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Scientists discover animal that doesn't need oxygen to live
It's the first time scientists have discovered an animal that doesn't perform aerobic respiration.
- The animal is a tiny parasite called Henneguya salminicola.
- The parasite infects salmon and lives within the fish muscle, though scientists aren't quite sure how it breaks down nutrients for survival.
- The findings are published in the journal PNAS.
In the time it takes you to read this article, you're likely to breathe a few dozen times. Some animals don't breathe as often, and they don't require nearly as much oxygen. The Loggerhead sea turtle, for example, can take one breath and stay underwater for about 10 hours. Still, it's long been thought that all animals need to breathe oxygen to stay alive.
But then scientists discovered Henneguya salminicola, an 8-millimeter parasite that doesn't need oxygen to live, and cannot process it as other animals do. The findings are published in a paper in the journal PNAS.
All other animals have mitochondria, which are organelles that act as the "powerhouse" of the cell by breaking down nutrients and converting them into energy. One way mitochondria do this is by converting oxygen into a fuel called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which drives processes like muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis. This conversion process is called aerobic respiration.
H. salminicola inside of a salmon
But H. salminicola — a cnidarian animal related to jellyfish and coral — don't have mitochondria, and therefore can't perform aerobic respiration. Lead study author Dorothée Huchon discovered this as she was sequencing mitochondria across Myxozoa (a class of parasites).
"My goal was to assemble mitochondrial genome to study its evolution in Myxozoa and... Oops, I found one without a genome," she told Vice. "I first thought that the lack of mitochondrial genome among the DNA sequence was the result of a bug in genome analyses. But then I realized that it has lost not just the mitochondrial genome but the whole set of protein genes that interact with the mitochondrial genome and all the majority of genes involved in respiration."
An evolutionary advantage
Losing that mitochondrial genome appears to have been a less-is-more type of advantage for the parasite.
"Myxozoans have gone through outstanding morphological and genomic simplifications during their adaptation to parasitism from a free-living cnidarian ancestor," the authors wrote. "As a highly diverse group with >2,400 species, which inhabit marine, freshwater, and even terrestrial environments, evolutionary loss and simplification has clearly been a successful strategy for Myxozoa, which shows that less is more."
The researchers aren't quite sure how H. salminicola breaks down nutrients without oxygen. One possibility is that it absorbs molecules from its host. It's hard to tell, however, because the researchers analyzed dead parasites — they'd need to look at parasites living within the fish to get a better understanding of how the creatures operate.
The discovery highlights how much scientists still have to learn about the diversity of life on Earth. Atkinson told CNN that he expects H. salminicola isn't the only animal that can survive without oxygen, or in even "weirder modes of existence."
The search for alien life
One interesting implication of the discovery is what it means for the search for alien life. It's long been thought that, if aliens exist, they'd likely breathe oxygen. After all, it's the best element that we know of for producing large amounts of energy for metabolism, allowing us to "grow large, run and jump and think," as David Catling, a planetary scientist at the University of Washington, told Forbes.
"Because of oxygen's chemical advantages and the history of complex life on earth is so intertwined with oxygen levels," he said. "I think E.T. would also breathe oxygen."
This is one reason why many think Earth-like exoplanets with atmospheres that likely contain oxygen would be good candidates for harboring alien life. But, in a small way, the newly discovered parasite gives reason to think that the search for alien life — and their life-supporting planets — might be far more complicated.
Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.<p>Finally, a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00081-8" target="_blank">new study</a>, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.</p><p>This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain). </p><p>As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."</p><p>Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.</p>
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.<p>Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.</p><p>Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche: </p><ul><li>The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind </li><li>A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab</li><li>The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent </li><li>Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure</li></ul><p>Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.</p><p> --</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.