Scientists warn of the harmful effects of CRISPR gene editing

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology has revolutionized gene editing and allows scientists to make targeted cuts to DNA.

CRISPR uses the Cas9 enzyme to do this and after target areas have been removed, the DNA repairs itself.

The potential implications of CRISPR are massive as it could help eradicate genetic diseases, but there are still a wide range of ethical concerns about how far is too far when it comes to gene editing.

Now, a new study has found that CRISPR gene-editing can create large-scale unwanted DNA deletions that go by undetected.

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute conducted the study which was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Because CRISPR involves cutting and rearranging DNA, the researchers found that this can cause mixed up rearrangements as the DNA attempts to repair itself and make unwanted deletions.

“The cell will try to stitch things back together,” said Allan Bradley, the leader of the study. “But it doesn’t really know what bits of DNA lie adjacent to each other.”

Bradley and his team found that CRISPR was deleting strands of DNA that were thousands of letters long and because of the amplifying methods used to test the success of gene edits, these large-scale cuts went unnoticed.

These unforeseen ramifications put a damper on CRISPR’s potential and calls for more stringent testing among researchers.

There are some companies that are on the lookout for large-scale deletions, including eGenesis and Intellia. eGenesis is using gene editing to engineer pig organs so that they are safe for transplant. Itnellia is using CRISPR to study mouse livers but keeping an eye out for large-scale deletions is a routine part of their process.

Gene editing could remove the risk of genetic conditions and diseases but it’s also a process that is not without its flaws as this study shows, and more attention to these large-scale edits is needed by gene editing scientists.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Scientists discover 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter

While investigating the possible existence of a massive planet Beyond Pluto, scientists discovered that Jupiter has 12 more moons than previously realized. While 11 of these moons found orbiting the planet are considered to be normal, there is one that the experts are calling an “oddball.”

The research team, led by Scott S. Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science, first observed a giant object in our solar system in 2014, which is now referred to as Planet X or Planet Nine.

“Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant Solar System objects, so we were serendipitously able to look for new moons around Jupiter while at the same time looking for planets at the fringes of our Solar System,” said Sheppard.

Gareth Williams at the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center explained: “It takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter. So, the whole process took a year.”

Nine of the newly-discovered moons are part of a distant collection of moons that orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter’s spin rotation. They are believed to have originated from larger bodies before colliding with asteroids, and take about two years to orbit the planet.

Image Credit: Roberto Molar-Candanosa, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science

Two of the new moons have been found to orbit in the prograde, or same direction as the planet’s rotation, within a closer group of moons. Similar orbital distances and angles suggest that this pair may be fragments of a larger moon that was broken apart, and they circle the planet in just under a year.

“Our other discovery is a real oddball and has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon,” said Sheppard. “It’s also likely Jupiter’s smallest known moon, being less than one kilometer in diameter.”

This moon, which takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter, is more inclined to the prograde group of moons – yet has an orbit that crosses the outer retrograde moons. For this reason, the atypical moon is more prone to collisions with both prograde and retrograde moons.

“This is an unstable situation,” said Sheppard. “Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust.”

The incredible findings of the study modify the total number of moons orbiting Jupiter to 79, which is the most of any planet in our Solar System.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Scientists: pair of Japanese volcanoes shared magma pool

Two Japanese volcanoes, Aira caldera and Kirishima, a more than 13 miles apart. But scientists are now realizing that the two are much more closely connected than anyone suspected.

Now, geologists have confirmed that the pair of volcanoes are connected by a vast subterranean network of magma.

Their first concrete evidence came during the 2011 eruption of Kirishima.

“We observed a radical change in the behavior of Aira before and after the eruption of its neighbor Kirishima,” said Dr. Elodie Brothelande, a researcher at the University of Miami. “The only way to explain this interaction is the existence of a connection between the two plumbing systems of the volcanoes at depth.”

Brothelande led the team of geoscientists from the university’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Florida International University as they analyzed data collected by 32 geopositional satellite stations located near the Japanese volcanoes.

Before Kirishima erupted, scientists studying Aira found that the caldera had stopped growing. They believed the volcano was at rest – until magma started flowing at Kirishima. Now, the GPS data has confirmed what experts suspected: the two volcanoes were connected to the same pool of magma, and Kirishima’s eruption interrupted the flow to Aira.

It also lends new evidence to a long-lived hypothesis, that the eruption of one volcano can affect other nearby volcanoes. Volcanic activity elsewhere in the world has long pointed to this, but until now, there was no solid proof of such a relationship between two or more volcanoes.

That means that when scientists begin observing sudden changes at one volcano, they should look for other changes nearby that could indicate an eruption.

“Eruption forecasting is crucial, especially in densely populated volcanic areas,” said Brothelande. “Now, we know that a change in behavior can be the direct consequence of the activity of its neighbor Kirishima.”

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Study finds spike in cardiovascular disease in India

Cardiovascular disease is taking a growing toll on India, especially among young adults and rural populations, a new national study has found.

Ischemic heart disease, which develops as arteries in the heart grow narrow, has increased rapidly among Indians from 30 to 69, with rural areas outpacing cities between 2000 to 2015, the researchers discovered. In northeastern India, rates of premature stroke deaths also rose to about three times the national average – though much of the country saw a decrease.

Dr. Prabhat Jha, who runs the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, led the first-of-its-kind study of Indian health.

“The finding that cardiac disease rose nationally in India and that stroke rose in some states was surprising,” Jha said. “This study also unearthed an important fact for prevention of death due to cardiovascular disease. Most deaths were among people with previously known cardiac disease, and at least half were not taking any regular medications.”

Up until this study, most scientific research into cardiovascular disease in India has taken the form of small, local studies or modeling based on imprecise research. But cardiovascular disease is one of the major causes of death globally, especially ischemic heart disease and stroke.

The researchers launched the study of India’s cardiovascular disease and death rates as part of the Million Death Study, a global effort to examine causes of premature death.

Census takers with special medical training traveled throughout India, asking people about family members’ deaths and conducting “verbal autopsies” to determine the most likely causes.

“Making progress in fighting the leading cause of death in India is necessary for making progress at the global level,” Jha said. “We demonstrated the unexpected patterns of heart attack and stroke deaths. Both conditions need research and action if the world is going to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of reducing cardiovascular mortality by 2030.”

The study has been published in The Lancet Global Health.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Scientists: tiny algae triggered ancient mass extinction

Researchers have discovered what may be the Earth’s only mass cooling event, and it might have wiped out three-quarters of marine life on the planet. The mass extinction event has been linked to tiny algae, the team said.

The team, studying ancient ocean sediments discovered in Nevada, found that the algae population may have exploded during the Late Ordivician period. That in turn may have caused the atmosphere to cool rapidly, leading to a massive die-off of marine species, said Dr. Ann Pearson of Harvard University, one of the study’s co-authors.

“The coincidence of this community shift with a large-scale marine transgression increased organic carbon burial, drawing down [carbon dioxide] and triggering the Hirnantian glaciation,” the researchers wrote.

The team found that the samples of limestone and shale from Nevada, sediments from an ancient ocean, contained compounds that come from production of chlorophyll.

But the amount of the compounds that the tiny algae produced nearly quintupled over just a few million years, the team found.

That suggests that the algae population exploded – sucking up carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. In the process, excess carbon would have been trapped in the ocean floor, cutting atmospheric carbon levels drastically and perhaps triggering glacial expansion.

During the Late Ordivician from about 447 to 444 million years ago, a series of extinction events known as the “big five” took place. One of the events brought about the end of a majority of the sea-dwelling species at that time. An ice age that lasted half a million to 1.5 million years followed.

Most microalgae – including cyanobacteria, formerly known as blue-green algae – use photosynthesis to grow, processing sunlight, carbon dioxide and a few other nutrients.

Dr. Richard Pancost of the University of Bristol told Earth and Space Science News that the study shows how algae may be an important part of carbon regulation on Earth.

“It is a fascinating hypothesis based on some exciting new data,” said Pancost, who was not involved with the study.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Experts can now forecast forest growth much like weather

Researchers at Virginia Tech are using methods similar to weather forecasting to anticipate the growth rates of trees. Changes in temperature, water, and atmospheric carbon concentrations can all affect forests, and ecological forecasting is aimed at predicting the future extent of these impacts.

The research expands on two previous investigations funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The first study, known as PINEMAP, was based on forest growth data collected by hundreds of researchers over the past 35 years. Using this data, mathematical models were developed to estimate how pine forests may respond to climate change.

The second project was led by R. Quinn Thomas, an assistant professor of Forest Dynamics and Ecosystem Modeling in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. This study was focused on identifying uncertainties in how climate models predict the influence of forest ecosystems on temperature and precipitation patterns.

The similarities between these two projects prompted Thomas to design an additional study aimed at forecasting forest productivity through the middle of the 21st century.

“I realized that we could use the past to inform the future,” said Thomas. “Historical observations on tree growth and weather can be fed into a mathematical model describing how forests grow, making it more accurate over time. This is similar to how weather forecasts are updated as new weather data becomes available.”

Thomas and his team used the findings from both projects to develop an analytical framework that can be combined with predictions from climate models to generate a future ecological forecast.

The model, which represents the process of forest growth, is provided with data on the diameter of trees, the number of leaves produced in a given year, and how much water is evaporated from the forest.

Next, statistical methods similar to those used in weather forecasting are applied to the model, which is adjusted to account for uncertainties.

“This new study allows us to put a level of certainty or uncertainty on those estimates, so we’re able to say ‘there is an 80-percent chance that the forest will grow faster over the next few decades,’” explained Thomas.

The research was focused specifically on loblolly pine plantations, an important source of timber for the Southeastern United States.

“We found that in this region, there will be about a 30-percent increase in productivity between now and the middle of the century,” said Thomas. “The largest gains are forecasted in Virginia, and there’s high confidence that we’ll see that increase in productivity there. In Florida, however, the increase in productivity is expected to be lower, and we may even see a decline in productivity between now and mid-century.”

Thomas pointed out that there are some uncertainties across varying regions of the Southeast. Regardless, the new method of ecological forecasting seems promising.

“I’m excited to see how this particular forecast does over the next few decades and to update it as we learn more about how forests work and as more data become available,” said Thomas. “Furthermore, this system sets a foundation for this process to be used in the forestry industry to predict other aspects besides productivity.”

“Beyond that, the study is an example of how ecological scientists are starting to think about becoming forecasters in a way similar to how we’ve been forecasting the weather, and that’s very exciting.”

The research is published in the journal Ecological Applications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Virginia Tech

Ghost particle arrived on Earth from 3.7 billion light years away

The analysis of a neutrino, also known as a ghost particle, that blasted into Antarctic ice last year has just opened up an entirely new approach to space exploration. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has traced the origin of the mysterious particle to a galaxy 3.7 billion light years away.

Neutrinos are named for being electrically neutral and also for their incredibly small mass, which was long believed to be zero. On the subatomic scale, the gravity of a neutrino is extremely weak and these particles normally pass through matter completely undetected at nearly the speed of light.

The presence of this particular neutrino was detected last September by IceCube, a sensor buried about two kilometers beneath the ice near the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

The tremendous force behind the particle as it hit the ice indicated that it came from beyond our solar system. The neutrino struck the ice with the energy of about 300 trillion electron volts, according to NASA, which is more than 45 times the energy that is generated by the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth.

Because cosmic rays are charged particles, powerful magnetic fields throughout space distort their trajectories. Neutrinos, on the other hand, have no charge and are unaffected by magnetic fields, which means their paths point almost directly to their source.

Once the trajectory of the neutrino was identified by IceCube, experts all over the world were alerted to look for flares or other outbursts in an effort to find its source. Ultimately, data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope recognized accelerated gamma-ray emission that correlated with the rare neutrino interaction.

The activity was coming from a type of galaxy known as a “blazar,” which has a supermassive black hole that blasts out streams of highly energetic particles in opposite directions. The term blazar is used when one of these streams is pointed directly toward the Earth.

“Fermi’s LAT monitors the entire sky in gamma rays and keeps tabs on the activity of some 2,000 blazars, yet TXS 0506 really stood out,” explained NASA Postdoctoral Fellow Sara Buson. “This blazar is located near the center of the sky position determined by IceCube and, at the time of the neutrino detection, was the most active Fermi had seen it in a decade.”

The blazar known as TXS 0506 is around 3.7 billion light years from Earth, just to the left of the constellation Orion.

This is the first time scientists have ever detected a neutrino and identified its source. Detecting neutrinos, which are some of the most abundant substances on the planet, will provide scientists with a brand new way to explore the complex processes that are taking place in other galaxies billions of light years away.

Julian Osborne is a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester and was part of a team that confirmed the blazar.

“This is literally a new way of seeing the universe,” Professor Osborne told The Guardian. “This really is the dawn of a new type of astronomy.”

The research is published in two separate papers in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Felipe Pedreros, IceCube, NSF

Fossils reveal that humans left Africa earlier than we thought

A new study from the University of Exeter is completely changing the timeline of when humans first left Africa. Ancient tools and bones discovered in China are providing evidence that humans arrived in Asia at least 270,000 years earlier than what was previously realized.

“Our discovery means it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa,” said study co-author Professor Robin Dennell.

A Chinese team of archaeologists led by Professor Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences recovered the artifacts. An analysis of the findings suggest that early humans colonized East Asia over two million years ago.

The oldest tools, which were found in the southern Chinese Loess Plateau, date back around 2.12 million years. The earliest evidence of humanity outside of Africa prior to this study were 1.85-million-year-old skeletal remains and stone tools from Dmanisi, Georgia. The newly-discovered artifacts are older by 270,000 years.

The ancient tools include a notch, scrapers, cobble, hammer stones, and pointed pieces. All of the specimens show signs of use, and the stone had been intentionally flaked.

Most of the tools were made of quartzite and quartz that likely came from the foothills of the nearby Qinling Mountains and the streams flowing from them. Fragments of animal bones were also found to date back 2.12 million years.

There were 80 stone artefacts preserved in 11 different layers of fossil soils, which had developed in a warm and wet climate across the Chinese Loess Plateau. An additional 16 items were found in six layers of loess that developed under colder and drier conditions, showing that our early ancestors lived in this region under different climate conditions between 1.2 and 2.12 million years ago.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu

Ice mummy’s last meal reveals human diet from the Copper Age

In 1991, the oldest naturally-preserved ice mummy was discovered by German tourists in the Eastern Italian Alps. The first analysis of the ancient human’s stomach has revealed that the mummy, known as the Iceman, ate a final meal that was loaded with fat.

The research is providing rare insight into the dietary habits of European individuals more than 5,000 years ago during the Copper Age. The findings also offer a glimpse into how our ancient ancestors may have prepared food.

Study lead author Frank Maixner is an expert at the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

“By using a complementary multi-omics approach combined with microscopy, we reconstructed the Iceman’s last meal, showing that he has had a remarkably high proportion of fat in his diet, supplemented with wild meat from ibex and red deer, cereals from einkorn, and with traces of toxic bracken,” said Maixner.

The researchers explained that the investigation had not been conducted sooner because scientists were initially unable to identify the Iceman’s stomach, which had shifted upward during the mummification process.

Maixner said that the material found in the stomach was compared to extraordinarily well-preserved samples from the lower intestine. He also explained that the stomach “contained large amounts of unique biomolecules such as lipids, which opened new methodological opportunities to address our questions about Otzi’s diet.”

Using both modern molecular approaches and classic microscopic methods, the researchers set out to determine the exact composition of the Iceman’s diet before his death.

The experts identified ibex adipose tissue, which made up about half of the stomach contents, as the most likely fat source. Although this level of fat content was not expected, the researchers said it makes perfect sense considering the extreme environment that the Iceman lived in.

“The high and cold environment is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss,” explained study co-author Albert Zink. “The Iceman seemed to have been fully aware that fat represents an excellent energy source.”

According to the study, the wild meat had either been eaten fresh or dried out. The presence of toxic bracken particles from fern plants is difficult to understand, but the scientists believe it is possible that the iceman could have suffered intestinal problems from parasites and ate the bracken as treatment. The fern leaves could have also been used to the wrap food before it was eaten.

Next, the researchers will use traces of the gut bacterial community present in the Iceman’s intestinal contents to reconstruct the ancient gut microbiomes of these other mummified remains.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Southtyrolarchaeologymuseum\Eurac\M.Samadelli

Study: People place their trust in scientists over policy makers

Are people more likely to place their trust in scientific experts or government officials when advised to change habits or make better health decisions?

A new study found that in the US and UK, the public is more likely to believe and follow advice from scientific experts rather than government officials, and the results show that people are biased towards scientific findings even when being told something outlandish.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

The researchers asked US and UK residents to consider a set of nudges proposed by both policymakers and scientists in three large-scale experiments.

Nudges are interventions or changes that people can make to improve health and welfare and which are presented as short, attractive snippets.

For example, proposing to put catchy photos in stairwells to encourage people to take the stairs is a nudge.

Some of the nudges, like the stairwell example, presented to the participants were real and already being implemented whereas others were completely fictitious.

One example of an outlandish nudge was the suggestion that people stir their coffee counter-clockwise to avoid cancer risks.

The nudges that were presented by scientific experts were favored by the participants and those were considered more trustworthy, even if they were implausible like the coffee nudge.

“While people judged genuine nudges as more plausible than fictitious nudges, people trusted some fictitious nudges proposed by scientists as more plausible than genuine nudges proposed by the government,” said Norman Fenton, the study’s co-author. “For example, people were more likely to trust the health benefits of coffee stirring than exercise if the former was recommended by scientists and the latter by government.”

While one takeaway of the results could be that people will trust scientists no matter what information is actually presented, the researchers say that the study shows people are more discerning and prone to scrutiny than typically thought.

“The evidence suggests that trust in scientists is high, but that the public are skeptical about nudges in which they might be manipulated without them knowing,” said Magda Osman, the lead author of the study. “Overall, the public make pretty sensible judgments, and what this shows is that people will scrutinize the information they are provided by experts, so long as they are given a means to do it.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Lost extinctions: When animals die off before science finds them

Certainly the majority of plants, animals, fungi, etc. that have become extinct died long before people, let alone scientists, got around to describing them.  

Dinosaurs, the most famous of extinct animals, died off around 65 million years ago, before humans evolved and certainly before Linnaeus invented his way of scientifically classifying organisms.  According to PBS, of all the organisms that ever ran, gasped, ate or simply grew in the soil, 99.9% are now extinct.

Oil spills, global climate change, over hunting, and starved feral cats have done a lot of damage, but not nearly that much.  The fact is, like every person you now know; every species alive today will someday be dead. Species, like individuals, have lifespans.  Just as we don’t use the argument, ‘they were eventually going to die anyway’ to justify the holocaust or school shootings, the rate of modern extinctions is inexcusable.  A vast number of modern extinctions are the fault of humans, too.

Most of us are aware of modern extinctions like that of the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon and the Thylacine.  Most of us are also aware of a handful of the myriad of known threatened and endangered species. Most of us have heard of Jane Goodall’s beloved chimpanzee and vaguely know that dolphins and some fish species aren’t doing so well these days.  Less of us understand the size of the extinction event we’re tied up in at this very moment. There are so many more insects, amphibians, small mammals and others less charismatic than the Panda that may soon face extinction.

Also, much like an individual human leaves children behind, species often diverge, leaving new species as ancestral ones become extinct.  Like many tragedies, there are many that are now dying, unknown and unrecognized, sometimes directly from human causes.

In his book The Secret Knowledge of Water, Craig Childs talks about small, natural desert pools in California and the invertebrates discovered in them:

“They become genetically isolated over thousands, and then millions of years.  In 1992, after nearly all of the temporary vernal pools of California were destroyed by human development, researchers went out to catalog those still intact.  Of the sixty-seven species of crustaceans found in the remaining pools, thirty had never been documented anywhere on the planet…A quarter of these newly found species were each found in its own pool among the fifty-eight pools studied, meaning there is not much motion between one pool and the next.  What was lost in the hundreds of destroyed pools is unknown.”

Imagine species dying off because of human actions and no one even realizing it until after the fact.  Perhaps you or I have stepped on one of the last of an exceedingly rare species of ant or swatted an insect thinking it a mosquito and precipitated extinction.  The thought is both depressing and awe inspiring in its suggestion of the number of life forms still inhabiting the planet with us.

The Simandou region of Guinea, West Africa is a land of lush and modest mountains covered in tropical forests.  The area is considered one of the world’s most biologically rich but also endangered forest habitats. Among mountains rising as high as 5440 feet above sea level, there are caves.  One of these caves contained a rare cockroach, Simandoa conserfariam, or the Simandoa Cave Cockroach.  The roach seems unremarkable to most, an animal with a smooth, dark grey body with darker heads and orange-ish legs.  

What makes these roaches unique is the fate of their cave home.  After scientists collected a few of the cave cockroaches, the cave itself was destroyed by a bauxite mining operation.  In a weird twist of fate, the cockroach now lives all over the world, fostered in small cages by pet enthusiasts with irregular love for arthropods.  You can even buy a roach nymph online for $6.00 in the US.  

I’ve explored caves in search of tiny arthropods as a volunteer for projects involving Northern Arizona University and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  It’s easy for a spider, a millipede or a cricket living in the dark cracks of limestone to elude a researcher. You can spend a week or a month scouring a cave and still find new animals hiding in the dark.  Considering the fate of the Simandoa Cave Cockroach, it’s easy to imagine that many species weren’t lucky enough to be carried into captivity before dying off in their native habitats.

Another cockroach known for its ability to glow, mimicking a poisonous click beetle was discovered in Ecuador.  Mongabay reported that the roach, Lucihormetica luckae, may already be extinct.  In the case of the glowing cockroach, it vanished after 2010 when a volcano erupted near where it was discovered.  The cockroach is (or was) the only known example of a land animal using bioluminescence in mimicry.

In animal taxonomy, vertebrates are more well-known than invertebrates.  Partly this is because there are fewer vertebrates and they are generally easier to find, partly we understand vertebrates better because we’re biased towards them.  Birds are intensively researched, both professionally and by ‘citizen scientist’ birders fascinated by their feathered neighbors. In an article in, Alexander Lees and Stuart Pimm paint a picture of some of the birds we may have lost in Brazil’s highly endangered Atlantic Forest and elsewhere in the world:

“The recent update of the IUCN Red List has identified 13 more bird species that went extinct after 1500, but before taxonomists could describe them. All of these were island species. We are still documenting the impacts of European explorers —and the rats and cats that came with them — that began centuries ago. We know about some early extinctions from anecdotal evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and drawings… Northeast Brazil has a similar, albeit less certain example: multiple travellers reported an all-black parrot, but no specimen exists…”

If a species of bird can go extinct with little fanfare, without any scientific knowledge, it doesn’t bode well for other less conspicuous organisms.  

Nearly the reverse of an organism that goes extinct without being described scientifically is a so-called ‘Lazarus taxon’.  A Lazarus taxon is an organism thought to be extinct, sometimes recently and sometimes found only as a fossil but then later is found to actually be still alive.  

The classic example of a Lazarus taxon is the coelacanth.  The coelacanth can measure up to six feet in length and 200 pounds in weight.  The ocean is a vast place to hide for an animal that is dwarfed next to whales, sharks and giant squid.  The coelacanth was thought to have died off in the extinction event that took the dinosaurs 65 million years ago until a fisherman caught one off the coast of Madagascar in 1938.  A second specimen of coelacanth was found in Indonesia in 1998.

There are a number of animals that were thought to be legend or extinct but turned out to be alive.  Gorillas were once thought by westerners to be a native myth, not a real animal. The Golden Bamboo Lemur was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered.  

The fact is, as much as we think we know about the natural world, we’re largely ignorant of even the basics of what organisms are now alive and which are extinct.  According to a paper published in PlosOne, an estimated 86% of land species are undescribed by science and 91% of species in the ocean.  That leaves an enormous amount of mystery in the world and an enormous amount of potential to destroy life or leave it as it is.          

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

LED lights could save seabirds from getting stuck in fishing nets

An international team of researchers led by the University of Exeter has found that illuminating fishing nets with inexpensive LED lights could cut injuries and deaths to seabirds and marine animals by more than 85 percent.

The experts demonstrated that green, battery-powered LED lights can drastically reduce the amount of birds getting caught in gillnets, which are placed in fixed positions and designed to capture fish by the gills. The investigation was focused on 114 pairs of gillnets in fishing waters off the coast of Peru.

The study revealed that, compared to the nets that were not illuminated, the nets with LED lights caught 85 percent fewer guanay cormorants – a native diving bird that commonly becomes entangled in nets.

Image Credit: ProDelphinus

A previous study conducted by the same team found that LED lighting also reduced the number of sea turtles caught in fishing nets by 64 percent.

The researchers believe that the lights provide a cheap and reliable method that will dramatically reduce the capture and death of birds and turtles, while essentially having no effect on the amount of fish caught in the nets.

“We are very encouraged by the results from this study,” said lead author Dr. Jeffrey Mangel. “It shows us that we may be able to find cost-effective ways to reduce bycatch of multiple taxa of protected species, and do so while still making it possible for fishers to earn a livelihood.”

Peru’s gillnet fleet is estimated to set at least 100,000 kilometers of net per year, in which thousands of turtles and seabirds will be unintentionally caught as bycatch.

“It is satisfying to see the work coming from our Exeter Marine PhDs leading to such positive impact in the world,” said study co-author Professor Brendan Godley. “We need to find ways for coastal peoples to fish with the least impact on the rest of the biodiversity in their seas.”

The research is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Andrew F Johnson