Space viruses could lead to discovery of extraterrestrial life

Even though viruses are more abundant than any other organism on Earth, there is still a lot to be learned about them. Researchers from Portland State University (PSU) are saying that one of the things that we still need to learn about viruses is whether or not they exist in space.

Study lead author Ken Stedman is a Biology professor and co-founder of the Center for Life in Extreme Environments at PSU. Stedman explained that since there are 10 to 100 times more viruses on Earth than any other cellular organism, this could also be the case on different planets and moons.

“More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses,” said Stedman. “Entering the second century of virology, we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet.”

In their article “Astrovirology: Viruses At Large In The Universe,” the researchers suggest that finding viruses on other planets could be key in finding life there as well.

“Viruses arguably have coexisted with cellular life-forms since the earliest stages of life, may have been directly involved therein, and have profoundly influenced cellular evolution,” wrote the study authors.

“Viruses are the only entities on modern Earth to use either RNA or DNA in both single- and double-stranded forms for their genetic material and thus may provide a model for the putative RNA-protein world.”

The experts said that NASA and other space agencies should test for them in liquid samples from Saturn and Jupiter’s moons. They also recommended the development of technology that could detect viruses in ancient deposits on Earth and Mars.

“With this review, we hope to inspire integration of virus research into astrobiology and also point out pressing unanswered questions in astrovirology, particularly regarding the detection of virus biosignatures and whether viruses could be spread extraterrestrially,” said the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Astrobiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The science and art of recovering and preparing fossils

I have worked in fossil casting, preparation and restoration for about 7 years, the bulk being in fossil casting but the majority lately being in fossil preparation.  

When most people hear what I do, they seem to think that preparing fossils would be a romantic, adventurous job. The reality is that it’s tedious work, and if you don’t find excitement in the smallest of new discoveries, there’s little excitement to be had. 

Lately I’ve been working at cleaning the hard sediment covering a shark skeleton from the Cretaceous.  This sounds exciting and it is.  I was the first human being to see the fin, the teeth, perhaps an empty eye socket (can’t say for sure) of a strange animal that died over a hundred million years ago.  

Being the first to see a fossil, to see the delicate bones and skin impressions takes a lot of work.  Many of the people working in fossil preparation that I’ve met have degrees, even advanced degrees in art.  Art relates well to the detail oriented work of fossils and sometimes applies directly when it comes to matching paint or sculpting on a piece of restoration.  A few other people in fossil preparation have degrees in geology, many have no degree.  I’m one of the few people with a formal education in biology.  

Whatever your background, the work of fossil preparation is tedious and sometimes thankless.  To clean the final pieces of sediment matrix from my shark, I’ve spent a week or two hunched over, blasting it with dolomite powder.  I stand over a table with the shark and press a foot pedal that controls the dolomite shooting from a stylus in my hand.  The process is basically precision sand blasting.  I wear a dust mask, I have a fan blowing over the fossil to carry the dust away.  I use a suction tube that filters out the dust.  At the end of the day my face is grimy with dolomite, my arms and hands are powdered white.  I may have cleaned off as little as one or two square feet of fossil depending on how delicate the piece is where I’m working.  

Before using the dolomite I cut close to the fossil with an air scribe, roughing out the stone around the fossil but not quite revealing it.  An air scribe is like the world’s smallest jackhammer; after hours of using it, your hand goes numb and you have to shake blood and feeling back into it.  

After the process of cleaning the fossil, I will still have the shark fossil laid out in several pieces, like broken plates of stone.  I’ll have to glue the fossil back together, fill in any gaps with putty and paint the putty to disguise it.  Every step must be carried out precisely for the best end result; each piece of the work is painstaking and exacting.  The putty must be textured; the paint must be matched by eye sight and mixing.

At the end of all this labor, most museums don’t recognize fossil preparation companies much less individuals in their exhibit displays.  But you can smile quietly, knowing that a dinosaur skeleton or a fish fossil required your hard work.

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer

Tracking urban volatile organic compound sources

Even though about half of all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the northern hemisphere are man-made, the individual levels of these sources have been unclear. But now, researchers at the University of Innsbruck have produced the first chemical fingerprint of urban VOC emission sources.

The research team measured a large number of VOCs on Innsbruck’s campus from July to October in 2015. Using statistical methods, they were able to draw conclusions about individual emission sources from the measurement data.

The EU has been regulating VOCs from organic solvents in paints for the past 15 years. Many of these toxic solvents have been replaced by water-soluble substances, and the transformation can be seen in the results of the study.

“We find smaller amounts of compounds such as benzene or toluene,” said study co-author Thomas Karl. “On the other hand, water-soluble substances are much more ubiquitous. These are less reactive, which can have a positive effect on the formation of ground-level ozone.”

The investigation also revealed that the overall global amount of urban emissions is significantly underestimated, which is due to an extremely high proportion of oxygen-containing compounds.

“If the figure calculated for Innsbruck is also representative of Asian cities – which is rather optimistic – then this would at least double the number globally,” said Professor Karl.

The researchers say that this new estimate of urban emissions will result in higher levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere as well, and climate models may need to be adjusted accordingly.

The team measured a broad range of compounds at very low quantities and were able to establish the fingerprint of VOC emission sources. Many of the trace gases were odorous and reflected the characteristic scent of the city.

“In this respect Innsbruck is a quite ordinary city,” said Professor Karl. “We find mainly traces of food preparation – from coffee roasting to frying – and solvents that humans associate with the particular smell of a city. The sources of emissions range from bakeries to the regional hospital.”

The scientists were surprised to detect compounds derived from cosmetics and detergents.

“In our data, we found clear evidence of silicone oils contained in many cosmetic and cleaning products,” said Professor Karl. “We were surprised that these compounds leave such a characteristic fingerprint in urban air.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The small crystals that can help predict volcanic eruptions

Researchers are reporting that the small crystals found in volcanic rocks may contain critical information that could help predict volcanic eruptions.

The crystals form when magma starts rising from up to 18 miles below the Earth’s surface and they are carried along inside of the magma, changing in size and composition as they are transported.

Dr. Teresa Ubide from the University of Queensland and Professor Balz Kamber from Trinity College Dublin teamed up to conduct a study on Mount Etna, which is the most active volcano in Europe.

Using an advanced laser technique, the researchers managed to view the inside of volcanic crystals in a way they had never been seen before. They discovered that the crystals contain a memory in the form of growth layers that resemble tree rings, which may be utilized in the future for more effective volcanic hazard monitoring.

“They essentially ‘record’ the processes right before the eruption starts,” said Dr. Ubide. “At Mount Etna, we found that the arrival of new magma at 10 km depth is a very efficient trigger of eruptions — and within only two weeks.”

“In this case, therefore, earth tremors at the depth of magma recharge must be taken as serious signs of potential imminent eruptions. At other volcanoes, the method will allow to establish the relationship between recharge depth, recharge frequency and eruption efficiency. This can then help scientists to better relate physical signs of recharge to eruption potential.”

The research team will expand their analysis to other volcanoes around the world. They plan to compare the information with geophysical signs of magma movement.

“The new approach may also prove useful for studying volcanoes that have remained dormant, such as the currently erupting volcano on Kadovar Island, Papua New Guinea,” said Professor Kamber.

“For many volcanoes there is no eruption history, but geologists can collect lavas from past eruptions and study their crystals.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Scientists may soon be able to predict snowpack months in advance

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is preparing a weather prediction system that can tell how much snowpack will occur in the mountains as much as eight months in advance.

Snowpack is the high elevation reservoir of snow that melts and runs off into rivers, streams, and the local water supply.

The ability to predict snowpack would, in turn, forecast how much snow melt a city or town would get which is crucial for water managers and farmers. Water from melting snow can also help with drought and wildfire prevention.

The prediction system can even be targeted to a single mountain range so water forecasts could be regionally specific.

Long-range climate predictions are not out of the question, but they’ve typically been used to show how much snow and precipitation levels will decline in the long-term.

Now, water managers would be able to plan for city water needs based on seasonal snowfalls nearly a year ahead of time.

The prediction system is still in its experimental phases, and while accurate for much of the western United States, NOAA researchers are still having trouble with climate conditions in the Sierra Nevadas.

“Having seasonal snow forecasts would be a tremendous boon to water managers,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program. “I’m not surprised prediction is running into difficulty in the Sierra Nevada, but I’m hopeful the work we’re doing now to improve data from this terrain will help improve prediction here.”

Improving snowpack predictions was made a national priority by The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, and the NOAA’s predictions systems could be monumental in implementing better resource management and reducing the risk of drought and wildfire for much of the United States.  

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Dale Kolke/ California Department of Water Resources

Powerful tractor beam could lead to human levitation

The idea of humans levitating in mid-air may soon be taken out of the realms of science fiction and into reality, as scientists have found a way to trap larger objects in acoustic tractor beams.

Acoustic tractor beams use sound waves to suspend small particles in mid-air. But previously, these particles could only be the same size as the wavelengths of sound.

It had been thought that using larger objects was impossible as it caused the objects trapped in the beam to spin uncontrollably.

However, a team of engineers from the University of Bristol was able to trap a two-centimeter polystyrene ball and successfully keep it stable. The ball measured two centimeters and is the largest object ever held in an acoustic tractor beam.

“Acoustic researchers had been frustrated by the size limit for years, so it’s satisfying to find a way to overcome it. I think it opens the door to many new applications,” said Dr. Asier Marzo, the lead author of the paper.

The results were published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

This revolutionary discovery could lead to advances in surgery, as delicate operations could be done hands-free, and possibly could create the means to someday levitate humans.

The engineers were able to manipulate the rate of rotation of acoustic vortices, or essentially sound tornadoes. The beam creates an acoustic cyclone, and in the “eye,” or core, it’s silent.

When the research team quickly changed the twisting direction of the vortices, they were able to stabilize the beam and hold larger objects in the silent core.

The engineers used ultrasonic waves, at a pitch of 40 kHz, to trap the small polystyrene sphere in the core.

The results show for the first time it is possible to trap larger objects in an acoustic beam in a stable way, and the researchers are excited about the implications their study could have on future technology.

“Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications. I’m particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them,” said Bruce Drinkwater, a supervisor of the research.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Climate intervention engineering can’t be stopped once started

Researchers at Rutgers University have conducted the first-ever study on the potential consequences of geoengineering. The experts are reporting that once the process of climate intervention is started, there will be serious biological impacts if it is ever stopped.

The geoengineering technique that has been explored the most by scientists is the idea of spraying sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the event of a climate crisis, this would form a cloud over the Earth to help cool the planet. However, the new study finds that this type of climate intervention could have devastating impacts.

“Rapid warming after stopping geoengineering would be a huge threat to the natural environment and biodiversity,” said study co-author Alan Robock.

“If geoengineering ever stopped abruptly, it would be devastating, so you would have to be sure that it could be stopped gradually, and it is easy to think of scenarios that would prevent that. Imagine large droughts or floods around the world that could be blamed on geoengineering, and demands that it stop. Can we ever risk that?”

Even though the climate impacts of geoengineering have been analyzed in great detail, scientists know very little about the effects that climate intervention may have on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Robock pointed out that if a cloud is created from sulphur dioxide, airplanes would have to continuously fly into the upper atmosphere to maintain the cloud because it would last only about a year if spraying stopped. He said that the airplane spraying technology may be developed within a decade or two.

For their investigation, the research team developed a global scenario with moderate cooling through the use of geoengineering. They worked under the assumption that the sulfuric acid clouds would reduce the global temperature by about 1 degree Celsius.

However, if geoengineering was stopped, this would lead to warming at a rate of 10 times faster than if geoengineering had never been implemented. Plants and animals would be put at a major disadvantage.

“We really need to look in a lot more detail at the impact on specific organisms and how they might adapt if geoengineering stops suddenly,” said Robock.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

New “green” plastic can be made from renewable sources

Plastics are often derived from petroleum, which contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. But now, experts at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center have developed a much more environmentally friendly method of making plastic from biomass.

Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is a chemical needed to make a renewable plastic called polyethylene furanoate (PEF). The research team has developed an economical and high-yielding process of producing FDCA from a plant-derived solvent called gamma-Valerolactone (GVL).

This means that PEF could become a bio-based substitute for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum and has a market demand of 1.5 billion tons per year.

Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, H.J. Heinz, Nike, and Procter & Gamble have all committed to developing a sustainably sourced, 100 percent plant-based PET for their products and packaging. In the past, however, the potential of PEF to fill this role has been limited by the high cost of producing FDCA.

“Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,” said study co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. “You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.”

The new process developed by the team begins with fructose, which is converted into FDCA using a two-step process. The end result is a high yield of FDCA.

“Using the GVL solvent solves most of the problems with the production of FDCA,” said Motagamwala. “Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in this solvent, you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent.”

The system does not require expensive mineral acids for catalysis and also does not produce waste salts. Furthermore, the FDCA crystals can be easily separated from the solvent by using a simple cooling process.

“We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry have been waiting for,” said lead author James Dumesic. “Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.”

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is now working to license the team’s GVL technology for use in bioplastics production. The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: UW-Madison image by Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde

Adolescent drinking can lead to adult liver problems

Drink as a teen, and you may face liver problems as an adult. That’s the conclusion of a new study into the risks of alcohol consumption in adolescence.

Studies have linked alcohol consumption to cirrhosis of the liver for decades, along with conditions like alcoholic hepatitis and fatty liver disease.

Among alcoholics and chronic heavy drinkers, anywhere from 15 to 20 percent develop cirrhosis – liver damage that is, unlike fatty liver disease, irreversible.

It turns out that when someone starts drinking may play a role in whether they develop cirrhosis, along with how much they drink.

“Our study showed that how much you drink in your late teens can predict the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life,” lead investigator Dr. Hannes Hagström of Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital said in a press release.

The new investigation used data from a 1969-1970 study of Swedish men conscripted into military service; during that period, conscription was compulsory and with few exceptions, only men who had severe disabilities were allowed to bow out.

This gave Hagström’s team around 49,000 men from ages 18 to 20 to include in their study. Using identity numbers with their conscription records, they checked to see how many of the men had developed severe liver problems including cirrhosis.

They then used information about alcohol consumption early in the men’s life to determine whether it played a role in their later liver problems. They found that the 383 men who had severe liver disease, liver failure or who had died from liver problems had a history of drinking more in late adolescence than their peers.

While the recommended alcohol limit for men is 30 grams, or about three drinks a day, the scientists found that even six grams of alcohol a day in youth can significantly raise the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life.

“The present study adds to our knowledge about the risks of chronic alcohol consumption at a younger age,” Dr. Alexandre Louvet of the Hôpital Huriez in France wrote in an editorial to accompany the study. “Safe levels of alcohol consumption must be revised for the general population and public health policies must be adapted accordingly.”

The study’s results are restricted to men; further study among women is needed, the researchers said.

The study was published in the Journal of Hepatology.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Journey North turns everyday people of all ages into citizen scientists

Journey North – a powerful tool for wildlife biologists, climate scientists, teachers and volunteers – grew out of one woman’s exploration of how the internet could be used to collect and store data.

The citizen science program has been helping researchers and volunteers of all ages track seasonal migration since it was founded by Elizabeth Howard in 1994. But while Howard expected the project to be popular, she never thought it would take off the way it has in the 25 years since.

“Because it was such an early project, there was no vision to see where it might go, because there was nothing out there to compare it to,” she said in a phone interview.

Back then, the web was in its infancy, but Journey North took advantage of the new technology. It’s grown as that tech has, too, with each successive website renovation making it easier for scientists, educators and volunteers to enter and access data.

Journey North was always intended to be accessible to the public.

“It’s a very easy entry point,” Howard said. “It’s designed to be simple, with easy-to-recognize species and a minimum investment of time.”

The project tracks several different migratory wildlife species along with plant growth, ice melt and other signs of spring. By bringing in citizen scientists and classrooms all over the world, it creates a huge pool of data for professionals.

At the same time, the volunteers who enter their own data can see how it fits into the bigger picture.

Journey North leads several projects that rely on citizen science:

  • Each spring and fall, volunteers report sightings of monarch butterflies, larvae, eggs, and the growth of the milkweed the delicate insects feed on.
  • Citizen scientists also follow hummingbird migrations, reporting on where the tiny avians appear and which local plants they feed on. American robins, orioles, barn swallows, bald eagles and other birds are the subjects of additional tracking projects.
  • Classrooms and gardeners all over the world create tulip test gardens each winter, waiting each spring for green sprouts and bright red flowers to appear, along with carefully monitoring the weather. The project lets participants and scientists track the onset of spring.
  • Volunteers can also choose to record sunrise, sunset and signs of seasonal change on the 20th of each month.
  • For the Leaf-Out project, citizen scientists “adopt” a local tree from a list of specific species, then report when leaves reach a certain size each spring.

The projects are designed so that budding scientists of all ages – even those with no scientific background – can participate and help professional scientists track the changing of the seasons.

And that’s one of the major goals of Journey North.

Fitting into the classroom

Some collaborative scientific projects can require a lot of background knowledge and effort, Howard said. That can make them seem overwhelming or even exclusive to people who want to help, but aren’t sure how.

Journey North aims to make room for everyone who wants to be involved – from kindergarten classrooms to working adults or retirees who just want to contribute.

“That’s something that we really put a lot of effort into,” Howard said.

It shows, in that a lot of volunteers with Journey North go on to join more complex projects.

There’s a special focus on classroom education, and that’s by design, too. Journey North is funded by Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation that encourages teacher development and classroom excellence.

Journey North’s projects give students a hands-on look at how science works in the world around them. Students learn to observe the natural world – drawing tulips and leaves, recording temperature measurements, looking for and counting birds and butterflies, and other basics of scientific observation.

Then, when they’ve entered their data, they can see how it connects to their local ecosystem. The patterns they spot in the worldwide data can show them how their neighborhood fits into the bigger picture.

“It’s real-time, it’s real-life, it’s real science. You’ve got things that are happening that are literally outside your back door, yet you can see how you’re connected to the larger ecosystem,” Howard said.

The reporting standards for each project are deliberately kept simple.

For example, Leaf-Out asks citizen scientists to observe and record buds on their chosen tree, and to report to the website once those leaves have reached the size of a U.S. or Canadian quarter.

The springtime Monarch Butterflies project has volunteers record the first adult butterfly, first egg, first caterpillar and first milkweed sprout they see that season. (The project also operates in the fall.)

The website provides access to all that submitted data, with tools that help teachers interpret it, such as interactive maps or printable journal pages to keep track of lessons.

While these contributions seem simple, Howard said, in reality they create a massive collection of data that professional scientists couldn’t gather on their own.

The monarch project is a great example. Because of how the butterflies migrate, their feeding and breeding habits, and their short lifespan, they provide a unique glimpse into how environmental changes can affect an entire species.

“For about four weeks in the spring, monarchs have only got about four weeks to live,” Howard said.

During this four-week migration, even small changes have have a massive effect on the butterflies’ population.  

One example came in 2012, when the monarch migration period was unseasonably warm. Milkweed grew 600 miles farther north than it usually does, and the butterflies followed it. With the sightings mapped, scientists could look at weather data to see how the warmer temperatures drew the monarchs so far afield.

Other weather patterns have affected the butterflies, but sometimes there’s no one to record them, and data is lost. Citizen scientists help to fill in those gaps, saving the professionals time and gathering data they would otherwise miss out on. All this data is used by scientists to help guide conservation priorities.

And that’s another way teachers can use the projects to teach their students about the real-world applications of science.

Kids can see how the data they’ve helped to collect goes into guiding local and state regulations, or efforts by scientific and conservation organizations to protect and restore wildlife habitat.

How Journey North helps professional scientists

“Much of what has been learned about the monarch butterfly and its migration is the result of citizen science projects,” the U.S. Forest Service writes on its website, citing Journey North and several other monarch-watching projects.

The research conducted by Journey North’s enormous team of citizen scientists on monarch butterflies has been cited by the Weather Channel, the Environmental Defense Fund and newspapers all over the U.S. and beyond.

The program works with other citizen science groups as well as professional biologists, climatologists and other researchers.

Over 25 years, Journey North has collected a wealth of scientific data that serves as a piece of a much larger puzzle, along with data collected by other volunteer groups and professional research teams.

Of course, all of that data doesn’t provide easy answers. It still has to be interpreted and analyzed by scientists, and looked at alongside other datasets for a larger picture.

Because the site focuses on spring and fall migrations, spotting patterns becomes a little tricky. Spring is a dynamic time of year when unexpected things can happen, Howard said.

“It’s always so hard to tease out what is a long-term climate change, versus what is a seasonal change,” she said.

Sometimes, population changes in the species Journey North tracks can be traced to a loss of habitat or food sources. Other times, it’s not so simple. A few years ago, a storm during their migration apparently wiped out a huge chunk of the monarch population, but it was one of those events that wasn’t recorded in the data.

Still, over more than two decades, some patterns begin to emerge.

“We see very clearly how a warm spring or a cold spring effects these migration,” Howard said.

While the program hasn’t been collecting data long enough to confirm changing climate trends, the maps and numbers collected by citizen scientists can provide insight into how a trend of warmer or colder springs could affect migratory species.

So will Journey North be adding new projects in the future? Probably not anytime soon, Howard said.

“I think we’re good for right now. It’s important to focus on the ones that we [have],” she said. “We’ve done a lot of trial and error over the past 25 years and we kind of know what works.”

They’d rather provide a rich, excellent source of data on a few innovative projects than lose focus and sacrifice quality.

“Plus it’s really fun to compare one year to the next. That’s where half the interest comes from,” she said.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Elizabeth Howard, Journey North

Empire State Building, Pentagon built with ancient microbes

The Pentagon and the Empire State Building are both decades old, but parts of the two iconic buildings are a whole lot older. About 340 million years old, to be exact, made by ancient microbes that predated the dinosaurs.

Oolitic limestone has been used in the construction of buildings all over the globe, including the Empire State Building and the Pentagon. The popular material is made up primarily of tiny, millimeter-sized spheres of carbonate known as “ooids.”

Now, a new study led by researchers at the Australian National University found that ooids are not made up of layers of sediments, as previously believed. Instead, they’re layer upon layer of mineralized microbes.

“We have proposed a radically different explanation for the origin of ooids that explains their definitive features,” Dr. Bob Burne, a co-researcher in the study, said in a press release. “Our research has highlighted yet another vital role that microbes play on Earth and in our lives.”

Oolitic limestone has been found all over the world, in the U.S., Europe, China and Australia.

Because the limestone is sturdy and lightweight, humans have been using it as a building material for millennia. Along with the Empire State Building and the Pentagon – both made with Mississippian oolitic limestone – the stone has been used in the construction of Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum and much of the city of Bath in England.

The researchers found their mathematical formula for analyzing the limestone’s ooids in an unlikely place: neuroscience.

“Our mathematical model explains the concentric accumulation of layers, and predicts a limiting size of ooids,” said Dr. Murray Batchelor, a co-researcher from ANU. “We considered the problem theoretically using an approach inspired by a mathematical model developed in 1972 for the growth of some brain tumors.”

The team’s research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Australian National University

The building blocks of life came to Earth earlier than thought

When did water first form on Earth? Meteorites containing important elements brought the makings of water to a very early Earth, but there’s still some speculation as to when exactly that happened.

It was previously thought that the Earth was initially dry, as the volatile beginnings of the planet would have made it impossible for water to congregate and stay put.

However, a new study shows that water may have come to Earth much earlier than was thought, during the first two million years of the solar system.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed angrite meteorites to help create a more accurate picture of when the first life sustaining elements came to Earth.

Angrite meteorites are basaltic meteorites that formed in the inner solar system about four and a half billion years ago. The researchers analyzed the meteorites noting the volume of hydrogen and carbon inside the space rocks.

By studying the meteorites themselves, the researchers were able to create a better understanding of the parent body that the meteorites originated from.

The study was published in the journal Geochimica and Cosmochimica Acta.

“We’re looking at as many meteorite parent bodies as possible right now to figure out where they were in the early Solar System and how much water they had,” said Adam Sarafian, the leader of the study in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine. “We’re trying to build a map of the very early inner Solar System. Where was the water, where was it going and where did it come from?”

In this case, the angrite meteorites all came from one parent asteroid that had a high water content, roughly 20 percent of the Earth’s current water content.

This means that water could be found during the solar system’s early beginnings, and angrite meteorites coming from a water-rich parent body likely brought the necessary elements for water and life to Earth earlier than was previously theorized.  

“It’s a fairly simple assumption to say that Earth’s water at least started accreting to Earth extremely early, before the planet was even fully formed,” said Sarafian. “This means that when the planet cooled enough so that liquid water could be stable at the surface, there was already water here.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer