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Most Life on Earth Is Dormant Right Now

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Sunday, June 16, 2024

This article was originally published by Quanta Magazine.Researchers recently reported the discovery of a natural protein, named Balon, that can bring a cell’s production of new proteins to a screeching halt. Balon was found in bacteria that hibernate in Arctic permafrost, but it also seems to be made by many other organisms and may be an overlooked mechanism for dormancy throughout the tree of life.For most life forms, the ability to shut oneself off is essential to staying alive. Harsh conditions such as lack of food or cold weather can appear out of nowhere. In these dire straits, rather than keel over and die, many organisms have mastered the art of dormancy. They slow down their activity and metabolism. Then, when better times return, they reanimate.Sitting around in a dormant state is actually the norm for the majority of life on Earth: By some estimates, 60 percent of all microbial cells are hibernating at any given time. Even in organisms whose entire bodies do not go dormant, such as most mammals, some cellular populations within them rest and wait for the best time to activate.“We live on a dormant planet,” says Sergey Melnikov, an evolutionary molecular biologist at Newcastle University, in the United Kingdom. “Life is mainly about being asleep.”But how do cells pull off this feat? Over the years, researchers have discovered a number of “hibernation factors,” proteins that cells use to induce and maintain a dormant state. When a cell detects some kind of adverse condition, such as starvation or cold, it produces a suite of hibernation factors to shut down its metabolism.Some hibernation factors dismantle cellular machinery; others prevent genes from being expressed. The most important ones, however, shut down the ribosome—the cell’s machine for building new proteins. Making proteins accounts for more than 50 percent of energy use in a growing bacterial cell. These hibernation factors throw sand in the gears of the ribosome, preventing it from synthesizing new proteins and thereby saving energy for the needs of basic survival.The discovery of Balon earlier this year, reported in Nature, presented a new hibernation factor. The protein is shockingly common: A search for its gene sequence uncovered its presence in 20 percent of all cataloged bacterial genomes. And it works in a way that molecular biologists had never seen before.Previously, all known ribosome-disrupting hibernation factors worked passively: They waited for a ribosome to finish building a protein and then prevented it from starting a new one. Balon, however, pulls the emergency brake. It stuffs itself into every ribosome in the cell, even interrupting active ribosomes in the middle of their work. Before Balon, hibernation factors had been seen only in empty ribosomes.“The Balon paper is amazingly detailed,” says the evolutionary biologist Jay Lennon, who studies microbial dormancy at Indiana University at Bloomington and was not involved in the new study. “It will add to our view of how dormancy works.”Melnikov and his graduate student Karla Helena-Bueno discovered Balon in Psychrobacter urativorans, a cold-adapted bacterium native to frozen soils and harvested from Arctic permafrost. (According to Melnikov, the bacterium was first found infecting a pack of frozen sausages in the 1970s and was then rediscovered by the famed genomicist Craig Venter on a trip to the Arctic.) They study P. urativorans and other unusual microbes to characterize the diversity of protein-building tools used across the spectrum of life and to understand how ribosomes can adapt to extreme environments.Because dormancy can be triggered by a variety of conditions, including starvation and drought, the scientists pursue this research with a practical goal in mind: “We can probably use this knowledge in order to engineer organisms that can tolerate warmer climates,” Melnikov says, “and therefore withstand climate change.”[Read: The best real estate to get animals through climate change]Helena-Bueno discovered Balon entirely by accident. She was trying to coax P. urativorans to grow happily in the lab. Instead she did the opposite. She left the culture in an ice bucket for too long and managed to cold-shock it. By the time she remembered it was there, the cold-adapted bacteria had gone dormant.Not wanting to waste the culture, the researchers pursued their original interests anyway. Helena-Bueno extracted the cold-shocked bacteria’s ribosomes and subjected them to cryo-EM. Short for “cryogenic electron microscopy,” cryo-EM is a technique for visualizing minuscule biological structures at high resolution. Helena-Bueno saw a protein jammed into the stalled ribosome’s “A site”—the “door” where amino acids are delivered for the construction of new proteins.Helena-Bueno and Melnikov didn’t recognize the protein. Indeed, it had never been described before. It bore a similarity to another bacterial protein, one that’s important for disassembling and recycling ribosomal parts, called Pelota from the Spanish for “ball.” So they named the new protein Balon, a different Spanish word for “ball.”Balon’s ability to halt the ribosome’s activity in its tracks is a crucial adaptation for a microbe under stress, says Mee-Ngan Frances Yap, a microbiologist at Northwestern University who wasn’t involved in the work. “When bacteria are actively growing, they produce lots of ribosomes and RNA,” she says. “When they encounter stress, a species might need to shut down translation” of RNA into new proteins to begin conserving energy for a potentially long hibernation period.Notably, Balon’s mechanism is a reversible process. Unlike other hibernation factors, it can be inserted to stall growth and then quickly ejected, like a cassette tape. It enables a cell to rapidly go dormant in an emergency and resuscitate itself just as rapidly to readapt to more favorable conditions.Balon can do this because it latches on to ribosomes in a unique way. Every ribosomal hibernation factor previously discovered physically blocks the ribosome’s A site, so any protein-making process that’s in progress must be completed before the factor can attach to turn off the ribosome. Balon, by contrast, binds near but not across the channel, which allows it to come and go regardless of what the ribosome is doing.Despite Balon’s mechanistic novelty, it’s an exceedingly common protein. Once it was identified, Helena-Bueno and Melnikov found genetic relatives of Balon in upward of 20 percent of all the bacterial genomes cataloged in public databases. With help from Mariia Rybak, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, they characterized two of these alternative bacterial proteins: one from the human pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis, and another in Thermus thermophilus, which lives in the last place you’d ever catch P. urativorans—in ultra-hot underwater thermal vents. Both proteins also bind to the ribosome’s A site, suggesting that at least some of these genetic relatives act similarly to Balon in other bacterial species.Balon is notably absent from Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the two most commonly studied bacteria and the most widely used models for cellular dormancy. By focusing on just a few lab organisms, scientists had missed a widespread hibernation tactic, Helena-Bueno says. “I tried to look into an under-studied corner of nature and happened to find something.”Every cell needs the ability to go dormant and wait for its moment. The laboratory model bacterium E. coli has five separate modes of hibernating, Melnikov says, each of which on its own is sufficient to enable the microbe to survive a crisis.“Most microbes are starving,” says Ashley Shade, a microbiologist at the University of Lyon, in France, who was not involved in the new study. “They’re existing in a state of want. They’re not doubling. They’re not living their best life.”But dormancy is also necessary outside periods of starvation. Even in organisms whose entire bodies do not go completely dormant, such as most mammals, individual cellular populations must wait for the best time to activate. Human oocytes lie dormant for decades waiting to be fertilized. Human stem cells are born into the bone marrow and then go quiescent, waiting for the body to call out to them to grow and differentiate. Fibroblasts in nervous tissue, lymphocytes of the immune system, and hepatocytes in the liver all enter dormant, inactive, nondividing phases and reactivate later.“This is not something that’s unique to bacteria or archaea,” Lennon says. “Every organism in the tree of life has a way of achieving this strategy. They can pause their metabolism.”Bears hibernate. Herpes viruses lysogenize. Worms develop into a dauer stage. Insects enter diapause. Amphibians aestivate. Birds go into torpor. All of these are words for the exact same thing: a dormant state that organisms can reverse when conditions are favorable.“Before the invention of hibernation, the only way to live was to keep growing without interruptions,” Melnikov says. “Putting life on pause is a luxury.”[Read: Hibernation is the extreme lifestyle that can stop aging]It’s also a type of population-level insurance. Some cells pursue dormancy by detecting environmental changes and responding accordingly. However, many bacteria use a stochastic strategy. “In randomly fluctuating environments, if you don’t go into dormancy sometimes, there’s a chance that the whole population will go extinct” through random encounters with disaster, Lennon says. In even the healthiest, happiest, fastest-growing cultures of E. coli, 5 to 10 percent of the cells will nevertheless be dormant. They are the designated survivors who will live should something happen to their more active, vulnerable cousins.In that sense, dormancy is a survival strategy for global catastrophes. That’s why Helena-Bueno studies hibernation. She’s interested in which species might remain stable despite climate change, which ones might be able to recover, and which cellular processes—like Balon-assisted hibernation—might help.More fundamentally, Melnikov and Helena-Bueno hope that the discovery of Balon and its ubiquity will help people reframe what is important in life. We all frequently go dormant, and many of us quite enjoy it. “We spend one-third of our life asleep, but we don’t talk about it at all,” Melnikov says. Instead of complaining about what we’re missing when we’re asleep, maybe we can experience it as a process that connects us to all life on Earth, including microbes slumbering deep in the Arctic permafrost.

Cells can go from wide awake to fast asleep in an instant.

This article was originally published by Quanta Magazine.

Researchers recently reported the discovery of a natural protein, named Balon, that can bring a cell’s production of new proteins to a screeching halt. Balon was found in bacteria that hibernate in Arctic permafrost, but it also seems to be made by many other organisms and may be an overlooked mechanism for dormancy throughout the tree of life.

For most life forms, the ability to shut oneself off is essential to staying alive. Harsh conditions such as lack of food or cold weather can appear out of nowhere. In these dire straits, rather than keel over and die, many organisms have mastered the art of dormancy. They slow down their activity and metabolism. Then, when better times return, they reanimate.

Sitting around in a dormant state is actually the norm for the majority of life on Earth: By some estimates, 60 percent of all microbial cells are hibernating at any given time. Even in organisms whose entire bodies do not go dormant, such as most mammals, some cellular populations within them rest and wait for the best time to activate.

“We live on a dormant planet,” says Sergey Melnikov, an evolutionary molecular biologist at Newcastle University, in the United Kingdom. “Life is mainly about being asleep.”

But how do cells pull off this feat? Over the years, researchers have discovered a number of “hibernation factors,” proteins that cells use to induce and maintain a dormant state. When a cell detects some kind of adverse condition, such as starvation or cold, it produces a suite of hibernation factors to shut down its metabolism.

Some hibernation factors dismantle cellular machinery; others prevent genes from being expressed. The most important ones, however, shut down the ribosome—the cell’s machine for building new proteins. Making proteins accounts for more than 50 percent of energy use in a growing bacterial cell. These hibernation factors throw sand in the gears of the ribosome, preventing it from synthesizing new proteins and thereby saving energy for the needs of basic survival.

The discovery of Balon earlier this year, reported in Nature, presented a new hibernation factor. The protein is shockingly common: A search for its gene sequence uncovered its presence in 20 percent of all cataloged bacterial genomes. And it works in a way that molecular biologists had never seen before.

Previously, all known ribosome-disrupting hibernation factors worked passively: They waited for a ribosome to finish building a protein and then prevented it from starting a new one. Balon, however, pulls the emergency brake. It stuffs itself into every ribosome in the cell, even interrupting active ribosomes in the middle of their work. Before Balon, hibernation factors had been seen only in empty ribosomes.

“The Balon paper is amazingly detailed,” says the evolutionary biologist Jay Lennon, who studies microbial dormancy at Indiana University at Bloomington and was not involved in the new study. “It will add to our view of how dormancy works.”

Melnikov and his graduate student Karla Helena-Bueno discovered Balon in Psychrobacter urativorans, a cold-adapted bacterium native to frozen soils and harvested from Arctic permafrost. (According to Melnikov, the bacterium was first found infecting a pack of frozen sausages in the 1970s and was then rediscovered by the famed genomicist Craig Venter on a trip to the Arctic.) They study P. urativorans and other unusual microbes to characterize the diversity of protein-building tools used across the spectrum of life and to understand how ribosomes can adapt to extreme environments.

Because dormancy can be triggered by a variety of conditions, including starvation and drought, the scientists pursue this research with a practical goal in mind: “We can probably use this knowledge in order to engineer organisms that can tolerate warmer climates,” Melnikov says, “and therefore withstand climate change.”

[Read: The best real estate to get animals through climate change]

Helena-Bueno discovered Balon entirely by accident. She was trying to coax P. urativorans to grow happily in the lab. Instead she did the opposite. She left the culture in an ice bucket for too long and managed to cold-shock it. By the time she remembered it was there, the cold-adapted bacteria had gone dormant.

Not wanting to waste the culture, the researchers pursued their original interests anyway. Helena-Bueno extracted the cold-shocked bacteria’s ribosomes and subjected them to cryo-EM. Short for “cryogenic electron microscopy,” cryo-EM is a technique for visualizing minuscule biological structures at high resolution. Helena-Bueno saw a protein jammed into the stalled ribosome’s “A site”—the “door” where amino acids are delivered for the construction of new proteins.

Helena-Bueno and Melnikov didn’t recognize the protein. Indeed, it had never been described before. It bore a similarity to another bacterial protein, one that’s important for disassembling and recycling ribosomal parts, called Pelota from the Spanish for “ball.” So they named the new protein Balon, a different Spanish word for “ball.”

Balon’s ability to halt the ribosome’s activity in its tracks is a crucial adaptation for a microbe under stress, says Mee-Ngan Frances Yap, a microbiologist at Northwestern University who wasn’t involved in the work. “When bacteria are actively growing, they produce lots of ribosomes and RNA,” she says. “When they encounter stress, a species might need to shut down translation” of RNA into new proteins to begin conserving energy for a potentially long hibernation period.

Notably, Balon’s mechanism is a reversible process. Unlike other hibernation factors, it can be inserted to stall growth and then quickly ejected, like a cassette tape. It enables a cell to rapidly go dormant in an emergency and resuscitate itself just as rapidly to readapt to more favorable conditions.

Balon can do this because it latches on to ribosomes in a unique way. Every ribosomal hibernation factor previously discovered physically blocks the ribosome’s A site, so any protein-making process that’s in progress must be completed before the factor can attach to turn off the ribosome. Balon, by contrast, binds near but not across the channel, which allows it to come and go regardless of what the ribosome is doing.

Despite Balon’s mechanistic novelty, it’s an exceedingly common protein. Once it was identified, Helena-Bueno and Melnikov found genetic relatives of Balon in upward of 20 percent of all the bacterial genomes cataloged in public databases. With help from Mariia Rybak, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, they characterized two of these alternative bacterial proteins: one from the human pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis, and another in Thermus thermophilus, which lives in the last place you’d ever catch P. urativorans—in ultra-hot underwater thermal vents. Both proteins also bind to the ribosome’s A site, suggesting that at least some of these genetic relatives act similarly to Balon in other bacterial species.

Balon is notably absent from Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the two most commonly studied bacteria and the most widely used models for cellular dormancy. By focusing on just a few lab organisms, scientists had missed a widespread hibernation tactic, Helena-Bueno says. “I tried to look into an under-studied corner of nature and happened to find something.”

Every cell needs the ability to go dormant and wait for its moment. The laboratory model bacterium E. coli has five separate modes of hibernating, Melnikov says, each of which on its own is sufficient to enable the microbe to survive a crisis.

“Most microbes are starving,” says Ashley Shade, a microbiologist at the University of Lyon, in France, who was not involved in the new study. “They’re existing in a state of want. They’re not doubling. They’re not living their best life.”

But dormancy is also necessary outside periods of starvation. Even in organisms whose entire bodies do not go completely dormant, such as most mammals, individual cellular populations must wait for the best time to activate. Human oocytes lie dormant for decades waiting to be fertilized. Human stem cells are born into the bone marrow and then go quiescent, waiting for the body to call out to them to grow and differentiate. Fibroblasts in nervous tissue, lymphocytes of the immune system, and hepatocytes in the liver all enter dormant, inactive, nondividing phases and reactivate later.

“This is not something that’s unique to bacteria or archaea,” Lennon says. “Every organism in the tree of life has a way of achieving this strategy. They can pause their metabolism.”

Bears hibernate. Herpes viruses lysogenize. Worms develop into a dauer stage. Insects enter diapause. Amphibians aestivate. Birds go into torpor. All of these are words for the exact same thing: a dormant state that organisms can reverse when conditions are favorable.

“Before the invention of hibernation, the only way to live was to keep growing without interruptions,” Melnikov says. “Putting life on pause is a luxury.”

[Read: Hibernation is the extreme lifestyle that can stop aging]

It’s also a type of population-level insurance. Some cells pursue dormancy by detecting environmental changes and responding accordingly. However, many bacteria use a stochastic strategy. “In randomly fluctuating environments, if you don’t go into dormancy sometimes, there’s a chance that the whole population will go extinct” through random encounters with disaster, Lennon says. In even the healthiest, happiest, fastest-growing cultures of E. coli, 5 to 10 percent of the cells will nevertheless be dormant. They are the designated survivors who will live should something happen to their more active, vulnerable cousins.

In that sense, dormancy is a survival strategy for global catastrophes. That’s why Helena-Bueno studies hibernation. She’s interested in which species might remain stable despite climate change, which ones might be able to recover, and which cellular processes—like Balon-assisted hibernation—might help.

More fundamentally, Melnikov and Helena-Bueno hope that the discovery of Balon and its ubiquity will help people reframe what is important in life. We all frequently go dormant, and many of us quite enjoy it. “We spend one-third of our life asleep, but we don’t talk about it at all,” Melnikov says. Instead of complaining about what we’re missing when we’re asleep, maybe we can experience it as a process that connects us to all life on Earth, including microbes slumbering deep in the Arctic permafrost.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Invisible Invaders: How Microplastics Sneak Into Your Brain

University of New Mexico researchers have identified that microplastics, once ingested, can migrate from the gut to organs such as the liver, kidneys, and brain,...

Researchers have discovered that microplastics, once ingested, travel from the gut to tissues such as the liver, kidneys, and brain, potentially causing significant health issues. The team’s findings emphasize the critical link between gut health and overall well-being, with ongoing studies exploring how diet and gut microbiota interact with microplastic absorption. Credit: SciTechDaily.comUniversity of New Mexico researchers have identified that microplastics, once ingested, can migrate from the gut to organs such as the liver, kidneys, and brain, potentially causing significant health issues.It’s happening every day. From our water, our food, and even the air we breathe, tiny plastic particles are finding their way into many parts of our body.But what happens once those particles are inside? What do they do to our digestive system? Significant Impact on Human HealthIn a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, University of New Mexico researchers found that those tiny particles – microplastics – are having a significant impact on our digestive pathways, making their way from the gut and into the tissues of the kidney, liver, and brain.Research continues to show the importance of gut health. If you don’t have a healthy gut, it affects the brain, it affects the liver and so many other tissues. So even imagining that the microplastics are doing something in the in the gut, that chronic exposure could lead to systemic effects.— Eliseo Castillo, PhD, UNM School of MedicinePervasive Presence and Research FocusEliseo Castillo, PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology in the UNM School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine and an expert in mucosal immunology, is leading the charge at UNM on microplastic research.“Over the past few decades, microplastics have been found in the ocean, in animals and plants, in tap water and bottled water,” Castillo, says. “They appear to be everywhere.”Ingestion and Internal EffectsScientists estimate that people ingest 5 grams of microplastic particles each week on average – equivalent to the weight of a credit card.While other researchers are helping to identify and quantify ingested microplastics, Castillo and his team focus on what the microplastics are doing inside the body, specifically to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and to the gut immune system.Experimental Studies and FindingsOver a four-week period, Castillo, postdoctoral fellow Marcus Garcia, PharmD, and other UNM researchers exposed mice to microplastics in their drinking water. The amount was equivalent to the quantity of microplastics humans are believed to ingest each week.Microplastics had migrated out of the gut into the tissues of the liver, kidney and even the brain, the team found. The study also showed the microplastics changed metabolic pathways in the affected tissues.Concerns and Future Research“We could detect microplastics in certain tissues after the exposure,” Castillo says. “That tells us it can cross the intestinal barrier and infiltrate into other tissues.”Castillo says he’s also concerned about the accumulation of the plastic particles in the human body. “These mice were exposed for four weeks,” he says. “Now, think about how that equates to humans, if we’re exposed from birth to old age.”Impacts on Immune System and Chronic ConditionsThe healthy laboratory animals used in this study showed changes after brief microplastic exposure, Castillo says. “Now imagine if someone has an underlying condition, and these changes occur, could microplastic exposure exacerbate an underlying condition?”He has previously found that microplastics are also impacting macrophages – the immune cells that work to protect the body from foreign particles.Ongoing Investigations and Potential DiscoveriesIn a paper published in the journal Cell Biology & Toxicology in 2021, Castillo and other UNM researchers found that when macrophages encountered and ingested microplastics, their function was altered and they released inflammatory molecules.“It is changing the metabolism of the cells, which can alter inflammatory responses,” Castillo says. “During intestinal inflammation – states of chronic illness such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which are both forms of inflammatory bowel disease – these macrophages become more inflammatory and they’re more abundant in the gut.”Diet’s Role in Microplastic UptakeThe next phase of Castillo’s research, which is being led by postdoctoral fellow Sumira Phatak, PhD, will explore how diet is involved in microplastic uptake.“Everyone’s diet is different,” he says. “So, what we’re going to do is give these laboratory animals a high-cholesterol/high-fat diet, or high-fiber diet, and they will be either exposed or not exposed to microplastics. The goal is to try to understand if diet affects the uptake of microplastics into our body.”Castillo says one of his PhD students, Aaron Romero, is also working to understand why there is a change in the gut microbiota. “Multiple groups have shown microplastics change the microbiota, but how it changes the microbiota hasn’t been addressed.”Castillo hopes that his research will help uncover the potential impacts microplastics are having to human health and that it will help spur changes to how society produces and filtrates plastics.Future Directions and Societal Impact“At the end of the day, the research we are trying to do aims to find out how this is impacting gut health,” he says. “Research continues to show the importance of gut health. If you don’t have a healthy gut, it affects the brain, it affects the liver and so many other tissues. So even imagining that the microplastics are doing something in the in the gut, that chronic exposure could lead to systemic effects.”In Vivo Tissue Distribution of Polystyrene or Mixed Polymer Microspheres and Metabolomic Analysis after Oral Exposure in Mice” by Marcus M. Garcia, Aaron S. Romero, Seth D. Merkley, Jewel L. Meyer-Hagen, Charles Forbes, Eliane El Hayek, David P. Sciezka, Rachel Templeton, Jorge Gonzalez-Estrella, Yan Jin, Haiwei Gu, Angelica Benavidez, Russell P. Hunter, Selita Lucas, Guy Herbert, Kyle Joohyung Kim, Julia Yue Cui, Rama R. Gullapalli, Julie G. In, Matthew J. Campen, and Eliseo F. Castillo, 10 April 2024, Environmental Health Perspectives.DOI: 10.1289/EHP13435

Makah tribe gets federal approval to hunt up to 25 gray whales

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It has been 25 years since the Makah tribe last harpooned a gray whale, a practice its members consider a sacred tradition but was restricted by federal regulation. But on Thursday, the tribe was granted a long-sought waiver that allows them to hunt up to 25 whales in the next decade.The waiver from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a major victory for the northwest Washington tribe. Whaling is central to Makah culture and treaty rights explicitly protect the tribe’s right to hunt whales, leaders said.“There is now a defined path for us to exercise our reserved treaty right,” Timothy Greene, chairman of the Makah Tribal Council told The Washington Post. “Our community has always been dependent on the ocean. It’s not for sport. The hunt is to provide for our people.”The decades-long wait was painful for the Makah, a community of about 1,500, he added, and it took far too long.Whale hunting is a thousands-years-old practice in Makah culture. It’s depicted in songs, dances and basketry, and intertwined with rituals and ceremonies. The tribe says it uses nearly every part of the whales it hunts, including the meat, blubber, bone and sinew.“It provided us a means to meet our nutritional needs, and provided for the exchange of goods throughout the region,” Greene said. “Our community and societal structure is better off for it.”Animal rights advocates, who have for years opposed the Makah’s pursuit of whaling, said they’re disappointed with Thursday’s decision. However limited, any whaling jeopardizes gray whale populations, and places the endangered Western North Pacific gray whales at risk of being harpooned, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.After a sharp decline in gray whales, the tribe voluntarily halted whaling in the 1920s. The United States later restricted whaling in the 1970s as many species hit the brink of extinction. After the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population recovered, and was no longer considered an endangered species, the Makah notified the federal government of its interest in resuming whaling. The 1999 hunt was the first since the 1920s. By 2000, a federal appeals court said that regulators failed to take a “hard look” at the hunt’s environmental impacts and ordered a halt.Twenty-one years later, an administrative law judge argued the tribe should be granted a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a 1972 law that prohibits the killing of whales and other sea life.“Today is a monumental day in the efforts to allow the Makah tribe to exercise their treaty right to subsistence and cultural whaling,” Chris Yates, an assistant regional administrator with NOAA Fisheries, told The Post. “It’s been a real long time coming for the Makah tribe.”The waiver allows the Makah to hunt up to 25 Eastern North Pacific gray whales over a 10-year period. As of this spring, there were about 17,000 to 21,000 of the gray whales along the West Coast, Yates said.Western North Pacific gray whales, which remain on the Endangered Species List with an estimated population of 300, will not be included in the waiver, Yates said.“There are multiple safeguards built into this,” he said, adding that the hunts will take into account when the endangered whales migrate.DJ Schubert, senior wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Post that allowing hunting only adds to factors threatening gray whales. The sea creatures face a host of dangers, Schubert said, including entanglement, ship strikes, pollutants, contaminants and ocean noise. The climate crisis further endangers gray whales.“The population is at risk,” he said.While NOAA’s restrictions state that only Eastern North Pacific gray whales may be hunted by the Makah tribe, it could be difficult to distinguish between the eastern stock of whales and the western while out on the water, Schubert added. “We’re not convinced that the restrictions are sufficiently protective of these other groups of gray whales.”Greene pointed back to the Makah tribe’s decision to stop hunting whales when their population was at risk. Members of the tribe are responsible stewards of the land and its creatures, he said.“As important whaling was and still is to our people, we chose to lay down the harpoon when the resource was at a point where it wasn’t healthy,” Greene said.The first Makah whale hunt in decades could happen as soon as the fall, though it’ll probably occur next year, Greene said.The tribe and federal regulators need to enter an agreement, and the Makah must obtain a hunting permit. There will be restrictions on when and where hunts can occur, which would also be subject to change based on whale population sizes.The Makah must also finalize their own tribal regulations and organize a whaling crew. About 10 people who were on the last whale hunt in 1999 are still alive, according to Greene.Greene, 52, has never participated in a whale hunt. Decades of legal battles caused him and hundreds of other members of the tribe to miss out, he said.News of the waiver energized the community, which Greene said will prepare its canoes, paddles and harpoons for the Makah tribe’s sacred tradition.“It’s going to be life changing,” he said.

Is This the First Recorded Footage of a Colossal Squid Living Freely?

The only sightings of the animals so far have come from corpses or creatures dragged up from the depths

While scientists have seen colossal squid before—like this specimen examined by New Zealander researchers in 2014—their interactions have always been with animals that were either pulled from the depths, washed up on shore or otherwise removed from their natural habitat. Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com. Just after 10 a.m. on January 6, 2023, in the Southern Ocean some 680 miles south of Argentina, Matthew Mulrennan’s underwater camera captured a one-of-a-kind sighting: There, roughly 575 feet beneath his vessel, a lone squid was propelling itself through the frigid water. With its outstretched vermillion tentacles, see-through body and faint blue bioluminescent glow, this five-inch-long squid is, potentially, the first colossal squid ever filmed in its natural environment. Video captured off Antarctica roughly 650 feet deep below the surface shows what might be a juvenile colossal squid living freely in its natural environment. It’s possible this is not a colossal squid but instead another kind of closely related glass squid. Video courtesy of Matthew Mulrennan / Kolossal Mulrennan, a marine scientist and founder of the California-based nonprofit Kolossal, has been working since 2017 to record footage of wild colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni). Cephalopod experts are convinced Mulrennan filmed some sort of glass squid, the scientific family to which colossal squid belong. But they remain unsure whether it was a young colossal, an adult Galiteuthis glacialis or a previously unknown species in the closely related genus Taonius. The Antarctic water where Mulrennan’s team spotted the squid was full of marine snow, giving the video a grainy quality reminiscent of the first photos of another little-known cephalopod: the giant squid. Although both cephalopods are so elusive they’re practically legendary—and often compared to the mythical kraken—colossal squid have bigger, heavier bodies and slightly shorter tentacles than their giant brethren. While giant squid were first photographed and filmed in their natural habitat in 2004 and 2012, respectively, the only sightings of colossal squid have come from corpses or animals dragged up to the surface. Until, perhaps, now. Colossal squid were first scientifically described by zoologist Guy Robson in 1925 after a sperm whale washed up in the Falkland Islands with two colossal squid tentacles in its stomach. Since then, the massive animals have rarely been caught, photographed or even seen. That’s a striking feat for a creature longer than a cargo container with eyes the size of volleyballs. As adults, colossal squid are Earth’s largest invertebrates. They eat Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) and are hunted by sperm whales. When they’re young, colossal squid seem to venture closer to the ocean’s surface, where they’re picked off by penguins, albatrosses, seals and Patagonian toothfish. Little else is known about their behavior; most clues are derived from fishing line nibbles, examinations of predators’ stomachs and the occasional squid corpse that washes up on a beach. William Reid, a marine biologist at Newcastle University in England, was lucky enough to get up-close with a colossal squid after fishers unexpectedly pulled one up in 2005 near South Georgia Island, located between Antarctica and South America. Although its several-feet-long mantle was too heavy to salvage, Reid’s incomplete 440-pound specimen revealed how the hooks and suckers that line the squid’s arms can pop off, giving the animal an impressive grip but also offering easy detachment from prey and predators. In the depths of the ocean where little light penetrates, Reid suspects colossal squid are ambush hunters that wait patiently for prey to wander within reach, then use their long arms to stuff their catches into their beaks. He says the squid’s giant eyes may be adept at seeing bioluminescence, which could alert them to hungry sperm whales coming their way. Colossal squid have been documented a few other times, too. Soviet fishers caught and photographed the first whole colossal squid in 1981 off eastern Antarctica. In 2003, fishers from New Zealand snared a dead 660-pound juvenile colossal squid in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, and then, in 2007, they pulled up a live 1,100-pound adult from a depth of almost 5,000 feet. And in 2008, Russian scientists caught one farther west in the Dumont d’Urville Sea. But no one has ever seen a colossal squid living, undisturbed, hundreds of meters below the surface where it naturally dwells. And, as Reid emphasizes, because colossal squid tend to collapse under their own weight when dragged from the highly pressurized deep sea, studying them in their natural environment is the only way to see both their behavior and fully intact anatomy. That’s why, from December 2022 to April 2023, Mulrennan and his crew set off on four multiweek trips from Ushuaia, Argentina, aboard the Ocean Endeavour, a tourist-packed expedition vessel operated by Intrepid Travel. Sailing alongside roughly 200 curious tourists, Mulrennan and the Kolossal team traveled to the South Shetland Islands, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula and other areas below the Antarctic Circle in search of the oversized squid. While passengers slept and disembarked on day trips to see penguins, whales and Antarctica’s icy terrain, the researchers—including Jennifer Herbig, a doctoral candidate at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador—took turns dropping a tethered underwater camera from one of the ship’s gangways into the freezing water below. “We’d put the camera in the water at midnight or 1 a.m., be up until 4 or 5 a.m., and then have to get up at 6 or 7 a.m.,” Herbig says. With the camera dangling as far as 1,300 feet underwater, it became a near-constant effort to keep it from getting hooked on sea ice and disappearing into the deep. In total, the team captured 62 hours of high-definition footage. Along with their prospective colossal squid, the scientists spotted a giant volcano sponge—animals thought to live up to 15,000 years—and dozens of other deep-sea Antarctic species. It was challenging work made easier by the ship’s other passengers, who brought the scientists cookies and hot chocolate during long nighttime deployments. Herbig, for her part, cherished the tourists’ interest. “They could just peek over our shoulders and see what we were doing, so we got to explain some of the science,” she says. “Every day on the ship, I was asked, ‘Did you find the squid?’” Mulrennan recounts. “People really want to know more about these large kraken-like species”—especially the ship’s chef, who kept joking about cooking the squid if they found it. Whether the video Mulrennan’s team captured turns out to be a juvenile colossal squid or not—that final determination depends on continued examinations by squid experts at New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology—the Kolossal researchers aren’t finished with their quest just yet. While last year’s expedition relied largely on using an underwater camera to film close to the noisy vessel, the team hopes to revisit Antarctica as soon as November 2024, armed with a much broader suite of tools. Mulrennan is looking to upgrade from one underwater camera to as many as a dozen, which he can deploy simultaneously, and he wants to add remotely operated cameras that would enable filming farther from the boat. Another option for improving their technique, says Herbig, would be to get longer camera cables so they can peer even deeper into the colossal squid’s frigid domain. Herbig adds that they could also bring equipment to analyze environmental DNA and measure biomass, helping the team study the abundance of creatures that share this deepwater habitat. With a tattoo on his left arm commemorating zoologist Guy Robson’s 1925 sighting of a colossal squid, Mulrennan hopes to lead or inspire a verified underwater filming of a live, wild colossal squid by 2025. “If finding the giant squid was like landing on the moon, then finding the colossal squid’s going to be like landing on Mars,” he says.This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com. Related stories from Hakai Magazine: Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.

Pigeons on the pill: scientists look to contraceptives to curb pest numbers

Birth control is being trialled as a humane way to limit growing numbers of grey squirrels, pigeons and wild boarThe invention of the contraceptive pill heralded the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and now scientists are looking to revolutionise wildlife control by getting animals in on the action.Trials are under way in the UK and elsewhere in Europe of how to get contraceptives into pigeons, wild boar and grey squirrels, with scientists also proposingother rodents, invasive parakeets and deer as other target species. Continue reading...

The invention of the contraceptive pill heralded the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and now scientists are looking to revolutionise wildlife control by getting animals in on the action.Trials are under way in the UK and elsewhere in Europe of how to get contraceptives into pigeons, wild boar and grey squirrels, with scientists also proposingother rodents, invasive parakeets and deer as other target species.As destruction from invasive and pest species grows, researchers are looking to fill special feeders and bait boxes with hazelnut spreads and grains laced with contraceptives. They believe this could be a more humane and effective way of controlling populations that have previously been poisoned, shot or trapped.The aim is to find “creative solutions”, says Dr Giovanna Massei from York University. “The main message is that the economic and the environmental impact of wildlife are increasing worldwide, and we are running out of options,” she says. “Traditional methods such as culling are ineffective, can be inhumane, unsustainable, environmentally harmful, and are increasingly opposed by the public.”Grey squirrels are a particular issue for the UK. These non-native animals were first introduced from the US to England in the 1800s as an ornamental species for stately homes. However, they spread widely, causing local extinctions of the native red squirrels and damaging woodlands by stripping bark. The species is estimated to cost £37m a year in lost timber in England and Wales. Grey squirrels are seen as a bigger threat to broadleaf trees than deer and pathogens, according to a Royal Forestry Society survey.Trials are under way to deliver oral contraceptives hidden in a hazelnut spread for squirrels in the UK, using specially weighted feeders that only grey squirrels can open (red squirrels are lighter, so the trap will not open for them). Preliminary results suggest the method is working.Pigeons could be fed a “breakfast” of corn grains containing the contraceptive every morning, said Dr Marco Pellizzari, a veterinary consultant. “They really love to get that … It’s very easy,” he says.In London, the non-native parakeet could also be a recipient, but it would mean asking residents who routinely feed them in their gardens to give them food with contraceptives in it.Next week York University will host the first workshop on wildlife fertility control, where experts and researchers involved in the trials will discuss how to deliver contraceptives to pests – animals considered harmful to people, farming or native habitats.A wild boar in Rome. Continental Europe has seen a rapid increase in the animals, considered pests by Italian farmers. Photograph: AFP/GettyAcross continental Europe and Scandinavia, there has been a rapid increase in wild boars, with the rise in numbers believed to be linked to milder winters. Some consider them pests because they root up cropland, munch through rubbish and cause traffic accidents. Italian farmers’ associations say the wild boar population doubled from 500,000 in 2010 to one million by 2020. In Germany and in France, more than half a million are shot every year, but numbers are increasing, and the number of people who want to hunt them is declining. Massei says culling is “clearly not controlling a number of these animals”.A pilot programme is under way to look at giving them contraceptives using devices that only boar can lift up, using their burrowing snouts. The feeder works but the oral contraceptive has not yet been developed.Many countries are now banning the use of rodenticides because of their impact on other animals, including birds of prey, which have died from eating the poisoned carcasses. The chemicals are also considered inhumane, as animals can suffer for several days after eating anticoagulants before they die. Glue traps have been banned in England, Scotland and Wales, and other sorts of live traps will probably be further regulated, according to Prof Steve Belmain, an ecologist from Greenwich University.Yet rodents pose significant threats to agriculture, as well as transmitting diseases to livestock. “We don’t have many alternatives to lethal control. That’s where fertility control really could be a great opportunity to manage these things,” says Belmain.Feral horses in the US are already on contraceptives, as well as African elephants outside Kruger national park, who are injected. The only contraceptive registered for use in Europe is nicarbazin, which is only allowed to be used on pigeons in a few countries such as Italy, Spain, Belgium and Austria.A regular gathering point for pigeons near Oxford Street in London. Photograph: Mike Kemp/In Pictures/GettyResearchers are also looking into the possibility of giving deer contraception, but so far no orally administered one has been designed for grazing animals. Britain has more deer than at any point in the past 1,000 years, causing extensive damage to woodlands.There is concern that using products based on synthetic hormones could result in oestrogenic chemicals getting into the environment, which has negative effects such as feminising male fish. It is also not known what the impacts would be on a predatory bird if it ate a rodent that had eaten a contraceptive. “We need to really understand these things as part of that regulatory process,” says Belmain.

How a little brown bird could sound the alarm on lead poisoning in Australian children

Researchers found blood-lead levels in sparrows were a predictable indicator of blood-lead levels in children – showing how humans and nature are inextricably linked.

Simon C GriffithRecent public health threats such as COVID, and the current bird flu outbreak in Victoria, show we can’t separate human health from the natural environment. Our research examining the link between lead exposure in house sparrows and children is another sobering reminder of this shared health burden. Birds have long been considered sentinels for environmental health – hence the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”. Urban sparrows are particularly useful sentinels, because they tend to live in the same places as humans. Our study focused on the lead-mining cities of Broken Hill in New South Wales and Mount Isa in Queensland, where lead exposure in children is a major health concern. We found blood-lead levels in sparrows were a predictable indicator of blood-lead levels in children. The findings demonstrate the importance of paying attention to the health of the environment and the animals around us. Children can be exposed to lead when playing outdoors. Shutterstock Sparrows: our constant companions The house sparrow is an introduced species to Australia. They inhabit most of eastern Australia and much of the Northern Territory and South Australia. They are particularly common in places where humans live. Sparrows have a home range similar to the size of a small urban neighbourhood. Most pollutants they pick up are from within this range, so we expected patterns of exposure in sparrows to reflect those of children in the same area. The physiology of house sparrows and children is, of course, very different. But their behaviours make them similarly susceptible to lead exposure. Both are exposed to lead in soil and dust; a child while crawling and playing, a sparrow while foraging. Both are also exposed within a defined area – typically the home, backyard or immediate neighbourhood. What we found At Broken Hill, we measured lead in blood samples from hundreds of sparrows captured at more than 40 sites. The birds were then released. We compared our data to recent data on children’s blood-lead levels at Broken Hill. We found blood-lead levels in sparrows were much higher than in children. This is not surprising. Sparrows forage in soil, which is an important source of lead contamination. What was surprising, however, was the strong correlation between lead exposure in sparrows and those of children living nearby. Where blood lead levels were highest in sparrows, they were also highest in children. This raised an interesting question. Could sparrows be used to predict lead exposure risks in humans? We tested this idea in Mount Isa, another lead-mining city with a similar dry, dusty natural environment to Broken Hill. We tested lead levels in sparrows at Mount Isa and used the results to predict lead levels in children nearby. Based on the sparrow data, we expected about a quarter of Mount Isa children would have blood-lead levels above the Australian intervention guideline. Our prediction was right. The most recent data shows about a quarter of Mount Isa children exceeded this guideline between 2016 and 2018. What’s behind these links? The next step was to confirm sparrows and children were exposed to lead from the same sources in the environment. This can be determined by examining lead “isotopes”, or types of atoms, found in blood and the environment. We measured these isotopes in sparrow blood samples and found most lead originated from the Broken Hill ore deposit. As anticipated, the highest contributions of ore lead (more than 80%) were detected in sparrows caught near mining operations where emissions of lead were highest. This decreased with distance from the operations. Previous research at Broken Hill found the same trends for children – a significant component of the lead originated from the Broken Hill ore in children with elevated blood-lead levels. Yet we also found evidence that, at least in Broken Hill, the correlation between lead exposure in children and sparrows wasn’t as strong as it once might have been. Over the past three decades, a series of targeted environmental interventions have effectively lowered blood-lead levels in the Broken Hill community. This has led to greater variability in levels of lead exposure among local children. Recent monitoring indicates children living within the same neighbourhood, and even the same street, often have very different blood-lead levels. This was rarely the case for sparrows caught from a single site. Why? Possibly because sparrows are active over a much larger area than children. So, targeted efforts to minimise lead exposure in children – such as remediating their home environment – have little impact on sparrows. Sparrows are also notorious trespassers. Mining land, empty lots, backyards, and ceiling cavities: nothing is off limits. These spaces pose limited risk to people and have largely avoided the full extent of lead remediation measures. Yet they still account for a lot of land and likely provide an ongoing source of exposure for animals such as sparrows. So while interventions have reduced lead exposure in children, sparrows show us that lead contamination remains widespread in Broken Hill. What this means for humans Our research highlights the close connections between human and animal health in polluted urban environments. But it’s not all bad news. Outbreaks of death and disease in birds can spur action to prevent harm to humans. For example, in Western Australia’s port town of Esperance in 2006, mass bird deaths were traced to lead poisoning from a nearby ore stockpiles. A clean-up ensued, preventing health impacts for the community. Perhaps more importantly, our research shows humans are not separate from the environment and the animals around us – and we cannot escape the consequences when natural systems are modified or destroyed. Max M Gillings is involved in research affiliated with and funded by EPA Victoria.Mark Patrick Taylor received funding via an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant (2017-2020), CSG55984 ‘Citizen insights to the composition and risks of household dust’ (the DustSafe project). The VegeSafe and DustSafe programs are supported by publication donations to Macquarie University. He has previously received funding from NSW EPA for research into environmental lead and human health implications at Broken Hill, NSW. He is a full-time employee of EPA Victoria, appointed to the statutory role of Chief Environmental Scientist.Simon Griffith receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

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