Coronavirus aggressively invades lung cells in chilling new images

The images were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and show how prolific coronavirus can become in a mere four days.

  • COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that spreads through human airways.
  • New images taken with a scanning electron microscope show coronavirus swarming over bronchial cells.
  • The images further stress the importance of preventative measures such as handwashing and wearing a mask in public.
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    Warming tropical soils may add carbon to the air

    Carbon locked in soils can be emitted by bacteria. Turning up the heat on them releases more carbon.

    Al'fred/Shutterstock
    • A new study shows that an increase in temperature can increase the amount of carbon released by the soil.
    • This is in line with previous studies, though this one demonstrates a larger increase than the older experiments.
    • The risk is that increasing temperatures cause a positive feedback loop.
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    Scientists have revived 100-million-year-old marine microbes

    In one of the ocean's most lifeless places, scientists discover and resuscitate ancient organisms.

    Image source: Morono, et al
    • Seemingly dead microbes from 100 million years ago spring back to life.
    • The microbes were buried deep beneath the Pacific's "Point Nemo."
    • There's crushing pressure beneath the seabed, but these microbes apparently survived anyway.

    There is a place in the South Pacific that's as far as you can get from land. This "oceanic pole of inaccessibility" lies beneath the South Pacific Gyre that covers 10 percent of Earth's ocean surface. It's so remote that spacecraft are regularly guided down into its waters at the end of their missions. Says NASA, "It's in the Pacific Ocean and is pretty much the farthest place from any human civilization you can find."

    There's another reason, though, that this so-called "Point Nemo" isn't like anywhere else. It's an oceanic desert, about as devoid of standard marine life as any stretch of water can be. Nutrients from land can't reach it, and currents keep its waters isolated from the rest of the ocean. There's also an excess of ultraviolet light out there.

    While there is some microbial life floating in the area, a team of scientists from Japan and the U.S. wanted to know if anything could possibly be living in the area's desolate seabed. What they found and retrieved were seemingly lifeless microbes trapped down there for 100 million years. It turns out that the tiny organisms are still alive after all this time —all they needed was food and oxygen.

    "Our main question was whether life could exist in such a nutrient-limited environment, or if this was a lifeless zone," says study leader microbiologist Yuki Morono of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. "And we wanted to know how long the microbes could sustain their life in a near-absence of food." Apparently hundred of millions of years. Take that, tardigrades.

    The research in published in the journal Nature Communications.

    Deep surprise

    Map showing Point Nemo in Pacific Ocean

    Image source: martinova4/vector illustration/Shutterstock/Big Think

    It's hardly a hospitable environment down there, and the weight of all that water above presses down hard on anything beneath it. Organisms trapped under this kind of pressure typically die and fossilize, given a million years or so. Still, for some reason, these microbes evaded that fate.

    Co-author Steven D'Hondt, a geomicrobiologist from University of Rhode Island, says, "We knew that there was life in deep sediment near the continents where there's a lot of buried organic matter. But what we found was that life extends in the deep ocean from the seafloor all the way to the underlying rocky basement."

    Onboard study

    Morono (left) and D'Hondt (right) examining cores aboard JODIES Resolution.

    Image source: IODP JRSO/University of Rhode Island

    The microbes were brought up through 3.7 miles of water from the ocean bottom during the JOIDES Resolution drill ship's 2010 expedition to the Gyre. The researchers extracted samples from an array of sites and depths, including pelagic clay sediments as deep as 75 meters (246 feet) beneath the sea floor.

    Examining the sediment cores on the ship, the researchers found small numbers of oxygen-consuming microbes in every sample from every depth. The samples were removed from the cores to see if their occupants could be resuscitated. They were given oxygen and their presumed food of choice, substrates of carbon and nitrogen, by syringe. The samples were then sealed in glass vials and incubated.

    microbe growth charts

    Growth of microbes after being fed carbon (top) and nitrogen (bottom)

    Image source: Morono, et al

    Vials were opened after 21 days, 6 weeks, and 18 months. Stunningly, up to 99 percent of the microbes were revived, even those from the deepest — and thus oldest — cores. Some had increased 10,000 times their number, consuming all of the carbon and nitrogen they'd been given.

    The scientists could hardly believe what they were seeing. "At first I was skeptical, but we found that up to 99.1 % of the microbes in sediment deposited 101.5 million years ago were still alive and were ready to eat," recalls Morono.

    A bottomless research opportunity

    "It shows that there are no limits to life in the old sediment of the world's ocean," says D-Hondt. "In the oldest sediment we've drilled, with the least amount of food, there are still living organisms, and they can wake up, grow and multiply."

    Some have suggested that the microbe may be more recent descendants of their 100-million-year-old ancestors, but D'Hondt says there isn't enough in the way of nutrients or energy down there to support cell division. That is, unless there's some other form of energy that has been overlooked, say, some form of radiation. "If they are not dividing at all, they are living for 100 million years, but that seems insane," he says.

    New bandages turn color to identify an infected wound

    Smart bandages quickly identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and normal bacteria, in owies.

    Image source: Di Studio/Shutterstock/Big Think
    • Judicious use of drugs for resistant bacteria requires time- and money-consuming tests until now.
    • New smart bandages turn red for resistant bacteria and yellow for antibiotic-sensitive bacteria.
    • The bandages also promote healing with the application of UV light.

    The growing incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria was already a worrying problem before we all started washing our hands with anti-bacterial soaps in response to SARS-CoV-2. While necessary, we may also have provided even more bacteria the opportunity to develop resistance. Such uncooperative bacteria can often be treated, but before they can, they have to first be identified as antibiotic-resistant — each time the precious meds capable of defeating such bacteria are deployed, we risk bacteria developing resistance to them. This would obviously render them useless, and so they're administered only sparingly to bacteria that have tested as resistant. This testing takes time, and can be expensive.

    Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Changchun, Jilin province have a better idea: smart bandages that change color to indicate the nature of bacteria they cover. The study describing their research his published in ACS Central Science.

    The idea behind the bandages

    colored liquids being poured into beaker

    Image source: Alex Kondratiev/Unsplash

    The smart coverings work by leveraging the chemistry of bacterial infections. Integrated into each covering is a metal organic framework (MOF), a structure that allows scientists to embed a few key chemicals in the bandages.

    The bandages contain a chemical called nitrocefin that breaks down in the presence of the enzyme β-lactamase — β-lactamase is the enzyme that resistant bacteria produce and use to neutralize antibiotics. It's essentially the chemical source of antibiotic resistance. When the nitrocefin interacts with β-lactamase, it breaks down and turns red — as does the bandage— signifying the presence of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    For detecting normal, antibiotic-sensitive bacteria, the bandages leverage the fact that a bacterial infection on your skin causes a reduction in its pH, making the skin more acidic. Each smart bandage contains a chemical called bromophenol blue, and when it encounters a more acidic environment, it turns yellow. Thus, when a smart bandage turns yellow, it's telling you that bacteria is present, but that it's antibiotic-sensitive.

    If there's no infection, the covering remains its original green color.

    Tests and cures

    fluorescent light above mirror

    Image source: Khamkhlai Thanet/Shutterstock

    The bandages have so far been tested on mice who were infected with one of two different strains of E. Coli bacteria, one antibiotic-sensitive, and one antibiotic-resistant. The smart coverings over the mice's wounds behaved as designed, turning the hoped-for colors over the course of a day or two. After some tweaking, that time — and the identification of bacteria — was reduced to just 2-4 hours.

    An additional feature is that the design of their MOF causes UV light shined on them to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) that puncture the protective membranes surrounding the bacterial cells. This restores their susceptibility to standard antibiotics, meaning that the bandages are both diagnostic and curative.

    Given the construction simplicity of the bandages, the researchers are hopeful that they can be easily manufactured at scale to join the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is currently credited with 700,000 deaths annually.

    Being able to quickly identify resistant bacteria can help prolong the effectiveness of available treatments. As the study puts it, "Because of the "auto-obsolescence" of antibacterial treatments, it is an important issue in the current antibacterial field how to rationally use of existing antibiotics and overcome tolerance."

    The mystery of moving, mossy, ‘glacier mice’

    Atop certain glaciers are herds of small mossy balls that somehow move together when no one's looking.

    Image source: Carsten ten Brink/flickr
    • Weird but cute, "glacier mice" are actually balls of moss, dirt, and more.
    • The balls move, oddly, in packs through some unknown means.
    • A new study tracked 30 glacier mice but still couldn't figure out what's going on.

    Scientists have known about them at least since the 1950s, when Jón Eythórsson named them "jökla-mýs," which translates as "glacier mice." However, they're not actually mice. They're smallish balls of moss, and there are lots of them atop Alaska's Root Glacier. They can also be found on ice in Iceland, Svablard, and even South America, presumably places with just the right conditions, though researchers don't know what those conditions are.

    The really odd thing about them is that they apparently move in some unexplained way, though no one has observed them doing so. It's just that repeated visits find them in different places.

    And that's not the coolest part. "The whole colony of moss balls, this whole grouping, moves at about the same speeds and in the same directions," geologist Tim Bartholomaus of University of Idaho (UI) tells NPR. "Those speeds and directions can change over the course of weeks."

    Bartholomaus and two colleagues have published their research on glacier mice in Polar Biology.

    Mice but not mice

    Image source: Steve Coulson/ The University Center at Svalbard

    The "glacier mice" nickname has stuck perhaps because glaciologists are so fond of the fuzzy things. They are pillow-like, soft, squeezable objects, comprised of different species of moss, but that is not all.

    A 2012 study found entire thriving habitats inside the mice. "I had expected to find some animals, but not so many," said study author and arctic biologist Steve Coulsonto to the New York Times. His research revealed springtails (six-legged insects), tardigrades (of course), and simple nematode worms. In a single mouse, there were 73 springtails, 200 tardigrades, and 1,000 nematodes.

    Co-author of the new study, wildlife biologist Sophie Gilbert of UI describes them:

    "They really do look like little mammals, little mice or chipmunks or rats or something running around on the glacier, although they run in obviously very slow motion."

    Clues and an unsolved mystery

    Some glacier mice are found perched on ice pedestals.

    Image source: Fanny Dommanget/The University Center at Svalbard

    Her report recounts the efforts made by Bartholomaus and his co-authors, which also included biologist Scott Hotaling of Washington State University, to figure out how the mice are getting around.

    The 2012 study outfitted some mice with accelerometers and confirmed that they do rotate, but that's as far as its authors went into the balls' means of travel.

    For Bartholomaus and his cohorts, there were some clues going into this.

    For example, occasionally, balls are found perched on a pedestal of ice as seen above, perhaps shading that spot from melting sunlight until it finally melts and the ball rolls away.

    Another clue is the intact nature of the healthy moss that serves as each ball's surface — it's a sign that they all have their turn in the sun. "These things must actually roll around or else that moss on the bottom would die," says Gilbert.

    One obvious explanation was quickly ruled out — they're not simply rolling downhill, because many of them were found to be on level surfaces.

    For the study, the researchers tagged 30 of the mice with a loop of wire and colored beads that identified each ball. They tracked their position for 54 days in 2009, and again in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

    Bartholomaus explains, "By coming back year after year, we could figure out that these individual moss balls were living at least, you know, five, six years and potentially much, much longer."

    Although the researchers expect the movements of the balls would be individualized and random, that's not what they found. The balls moved about an inch a day, and together, like a herd of animals.

    Also, they periodically changed direction. "When we visited them all, they were all just sort of moving relatively slowly and initially toward the south," Bartholomaus said. "Then they all started to speed up and kind of start to deviate toward the west. And then they slowed down again and progressed even farther to the west."

    Wind, maybe? Measurements of the dominant winds in the area ruled that out. Sunlight patterns also failed to account for the movement of the packs.

    So, what's going on? Admits Barholomaus, "We still don't know. I'm still kind of baffled."

    Suggestions

    Given scientists' affection for the little balls, other people are also rolling the idea around in their minds. Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute suggests to NPR, "I think that probably the explanation is somewhere in the physics of the energy and the heat around the surface of the glacier, but we haven't quite got there yet."

    Another theory put forward is that the moss on a ball's underside grows and pushes it over and forward, cueing up the next moss to begin growing in the same way. If growth rates from ball to ball are similar, this could explain their herd-like movement.

    The mystery is reminiscent of the "sailing stones" of Death Valley that perplexed scientists for years unit their secret was revealed: They're pushed around by the wind as they temporarily float on wet melting ground ice.

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