Since 2005, an ebola-like virus has been killing fish in the Great Lakes. A major die-off was recently reported near Milwaukee, affecting some 30 species. While the disease does not affect humans, it could devastate sport and commercial fishing in the region. Though the disease has not hit Lake Superior yet, it is starting to spread out from the Great Lakes region, thanks to infected fish swimming into rivers and streams.
For decades, scientists have been growing microbes in their labs and watching them evolve new traits. Most of the changes tend to be simple things, like an increase in size or growth rate.
But Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan State University (just 2 miles from my house!) recently witnessed a major evolutionary leap--as it was happening. Twenty years ago, he took a colony of E. coli, a common bacteria, and split it into 12 identical populations. He’s been watching ever since to see if the strains evolve in different directions.
A few years ago, one of them did. One of his study strains suddenly evolved the ability to eat citrate, a molecule found in citrus fruits. No other E. coli in the world can do this, not even the other strains in Dr. Lenski’s lab. Even given several extra years and thousands of extra generations, the other strains are still citrate-averse. What’s more, the bacteria evolved this mutation entirely on their own, without any prodding or genetic manipulation from the researchers.
Lenski had saved frozen reference samples of all of his strains at regular intervals. Going back and growing new cultures from these samples, he again finds that only those from one strain ever evolve the citrate-eating habit – and only those sample less than about 10 years old. Lenski figures that some mutation happened around that time in one strain – and one strain only – that would later lead to citrate eating. He and his lab are now working on figuring out exactly what that mutation is.
Courtesy thefiveten77Using microorganisms to do our dirty work is all the rage these days. And, you know, they deserve it—they’ve spent so much time making us sick that they’re due for a little bit of productive action (and don’t bring up gut microbes, water treatment, or natural decomposition. I’m just not interested in anything that contradicts me).
It’s encouraging, then, to see that scientists in California have genetically engineered microorganisms (like yeast and strains of e. coli that eat organic garbage and poop crude oil. Is “poop” the right verb? It is? It’s exactly the right verb? Oh, good.
Currently the process requires a lot of equipment for a pretty small output. A room-sized computer and fermenting machine produces about a barrel of oil a week—America consumes about 143 million barrels of oil each week. And, at the moment, the process isn’t super cheap.
However, the scientists involved are hopeful that the necessary equipment can be shrunk, and the product can be produced more efficiently. With a commercial-scale facility (planned construction in 2011), using Brazilian sugarcane as feedstock (not the best crop, but that’s another post), oil could be produced at a cost of about $50 a barrel. Not bad, compared to the current price of oil hovering around $140 a barrel.
The process should be carbon neutral or negative too. That is to say, the CO2 produced by burning the fuel produced should be less than that pulled from the air by the feedstock materials.
It’s all very interesting, but I’m afraid that this sort of technology is forcing biotechnology away from its true purpose—microorganisms working for us in the very literal sense. The day e. coli wanders out into my yard and mows my lawn is the day I’ll get excited. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Courtesy MilaNew tests performed on a meteorite found in Australia suggest that life on earth could have had its start in space; it’s possible that the first components of self-replicating genetic material came from outer space.
This particular meteorite only struck Earth about 40 years ago, but new studies confirm that the molecules uracil and xanthine (which are found in our RNA) were present in the meteoritic fragments before human contamination.
Uracil and xanthine are “nucleobases,” and play an important role in the replication of DNA. Some have argued that these molecules could have originally formed on Earth, but these researchers claim that the atmospheric conditions on the planet at the time the first organic molecules are thought to have appeared would have prohibited a terrestrial origin. Going even further, they state that it’s possible—assuming that there are all these vital molecules floating out there on meteors—that life, or at least the key components for life (a big difference I suppose), could be widespread in the universe.
I prefer extraterrestrial life delivery by spaceship, but I guess I’ll take what I can get. Wild.
Courtesy Minnesota Energy ChallengeThose compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) should keep saving you money on your electric bills for many years. When they do burn out your need to safely recycle them. I burned one out in just one day because I had a dimmer switch.
Starting today I can recycle my CFL bulbs for free at any Menards store in Minnesota thanks to The Center for Energy and Environment and Great River Energy.
That’s sheep farts to you and me, and apparently it’s a major problem. There are over one billion sheep in the world. They spend their day, standing in the meadow, gamboling playfully, watching Sam, the big shaggy cartoon sheep dog, foil the ingenious but inevitably futile efforts of Ralph, the wolf who looks suspiciously like a coyote.
And eating. Grass is what sheep eat. Unfortunately, they can’t digest it. Instead, they have little tiny microbes in their stomachs (four stomachs per sheep) that break down the plant fiber for them.
Unfortunately, microbes are rude little creatures, emitting methane gas with every mouthful and nary an “excuse me” to be heard. The methane builds up inside the ovine until it escapes in the form of sheep farts. (And, seriously, if you ever have a chance to write an essay that can justifiably include the phrase “sheep farts,” then you should seize the opportunity and use the term just as often as you possibly can.)
Anyway, the methane (a.k.a. sheep farts) gets into the atmosphere where, some would have it, it will trap heat and warm the globe and eventually destroy civilization as we know it. This may or may not be a bad thing, but I personally would hate to see my home destroyed just because of sheep farts.
Fortunately some researchers in New Zealand have come to our rescue. These plucky kiwis are tackling the sheep fart menace head-on, trying to develop a vaccination that will improve the microbes’ table manners. An anxious world holds its breath – partly in anticipation of the coming breakthrough in sheep fart technology, but mostly in response to the sheep farts themselves.
What am I talking about? Good question—“ragey” isn’t even a word, so it might take some time to get to the bottom of this.
“Geophagy,” fortunately, is a real word, even if my spellchecker doesn’t think so. It means, um, the practice of eating dirt, or dirt-like substances (Merriam-Webster, here I come).
And you know what else? Geophagy is more popular than soccer! Assuming you include animals in your polls. So get on this train while it’s still cool—the longer you wait, the more of a Johnny come lately you’ll be. Fruit bats, of all creatures, are already into geophagy.
Some animals are into geophagy for the minerals—treating the dirt like a big, gritty vitamin. Fruit bats, it turns out, already get plenty of minerals from all the stuff they eat. You know—fruit. So why are they eating dirt (besides peer pressure)?
They’re detoxifying. Wild, huh? A lot of the fruit fruit bats eat is slightly poisonous. If you’re little, like a bat, and eat a lot of fruit, like a fruit bat, you might start to get some toxic buildup. Bats observed greophaging (or whatever) are often pregnant, or already nursing their young, both situations where the mother would want to have as few toxins in her system as possible.
Remarkably, some Indian groups in the Amazon region do the same thing—members of certain tribes are known to eat dirt when pregnant or nursing. There’s a risk of consuming parasites through this, but apparently the benefits are worth it, if you’re consuming plenty of poison.
Minerals in the dirt bind up toxins in the body, although scientists aren’t sure of the exact mechanism. The hope is that the science behind it could lead to novel therapies.
Oh, also, here are a bunch of other crazy things people have eaten. Enjoy.
Oh my! Researchers in Virginia have found high levels of mercury in local songbirds. The birds live near a contaminated river, but do not eat any fish or other water creatures that might be contaminated. So, how did they get mercury inside of them?
Turns out the birds ate lots of spiders. And spiders are scavengers who’ll eat pretty much anything. Mercury from the environment accumulates in them, and gets passed along to the birds.
The next question is – how do the land-dwelling spiders get water-borne mercury inside of them?
Courtesy mattechiSeriously, get yourself on some impermeable surfaces, pronto. Despite the fact that the scientists involved declared it “mind-blowing,” I read this story without taking the proper precautions, and now my mind has been blown all over my cubicle walls. What was I supposed to do, though? People are always telling me that my mind is about to be blown, regardless of the plain fact that my mind hasn’t been blown since I saw the Matrix (Like that scene with the little bald kid: “I have no spoon” no, wait, “You are the spoon.” Sweet.)
But my mind. Was. Blown.
What did it feel like? It was kind of like eating dynamite. Or Rice Krispies and Pepsi.
Okay, so what we’re dealing with here is a weird little crustacean. Crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, lobster, barnacles), much like mollusks, are not to be trusted, and this one is particularly sneaky. Called “y-larvae,” these little guys were discovered swimming around about 100 years ago. They look kind of like a cross between a flea and a little brine shrimp, and they’re found in coral reefs all over the world, from the poles to the tropics. What’s strange about them is that scientists could never figure out y-larvae become as adults—you’ve got these very common, ordinary looking crustaceans, and nobody knows what happens to them when they’re done being larvae.
Recently an international team of scientists decided to get to the bottom of the y-larvae mystery. Gathering up a large sample of the creatures, the team brought them back to a lab to mature. They exposed the shrimpy little larvae to a crustacean growth hormone, and sat back to appreciate the results.
What they saw, as you now know, exploded their huge scientist minds all over the laboratory.
The y-larvae metamorphosized into their juvenile form, which happened to be wriggling, limbless, eyeless creatures, with no digestive tracks or nervous systems. Far less complex than their exoskeletoned larval forms, the little gooballs are thought to be parasites.
Did it happen to anyone? Don’t say I didn’t warn you, because I did. A couple times.
"The juvenile literally crawled out of the old larval carapace," recalls Danish molecular biologist, Dr. Cleverboots. "It was only after several repeated experiments we actually believed what we saw. That feeling was a mind-blowing experience."
How do you like that? Legs, shell, and eyes, transformed into a “simple, pulsing, slug-like mass of cells.” And a parasite to boot.
The scientists point out, however, that as gross as the adult y-larvae (now referred to as “ypsigons”) are, they very likely play an important role in ocean ecosystems. Being so prevalent, ypsigons probably have a part in observed, “normal” functions of coral reefs.