Melting Glacier

Climate Change May Release Ancient Viruses Trapped in Melting Glaciers

It’s common knowledge at this point that global warming is melting the world’s glaciers, leading to a rise in sea level and the destruction of habitats for life around the North and South Pole. However, scientists now have an additional concern relating to the melting of glaciers, which is that this melting may lead to the release of never-before-seen frozen viruses which have been trapped within glaciers for fifteen thousand years. As scientists have never before had an opportunity to study these mysterious viruses, they are of significant scientific interest, as not only do they offer a window into the history of the evolution of viruses, but learning about these viruses may give doctors a better chance of treating people who could potentially be affected by them. While it’s unlikely that humans will contract diseases caused by the release of these ancient viruses, the fact that so little is currently known about them leads researchers to be on high alert, as no one can say for certain what effect they might have on human beings.

Accordingly, a study, which was posted on the bioRxiv database but has not yet been peer reviewed, explores a novel method of studying these ancient viruses that minimizes the chances of contamination by modern-day bacteria. In order to prevent contamination, the researchers brought two ice core samples collected from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau to a cold room, where the thermometer was set to 23 degrees Farhrenheit, and cut into the ice sample with a sterilized band saw. Then, they washed the ice cores with ethanol and sterile water to expose an uncontaminated layer of ice. 

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By examining this layer of ice, the researchers found 33 groups of virus genuses, 28 of which were previously unknown to science. Between the two ice core samples, the microbes differed significantly, representing the fact that the two ice cores existed in very different climates at the time that the viruses became embedded in the ice. Researchers expect that glaciers around the world contain substantially more ancient, frozen viruses that are currently unknown to science.

One of the dangers posed by climate change is not only that these mysterious viruses could be released into the world, but that the melting of glaciers could destroy these preserved viruses, preventing scientists from learning more about the history of the evolution of viruses. Currently, glacial viruses are severely understudied, and climate change may have the effect of making study of these viruses impossible. 


Flock of Undiscovered Songbirds Discovered Across Remote Islands

Since 1999, only an average of around five or six new bird species have been discovered across the planet each year. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the discovery of ten previously unseen songbird species has been met with a great deal of interest by ornithology and biodiversity experts the world over.

The discovery, detailed in the Jan. 10 issue of Science magazine, reveals an intriguing look at avian biodiversity. Made across several Southeast Asian islands near Sulawesi in the Wallacea region – Peleng, Taliabu and the Togian group – the discovery lists five new species alongside five new subspecies, based on the physical features, DNA and song variations of the birds. Some of these differences are visually prominent – for example, the yellow-bellied Togian jungle-flycatcher (Cyornis omissus omississimus) features a crown of iridescent blue feathers to set it apart from its cousins.

It had long been suspected that islands of Taliabu, Peleng and the Togian group may be home to a number of undiscovered bird species. The islands in question are separated from Sulawesi, the nearest landmass, by deep ocean waters; this has restricted a number of animals for intermingling throughout the region, as well as limiting access from predators. In fact, a number of tropical forest birds in the area rarely explore outside of safe, shady forest cover, meaning they are relatively undisturbed by other species.

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In recent years, the majority of new bird species have been found in South America, namely Peru and Brazil. The discovery of new species in Indonesia isn’t a total surprise though, as some researchers in the 1990s did identify what they believed to be new songbird species in the region, but neglected to collect specimens or formally describe any findings. However the fact that animals have been able to exist and survive there for so long without being documented is somewhat surprising – especially considering the number of species found.

The birds are not living without risk though – logging and severe forest fires have been threatening their habitats in recent years, and some predictions suggest the newly discovered species may not survive many more years. These elements are putting a great deal of pressure on biodiversity across the planet, and while conservation efforts are working hard to ensure the survival of such species, little can be done for those that have yet to be discovered.

So what does this discovery mean for avian biodiversity across the world as a whole? Considering North America alone has seen numbers of birds decline by 29% since 1970, the survival of these species is crucial. In the U.S., these numbers are largely due to the loss of natural habitat caused by both climate change and agricultural development, as birds are struggling to survive without the correct environment available, while seabirds are also facing the threat of marine heat waves. Living so remotely, the newly discovered songbirds have managed to largely avoid some of these factors – however this does not mean they aren’t at risk from environmental threats.

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The general consensus between researchers is that Earth is currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction, meaning for the sixth time in the life of the planet global fauna is experiencing a catastrophic collapse in numbers. The United Nations predicts up to one million species could face extinction, and this includes a large number of birds. Conservation groups are working hard to ensure that animals are protected from threats, but as we have seen with the recent wildfires in Australia, this is not always possible. Taliabu and Peleng’s own forest fires have proved that the birds are at risk, and the situation is not getting any better.

Frank Rheindt, associate professor of biological sciences at NUS and one of the researchers involved in the discovery, has been keen to encourage the importance of increased protective efforts, stating that “while most of the avifauna we described seems to tolerate some form of habitat degradation and is readily detected in secondary forest and edge, some species or subspecies are doubtless threatened by the immense levels of habitat loss on these islands. As such, urgent, long-lasting conservation action is needed for some of the new forms to survive longer than a couple of decades beyond their date of description.”

On the whole, the revelation is an overwhelmingly positive one – such a wealth of species points to positive levels of biodiversity in the region. Rheindt and his team are optimistic that the methods used in this discovery could be effectively applied in other regions and for other forms of wildlife in the future. “Going forward, the use of earth-history and bathymetric information could also be applied to other terrestrial organisms and regions beyond the Indonesian Archipelago to identify promising islands that potentially harbour new taxa to be uncovered,” stated Rheindt.


New Research Hints at Origin of Life on Earth

While the theory of evolution is broadly accepted as fact among scientists, more controversy exists over explanations for the ultimate origin of life on Earth. However, new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution sheds light on a potential theory for the origin of living things by attempting to recreate the conditions of the early earth and exploring how they could lead to the development of “protocells,” which are thought to be fundamental “building blocks” of all life. In an experiment, researchers successfully created conditions that led to the development of protocells by replicating the environment of underwater hydrothermal vents, whose combination of heat, alkalinity, and minerals are instrumental in the creation of protocells.

Though multiple competing theories explaining the origin of life exist, including Darwin’s assertion that life probably first evolved in shallow pools of warm water, the theory that life originally began within underwater thermal vents is supported by evidence, including the discovery of some of the world’s oldest fossils nearby these vents. Now, this explanation for the creation of life seems even more likely, as demonstrating the creation of protocells under these conditions is a key argument supporting the theory. Although the results of this research do not definitively prove that life on earth began in underwater hydrothermal vents, the researchers assert that the possibility of this explanation cannot be ruled out.

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Hydrothermal vents are located deep under the Earth’s seas, where minerals from the planet’s crust react with seawater, creating a warm, alkaline, and hydrogen-rich environment. This process leads to the creation of so-called chimneys, which are rich with alkaline and acidic fluids, enabling the formation of complex organic compounds, including, as this new research shows, protocells. These vents emerge spontaneously along fault lines as a result of geological processes, and have existed on Earth for millions, if not billions of years. Hydrothermal vents are known for being areas of the deep sea where life is relatively abundant, as they tend to be populated by shrimp, worms, and clams, who feed off of the energy and materials present around the vents.

This research has strong implications not only for the beginning of life on Earth, but for the potential for life to form elsewhere in space.

Protocells are, in essence, the most basic form of a cell, consisting of a bilayer membrane around an aqueous solution. Previous experiments succeeded in creating these cells in cool, fresh water, but only under tightly controlled conditions. Also, previous experiments attempting to replicate hydrothermal vents have failed to generate protocells which don’t fall apart. In this most recent experiment, however, the scientists identified a flaw with previous research on creating protocells in hydrothermal vents; namely, these experiments used a limited number of types of molecules, whereas in natural environments, you would expect to see a wide range of different types of molecules.

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Whereas it was previously thought that heat, alkalinity, and salt posed obstacles in the creation of protocells, this new research shows that these factors were actually beneficial in the process. This is because head allowed long carbon chains to form into a protocell structure, an alkaline solution helped protocells keep their electric charge, and saltwater helps fat molecules band together, forming more stable structures. What’s notable about this experiment is that while protocells have been created artificially in laboratory environments before, they had never been before created under conditions that match the chemistry of the early Earth.

This research has strong implications not only for the beginning of life on Earth, but for the potential for life to form elsewhere in space. This is because space missions have revealed the presence of similar hydrothermal vents on extraterrestrial bodies, including the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Life on other planets or moons has not yet been discovered, of course, but research into the origins of life on Earth could give scientists a better idea of where in space to look for extraterrestrial life.