Dragons are caused by volatile organic compounds

Text by Lauri Laanisto

No! It´s not a flashy tabloid title. Yes, I´m seriously gonna talk about dragons and how their existence is connected with VOCs. Though, that part of the text might not be superscientific…


Fragment of Chen Rong´s painting “Nine dragons” from 1244 AD

Anyhow, recently I´ve posted a lot of seminar announcements here in the blog. (There are some freshly published papers waiting to be blogged about as well, but they have to wait a bit.) Now it´s high time to write about some of them. Or at least one. The one I´ll talk about is the seminar by professor Zorica Svircev from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia, who visited our lab in early November in order to conduct some VOC experiments with cyanobacteria samples she had gathered from various loess landscapes. So, she also gave a seminar, where she talked about why these cyanobacteria VOCs could be interesting research option.

Fahrt nach Hunyuan. Lšsslandschaft mit Siedlung

Chinese loess landscapes (pic from Wikipedia)

Her research in cyanobacterial VOCs started out as more or less geological research. She studied how loess landscapes were formed and are forming. There´s a debate in literature, whether simple wind-accumulation of dust (which loess basically is) could be the whole story or not. What are the additional factors, either abiotic or biotic that help to trap the dust so that it will become a considerable landscape? This is where cyanobacteria enters the game. If you´re walking around in loess country, you are destined to notice cyanobacterial mats covering the ground. Semi-arid climate, with lots of sunshine, ground made of pure dust – it´s not the most welcoming place for plants to live. However some cyanobacteria is capable of surviving in these conditions. The have physiological adaptations to form sticky mats that can survive these dry, windy and sunny conditions. These mats will form, in time, something that is called biological soil crust. In a sense, cyanobacteria is giving the ecosystem facilitation service. And Zorica believes that this biocrust forming is actually the mechanical process that helps to form loess landscapes. You can read about it in some of her studies:

Smalley, I., Marković, S. B., & Svirčev, Z. (2011). Loess is [almost totally formed by] the accumulation of dust. Quaternary International, 240(1), 4-11. (link to full paper)
Svirčev, Z., Marković, S. B., Stevens, T., Codd, G. A., Smalley, I., Simeunović, J., … & Hambach, U. (2013). Importance of biological loess crusts for loess formation in semi-arid environments. Quaternary International, 296, 206-215. (link to full paper)



Biological soil crust (pic from here)

Now, we know that cyanobacteria tends to be a bit bad for your health. Not just for humans, but for most animals with nervous system. “Poisonous green scum”, as we often call this old and dignified, basically blue-blooded group. Cyanotoxins are also produced by these crust-forming bacteria, not just the ones that float in waters. And in several loess regions, there are so far basically unexplained problems with people´s health, but also with cattle health and troubles in other animal populations as well. Strangely frequent types of cancer, unexplained behavior patterns by some extinct tribes, indicated by archeological research, how birds behaviour and so on.


Cyanobacteria blooming in Baltic Sea (the island on the right is Saaremaa) (pic from here)


Even if you did not read any of the papers linked in the previous paragraph, you´ll probably guess that it all might be the fault of cyanobacteria that give off some toxins and cause diverse trouble. Indeed. And dragons (sensu Chinese traditional culture) might be a byproduct of the same cyanotoxins as well! First of all, apparently the molecular structure of the neurotoxins emitted by biocrust forming cyanobacteria resemble this poisonous stuff that can be found from the mouth of a Komodo dragon. People, who have, for example, slept in tents put up on loess biocrusts, tend to have similar hallucinations and nightmares during sleeping – that dragons are eating their fingers and toes. Neurotoxin poisoning usually cause hallucinations where people see their peripheral organs, like fingers. And another curious factor – apparently, if you are bitten by a poisonous snake (who have neurotoxins as well), then you´ll see snakes in your hallucinations; if a spider, then spiders and so on. So when you´ll get biocrust poisoning, then because of molecular structure of the toxin, you´ll end up seeing dragons…


Toxic saliva (pic from here)


It has been long hypothesized that the dragon in Chinese tradition culture in somehow inspired by giant lizards from the Indonesia, though so far the connection has been speculated to be through Chinese seafarers who brought tales of Komodo dragons back from their trips. And by typical gosspiball effect the legend of their bad breath became the culture of fire-spitting monster. It might just be a molecular scale physiological phenomenon.


Living in loess in China (pic from here)


The oldest remains of dragon culture in China are not from the coastline, as you would imagine from the sailors connections hypothesis. Yangshao culture from the Neolithic period (ca 4000 BC) is situated in northwest China – deep in the loess country. They built their houses on the biocrust, or inside loess. No wonder that they started worshipping dragons when the whole population was seeing nightmares about them…

So, VOCs are not just the language between plants. Whole cultures have emerged from them…



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