Organic Matter Found on Mars — Two NASA Studies

For many decades, the idea of life outside Earth has intrigued many of us, but most especially scientists, astronomers, and well, sci-fi writers. For them and other Mars enthusiasts (a.k.a. people who eagerly believe that Mars can harbor life), the recent year has shown us great updates. Snow has been discovered in the planet. Soil made to simulate the planet’s conditions has grown earthworms.

Due to updates like these, some organizations are being inspired to plan ahead for life on Mars. MIT designed dome forests that will adapt to the environment there. The UAE is building a Mars-like metropolis as well, in preparation for a future in that planet. And it looks like they are bound to be more inspired as NASA releases the results of two new major studies about the Red Planet in the journal Science.

The first study centers on methane, a simple organic molecule that forms the basis for natural gas. Biological sources produce most of the methane on Earth, so researchers suspected that methane on Mars could point them towards biological sources — life! — on Mars.

Astronomers were already detecting methane in Mars as far back as 2003, but they first confirmed its presence there in 2015. After analyzing years worth of data, they realized that the methane was probably coming from pockets of ice. When these ice pockets melt during “summer” in Mars, methane slips out and methane levels go higher. Scientists say the seasonal presence of methane might clue us in on how there used to be life in the Red Planet, though the current study is still inconclusive about that.

The next study, however, also implies the idea of ancient life, as scientists find evidence of organic matter in soil that came from Mars.

In the second study, [NASA’s Curiosity rover] collected soil samples from two spots in Gale crater estimated to be about three billion years old. When Curiosity heated them up, the researchers recognized several organic molecules commonly found in Earth’s organic-rich sedimentary rock.

The discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere and organic matter on Martian soil suggests interesting similarities between that planet and ours. Thus, it further spurs the question of life on Mars. And since the Curiosity rover is still roving around and looking for signs, one can only hope its next breakthrough will finally answer that question.

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Newfound Ocean Zone Home to 100 Species

Just a while ago, a previously unexplored region of the Indian Ocean gave us more than 11 new species to look forward to reading about, including crustaceans with fascinating appearances and others. This is an amazing breakthrough for marine biology. But accomplishments in the field just seem to keep coming, as scientists from Oxford University travel Bermudian waters to discover a new area.

But that’s not yet the amazing part — the newfound ocean zone they call Rariphotic Zone (or rare light zone) seems to be home to 100 previously unknown species as well.

[M]ore than 100 new species were discovered including tanaids – minute crustaceans – dozens of new algae species and black wire coral that stand up to two metres high . . . The survey team spent hundreds of hours underwater, either scuba diving or using submersibles and remote operated vehicles which can reach depths of 6,500 feet (2,000m).

The team of marine biologists also found a huge algal forest on an underwater mountain about 15 miles from the Bermudian coast. Gardens of corals populated by urchins, eels, crabs, fish, and other creatures were also discovered to exist on this mountain’s slopes. For reference, the world has a total of around 100,000 underwater mountains, with only 50 that have been intimately explored by scientists.

Alex Rogers, Professor of Conservation Biology at Oxford University and scientific director of Nekton — the British charity which organized the ocean exploration trip — has a rightful opinion. The discovery of an entirely new ocean zone forwards the idea that there is far more diversity to look into. We may not have even laid eyes on so many ocean species.

“The average depth of the ocean is 4,200m. If life in the shallower regions of the deep sea is so poorly documented it undermines confidence in our existing understanding of how the patterns of life change with depth,” he added.

“[This is] evidence of how little we know and how important it is to document this unknown frontier to ensure that its future is protected”.

What he’s saying is very significant. Huge actions towards marine conservation are happening, such as Australia’s 500 million dollar pledge to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. But if we really want to protect the oceans and marine life, first we need to know in detail what we are protecting. And there is so much left to know.

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11 New Deep-Sea Creatures Found in Indian Ocean

More than half of it has not yet passed, but 2018 already seems to be a great year for zoological findings. There is the sudden resurfacing of a previously extinct insectivore in Australia, there is the identification of a new type of exploding ant in Borneo, and now the first scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean yields at least 11 previously undiscovered species of deep-sea creatures.

The expedition is a collaboration between the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. The team collected over 12,000 specimens from 63 sites in the two weeks that they stayed in the coasts of West Java.

“This is a part of the Indian Ocean that has never been sampled for deep-sea animals so we really didn’t know what to find,” Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS and chief scientist for the Singapore team, told AFP. “We were very surprised by the findings.”

From the specimens, they were able to identify 800 species from families of jellyfish, molluscs, crabs, fish, worms, and others. The 11 newfound deep-sea creatures include a crab nicknamed “big ears” for the ear-shaped plate that covers its eyes, a hermit crab with green eyes, a zebra-striped orange lobster, and many others.

The team has yet to sort, analyse and catalogue the entire collection, but fully expect more new species to emerge — the reason the crustaceans were so quickly picked up is because the expedition included experts in crabs and shrimps.

The scientists from both Singapore and Indonesia are expected to categorize and study further the samples they collected until they are ready to release their results, targeting a 2020 publishing date. Come to think of it, two years is a very short time, relative to the hundreds and hundreds when these deep-sea creatures were previously unknown to science.

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Type of “Exploding Ants” Discovered in Borneo

Sometimes, biological discoveries are inexplicable, except somehow by serendipity — or perhaps how the ecological balance of the world makes way for good things — as seen in the resurfacing of the supposedly extinct crest-tailed mulgara in Australia or the resurgence of the starfish population in South California. Sometimes, much-studied and long-awaited breakthroughs happen, as seen in the unearthing of 215 dinosaur eggs in China.

Other times, scientific research takes a backseat for almost a century due to a lack of progress, until certain individuals bring it upon themselves to finally answer some questions. Such is the case when an interdisciplinary research team did an expedition to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to study “exploding ants” again — the first time since 1935.

The team from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, and other contributing institutions published the results of their studies where they were able to identify 15 separate species of exploding ants, including one new discovery.

The new species is called Colobopsis explodens, but the researchers like to call it “yellow goo” on account of its bright yellow grand secretion. The researchers consider C. explodens to be a model species of exploding ant, which means it’ll now serve as a reference point, or an exemplar, for future research. The new species earned this designation because it’s particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened.

When threatened, the newfound species of Southeast Asian exploding ants intentionally rupture their own abdomen to release a sticky and toxic substance that can kill the enemy. Called “autothysis,” this suicidal mechanism can only be found in super-social organisms like ants, who work towards the preservation of their colony rather than the life of any individual insect.

[I]n addition to documenting the ants’ exploding behavior in more detail, the researchers also studied their eating habits; these insects like to munch on algae, moss, fungi, dead insects, fruit, and fish.

The discovery itself of an interesting species should already be lauded as a great contribution to biology. But what’s more important about the work of these scientists is how they laid the groundwork for future research involving these insects.

We must have missed a lot of scientific opportunities in the past. This is why being very proud of rediscovering them is the farthest thing from making a mountain out of an anthill.

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A Camera to See the Sea like a Mantis Shrimp

Humans never stop trying to improve the world for fellow creatures. We turn empty lots into homes for bees, we make highways so that hedgehogs may survive our cities, we teach orcas human speech. But we don’t know everything, and there’s a lot to learn about the world through these animals’ eyes as well. In this instance, through the eyes of a shrimp:

For a small glimpse of the mantis shrimp’s view of the ocean, humans can now look through a mantis-shrimp-inspired camera from a team led by Viktor Gruev, an engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Mantis shrimp have the ability to detect up to six types of polarization in the ocean, a property of light that is impossible for humans to see. To imitate this, Gruev’s team made miniature polarized lenses, popped them inside a video camera, and collaborated with marine biologists to study how different underwater creatures use polarization.

[T]he ability to see detect polarization is widespread among cuttlefish, octopus, squid, crabs, and even some fish. Perhaps marine animals use polarization to communicate with each other, or perhaps it enhances contrast underwater for them to detect predators.

Through their findings, the team was also able to raise another important factor in the survival of marine animals: navigation. Do the mantis shrimp and other animals actually use polarization as their very own GPS? Scientists are not yet certain as to exactly how. But the idea already sounds awesome.

And with this camera, the world just might get a whole lot bigger in the future.

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Turkey Waste Is An Efficient Coal Alternative

With an increasing number of industries stepping away from fossil fuels, eco-friendly substitutes are all the hype. Over time, both human and cow excrement have proved useful in the kitchen and as gas replacements. Unsurprisingly, an Israeli study has found turkey poop to be a valuable resource in producing combustible biomass fuel.

“Environmentally safe disposal of poultry excrement has become a significant problem,” said the researchers in a statement. “Converting poultry waste to solid fuel, a less resource-intensive, renewable energy source, is an environmentally superior alternative that also reduces reliance on fossil fuels.”

The process converts turkey stool into hydrochar and biochar. Both materials produce much less methane and ammonia as compared to traditional coal.

“This investigation helped in bridging the gap between hydrochar being considered as a potential energy source toward the development of an alternative renewable fuel,” [environmental hydrology and microbiology professor Amit] Gross said. “Our findings could help significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation and agricultural wastes.”

At this stage in the game, researchers at the Zuckerberg Institute seem to have killed two birds with one stone. It looks like these turkeys are off the dinner menu.

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Antarctica To Build Giant Wildlife Protection Reserve

Across the globe, busts against wildlife smugglers have been more copious than nature can handle. Though species such as the crest-tailed mulgara have made epic and unexpected comebacks, it isn’t the case for most. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, Greenpeace is shutting down climate change and poaching with a wildlife reserve in Antarctica.

Will McCallum, of Greenpeace’s new Protect the Antarctic campaign, said: “The next few years are absolutely essential for the future of our oceans and we are in desperate need for governments to come together and do what is best for these amazing ecosystems.”

As city dwellers, we often remain oblivious to the consequences of melting ice caps and hits to the food chain. Nonetheless, there is much value in keeping our polar wonderland’s seals, penguins, and whales afloat.

“This will bring huge benefits in protecting this amazing ecosystem, in preserving the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the ocean and in the wider fight against climate change.”

The reserve will cover 1.8m square kilometers of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula. Not only will the eventual rise in fish populations excite seafood lovers — the world may not go down sinking after all.

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Earthworms Born In Artificial Soil Used On Mars

As we should know by now, anything is possible on Mars. After all, we just recently discovered it snows there. In an unusual turn of events, researchers saw the birth of two earthworms living in sterile soil, made to simulate conditions on Mars.

“[Worms] grab organic matter from the top of the soil—eat it, chew it—and when they poo it out, bacteria can break it down further. Otherwise [without worms] you deplete the nutrients in the soil,” [Dutch biologist] Wamelink explains.

Trent Smith, who works on replicating Mars conditions, claims that the simulated soil is relatively accurate. However, the substance still lacks perchlorates, which is probably why the wigglers managed to reproduce.

To both Wamelink and Smith, figuring out a natural process to remove perchlorate from Martian soil remains the largest hurdle in the way of growing a sustainable agricultural system on the planet.

With much to remedy, NASA’s Veggie program has its hands full. But the space magicians never fail to surprise and hope, after worms, to bring in bumblebees.

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Diggers Discover Hundreds Of Dinosaur Eggs In China

Recent discoveries of a 1-million-year-old Stegomastodon and ancient water bird fossil are taking a backseat, thanks to an even greater finding. As luck would have it, paleontologists have hit the jackpot in Xinjiang, China with 215 pterosaur eggs. Fortunately, there are no plans to open up a real-life Jurassic Park — yet.

“When you have a really unique find, you basically can’t do anything to it because that’s all you’ve got. But now that we have literally hundreds of eggs to work with, we have more options — such as cutting different eggs into cross-sections to study growth rates.” [said paleobiologist David Unwin.]

16 of the eggs contain embryonic remains, encompassed by dozens of highly-intact skeletons. Though this particular species of pterosaur boasted an 11-foot wingspan, it technically wasn’t a dinosaur. Scientists assume pterosaurs would’ve closer resembled a giant albatross — just significantly more frightening.

“I think these new embryonic finds are really exciting because with these, we can begin to reconstruct the embryonic development of pterosaurs inside the egg. I just think it’ll take time to do that.” [said Unwin.]

With potentially 300 more surrounding eggs undiscovered, the horizons for study are limitless. Let’s just hope nobody gets any crazy ideas.

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Billionaires Are Sponsoring Lab-Grown Meat

Lab-grown seafood may be actively solving over-harvesting, but it lacks any noteworthy benefactors. On the flip side, billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson are sponsoring lab-grown meat by Memphis Meats. So what’s the beef?

“Instead of using animals as pieces of technology to convert plants into proteins to make things that we like to eat, drink and wear, we can just use biology to make those things directly,” said… an early investor in Memphis Meats.

Developers envision facilities that are more reminiscent to breweries than slaughterhouses. Admittedly, the former is less unsettling. But how will Memphis Meats grow tasty steaks and chops without the direct use of an animal?

The company’s scientists identify cells that they want to scale up production on — selecting them based on the recommendations of experts. Those cells are cultivated with a blend of sugar, amino acids, fats and water, and within three to six weeks the meat is harvested.

Production is quick but still small-scale. However, with further development, the process could cut greenhouse emissions, save water, and create a more sustainable agriculture industry. From its patrons, Memphis Meats has raised a charming $22 million. I sure hope the filet mignon is worth it.

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