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Matthew J Parker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

How Scientists Use Old Museum Specimens to Make New Findings

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Matthew J Parker, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

More and more researchers are making new discoveries using old museum specimens. By digging through archives and collections, they've identified scores of new species, including the teddy bear–like olinguito and the Ruth Bader Ginsberg mantis.

Now, scientists examining cyanobacteria found during an expedition in Antarctica more than a century ago have made a surprising find: It looks an awful lot like the bacteria living there today. Their report on the bacteria’s stability appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Cyanobacteria are itsy-bitsy organisms that have occupied Earth’s fresh and salt water for more than 3.5 million years. Also known (inaccurately) as blue-green algae, these single-celled microbes grow in clumps, balls, and sheets all over the world—even in the punishing cold of Antarctica.

Microscope image of Tolypothrix cyanobacteria
Tolypothrix cyanobacteria under a microscope.

The earliest expeditions to Antarctica had multiple goals, including scientific study. During the Discovery Expedition (1901–1904), Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team fished a soggy mat of cyanobacteria from Lake Joyce. They brought the mat back to London’s Natural History Museum (NHM), where it was examined, pressed like a flower between sheets of paper, and shelved for safekeeping.

Fast-forward more than 100 years, and things aren’t looking so great for the Antarctic. Climate change is melting icecaps, changing the landscape, and altering plants’ and animals’ behavior and evolution. Researchers with NHM and the University of Waikato wondered if the same was true for the continent’s bacteria.

Anne Jungblut and Ian Hawes journeyed back down to Lake Joyce, where they used drills, cameras, and sediment traps to collect new cyanobacteria samples. Back in London, they retrieved Captain Scott’s algae mats from the archives. They compared the old and new samples, inside and out, scouring the mats for microbe fossils and sequencing their genes.

The results suggested that not much has been going on at Lake Joyce this past hundred years. The two groups of bacteria were remarkably similar, comprising the same species in the same proportions.

This could be good news, the researchers say. "We suggest that this relates to Antarctic freshwater organisms requiring a capacity to withstand diverse stresses," they write, "and that this could also provide a degree of resistance and resilience to future climatic-driven environmental change in Antarctica."

As genetic testing technology improves, museum-based discoveries like this one become more and more common. Biologist Evon Hekkala, of Fordham University, tells Mental Floss, "We are seeing time and time again (no pun intended!), that museum collections originally made for exploratory purposes can take on new and critical roles in helping us to understand the fine details of how living things are responding to our rapidly changing environment. They have helped in some cases to confirm that human activities are driving the loss of genetic diversity and in other cases to exonerate us. This paper is a nice example where we have a comparison across time that can help us to understand how resilient certain living things can be in the face of change. I always say that with museum collections time travel really is possible!"

Hekkala has herself made discoveries using museum specimens. She identified a new crocodile species lurking in the drawers of the American Natural History Museum (AMNH) when she took samples from two crocodile specimens collected from different sides of the Congo River, as she recounts in a recent episode of the AMNH video series Shelf Life: "I was dumbfounded when I looked at the DNA sequence. It turns out that one specimen represents the Nile crocodile species that we all know and love, and the other represents a completely separate species of crocodile. In fact, they’re so distinct that they’re not even each other’s closest relatives. They haven't exchanged genes in millions of years."

Hekkala says museum collections are more important than ever as climate change, deforestation, and habitat loss destroy our planet’s plants and animal populations: "These specimens represent an irreplaceable resource that can never be re-acquired."

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Space
Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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