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Extremophiles: Life on the Edge

The possibility of life on Mars and other planets and moons has been debated for as long as we have known about those planets. Now that water has been found on the Mars, that possibility is more believable than ever. Sure, conditions are fierce on Mars, but research here on planet Earth reveals that life forms can be tough. In fact, wherever it was once thought that no life could exist, more and more organisms are being found that not only live, but thrive and evolve.

Hot Springs

The boiling waters of Yellowstone National Park and other extreme thermal environments have species of thermophiles, or organisms that thrive in temperatures that would kill most living things. These thermophiles have specialized enzymes that keep their DNA from unraveling the way other life forms would. Chemicals from various thermophile species are used for a range of biochemical applications, such as DNA fingerprinting technology. Image by Flickr user v1ctory_1s_m1ne.

The Dead Sea

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The Dead Sea has such a high saline content that pillars of salt form on its banks. Yet Halobacterium salinarum lives in its waters. Halobacterium is one of the most ancient of microbes, and depends more on light for survival than on oxygen. It adjusts its own needs according to the available light and oxygen. Image by Flickr user CharlesFred.

Toxic Sludge

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A copper mine in Montana was abandoned in 1983. As water filled the remaining hole known as the Berkeley Pit, minerals and metals leeched out and made it extremely acidic and poisonous. No fish or plants survived in the toxic water. It was thought to be completely dead until 1995 when a scientist recovered a slime that contained Euglena mutabilis, This protozoan manipulated its immediate environment to make it more livable! Researchers eventually found over 160 different species of microorganisms in the polluted water, some of which are being studied for use in cancer treatment. There is hope that Euglena mutabilis will eventually clean up the toxic water. Image by Linda Amaral Zettler and David Patterson.

Beneath the Great Lakes

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Sinkholes deep beneath the Great Lakes have a very different chemical makeup from the water above. These pockets are filled with salt, acid, and sulfur, but have purple cyanobacteria that use sulfur instead of oxygen for photosynthesis. Other species that live too deep for sunlight to penetrate live on sulfur without photosynthesis.

Sea Floor Volcanos

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In the depths of the Pacific ocean, volcanic vents support life too far down to take advantage of any sunlight at all. Tubeworms and giant clams thrive in volcanic environments by feeding on smaller species that survive only on chemicals without the advantage of photosynthesis. Image credit: NOAA.

High-altitude Volcanos

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The Socompa volcano is 20,000 feet high in the Andes mountains. Conditions there include little oxygen, lack of water, ultraviolet radiation, and methane. But scientists have found moss, algae, and over a hundred species of bacteria living in the shadow of Socompa. The area has been compared to Mars in its ability to sustain life.

In the Clouds

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Bacteria even live in the clouds! These microbes act as particles that ice form around and fall as snow or rain. They are called biological ice nucleators. Nucleators are found in plants and soil and are thought to ride on pollen as it is blown into the atmosphere. The part of the bacterial life cycle spent on vegetation may sustain an ice nucleator during its ride in the clouds, and the cloud seeding may be a mechanism for spreading it to distant parts of the earth.

Space

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No look at extremophiles would be complete without tardigrades, or water bears. These tiny animals are found in various extreme conditions on earth. They can survive hot and cold temperatures, radiation, lack of food and water, and even in a vacuum. The European Space Agency sent tardigrades into orbit in 2008, where they were exposed to cosmic radiation, solar radiation, and vacuum pressure. The space tardigrades were in a dormant state during the flight, which means their metabolism was slowed down considerably -a method they use to weather extreme conditions on earth. After returning from their adventure, they lived and even reproduced! Image by Flickr user Goldstein lab - tardigrades.

Beneath Antarctica?

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Two miles beneath the ice of Vostok Research Station in Antarctica, a huge freshwater lake has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. The water is below freezing temperature, but stays liquid because of the pressure from the ice above. Researchers have not yet broken through to the water, but samples of ice just above the lake reveal the presence of microbe fossils. The lake is saturated with oxygen due to the temperature and pressure, and has been compared with the environments of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. There are plans to send down a probe called a cryobot, but extreme care will be taken to preserve the pristine conditions of the isolated lake.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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