Experimental design for microbiome research in space.

Thanks to Project MERCCURI, I’ve been fortunate to develop a relationship with Sharmila Bhattacharya, a researcher at NASA Ames who is doing Drosophila research on the ISS. Her group is developing a “Fruit Fly Lab” for any researcher to run experiments on the ISS. She’s sending up her own experiments on several upcoming SpaceX flights, and when possible, she is providing me with samples of fly carcasses, dissected fly guts, and/or fly feces obtained from swabbing the interior of the enclosures. She is interested in (among other things) the affect of spaceflight on immune function. Dovetails nicely with my interest in microbiome research, right!?

So, the first experiment (HEARTFLIES) I got two groups of fly dissected guts, enclosure fecal swabs, and fly carcasses. I did 16S rDNA PCR sequencing from them and found a HUGE difference between the flies that went to the ISS and the flies that stayed on the ground. That was pretty exciting until I realized that the space fly gut microbiomes looked basically like regular old fly gut microbiomes and the ground fly microbiomes contained something like 99% of a single OTU of Lactobacillus.

As it turns out, the media for the ground flies dried up. The flies were very dehydrated (which affected their heart assays as well.) “Never fear,” they told me, “we are going to re-do those ground controls.” Huh? It’s been more than a month since the space flies were sent into space. A new batch of flies cannot be used asa control for those space flies. It doesn’t matter that they are the same genotype, maintained in the same conditions. They are a totally different population now with respect to their gut microbiomes.

For these ISS experiments, they always use this type of “asynchronous control.” Why? Because they cannot synchronously mimic on the ground the conditions that the flies are experiencing in space. Why not? Because ambient conditions on the ISS fluctuate and they don’t learn about those fluctuations on the ground until well after they’ve already occurred. Makes sense. So, in subsequent experiments, they have been running “best guess” synchronous ground controls in addition to their asynchronous controls.

Tomorrow, I’m finally going to get to tour her lab at NASA Ames. We’re going to chat about these kinds of issues. For one thing, flies can swap microbiomes, but not genotypes. Do their experimental enclosures separate the genotypes? I have no idea. We’ll see tomorrow. I wonder if anyone who has piggybacked on experiments in animals like this has any wisdom to share?

Fly Hunt: College Station to Las Vegas (Part One)

This was a pretty long, but relatively uneventful leg that I made in two days.

Day One: I stopped in West for Kolaches. Then, I took hwy 6 across West Texas. I’ve traveled due west from the DFW area many times, but I’m not sure I ever took this route. Maybe I always feared it would be too slow and I just wanted to get out of the state already, but I’m glad I took it this time. The speed limit was usually 65 or 70, not too much small town slow down, and it was actually quite pretty. I kept forgetting that I was in West Texas. I passed through a lot of quaint little towns (frequently encouraging me to drink Dr. Pepper on a regular basis,) and beautiful, green, ever so slightly rolling hills and farm country. I stopped on the side of the road many times to kick the rotting prickly pear cactus, hoping that flies would come swarming out. (Not one.) This majestic Brahman bull/cow/whatever watched me and laughed (I know s/he was laughing!!) Anyway, beautiful creature, really. When you drive by, you have to do a double-take because it feel like you just drove past some very large, silver exotic animal.

I tried to make it to Roswell. I’ve been there before, but I thought it might be a different sort of experience to camp there. But, I got out of College Station a bit later than I’d planned, and once again, I’d taken the scenic route, so I didn’t really get close to Roswell before I had to stop. I stayed at a very cheap, but comfortable and clean motel. I think this photo of the towels in the bathroom sorta captures the spirit of the place. Obviously, they wash these towels frequently, and they care enough to fold them as best they can, however, they can’t afford to get new ones when they fall apart. Or, maybe it’s just not wort it. I paid $27 cash for the room, including a $5 key deposit that I got back the next morning. I slept on top of the bedding, wrapped in my own sheet. Those who know me well know that these are extreme measures for me.

I discovered that the flies that Spencer and I collected were all dead. I’m not sure if they didn’t wake up from the CO2 or if it got too hot (but, I was very careful about regulating the temperature – by now I’d learned my lesson!) I still tried to dissect some of them because I knew I had a mushroom feeder that was really different from the other mushroom feeders I’d found, but it was pointless. They all went into the ethanol, whole.

It was after 3am, and I was completely exhausted, but I decided to put the hookah together. I had a nice smoke and watched Blind Date or something – telling myself that I could sleep as long as I wanted in the morning and I’d just get to Vegas when I got to Vegas.

Fly Hunt: Mansfield to College Station

I hung out in Mansfield with my folks for a couple of days. While I was dissecting the flies that I’d caught in Fayetteville, I realized that the light on my scope was getting dim and I’d left the charger at the JGI. Fortunately, I was able to have someone (thanks, Jen!) overnight it to me. But, for a wile there, mom and I were joking that I’d have to do the dissections with her reading glasses (which I tried to do.) Actually, I realized that for some of the flies, I could do the dissections without any magnification at all. I’m such a pro now. (Plus these were a pretty large species, plus their guts are dark purple.)

Jen Lin, this picture’s for you!

A little culinary diversion here. While I was home, we went to Joe T Garcia’s, probably my favorite restaurant in the world. That’s right, move over Michael Mina, Joe T is in la casa. I’m having to stop myself from writing a full restaurant review, but let me just say that if you are in the Ft. Worth area AND you have at least 4 people in your party AND you have a couple of hours to kill, then go there. You will probably have to stand in line outside of the restaurant to get in, almost no matter what time you go, but the experience it is worth the wait. AND, while you’re waiting, walk up to the patio bar and order a pitcher of margaritas and some plastic cups to bring back out to the line with you.

With a happy belly and no hangover (watch out for those margs!) I left my parents’ house the next afternoon and headed south for College Station, stopping in West for some sausage and Kolaches! Yum. I stopped at the Village Bakery on my way there and at the Czech Stop on my way back, and let me tell you, there was no contest in my mind. The Village Bakery was definitely the winner. I’m still kicking myself for straying. I used to go to West every year to hear Brave Combo play at West Fest. I highly recommend this experience to anyone in the area (Holly, are you out there?)

So, I got to College Station and it was raining pretty hard. Spencer took me out to Lick Creek Park to put out some traps. It was wet and muddy. Spencer is a “true gentleman” as he would say of someone he admires, and I had a great time listening to him. I was most fascinated by this insect called Strepsiptera which are very strange and mysterious. The males and females look nothing alike, and you’re almost guaranteed to never see them together. That’s a male on the left and a female on the right, both adults. (Sorry, I can’t remember from where I swiped these images, and I can’t seem to find them again!) The females live their entire lives inside a host insect. They decrease the nutrient intake of the host and cause them to be sterile, but if I remember correctly, they actually extend the lifespan of the host! The female hangs out with the tips of her body projected through the exoskeleton of the host and waits for a male to come along and fertilize her. The males, after emerging from their host insects (literally, on the fly!) have about 5 hours to fly around and find a female to inseminate. Crazy! It’s also interesting how the Strepsipterans hijack their host’s own tissue to create a barrier so that they aren’t recognized as a foreign object. And, there’s more. If you’re as intrigued as I was, which you’re probably not, google them. There’s lots more great stuff. Or, I think that Carl Zimmer might talk about them in his book. I haven’t even read it yet and I have no problem calling it a must-read! It’s at the top of my “reading for nerdy pleasure” list.

So, the next morning, Spencer and I went to the traps. A couple of them were flooded, but a couple of them yielded a pretty good haul. And, we found some more mushroom-feeders. So exiting! I also saw a larva wiggling around in some sap flowing out of a tree. A slime flux, I think it’s called. Collecting with Spencer was so much fun! I’m pretty sure he would have stayed out there poking around in the forest with me all day, but I had to get on the road again, so we went back to the lab to sort flies. This was my best species identification learning experience. By now, I had a little more confidence, thanks to what I’d learned from others along the way, and Spencer had plenty of time to sit with me and help. He had the Patterson and Stone book handy, so we could look in the scope and then flip through it, back and forth. When we were finished sorting the flies, he showed me how he uses the flow cell sorter to estimate genome sizes in flies (and other things, I guess,) but I didn’t have time to stick around for the whole demo.

Oh, I almost forgot! We went to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. It was pretty cool. This sculpture has pieces of the Berlin Wall in in, and these horses are supposed to represent freedom or something. I’m no arteest, and while I remember the wall coming down, I think I’m too young (and socially ignorant) to really appreciate what the wall stood for. But the horses were beautiful, and it was cool to see chunks of the wall.

Fly Hunt: Fayetteville to Mansfield

I was prepared to fall in love again with Arkansas as I drove south along hwy 71. I drove from New Orleans to Fayetteville years ago, and found that I loved the Ozarks. Also, I found Fayetteville to be a lovely town full of hippies and jam bands.

This trip was something else. Here was my first hint that I ain’t in college-town nomore. Yep, squirrel puppies. Do you think they’re breeders? Did they forget to spay their squirrel bitch?

Then, I drove past a revival tent. And, it wasn’t like a “Come to the REVIVAL this Saturday night!!” You know, the kind that draws people from 6 counties like a State Fair, so the five year old can stare wide-eyed at her grandma getting tapped on the head and falling, convulsing to the ground, to the soundtrack of a ridiculously talented gospel choir, while at a nearby table Josie sells her wood-carved squirrel puppy nativity scene, next to the enthusiastic purveyor of fossils that somehow prove that the age of the Earth is less that 10,000 years old. No, not like that. It was more like a used car lot. “Come on down to the tent, folks, every Thursday, we got ‘yer best deals on salvation right here. Holy Ghost early bird special from 6-7pm, but you’ll want to stick around for the miraculous miracle hour beginning at 9pm. Our head to toe salvation package comes with a first through tenth commandment, six-day warranty.” Thank goodness it was not a Thursday, or I would have been SO tempted to stick around. As it was I was hungry, and I stopped at this little restaurant called “Grandpa’s catfish” or something like that. Maybe it was “Jack’s” Anyway, I figured that I needed to eat some local catfish, and grandpa’s recipe was probably great. It was a quaint little converted house. What I really loved about the experience was when I ordered the catfish dinner and the waitress (probably Jack’s great-granddaughter) asked me if I wanted “salad or service with that.” I said, what’s “service?” She said, “pinto beans, cole slaw, hush puppies, dressing (tartar sauce,) and green chiles.” Are you kidding me? Who wants SALAD??? Maybe I should have asked her what “salad” was. Anyway, the catfish was overcooked and flavorless and the cornmeal coating was kinda chewy. The service was awesome. There are very few restaurants to which I would return solely based on the service, but this is one for sure!

OK, so I was feeling like the Arkansans were sorta strange, very religious, and somewhat charming, but then I saw this. I had a very strong, very negative reaction to this sign. Click on it and look at it up close. I found it to be vile and disturbing and asinine and somehow insulting. I felt insulted for Jesus. It made me want to leave Arkansas immediately. I spent a lot of time wondering, who ARE these people? Who, after waking up from his Budweiser-induced hangover, still thought that his idea was good enough to make into a giant (10ftX10ft) roadside sign? Who approved it? Who was the artist? Maybe I just don’t get it. I wondered if it would have been funny if it were educated yet stoned Berkeley hippies making up cheesy slogans about the Buddha. I don’t know. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to get to Texas, the land of the erudite Coors Light drinkers!

Fly Hunt: Athens to Fayetteville

I’m learning that I need to post stuff right away or I’ll lose interest in posting it all together. I’m doing this just for the sake of completeness at this time. I think it’s kinda like research in that it’s really cool and fun while you’re doing it and it’s fun immediately after when you’re analyzing the data, but when you’re finished and it’s time to write it up, it’s boring.

Anyway, Daniel had given me a couple of Roadfood books, so I was looking to hit at least one recommended restaurant along the way. I ended up at Edna’s in Chatsworth, Georgia. I had a great meal of fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread for $5.37! Yum!

Growing up in the southeast, I figured that any day now, the Kudzu was going to completely take over the highways, but I was surprised at how little of it I saw in the Carolinas. I did see a lot in Georgia, though.

Western Tennessee is beautiful. I felt like I was driving through a Grateful Dead song.

I spent the night in Lawrenceburg, TN. I dissected flies until 4am, then hit the road again at 8am. The drive to Fayetteville was uneventful, but pretty. I was in a hurry to get to Bill Etges’ house at a reasonable hour. I arrived at around 7pm. He’d already put several traps out in his back yard, which was a forest, so we chatted over a beer. It’s funny the things you end up talking about. In addition to learning some really cool stuff about cactus-feeding drosophila, I got some good gossip about other biologists! Bill is a super-nice guy, as is his wife. I really enjoyed spending time with them. The next morning, we caught a ton of flies at the traps and took them back to the lab to sort them. This is how it’s supposed to work! By 11am, I was on the road again.

Fly Hunt: Chapel Hill to Athens

It was really rewarding to find the mushroom-feeding drosophila actually feeding on mushrooms! I felt a sense of discovery that I didn’t feel so much when collecting at the baits. After looking at these flies under the scope, I realized that (not surprisingly) there were a bunch of flies that I’d not seen before. They all looked the same at first glance, but after staring at them for hours, I realized that I probably had 3 different species. Corbin wasn’t too familiar with these (and he was super-busy!) so I did my best to key them out, but after about 5 hours, I gave up. I was supposed to be on the road to Athens by noon, and it was after 3pm when I decided to just keep a voucher specimen for each of the groups I’d made and dissect the rest. My plan is to use PCR to amplify some marker gene in the fly gut tissue to confirm which species of fly the gut came from anyway. So, hopefully that works out.

Anyway, the point of all that is that I didn’t get on the road to Athens (6 hours away) until about 6pm on Thursday! My next host, Daniel Promislow was kind enough to let me show up at his house late (2am!) Since we should have been putting out traps while I was on the road, I just decided to be a day behind schedule. So, on Friday, Daniel and I picked up some over-ripe fruit at the Food Bank, put out some traps at the botanical gardens, and then went to meet his friend for a drink at the local wine bar. That was fun. We each got the same flight of reds and did that thing that oenophiles do, with the “I smell…” and “it tastes like…” and “the finish is…” and “do you get?…” Later, we went to a bar/club called the Melting Pot where they were showing a Charlie Chaplin film with a live band doing the score. More fun! Then, we stuck around for the Dromedary Quartet until about midnight. I loved this group! I was totally exhausted after getting about 4 hours of sleep the night before and 2 hours of sleep the night before that, but I kept thinking, “OK, one more song, then we’ll go.” But, I stayed for the whole show!

I should interject here, that the morning after I arrived in Athens, I went out to my car to get my purse and realized that it was not there. I last remember having my purse when I left the bar, Tyler’s Taproom, – fun place, by the way! – on my last night in Durham but I thought that I’d left it in my car, and I’d been assuming all day that it was somewhere in my car. But, it wasn’t. Fortunately, my cell phone, my ATM card, my digital camera, and $200 in cash were all in my pockets! The cable that connects my camera to my computer was in my purse, though, so I won’t be posting any more pictures until I get a new one. Probably tomorrow…

ANYWAY, Daniel and I set out to collect early Saturday morning – first we went to Roots Farm where we found a decent number/variety of flies. Then, we went back to the botanical gardens to collect our traps. Then, we went back to the lab where Daniel helped me sort the flies. By this time, I was out of vials of sterile, colored food, so Daniel gave me vials and “agar” and everything else I needed to make new vials. We sorted the flies into empty vials so that later, once my sterile food vials had solidified, I could transfer them. Then, I hit the road.

Fly Hunt: Chapel Hill

Corbin Jones, at UNC was ridiculously generous with his scarce free time while I was in town. He took me and Shelah on a hike through the forest near his house. It was a very cool place. We walked a couple of miles (maybe?) on this loop through the forest, setting out bait along the way. Early the next morning, Corbin and I went back through to collect the traps. Unfortunately, it had rained quite hard the night before, so most of the traps were flooded and useless. Fortunately, it had rained quite hard the night before, so I was witness to a lovely thunderstorm. For those who don’t know, the San Francisco Bay Area does not have thunderstorms. I see a streak of lightning about once a year here, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard thunder. I took a video of the storm with my camera. I love how the thunder goes on forever. I turned out all of the lights, opened my doors, and enjoyed the storm with my hookah.


Anyway, Corbin and I collected the traps and we also found a ton of drosophila feeding on some mushrooms. I’m posting a bunch of pictures of them here, so that someone will tell me what kind of mushrooms these are. The little black insect on the underside are some kind of wasp, but the red-eyed buggers on top are my Drosophila.

I also couldn’t get over the poison ivy in this forest. I grew up around poison ivy, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Apparently, it grows like a giant, red, hairy vine all over these trees. Dead vines were everywhere!

I also saw a lot of really cool insects here, as well as a lizard with a blue tail and a copperhead snake! (I know that’s not an insect there on the right, by the way.)

There were two insects that were really bizarre. One of them is this black freaky thing on the ground (below left) and one was this cryptic little bug that I saw getting attacked by a spider when I was trying to take a close-up picture of the hairy poison ivy. The spider kept running at him and he kept waving his front legs around in the air at the spider. His legs looked like medieval weapons, like maces. Anybody know what these are?

Fly Hunt: New Harmony to Durham

Here’s my route:

I needed to get to Durham by 4pm (or thereabouts) to check in to my apartment, so I didn’t really have time to dilly-dally, but I couldn’t resist the sign for the Maker’s Mark National Historic Landmark. There was no indication as to how far away it was, so I assumed it was just “right there” somewhere, but I was wrong, and when I found myself following this guy at 15 miles per hour, I knew I should have turned around. But, I felt committed. I drove past a distillery – I think it was Jim Beam – so I felt like I was headed in the right direction. As I drove past, I got this big whiff of a yeasty, syrupy smell that was great. I’d love to live next to a distillery. It occurred to me that there must be Drosophila there, so I turned my car around and drove up to the gate. I think I must have been at a back service entrance or something, but regardless it was locked down like a penitentiary. I strolled along the length of the fence, considering whether or not I should climb over it. I didn’t. I also didn’t see any flies. It was VERY hot.

Right about now, I decided that I should stop to dissect the flies that I had with me in the car, so I started looking for a place. I found an elementary school that had a table near the playground and set up there. I put my hand into the little cooler where I keep the live flies, and it was hotter in there than out, and all of the flies were dead. I tried to dissect a few, but their innards just turned to mush. So, I put them in alcohol and tossed them in the big cooler. Bummer.

I got to the Louie B. Nunn Cumberland Parkway without spotting Maker’s Mark. I did smell another distillery somewhere along the way, and it had been a while since I’d seen a sign for it, so I figured I missed it. And, my little detour had turned into a major digression. I needed to get back on the interstate.

I stopped in Glasgow to call the housing people at Duke to see what the procedure was for a late check-in. (There was some indication from the info that I’d been sent that this was an option.) They told me that if I didn’t get there by 4pm, then I’d have to get a hotel. I asked about the late check-in option, and I was told that I could contact the “on call” person if I was a few minutes after 4pm, not a few hours. So, although I’m annoyed, at least now I don’t feel like I’m in such a rush to get there, since I have to sleep somewhere else tonight anyway.

I drove through part of Daniel Boone National Forest, where I would have camped if I’d made it that far, and I was glad I didn’t make it! Even in the hot middle of the day, I was swarmed by biting insects the instant I stepped out of my car. I’m sure it was miserable at night. And, it was still super hot. I didn’t take any pictures through here. It was pretty, but I think I was a little road weary at this point, and I just wanted to be moving forward. Also, it was just lots of trees, so unless I was looking to get artsy, there wasn’t much to photograph.

I connected with I-75 at Corbin and headed south. I should mention here, that my boyfriend was so kind as to surprise me by fixing the air conditioner in my car. So, it’s struggled, but it’s kept me reasonably comfortable throughout this trip. My car makes this screechy sound if I have the air conditioner on while I’m going slow. The sound gets louder when I accelerate. I’ve been dealing with this by not having the air conditioner on while driving slow. After I left Corbin, I turned on the AC once I got up to speed and heard the screechy belt sound. It didn’t seem to want to go away. I left it on for a couple of minutes and it stopped, but my alternator light came on. To make a long story short, my car broke down. This belt broke. This belt runs my AC compressor and my water pump. (This I discovered while driving and reading my User’s Manual.) As soon as I read “water pump” I looked at my temperature gauge and it was red-hot! So I pulled over.

I was roughly halfway between Williamsburg, Kentucky and Jellico, Tennessee. With no cell phone signal. I opened my hood and grabbed the broken belt. I figured I would let the engine cool down, drive a mile, let the engine cool down, rinse and repeat, until I got to a service station. Have I mentioned yet that it was hot? I did not want to go for a walk, and it was going to take a long time for the engine to cool down, so I slumped over the steering wheel. I thought that if I believed that there was a god out there who might send an angel to rescue me, then it was time to start praying. But, I don’t (sorry mom) so I decided to issue a non-verbal appeal to the kindness of strangers. Fortunately, the spirit of kind strangers sent me an angel. In the form of a picture-perfect hillbilly. And, I mean HILL BILLY. Like this. Except without the shirt, and without so many pearly whites. He was probably 45 years old.

He approached me cautiously. I didn’t see him coming because my head was down. He startled me. I showed him the broken belt. He offered to drive me to find a new belt for my car. He explained that he and his son-in-law were taking his mother back to her house (she’d been over for a barbecue.) Since he had his mom and son-in-law in the car (and I didn’t have any other options) I figured I’d be OK. Have you seen the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? If so, I felt like I might have just gotten into the car with that family (and two little dogs.) I couldn’t understand anything they said because of their thick accents and missing teeth. And, mom (he called her mommy, which I thought was weird) kept asking me questions. I just smiled and nodded.

He took his mommy home, constantly reassuring me that he was not going to drive me into the middle of the forest and kill me. (I would have been much less concerned about this if he’d stopped mentioning it!) When I returned here (mommy’s house) to take a picture, note the “no trespassing” sign, the neighbor came running out of his house at me. He didn’t have a shotgun in hand, but I’m sure he yelled for Bubba to get it.

After dropping mommy off, we went to the house/auto repair shop of a friend of his down the street. This old man dug through what appeared to be an old auto parts shop right next to his house. He didn’t find the right belt for me, so we went down the road to a larger shop, and found it. He charged me $11. Then, my new friend drove me back to my car, and spent about 30 minutes putting the new belt on. I left $20 in the back seat of his car because he refused to take any money from me. After repeatedly declining to go back to his house for barbecue and spend the night if I wanted to (no funny stuff, he says), I was on my way again! Ironically, I’d just had all of the belts in my car replaced less than a year ago – the one that broke looked brand new!

Gene’s house/auto parts. (The house is behind the tree on the left.)

I decided after all that, that I would stop to eat some comfort food. I went to Cracker Barrel and had chicken and dumplings, green beans, and corn bread. They don’t serve beer there or I would have had one for sure. My car started fine when I left.

It took a long time to get through the mountains. I stopped at a hotel near Asheville. I got to sleep at 3:30am. I was supposed to be in class at 9am and I was 3 hours away. So, I slept for 2 hours then drove to Durham. I had to pull over for a 20 minute nap, and that made me exactly 20 minutes late for class. Not too bad.

Fly Hunt: Iowa City to New Harmony

Here’s my route:

I left Iowa City, headed east on I-80. It was an extremely boring drive. I realized that it’s not so much the pretty landscape that you miss when you’re on the interstate (and I know it can be pretty as well,) but you miss the opportunity to see what life is like in that part of the country. For the most part, no one who lives there eats at the Subway at the truck stop, right? Also, it keeps me awake to pay attention to the ever-changing speed limit on rural roads. So, after stopping to eat the best Mexican food in Galesburg, I veered off course and back-tracked a little. I decided that I would follow the Mississippi River south through Illinois. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but I was headed for the Great River Road!

It really was great. For the most part, I didn’t have enough time to stop to see the historical sites, but there’s a big sign on the side of the road that describes all of the towns you’re about to travel through and what was interesting about them. So, even though I couldn’t stop, it was cool knowing the history of the region. One place I had to stop, though was Nauvoo. I had never heard of Nauvoo, but when I entered downtown, it was obvious that SOMETHING was going on. Granted, it was the 4th of July weekend, but there were a ton of people walking up and down the street. I pulled into a park that had public bathrooms and noticed that about half of the cars were from Utah and thought, “that’s odd.” Then, as I continued driving, I saw a sign for the Joseph Smith National Historic Site. Holy sh*%t, I thought, I’ve just stumbled onto Mormontown! So, I drove over to the little district where they’ve renovated all of the historic sites.

I went to Joseph Smith’s grave site, drove past the courthouse jail in which he was assassinated, drove past the house where he lived. Of course, I wanted to take pictures of all of these sites, but as soon as I stepped out of my car, I felt like the daughter of Satan, come to ooh and aah over the cute little Mormon town. I kept saying to myself, “OK, act Mormon, try to look like a Mormon, like you belong here.” I kept thinking some old-timer was going to come running out of his house shouting, “Heathen!” and then all of the apparently pleasant families milling about would turn, glare at me, and then charge. I don’t know much about Mormonism, but I did keep reminding myself that Mormons are probably not the lynch-mob types. (That was before I read about Joseph Smith’s assassination, by the way.) So, I tried to make eye-contact and smile wide. I guess my strategy worked – most people smiled back.

I thought, well, they don’t “look” like Mormons anyway, so I probably don’t look like a non-Mormon. That’s when I saw the Mormon family picnic. It was about 96 degrees and very humid. I couldn’t believe these guys were in slacks and ties! I was thinking, “hey, you’re in Mormontown, loosen your ties, take off your pants.” (I know it’s hard to see, but I felt like it was really obvious that I found them curious, so I didn’t take to much time with the photo.)

Anyway, the Mississippi River right here is stunning. Having spent four years at the University of New Orleans, my prior experience of the river was less than appealing. There, it is wide, muddy, smelly, with industrial shores. Here, it was lush and vibrant and stunning. I’ll put more pictures on the map. Nauvoo is a very cute little town, with several fancy-schmancy B&Bs, a beautiful park, a winery (no Drosophila, though) and a lot of interesting history.

The stretch from Nauvoo to Warsaw was one of the absolute best drives ever (outside of Northern California, I have to add.) It was amazing. I don’t have many pictures from here because I had to concentrate on driving (two lane, winding road.) But, really, if you have the chance, you should go there. The only bad part for campers like me is that it was really buggy and humid. I would not have been comfortable camping there, although there were lots of camping options.

Along the ensuing stretch of the Great River Road, there were a surprising number of wineries and I spent countless hours making my way towards them only to find no Drosophila there. It was close to sunset, and I’d learned (from Bryant) that these flies are active in the evening as well as in the morning, so I thought I might have some luck. However, the grapes are still growing on the vine, and these places often don’t have tasting rooms, so there’s not a lot of wine in the garbage. Lesson learned. In the past, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit wineries (for collecting, of course) just after harvest, when they’re crushing grapes and the fruit flies are going nuts all day long.

So, I realized that I was not going to make it to Kentucky to camp, so I decided to head east for as long as could before stopping. First, I stopped at Pere Marquette State Park. I really needed to dissect the flies that Bryant and I had caught the night before if I wanted to have consistency between samples. I tried to do this in my car, in the parking lot, but it was too cramped, so even though I wasn’t planning to camp, I pitched my tent. I briefly thought that I might just do it at a picnic table, but then I had these visions of all sorts of insects catapulting themselves into the LED light on my dissection scope!

I got to the St. Louis area at around 11pm. I accidentally crossed this bridge into West Alton. I got gas, then pulled away from the gas pumps to escape the insects while I looked over my map to figure out where I was. While I was sitting in my parked car, a guy walked towards me, one hand out, and appeared to be asking me if I wanted something. I must have given him a look of abject horror, because he threw up his hands, shook his head no, shrugged his shoulders, and walked away. Two minutes later, a truck pulled up next to me in my darkened area of the parking lot, and that guy walked up to the truck, the driver got out, they chatted for a second, and something exchanged hands. I decided to leave in the middle of their transaction. I remembered these scenes from movies in which the undercover detective guys are buying drugs on street corners, and I always think, MAN, that’s a crazy-bad part of town! I think I must have been in one of those and didn’t even know it. It was just a weird experience for some reason I can’t entirely put my finger on.

I arrived at Harmonie State Park at about 2:30am. I was surprised to find two women hanging out on the road just in front of the information booth. So, I stopped and asked the nearest one if the worked there (yes) and told her that I just wanted to pitch my tent and sleep for a couple of hours before I hit the road again. She said, “sure, you can do that, it’ll cost you $37.” What?!?!? $37? I raised my eyebrows, and she asked if that was more than I was looking to pay (yes) and then told me that I could camp in town, in New Harmony, at Murphy Park. Now, I’ve
never seen anything like this. It’s small park in a tiny town with a playground and some picnic tables and a little road looping through it, and you can camp there. There were two other trailers there, no tents. I pitched my tent, put out some fly bait (this is mashed bananas mixed with active yeast, by the way.) I slept for about 3 hours and then hit the road again. (No flies at my bait in the morning, even though it was quite warm.) I must add, that it’s only because it was so early and I had so far to go that I didn’t stop to check out the labyrinth. What a strange town. Of course, now that I’m searching online for a picture of this labyrinth, it makes more sense that this town would have a labyrinth.

OK, it’s 6am, I’m starving, and I hit the road. I still have the flies that Bryant collected in his backyard yesterday morning, and if I’d known what was in store for me, I certainly would have dissected them then. But, it was so miserable doing that in the tent, that I decided that, during the daylight, I could stop at a rest stop, ignore the stares, and do the dissections at a proper table of some sorts.

More later…

Fly Hunt: Fort Collins to Iowa City

I’ve started adding pictures to my map, but it’s kind of wonky because the sidebar shows the place markers in the order in which I placed them on the map rather than the order in which I travelled through them. That makes sense, but there’s no way for me to change the order. I don’t like that, so I’ll probably recreate the map when I’m finished. Just FYI.

Anyway. I made it to Durham. It was far from an uneventful journey, and I’ve found myself telling the same stories over and over again (to different people, I hope) and that’s the sort of activity I’d rather save for my senile years. So, I’m going to post a summary here.

Justin and I had a great time getting to Fort Collins, and we’ve got lots of pictures (on the map now) to prove it, so I won’t say much about that. Or, maybe I’ll come back to it.

Here’s my route:

After leaving Fort Collins – and my travel companion 😦 – behind, I stopped at Carhenge on my way to Lincoln. It’s a replica of Stonehenge that’s made of cars painted gray.

There were other car sculptures there. My favorite was the Spawning Salmon.

I had low expectations in terms of the aesthetic appeal of my drive through Nebraska, but I decided to take Route 2 through the sand hills, which were really beautiful. I took some pictures, but it was hard to capture (especially while driving,) so check out this website to learn more about the region. The hills were very green and there were a lot of little ponds between them. For about 4 hours of driving, I was almost always passing or being passed by these really long trains carrying tons and tons of coal. I was impressed by the fact that all of these remote rural towns I passed through had very nice homes and all of the yards were immaculately clean, not like in the rural south, if you know what I mean.

I didn’t collect any flies until I got to Lincoln. When I got there, on the evening of July 5th, all of the campsites were reserved, so I found one that was still vacant at 2am, pitched my tent, and hoped for the best. I put out some bait near my campsite. In the morning, I collected a handful of flies and then headed to the largest winery in Nebraska, James Arthur Vineyards. I hit pay dirt in the dumpster there and collected about a hundred flies. I took all of the flies to Larry Harshman’s lab at the University of Nebraska, but he wasn’t able to help me sort them out, and I would have been there all day trying to key them out, so I left them all together in their vials of sterile food (really just 2% agar with food coloring.) The idea is that they drink the colored water that’s in the agar and evacuate their guts of whatever food they’d been eating in the dumpster. That way, I’m hoping to enrich for the microbes that are persistent residents in the gut. Also, the food coloring makes their entire guts turn (in this case) green, and that makes them easier to dissect.

Larry did walk me over to the museum on campus to see the mammoths. Wow. I had no idea that there were so many different types of mammoths. There were the really big elephant-sized ones, and some as small as a large pig. And, the really big ones don’t look like elephants at all. They look more like giant greyhounds. Really. Look at the long legs on that monster! And, it’s ribcage looks like a cheetah’s. And, I didn’t pull out a tape measure or anything, but it’s head+tusks looked longer than the rest of it’s entire body!

I got to Bryant McAllister’s lab at the University of Iowa at about 7pm. He sorted all of the flies for me and I put all of the species into separate vials. Bryant had put some bait out at a site near the Iowa River, so we left the lab at around 8:30pm to go collect flies. He took me to a sandbar willow forest on the floodplains of the Iowa River. I wish I’d brought my camera, but we were in a hurry to get there before the sun went down, so I forgot it. Here’s someone else’s picture of sandbar willows so you get an idea of what it was like. After traveling down a series of dirt roads, we could hear the roar (ok, it was a hum, but it was a loud hum!) of the mosquitoes as soon as we got out of the car. For the first time in my life, I donned hip waders and we went mucking through the swamp to where he’d put the traps. We (and by that I mean he) caught a lot of lies there. Back to town, go get a burger and a couple of beers, sort the flies at the lab, and then to sleep. In the morning, Bryant collected a bunch of lies in his back yard. Then we went to the lab, where we sorted the new flies, and I dissected the flies I’d caught in Nebraska. I hit the road at about 1pm.

Many heartfelt thanks to Larry and Bryant.

More later…