Idaho sheep ranchers couldn't figure out why, in the decade after World War II, a random batch of their lambs were being born with strange birth defects. The creatures had underdeveloped brains and a single eye planted, cyclopslike, in the middle of their foreheads. In 1957 they called in scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate.
The scientists worked for 11 years to solve the mystery. One of them, Lynn James, lived with the sheep for three summers before discovering the culprit:corn lilies. When the animals moved to higher ground during droughts, they snacked on the flowers. The lilies, it turned out, contained a poison, later dubbed cyclopamine, that stunted developing lamb embryos. The mothers remained unharmed.
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But now cancer researchers have improbably seized on the obscure plant chemical as the blueprint for a half-dozen promising tumor-fighters. Cyclopamine, it turns out, blocks the function of a gene called Sonic hedgehog that is essential for embryonic development but also plays a lead role in causing deadly cancers of the pancreas, skin, prostate and esophagus.
Link (via The Anomalist). To find out why there is a gene called Sonic Hedgehog and what role spiny fruit flies play in all this, read on.
Indexed by tags science, medicine, cancer, nature, cyclopamine, sheep, one-eyed.
Image credits: Escape from Cyclops by Perrin & Seymour, from Eight Books of Homer's Odyssey (1897), borrowed from dabar.org for news-reporting and comment purposes.