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And by the way, the cold pees are definitely a thing. It’s called cold diuresis, and it’s why when a person goes into the cold after being roasty-toasty, they may quickly need to pee. As we learned earlier, the body performs a process called vasoconstriction in response to cold, reducing circulation to the skin and extremities. When this happens, the amount of blood in your core goes up, also boosting arterial blood pressure. Homeostatic nugget that you are, the body tries to lower this pressure by asking the kidneys to reduce your blood volume by taking water out of your blood and sending it to the bladder. It’s also why coming in from the cold can make you thirsty: you made extra pee and now need to rehydrate.
In writing this, I went outside and sat in the cold. I tried to imagine what could be good about the sensation, how the tightness in my chest could be a pleasure. I sucked cold air and turned it into clouds. I had to pee. My brain stem rang loud alarms about imminent danger. I know there are people who enjoy the cold but dear reader, I have not been able to transform myself into one of them. But if you are, stay warm out there. And if you start to ever feel confused or fumbling in cool weather, take it seriously. It might save your life.
To determine the origin of this crystal matrix, Dr. Jedd and his team isolated the proteins that built them, homed in on one called OCTIN and traced it to a single gene. By looking for related organisms throughout evolutionary history with similar proteins, his team determined that a common pin mold ancestor likely acquired the gene from a bacterium that shared the same soil hundreds of millions of years ago.
This happened randomly, through a process called horizontal gene transfer. It allows an organism to “pick up a piece of DNA from a completely unrelated species and potentially use it for adaptive purposes,” Dr. Jedd said. If the adaptation aids survival, the organism passes it on to future generations.
How this happened in the exchange between ancient fungus and bacteria was unusual. In the bacteria, the gene couldn’t have produced a gravity sensor because the protein structures it made were too small. But the researchers showed that the proteins were capable of self assembling. Following additional mutations inside the fungus, that ability may have resulted in the crystal matrices that now help it know up from down.
“Those little nanostructures could cluster together, and in that way they could attain a size that could make them primitive or rudimentary gravity sensors,” he said.
Instead of creating a shared trait, the gene, with a few mutations, had created a novel one.
Dr. Jedd said understanding OCTIN and other self-assembling proteins could help with developing drugs that could know exactly where and when to dissolve in the body.
But there’s another potential application: When your housemates hound you for being a fridge slob, try telling them you’re observing gravitropism at work. Maybe it will charm them.