Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Fossils Suggest Life on Earth Is Much Older Than We Thought

Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

In the grand scheme of things, the entirety of human existence has barely lasted the blink of an eye. We’re freshmen in our own home and constantly learning—which is why our understanding of the universe changes by the day. One recent shakeup comes courtesy of scientists in Greenland, who have found traces of life dating back 3.7 billion years, pushing back life's earliest known appearance by hundreds of millions of years. They published their findings in the journal Nature

As any historian can tell you, reconstructing the past is a complicated and nuanced process, since all we have to go on is what’s been left behind. And the farther back in time you go, the harder it gets. Much of what we “know” about dinosaur behavior amounts to highly educated guesses based on footprints or the shape of a break in bone. Looking back even farther to the planet's earliest life forms, and you don’t even have bones or footprints to go on, since the simple organisms that gave rise to every living thing on Earth were both microscopic and squishy. To understand the world of these organisms—indeed, even to find them—researchers often have to rely on context clues.

One great indicator of microbe activity is mineral formations. Our earliest ancestors interacted with chemicals in their environments in ways that left behind solid, densely layered structures called stromatolites. Each stromatolite is kind of like an apartment building: a sturdy home that will be around long after the soft bodies within it have decayed and disappeared. The building is not its inhabitants, but without them, it would not exist. 

The oldest known stromatolites in the world are a series of dome- and cone-shaped structures in Western Australia. Experts estimate that these microbe-made lumps in the exposed red rock are about 3.48 billion years old.

But as our planet’s climate shifts and glaciers melt, new sections of primordial stone have come to light. One such section is in the Isua region of southwest Greenland, where scientists found stromatolites in a newly exposed outcrop of very, very old rock.

Itsy-bitsy microbe condos. Image credit: Nutman et al. in Nature.2016

The wave-shaped formations were small, ranging from one to four centimeters in height, but the layered structure within was unmistakable. The rock in which the waves were embedded is at least 3.7 billion years old—which makes these the oldest fossils on earth by a good 220 million years.

Experts say finding the stromatolites is a reminder of the tenacity of living things. “If life could find a foothold here, and leave such an imprint that vestiges exist even though only a minuscule sliver of metamorphic rock is all that remains from that time, then life is not a fussy, reluctant and unlikely thing,” wrote Abigail Allwood of NASA in an accompanying commentary. “Give life half an opportunity and it’ll run with it.”

[h/t Gizmodo]

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The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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