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Termas del Flaco is a tiny hot springs resort at the end of a long gravel road leading eastward into the Chilean Andes, eighty kilometers southeast of a town called San Fernando.  The road is one-lane and dicey, as it follows the tumbling Tinguiririca River upstream, and remains closed at a police checkpoint until 4 pm each day, at which time outgoing traffic IMG 3586halts and incoming traffic may proceed.  Toward the head of the valley rises Tinguiririca Volcano, a shapely cone.  Around the hot springs are clustered a few simple clapboard hotels and rental cabañas for tourists and Chilean family getaways, a sleek compound for workers on the nearby hydroelectric project, and a derelict seven-story sanatorium that was built in the 1930s, for treating TB patients with salubrious mountain air, but abandoned after the discovery of penicillin, which worked better.  I’ve come here with two evolutionary biologists, John McCutcheon of the University of Montana and Claudio Veloso of the University of Chile.  They are armed and dangerous.

They are armed with butterfly nets, that is, and dangerous to a certain group of insects.  McCutcheon is a tall, lanky fellow who shaves his head bald and wears a blue cap in the antipodes sun.  Veloso is a compact man, slight as a jockey, with a gray stubble beard and a warm, sly smile.  Their mission in the Andes is to collect cicadas—those buzzing motorboats of the sky—for DNA sequencing, in order to explore a subject that’s much, much larger than the genetics of cicadas.  The bugs in question (yes, it’s okay to call cicadas “bugs,” because they’re classified within the order Hemiptera, true bugs) belong to several species within the genus Tettigades, endemic to South America.  Cicadas of that genus, McCutcheon and his lab people have discovered, contain prodigious anomalies of symbiosis: creatures within creatures, with reduced but complementary genomes interacting elaborately.  McCutcheon and one of his postdoc researchers, Piotr Lukasik, with Veloso’s help, and on a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, have set themselves to exploring this mystery of boxes within boxes.

Piotr Lukasik

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