Can't Live Without You

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 121
Podcast Interview with John McCutcheon
Brood-X cicada Image by Alex Wild

Dr. Biology:

This is Ask A Biologist. A program about the living world. And I'm Dr. Biology. Can't live without you is the story of a symbiotic relationship between an insect and not one, but two different bacteria. Now, our insect has fascinated people for thousands of years. Its lifecycle has been tied to death and rebirth and immortality. 

The Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates all wrote about this insect. In fact, Aristotle liked to eat them. And before you say yuck. Keep in mind, insects are a delicacy for many people around the world. Aristotle also included a short description about this insect in his book, Historia animalium (History of Animals), which is one of the earliest textbooks of biology. 

Today, this insect and the bacteria are the focus of the research of John McCutcheon, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a professor in the School of Life Sciences, as well as an associate director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution at Arizona State University. It is the symbiotic relationship with some critical bacteria and the cicada that has fascinated him. And after you listen to this episode, I think you will also find that this is an amazing story. John, thank you so much for joining me on Ask A Biologist.

John:

Thank you for having me. It's nice to be here.

Dr. Biology:

All right. So, let's talk about this insect that has captured the imagination of humans for thousands of years. And it is. Well, if you look at the pictures of them, especially a close-up of its head, it could be something out of Alien.

John:

I think they're cute. But people do say that.

Dr. Biology:

The ones literally outside in my backyard, they are emerging and they have giant red eyes. But let's talk a little bit about the cicada. That's what we're getting to. And it's life cycle. This is an amazing story.

John:

It's an amazing animal. It's a really cool animal. So, cicadas, when you see them are above ground and they're making noise, that's why you notice them. But that's a small part of the life cycle. They're very long-lived for an insect. Most insects live less than a year, maybe a year. Oftentimes days or weeks. 

But cicadas live for between two and 17 years, and they spend most of that time underground. So, when you hear them, that's the end of their life. They're actually senior citizens at that point. What you don't see is when they're underground. And the reason they are underground is because they are sucking sap from tree roots underground. So, a lot of insects do this, their exclusive diets or sap, either the sap that comes up from the ground into the trees or the sap that becomes sugary in the leaves and then is moved to the rest of the tree for nutrition. 

So, that's sugar water or almost nothing water. The stuff coming from the roots. Cicadas drink the nothing water. It's called xylem sap. That's all they eat. So, they sit underground. If they're undisturbed, they'll stay in the same little place for between two and 17 years. And they'll suck sap, and they will grow bigger. And then everyone in the same group will at almost the same hour of the same day. Usually, at night, they will emerge from the ground, crawl up into a tree, and finish their development. They'll crawl out of their shell, and they'll become an adult, and they'll start singing over the next few days. And that's what you hear. 

So, most of it you don't hear they're growing underground. The bit you do hear is actually the end of their lives. I should say how they get to the ground. Right. So, you see them in the tree. They are aboveground. The female lays eggs in the tree and then the little babies hatch out of the eggs in the tree, and they fall to the ground. They're delicate. They're like little wisps. And they fall to the ground and they dig a hole, a little tiny hole until they find a root.And then they suck, and they stay there.

Dr. Biology:

So, what we're talking about is metamorphosis, the whole lifecycle. And there are two kinds of metamorphosis, by the way. There's incomplete and complete metamorphosis. We're talking about incomplete. So, we have egg.

John:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology: 

Underground. Those are those nymphs.

John:

Yes. 

And they're molting and they're actually they molt several times, right?

John:

They do. 

Dr. Biology:

Right. Right. And then they emerge for that final molt and become an adult. Okay. All right. That's cool in itself. 

John:

It's amazing.

Dr. Biology:

All right. We've got this insect underground, and it's sucking up the xylem. By the way, the other thing that plants have is phloem.

John:

That's the sugary one.

Dr. Biology:

Right? Right. That's the. That's the one that's like what, like syrup.

John:

That's right. In some places in the country or around the world actually, aphids will suck the sugary sap in the trees. So, they're normal. They live above ground like most insects, and they will rain down that sap in their poop and make your car sticky. Right. So, that is the stickiness of the other kind of sap. The sap that the cicadas eat has almost nothing in it. It's very, very nutrient-poor. It's not a way to grow any animal. It's amazing that that's what they eat. That's all they eat.

Dr. Biology:

Hmm. That's an amazing story. But that's not the story we're going to be talking about. And I'm always, I guess, the way I think of this is I'm always fascinated with science research and how scientists uncover mysteries, and they observe something that leads them into an area that they want to explore The area that you're exploring. How did you come across the relationship of cicadas and what we're going to be talking about?

John:

A little bit of meandering, a little bit of luck and a little bit of experience as a young kid. So, you know, if you live in certain parts of the country, the United States, there are emergences of these 13- and 17-year cicadas that leave a big impression because they come out in enormous numbers. Their dead bodies, litter the ground. And that happened to me as a kid. 

And so, it's not like I became a cicada expert, but I knew about them. I can still remember being under a tree and just scooping up these cicada bodies. So, that sort of stuck with me. That was a long time ago. And then I went to college, and I became a biochemist. And that was interesting, but not great. And I ended up doing this sort of internship. The last thing you do before you come up, Professor, it's called a postdoc. 

And I worked for a woman who studied these insects. Not cicadas at that point, but other kinds of sap-feeding insects. Insects that only eat sap. And it was sort of on a whim. It was in Tucson, Arizona. We're now in Tempe, Arizona, but it's actually the same species that you heard this morning was out in the tree across from the lab. And I asked Nancy, why don't we do that? Why don't we work on cicadas? Cicadas are neat. She said, Yeah, they're neat. Let's do it. We were working on other insects, but it was sort of, you know, they were out there and I went and after a week of fruitless work, I finally caught one. They're hard to catch. You get better at it. But at the time it was hard. I caught it and we started studying it.

Dr. Biology:

Wow. We have the cicada, and actually this xylem, that's really nutrient-poor. It's not good food.

John:

No. It's terrible food.

Dr. Biology:

And typically, we consume food to get things to help us grow, build and do work. 

John:

That’s right. 

Dr. Biology:

So, the cicada are at a, what would I say, a bit of a handicap.

John:

They have a problem.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah. Let's talk about the problem.

John:

So, the problem is that insects are animals and animals cannot make half of the amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. So, the proteins are just things that make up your body, basically. They're the molecules in your body that build your cells, that do the chemistry, that help you eat your food and digest your food. And so, you need to make proteins. But animals can only make half of these amino acids, these building blocks of proteins. And so, the reason that if you're a kid, your parents are constantly telling you to finish your food and do all this stuff is because you're trying to get those nutrients that your body cannot make. You have to eat them. Cicadas are like us in that way. They have to eat half of those amino acids, and they don't really get it in their diet. That is the problem. They can't just go out to McDonald's.

Dr. Biology:

So, cicadas. They're lacking some basic amino acids they need. So, where are they getting them?

John:

They're getting them from bacteria or single-celled organisms that live in special cells in their body.

Dr. Biology:

Okay. So, we have bacteria.

John:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

And it's not just inside the cicada.

John:

No.

Dr. Biology:

It's inside the cells.

John:

That's right.

Dr. Biology:

Inside the cicada.

John:

So, we have lots of bacteria inside of us and our gut. Right. But they're not inside our cells. If you trace a path from your mouth to the end of the line, it's an open system. Those bacteria are actually outside of your body. They're in your gut, but they're outside of your body.

Dr. Biology:

Right. And bacteria get such a bad rep.

John:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

We would not be alive without bacteria.

John:

That's right.

Dr. Biology:

That's all there is to it.

John:

Yeah. We wouldn't develop properly. We would be a mess.

Dr. Biology:

Right. Digesting food.

John:

Digesting food.

Dr. Biology:

All those things.

John:

Training your immune system to not overreact to situations. Right. To all sorts of things.

Dr. Biology:

Right. So, you know, bacteria, we're rooting for you. The good stuff. The good bacteria. [laughter] 

Dr. Biology:

There are a few bad ones, but that's a small minority.

Dr. Biology:

So, cicada.

John:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

They've got theirs and it’s inside cells.

John:

And it's inside cells. So, it's very unusual. So, it's a cell inside of a cell. And you know, we knew that going in. So, when I told you that we went across the street and caught a cicada and started studying it, we knew that something was going to be there because scientists in Germany and Italy, more than 100 years ago had studied these things with their microscopes and they could see things that look like bacteria. And they didn't really know what they did. And they knew they were bacteria. They knew they were maybe there were some fungi in there. 

So, we knew they were there. And we had been studying relatives of cicadas. So, we kind of knew where to look. You can't just go catch a cicada and find it. You need to actually sacrifice the animal, kill it, and then dissect it with little tiny scissors and a little tiny tweezers and pull out a special organ. It's called the bacteriome. Ome just means organ. And so,  it's an organ for bacteria. You can see that with just your naked eye in a cicada because the insects are so big. But to see the bacteria, you need more powerful microscopes. So, we take that tissue out and we can look at it in the microscope and see the bacteria, and we can do lots of other things. So, it's in a special organ. These cells, these special insect cells are stuffed full of bacteria. Really, really. Stuffed full.

Dr. Biology:

Really. Hmm. It’s interesting to me because I think of, I guess, mitochondria.

John:

So, the mitochondria in your cells are very old, captured bacteria. It's actually really similar. They are now permanent residents of your cells. They used to be a free-living bacteria. And a long time ago they got into our ancestral cell. The cell thing that became of plants and animals and fungi actually. That bacterium reduced in size. It lost a lot of its capabilities, and it became the mitochondrion. But people now know it's just a captured bacteria. So, it's a part of your cell, but it's a captured bacteria, intracellular bacteria. 

Dr. Biology:

So our cicada bacteria. Are they part of the cell? Are they there?

John:

They're not as permanent. They have mitochondria, of course, because animals do, but they are transmitted to the egg. So, they actually leave the cell and they're transmitted to the egg that the mother makes. And then when the mother lays the egg, it has a little packet of bacteria in it. And then when the little embryo is developing, those bacteria migrate over to a special cell. It's going to become these cells and those cells take up the bacteria again. And then that cell moves into the body of the animal and becomes this tissue.

Dr. Biology:

And we're not talking about just one type of bacterium.

John:

Cicadas have two. So, it's so it's not just one type, it's two types. And they work together. One of the bacteria makes two of the ten essential amino acids that we talked about, the building blocks that the cicada can't make. So, two of the ten. The other one makes eight of the ten. And so not only does the cicada need both bacteria, but the bacteria need each other.

Dr. Biology:

Wow.

John:

Because all three organisms need all 20 amino acids.

Dr. Biology:

 Now, people might think this is a unique relationship here because they often think of symbiotic relationships being 1 to 1.

John:

I mean, I would say when people started studying symbiosis, one, two, one was easy to see. And that was a fairly typical story. But what's happened in science in the last ten or 15 years is that our tools are getting better, we have better microscopes, we have the ability to take an organism or an animal in the wild and sequence, not only the animal's genome but all the genomes associated with it from all the bacteria and the fungi that live in that animal. And that's actually how we discovered really what these bacteria do is by sequencing genomes or their complete genetic blueprint. All the DNA. Sequenced, all the DNA.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah. that instruction set that we all have.

John:

Exactly. Bacteria have it too. Mitochondria have it too. We always get the mitochondrial genome, we get the bacterial genome, we get the cicada genome. And so, if you if go even in a microscope, a good microscope, and you look it's really hard to tell there's actually two types of bacteria there. Right. But when you sequence the genomes and you do this molecular biology of DNA work and genome work, it becomes instantly clear. And so, the tools are quite good, although to be fair, the Germans and the Italians suspected they were two indicators. They were very good microscopists. They were really good at looking at these insects. It's really amazing stuff.

Dr. Biology:

And we're talking, what, 100 years ago?

John:

Yeah. So, there's a famous book which was published in the early 1930s or so, but a lot of the work was done in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

Dr. Biology:

Wow, it is amazing what scientists were able to do back then.

John:

Yeah, they pushed it to the limits of their ability. Right. And they're amazing scientists. And we still read the book. The book is sitting on my desk in my office.

Dr. Biology:

So, what's the story with these bacteria?

John:

It's really amazing. I'm a microbiologist. I like bacteria. I think they're very interesting. So, it's just hard for me to not see a cicada and think about their bacteria. And I might be unusual, but maybe some listeners will start to think that way. But it's a very old story, actually. So, cicadas, they come in two main groups. Now there's 4000 species or something, and the ancestor is probably about 200 million years old. That's 200 million years old. Really old. 

And at least one of these bacteria has been there the entire time. One of the two that I've told you about, it's been there the entire time. It's actually common in insects that aren't cicadas. It's found in other insects. It's really old, probably closer to 350 million years, something like that, 350 million years, very old. And they've been doing this thing for a very long time. One difference with mitochondria. So, mitochondria in all of your cells and they're fairly stable. They don't change that much. They change among animals. But in a certain animal like a human, they don't really change. 

The bacteria in cicadas, they're a little bit less fixed. So, we have documented several cases now of one of the two bacteria being lost. And then a fungus comes in and takes the place of that bacteria. It gets into the cells and takes over the nutritional role that this bacteria had. And the interesting thing about that is that if we look at the molecular evidence, the DNA evidence, and other types of evidence, it's very clear that the ancestor of this fungus was something called an ophiocordyceps fungus. It's a big word. It's a pathogenic fungus. 

They're very common in insects. And they form these dramatic structures where they actually take over the insect. In ants, it's been well studied. They're called zombie fungus. They take over the cicadas or the ants and cicadas in this case. Actually,  in ants, it's been shown they can change the way their brain works and they'll change the behavior of the ant to benefit the infection, the fungal infection. 

So, these are documented in cicadas, these bad infections. But it's very clear that many times in cicadas, these bad infections have become good and they've switched to this nutritional role from this situation where they make the cicada very sick and kill it eventually. So, I think that's really interesting and it seems to be a theme in these sorts of symbioses where you have a bacterium or a fungus that starts off bad and through something. What we're trying to study now, we don't really understand it, how it works, but there's a switch that's flipped and that relationship goes from bad for the host, to good for the host.

Dr. Biology:

Right. Because when we talk about symbiotic relationships, it can be all sorts of, you know, relationships. It can be one where both of the parties get a benefit. There's another one where one of the parties gets a benefit, but it doesn't hurt the host as what we'd be talking about. And then there's the parasite. Right? And those are the ones that are having a bad relationship…

John:

Bad relationship.

Dr. Biology:

… with their host.

John:

There's still a symbiosis. That word is, I think, misused. People tend to think both things are good. Both sides are good, good for the microbe, good for the host. But that's not true. The fungal example that I just told you about, it really highlights that. The situation changes, and all of a sudden, this thing which was killing you, you didn't want it, you require it. And I think that's really neat.

Dr. Biology:

From a longevity standpoint, might be an advantage.

John:

For the fungus.

Dr. Biology:

Right?

John:

It could.

Dr. Biology:

You know, you talked about zombie ants, we had David Hughes on the podcast a few years back.

John:

Oh, cool.

Dr. Biology:

We will put a link to that episode in the show notes in case anyone would like to learn more about the zombie fungus. Now, for our cicada bacteria, do they get something out of this relationship?

John:

I would say it's controversial and it depends how you look at it. And I've written papers saying they don't. They've been labeled as mutualisms, which means both players benefit. But the bacteria get really sick. There's no other way to say it. They start to really break down. They lose most of their genes. They can't do anything on their own. And there's now multiple instances of the cicada basically saying goodbye to one bacteria which goes extinct, no longer exists, and then recruiting a new player like these fungi. So, depends on how you look at it, but I don't think they're getting much out of it. I think they're trapped, and they're being squeezed for their essential amino acids.

Dr. Biology:

Right. So, in the case of the bacteria inside the cicada, it's building amino acids that the cicada needs. Mitochondria I'll just use mitochondria. Their main role is for energy. That's right. Right. So, without mitochondria, we don't have the energy to do what we need to do.

John:

You would drop dead instantly.

Dr. Biology:

Yes. So, different roles.

John:

Both sort of nutritional, energy or the material to build things out from the perspective of the cicada or the human that has the mitochondria. Both. Absolutely. 100% required.

Dr. Biology:

Right? Hmm.

John:

I mean, the thing we didn't talk about was that these are basically turning into mitochondria and plastids. They’re well down the road and so.

Dr. Biology:

Oh really. Yeah. So, the bacteria are actually we're on the road to becoming a more mitochondrial...

John:

Yeah, so that's why we persist because what we've found is that these bacteria and when I say becoming mitochondria, I mean mitochondria are over a billion years old. These are only 200 million years old. Mitochondria still have a remnant bacterial genome just encodes a few genes. 13 In humans, some of the bacteria we study have 100 genes, whereas a normal bacterium in the wild has 5000 genes. But you can't be a cell with 100 genes. And so we're studying how the host cell helps the bacterium to not die, to still be able to work with with 100 genes. And there's lots of other types of data that we are fairly certain that these things are going down the road of becoming organelles. So, we're using it as a previously missing transitional form because we don't have transitional forms of mitochondria because the cell that had them came with it, you can't compare it to anything doesn't exist.

John:

So, these are sort of a, you know, a week comparison, but at least it's a comparison.

Dr. Biology:

We could say the very early stages back a billion years for the mitochondria.

John:

Mitochondria went through something that looked much like what we see in cicadas. Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

That's cool.

John:

Yeah, I think it's cool.

Dr. Biology:

Okay.

So, I just find it amazing that this story has been evolving for so long. What are the tools that you've been using to learn about this story? Because when you say at one point fungus replaced the role of the bacteria, at what point?

John:

Yeah. So, it's not just me that's important to keep in mind. I'm what's called the professor, which often means I just send email. But I still do science. And I have a group of scientists that work in my lab that I collaborate with. So, I have something like nine or ten people at the moment. But my lab, we collaborate with other scientists and there's one woman, in particular, Chris Simon. She's at the University of Connecticut, and she is a cicada biology expert. 

She has been collecting and studying the relationships of cicadas for decades. And so it's only with our collaboration with Chris. She's traveled all around the world. We've gone to South America many times to collect cicadas because we needed a certain group. But she's done it for decades. She's been all over the world. Now it's because of technology, we can just email her and say, What are the best species to do? This is our question. And she'll send us to him and will collaborate with her. And we'll study it mostly by molecular methods so we know where the bacteria live. 

So, we'll pull out that tissue and we'll sequence all the bacterial genomes in there. And then we'll put it in the context of the evolution of all cicadas. If you look at how cicadas evolve, again, there's 4000 species or something, and you can put those on what's called a tree. And the tree shows how different cicadas are related to each other. And so you can walk backwards in the tree, which is backwards in time. And we say infer, which really means, guess what happened.

Dr. Biology:

Educated guess.

John:

Educated guess. We say infer to sound fancy, but it's an educated guess. I mean, that's what science is. We actually have a paper that we're trying to finish where we study something like 10% of all cicada diversity. And so we've mapped on this tree all these instances of fungi coming in. The bacteria doing a particular kind of funny business that we're interested in. That's too complicated for today. All these sorts of things that we can understand how the cicadas evolved and we can map what the bacteria look like or what the fungi look like on this tree and understand when it happened, where it happened on the world because they live in all continents except Antarctica. So, we can understand something about not only the evolution of cicadas but the evolution of the planet over 200 million years.

Dr. Biology:

So, one question I have. I work mainly in the world of microscopy, and I can grow cells to do the work. Cicadas seem to be a little bit more of a challenge.

John:

A bit challenging. [laughter]

Dr. Biology:

Yeah. How on earth you do something when you have a 17-year cycle?

John:

Yeah. You plan ahead and you hope for the best and you work hard in the field. So, the fieldwork is a fun part of this. And actually, this summer we needed a certain species and it happened to live near Missoula, Montana. And so, I drove up there twice. The first time it was too cold. The cicadas weren't out. Second time I came back, it was hot. They were out. And then spent. me and a friend spent about 6 hours running up a very steep hill in the middle of the day, in the hottest part of the day. And we got two.

Dr. Biology:

Wow.

John:

So, we dissected those. We took the tissue out, we put it in a special block so we could look at it in a microscope.

John:

And we shipped it back to our lab. That's why the collaboration with Chris is so valuable, she's been collecting this stuff for decades, and so we can still do microscopy on some of it, but you have to go out and catch others new. The one thing about the 17-year cicadas is that they're very predictable. So, there's very accurate maps and you can say, oh, it's 2023, where are they going to be? And you can say, oh, look, they're going to be in western West Virginia. Let's drive there and wait. Okay. And so, people do that.

Dr. Biology:

Really?

John:

Yeah, a student. My lab did it once for a project. He calls it field work and he has a picture. It's really funny, actually. It's just him standing next to a bush just shoveling cicadas into a bucket basically. There's so many of them that's easy. If you know where they're going to be because they're very predictable, you can get them really easily. It's the other species that are a little bit more. They're a little wily. They don't like to be caught.

Dr. Biology:

Got it. Hmm. So, the 17 years really is a 17-year cycle, so it's not staggered.

John:

Yeah, there are some stragglers, but it's 17 years. Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah.

John:

It's a few hours one night. They are counting. They're counting to 17. And then as it gets closer to 17, they move closer and closer to the surface. And then it's probably a temperature cue. And they go.

Dr. Biology:

Well, John:, before I'm going to let you go, there are always three questions my scientist get the opportunity to answer. So, are you ready?

John:

I'm ready. I'll do my best.

Dr.  Biology:

Okay. The first question is, do you remember when you first knew you were going to be a scientist?

John:

No, because it came in fits and starts.

Dr. Biology:

So, what did you think you were going to be at first?

John:

I don't know. I was in high school and I didn't I can't remember ever thinking about what I wanted to be. I took a chemistry class, which I liked. And so I started college as a chemistry major and I learned more chemistry and realized I didn't want to mix clear liquids that might explode in a lab the rest of my life. And so I switched to biochemistry and I really liked that class. 

But then, you know, then I went to graduate school and you have to be in school for a really long time, which is cool because the school is pretty fun. You know, it's hard. I was in this program, but I don't actually know what I'm going to do. Am I going to become a professor? It's really hard to become a professor. I don't know. Am I going to work in a bike shop? I don't know. So, it probably wasn't until two years into my postdoc where I really thought, Oh, maybe I have a shot at this. I have a clear idea of what I want to do in terms of the projects we would do in the lab. 

So, I always liked science. Once I got into the lab, I really liked it, but I didn't spend a ton of time thinking. I didn't have a good plan. I just liked it. So, I stuck around. They couldn't get rid of me. Took me ten years to get my Ph.D. in two different places. It took me a long time, but I liked it. And so it's worked out fairly well and I'm happy about that. But it wasn't because of a plan.

Dr. Biology:

Well, this is where I get to be a little bit more evil.

John:

Good.

Dr. Biology:

Because it took you a real long time to get to where you are now, and I'm going to take it all away.

John:

Good.

Dr. Biology:

You're not going to be a scientist and faculty often like to teach, so I'm going to take that away because that's an easy thing to slide into. 

Dr. Biology:

So, if I'm taking that away and you get to start over, what would you be or what would you do?

John:

Well. You know, I mean, a lot of scientists are interested in human disease, and I can understand why. But I don't think that's our biggest problem right now. Our biggest problem is the environment. And so, I don't know if environmental work is science? It's kind of sciency, so that might be cheating. But I think that's a big problem and it would be nice to feel like I was making a difference there. 

If that's not allowed. I like sports, I like coffee. I always thought it'd be cool to work in a coffee shop, you know, if you get espresso, that. That fancy machine. I like that technical work. I think it would be very precise. I think I'd be kind of good at that, although I've never really done it. So, maybe I would work in a coffee shop. That's different enough. That's not cheating. 

Dr. Biology:

Did I get an idea that you like to ride bikes?

John:

Yeah, I rode my. I rode here.

Dr. Biology:

So maybe we could combine coffee shop with bike shop.

John:

Often. Coffee nerds and bike nerds are the same group. Yeah. [laughter] That would be a hard business that's been thought of before.

Dr. Biology:

So let me go to the last question and with your background, the length of time it took you to decide and or find your way to your career, you probably are going to have some really good advice. What would you tell someone out there that is not quite sure that they are into science, but they might be? What advice would you have for them. 

John:

I know it's so complicated, actually. I sort of feel like it's the opposite. I feel like I'm the last person to ask for advice. I don't know. It's so hard. If you're doing science, if you're in a lab, I don't want this to sound tough or macho or something, but you have to really like it because it's hard. It's hard to stick with it. Science is slow. Things often don't work. But I got lucky, you know, I guess the first time I worked in a lab, I didn't figure anything out, but I remember I did this technique called PCR, which is fairly straightforward now. 

And it worked and I saw the result and I can still remember that day. I felt like I made a discovery even though I didn't. And so I really liked that feeling and that hasn't gone away. I just like figuring things out, I like discovering things. I like working with people. So, if you really like it and you like being in the environment. You have to be honest with yourself. I think that's what I tried to do. Am I good enough to do this? Have I been lucky enough along the way to continue on this path? Do I like what I see people above me in the hierarchy doing right? Does that seem like a good job? Yes. Yes. Okay. I should probably keep going because it's not for everyone. 

There's lots of different ways of doing science, right? You can work in companies, that's my wife does. That's really exciting. You can take the skills you learn as a scientist, which is actually a lot of reading and writing. And you can take those skills - I have a friend who is a lawyer now and I have, you know, friends who've done all sorts of things, consulting, helping other people write. We're actually writers. It's amazing. People don't know that. But stay in school, take your English class seriously. It's important.  

Dr. Biology:

You know, you said that a lot of people don't realize that scientists are writers. And you're correct, there's a classic line publish or perish. But I would like to challenge the community because I am convinced that scientists have lost the art of storytelling.

John:

I would agree with that. On average. There are some people that are good at it.

Dr. Biology:

Right. And because of that, a lot of the scientific literature becomes far more difficult to consume than it should be. And it also keeps, you know, the general public at a distance.

John:

Yeah, I think it's important. I mean, it's a hard problem, right? Because science is very technical now. It's complicated. You know, you're writing for other scientists. When a scientist writes a paper, they're trying to convince other scientists. But I think the solution is probably to do what you're doing here. Podcast or writing different kinds of pieces in Scientific American or Quantum Magazine or something like that or being willing to do that. And tell your story at different levels. 

I think that's important. I think one of the things that we do that I feel is really important is people ask me, why do I do this? Why should I care? And I don't have a good answer for that because that's not how science works. The best science is done because someone's curious. In my humble opinion, not everyone would agree with that. But I feel that pretty strongly curiosity-driven science done well can do amazing things. 

We didn't talk about why the stuff we do is practically important, and it may not be ever, but we do have some ideas about why it might be, but we would have never gotten there if it wasn't for just the curiosity of understanding how cicadas work. And I think that's really important. You have to have both kinds of science. You have to have science that it's curiosity-driven and you have to have science that is aimed at a particular problem. I think both are important.

Dr. Biology:

Right? We'd say basic research and applied [research]. 

John:

Right, exactly.Yeah. And I think there's been a shift, not only the United States but around the world towards more applied work. And I think that's fine, and it makes sense. But what we're losing is the fundamental understanding of how things work. And you need that to be able to apply things effectively.

Dr. Biology:

Well, it's actually a really important point we were just talking about amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of us. Right. Basic research is the building block, many times, the building blocks for this applied research.

John:

That's right. It's the essential foundation for applied research.

Dr. Biology:

Right. I in your court.

John:

Yeah. Now it's a podcast of two.

Dr. Biology:

[Laughter]

John:

But I really believe that. I mean I think there's plenty of examples of that.

Dr. Biology:

Right. And so, it's not that applied is not good.

John:

No, of course.

Dr. Biology:

It's just that we don't want to sacrifice basic curiosity-driven research. 

John:

That’s right.

Dr. Biology:

Well, with that last question, I want to thank you for being on Ask a biologist.

John:

Thank you for asking me. It's fun.

Dr. Biology:

You've been listening to Ask A Biologist and my guest has been microbiologist John McCutcheon. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. 

Now, if you want to learn more about some of the things we talked about, we've included links to several companion stories. One is about metamorphosis, which is a fun one.  It’s called Metamorphosis- Nature's Ultimate Transformer. And if you want to dive deeper into the world of cicadas we will add a link to our cicada story. That one is called Rising Cicadas. We’ll also include links to several other items that we talked about in this show. Like our zombie ant episode.

The Ask A Biologist podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the grassroots studio, housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu, or you can use your favorite search engine and enter the words Ask A Biologist. 

As always, I'm Dr. Biology and I hope you're staying safe and healthy. 

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Can't Live Without You
  • Episode number: 121
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: ASU Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: September 11, 2022
  • Date accessed: September 28, 2022
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/cant-live-without-you

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2022, September 11). Can't Live Without You (121) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. ASU Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/cant-live-without-you

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Can't Live Without You." Produced by ASU Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. September 11, 2022. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/cant-live-without-you.

MLA Style

"Can't Live Without You." Ask A Biologist Podcast from ASU Ask A Biologist, 11 September, 2022, askabiologist.asu.edu/cant-live-without-you.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Amino acids are critical for all living things. They are the building blocks that cells use to make proteins. The problem is animals do not have all the amino acids needed to make proteins. So how do they get the missing ones?

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