Scientists (and sci-fi fans) have to varying degrees been discussing the concept of suspended animation for years; the idea that the biological functions of the human body can somehow be put on “pause” for a prescribed period of time while preserving the physiological capabilities. If you’ve ever watched any sci-fi movie depicting interstellar travel you have probably seen some iteration of this concept as a way to get around the plot conundrum of the vastness of space and space travel times, relative to natural human aging and human life span. The basic principle of suspended animation already exists within the natural world, associated with the lethargic state of animals or plants that appear, over a period, to be dead but can then “wake-up” or prevail without suffering any apparent harm. This concept is often termed in different contexts: hibernation, dormancy, or anabiosis (this last terms refers to some aquatic invertebrates and plants in scarcity conditions). It is these real-world examples that likely inspire the human imagination of the possibilities for suspended human animation. The concept of suspended human animation is more commonly viewed through the lens of science fiction (and interstellar travel), however, the shift of this concept from scientific fiction to science reality has a more practical human application.Read More
The Emperor of all Maladies is how Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, aptly described cancer. Cancer, this scourge of mankind going back as far as 4,600 years ago when it was identified by the Egyptian physician Imhotep (the first in recorded history). Cancer takes one of the most successful traits of complex eukaryotes, cell division, and weaponizes it in unchecked cellular growth; some even consider cancer to be a more evolved form of cell division. This ailment has plagued humanity, and baffled physicians for centuries as they attempt to tackle the seemingly impossible, discover a cure for cancer.Read More
In 2001, on an expedition to hydrothermal vent fields in the Indian Ocean, researchers made a bizarre discovery. Clustered in small aggregations around the base of a black smoker was an unusual snail, seemingly clad in a suit of armor. Rather than a single, hard, calcareous structure, the snail’s operculum was covered in a series of tough plates. On recovery to the surface, those plates, as well as the snail’s heavy shell, began to rust. This was an Iron Snail.Read More
[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]
The Rio Grande Rise is an almost completely unstudied, geologically intriguing, ecologically mysterious, potential lost continent in the deep south Atlantic. And it also hosts dense cobalt-rich crusts.
The Rio Grande Rise is a region of deep-ocean seamounts roughly the area of Iceland in the southwestern Atlantic. It lies west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off the coast of South America and near Brazil’s island territories. As the largest oceanic feature on the South American plate, it straddles two microplates. And yet, like much of the southern Atlantic deep sea, it is relatively under sampled.
Almost nothing is known about the ecology or biodiversity of the Rio Grande Rise.Read More
Hagfish. You love them. I love them. Of all the fish in all the seas, none are more magnificent than the hagfish. Across the world, children celebrate the hagfish by making slime from Elmer’s glue, their own mucous, or just, like, something. Seriously, how is is that toddler hands are always coated in some strange, unidentifiable slime?
And never, ever forget:
2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.
A hagfish in the high Antarctic? Hagfish have previously never been observed in the shallow waters around Antarctic, but a photograph from 1988 was determined this year to be a hagfish feeding on a large pile of clam sperm in shallow water. Neat!
Incidentally, the reason the photo languished for so long is that it was originally though to be a Nemertean. Because Antarctic Nemertean worms are huge and horrifying.
- Dayton and Hammerstrom (2018) A hagfish at Salmon Bay, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica? DOI: 10.1017/S0954102018000202.
Last month, while traveling to Kuching for Make for the Planet Borneo, I had an idea for the next strange ocean education project: what if we could use bone-conducting headphones to “see” the world like a dolphin might through echolocation?
Bone-conducting headphones use speakers or tiny motors to send vibrations directly into the bone of you skull. This works surprisingly well for listening to music or amplifying voices without obstructing the ear. The first time you try it, it’s an odd experience. Though you hear the sound just fine, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming through your ears. Bone conduction has been used for a while now in hearing aids as well as military- and industrial-grade communications systems, but the tech has recently cropped up in sports headphones for people who want to listen to music and podcasts on a run without tuning out the rest of the world. Rather than anchoring to the skull, the sports headphones sit just in front of the ear, where your lower jaw meets your skull.
This is not entirely unlike how dolphins (and at least 65 species of toothed whales) detect sound. Read More
Hagfish. You love them. I love them. The owner of this sedan has no choice but to love them:
2017 was a big year for hagfish science.
Big Ideas (the ecologic paradigms that hagfish shifted)
Heincke’s law is one of those ecologic principles that more often acts as a foil for rejecting the null hypothesis than as a consistent pattern in ecology. It’s most basic summary is: The further from shore and the deeper dwelling a fish is, the bigger it grows. Heincke’s law does not appear to be true for hagfish, whose size appear to have no relation to the depth at which they occur. On the other hand, phylogenetic relationships do seem to play some role in regulating body size in hagfish.
- Schumacher and friends (2017) No support for Heincke’s law in hagfish (Myxinidae): lack of an association between body size and the depth of species occurrence. DOI: 10.1111/jfb.13361.
Defense and Behavior (how hagfish do the things that they do)
Hagfish are master escape artists, capable of squeezing in and out of tight spaces barely half the width of their body. This great for getting in an out of rotting whale carcasses on the sea floor, creeping into crevices, and avoiding predators. But how do they accomplish this incredible feat? Hagfish have a flaccid sinus under their skin which allows them to control the distribution of venous blood and alter their body width as they wriggle through narrow passages. Freedman and Fudge identified 9 distinct behaviors which take advantage of this adaptation, including anchoring, forming tight loops to push the body through an opening, and bending the hagfish head 90 degrees to force it through a slit. And there are videos!
- Freedman and Fudge (2017) Hagfish Houdinis: biomechanics and behavior of squeezing through small openings. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.151233.
The Fudge lab has been busy this year, cranking out some of the most noteworthy work on the incredible behavior of hagfish. In addition to examining hagfish motility, Boggett and friends looked into how those flaccid sinuses aid predator avoidance. The team build wee little guillotines loaded with shark teeth to see how hagfish skin protects the animal from vicious bites. In a year when a truckload of hagfish spectacularly crushed a car, the fact that this research was the biggest breakout sensation in hagfish pop culture says everything you need to know about the compelling results of this study. You can read more about this study at The Verge, Futurity, Popular Science, and plenty of other outlets.
- Boggett and friends (2017) Flaccid skin protects hagfishes from shark bites. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2017.0765.
One of the most basic things that we learn when growing up is that water can exist in 3 different states of matter: as a gas (water vapor), as a liquid (water… water), and as a solid (ice). This basic and fundamental concept has recently been turned upside down as scientist have discovered that water might also exists in a fourth state; liquid water it appears might actually come in two different states. A collaborative team of researchers led by Dr. Laura Maestro at Oxford University, found that the physical properties of water changed their behavior between 50 and 60℃ potentially changing to a second physical state of water.
The world we currently live in would have seemed like science fiction to humans in the not to distant past. Everyday more and advancements transform sci-fi dreams into reality. Most recently gene editing of human embryos has been birthed into the realm of possibility (cheesy pun intended!). In theory gene editing embryos could allow you to choose preferential traits in your soon to be human flesh-blob. That level of ability does not currently exist, but the latest developments in gene editing are still pretty astonishing.
In a recent study scientists took a human embryo and edited a dangerous mutation from the genes of that embryo; human reality, meet science fiction. Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, edited embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life. The biggest hurdles were producing embryos in which all cells, not just some, were mutation-free, while also avoiding creating unwanted extra mutations during the process. The researchers found that when gene-editing components were introduced with sperm to the egg before fertilization, the success of the process was markedly different from previous approaches. If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but would also not transmit the disease to their descendants.
Pollination. I think most people understand why this is important (or maybe I should say, I hope). To put it simply, the process of pollination facilitates reproduction in plants by transferring pollen from one plant to another. In the terrestrial world, this can be mediated by physical forcing (e.g., wind) or by animals (e.g., insects) – and its why people are freaking out about the loss of bees due to pesticides (because they are a primary pollinator), but I digress. Until relatively recently, pollination by animals was not thought to occur in the ocean. Unlike on land, where most flowering plants rely on creatures to carry pollen, plant reproduction in an aquatic world was surmised to rely exclusively on currents and tides. However, a team of researchers led by marine biologist Brigitta van Tussenbroek revoked the long standing paradigm that pollen in the sea is transported only by water, discovering and documenting the process of zoobenthophilous pollination (a term they coined).