Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Eyes Part Three

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. The case of the cyclopamine and the one-eyed Idaho lambs remained a freakish chemistry footnote for the next 25 years; researchers never could uncover why cyclopamine caused birth defects.

The Curious Case of the One-Eyed Sheep


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