Stories tagged life


The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.
The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.Courtesy Eeek
Big news from NASA today, y'all.

NASA scientists are holding a conference at 2:00 EST today, and I hate to spoil the surprise, but word on the street is that they've discovered life on the planet Earth. Ah... but it's not what you think—word is that they've discovered life that's really different from everything else here.

Last year, I posted about the theory that this sort of thing might exist, but it wasn't until now that it has actually been discovered. Here's the gist: bacteria living in the mud of weirdo Mono Lake have been found to use arsenic as a building block of their bodies. That may not sound like much, but, if it's true, it would mean that these bacteria are different than every other living thing on this planet. Everything else that lives on this planet is made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. These creatures use arsenic instead of phosphorous.

Aside from being super cool and different, the discovery suggests that if life can exist in ways we didn't think was possible, it can exist in places we didn't think life was possible. Like other planets and moons in our own solar system.

More details after the conference, hopefully.

Life is everywhere: and the Discover Life site helps you sort it all out.
Life is everywhere: and the Discover Life site helps you sort it all out.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Discover Life looks to be a great site that can help you identify or get vast amounts of information about plants or animals you see or come across in your daily travels, or just want to know more about. The following description comes from their homepage:

"We provide free on-line tools to identify species, share ways to teach and study nature's wonders, report findings, build maps, process images, and contribute to and learn from a growing, interactive encyclopedia of life that now has 1,354,546 species pages."

That's a lot of species pages. I did a search for the common crow and found tons of information and links about the Corvidae family which includes crows, magpies, ravens, jays, and allies. It brought up a list of 128 genera with links to countless (meaning I didn't count them) species. Plus some pages come with photos you can enlarge and zoom into for close-ups of different details. There are also interactive global maps displaying the ranges of species, and when I checked out "crocodile" it led me to this surprising link. I had no idea.

A Valentine for the universe?: A day late, sure, but when we're dealing with light years it doesn't seem like a big deal.
A Valentine for the universe?: A day late, sure, but when we're dealing with light years it doesn't seem like a big deal.Courtesy thebadastronomer
According to at least one scientist, it is the moral obligation of humanity to sow the biological seeds of life across the universe.

Hopefully it's also the obligation of humanity to take the universe out to dinner first.


Seriously, though. Some people think that the original building blocks of life might have been brought to Earth by extraterrestrial impacts. This dude thinks that we should spread life (not necessarily human life—more like primitive bacteria) across the universe, because that's what life does (spread itself) and because we have the means, awesome space apes that we are. Interestin', interestin'.


The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox,  dirty dishes, and something like a bed.
The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox, dirty dishes, and something like a bed.Courtesy Rita Willaert
Unlike my bedroom, however, the Russians are frantically trying to get to the Lost World. Unless…

Oh, God! Do you think the Russians might be drilling into my bedroom? They probably want my natural resources! The thought of the Reds, bursting through my coal chute, snatching up my… clean socks, or something. Brr. It hardly bears thinking about.

But, yes, I live in a basement. “Tiempos Finales” I call it, and it bears some striking similarities to the “lost world” I read an article about recently.

There are a few key differences. The main difference, I suppose, is that the lost world the article describes is buried beneath about two miles of ice in Antarctica. Tiempos Finales is buried under 2 layers of wood flooring (and some linoleum in the bathroom) in St. Paul. Also, while a healthy person can survive almost indefinitely in the basement (assuming they have the proper protective equipment), you would suffocate, or freeze to death, or both, in Antarctica’s lost world, because it consists of sub-glacial lakes.

And while Tiempos Finales is teeming with mysterious creatures (largely arthropods—there’s rarely more than one chordate present at a time), Antarctica’s lost world only may be teaming with mysterious creatures.

But if there is anything down there, under the ice… it would be a very mysterious creature indeed. And that’s why the Russians are drilling away.

Russians and Brits are both drilling, in fact, but not together. A team of British scientists intends to drop probes into Lake Ellsworth, which they believe to be about 300 feet deep with a bottom covered in thick sediment. The Russians are drilling into the much larger Lake Vostok. Both lakes (and about 150 others) were discovered relatively recently thanks to ice-penetrating radar.

Many scientists think that it’s likely that the Antarctic lakes could hide living organisms (probably microorganisms). If that is the case, those organisms will have been isolated from the rest of the world for somewhere between 400,000 and 2 million years—ever since the ice sheet above the lake was formed. That’s a long time to spend by yourself, evolving in the cold and dark…

Cool. If any organisms are found, they’d likely be pretty different than anything else on the planet (remember my post a few weeks about aliens living among us? I knew you would. This is like that—isolated, extreme environments, etc). Also, the presence of life beneath the Antarctic ice would raise the odds that life could exist elsewhere in our solar system. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter is the main analogy here. Europa is a frosty little moon (it’s a little bit smaller than our moon). Its surface is entirely covered with ice, but many scientists believe that a liquid water ocean could exist beneath the icy crust. The water could be kept liquid by heat generated by tidal and tectonic activity.

Organisms in the Antarctic lakes would be living under very similar conditions. With no light reaching that far into the ice, they would have to survive by consuming nutrients accumulated in the sediment millennia ago. Life on Europa might be nourished by heat and nutrients from mineral-rich hot water vents on the sea floor.

The British scientists don’t expect to break through the glacier until the Antarctic summer of 2012-2013, and when they finally do they’ll have just 36 hours to drop their probes through the 14-inch hole before it seals up again. They plan to get two probes into Lake Ellsworth. The first probe will capture video, and sample the water for living organisms, or for chemical evidence of them, and it will grab some sediment from the surface of the lakebed. The second probe will be sunk deeper into the lakebed, and will hopefully bring back several feet of sediment.

The Russians don’t plan on putting any probes into Lake Vostok—they just intend to tap into the lake to sample the water. The Russian project is somewhat controversial because their equipment is lubricated with kerosene, and is non-sterile (the British use a sterile, hot water-based drilling technique). There’s a good chance that the Russian equipment could contaminate the otherwise completely pristine lake, which, you know, slightly defeats the purpose. The Russians have had trouble with their equipment, however, and when they will break through the ice is much less certain.

So what do y’all think? Are they going to find anything? If Ellsworth and Vostok are anything like Tiempos Finales, whatever they find will be pretty depressing. Still, this is pretty cool stuff.

That wasn’t a pun.

If you're free, consider this:

LIFE: A Journey Through Time
North American Premiere /Darwin Day Opening Event

Thursday, February 12, 2009, 7 to 9 p.m.
Bell Museum Auditorium
$10/ free to museum members and University students

Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday with a special preview of LIFE: A Journey Through Time. The event will feature top University biologists using Lanting's photographs as a springboard to deliver a rapid-fire presentations relating their research on evolution to the images. From the big bang to the human genome, hear the newest theories on how life evolved and enjoy the North American premiere of one the world's most celebrated photography exhibits. Think speed-dating - Darwin-style!

The Exhibit:
LIFE: A Journey Through Time
February 14 - April 12, 2009

The University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History is proud to host the North American premiere of this internationally acclaimed exhibit. LIFE: A Journey Through Time, interprets the evolution of life on Earth through photographer Frans Lanting. Lanting's lyrical photos trace Earth's history from the beginnings of primordial life to the ascent of mammals through otherworldly landscapes and breathtakingly intimate portraits of animals and plants engaged in million-year-old rituals. Many of the exhibit's 62 photographs are matched with real animal, fossil, and plant specimens from the Bell Museum's collection. Born in the Netherlands, Lanting serves on the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund and is a columnist for Outdoor Photographer and has received the BBC Wildlife Magazine's Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award and the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.

Researchers at Penn State have found a new species of bacteria in Greenland. Big whip – as long as it stays away from me, who cares? Well, this organism is ultra-small (I know what you’re thinking – aren’t bacteria pretty, um, small to begin with? Yeah, but these are super-duper small). It has also survived for 120 thousand years trapped without oxygen under two miles of ice. It may help scientists look for life on cold planets and moons elsewhere in our Solar System. (Which I think is a proper noun and therefore should be capitalized, though I may be mistaken.)


Where are you going?: I'm going home.
Where are you going?: I'm going home.Courtesy Mila
New 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.


Is anybody out there?: If not, it'd be fine by me!
Is anybody out there?: If not, it'd be fine by me!Courtesy NASA

Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? That’s a hot topic, both among astronomers and right here on Science Buzz. The argument goes like this:
• There are about 100 billion galaxies in the known Universe
• Each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.
• Even if only a small fraction of them have planets, that’s still an awful lot. Ya gotta figure at least some of them developed intelligent life.

And thus we go looking for signs of life in outer space: probes to Mars, searches for organic molecules, even scanning the skies for radio signals. So far… nothing.

Nick Bostrom is glad. This Oxford professor argues that finding life on other planets would be bad news for us here on Earth.

The way he sees it is this:
• The Universe is about 14.5 billion years old.
• Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
• That’s plenty of time for intelligent life anywhere else in our galaxy, or even a nearby galaxy, to come pay a visit.
• They haven’t.

This convinces Bostrom that interstellar travel must be impossible – if it wasn’t, someone would have stopped in by now, if only to ask for directions.

What makes interstellar travel impossible? Bostrom and economist Robin Hanson theorize (or “theorise” – they are British, after all) the existence of one or more “Great Filters.” The evolution of life, from primordial ooze to galactic explorer, requires a vast number of steps, some so complicated as to be virtually impossible. Obviously, one of those steps has been preventing interstellar travel for the past 14.5 billion years, so it must be pretty good.

What does all this have to do with life here on Earth? Simply this: the identity of this filter, and whether it lies ahead of us or behind us, may very well determine the fate of all humanity.

If the filter lies behind us—especially if the filter lies wayyyy behind us—then we’re in good shape. We’ve passed the barrier that has stopped everybody else. But if the filter lies close to us—or, worse yet, ahead of us—then it spells big trouble. For example, perhaps the only way to travel the stars is to harness some great energy source: nuclear power, or perhaps something we haven’t discovered yet. And perhaps every civilization in the history of the Universe that discovered this power ended up blowing themselves up. It’s unlikely that we would be any different.

Bostrom’s conclusion is counter-intuitive but compelling. If, as we explore the Universe, we find life is rare, then that’s good news—Earth succeeded where every other planet failed. But if we find that life, especially complex, intelligent life, is common, then that doesn’t bode well at all. Whatever stopped those planets is likely going to stop us, too.

*(PS: The answer is, Tommy James and the Shondells, later covered by Tiffany -- both proof that intelligent life is exceedingly rare, even here on Earth.)


Two future fathers compare their progress: Hey! They should be in a bar!
Two future fathers compare their progress: Hey! They should be in a bar!Courtesy $4 griz
One Thomas Beatie of Bend, Oregon, claims to be five months pregnant with a baby girl.

A pregnant man… so strange… and yet so familiar. Where have I seen this before?

Oh, wait, I know exactly where I’ve seen this before: for the second time in as many months, Hollywood has beaten the rest of us saps to the scientific punch. And not just Hollywood, but the Terminator himself. First it was the thing with the twins, a so called scientific breakthrough that we had nonetheless seen 20 years ago in the film
, and now we’re being told that a pregnant man is something to get all excited about, when we’ve all already known about this kind of thing since 1994 and the film (that is to say, documentary) Junior, where a matronly Arnold Schwarzenegger frets over the impending catastrophic damage to his male urethra (this wasn’t explicit in the movie, as far as I know, but we all know Arnold is too tough for a cesarean—check out Predator—and there aren’t a lot of other options for a pregnant man).

As redundant as it may be to give them attention, here are the details of the current male pregnancy: Normal guy Thomas Beatie and his wife have been together for 10 years, and had long hoped to start a family. Sadly, Nancy Beatie had had a hysterectomy, and was unable to conceive. Thinking outside the box, the Beaties decided then to switch things up a little bit, and Thomas took up the pregnancy flag himself. This would have been particularly tricky, if not for the fact that Thomas Beatie was born Tracy Lagondino, a woman. Tracy underwent a sex change 10 years ago, and legally became Thomas, and a man, but decided to keep his reproductive organs. So, after halting his testosterone regimen and waiting for his menstrual cycle to resume, Thomas was artificially inseminated.

Five months into his pregnancy, Thomas announced his condition in the gay, lesbian, and transgender publication The Advocate, explaining the process, and the associated difficulties—both medical, and in getting friends, family, and the medical community to accept him as a man who wishes to carry his family’s child.

Here’s something else to consider: aside from Junior, even, this isn’t the first time there has been buzz over a male pregnancy. In 1999 an extensive website was launched to track the pregnancy of a man named Lee Mingwei. However, the website is still up in 2008, and mister Mingwei is still apparently pregnant—the whole thing was a performance art piece by the artist Virgil Wong. This has lead some to believe that Beatie and The Advocate are pulling a similar stunt. The fact that Beatie intends to speak to the news media in two days—April 1st—doesn’t exactly lend credibility to the story.

Any thoughts? A hoax, or the real deal? And how do you feel about a man getting pregnant?

Nuremberg Trials screenwriter dies

by Anonymous on Mar. 29th, 2008

Speaking of movies related to the Deadly Medicine exhibit, Abby Mann, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for the 1961 movie, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, passed away last week. Mann originally scripted a TV drama about the trials, then went on to write his first film screenplay on the same subject.

"A lot of people didn't want it done," he once said in an interview. "People wanted to sweep the issue under the rug."

Mann's screenplay won the Academy Award in 1962.

BBC story obituary