The most extreme life on the planet. Part one: life in volcanos.

Yellowstone National Park, with each ring of colour due to a different microorganism.

For all its beauty, Yellowstone National Park is a terrifying place. If it erupted tomorrow, most of America would be drowned in ash, and they wouldn’t see sunlight for weeks. Add extreme pressures, no nutrients and oxygen depletion to the searing heat in volcanic pools and you can understand why we used to think life here was impossible.

However, those amazing dashes of red, green and yellows sweeping across the volcanic pools are not from the rocks but from microbial life which aren’t just tolerating the scorching heat, but need it to survive.

Apart from being a liiitle bit painful, if I jumped in the pool and tried to survive, my cell membranes would crumble, my enzymes and proteins would melt and my DNA simply unravel and fall apart. How is it then, that at 115°C we still find archaea (single celled organisms which are as different from bacteria as we are)?

To survive and grow, these archaea have ultra strong membranes to stop the cell from melting. Weirdly, they then pump salt into their cells, acting as a clamp to hold the protein and DNA structures together, so they don’t fragment. For food the ingenious and complicatedly named Sulfolobus acidocaldarius actually sticks and clings onto sulphur crystals and uses the hydrogen sulphide to gather energy.

Nothing so far has been found above 120°C as it is thought any large molecules will simply fall apart. But, we have been wrong before.

As an aside to why you should care, the first ever life, which has given rise to you, me and everything living almost definitely lived in a deep sea volcano. Furthermore, the enzyme used to replicate DNA and sequence entire genomes was isolated from a bacteria living in a volcano.

If you are interested, I will be writing about various extreme life in the near future, including life in space, other planets, inside ice, rocks and salt and will be asking whether it is possible for an organism to live for 250 million years.

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Is the choice between agriculture and biodiversity really an ultimatum?

A once diverse community is converted into a sea of golden wheat.

Land that used to harbour an array of life is being converted into vast expanses of tumbling golden carpets of wheat fields, relentlessly smothering and suffocating everything in its path. This planting of monocultures is considered the single biggest threat to biodiversity on Earth. However, nearly a billion people are malnourished, and with an extra 2 billion more people by 2050, we have to find more food from somewhere.

It may seem like an ultimatum between food or forests, but Dr Joern Fischer from The Ecological Society of America examines how food can be produced without human’s mass slaughter of anything living.

Fischer suggests that combining fields and forests by having fallow years, targeting areas for native wildlife to establish, or even just to have a row of trees at the boundary of the farm is enough to significantly increase biodiversity. Providing a lush oasis in the middle of the rolling dunes in wheat field deserts would not only save vital species, but make the crops less vulnerable to disease or shocks and stabilize and pump nutrients into the soil, ultimately increasing yields in the long term.

In Costa Rica, they have combined agriculture and natural forests to create a diverse, but productive landscape.

Fischer also notes the importance of creating corridors between ‘natural paradises’ or national parks. Every creature has a certain climate they thrive in, called their ‘climate envelope,’ outside of which survival is a struggle. Clearly, a polar bear would struggle in the Amazon and Trump (or Drumpf, which is his original family name) would struggle in any meaningful conversation. These natural refuges can’t move and so, with climate change, more and more species are suffering in a climate their not supposed to be in. Natural corridors would offer a network, like roads between cities, for creatures and trees to travel across in order to stay within their envelope.

It seems then that whilst intensification of agriculture is needed to feed the world, we can work with nature to produce more food, whilst maintaining oases for wildlife to thrive.

The car: a self-necessitating parasite.

There are nearly a billion cars roaming the Earth. These alone will cause more than 2 degrees of global warming.

You drive to work in the morning, groggy from a lack of sleep, coffee in one hand and it seems a relief you can sit in a car, press a couple of pedals, turn a wheel and your there. On the way you are exempt from normal social interactions between others inhabiting the streets, with nothing but the occasional monotonous sound of a horn. You don’t need to look, talk or acknowledge anyone. You are the king.

As Adorno writes in 1942: ‘And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of the engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists?’

Whilst Adorno may be exaggerating, it shows how the car has become a symbol of individuality, power and personal sovereignty. Similar to the mobile phone, the car becomes an extension of the self, a description of your personality.

It is little wonder then, that any policy aiming to disarm the car, promote shared mobility and curb fossil fuel emissions becomes an attack on you, an attempt to take your personaility and do away with your sovereignty and independence.

Therefore, governments are ‘locked in’ to car use, essentially forced to promote cars, despite the knowledge that energy use by cars alone in developed countries would be enough to smash the 2oC global warming threshold. This dependency is also determined by the physical space around us. Houses, towns, cities and entire nations are designed around the use of the car. In fact, a whopping 25% of London is a ‘car only’ space.

It may seem hopeless, but as a consumer, it is imperative you stop driving cars, and stop now. Show the politicians that you want improved public transport rather than improved cars because if they think they’ll win votes, they will do it.

As John Urry from the University of Lancaster says, in the future we will look back and, ‘No-one will comprehend how such a large, wasteful and planet-destroying creature could have ruled the Earth.’ Whether our children think that with relief or contempt is down to us.

The advent of complex life. Why wait 4 billion years?

An artistic impression of life after the Cambrian explosion

As I explain in a previous post (https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/124), the Earth is extraordinarily old. Yet remarkably, complex life has only been thriving for 10% of its incomprehensibly long 4.54 billion year existence.

When life began, it was confined to simple, single celled organisms in microbial mats, locked in an apparent stasis. Then, at some perplexingly arbitrary point, one cell engulfed another and formed a beneficial relationship that sparked an explosion (named the Cambrian explosion) of intricate life, morphing and evolving for 540 million years before eventually ending with us and everything else living.

For a long time, scientists couldn’t understand why the world had such a long and arduous 4 billion year wait for complex life. Afterall, becoming multicellular and elaborate comes with a major evolutionary advantage: you can become mobile and feed on other organisms.

Some scientists postulate that there must have been some adaptation that was advantageous, and multicellular life kicked off from there. However, this all seemed too random and Dr Erik Sperling explains how scientists now believe complex life was limited by low oxygen levels.

Before the explosion of life, oxygen levels were only a fraction of today’s. Place a modern fish in these conditions and it would quickly die. Oxygen is the most efficient molecule to use in respiration and without it, your maximum energy consumption is massively reduced. In this regard, with such little oxygen, elaborate organisms simply wouldn’t have enough energy to survive.

It should be of little surprise then to learn that at the cambrian explosion, oxygen levels rose to 0.5ml/L, just enough, Sperling suggests, to harbour complex life.

Once complex life started in the Cambrian, it proliferated at an astonishing rate and quickly formed an array of creatures including a spiky slug, a five eyed Opabinia, jellyfish and predators with finger like suction pads and rows of teeth (figure above).


Feel old yet? Understanding just how ancient Earth is.

The Earth is old. 4.54 billion years old to be precise.

To understand just how old this is, let’s imagine the moment you are reading this, the Earth has just been born and as we go further back in time Earth gets older until it reaches 100 human years of age.

You would die within half a second. The whole of human history would have come and gone in the first week, followed by the dinosaurs during the toddler years, appearing at the age of four, with their catastrophic extinction a year later.

Complex life would be a thing of the past while Earth hadn’t even reached it’s moody teens, disappearing by the age of just ten. The next 70 years would be a desolate land of rock and single-celled life. For the final ten years there wouldn’t even be rock.

If this isn’t already making you feel insignificant, consider this: the amount of time on Earth there has been complex life is about the same amount of time where there wasn’t even rock. If you lived your life 6 million times from when the Earth was born, you still wouldn’t be able to stand on anything akin to land. 50 million times and you still wouldn’t be able to recognise any life.

One of the great debates amongst scientists is why, for 90% of Earth’s history there was nothing but simple, single celled life, yet after a long and arduous 4 billion year wait, the world suddenly burst into life. If you’re interested in the advent of complex life, known as the Cambrian Explosion, I untangle the dilemma in the next article (https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/the-advent-of-complex-life-why-wait-4-billion-years/).

Fizzling out fast fashion: Are clothing companies finally becoming sustainable?

The Rana Plaza sweatshop in Bangladesh collapses, killing over a thousand people

Cheap clothes and a growing influence of social media and celebrities on ‘must buy’ textiles are rapidly changing fashion trends. The result is companies requiring entirely new stocks of apparel every time a youtuber shows of their ‘shopping haul’, or a Kardashian dons a new sparkly top.

With trends changing so fast, clothes aren’t designed to last, with cheap jeans lasting just 60 miles of wear. This throw-away culture means that in the last 15 years, retailers have doubled their output to keep up with demand. If this continues, the fashion industry could account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Then there’s the sweatshop scandal, involving multinational companies such as H&M, Nike and GAP. Workers, including children, were found to be severely malnourished and routinely collapsed from exhaustion whilst tirelessly producing clothes, only for them to be thrown out after a couple of wears.

Scholars Federico Caniato and others explain that there are crumbs of comfort. Patagonia now make clothes with organic cotton to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the outfit’s lifetime. They also ran a remarkable ‘don’t buy this jacket’ campaign on black friday, trying to educate us on our throw-away, over-consumption culture. Furthermore, 34% of all ASOS fibres are now from sustainable sources, whilst smaller companies that use waste material to craft their cloth are growing in popularity.

Advertising campaign from Patagonia, urging customers not to over-consume on Black Friday.

However, there is a still a long way to go, and as consumers we have the responsibility to continue to drive the market away from single use, throw-away fast fashion, to environmentally sustainable, socially acceptable slow fashion.

How the grim conclusion of your old phones and computers will make you think twice about casually throwing them out, and what you can do about it.

In a world of increasing dependency on technology, the waste of electronic devices, or ewaste, has increased exponentially, reaching a massive 44 million tonnes a year, yet most of us turn a blind eye to what happens next.

Shockingly, only 25% of your ewaste is recycled, with the remaining three quarters exported to poorer countries, where low labour costs and lax health and safety laws make recycling cheaper. Here, metals are battered, burned and bathed in acid (figure below) to extract useful parts, and the rest ignored in landfill. What’s left is a population of working women and children exposed to heavy metals in the drinking water, toxic fumes in the air and land with beds of tangled, twisted metal.

The health effects include increased chance of cancer, decreased lung function, damage to nervous, blood, thyroid and reproductive systems and to kidneys, bones and brain.

What can you do about it?

In a lot of ways, not much. As seen when Ireland refused to accept a £50million fine the EU gave Apple from tax avoidance, huge multinational companies hold the power. Have you noticed that your devices seem to brake faster now? Well you’re right, companies deliberately make phones and computers that last, on average, half as long as they used to, so that you throw the phone out and buy their newest model. Companies also make it harder to fix your phones, so when just a single part is broken you have to buy an entire device, even if the rest works perfectly.

However, some companies are working towards taking responsibility, with Nokia and Lenovo now paying you to send the phone back to them, so the materials can be used again. Even if they don’t offer this service, companies, by law, have to take the product back when you send it and dispose of it according to strict regulation. You can also buy refurbished phones, which go through similar rigorous testing to new phones, yet are cheaper and use recycled materials. Furthermore, some devices are easily fixed with a simple youtube tutorial. Most importantly though, educate your friends and family and raise awareness to hold companies accountable for their waste. Remember, supply = demand.