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Meet Marimo, the World’s Most Charismatic Algae

The words beloved and algae don’t often show up in the same sentence.* But Aegagropila linnaei is different. Velvety balls of the green algae are revered as national treasures, celebrated in religious ceremonies, and even kept as pets. 

A. linnaei is a woolly algae that grows in lakes all over the Northern Hemisphere. In most regions the algae forms dense mats on the lake bed. In a few special places it grows into colonies of huggable emerald-green orbs. The movement of a lake’s waves gently turns the algae balls as they grow, ensuring that every inch is exposed to sunlight.

In Japanese, the lake balls are called marimo (literally “bouncy ball plant”); in Ainu, the language spoken by the native people of Japan on the island of Hokkaido [PDF], they’re torasampe (“marsh monster”). In Icelandic, they’re known as kúluskítur, or “round s**t,” after the complaints of fishermen who have snared a ball in their nets.

Despite these epithets, the people of Japan and Iceland adore their lake balls. Hokkaido’s Lake Akan has been declared a national park in order to safeguard the lake's marimo colony. The marimo themselves are bigger than basketballs and hundreds of years old. More than 500,000 visitors each year make a special trip to the marimo observation center located on an island in the middle of the lake just to watch the marimo grow. (They grow very slowly—about 5 mm a year—so this can't be an action-packed event.)

Because it’s Japan, the lake ball craze has spawned a weird regional mascot. Hokkaido’s cartoon representative is Marimokkori, an anthropomorphic marimo with his very own algal erection. Yes, for real. The mascot’s name is a portmanteau of marimo and mokkori, a slang term for an erection.

Other celebrations of the marimo are more reverent. Members of Hokkaido’s native Ainu community have staged a marimo festival every year since 1950. The festival grew out of concern for the then-polluted lake and its marimo, which were being removed from the lake and kept as pets. The community held a national Marimo Amnesty Day that resulted in the recovery of 48 lake balls. An Ainu priest blessed the marimo before returning them to the lake. Now every year a number of marimo are taken from the water, cleaned, blessed, and carried through the streets. At the end of the ceremony, a priest in traditional Ainu dress rows out onto the lake and lovingly releases the marimo back to their watery home. 

Ghost shrimp on marimo. Image credit: Flickr user mobile_gnome // CC-by-ND 2.0

The kúluskítur of Iceland’s Lake Mývatn were not so lucky. Mining operations in the 1960s released phosphorus and nitrogen—two of bacteria's favorite foods—into the lake. Existing colonies of bacteria exploded into massive blooms, clouding the water and blocking sunlight from reaching the marimo on the bottom of the lake. Mining at the lake ended in 2004, but by then it was too late. By 2013, Lake Mývatn had lost its marimo. The loss may not be permanent; some scientists believe the damage can be reversed, and have begun devising plans to return the lake to its former chemical balance.

These days, you don’t have to travel to meet marimo. Aquarists have embraced smaller versions of the fuzzy algae balls as décor and oxygen sources for their fish tanks. Marimo have also made a comeback as pets, and it’s no wonder—they’re cute, fascinating, and low-maintenance. They’re also much easier to find now than they used to be. Rather than poaching national treasures, you can just buy your own on Etsy or Amazon.

*Outside of the phycology community, anyway.

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
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Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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