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A Cultural Evolution

Chapter 1: Pim

Pim had friends, a lot of friends, but none like her. Well, in a physical sense, she was not dissimilar. Like most of the others, she was green with two banded antennae, six legs and a long stylet to feed on the phloem sap of various leguminous plants. Unlike the others, Pim had always wanted more adventure from the world, a desire she would come to regret.

Chapter 2: George

Hours were spent in the laboratory constructing prototypes. George’s meticulous nature made it essential for him to fashion the most effective culture container possible. Having tried most of the materials available to him in the lab, George was finally satisfied with his creation: A pea aphid culture container of epic proportions. Three individual pea aphids were plucked from a nearby alfalfa field and placed within the final construct. The waiting game commenced.

Chapter 3: Prison

Pim’s world had become dark and enclosed. She was trapped in what looked like a large plastic cage and her friends were nowhere to be seen. Two other aphids she had never seen before were looking equally bemused beside her. Before she could even think, Pim was hit by an overwhelming hunger and any reasoning behind her sudden imprisonment bore little importance in comparison. Instinct took hold as she travelled from leaf to leaf searching for an appropriate food source. She had never experienced this alfalfa variety before and could barely stomach the sap. The other aphids had migrated high above and were feeding happily on the apex of the plant but they had an advantage over Pim; they contained specialised symbiotic bacteria that enabled them to feed on this particular variety. As Pim became weak and fragile, the others grew larger and in a matter of hours they began reproducing. Without the required amino acids, Pim knew she wouldn’t last much longer. She slowly ascended the alfalfa stem with what little strength she had left, probing desperately for any form of nourishment. Pim’s brittle proboscis could barely penetrate the older leaves to even confirm that sap was present. Her only hope was to make it to the apex and pray that the leaf defences of the younger foliage were more forgiving. As she reached the apex of the plant she found herself surrounded by newborn aphids. She pushed her way through the crowded crèche and plunged her proboscis into the youngest leaf. The sap tasted vulgar yet she no longer cared. Her body filled with fluid and honeydew erupted from her backside straight into the face of a newborn. Any embarrassment or concern for the little aphid was immediately trumped by Pim’s instinctive need to feed. Once she had regained some strength, however, Pim quickly became aware of her surroundings. The poor nymph that had just been almost drowned in sticky fluid was still whimpering behind her so Pim raised her head to apologise. She had barely retracted her proboscis before catching a glimpse of something alien to her. The abdomen of one of the others had exploded open and a face was emerging from within, staring directly at her with, what appeared to be, malevolent intent. At that moment, she lost her grip and fell down towards the base of the prison. This was it. This was the end. Everything went black.

Chapter 4: Parasites

Four days had come and gone and the aphid population had octupled. “Everything was going as planned”, George confidently expressed to his supervisor. The next day, however, George checked the culture, only to find a container full of parasitic wasps. This was a disaster. One week until the aphids were finally required for experiments and the bane of the parasitoid had struck hard. In a bout of rage, he threw the failed culture out the window, immediately regretting his uncontrolled outburst. George had failed his first attempt but he didn’t give up. Keen to begin his experiment within the allotted time-frame, he constructed another culture, making a game of it in his mind, despite lingering doubts that his sanity may have been compromised.

Chapter 5: Salvation

Pim awoke to find herself staring at the sky. A small leaf had cushioned her fall and prevented near-certain death. An eclectic mix of familiar scents and sounds filled her body with an overwhelming sense of hope and her curious antennae jolted upwards as they detected fresh air and a nearby alfalfa field. She could sense the brutal odour of (E)-β-farnesene emanating from her siblings in the nearby field. This potent alarm pheromone usually made her shudder but she now welcomed the familiar scent, marching towards it with bold intent. Despite her now feeble frame she marched on with all her might. She was free from the plastic prison but far from home.

Her journey was just beginning.


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Dr James Ryalls

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J.Ryalls@reading.ac.uk

0118 378 8578

Centre for Agri-Environmental Research

School of Agriculture, Policy and Development

University of Reading

Reading, RG6 6AR

United Kingdom

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