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Is life a gamble? Scientist models universe to find out – Space.com

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Scientists suspect that the complex life that slithers and crawls through every nook and cranny on Earth emerged from a random shuffling of non-living matter that ultimately spit out the building blocks of life. 

Even so, the details to support the idea are lacking. 

But researchers recently got creative in figuring out the probability of life actually emerging spontaneously from such inorganic matter — a process called abiogenesis.

In the study, Tomonori Totani, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Tokyo, modeled the microscopic world of molecules across the epic scale of the entire universe to see if abiogenesis is a likely candidate for the origin of life. He was essentially looking at whether there were enough stars with habitable planets in the universe at the time to allow complexity to arise. His results, published Feb. 3 in the journal Nature, show the betting odds for life emerging are not good, at least for the observable universe.

Related: 7 wild theories on the origin of life

“I hoped to find at least one realistic path of abiogenesis, to explain abiogenesis by words of science,” Totani told Live Science. “Sometimes people claim that abiogenesis probability is incredibly low and that the origin of life cannot be understood by science. I, as a scientist, dreamed to find a scientific explanation of why we are here.”

Totani’s study looks at a leading hypothesis for abiogenesis, that life as we know it began in what researchers call an RNA world. This hypothesis suggests that before the evolution of proteins and the double-stranded genetic molecule called DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid — which today provides the instructions for life on Earth — the world was dominated by similar but less efficient molecules called RNA, or ribonucleic acid

In an RNA world, RNA was the first molecule capable of copying and storing information, and of starting and accelerating chemical reactions — two essential characteristics of life on Earth. This world would be a more primitive molecular world to the DNA-protein based chemistry that defines life today.

Although primitive, RNA is made up of many chemicals called monomers that link together to form a polymer. Particularly, RNA is made up of a chain of nitrogen-based molecules called nucleotides. Researchers think that in order for RNA to perform its essential function of copying itself, it needs to be composed of a chain of nucleotides longer than 40 to 60 nucleotides. 

So, how would these RNA molecules made up of at least 40 to 60 nucleotides have popped up on their own? Nucleotides have been shown experimentally to randomly organize into RNA given enough time and under the right conditions. But these experiments show that the abundance of RNA rapidly decreases with the length of their chains and none of the experiments could consistently produce strands longer than 10 monomers.

“It has been experimentally confirmed that RNA polymerization can occur by a basic random process,” Totani said. “Some experiments claimed that more than 50 (monomer long) RNA were produced, but these are not reproducible. One problem is that aggregates are easily mistaken for a long RNA polymer.”

Totani’s model uses the most conservative method of RNA polymerization, where each monomer is attached randomly one-by-one until a chain of monomers is formed. Scientists have suggested that polymers (each made up of multiple monomers) could attach to each other to speed up the process, but Totani said such a process is “highly speculative and hypothetical.”

Life as we know it

Scientists think life emerged on Earth around 500 million years after the planet formed. Given that there are an estimated 10 sextillion (10^22) stars in the observable universe, it may seem that the odds of life popping up in the universe should be good. But researchers have found that the random formation of RNA with a length greater than 40 is incredibly unlikely given the number of stars — with habitable planets — in our cosmic neighborhood. There are too few stars with habitable planets in the observable universe for abiogenesis to occur within the timeframe of life emerging on Earth.

“However, there is more to the universe than the observable,” Totani said in a statement. “In contemporary cosmology, it is agreed the universe underwent a period of rapid inflation, producing a vast region of expansion beyond the horizon of what we can directly observe. Factoring this greater volume [of stars with habitable planets] into models of abiogenesis hugely increases the chances of life occurring.”

After our universe flashed into existence some 13.8 billion years ago during the Big Bang, it underwent a period of rapid expansion that continues today. If we think of the universe as a loaf of bread baking in the oven, our observable universe is like a bubble of air trapped in the dough, where the walls of the bubble are the farthest distance light can travel since the Big Bang. As the loaf rises (inflation), our bubble grows while other pockets of air within the bread get farther away. Our observable bubble of air is all that we can see, even though the rest of the loaf is out there.

Related: From Big Bang to Present: Snapshots of Our Universe Through Time

It is estimated that the whole universe could contain more than 1 googol (10^100) stars. When Totani factored in this new abundance of stars, he found that the emergence of life was no longer improbable, but very likely. 

This may be good news for the RNA world hypothesis, though it could also mean that the search for life in the universe is a hopeless pursuit.

If life first got its start in RNA, “life on Earth was created by a very rare chance of producing a long RNA polymer,” said Totani. “Most likely, Earth is the only planet harboring life in the observable universe. I predict that future observations or explorations of extraterrestrial life will yield no positive results. 

If by chance, life is discovered elsewhere in our cosmic neighborhood, Totani believes it would likely be of the same origin as life on Earth. Life may have hitched a ride from comets and asteroids across interplanetary or interstellar space, seeding the local universe with life from a single origin event.

Totani’s work is far from an answer to one of science’s most existential questions but it may guide further research on the origins of life. Whether we are alone in the universe still remains unanswered, but if Totani’s numbers tell us anything, you shouldn’t bet on it.

Originally published on Live Science.

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The cleanest pocket of air on Earth? It's in the Southern Ocean, between Tasmania and Antarctica – TheChronicleHerald.ca

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The cleanest air on Earth lies in a pocket of sky between Tasmania and Antarctica, scientists say.


A team of researchers at Colorado State University conducted a bioaerosol study of the Southern Ocean from Tasmania to Antarctica — the first of its kind — and drew air samples at the marine boundary level, where the atmosphere meets the ocean surface.

“We were able to use the bacteria in the air over the Southern Ocean (SO) as a diagnostic tool to infer key properties of the lower atmosphere,” microbian ecologist Thomas Hill, from Colorado State University, told

Science Alert.


Via modelling and analysis, the team noted that the samples were free of aerosol particles — a sure indicator of human activity, like fossil fuel burning, agriculture and fertilizer production — blown in from other parts of the world. The samples were also split into latitudinal zones, so that the team could observe how the air changed as they moved further south.

Via wind patterns, airborne microorganisms can travel vast distances. However, the bacterial make-up of the samples suggested that the closer they were taken to Antarctica, the cleaner they became. This suggests that aerosols from distant land masses and human activities are not travelling south into Antarctic air.


Instead, the samples appear to be composed of microorganisms from the ocean and little else.


“It suggests that the SO (Southern Ocean) is one of very few places on Earth that has been minimally affected by anthropogenic activities,” Hill said.

The results counter similar studies that were carried out in oceans in the subtropics and the Northern Hemisphere, which concluded that most microbes came from upwind continents.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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B.C.'s "living dinosaurs" threatened by ocean warming and acidification – Straight.com

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The world’s warming oceans and the ongoing acidification of seawater are having a serious effect on B.C.’s rare glass sponges and their associated reefs, according to a study conducted by UBC researchers.

The sponge reefs—constructed by living glass sponges growing on the skeletons of previous generations—can grow to the height of a six-storey building and were thought to have become extinct worldwide about 40 million years ago, until the discovery of  massive reefs 200 metres deep in Hecate Strait in northern B.C. in 1987 (although they had been observed as unexplained “mounds” on the floors of Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait during sonar surveys a few years previous).

At the time, the reefs were described by astonished scientists as “living dinosaurs”. German paleontologist Manfred Krautter was quoted as saying their discovery in B.C. waters “electrified” him and was “like discovering a herd of dinosaurs on land”, and the prehistoric constructs are often referred to as “Jurassic Park submerged”.

Subsequent dives by scientists in submersibles determined that they were up to 6,000 years old and covered a surface area of up to 700 square kilometres. It is theorized that the sponges, which are living marine animals, started building reefs there after B.C.’s most recent glaciation period scraped the ocean bottom clean more than 9,000 years ago.

Since the first discoveries, another 19 glass-sponge reefs have been found in the Strait of Georgia, part of what is often called the Salish Sea. An American geologist found other, specialized, reefs off the coast of Washington state in 2007.

The sponges use dissolved silica—glass, essentially—to build skeletons constructed of needlelike so-called spicules. Although glass sponges are common around the world, only in very rare cases do they form reefs, building new structures on top of the skeletons of dead sponges. The relatively accessible reefs found in Howe Sound are unique in the world for their shallow depth of less than 40 metres.

The UBC paper—published on May 18 in Scientific Reports, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal—detailed the results of an experiment initiated by Angela Stevenson, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC’s zoology department who is the study’s lead researcher. Stevenson was aided by scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, Vancouver’s Ocean Wise Research Institute, and UBC’s department of botany.

Stevenson brought some examples of Aphrocallistes vastus—called the cloud sponge and one of three species of reef-building glass sponges found in B.C. waters—from Howe Sound to a UBC lab. Water temperature and acidity were then manipulated for a four-month study, resulting in the first successful long-term lab experiment involving living glass sponges.

““Their sheer size and tremendous filtration capacity put them at the heart of a lush and productive underwater system, so we wanted to examine how climate change might impact their survival,” Stevenson said in a June 1 UBC news release.

The researchers were monitoring the sponges’ durability, pumping ability, and skeletal strength. The results showed that the sponges experienced up to a 25 percent loss in tissue and a 50-percent reduction in pumpong capacity. Their bodies also became more elastic and lost about half their strength.

“Most worryingly, pumping began to slow within two weeks of exposure to elevated temperatures,” Stevenson noted.

Glass-sponge reefs are home to many marine creatures in B.C., including fish and giant Pacific octopuses.
Diane Reid/Ocen Wise

Glass sponges survive by pumping enormous volumes of water through their systems, filtering out the bacteria and plankton that they eat and purifying the surrounding seawater. It is estimated that the 19 reefs that are known to be in the Salish Sea can filter up to 100 billion litres of seawater every day, removing about 80 percent of the particles and microbes therein.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) B.C chapter, which advocates to protect glass-sponge reefs, says that 95 percent of seawater bacteria are filtered out by glass sponges and that a small reef of the sponges will filter and clean a volume of water every 60 seconds that would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Diver Glen Dennison above a Howe Sound glass-sponge reef.
Adam Taylor/Marine Life Sanctuaries Society

The reefs are protected by various conservation efforts in B.C’s deep northern waters and shallower Salish Sea depths, including federal marine protected areas in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound and smaller buffer zones in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. CPAWS says that research shows both measuers require expansion to fully protect the delicate structures from potential fishing and resource-exploration damage.

Borttom fishing, especially trawling, can devastate glass-sponge reefs, and suspended sediment can choke the sponges’ feeding filters and even kill them. Crab and prawn traps can damage or crush the sponge skeletons.

Jeff Marliave, an Ocean Wise senior researcher and paper coauthor, said in the release that more study is needed to understand how climate change might affect the reefs. “In Howe Sound, we want to figure out a way to track changes in sponge growth, size and area and area in the field so we can better understand potential climate implications at a larger scale. We also want to understand the microbial food webs that support sponges and how they might be influenced by climate cycles.”

Stevenson had a cautionary thought about what is required to guarantee the future safety of the reefs, whaich have been described as “international treasures”.

“When most people think about reefs, they think of tropical shallow-water reefs like the beautiful Great Barrier Reef in Australia,” Stevenson said. “But we have these incredible deep-water reefs in our own backyard in Canada. If we don’t do our best to stand up for them, it will be like discovering a herd of dinosaurs and then immediately dropping dynamite on them.”

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What a dinosaur's last supper reveals about life in the Cretaceous period – CBC.ca

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A beautifully preserved armoured dinosaur found in an Alberta oilsands mine died on a full stomach. The “extraordinarily rare” preservation of its last meal offers new clues and surprises about how the dinosaur lived during its last days.

The 5.5-metre-long, 1,300 kilogram spiky, plant-eating nodosaur, similar to an ankylosaurus but without a tail club, is the only known one of its species, Borealopelta markmitchelli. (Its name means “shield of the north” and honours Mark Mitchell, the technician who spent 7,000 carefully extracting the fossil from the surrounding rock). 

Victoria Arbour, an evolutionary paleontologist at the Royal BC Museum, describes how some armoured dinosaurs likely used their horns, spines and armour for fighting each other, not just for protection. 1:34

The nodosaur lived 110 million years ago during the early Cretaceous, in a lush forest of conifers, ferns and palm-like plants called cycads, near the coast of what was then an inland sea. At the time, the climate was warmer, similar to that of South Carolina, said Caleb Brown, a paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta and lead author of the new study. It was published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The fossil was discovered by accident in 2011 by Shawn Funk, a shovel operator at the Suncor Millennium Mine near Fort McMurray. Paleontologists from the Royal Tyrrell were called to have a look and realized at once that it was no ordinary fossil.

While most fossils include only bones, this one included skin. It was so well-preserved that it has been described as “mummified.”

Meet one of the world’s best-preserved dinosaurs ever. Borealopelta fossilized so perfectly that we can see every inch of its armour and skin in 3D, 110 million years after its death. 0:58

In the dinosaur’s belly, “there were these massive concentrations of what looked like rocks,” Brown said.

Those were in a mass about the size of a soccer ball, and it appears they were gastroliths — rocks that some plant-eating dinosaurs use to grind up their food in their stomachs, as modern birds do, instead of using their teeth.

Sure enough, when chunks of the mass were encased in resin, sliced and examined under the microscope, the researcher could see well-preserved twigs, leaves, mosses, pollen and spores.

To get some help at identifying the plant material, the dinosaur researchers turned to paleobotanists, including University of Brandon researcher David Greenwood and his team, along with their retired Royal Tyrrell colleague Dennis Braman.

Inside the nodosaur’s belly was a mass about the size of a soccer ball that contained rocks. The rocks are called gastroliths and are used to grind up the animal’s food within its stomach. (Royal Tyrrell Museum)

Ferns and charcoal

They discovered that the dinosaur was a bit of a picky eater. While it lumbered through a landscape that was lush with conifers, horsetails and cycads, there weren’t a lot of those in its stomach.

“It’s almost all ferns,” Brown said, noting that ferns aren’t actually very nutritious. “It wasn’t just hoovering up everything on the landscape.”

But to him, the biggest surprise was that the stomach also contained a significant amount of wood, mostly charcoal, suggesting it was feeding in an area that had recently been ravaged by wildfires.

“And that’s a really cool result,” Brown said. “Because if you look at large mammals that are herbivores today, they often seek out areas that are recovering from forest fires.”

That’s because the new growth tends to be lush, more nutritious than older plants, and low to the ground where it’s easily accessible.

Microscope images show some of the plant material found inside the stomach, including a club moss spore sac (a), fern spore sacs (b-d), a charcoal fragment (e), parts of plant stems and leaves (f-l) and a cross section of a twig, showing its annual rings (m). (Brown et al/Royal Tyrrell Museum)

Forensic paleobotany

By looking at the types of spores and the fact that the twigs appeared to be in the middle of their growing season, the researchers figured out that the animal died during the wet season, which was late spring or early summer.

In Dinosaur Cold Case, a recent documentary about the fossil on CBC’s Nature of Things, Greenwood said extreme storms and flash floods would have been a problem at that time of year on the coastal plain where the dinosaur and suggested that being swept away by rushing water may have been what caused its death.

These are some plant fossils from Alberta from about the time that Borealopelta lived, including ferns, a gingko (d), horsetails (i) and a conifer cone (j). (Brown et al/Royal Tyrrell Museum)

The discoveries about the nodosaur’s last meal are significant because to date, Brown said, “we know almost nothing about what herbivorous dinosaurs eat.”

Only guesses can be made based on what plants lived nearby and the dinosaur’s teeth. There are also clues in fossil dinosaur feces, but the plant material in those are often digested beyond recognition and it’s difficult to know which dinosaur they came from.

Part of the problem is that finding preserved stomach contents from a dinosaur is “extraordinarily rare,” Jim Basinger of the University of Saskatchewan, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. 

Nine cases of possible dinosaur stomachs of plant-eating dinosaurs have been found, the researchers note, but most have turned out to just be plant material found nearby rather than actual stomachs. In this case, the dinosaur was washed far out to sea, without any plants from the landscape it lived in, before it was fossilized.

“So in this case we have what I would say is by far the best evidence that these are stomach contents,” Brown said.

That said, he notes that it may not necessarily be representative of what this species normally ate, as an animal’s diet can vary depending on its age, its health, and the seasonal availability of different foods.

Still, he said it’s useful to be able to compare it to what scientists think plant-eating dinosaurs were eating at that time and raises new questions to investigate, such as: How much of this food a dinosaur this size would have needed to eat to sustain itself? And how did it digest it?

 “I think give us a benchmark for figuring out how this animal may have lived.”

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