed that shutting down a gene could not only turn off development of horns and major regions of the head, but also turn on the development of very complex structures such as compound eyes in a new location.

Eduardo Zattara, postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University’s Department of Biology, describes the experiment in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Dung beetles of the genus Onthophagus are hatched as larvae, making them easy to mess with genetically alter. They turned off the orthodenticle gene that controls horn growth and expected the horn to disappear – which it did. What they didn’t expect was a dung beetle with a third eye.

The Onthophagus beetles with the orthodenticle gene (left) and without it (right). Credit: Indiana University

Dung beetles with the orthodenticle gene (left) and without it (right).
Credit: Indiana University

In other creatures, the orthodenticle gene controls development of heads and brains, so turning it off is not a good thing. Is giving dung beetles a higher consciousness a third eye a good thing?

These studies provide a solution to an important ‘chicken-and-egg problem’ of modern evolutionary developmental biology. For a gene to carry out a new function, it needs to find a way to be activated at the right time and location.

In other words, genes may have had other functions in earlier phases of a creature’s evolution, but were turned off or repositioned to enable new developments or appendages with new functions. Turning off what suppressed them activates the old traits while leaving the rest of the creature in its current evolved state.

So, why did dung beetles give up an eye for a horn? If you’re digging in dung, do you really need to see what you already smell? Wouldn’t a horn be a better tool for digging, rounding and pushing it back to the nest for food? Now THAT’S an enlightenment.

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What gene might control development of a physical, if not metaphysical, third eye in humans? Do we really want genetic scientists altering the pineal gland – the gland deep in the brain that Descartes believed is the “principal seat of the soul” and the key to third-eye enlightenment?

Be careful what you mess with.