As the Earth warms, 400 year old frozen plants are being revived


Plants that were frozen during the “Little Ice Age” centuries ago have been observed sprouting new growth, scientists say. Samples of 400-year-old plants known as bryophytes have flourished under laboratory conditions. Researchers say this back-from-the-dead trick has implications for how ecosystems recover from the planet’s cyclic long periods of ice coverage. The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They come from a group from the University of Alberta, who were exploring an area around the Teardrop Glacier, high in the Canadian Arctic. The glaciers in the region have been receding at rates that have sharply accelerated since 2004, at about 3-4m per year. That is exposing land that has not seen light of day since the so-called Little Ice Age, a widespread climatic cooling that ran roughly from AD 1550 to AD 1850.

“We ended up walking along the edge of the glacier margin and we saw these huge populations coming out from underneath the glacier that seemed to have a greenish tint,” said Catherine La Farge, lead author of the study.

Bryophytes are different from the land plants that we know best, in that they do not have vascular tissue that helps pump fluids around different parts of the organism. They can survive being completely desiccated in long Arctic winters, returning to growth in warmer times, but Dr La Farge was surprised by an emergence of bryophytes that had been buried under ice for so long.

“When we looked at them in detail and brought them to the lab, I could see some of the stems actually had new growth of green lateral branches, and that said to me that these guys are regenerating in the field, and that blew my mind,” she told BBC News. “If you think of ice sheets covering the landscape, we’ve always thought that plants have to come in from refugia around the margins of an ice system, never considering land plants as coming out from underneath a glacier.”

But the retreating ice at Sverdrup Pass, where the Teardrop Glacier is located, is uncovering an array of life, including cyanobacteria and green terrestrial algae. Many of the species spotted there are entirely new to science.

“It’s a whole world of what’s coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied,” Dr La Farge said.

“The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast – they’re going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that’s going to have a big impact.”

Astrobiologists Find Ancient Fossils in Fireball Fragments


On 29 December 2012, a fireball lit up the early evening skies over the Sri Lankan province of Polonnaruwa. Hot, sparkling fragments of the fireball rained down across the countryside and witnesses reported the strong odour of tar or asphalt.

Over the next few days, the local police gathered numerous examples of these stones and sent them to the Sri Lankan Medical Research Institute of the Ministry of Health in Colombo. After noticing curious features inside these stones, officials forwarded the samples to a team of astrobiologists at Cardiff University in the UK for further analysis.

The results of these tests, which the Cardiff team reveal today, are extraordinary. They say the stones contain fossilised biological structures fused into the rock matrix and that their tests clearly rule out the possibility of terrestrial contamination.

In total, Jamie Wallis at Cardiff University and a few buddies received 628 stone fragments collected from rice fields in the region. However, they were able to clearly identify only three as possible meteorites.

The general properties of these three stones immediately mark them out as unusual. One stone, for example, had a density of less than 1 gram per cubic centimetre, less than all known carbonaceous meteorites. It had a partially fused crust, good evidence of atmospheric heating, a carbon content of up to 4 per cent and contained an abundance of organic compounds with a high molecular weight, which is not unknown in meteorites. On this evidence, Wallis and co think the fireball was probably a small comet.

The most startling claims, however, are based on electron microscope images of structures within the stones (see above). Wallis and co say that one image shows a complex, thick-walled, carbon-rich microfossil about 100 micrometres across that bares similarities with a group of largely extinct marine dinoflagellate algae.

They say another image shows well-preserved flagella that are 2 micrometres in diameter and 100 micrometres long. By terrestrial standards, that’s extremely long and thin, which Wallis and co interpret as evidence of formation in a low-gravity, low-pressure environment.

Wallis and co also measured the abundance of various elements in the samples to determine their origin. They say that low levels of nitrogen in particular rule out the possibility of contamination by modern organisms which would have a much higher nitrogen content. The fact that these samples are also buried within the rock matrix is further evidence, they say.

Wallis and co are convinced that the lines of evidence they have gathered are powerful and persuasive. “This provides clear and convincing evidence that these obviously ancient remains of extinct marine algae found embedded in the Polonnaruwa meteorite are indigenous to the stones and not the result of post-arrival microbial contaminants,” they conclude.

There’s no question that a claim of this kind is likely to generate controversy. Critics have already pointed out that the stones could have been formed by lightning strikes on Earth although Wallis and co counter by saying there was no evidence of lightning at the time of the fireball and that in any case, the stones do not bear the usual characteristics of this kind of strike. What’s more, the temperatures generated by lightning would have destroyed any biological content.

Nevertheless, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and Wallis and co will need to make their samples and evidence available to the scientific community for further study before the claims will be taken seriously.

If the paper is taken at face value, one obvious question that arises is where these samples came from. Wallis and co have their own ideas: “The presence of fossilized biological structures provides compelling evidence in support of the theory of cometary panspermia first proposed over thirty years ago,” they say.

This is an idea put forward by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, the latter being a member of the team who has carried out this analysis.

There are other explanations, of course. One is that the fireball was of terrestrial origin, a remnant of one of the many asteroid impacts in Earth’s history that that have ejected billions of tonnes of rock and water into space, presumably with biological material inside. Another is that the structures are not biological and have a different explanation.

Either way, considerably more work will have to be done before the claims from this team can be broadly accepted. Exciting times ahead!

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

British scientist claims to have disovered alien life inside meteorite that crash-landed in Sri Lanka


A top British scientist has claimed that he has found proof of extraterrestrial life after he discovered tiny fossils of algae, similar to the kind found in seaweed, in a meteorite fragment that crash landed in central Sri Lanka in December.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe believes it proves we are not alone in the universe.

The finding provides strong evidence that human life started outside Earth, he stated.

The two-inch wide rock was one of several fragments of a meteorite that fell to earth in a spectacular fireball. They were still smoking when villagers living near the city of Polonnaruwa picked them up.

The fossils were discovered when the rocks were examined under a powerful scanning electron microscope in a British laboratory.

They are similar to micro-organisms found in fossils from the dinosaur age 55 million years ago.

Though critics argued that the rock had probably become contaminated with algae fossils from Earth, Prof Wickramasinghe insisted that they are the remnants of extra-terrestrial life.

He noted that the algae organisms are similar to ones found in Earth fossils and that the rock also has other organisms they have not yet identified.

First solar-powered vertebrate discovered – the salamander Ambystoma maculatum


When you think about it, animals are weird. They ignore the abundant source of energy above their heads – the sun – and choose instead to invest vast amounts of energy in cumbersome equipment for eating and digesting food. Why don’t they do what plants do, and get their energy straight from sunlight?

The short answer is that many do. Corals are animals but have algae living in them that use sunlight to make sugar. Many other animals, from sponges to sea slugs, pull the same trick. One species of hornet can convert sunlight into electricity. There are also suggestions that aphids can harness sunlight, although most biologists are unconvinced.

But all these creatures are only distantly related to us. No backboned animal has been found that can harness the sun – until now. It has long been suspected, and now there is hard evidence: the spotted salamander is solar-powered.

Plants make food using photosynthesis, absorbing light to power a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and releases oxygen. Corals profit from this reaction by housing photosynthetic algae inside their shells.

Spotted salamanders, too, are in a long-term relationship with photosynthetic algae. In 1888, biologist Henry Orr reported that their eggs often contain single-celled green algae called Oophila amblystomatis. The salamanders lay the eggs in pools of water, and the algae colonise them within hours.

By the 1940s, biologists strongly suspected it was a symbiotic relationship, beneficial to both the salamander embryos and the algae. The embryos release waste material, which the algae feed on. In turn the algae photosynthesise and release oxygen, which the embryos take in. Embryos that have more algae are more likely to survive and develop faster than embryos with few or none.

Then in 2011 the story gained an additional twist. A close examination of the eggs revealed that some of the algae were living within the embryos themselves, and in some cases were actually inside embryonic cells. That suggested the embryos weren’t just taking oxygen from the algae: they might be taking glucose too. In other words, the algae were acting as internal power stations, generating fuel for the salamanders.

To find out if that was happening, Erin Graham of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and colleagues incubated salamander eggs in water containing radioactive carbon-14. Algae take up the isotope in the form of carbon dioxide, producing radioactive glucose.

Graham found that the embryos became mildly radioactive – unless kept in the dark. That showed that the embryos could only take in the carbon-14 via photosynthesis in the algae.

The algae do not seem to be essential to the embryos, but they are very helpful: embryos deprived of algae struggle. “Their survival rate is much lower and their growth is slowed,” says Graham.

It’s less clear how well the algae get on without the embryos. In the lab, they transform into dormant cysts. The salamander eggs are only around in spring, suggesting that in the wild, the algae spend the rest of the year as cysts. The ponds they live in dry up in summer, so the algae may sit out the rest of the year in the sediment.

Now that one vertebrate has been shown to use photosynthesis, Graham says there could well be others. “Anything that lays eggs in water would be a good candidate,” she says, as algae would have easy access to the eggs. So other amphibians, and fish, could be doing it. It’s much less likely that a mammal or bird could photosynthesise, as their developing young are sealed off from the outside world.

Huge algal bloom discovered by NASA under melting arctic ice


Scientists in the Arctic have discovered the largest ever under-ice bloom of phytoplankton, likening the discovery to “finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert.”

Researchers were amazed to discover a colossal 100 kilometer (62 miles) stretch of phytoplankton blooming under Arctic ice, north of Alaska, in July last year.

It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But four times more phytoplankton was found under the ice than in ice-free waters nearby.

Scientists now believe that pools of melting ice actually function like skylights and magnifying glasses, focusing sunlight into sea water, providing the perfect conditions for the intense phytoplankton bloom, which makes the water look like pea soup.

Undiscovered until the 1970s, the ocean’s phytoplankton is now understood to be responsible for about as much of the oxygen in our atmosphere as plants on land.

The ecological consequences of the polar bloom are not yet fully understood but given phytoplankton’s position at the base of the food chain, it is expected to have implications for ocean animals that feed in the area.

It was a serendipitous discovery for scientists who, as part of NASA’s ICESCAPE program, were studying the impact of climate change in the Chukchi sea, where melt season changes are pronounced.

Making their way through meter-thick ice aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker Healy in July last year, scientists observed surprising amounts of fluorescing chlorophyll, indicating the presence of photosynthesizing plant life.

Tide turns towards undersea energy

“If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible,” said ICESCAPE mission leader Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University, at a press conference announcing the publication of findings in “Science” this month. “This discovery was a complete surprise.”

Donald Perovich, a U.S. Army geophysicist who studied the ice’s optical properties, described the under-ice area as looking “like a photographic negative”.

“Beneath the bare-ice areas that reflect a lot of sunlight, it was dark. Under the melt ponds, it was very bright,” he said.

The melt pools were found to let in four times as much light as snow-covered ice. Protected from ultraviolet rays, phytoplankton grows twice as fast under-ice as in the open ocean.

Using an automated microscope system called an Imaging FlowCytobot, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Sam Laney took millions of photographs of the phytoplankton organisms, some of which he also found in brine channels inside the ice.

Antarctic ice shelves ‘tearing apart’, says study

The type of phytoplankton found near coasts can bloom rapidly when there are changes to the amounts of light and nutrients available. Some blooms are toxic for humans and marine life.

If the Arctic sea ice continues to thin, blooms might become more widespread and appear earlier, which could pose problems for migrating birds and whales, said Arrigo.

“It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak,” he said. “If their food supply is coming earlier, they might be missing the boat.”

“At this point we don’t know whether these rich phytoplankton blooms have been happening in the Arctic for a long time, and we just haven’t observed them before,” he said.

Swimmer’s Urine Caused Mass-Death of Fish in German Lake


The mass death of fish in a lake near Hamburg has been blamed on swimmers’ urine causing an algal bloom that has poisoned the water.

Around 500 dead fish have been found in the picturesque Eichbaum lake near the northern port city, which attracts bathers in the summery weather. But now it seems those pleasure-seekers have blood on their hands.

“Swimmers who urinate in the lake are introducing a lot of phosphate,” Manfred Siedler, spokesman for the Hamburger Angling Association (ASV), told Bild newspaper. “We’re calculating half a litre of urine per swimmer per day.”

Phosphate contributes to a build-up of blue-green algae in the water, playing havoc with the lake’s eco-system and apparently poisoning the fish. According to Bild, authorities have already tipped some 148 tonnes of anti-phosphate agent Bentophos into the water, at a cost of €516,000, but to little effect.

The Local understands that there has also been a longstanding feud between the anglers and the bathers over the lake.

Bathers are currently banned from the lake due to the high levels of algae, but the city’s Urban Development and Environment Authority (BSU) is working to fight it and re-open the lake.

The BSU believes that the fish deaths are not particularly unusual, and have been caused by a combination of natural causes and ice-skaters, rather than pee.

“The ice-skaters make a noise that wakes the fish out of hibernation,” BSU spokeswoman Kerstin Graupner told the Local.

“Then they can’t breathe and freeze. That’s a very common phenomenon.”

She underlined that though the fish have only been found in the past two weeks, they must have been dead for some time, judging by the decomposition.

BSU has since called in Hamburg University to test the pee-death theory, and says that apart from the high level of algae, the water is clean. “It is very rich in fish,” Graupner added.

But according to Bild, the first water tests are not encouraging – with a pH level of 8.7 (as opposed to the neutral 7), the lake is very alkaline.

Scientists have reportedly also found anabaena algae blooms, unusual at this time of year, which produce anatoxin-a. This causes the lake’s ammonium to change into the poisonous ammonia, which restricts the fish’s breathing.


Green Algae in the Yellow Sea

First of all, what kind of terrible parent would let their kid swim in this?

In Qingdoo, Shandong Province of China, the coastal waters are covered with algae called enteromopha prolifera. The algae is not poisonous and doesn’t affect water quality, but there are concerns about how it may affect local sealife and whether it might spur a drop in tourism.

Researchers aren’t sure what’s behind the green invasion. One expert told CNN that it’s possible that the lush green algae plume  may have something to do with “the change in the environment.”

The algae now covers 200 square miles of the Yellow Sea and looks so thick that it resembles a fairway on a golf course.

Thanks to Mr. Cuomo for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.