I do love the Onion.

The death of print journalism is a bit of a cliche these days, but in some cases these monuments of the fourth estate drag down some of the bastions of good science journalism. I doubt the Boston Globe is down to 3 subscribers, but they are hurting, and last year they cut their Health/Science section. This used to be one of the best main-stream sources for science journalism, conveniently located in a central hub of cutting edge research (Harvard, MIT, Boston U, UMass, and numerous bio-tech companies all within a few square miles).

Hopefully, these guys can figure out how to bring their stuff online and actually make money at it.

Also, tucked in as a throw-away gag at the end:

Next up in science news: New evidence is challenging traditional views on which IS the most awesome dinosaur?

This might be an example of when PR might be good for science.

From global warming to evolution to vaccine safety, the public consistently (and sometimes increasingly) doesn’t know or doesn’t believe the scientific consensus. A new piece in Wired magazine claims this is because scientists are bad at PR:

On the final day of last winter’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel convened to discuss the growing problem of climate change denial. It went poorly[…] What the scientists should have been asking was how they could reverse the problem. And the answer isn’t more science; it’s better PR[…]

“They need to make people answer the questions, What’s in it for me? How does it affect my daily life? What can I do that will make a difference? Answering these questions is what’s going to start a conversation,” Bush [CEO of a PR firm] says. “The messaging up to this point has been ‘Here are our findings. Read it and believe.’ The deniers are convincing people that the science is propaganda.”

It’s hard to argue that good PR might improve science outreach, but there are several problems with this approach. One, as the author notes, is that scientists hate the idea of “spin.” You shouldn’t have to spin good science, the evidence should speak for itself. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans don’t have the ability to interface directly with the evidence; most scientific journals are locked behind pay-walls, and even with access, the general public would be hard pressed to penetrate the dense, jargon-filled articles. After four years of college and several years working in biology labs, I finally started getting proficient at reading primary biology papers a year into graduate school.

Another problem: who pays for the PR? It’s all well and good for Tiger Woods to pay a professional PR firm, but scientists spend enough time writing grants for money to do experiments. And scientists are mostly decentralized, there’s no organized structure for coordinating this sort of effort even if it was desired. Maybe the government could step in, but politicians are generally scientifically illiterate, and some are in the anti-science camp themselves.

I have mixed feelings, but I think the best place to start is with education in schools. That’s more of a long term strategy though. In the short term, I’m not sure what to do, but professional PR people are probably not the answer.

A group of American and Canadian scientists (primarily based at McGill) published a paper recently in the journal of the International Society of Microbial Ecology (ISME) that offers insight into the possibility of life on Mars.  The paper is entitled “Microbial characterization of a subzero, hypersaline, methane seep in the Canadian High Arctic”, and you can read the abstract here.  The researchers found a spring that is below freezing, but liquid due to the high salinity (24%, for comparison the ocean is about 3.5%).  They found methane seeping out of this spring.  Methane seeps like this are extremely rare in the terrestrial world, but have been relatively well studied in the ocean.

In their words : “Here we report on the first microbiological and geochemical characterization of the only known terrestrial methane seep in a cryo-environment on Earth in the form of the hypersaline subzero spring, which arises through thick extensive permafrost in an area with an average annual air temperature of -15 °C and with air temperatures below -40 °C common during the winter months.  This site provides a model of how a methane seem can form in a hypersaline cryo-environment and can support a viable microbial community where methane itself may behave as an energy and carbon source for sustaining anaerobic oxidation of methane.”

Typically when methane is being produced it is either through biological or geological processes.  The recent discovery of methane plumes on Mars was exciting for this reason… it implied that either there was some unknown geologic activity on Mars (it is assumed to be inactive below the surface) or there was a community of microbes producing methane on Mars.  That is a maybe bit of an oversimplification, but I am not a planetary geologist.  Anyhow, folks in the astrobiology world have been proposing that we might be looking at evidence of methane producing microbes (methanogens) on Mars.  Other astrobiologists disagree with this contention because while there is water on Mars, it is very saline… so saline that some think life is impossible (technically it is the water activity and not the salinity that make the planet so inhospitable, but sanity is a good way to thing about it).  Two of the things that make this recent paper so cool is that it finds a location on Earth that could be analogous to the hyper-saline methane seeps on Mars, and that it provides evidence for an alternate scenario to methanogens being what we should expect to find if there is life on Mars.

The methane in the spring in this study is not likely to be produced biologically.  The difference between the carbon isotopes in the methane and the carbon dioxide indicate that it is not biological in origin (organisms preferentially use certain isotopes, and therefore leave an isotopic “signature” in the carbon that indicates when methane was formed biologically).  However, the scientists found a community of organisms living in this ultra-extreme environment.  The organisms they found (both bacteria and archaea) seem to be using the methane as energy and a carbon source, rather than producing it.  These metabolisms might be coupled with sulfur oxidation like it is at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and methane seeps.  Microbes that “eat” methane are interesting from a climate change point of view because methane is one of the major greenhouse gasses aside from carbon dioxide.

The archaea found in this study are related to those found in hypersaline deep-sea methane seep sediments, while the bacteria seemed to be related to those found in terrestrial Arctic and Antarctic environments.  Another cool thing about this paper is that the authors were able to culture 8 different types of bacteria from these samples.  This is exciting because more than 99% of all bacteria have not yet been cultured, and scientists can learn a great deal more about an organims once they are able to grow it in a lab.

The authors also suggest that this site might be a location where ancient DNA could be preserved.  This is because high salt tends to keep DNA from degrading over long periods of time.

In summary this study is very cool because…

  • It characterizes life from an extreme environment that has not been studied previously (terrestrial hypersaline methane seep).
  • It offers insight into what type of life we might expect to find in similar environments on Mars (not necessarily what we expected).
  • The authors were able to extract DNA from difficult samples, and was able to culture organisms from this extreme environment.
  • It suggests that this site might offer more cool discoveries in the future (like ancient DNA).
  • It draws a connection between the microbial ecology of the hot deep sea and the frigid Arctic.

Carl Zimmer does a great job discussing the role the role that microbes play in global carbon cycling here.  He focuses on how microbial carbon cycling relates to climate change.  Through their metabolism, these organisms are responsible for moving a huge amount of carbon around the planet (cool semi-related fact: marine microbes produce more oxygen than all land plants put together), but we barely understand who they are and what, exactly, they do.  This is one reason that predicting climate change is so difficult!

I would like to introduce myself as a new contributor to this blog.  I study deep sea hydrothermal vent microbes.  This might sound incredibly obscure, but I think it is ridiculously cool, and most of the time I can convince myself that it is important too.  My field of study overlaps with the quest to understand the evolution of life on this planet, the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, the race to discover and describe the inhabitants of this planet, and maybe even climate change. There is some evidence suggesting that life on Earth may have evolved in heated environments such as hydrothermal vents. Astrobiologists searching for life on other planets believe that geologic environments similar to hydrothermal vents may exists on planetary bodies such asEuropa and may harbor life. It is now known that there is more biomass (dry weight of living things) in deep sea microbes than on all the continents combined, and we have virtually no idea what impact these organisms have on ocean chemistry.

Hydrothermal Vents are areas of the sea floor where the nature of the rock allows water in the interstices of the ocean crust heated by Earth’s internal fire to spew into the ocean and interact with the colder rocks and water that it encounters.  The water that comes in contact with the magma becomes super-heated and is therefore able to dissolve lots of minerals that water doesn’t otherwise contain.  Heat adds energy to a system that causes chemical reactions to speed up, and so many reactions happen in the presence of hot water that wouldn’t be noticeable otherwise.  These hydrothermal fluids can be up to 350oC (662oF), which means that they would be gas (water vapor) under the pressures that we are used to on Earth’s surface.  However, pressures at the sea floor bottom can be up to 345 times what they are at sea level, so these liquids remain just that.  As soon as the heated fluid comes in contact with cold seawater (2oC, 36oF), the dissolved minerals immediately crystallize out of solution and form magnificent solid rock chimney-like structures that are given names like HulkGiraffe, or Pinocchio by the scientists who discover them.

Deep sea environments are very challenging to study because we can’t see them.  The Hubble space telescope can see galaxies 15 billion light years away, but satellites cannot take pictures of the bottom of the ocean because the water itself acts a barrier to light beyond 50 meters.  We have ways of sensing the topography of the ocean floor using satellites and sonar aboard ships, but we cannot see what’s there without sending down some type of camera with its own light source.  So while there are many snapshots of the deep, scientists have to make educated guesses about what lies between. We have more detailed maps of the surfaces of the Moon and Mars than we do of the sea floor.  I have described the challenges of studying the mysterious ocean hereThis blog is another great resource for everything deep.

In 1977 geologists made a discovery that changed the way we think about life on this planet.  During a geologic research cruise to find places on the sea floor where Earth’s crust was pulling apart geologists found unbelievable assemblages of species.  In this environment, thought to be devoid of life due to the lack of sunlight, they found diversity and richness that rivaled the tropical rain forests.  This was contradictory to everything scientists thought they understood about the deep sea.  There had been previous indications of life in these deep wastelands, but no one expected that a significant amount of life could thrive in the deep.  It had been assumed that there simply couldn’t be enough organic matter drifting down from above to support dense communities. A fundamentally new process for energy generation had to exist to allow these communities to flourish.  Geology was the key!  These perplexing organisms were tapping into energy from inside the earth, rather than 93 million miles away from it, through a process called chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) that was completely unknown for the first 10,000 years of human civilization.   My expanded description of this incredible discovery can be found here.

My research focuses on the fundamental unanswered questions of which microbes are living in the vent chimneys, patterns in their distribution, and what, chemically, are they doing.  Do their metabolisms affect the global carbon cycle?  Do the ecological patterns of species richness and distribution mirror the well-established ecological patterns of larger organisms?  What allows these organisms to live at higher temperatures than most other organisms on the planet?  These are some of the questions that I hope my research will help answer one day.  I would like to introduce myself as a new contributor to this blog. I study deep sea hydrothermal vent microbes.  This might sound incredibly obscure, but I think it is ridiculously cool, and most of the time I can convince myself that it is important too.  My field of study overlaps with the quest to understand the evolution of life on this planet, the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, the race to discover and describe the inhabitants of this planet, and maybe even climate change. There is some evidence suggesting that life on Earth may have evolved in heated environments such as hydrothermal vents. Astrobiologists searching for life on other planets believe that geologic environments similar to hydrothermal vents may exists on planetary bodies such as Europa and may harbor life. It is now known that there is more biomass (dry weight of living things) in deep sea microbes than on all the continents combined, and we have virtually no idea what impact these organisms have on ocean chemistry.

Hydrothermal Vents are areas of the sea floor where the nature of the rock allows water in the interstices of the ocean crust heated by Earth’s internal fire to spew into the ocean and interact with the colder rocks and water that it encounters.  The water that comes in contact with the magma becomes super-heated and is therefore able to dissolve lots of minerals that water doesn’t otherwise contain.  Heat adds energy to a system that causes chemical reactions to speed up, and so many reactions happen in the presence of hot water that wouldn’t be noticeable otherwise.  These hydrothermal fluids can be up to 350oC (662oF), which means that they would be gas (water vapor) under the pressures that we are used to on Earth’s surface.  However, pressures at the sea floor bottom can be up to 345 times what they are at sea level, so these liquids remain just that.  As soon as the heated fluid comes in contact with cold seawater (2oC, 36oF), the dissolved minerals immediately crystallize out of solution and form magnificent solid rock chimney-like structures that are given names likeHulkGiraffe, or Pinocchio by the scientists who discover them.

Deep sea environments are very challenging to study because we can’t see them.  The Hubble space telescope can see galaxies 15 billion light years away, but satellites cannot take pictures of the bottom of the ocean because the water itself acts a barrier to light beyond 50 meters.  We have ways of sensing the topography of the ocean floor using satellites and sonar aboard ships, but we cannot see what’s there without sending down some type of camera with its own light source.  So while there are many snapshots of the deep, scientists have to make educated guesses about what lies between. We have more detailed maps of the surfaces of the Moon and Mars than we do of the sea floor.  I have described the challenges of studying the mysterious ocean hereThis blog is another great resource for everything deep.

In 1977 geologists made a discovery that changed the way we think about life on this planet.  During a geologic research cruise to find places on the sea floor where Earth’s crust was pulling apart geologists found unbelievable assemblages of species.  In this environment, thought to be devoid of life due to the lack of sunlight, they found diversity and richness that rivaled the tropical rain forests.  This was contradictory to everything scientists thought they understood about the deep sea.  There had been previous indications of life in these deep wastelands, but no one expected that a significant amount of life could thrive in the deep.  It had been assumed that there simply couldn’t be enough organic matter drifting down from above to support dense communities. A fundamentally new process for energy generation had to exist to allow these communities to flourish.  Geology was the key!  These perplexing organisms were tapping into energy from inside the earth, rather than 93 million miles away from it, through a process called chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) that was completely unknown for the first 10,000 years of human civilization.   My expanded description of this incredible discovery can be found here.

My research focuses on the fundamental unanswered questions of which microbes are living in the vent chimneys, patterns in their distribution, and what, chemically, are they doing.  Do their metabolisms affect the global carbon cycle?  Do the ecological patterns of species richness and distribution mirror the well-established ecological patterns of larger organisms?  What allows these organisms to live at higher temperatures than most other organisms on the planet?  These are some of the questions that I hope my research will help answer one day.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics looks at potential health and developmental risks associated with giving babies lots of vaccines very early versus spreading them out over the first few years of life. Short story shorter – there are none:

The analysis found little difference in results for children in both on-time and delayed vaccination groups. The on-time group did slightly better on an intelligence test and a little faster on a test asking children to name things. “There’s not a single variable where the delayed kids did better,” Dr. Smith said.

Of course, as the WSJ article points out, delaying vaccination does put kids at greater risk for the infections that vaccines help prevent. But is this research going to convince the anti-vaccine parents out there? I doubt it.