High octopuses don’t love you back, sextants in space, protect our ocean monuments, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: September 24, 2018

Logo for Monday Morning Salvage.

Foghorn (a call to action)

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

  • Gulper Eels are amazing. Amazing.
There are approximately 30 vaquitas left in the world Illustration: Mona Chalabi

There are approximately 30 vaquitas left in the world
Illustration: Mona Chalabi

  • There are sextants on the International Space Station and I can’t stop thinking about it.

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Beware the walrus, explosion detected near missing submarine, diamond mining, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: November 27, 2017

Fog Horn (A Call to Action)

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

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Nerds of trust, deep-sea mining, ocean art, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: July 3, 2017

Fog Horn (A Call to Action)

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

Image: James St. John/Flickr Creative Commons

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Five organisms with real super powers that rival their comic book counterparts

Andrew ThumbThere is no force more creative than the painstakingly slow process of evolution. Ever wanted to walk through walls? Naked mole rats can physically bore through concrete. How about fly? There are a couple dozen different ways to accomplish that goal, even if you’re a squid. Incredible power of regeneration? Flatworms, roundworms, and echinoderms have us beat. Among the vertebrates, species like the axolotl can regrow limbs, organs, and parts of their brain. For practically every super power we can imagine, something on the tree of life has come up with a real-world analog.

Some real super power are more super than others:

1. The immortal rotifer that absorbs the abilities of anything it touches.

Bdelloid Rotifers. photo by Diego Fontaneto

Bdelloid Rotifers. photo by Diego Fontaneto

Around 80 million years ago, a small, unassuming group of metazoa decided that sex just wasn’t for them. Instead of going through the effort of recombining their genetic material with a mate every generation to produce a viable offspring with a roughly 50% contribution from each parent, Bdelloid Rotifers started reproducing asexually. Males completely disappeared from class bdelloidea, leaving females to generate genetic duplicates through parthenogenesis. This is not their super power.

Bdelloid rotifers are incredibly tough. When environmental conditions are less than favorable, they can enter a dormant state. In this dormant state,they can survive the worst unscathed. Dehydrated, they can endure extreme temperatures, drought, even ionizing radiation. A bdelloid rotifer in its dormant state can even survive in space. If that isn’t enough, while dormant, these rotifers continue to produce offspring, which also remain  dormant. This is not their super power.

Bdelloid rotifers’ super power appears when they recover from their dormant state. As they rehydrate and repair whatever damage their cells incurred, they incorporate DNA fragments from their environment. This includes partially digested food and any DNA in close proximity to them, even bacterial and archael DNA. It is this ability that allows bdelloid rotifers to overcome the limitations of asexual reproduction and survive for 80 million years without mates. They can literally absorb the attributes of those around them.

Their incredible toughness, celibate lifestyle, and ability to absorb the powers of anything they touch, put Bdelloid Rotifers firmly on par with X-Men perennial favorite: Rogue.

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That sinking feeling: Hog lagoons, superbugs, and the proliferation of antibiotics in livestock

From here, it looks like such a lovely pond. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

From here, it looks like such a lovely pond. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

The murky brown water was still, reflecting, perfectly, the drifting clouds above. Had I not known what it was, an acre-wide manmade pond almost a dozen feet deep filled to the brim with hog feces, I might be tempted to describe it as “beautiful”. Hog lagoons like this are a common sight in North Carolina, though their use is in decline. My lab group arrived at this particular lagoon to take microbial samples, fungi in this case, from the steaming cauldron of organic waste: an ideal culture medium. Carefully, we loaded a small skiff and rowed out into the stink. Near the center, we gingerly dipped our sampling vials, affixed to the end of an old fishing pole, into the dense fluid. It was then that we noticed the rising waterline, the slow trickle at the stern, the shift in balance. We locked the oars and rowed, frantically, towards shore. Our labmates on shore had, thankfully, tied a line to the bow before we departed. The skiff’s gunwales were creeping closer and closer to the water. We were sinking. We were sinking in a lake of pig shit.

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The importance of failure in graduate student training

Running the winch at dusk

The A-frame shuddered as the box core, heavy with mud and reeking of sulfur, emerged from the water. We knew that it had found its mark 2300 meters below. Soft sediment from the seafloor oozed out the sides as I slid the safety pins into the spade arm. There was nothing visibly special about this mud. No ancient arthropods or primeval polychaetes crawled through this muck. It was a cubic meter of sticky, stinking glop. My first sample.

We were in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras. Our cruise objectives were to characterize the pelagic and benthic fauna associated with deep-sea methane seeps. For me, it was a ship of opportunity. In exchange for and extra set of hands to work the gear and process samples, I could add my own small research project to the cruise objectives. My goal was to collect sediment cores from multiple sites and survey the diversity of fungi associated with these methane seeps.

The 12 hour shifts rarely left me enough time to eat meals. Though I had never seen the equipment before we left port I became the acoustic tracking technician, out of necessity. Things consistently went wrong. Nets tore, gear broke, a misfired box core almost crushed my leg. Two hurricanes, one a category 5, hit the Gulf of Mexico while we were at sea. Work was exhausting and rest was brief, when existent. I loved every minute of it.

The end of that cruise was the high point of a 4 year project that began with unbridled optimism and early, exciting results, only to decay into drudgery, failure, desperation, and collapse. In the end, it would rise from the past for one small victory. In hindsight, so much of those four years seems painfully trivial, but this story is really about how much of a human being is poured into a scientific manuscript.

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The moldy kingdom gets a new neighbor

A diagrammatic tree depicting the organisation of most eukaryotes into six major groups. The relationships amongst most of the major groups and the position of the ‘root’ of the tree are shown as unresolved (note however, the grouping of Opisthokonta and Amoebozoa). The arrow shows a possible precise placement of the root, based on gene fusion data. (Simpson and Roger 2004)

Depending on your view of phylogenetics, a recent publication in Nature reporting the discovery of a new kingdom-level branch on the tree of life, basal to Kingdom Fungi, is either a major revision of our current view of taxonomy or completely unsurprising and expected. While we mostly refer to the four kingdoms within Domain Eukarya as Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia, it’s understood by the scientific community that Protista is essentially a catch-all category, not a true clade, for eukaryotes that don’t quite fit into the other three groups. While this is convenient for organization, it fails to adequately express the diversity of protists. Four kingdoms is a useful system, but there’s no reason why diversity at the kingdom level couldn’t be much higher. A strict cladist could  create hundreds, if not thousands of kingdoms from Protista alone.

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