Most people are familiar with the stereotype of the “mad scientist”. They tend to have crazy hair that sticks out in every direction, are known to laugh maniacally every so often, and are fond of creating monstrous abominations through genetic experimentation. Of course, most people also know that they died out with Joseph Mengele…or did they? A team of scientists led by Eduardo Zattara, a postdoctoral researcher in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, decided to play God and recently created a three-eyed beetle with an added compound eye in the middle of its head, inspiring them to give it the nickname “Cyclops”.
Now, I know what this looks like, but these scientists weren’t actually living out their darkest fantasies of being the next Victor Frankenstein. They were actually studying the possibilities of genetic evolution by shutting off a specific gene in the dung beetle to see what kind of physical changes it might result in. This helped them understand how certain genes cause the evolution of new characteristics in insects. When they removed the orthodenticle genes, the beetle grew a third eye in the center of its head and lost its horns. This was a monumental leap forward in our understanding so far of how evolution works.
What external factor could possibly cause this gene to suddenly become active and spark an evolution in the beetle’s physical traits?