1. Genetic Alchemy: Turning Lobsters Into Fruit Flies

    How were body plans able to undergo large-scale changes during the course of evolution? For instance, how did something that looked like a centipede evolve into something as different as a fruit fly? This is a question that has long concerned biologists that study evolutionary history. Genetic mutations that would dramatically alter body structures could potentially kill an organism before it even had a chance to live.

    Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, now have genetic evidence that explains how such drastic alterations to body plans were able to occur during the early evolution of animals.

    In a ...

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  1. Warm-Nosed Robot Breaks the Ice

    An adventurous science team recently returned from the deep Norwegian glacial fields, having tested an instrument which may one day be used to explore areas beneath the frozen surfaces of other worlds. As demonstrated by the Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech, their robotic ice-pick, dubbed Cryobot, sports a heated nose-cone especially designed to melt frozen ground and drill cryogenically. Their most recent depths broke through the equivalent of an ice sheet the size of an eight-story building, or 23 meters (75 feet) into a glacier.

    Glacier cutting combines an extreme operating environment with new technology to navigate and image the ...

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  1. From Lightbulbs to Life

    We all know that metals like copper, iron and zinc are needed to maintain human health. Molybdenum is also an essential nutritional requirement, used by several enzymes in the body to help metabolize carbon, nitrogen and sulfur compounds. Most other life forms use molybdenum in similar ways. But a one-celled organism that lives in deep-sea volcanic vents has developed an alternative metabolism that uses tungsten instead of molybdenum.

    Called Pyrococcus furiosus, the name means “rushing fireball” and refers to the microorganism’s quick rate of reproduction – P. furiosus can double its numbers in just 37 minutes – and its preferred ...

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  1. Interview With Michael Meyer

    KATHLEEN – Michael, please give me your official title and tell me a little bit about your background and how you got involved with Astrobiology.

    MICHAEL – I’m the Astrobiology discipline scientist at Headquarters; I also am the program scientist for the Mars 2001 Odyssey Mission. It’s kind of interesting, actually…I mean, how do you end up working in an area that’s as fun as Astrobiology? I was told that I should be an engineer since I was good at math, so I went to RPI as an engineer.

    I just decided one year that I ...

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  1. The Great Dying

    It was almost the perfect crime.

    Some perpetrator — or perpetrators — committed murder on a scale unequaled in the history of the world. They left few clues to their identity, and they buried all the evidence under layers and layers of earth.

    The case has gone unsolved for years — 250 million years, that is.

    But now the pieces are starting to come together, thanks to a team of NASA-funded sleuths who have found the “fingerprints” of the villain, or at least of one of the accomplices

    The terrible event had been lost in the amnesia of time ...

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  1. Earthshine

    When the crescent moon is just a sliver each month, the phrase—‘old moon in the young moon’s arms’— poetically describes a marvel of nature. This marvel shows the shadow of the Earth reflecting back the largely blue light from the Earth, known as earthshine. As recently presented at the 199th national meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., astronomers from the University of Arizona Steward Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have benchmarked earthshine. Their findings provide clues as to how best to recognize distant planets that may harbor elements needed for life.

    Those elements—mainly, water ...

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  1. Digital Zookeepers Take a Census

    By Astrobiology News staff writer

    If the name of each species on Earth were put on a single recipe card, the box containing them all would stretch for over 6 miles. There are approximately 1.4 million species that have been named by researchers, but the true number of species on earth may be anywhere between 5 and 30 million species.

    If just keeping those animal names straight wasn’t challenging enough, the shuffling of cards over time has captured the combined interest of a 25 member scientific team, first organized by Dr. Charles Marshall (now at Harvard). In reporting some ...

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  1. Living in the Dark

    Over the past several years, scientists have discovered life in the most unusual places. From rocky abodes deep underground, to hot volcanic vents under the seas, there seems to be no place on Earth that life doesn’t exist.

    All of this life, even the life that lives in total darkness, is dependent on the Sun for energy. Plants and many Bacteria get their energy directly from sunlight, through photosynthesis. Animals and other organisms get their energy indirectly, by feeding on the complex organic molecules of photosynthetic organisms. These sun-produced organics eventually filter down into the Earth’s darkest reaches ...

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  1. The Tagish Lake Meteorite:

    Around 9:48 on the morning of January 18, 2000, a 150-ton space rock plunged into the earth’s atmosphere. As it approached the Canadian remote territories, the meteor traveled at the speed of a fast highway car (67 miles per hour). A scientific consortium of 4 universities and NASA is now trying to uncover the debris and sample the early solar system’s unique chemistry.

    Indeed, landing between the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in a remote vacation village, the rock volume started its descent totaling about the size of a small truck. At 5 meters (or 15 feet) across, the ...

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  1. NASA Scientist Finds Some Meteorites Not Sugar-Free

    A discovery by a NASA scientist of sugar and several related organic compounds in two carbonaceous meteorites provides the first evidence that another fundamental building block of life on Earth may have come from outer space. A carbonaceous meteorite contains carbon as one of its important constituents.

    Previously, researchers had found in meteorites other organic, carbon-based compounds that play major roles in life on Earth, such as amino acids and carboxylic acids, but no sugars. The new research is reported in a paper, “Carbonaceous Meteorites as a Source of Sugar-related Organic Compounds for the Early Earth,” by Dr. George ...

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  1. Bugs From Hell

    Deep, very deep, beneath the surface of Earth a microbial community dines and thrives. Slowly, but tenaciously, these deep dwellers feed on gases seeping into rock fissures and divide – maybe once every thousand years – to make more of themselves. Geochemists and microbiologists are delving into the details of extreme biochemistry deep within the Earth, where chemical and metabolic processes go at glacial pace, and life appears to be completely disconnected from the photosynthesis-based biological cycles that dominate surface life.

    “There is a huge biomass inside the Earth,” says David Boone, a microbiologist at Portland State University in ...

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  1. In Search of E.T.'s Breath

    If “E.T.” is out there, whether in the form of intelligent beings or much simpler organisms, we may soon be hot on its trail. For the first time in history, the dream of searching for signs of life in other solar systems belongs not only on the philosopher’s wish list, but on the list of doable and planned human endeavors.

    Momentum is gaining rapidly. Only 6 years ago, the first planet around another Sun-like star was discovered by scientists using Doppler Detection — a method that reveals Saturn-sized (or larger) planets close to their parent suns. Today, we ...

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  1. Living on Fool’s Gold

    A bright red river meanders through the countryside of southwestern Spain, its water acidic enough to eat through metal. Such an image brings to mind the worst excesses of industrial pollution, and scientists long assumed that a local copper mine had contaminated the Tinto River.

    Mining activity at the Tinto River dates back at least 5,000 years, and while it has altered the river it is not solely responsible for the river’s conditions. Acid rock drainage is a natural process that occurs when water, oxygen, and bacteria interact with sulfide minerals, producing highly acidic solutions. The Tinto River ...

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  1. Life Without Volcanic Heat

    An 18-story undersea vent off the Atlantic, near what has been called the ‘Lost City’, has recently revealed itself as ripe with exotic microbial life. From the University of Washington oceanography team, led by Deborah Kelley, recent reports in Nature magazine point to a new way to build such towering vents from what is nearly 100% limestone.

    Previous deep-sea finds of hot vents have not reached beyond 8-stories (80 feet) and also proved rich in a mix of black minerals (mainly iron-sulfides). But the new vent found atop the seafloor mountain Atlantis Massif, is nearly 10 stories taller. Not piled ...

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  1. Evidence of Bacteria on Europa?

    Jupiter’s moon Europa is thought to be one of the most likely abodes for microscopic life in our solar system. The ice-covered world may have liquid water, energy, and organic compounds – all three of the ingredients necessary for life to survive.

    Streaks of reddish-brown color highlight cracks in Europa’s outer layer of ice. Some scientists have speculated that microorganisms suspended in Europa’s ice may be the cause of these colorations. To test this theory, planetary geologist Brad Dalton of the NASA Ames Research Center compared the infrared (IR) signature of Europa’s ice with the IR signature of microorganisms living ...

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