Climate and nature crises: solve both or solve neither, say experts

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/10/climate-and-nature-crises-solve-both-or-solve-neither-say-experts

Restoring nature boosts biodiversity and ecosystems that can rapidly and cheaply absorb carbon emissions

A snorkeler observes coral bleaching in the Maldives.
A snorkeler swims through bleached coral in the Maldives. Half of the world’s coral cover has been lost since Victorian times, say scientists. Photograph: AP

Damian Carrington Environment editor@dpcarringtonThu 10 Jun 2021 09.00 EDT

Humanity must solve the climate and nature crises together or solve neither, according to a report from 50 of the world’s leading scientists.

Global heating and the destruction of wildlife is wreaking increasing damage on the natural world, which humanity depends on for food, water and clean air. Many of the human activities causing the crises are the same and the scientists said increased use of nature as a solution was vital.

The devastation of forests, peatlands, mangroves and other ecosystems has decimated wildlife populations and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Rising temperatures and extreme weather are, in turn increasingly damaging biodiversity.

But restoring and protecting nature boosts biodiversity and the ecosystems that can rapidly and cheaply absorb carbon again, the researchers said. While this is crucial, the scientists emphasise that rapid cuts in fossil fuel burning is also essential to ending the climate emergency.AdvertisementRevealed: rightwing firm posed as leftist group on Facebook to divide DemocratsJustice department calls for internal inquiry into seizure of Democrats’ data – liveAntónio Guterres on the climate crisis: ‘We are coming to a point of no return’All the Queen’s presidents: Biden joins long line of US leaders to meet royalScientists link intense exercise with MND risk in some peopleAstronomers find blinking giant star near heart of Milky WayAll the Queen’s presidents: Biden joins long line of USleaders to meet royalhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_654935847https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_1087530625https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_1014483751All the Queen’s presidents: Biden joins long line of US leaders to meet royal

They also warned against action on one crisis inadvertently aggravating the other, such as creating monoculture tree plantations that store carbon but are wildlife deserts and more vulnerable to extreme weather.

“It is clear that we cannot solve [the global biodiversity and climate crises] in isolation – we either solve both or we solve neither,” said Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s climate and environment minister.

The peer-reviewed report was produced by the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts, who were convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, both which report to the world’s political leaders.

The report identified actions to simultaneously fight the climate and nature crises, including expanding nature reserves and restoring – or halting the loss of – ecosystems rich in species and carbon, such as forests, natural grasslands and kelp forests.

“It’s very disturbing to see the impacts over recent years,” said Prof Alex David Rogers, of conservation group REV Ocean and the University of Oxford, and a report author. “Between 1970 and 2000, mangrove forests have lost about 40% of their cover and salt marshes an estimated 60%. We’ve also lost half of coral cover since Victorian times.”

Food systems cause a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and more sustainable farming is another important action, helped by the ending of destructive subsidies and rich nations eating less meat and cutting food waste.

“Animal agriculture not only emits 10 to 100 times more greenhouse gases per unit product than plant-based foods, they also use 10 to 100 times more land,” said Prof Pete Smith, of the University of Aberdeen. “So more plant-based diets would mean more environmentally friendly farming and then there would be more land on which to apply nature-based solutions.”

The scientists also warned against actions that tackled one crisis but worsened the other. “When I went for a walk in a plantation forest in England, it was sterile. It was a single, non-native species of tree,” said Prof Camille Parmesan, of the University of Plymouth. “There was nothing else there, no insects, no birds, no undergrowth. You might as well have built a concrete building.”

Past tree planting on carbon-rich peatlands that had never been forested was another example, said Smith. “That was an epic fail for the climate and for biodiversity.”

Planting very large areas with single crops to burn for energy was also problematic, even if the CO2 was captured and buried, Smith said: “To get the billions of tonnes of carbon removal that has been proposed in some scenarios for global stabilisation of climate, you would need thousands of millions of hectares – an area twice the size of India.”

Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems was the fastest and cheapest way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the scientists said. Cutting fossil fuel emissions was essential, but not enough at this point in the climate crisis, said Parmesan. “We cannot avoid dangerous climate change without soaking up some of the carbon that we’ve already put into the atmosphere and the best way to suck up carbon is using the power of plants,” she said.

“The science of restoration of ecosystems has really blossomed over the last 40 years. We are now able to efficiently and effectively restore complex systems, tropical rainforest, coastal wetlands, kelp forests and seagrass meadows, natural American prairie, and UK meadows back to their near historical diversity.”

Prof Mark Maslin, of University College London, said the report was seminal: “The science is very clear that climate change and biodiversity are inseparable. To stabilise climate change we need massive rewilding and reforestation.”

The UK environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, said: “This is an absolutely critical year for nature and climate. With the UN biodiversity [and climate summits], we have an opportunity and responsibility to put the world on a path to recovery. This hugely valuable report makes it clear that addressing biodiversity loss and climate change together offers our best chance of doing so.”

Throwing money at biodiversity schemes is ineffective

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57071514

By Victoria Gill
Science correspondent, BBC NewsPublished18 hours agoShare

Giraffe
image captionThe economic status quo is continuing the drive the destruction of nature, the report concludes

Rich countries “throwing money” at schemes designed to enhance biodiversity is ineffective, a report by charity Third World Network says.

The report calls for “a profound re-organisation of the global post-pandemic economy to prevent further harm to the planet”.

It recommends nothing less than a “change in our entire economic model”.

Cancellation of debt owed by the poorest, most biodiverse countries would be the place to start, it adds.

Developed nations in the global north should pay for their “vast ecological debts”, said lead author Dr Patrick Bigger from Lancaster University.

“There need to be no strings attached payments to those countries,” said Dr Bigger. “Otherwise we just continue to dig this hole and try to fill the hole with money.”https://buy.tinypass.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=tYOkq7qlAI&templateId=OTBYI8Q89QWC&templateVariantId=OTV0YFYSXVQWV&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EXAWX60BX4NU&iframeId=offer_0e763acc7b457c03340a-0&displayMode=inline&widget=template

This study of the economics of biodiversity loss sets out how the current model by which money flows from rich, developed nations into schemes to enhance and protect nature in poorer nations can exacerbate the problem.

Rhino (c) Patrick Bigger
image captionConservation efforts in Kenya, and around the world, have been hindered by debt and austerity, the researchers say

Investment in activities like large-scale agriculture and resource extraction, it points out, continue to drive the destruction of natural habitats.

The gap, the researchers say, “between those who live with the environmental consequences of [resource] extraction and those who benefit from financing these developments”, is widening.

“In 2019, 50 of the world’s largest banks underwrote more than $2.6 trillion into industries known to be the drivers of biodiversity loss, an amount equivalent to Canada’s gross domestic product,” the report states.

Making things worse?

There are a number of international schemes designed to protect nature that this report deems “ineffective and underfunded”.

Brazil's Atlantic Forest
image captionBrazil’s Atlantic Forest: Second in biodiversity only to the Amazon

It points specifically to a UN programme that was designed to pay communities that live in valuable, biodiverse forests for “actions that prevent forest loss or degradation”. Essentially, it pays those communities in credits for activities that protect the forest.

That scheme paid out about 160 million US dollars in 2019. “While that may sound like a large number, it is far less than the monthly increase of Jeff Bezos’ fortune since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dr Bigger.

In some cases, these market-driven schemes can do more harm than good.

One study of a scheme in Costa Rica, which was designed to incentivise tree-planting, revealed that it had subsidised commercial forestry, resulting in more “plantation forests” of a single non-native tree species used in the production of wooden shipping pallets.

“We need a broader rethink about how the rules of the economy are driving the sixth extinction,” said Dr Jessica Dempsey from the University of British Columbia, Canada, a researcher on the report.

“We need to take a hard look at things like tax and intellectual property policy, and even entire ideas that guide how the global economy works – like what it means for governments to be ‘financially responsible’ when austerity has such a poor track record of delivering good environmental outcomes.”

Shut off the leaf blowers and restore peace to suburbia

OPINION

Leaves are not trash, and the leaf blowers create noise and air pollution.

By Peter Bahouth

https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/12/21/shut-off-the-leaf-blowers-and-restore-peace-to-suburbia/?fbclid=IwAR0FFiQswfPhYga7xMf7pw_Z3viqREzxqGjbOtjVDNr83NkxRyQqBZvsnog

8:01 AM on Dec 18, 2020 CST

My very first job was raking leaves in the fall. It was a good way to make a little money without leaving the neighborhood. The weather was cool, the leaves were trippy colors, and people were out and about before the coming semi-hibernation of winter. It was a beautiful season of red, orange and yellow, quiet but for the sound of kids jumping into huge piles of leaves.

Now, the simple and efficient rake has been replaced by the daily intrusion of loud and polluting gas-powered leaf blowers designed to blast away any leaf that dares land on a lawn. The mind-rattling racket of these machines has made being outside, working and going to school remotely, listening to someone or something, even thinking, nearly impossible. about:blankhttps://c5x8i7c7.ssl.hwcdn.net/vplayer-parallel/20210209_0916/videojs/show.html?controls=1&loop=30&autoplay=0&tracker=83863571-8b84-4d58-a827-64f927c39254&height=300&width=533&vurl=%2F%2Fa.jsrdn.com%2Fvideos%2Fdgv_dallasnews%2F20210301053120_603c7a292e165%2Fdgv_dallasnews_trending_articles_20210301053120_603c7a292e165_new.mp4&poster=%2F%2Fa.jsrdn.com%2Fvideos%2Fdgv_dallasnews%2F20210301053120_603c7a292e165%2Fdgv_dallasnews_trending_articles_20210301053120_603c7a292e165_new.jpgXFeatured on Dallas News

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Operating a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles, or approximately the distance from Chicago to Houston. Particulate matter linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma and other serious ailments, lingers in the air for days in droplets so small that the body has no way to filter them from entering the lungs. Most affected are children, the elderly and, of course, the operators of these machines.

A leaf blower is frequently the soundtrack for my day, too often the first sound I hear in the morning. The noise from these contraptions can be overwhelming. It is their unique combination of sound waves from the engine and the 200 mph blast of air it generates, that makes them so intolerable. The low-frequency waves travel farthest and produce the worst health effects, but the high-frequency waves (think dentist drill) add a grating intrusion. Unlike eyes, ears can’t shut. Studies show that noise pollution heightens stress, disrupts sleep, leads to hypertension and impairs learning.https://2c2359a808bfe6b0e9a6386ad15cacb1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

There is no waste in nature, and leaves aren’t litter. When autumn leaves fall, many species of butterflies, bees, fireflies, moths, ladybugs and earthworms find their winter home. The Luna moth is one of the most beautiful wild creatures that still exists close to our homes. Wrapping their cocoons in leaves provides excellent camouflage and insulation from cold temperatures. The cocoons are bright lime green and as large as four and a half inches long, and finding one is always a delight. But weekly blowing of leaf cover has substantially destroyed Luna moth habitat as well as that for fireflies and many other species. When we treat leaves like trash, we’re tossing out something other species need to survive.

Maintaining clean air and water, addressing the looming climate crisis, and protecting other species as well as ourselves should start at the neighborhood level. If we don’t encourage community responses to threats to our health and well-being, what hope do we have to take on bigger problems? We have to ask, is there value in the environment we live in, or has a leafless lawn become the new standard of our values?SPONSORED CONTENT

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There are around 40 million acres of lawn in the continental United States, making turf grass the single largest “crop” we grow. Let’s move on from lawns styled with a 1950s-era crewcut to more of a Beatles-style shag, using native plants that don’t require being groomed into a flat-top. Let’s leave the leaves alone once in a while.

I’ve started to hand out a Golden Rake Award, a miniature gold rake and gift card to folks I see raking leaves, to thank them for helping to keep the neighborhood a little quieter and the air a little cleaner. We each chose the issues — from the global to the personal — that we most care about. Common to all of them is the need for sanctuary in our lives, on our streets and in our homes. If given the choice, wouldn’t we all rather live in a clean, quiet neighborhood than a loud, dirty one with fewer leaves?https://2c2359a808bfe6b0e9a6386ad15cacb1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Nature is not someplace to visit, it’s all around us. Even the most urbanized places are home to countless populations of wild birds, butterflies, flowers and other species. Our surroundings have much to offer in an increasingly complicated and electronic world. Nature provides us a place to think, create and de-stress. Spending time outside is rejuvenating and important to our well-being, but the persistent noise of gas-powered blowers makes it tough to enjoy the simple act of being outside, and it’s loud enough to disrupt your day, even inside your own home, a place that has become more essential than ever.

Sanctuary is being lost to the sanctity of a well-groomed lawn. With a million new gas-powered blowers sold each year, and manufacturers pushing the year-round use of leaf blowers for a variety of purposes, including to dry off pavement, it’s only getting worse. We’re not only losing peace and quiet and the quality of our air, we’re losing a whole season.

It’s time to hit the reset button and take back autumn. Buy someone a rake for Christmas, and get out in the crisp clean air and jump in the leaves.

Peter Bahouth is the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, the Turner Family Foundation and the U.S. Climate Action Network. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/12/21/shut-off-the-leaf-blowers-and-restore-peace-to-suburbia/?fbclid=IwAR0FFiQswfPhYga7xMf7pw_Z3viqREzxqGjbOtjVDNr83NkxRyQqBZvsnog

This fossil reveals how dinosaurs peed, pooped and had sex

https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/19/world/dinosaur-fossil-sex-study-scn/index.html

By Katie Hunt, CNN

Updated 11:00 AM ET, Tue January 19, 2021This Psittacosaurus fossil, in the collection of the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, Germany, preserves the only known dinosaur cloacal vent.This Psittacosaurus fossil, in the collection of the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, Germany, preserves the only known dinosaur cloacal vent.

(CNN)We know a lot about dinosaurs — what they looked like, what they ate and what killed them off — but no fossils have definitively preserved two dinosaurs in the act of mating.However, a fossil from China of a Psittacosaurus is so well preserved that the opening the Labrador-size dinosaur used to pee, poop and reproduce is visible, allowing paleontologists to study it for the first time.While it doesn’t offer any concrete answers on how dinosaurs may have procreated, it does give some hints.”We don’t have any dinosaur fossils where you can be confident they’ve been caught in the act,” said Jakob Vinther, a paleontologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences.What we know is “based on natural history where we compare it to living groups of animals.”While most mammals have separate holes for bodily functions, many other animals — including birds and reptiles — have just one and it’s known as the cloaca.close dialog

Receive Fareed Zakaria’s Global Analysisincluding insights and must-reads of world newsActivate Fareed’s BriefingBy subscribing you agree to ourprivacy policy.The fossilized cloaca confirms that dinosaurs had one but it doesn’t look like that of any other living animals.A reconstruction of Psittacosaurus illustrating how the cloacal vent may have been used for signaling during courtship.A reconstruction of Psittacosaurus illustrating how the cloacal vent may have been used for signaling during courtship.”It is very unique. Most cloacas form a kind of slit. Sometimes it’s a vertical split, sometimes it’s a smiley face, sometimes it’s a sour face. This thing has a V-shaped structure with a pair of nice flaring lips and there’s not a living groups of animals that have morphology like that,” Vinther said. “It is somewhat similar to crocodiles but still unique.”The study, which published in the journal Current Biology on Tuesday, said that large, pigmented lobes on either side of the opening could have harbored musky scent glands, as seen in living crocodiles and alligators.What’s more, the outer margins of the cloaca are highly pigmented with melanin. While they don’t know for sure what color it was, it likely would have contrasted with the dinosaur’s pale underbelly, Vinther said.

Inside a dinosaur egg, this baby wasn't what researchers expected

Inside a dinosaur egg, this baby wasn’t what researchers expectedThis distinctive pigmentation could mean the vent was used to display and signal, similar to living baboons andsome breeding salamanders.The fossil is displayed at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, Germany, but was found in a fossil-rich area of Liaoning in northern China.Vinther had worked on the fossil before in 2016, reconstructing the dinosaur’s color patterns, and it was only at the end of that study that he realized that the cloaca was really well preserved, he said.In animals with cloacal vents, the genitals are tucked inside the body and haven’t been preserved so it’s not known whether this particular dinosaur was male or female.Most birds, the only living relative of dinosaurs, mate by “cloacal kissing” — by pressing together their openings. Some paleontologists think dinosaurs may have mated like this.Vinther, however, believes that this dinosaur would have had a penis — the fossilized opening is more similar to a crocodile’s, which do, and there are some birds, like ostriches and ducks, which also have penises.”From what we can see, this cloaca would not have been suitable for cloacal kissing,” Vinther said. “It looks like it would have been penetrative sex.”

How Whale Poo Is Powering the World’s Rainforests

TOPICS:EcologyNatural History MuseumRainforestWhales

By JOSH DAVIS, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM JANUARY 10, 2021

Young Humpback Whale

The nutrients produced by whales when they poo has been found to fertilize the interior of forests around the world.

Big animals have the power to change the face of our planet: they sculpt woodlands, power ecosystems and can even help to fertilize the interior of rainforests.

Conservation is working to prevent the largest animals on Earth from sliding into extinction — and saving them could be more important than we ever realized.

Humans have been altering the environment for tens of thousands of years. One of the starkest consequences of this is the loss of many large animals, known collectively as megafauna, from much of the planet.

When people spread out of Africa and first arrived in places like the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, the land was dominated by some truly huge animals.

Giant ground sloths and armored glyptodons roamed across the savannas of South America, huge mammoths and cave bears were trampling around the chilly landscapes of Europe, while truly enormous wombat-like diprotodons and moas were to be found across much of Australia and New Zealand.

These species had a significant impact on the habitats in which they lived, and when they were driven to extinction, they left an ecological hole. But this wave of extinction is not over.

Those large animals that did survive the first round are now facing a similar threat. Elephants, rhinos, and some species of whales are all balancing on the edge of extinction.

It is only relatively recently, however, that we have begun to understand just how wide reaching the influence of these animals is on the natural world. Once we know more, it could change the way we go about protecting them.

Big animals are influencing environments such as the Amazon not only on national or international scales, but even global ones. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT/CIFOR

Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, has published a piece with colleagues that raises the question of how conservationists could think more globally.

“These big animals are iconic in a conservation sense and we are not arguing that we shouldn’t conserve them in their own right,” explains Ken. “But there are also a lot of fundamental things these animals do ecologically, and we are only just beginning to understand the really massive scales on which they operate.

“Currently we are not conserving those systems at scales large enough to protect and restore these key ecological roles. That is the point.”

The opinion piece has been published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The hidden power of whales

Large animals, such as elephants and whales, are often referred to as ecosystem engineers. This is because as they go about their day-to-day business, these huge animals alter their environment in such dramatic ways that they help to create and maintain entirely new habitats.

Elephants, for example, are so big that they will regularly push down trees to get to food from the upper branches, and as a result open up woodlands that allow understory plants to thrive in the sunshine. They are also known to help sustain entire rainforests as they spread the large seeds of fruit trees over vast distances before depositing them in little piles of natural fertilizer.

In the depths of the African rainforest, elephants create and maintain huge forest openings known as bais, which are then used by an array of other species from bongo antelopes to gorillas. Credit: Michelle Gadd/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

But these big animals have an impact on a much larger scale even than this.

“We didn’t realise until a few years ago just how important large animals are to large scale earth system processes,” explains Ken. These are the systems in which nutrients are cycled through the environment on a global scale.

“For example, there is research we cite which shows how important nutrients from the oceans are for massive biomes like the Amazon. You wouldn’t realize it, but there is a nutrient pump that exists which comes from the ocean up the rivers and onto the land.”

Animals such as whales and fish poop nutrients into the water. These nutrients help to fuel the plankton, which make their way into smaller fish. The fish are then either eaten by seabirds which in turn deposit their own poop on land, or feed larger migratory fish.

These fish then travel up the river systems and deep inland through the vast network of waterways. They will then be eaten by predators such as birds of prey and big cats, or simply die in the rivers, and as a result spread these nutrients that originated in the oceans over the land and deep within the forests.

“In recent years, some people have estimated how degraded those nutrient systems are because of the loss of large animals, and the impact has been massive,” explains Ken. “They estimate that certain nutrient pumps may have declined by over 80%, in part because of the removal of large animals such as whales.”

Migratory fish that originated in the oceans can be found spread across the forest floors, distributing nutrients far inland and feeding the forest. Credit: anttler (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Global cooperation

When it comes to protecting nature, conservation movements have tended to focus on saving specific species in particular locations.

Recently, scientists have been thinking more broadly. For example, transboundary conservation initiatives have been created which straddle multiple countries. But Ken and his colleagues argue that, while this is undoubtedly moving in the right direction, if we want to take into account the scale at which these nutrient cycles operate, we need to think bigger still.  

“There are some examples of this emerging, but we are still not up at the necessary levels of scale,” says Ken. “For example there is one of these transboundary conservation initiatives in the north west US and the west of Canada called Y2Y, where they have reintroduced wolves but conservation at these scales may still not be large enough.

“We need to be looking at ecosystems such as the Amazon which are millions of square kilometers.”

This might seem like an impossible challenge, but environmental initiatives of this scale have been achieved before, such as when the world’s governments came together to agree to fix the hole in the ozone layer or the international ban on whaling.

“It is an enormous challenge to reinstate these systems, but the impacts of not doing anything about it could be really severe,” says Ken. “We simply don’t know enough about this.

“We know that losing big animals is ecologically problematic at these massive scales, but we don’t know the exact impacts of losing them. How long have we got to sort out those issues, and what could be done about them?

“This is really a call to get people thinking about these problems and issues.”

Discovery boosts theory that life on Earth arose from RNA-DNA mix

Newly described chemical reaction could have assembled DNA building blocks before life forms and their enzymes existed

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201228095428.htm

Date:December 28, 2020Source:Scripps Research InstituteSummary:Chemists have made a discovery that supports a surprising new view of how life originated on our planet. They demonstrated that a simple compound called diamidophosphate (DAP), which was plausibly present on Earth before life arose, could have chemically knitted together tiny DNA building blocks called deoxynucleosides into strands of primordial DNA.Share:    FULL STORY


DNA illustration (stock | Credit: © BillionPhotos.com / stock.adobe.com

DNA illustration (stock image).Credit: © BillionPhotos.com / stock.adobe.com

Chemists at Scripps Research have made a discovery that supports a surprising new view of how life originated on our planet.

In a study published in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, they demonstrated that a simple compound called diamidophosphate (DAP), which was plausibly present on Earth before life arose, could have chemically knitted together tiny DNA building blocks called deoxynucleosides into strands of primordial DNA.

The finding is the latest in a series of discoveries, over the past several years, pointing to the possibility that DNA and its close chemical cousin RNA arose together as products of similar chemical reactions, and that the first self-replicating molecules — the first life forms on Earth — were mixes of the two.

The discovery may also lead to new practical applications in chemistry and biology, but its main significance is that it addresses the age-old question of how life on Earth first arose. In particular, it paves the way for more extensive studies of how self-replicating DNA-RNA mixes could have evolved and spread on the primordial Earth and ultimately seeded the more mature biology of modern organisms.

“This finding is an important step toward the development of a detailed chemical model of how the first life forms originated on Earth,” says study senior author Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, PhD, associate professor of chemistry at Scripps Research.

The finding also nudges the field of origin-of-life chemistry away from the hypothesis that has dominated it in recent decades: The “RNA World” hypothesis posits that the first replicators were RNA-based, and that DNA arose only later as a product of RNA life forms.

Is RNA too sticky?

Krishnamurthy and others have doubted the RNA World hypothesis in part because RNA molecules may simply have been too “sticky” to serve as the first self-replicators.

A strand of RNA can attract other individual RNA building blocks, which stick to it to form a sort of mirror-image strand — each building block in the new strand binding to its complementary building block on the original, “template” strand. If the new strand can detach from the template strand, and, by the same process, start templating other new strands, then it has achieved the feat of self-replication that underlies life.

But while RNA strands may be good at templating complementary strands, they are not so good at separating from these strands. Modern organisms make enzymes that can force twinned strands of RNA — or DNA — to go their separate ways, thus enabling replication, but it is unclear how this could have been done in a world where enzymes didn’t yet exist.

A chimeric workaround

Krishnamurthy and colleagues have shown in recent studies that “chimeric” molecular strands that are part DNA and part RNA may have been able to get around this problem, because they can template complementary strands in a less-sticky way that permits them to separate relatively easily.

The chemists also have shown in widely cited papers in the past few years that the simple ribonucleoside and deoxynucleoside building blocks, of RNA and DNA respectively, could have arisen under very similar chemical conditions on the early Earth.

Moreover, in 2017 they reported that the organic compound DAP could have played the crucial role of modifying ribonucleosides and stringing them together into the first RNA strands. The new study shows that DAP under similar conditions could have done the same for DNA.

“We found, to our surprise, that using DAP to react with deoxynucleosides works better when the deoxynucleosides are not all the same but are instead mixes of different DNA ‘letters’ such as A and T, or G and C, like real DNA,” says first author Eddy Jiménez, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the Krishnamurthy lab.

“Now that we understand better how a primordial chemistry could have made the first RNAs and DNAs, we can start using it on mixes of ribonucleoside and deoxynucleoside building blocks to see what chimeric molecules are formed — and whether they can self-replicate and evolve,” Krishnamurthy says.

He notes that the work may also have broad practical applications. The artificial synthesis of DNA and RNA — for example in the “PCR” technique that underlies COVID-19 tests — amounts to a vast global business, but depends on enzymes that are relatively fragile and thus have many limitations. Robust, enzyme-free chemical methods for making DNA and RNA may end up being more attractive in many contexts, Krishnamurthy says.make a difference: sponsored opportunityhttps://action.publicgood.com/embed.html?partner_id=sciencedaily&utm_source=sciencedaily&title=Discovery%20boosts%20theory%20that%20life%20on%20Earth%20arose%20from%20RNA-DNA%20mix%3A%20Newly%20described%20chemical%20reaction%20could%20have%20assembled%20DNA%20building%20blocks%20before%20life%20forms%20and%20their%20enzymes%20existed&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sciencedaily.com%2Freleases%2F2020%2F12%2F201228095428.htm&utm_content=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sciencedaily.com%2Freleases%2F2020%2F12%2F201228095428.htm&widget_type=card&action=Default&is_flex=true&match_type=terms&content_id=13885177&cid_match_type=regex&tag=coronavirus%20~%20unsponsored%20first%20responders%20variant%20terms%20match&target_id=a5b62d04-991b-4b01-a285-9a499e519227&target_type=campaign&is_filter=true&url_id=25771184&parent_org=sciencedaily&target_name=Support%20%20First%20Responders%20and%20Health%20Care%20Workers%20During%20Coronavirus&is_sponsored=false&sponsor_name=


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Materials provided by Scripps Research InstituteNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, Eddy I. Jiménez, Clémentine Gibard. Prebiotic Phosphorylation and Concomitant Oligomerization of Deoxynucleosides to form DNAAngewandte Chemie International Edition, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/anie.202015910

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Large ecosystems collapse “over ‘human’ timescales”, a new paper reports

We may take it for granted, but if pushed too far, the inner workings of mother nature will grind to a halt very fast, a new paper reports.

Alexandru Micu by Alexandru MicuDecember 23, 2020 in Environmental IssuesListen Now

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Large ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest will break down very quickly if we cross their tipping point, explain researchers from Bangor University, Southampton University, and The School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.

Tipping points, in the context of environmental sciences, are thresholds beyond which natural systems need to change significantly in order to adapt to the status quo. In the case of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, this tipping point represents the amount of damage it can absorb before transitioning to a different type of ecosystem. That change may be right around the corner.

Image credits: Ryk Porras.

No more Amazon

“Unfortunately, what our paper reveals is that humanity needs to prepare for changes far sooner than expected,” says joint lead author Dr Simon Willcock of Bangor University’s School of Natural Sciences.

“These rapid changes to the world’s largest and most iconic ecosystems would impact the benefits which they provide us with, including everything from food and materials, to the oxygen and water we need for life.”

According to modeling based on real-world data, the team found that the Amazon forest would change into a savannah-like ecosystem (a mix of trees and grasses) within 50 years of passing the tipping point, which is blisteringly fast for an ecosystem so huge.about:blank

The study didn’t focus exclusively on the Amazon rainforest and is applicable to other large ecosystems around the world. With the recent fires in the Amazon and throughout Australia, the findings may be much more relevant to the present than we’d like.

Generally speaking, ecosystems that are dominated by a single species are much more fragile than diverse ones, which tend to be more robust. There are many ways to ‘do things right’ and prevent collapse in a diverse ecosystem, while there’s few or just one right way in simple ecosystems. For example, elephants are considered a ‘keystone’ species in their ecosystem because they hold a disproportionate amount of power to influence it; elephants can destroy plant life with relative impunity from predators, but they also act as a key seed dispersal mechanism. Things are all fine and dandy while there’s no crisis going on, but if a keystone species does disappear, the ecosystem at large would suffer profound — and quick — alterations.

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Biodiversity thus holds the key to preventing or mitigating such ecosystem collapses, the authors explain.

“This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity,” says Dr Gregory Cooper, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, the study’s other joint lead author.

The authors explain that if you think of ecosystems in terms of size, each unit of size provides “an increasingly smaller unit of time taken for that system to collapse”. In other words, extra size provides diminishing returns for the ecosystem’s stability. A given ecosystem would still take more time to collapse than one half its size, but it won’t take twice as long to do it.

“We intuitively knew that big systems would collapse more slowly than small ones — due to the time it takes for impacts to diffuse across large distances,” explains Prof John Dearing, the paper’s corresponding author.

“But what was unexpected was the finding that big systems collapse much faster than you might expect — even the largest on Earth only taking possibly a few decades.”

Large ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, the Caribbean coral reefs, or the Australian outback aren’t flawed in any way. But they have been left vulnerable by decades of human activity, which is most noticeable as a drop in biodiversity, the team expains.

“Worryingly, recent plot inventories from the Amazon show a declining rate of carbon sequestration, and there is growing evidence that further deforestation and degradation of the feedback between moisture formation and vegetation coverage may lead to a system-wide tipping point as soon as 2021,” the paper concludes.

The paper “Regime shifts occur disproportionately faster in larger ecosystems” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.about:blankPopular in the CommunityAdChoicesSponsoredIn a single spin, this wind turbine can power a home for a whole dayTreePlease use proper units. A 13MW turbine could produce 312 MWh in a day.Top CommentTop Comment2We probably aren’t the first civilization in the Milky Way. It’s just that the others are deadPopcorn”Intelligent life” that self-annihilates is not intelligent, and not worthy of the intelectual ranking we like to endow ourselves with. Tool mastery cannot be the definition of intelligence if it leads to self-annihilation. Unfortunately, our emotionally challenged species is on that path and seem determined to force the same fate on our earthly cohabitants. To call ourselves intelligent is both ironic, and scandalously chauvinistic. Self-annihilation in our case seems set to be an extinction resulting from chronic apathy and emotional inertia – more so than the nuclear holocaust we once feared would take us. Not only are we not intelligent, we are cowardly, greed-driven and unprincipled in our lack of resolve to, in the very least, prevent further loss of biodiversity, let alone coexist, cooperate, collaborate in a manner worthy of true intelligence…Top CommentTop Comment5We probably aren’t the first civilization in the Milky Way. It’s just that the others are deadSushi”self-replicating spacecraft traveling at one-tenth of the speed of light — admittedly a quick speed ” Admittedly? There’s virtually no chance that such technology is possible. “Humans are biased to think that other civilizations might behave just like us. As such, these inherent biases may cloud our judgment, believing that other civilizations might also nuke themselves out of existence.” They didn’t make that assumption. ” Over a long-enough timeframe, the probability of self-annihilation borders on certainty” is a fact regardless of how they behave. Anyway, this is all wildly speculative. My own speculation is that the arisal of technological civilizations is far far less likely than people assume … humans exist because of a whole set of freak historical accidents.Top CommentTop CommentEuropean rivers are fragmented by over one million barriersPalmtreeThank you for this very interesting article. Small correction however, the Vezins dam and the Sélune are in France, not in Belgium ;-)Top CommentTop CommentFace masks reduce new COVID cases by 45%FlaskThere are many studies that state the opposite: masks are completely inefficient. As Sweden shows, masks are not needed. But the most authoritative study on masks is the one that no scientific outlet allowed to publish until recently. Read this in the Annals of Internal Medicine: Effectiveness of Adding a Mask Recommendation to Other Public Health Measures to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Danish Mask Wearers.Top CommentTop Comment1

The Role of the Rooster

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

The family role of the rooster is nowadays less well known to most people than the motherhood of the hen. The charm of seeing a rooster with his hens appears in Chaucer’s portrait of Chanticleer in The Canterbury Tales:

This cock had in his princely sway and measure
Seven hens to satisfy his every pleasure,
Who were his sisters and his sweethearts true,
Each wonderfully like him in her hue,
Of whom the fairest-feathered throat to see
Was fair Dame Partlet. Courteous was she,
Discreet, and always acted debonairly.
Image by RitaE from Pixabay

Rooster as a Symbol of Divine Fertility and Life Force

In ancient times, the rooster was esteemed for his sexual vigor; it is said that a healthy young rooster may mate as often as thirty or more times a day. The rooster thus figures in religious history as a symbol of divine fertility and the life force. In his own world of chickendom, the rooster – the cock – is a father, a lover, a brother, a food-finder, a guardian, and a sentinel.

Aldrovandi extolled the rooster’s domestic virtues:

He is for us the example of the best and truest father of a family. For he not only presents himself as a vigilant guardian of his little ones, and in the morning, at the proper time, invites us to our daily labor; but he sallies forth as the first, not only with his crowing, by which he shows what must be done, but he sweeps everything, explores and spies out everything.

Role of the Rooster – A Father and a Guardian

Finding food, “he calls both hens and chicks together to eat it while he stands like a father and host at a banquet . . . inviting them to the feast, exercised by a single care, that they should have something to eat. Meanwhile he scurries about to find something nearby, and when he has found it, he calls his family again in a loud voice. They run to the spot. He stretches himself up, looks around for any danger that may be near, runs about the entire poultry yard, here and there plucking up a grain or two for himself without ceasing to invite the others to follow him.”

A nineteenth-century poultry keeper wrote to his friend that his Shanghai cock was “very attentive to his Hens, and exercises a most fatherly care over the Chicks in his yard. . . . He frequently would allow them to perch on his back, and in this manner carry them into the house, and then up the chicken ladder.”

role of the rooster
Roosters, Nathanial (left), Nicholas (right) with Karen Davis.

Dr Davis: “They (Nathanial & Nicholas) were found walking together on a road in Greenbelt Maryland, a residential area outside Washington, DC. They apparently had been abandoned and may have been actual brothers. People who keep chickens constantly abandon roosters. They only want hens for eggs, and in suburban areas, local laws do not allow roosters to be kept. It is so sad and infuriating. Fortunately, Nathanial and Nicholas were saved.”

My Relationship with the Roosters in Our Sanctuary

A less happy ambivalence appeared in a soft-colored gray and white rooster I named Ruby when he was brought to our sanctuary as a young bird by a girl who swore he was a hen. Following me about the house on his brisk little legs, even sleeping beside me on my pillow at night, Ruby grew up to be a rooster. In spite of our close relationship during his first months of life, once he became sexually mature, Ruby’s attitude toward me changed.

In the yard with the other chickens, he showed no disposition to fight. He didn’t attack other birds or provoke antagonisms. He fit in with the existing flock of hens and roosters, but toward me and other people he became compulsively aggressive. As soon as I (or anyone) appeared in the yard, Ruby ran from wherever he was and physically attacked us. Having to work in the yard under his vigilant eye, I took to carrying a bottomless birdcage and placing it over him while I worked. When finished I would lift it off him and walk backward toward the gate with the birdcage in front of me as a shield.

There is Always an Underlying Cause for Temperament Change

What I saw taking place in Ruby was a conflict he couldn’t control, and from which he suffered emotionally, between an autonomous genetic impulse on the one hand, and his personal desire on the other to be friendly with me. He got to where when he saw me coming with the birdcage, he would walk right up and let me place it over him as if grateful for my protection against a behavior he didn’t want to carry out. Even more tellingly, he developed a syndrome of coughs and sneezes whenever I approached, symptomatic, I believed, of his inner turmoil. He didn’t have a respiratory infection, and despite his antagonism toward me, I never felt that he hated me but rather that he suffered from his dilemma, including his inability to manage it.

Combat is Unnatural for Roosters

My personal experience with our sanctuary roosters confirms the literature I’ve read about wild and feral chickens documenting that the majority of roosters do not physically and compulsively attack one another. Chickens maintain a social order in which every member of the flock has a place and finds a place. During the day our roosters and hens break up into small, fluctuating groups that are somewhat, but by no means, rigidly territorial. Antagonisms between roosters are resolved with bloodless showdowns and face-offs. The most notable exception is when a new rooster is introduced into an existing flock, which may provoke a temporary flare up, but even then, there is no predicting.

Roosters are Playful

role of the rooster
Pola & Karen Davis I Courtesy of UPC

Last year I placed newcomer Benjamin in a yard already occupied by two other roosters, Rhubarb and Oliver and their twenty or so hens, and he fit in right away. Ruby won immediate acceptance when I put him outside in the chickenyard after living in the house with me for almost six months. In dealing with Ruby I found an unexpected ally in our large red rooster Pola, who was so attentive to me, all I had to do was call him, and he bolted over from his hens and let me pick him up and hold him. I have a greeting card photograph of Pola and me “crowing” together, my one hand clasped over his swelled-out chest, my other hand holding his claw, in a duet I captioned “With Heart and Voice.”

Playfully, I got into the habit of yelling “Pola, Help!” whenever Ruby acted like he was ready to come after me, which worked as well as the birdcage. Hearing my call, Pola would perk up, race over to where Ruby was about to charge, and run him off with such cheerful alacrity it was as if he knew this was our little game together. I’d always say, “Thank you, Pola, thank you!” and he acted very pleased with his performance and the praise I lavished on him for “saving” me. He stuck out his chest, stretched up his neck, flapped his wings vigorously, and crowed triumphantly a few times.

Roosters are Full of Energy and Enthusiasm

Roosters crow to announce their accomplishments. Even after losing a skirmish, a rooster will often crow as if to compensate for his loss or deny its importance or call it a draw. Last summer as I sat reading outside with the chickens, I was diverted by our two head roosters, Rhubarb and Sir Valery Valentine, crowing back and forth at each other in their respective yards just a few feet apart. It looked like Sir Valery was intentionally crossing a little too far into Rhubarb’s territory, and Rhubarb kept dashing at him to reinforce the boundary.

There was not a hint of hostility between them; rather the contest, I decided as I watched them go at it, was being carried out as a kind of spirited mock ritual, in which each rooster rushed at the other, only to halt abruptly on his own side of the invisible buffer zone they apparently had agreed upon. At that point, each rooster paced up and down on his own side, steadily eyeing the other bird and crowing at him across the divide. After ten minutes or so, they each backed off and were soon engrossed in other activities.

Roosters, Hens, and their Social Life Together

role of the rooster
Rooster Lincoln, hen Sno-Pea and chick Luv-Bug I Courtesy of UPC

Roosters are so energetic and solicitous toward their hens, so intensely focused on every aspect of their social life together that one of the saddest things to see is a rooster in a state of decline due to age, illness or both. An aging or ailing rooster who can no longer hold his own in the flock suffers severely. He droops, and I have even heard a rooster cry over his loss of place and prestige within his flock. This is what happened to our rooster Jules – “Gentleman Jules,” as my husband fondly named him – who came to our sanctuary in the following way.

One day I received a phone call from the resident of an apartment building outside Washington, DC, saying that a rooster was loose in the complex and was being chased by children who were throwing stones at him. After two weeks of trying, she managed to lure the rooster into the laundry room and called me to come get him. Expecting to find a cowering and emaciated creature needing to be carefully lifted out of a corner, I discovered instead a bright-eyed perky, chatty little fellow with glossy black feathers.

I drove him to our sanctuary and set him outside with the flock, which at the time included our large white broiler rooster Henry, and our feisty bantam rooster, Bantu, who loved nothing better than sitting in the breeze under the trees with his two favorite large brown hens, Nadia and Nadine.

Do Hens Love Sweet-Natured Roosters…

Jules was a sweet-natured rooster, warm and affectionate to the core. He was a natural leader, and the hens loved him. Our dusky brown hen Petal, whom we’d adopted from another sanctuary, was especially devoted to Jules. Petal had curled gnarly toes, which didn’t stop her from whisking away from anyone she didn’t want to come near her; otherwise she sat still watching everything, especially Jules. Petal never made a sound; she didn’t cluck like most hens – except when Jules left her side a little too long. Then all of a sudden, the silent and immobile hen with the watchful eye let out a raucous SQUAWK, SQUAWK, SQUAWK, that didn’t stop until Jules had lifted his head up from whatever he was doing, and muttering to himself, ran over to comfort his friend.

Roosters Leave a Lasting Impression

role of the rooster
Gentleman Jules the Rooster I Courtesy of UPC

Two years after coming to live with us, Jules developed a respiratory infection that with treatment seemed to go away, but left him weak and vulnerable. He returned to the chickenyard only to find himself supplanted by Glippie, with whom he had used to be cordial, but was now dueling, and he didn’t have the heart or strength for it. His exuberance ebbed out of him and he became sad; there is no other word for the total condition of mournfulness he showed. His voice, which had always been cheerful, changed to moaning tones of woe. He banished himself to the outer edges of the chickenyard where he paced up and down, bawling so loudly I could hear him crying from inside the house.

I brought him in with me and sought to comfort my beloved bird, who showed by his whole demeanor that knew he was dying and was hurt through and through by what he had become. Jules developed an abdominal tumor. One morning our veterinarian placed him gently on the floor of his office after a final and futile overnight stay. Jules looked up at me from the floor and let out a low groan of “ooooohh” so broken that it pierced me through. I am pierced by it now, remembering the sorrow expressed by this dear sweet creature, “Gentleman Jules,” who had loved his life and his hens and was leaving it all behind.

Epilogue: Male Chicks of the Egg Industry who Never Grow Up to become Roosters

The journey from birth to death in the life of chickens follows a rhythm ordained by Nature, just like any other animals’ journey. In the case of male chickens, male chicks grow up to become roosters within 4 to 6 months’ time.

In Nature, a rooster lives up to 8, sometimes even 15 years of age. However, the egg industry, disregarding natural laws, justice, and ethics, systematically kills male chicks immediately after they are born.

Why? Because male chicks do not lay eggs. Basically, they are of no *use* in commercial egg production, apart from a certain number required for breeding flocks. In India, eggs are deemed “vegetarian,” but actually, every egg has two victims – the hen and the little male chick deliberately crushed inside a grinder because he cannot profit the industry. The breeding flocks of hens and roosters are also victims since they, too, are slaughtered within two years of life.

Please watch this minute-long PETA video, according to which, worldwide, around 7 billion male chicks are destroyed each year by the egg industry.https://www.youtube.com/embed/7uw5c5kSVr4?enablejsapi=1&autoplay=0&cc_load_policy=0&iv_load_policy=1&loop=0&modestbranding=0&rel=1&fs=1&playsinline=0&autohide=2&theme=dark&color=red&controls=1&Male Chicks Are the Forgotten Victims of the Egg Industry I Courtesy of PETA

Rooster Luce UPC
Rooster Luce I Courtesy of Laurie Melichar

“Over the years, we’ve had several egg-industry roosters in our sanctuary. In the U.S., they are almost always the White Leghorns, representing the type of hens most used for commercial egg production. They are very nice, friendly birds. This is Luce, who was rescued by UPC member Laurie Melichar. Every year in the United States, a quarter of a billion of these beautiful male chickens are buried alive or ground up alive by the egg industry as soon as they are born. These birds represent 250 million more reasons each year to go – and stay – vegan.”

Dr. Karen Davis

Discovery of Life Deep beneath Sea May Inspire Search on Mars

Bacteria live in tiny clay-filled cracks in solid rock millions of years old

Associate professor Yohey Suzuki at the University of Tokyo led the effort to develop a new way to prepare rock samples to search for life deep beneath the seafloor. This is an example of one of the thin slices of rock he prepared using special epoxy to ensure the rock held its shape while it was cut.
CAITLIN DEVOR, UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO, CC BY 4.0

Newly discovered single-celled creatures living deep beneath the seafloor have given researchers clues about how they might find life on Mars. These bacteria were discovered living in tiny cracks inside volcanic rocks after researchers persisted over a decade of trial and error to find a new way to examine the rocks.

Researchers estimate that the rock cracks are home to a community of bacteria as dense as that of the human gut, about 10 billion bacterial cells per cubic centimeter (0.06 cubic inch). In contrast, the average density of bacteria living in mud sediment on the seafloor is estimated to be 100 cells per cubic centimeter.

“I am now almost over-expecting that I can find life on Mars. If not, it must be that life relies on some other process that Mars does not have, like plate tectonics,” said associate professor Yohey Suzuki from the University of Tokyo, referring to the movement of land masses around Earth most notable for causing earthquakes. Suzuki is first author of the research paper announcing the discovery, published in Communications Biology.

Magic of clay minerals

“I thought it was a dream, seeing such rich microbial life in rocks,” said Suzuki, recalling the first time he saw bacteria inside the undersea rock samples.

Undersea volcanoes spew out lava at approximately 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit), which eventually cracks as it cools down and becomes rock. The cracks are narrow, often less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) across. Over millions of years, those cracks fill up with clay minerals, the same clay used to make pottery. Somehow, bacteria find their way into those cracks and multiply.

“These cracks are a very friendly place for life. Clay minerals are like a magic material on Earth; if you can find clay minerals, you can almost always find microbes living in them,” explained Suzuki.

The microbes identified in the cracks are aerobic bacteria, meaning they use a process similar to how human cells make energy, relying on oxygen and organic nutrients.

“Honestly, it was a very unexpected discovery. I was very lucky, because I almost gave up,” said Suzuki.

Cruise for deep ocean samples

Yohey Suzuki from the University of Tokyo and collaborators from around Japan are the first to find life surviving in solid rocks deep beneath the seafloor.
CAITLIN DEVOR, UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO, CC BY 4.0

Suzuki and his colleagues discovered the bacteria in rock samples that he helped collect in late 2010 during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). IODP Expedition 329 took a team of researchers from the tropical island of Tahiti in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to Auckland, New Zealand. The research ship anchored above three locations along the route across the South Pacific Gyre and used a metal tube 5.7 kilometers long to reach the ocean floor. Then, a drill cut down 125 meters below the seafloor and pulled out core samples, each about 6.2 centimeters across. The first 75 meters beneath the seafloor were mud sediment and then researchers collected another 40 meters of solid rock.

Depending on the location, the rock samples were estimated to be 13.5 million, 33.5 million and 104 million years old. The collection sites were not near any hydrothermal vents or sub-seafloor water channels, so researchers are confident the bacteria arrived in the cracks independently rather than being forced in by a current. The rock core samples were also sterilized to prevent surface contamination using an artificial seawater wash and a quick burn, a process Suzuki compares to making aburi (flame-seared) sushi.


Related Article: What Will a Lab on Mars Be Like?


At that time, the standard way to find bacteria in rock samples was to chip away the outer layer of the rock, then grind the center of the rock into a powder and count cells out of that crushed rock.

“I was making loud noises with my hammer and chisel, breaking open rocks while everyone else was working quietly with their mud,” he recalled.

How to slice a rock

Insert Image Here (remove this text once you’ve added an image)
Aerobic bacteria live densely packed into tunnels of clay minerals found in this sample of solid rock, collected from 122 meters beneath the seafloor. Image B is 1,000 times greater magnification than Image A. The left side photo in each image was taken using normal light and the right side photo was taken using fluorescent light. The solid basalt rock is gray, the clay minerals are orange, and the bacterial cells are green spheres.
SUZUKI ET AL. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/S42003-020-0860-1, CC BY 4.0

Over the years, continuing to hope that bacteria might be present but unable to find any, Suzuki decided he needed a new way to look specifically at the cracks running through the rocks. He found inspiration in the way pathologists prepare ultrathin slices of body tissue samples to diagnose disease. Suzuki decided to coat the rocks in a special epoxy to support their natural shape so that they wouldn’t crumble when he sliced off thin layers.

These thin sheets of solid rock were then washed with dye that stains DNA and placed under a microscope.

The bacteria appeared as glowing green spheres tightly packed into tunnels that glow orange, surrounded by black rock. That orange glow comes from clay mineral deposits, the “magic material” giving bacteria an attractive place to live.

Whole genome DNA analysis identified the different species of bacteria that lived in the cracks. Samples from different locations had similar, but not identical, species of bacteria. Rocks at different locations are different ages, which may affect what minerals have had time to accumulate and therefore what bacteria are most common in the cracks.

Suzuki and his colleagues speculate that the clay mineral-filled cracks concentrate the nutrients that the bacteria use as fuel. This might explain why the density of bacteria in the rock cracks is eight orders of magnitude greater than the density of bacteria living freely in mud sediment where seawater dilutes the nutrients.

From the ocean floor to Mars

The clay minerals filling cracks in deep ocean rocks are likely similar to the minerals that may be in rocks now on the surface of Mars.

“Minerals are like a fingerprint for what conditions were present when the clay formed. Neutral to slightly alkaline levels, low temperature, moderate salinity, iron-rich environment, basalt rock—all of these conditions are shared between the deep ocean and the surface of Mars,” said Suzuki.

Suzuki’s research team is beginning a collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to design a plan to examine rocks collected from the Martian surface by rovers. Ideas include keeping the samples locked in a titanium tube and using a CT (computed tomography) scanner, a type of 3D X-ray, to look for life inside clay mineral-filled cracks.

“This discovery of life where no one expected it in solid rock below the seafloor may be changing the game for the search for life in space,” said Suzuki.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Tokyo website