Fun Science FRIEDay – Life After Death

That ominous specter of death. The one certainty in life that we are all careening towards. But how much do we really understand about death? Medically death is defined as the moment the heart stops beating and cuts off blood to the brain. Within seconds after heart failure the brain’s cerebral cortex — the “thinking part” of the brain — slows down instantly and flatlines (meaning no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor). This initiates a chain reaction of cellular processes that eventually results in the death of brain cells; as a result the brain’s functions also stop and can no longer keep the body alive. The big question is after the heart stops beating, and both heart and brain activity flatlines, how quickly does cognition or awareness fade? A relatively recent study  suggests that consciousness continues even after death.

(Photo credit: Getty)

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Long live sharks and rays!

Alastair Harry is a fisheries science practitioner based in Perth, Australia. He assists in implementing ecosystem based fisheries management to support the sustainable use of wild-capture fish resources. He is a generalist and works across multiple areas including stock assessment, bycatch, and threatened species. He also holds an adjunct position at James Cook University and has a specific interest in the conservation and sustainable management of sharks and rays. 

In August I published a review paper entitled Evidence for systemic age underestimation in shark and ray ageing studies. In it I suggest that many sharks and rays live considerably longer than is currently recognised. This increased life expectancy isn’t due to medical advancements or a more nutritious diet (or even better fisheries management), but rather the result of ageing error.

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Japan becomes the first nation to mine a deep-sea hydrothermal vent

Sixteen hundred meters deep, off the coast of Okinawa, a new kind of mining just cut it’s teeth.

Earlier today, the Japan Times reported that a mining tool has successfully extracted zinc and other metals from a hydrothermal vent on the seafloor. There’s not much to go on yet. We don’t know if these were active or dormant vents (though dormant doesn’t mean biologically dead). We don’t know the specific location of the experimental mine site. And we don’t know the footprint of the ore prospect. But we do know that Japan has identified at least 6 potential mining sites within its exclusive economic zone and that plans are moving forward for a commercial mining venture in mid-2020. I’ve only found one report in English and from the look of things, there’s only a press release circulating right now, but I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more about this in the coming weeks.

Japan Agency for Natural resources and Energy

We’re still watching to see what Nautilus Minerals does at Solwara 1 and how manganese nodule mining proposals in the Clarion Clipperton fracture zone are progressing but Japan’s mining efforts present a sea change in how to anticipate future deep-sea mining efforts. Private commercial ventures are dependent on the whims of the global commodities market and subject to national and international regulation. National efforts are driven by the need for resource independence. I was aware of Japan’s efforts, but didn’t realize that they were as close as they are to being ready for production.

For the last 10 years, we’ve been saying that deep-sea mining of hydrothermal vents is imminent. Well, it’s here.

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Gills Club Shark Tales: An online and in-person sharkstravaganza 19-20 September at NEAQ!

Note:  This post has been updated on 18 September 2017.  

Friends, Researchers, Countrywomen, lend me your ears!

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and New England Aquarium are hosting a completely free two-day event, 19-20 September, featuring an amazing line-up of shark scientists and enthusiasts, including:

Keynote Speakers:

Susan Goldberg – Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Wendy Benchley – Renowned global voice for shark protection and co-founder of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

Gills Club Science Team Speakers:
Dr. Michelle Heupel – Australian Institute of Marine Science
Dr. Alison Kock – South African National Parks
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Protecting the ocean means lots of rigorous, mundane science.

Bathymodiolus manusensis. Photo courtesy Nautilus Minerals.

I have a new paper out today: Population structure of Bathymodiolus manusensis, a deep-sea hydrothermal vent-dependent mussel from Manus Basin, Papua New Guinea.

We sampled two sites in Papua New Guinea where these deep-sea mussels aggregate and looked at their genes to determine if there was any population structure across this relatively small spatial scale (~40 km). We found one homogeneous population. We also looked at representatives from other ocean basins and determined that mussel populations within Manus Basin are younger than those in neighboring basins. This is a pattern we’ve observed in several other studies as well.

This is not, by any stretch, a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting study. But studies like this, baseline, foundation-building studies, are absolutely essential for conservation biology.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Embryonic Gene Editing

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.

Eggs before gene editing (left), and eggs after gene editing and already undergoing cell division (right)
(Photo credit: Ma et al. 2017)

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.

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Background information on our land-based shark fishing paper

A photo used in this study showing a hammerhead shark taken completely out of the water. As with all photos used in this study, the angler’s privacy has been protecting by blurring out his face.

I have a new paper out on the conservation impacts of recreational shark fishing. The paper is called “fishing practices and representations of shark conservation issues among users of a land-based shark angling online forum,” and it is published in the journal Fisheries Research. If you don’t have institutional library access, you can read a copy of the paper here. The goal of this blog post is to provide background information on the study.

Journalists are free to quote or paraphrase information from this blog post. Additionally, I provide some suggested quotes below, and I am available for interviews about this paper (please contact me at WhySharksMatter at gmail).

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Desert island discs – the marine conservation edition

In the UK, there is a famous and long-running radio show called Desert Island Discs. On this show celebrities are asked to imagine that they are marooned on a desert island, but they have rescued 10 discs (mp3s I suppose these days…) of songs that they have rescued from their sinking ship to keep them company on the desert island.

clipart credit: istock.com

My chum – marine mammal scientist and general ocean hero – Asha De Vos recently asked for a list of key papers in marine conservation that she could pass onto students working on marine conservation issues in Sri Lanka. So I decided to write up my top ten “desert island” marine conservation papers that I think have been influential, and that all marine conservation students should read.

So after much pondering, this is my list:

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Measuring the Cultural Value of Oysters

Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?

Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Cure for HIV?

One of the greatest scourges of the mid 20th century, leading into the 21st century, has been the human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV, which can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system. Without treatment, over time HIV can completely destroy a person’s immune system leaving them mortally vulnerable to common pathogens that would otherwise be easily dealt with.  Since this disease first burst onto the scene in the mid-20th century it has claimed countless lives, and science has struggled to develop a cure given the ability of the disease to rapidly change and hide-out in the body.

(Photo credit: gamjai / Fotolia)

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