The Planetary News Radio – Episode 10: Ancient North Siberians, Octopuses as Lab Rats, and Microplastics Invade Deep Sea

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode Number 10 with your host, Bryan White. I’m going to be doing a Science in the News segment today, which is a brief summary of trending science news articles. I haven’t reed or researched most of these articles unless it was something controversial. So I’m just giving background information based on the headline. So depending how good the headlines are kind of influences how much information I can give about the article.

First up, I have here “DNA from 31,000 year old milk teeth leads to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians”. Ancient humans. This is a really exciting area of research because we found out that pretty much anything say, around the last 50,000 years, we can get DNA from now if we can find bones and the bones haven’t been completely fossilized. There’s still organic material in the bones. We can extract DNA and do genetic and genomic analysis on these bones and teeth are a great example of that. [There is] lots of organic material inside of teeth. And so we’ve discovered there’s several species of ancient humans in Eastern Europe, across through Russia, and Siberia, and in Asia. And so while there were radiations of humans out of Africa multiple times, some of those radiations included ancient humans that migrated into Siberia and Asia. In Europe, some of those became Neanderthals. [In Russia and Asia,] some of those became Denisovans, and I don’t know if this new species has been named yet [(Ancient North Siberians)]. This is really considered a subspecies of [ancient human, which are still considered Homo sapiens sp.].

Most of these species would have been able to interbreed with each other. So a good rule of thumb for mammals is if the divergence time for two groups is less than 200,000 years, then hybridization was most likely possible. So modern humans and Neanderthals were [able to hybridize, which] we know it’s proven for a fact that they hybridized because we have genomic data. Using [just] the rule of thumb, we know that Neanderthals and modern humans diverged about 300,000 years ago, and when they met again in Europe, they were only separated by about 200,000 years of evolution, and so they were able to hybridize. So the same thing with this [newly discovered group whose] teeth are only 31,000 years, so certainly these would have been able to hybridize and interbreed with modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens.

So [this is] just more evidence of new, different groups of ancient humans. And why is that important? Well, it helps paint the picture of the migration and really the prolific amount of adaptation that modern humans underwent in terms of evolutionary change over the last 200,000 years. We really had our own adaptive radiation, just like birds and reptiles and dinosaurs. Humans are one of our own great adaptive radiation stories in terms of evolutionary history, so it’s always cool when we find new human species or unique genetic groups.

So let’s see, we [have] another StarLink article. “Astronomers call for urgent action on you on SpaceX’s StarLink satellites”. Apparently, astronomers are still concerned over the magnitude of the number of satellites that Elon Musk is going to be putting out into orbit around. [It will be] 12,000 satellites [in total], and this is now still a trending story every week for the last couple weeks since the initial launch has occurred. Like I said last time, I think it’s a fair criticism, but it also forces us to think about space junk in general, which is good. So Maybe Elon Musk is doing us a favor by forcing the conversation, and hopefully there’s some resolution with these satellites and [policies towards “space junk”].

Here’s another interesting evolution biology topic or medical two. The newest lab rat has eight arms octopuses, big brains and unique behaviour spur basic research. Why would octopuses be a really good animal to use in the lab as a research subject? Well, let’s think about rats. Rats are intelligent. They’re small. They’re relatively easy to cultivate. You could have a colony [colony of rats]. They reproduce in the lab. They have a short lifespan, and that life span is about the time that it takes most experiments to perform. But what are the problems with rats? There’s a lot of problems with rats. One of them is that rats get cancer very easily, [upwards of 80% in some cases]. At least in lab stocks of rats, as opposed to wild rats. We’ve been cultivating rats for so long in the lab in a lab setting that they’re very, very likely to get cancer over the course of a two year life span. And so, if you want to do a cancer study on rats, that’s a problem because most of these rats will inevitably get cancer no matter what, whether they’re being exposed to something that is actually increasing their cancer risk or if they’re just living over the course of a normal life span.

[What are some reasons octopuses might make good lab animals?] Octopuses are less cultivated in the lab, [or at least were used in lab experiments more recently], so we probably don’t have very many generations worth of octopus evolution happening in a lab. It would be easier to collect them from the wild and generate a new stock [to improve and maintain lab-strain genetics]. Since lab rats are so domesticated compared to their wild counterparts, it would be problematic to intermix lab rats with wild rats, especially because you have the problem of aggression. So you don’t want to create really aggressive lab rats. It might improve their genetic stock, but then again, you have a problem of having more wild, aggressive rats.

Octopus can be aggressive, but it’s different. They’re a very different animal in terms of behavior. They’re contained in a marine environment. They’re probably not really being handled by the researchers. In other words, an octopus is less likely to reach around and bite a researcher because the environment that the octopus is being stored in isn’t going to be one where the researchers are routinely handling them with their hands. I imagine you can create these lab complexes for octopus to live in, where the researchers don’t really have to interact with them, and they don’t have to worry about getting bit. Octopuses do have a beak that could hurt a human. It could draw blood. But again, they’re not really aggressive, they’re mostly defensive animals, so octopus is not really threatened. Even a wild octopus shouldn’t be a problem. Now they will try to escape, but that’s part of their intelligence. So you have this animal that has a really fast generation time, it has a genetic stock could be easily replenished from the wild, it’s highly intelligent, it’s probably smarter than rats. It’s not really aggressive [compared to rats]. On the negative side, it’s probably more expensive to cultivate because you need all the marine equipment. But stuff like that is coming down in terms of pricing because of advances in material science. So as material science advances, it becomes easier to cultivate an animal like an octopus and then for sets of experiments that will work on an octopus. In other words, if you’re not trying to test a [mammal-specific] hormone, obviously that won’t work. Or it might if you could genetically engineer octopus to do something like a mammal. So maybe we can even test human medicine on octopuses if it’s easy to genetically modify them.

The great dying nearly erased life on Earth. Scientists see similarities today, the great dying, of course, being the Permian extinction, where 90 percent of marine life went extinct at the end of the Permian period around 300,000,000 years ago. And I think maybe 70% of all land life went extinct. And so we see Similar is of that today because of the rapid extinction rates that were seen on the Earth. And so we know that the Permian extinction was accompanied by rapid changes in climate, and a lot of those changes would have been recorded in the geological history in the fossils in the rocks around that time. So we’re probably seen similar patterns of a very rapid global climate change too rapid for animals to adapt, especially marine animals that tend to be more sensitive.

Apparently, the Mars lander Insight is having a problem with its instruments. So “NASA finally has a plan to free Insight’s extremely stuck probe”. So it sounds like the heat probe on Insight os stuck. Insight is an interesting probe on Mars because it’s not a robotic rover like Opportunity [and Spirit were]. It is a It is a stationary probe whose primary mission is to study the geology and geologic activity of Mars. So it has a seismometer that is actually measuring earthquakes on Mars and some other types of thermal instruments. So the fact that one of its probes are stuck is not good, but maybe this can be resolved.

Here’s another controversial topic. “Microplastics have invaded the deep ocean and the food chain”. That’s not good. So micro plastics real problem, because we’re finding out now that it’s permeated our entire water system, including the ocean and freshwater. These are microscopic bits of plastic that now we know we’re drinking and eating, and not just us [(humans)]. All life on earth now potentially being exposed to this. We don’t know the cumulative effects or long term effects of this because it’s just recently happened [the article says we are] finding out that microplastics have permeated all the way down to the deep sea, which means the entire oceanic ecosystem can be impacted from this all the way from the bottom up. So [some of] the primary producers in the ocean are phytoplankton or very tiny, tiny animals [(zooplankton)]. Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing organisms that float up and down in the water. And so now it sounds like, they’re saying, is that microplastics have permeated the entire oceanic column, which means primary producers will be affected as well as secondary producers and secondary consumers.

So if the oceanic ecosystem has been permeated to this degree with microplastic suggests that there could be a cumulative effect and this could lead to an ecosystem collapse. And so I think that’s kind of what we’re waiting for right now. In terms of conservation biology, we’re waiting to start seeing signs of these major ecosystem crashes. We already see signs of top level consumers [being harmed, such as] whales, sea turtles, things like that that are eating fish all the way up the food chain. We already see that they’re being impacted because they’re getting the worst degree of bio-accumulation because they’re eating fish and crustaceans that even in phytoplankton have been absorbing microplastics. So, you know, at the highest level we already get an impact. We get birds stomachs filled with plastic, things like that. So this microplastic problem is really scary. And hopefully my guess is that there will be some extreme measures taken, probably in the next five years to alleviate this. That’s my hope. But I think that it will happen because I think we’ll start seeing more direct [negative] impacts of it that will drive some of those changes.

All right, and that’s all I had today for this Science in the News segment. That’s Bryan White signing out the Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to support this podcast that had a patreon going, the link for that is in the feed. The transcripts for all of these podcasts are also on the website, so there’s a link to the website in the feed, and if you would like to join a discord chat, that link is also there. Hopefully, we get people asking questions and things like that in the discord, so thanks for listening. Have a great day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 3: Space as a Visual Science

Hello and welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 3. The date is still May 26th. I recorded an episode a little bit earlier today, and it’s so nice out that I could not resist traveling to a park and recording another episode. The weather is just amazing here in Oregon today, and so I’m in a good mood and ready to talk about science. So where was I [at the end of last episode]? The the other [topic] is actually a really important point that I’ve been developing for awhile. So at the end of last episode, I mentioned Space Science is a very popular science in the news. And so the question is, why is space so popular? And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and these are my thoughts.

One of my thoughts is that space is very visual. Astronomy is very visual, and it always has been. If you think about it, astronomy is probably one of the oldest real sciences. Maybe the first real science mixed in with physics. If we consider that Isaac Newton was one of the true founders of the scientific method, not necessarily science in terms of understanding the natural world, Aristotle being one of the first people to record his understanding of the natural world in a way that was meaningful to other people. Aristotle, Euclid, those types of early natural science philosophers. However, they didn’t really employ the scientific method. So we think of Isaac Newton as one of the first people to employ the scientific method along with Galileo in that [meaning of the phrase “scientific method”]. Astronomy was at this focal point.

Biology [might also be thought of as one of the oldest sciences], while something that Aristotle focused heavily on, and Plato thought a lot about the philosophy of biology. Biology was not really conducted in a scientific manner probably until around Darwin’s time, so astronomy and geology were becoming rigorous sciences and chemistry much earlier than biology. But again, and, that’s part of my idea, is that astronomy is so popular because it is a visual science and that this is tied in with human evolution.

And so humans are a very visual species. We have color vision. A lot of mammals don’t have color vision. We don’t necessarily have very good distance vision, but we have very good 3D vision. We have lots of things that can help us see depth perception. We have very good depth perception. Our eyes are focused forward, which would make us in line with predator vision like a dog or a hawk, as opposed to, say, a cow or a goat whose eyes are on the side. Humans are very visually orientated in terms of their biology. And so this is obviously something Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are always talking about – looking out at the stars is something that humans have done for thousands, if not millions of years. And it’s part of our nature. It’s part of our biology. It’s part of how our brain evolved. We evolved with the stars. We evolved with fruit. We evolved having to identify food using color. Using depth perception, too, we evolved in the trees – we had to be able to judge a leap.

We evolved language, which is potentially related to the use of tools. So as we evolved fine motor skills to manipulate the world in front of us, we evolved language, and so even language is potentially tied to human’s ability to visualize. And so what’s happened is that astronomy and spaces so visual, so easy for us to see, that it resonates with people. And that’s good. I appreciate that. I love space. I love astronomy, even cosmology. Even things that we can’t see in space. We can imagine them. It’s easy for us to imagine a galaxy, and a star, and other planets because we’ve seen our own planet, we’ve seen Mars, the moon, and the sun. And so we know what planets in our solar system look like and we can imagine what planets in other solar systems might look like.

And so, you see the Trappist systems a great example, I think has five or six planets or so all rocky planets, but about the size of Jupiter Earth. So giant rocky planets much closer to their star than Earth. We can imagine them orbiting the star and we don’t have to be a scientist to do that. I am not an astronomer by training, but I can imagine seeing these planets all very close to each other. So imagine if instead of the [Moon right next to us, we had Mars instead]. That would be amazing. So we have this fascination with these star systems and space and travel, and that’s another human nature. To travel. We like to travel. And so space is a traveling science because we can see it, but then [we can] only imagine if we could travel there. Imagine if we could travel to the moon or travel to Mars or travel to the Trappist system.

Space just pulls at our natural emotions that we have as humans to travel, to journey, to adventure, and to beauty. We see these planets and we imagine them, and when you see an artist’s rendition of a planet that we’ve never seen before, it’s always very beautiful. Humans tend to conceptualize things, in an artistic fashion when we’re imagining them. And so space is also an art, or the visualization of it is an art on. Probably the greatest examples of that is the visualization of the black hole that was done for the movie interstellar. Some physics calculations were made or formulas were invented to understand what black hole looks like, and this has been going on for many years, and as we’ve collected more data, these models have gotten better, and now, with increased computational power, we’re able to produce this model that was good enough for Hollywood. And so it’s an art, and it’s beautiful when we look at it, when we think of imagining seeing a black hole, or at least from a safe distance, imagine seen what that looked like. The disc, the accretion disc around the black hole, reflecting light in all directions towards us. It sparks something inside of us.

So space is fascinating at so many levels for humans, and that’s good because it gets people excited about science. And I think that’s why you have people like Carl Sagan who were so successful because the science that they championed was easy for people to understand [at a visual level]. Now imagine trying to champion something that is not so intuitive. Maybe not so beautiful. Biology is [less intuitive at certain levels]. People can connect with animals on an emotional level. We can connect with [the idea of] a panda bear going extinct. We can connect with the polar bears going extinct, so humans can connect with biology. It takes some [work to understand the more] abstract concepts though. Evolution is an abstract concept, and you can’t see evolution happening. You also can’t see the formation of the solar system, but you can see the solar system and you can see rocks. And so in rocks, you can see the history of the planet, whereas in a polar bear I can’t see the history of its evolution, at least not easily. Not until maybe you look at its genome, and so within the genome you can see evolutionary history.

The genome is like a rock in the sense that it’s recorded some of the history and, like rocks, they lose pieces of their history is they go through processes, heating and deformation, under the earth. Genomes also lose information, although genomes lose information in a different way then rocks. When a genome loses a gene, it’s gone forever completely from that individual. You might be able to find remnants of it or in other species. And so piecing together evolutionary history becomes an abstract process similar to archaeology, digging and finding different artifacts in layers through time. And so archaeology is a good example of visual science that we understand easily. Again we understand artifacts, we understand history, and archeology, of course, is the study of humans. So we, [as humans], understand humans.

Archaeology lends itself well [to visualization], and so you see National Geographic, [which is] an extremely popular publication, and a lot of its focus when it comes to science is archaeology. You see Egypt, mummy’s, and things like that are always popular National Geographic topics. Undiscovered tribes in the Amazon. Things like that again. Visual. But let’s look it something less visual again. [For example,] Chemistry, chemical bonds. So understanding what’s happening at the nano-scale is less intuitive for humans.

Why think space science is so popular and why things like biology are not now [in the news]. So we see biology not as popular. And so the question, is, maybe that’s because biology doesn’t have a great human, [scientific] impact. Well, arguably a species, say for example, the existence of the species polar bears is probably as important as the existence of the Moon. Let’s think of the moon as a species and Mars as a species. And so if we lost the Moon, the entire Earth would suffer or at least change. We lose a lot of our things that are affected by gravity, like the tides and things like that, and our orbit around the sun could be altered, so losing the Moon would cause an immediate major impact on the earth. And we would notice that immediately. Losing polar bears, we might not notice immediately. However, the long term scientific impact of losing the species [could be great]. That means that we’ve lost that species’ genome at a minimum, and we’ve lost the genome in its native form. We’ve lost the animal. [Essentially,] we’ve lost what we can learn from a polar bear.

And so this would be the question I would pose to people. And I say, well, do you have nothing to learn from a polar bear? And if that’s the case, if you believe that humanity has nothing to learn from a polar bear, well, then that’s fine. Then let them go extinct. Why waste the effort to keep them alive if they have no benefits of humanity other than their own life and their own feelings as a vertebrate? Well, [in that scenario] then, that’s fine. The ones that are alive today let them live, the ones that will not be born because of climate change, well, they’ll never feel pain, so the extinction of the species is not important. But that is if the answer to the question “Do we have anything to learn from a polar bear?” is nothing. And I would argue that we do have something to learn from a polar bear.

At a minimum, we can learn how to live like a polar bear. And so you can ask a question: Well, why would you want to learn to live like a polar bear? Imagine all of the bio-molecules in the genome of the polar bear that [the animal] produces and humans, [or any other anima], don’t produce. And so imagine we understood 10% of [polar bear physiology] today, based on current technology, which is probably a generous estimate. Now you lose the polar bear and you say, “Well, okay, well, we have the genome in the computer. We can use simulations. We can understand some proteins”. You could understand how the polar bear made its skin and made its hair. And we might have 10% of the information of what a polar bear was today. And then we might say, “Well, okay, that’s good enough. We have some information about other bears. We can learn, you know, a little bit about genomics from bears”. And we might say, “Well, we’re happy with that. And it’s too bad you know, that the polar bears went extinct, but they’re not alive suffering”, at least so you could say that.

Or you could think about it in terms of the future of the human species and think over the course of the next 500 years, think of what we can understand with a more sophisticated understanding of genomics. So imagine we were still developing a technology that could give us a tenfold increase of the understanding of genomics, but that this technology did not develop until the next 100 years. And by the time this technology were developed, polar bears were extinct, and so are 1,000 other vertebrate species. And so we lost all of that data forever because this technology was not developed [while the animal was still alive]. And so my point is, we don’t know what we can learn from a polar bear. We don’t know what we can learn from bald eagles, or a red panda, or a regular panda. We don’t know what we can learn from these animals because we are still in the early phases of developing genomic technology and all of the other omics, proteomics, and things like that.

We don’t know what we can learn. And so there’s hidden secrets in all of these animals because biology is still, to this day, the most sophisticated producer of molecular machinery on the planet Earth. No human can create more sophisticated molecular machinery than a single cell. To do so would be to do so using a cell. So when we create sophisticated molecular machines we’re using cells or were modifying a cell. We have a lot to learn from cells, so we should keep as many different kinds of cells [alive] as we can in order to learn the most. And that’s [the core of] my argument for preserving biodiversity: Because we don’t know what we have to lose. We don’t know what we have to [gain], and so we should preserve as much of that as we can, and we should do that in the living organism.

In other words, an ark of [refrigerated] DNA is not enough. An ark of frozen DNA/tissue is not enough. We need the living animal alive to learn from it. My argument is – I don’t care if you don’t like polar bears. I mean, I don’t wanna hang out with a polar bear. I think they look nice. I think they’re fascinating creatures. I would not want to be in the same room as a polar bear because it would probably attack me. I mean, unless I was the zoo trainer, right? But in the wild, I would not approach the polar bear. You know, I have no interest in interacting with polar bears. They do their thing. I do my thing. However, from a scientific perspective, I want to learn from this animal in a controlled setting. [If you agree with this line of reasoning, then you’d agree] there is a benefit to keeping them alive.

So for me personally, keeping [polar bears, as a species,] alive satisfies two things. My own personal belief that I think they’re fascinating animals in their own habitat and so it makes me happy to know that they’re alive and well. And on the other hand, it allows us to study them and learn from them in the future when we have the technology to do so. This is where I depart from some people who you know want to live with animals and things like that. That’s not me. That’s not my argument. I’m not saying that you have to go live with the polar bears and love polar bears. Now I don’t say that because I do not love [polar bears]. I like them and I’m fascinated by them [from a scientific perspective]. But I don’t love them, not in the same way that I feel about human friends and family. And I’m not saying that people who do love animals in the same way they love humans are wrong or bad. I might feel that way about a dog. Certainly a dog is a companion that I could have a human type bond with. But I don’t think that everybody has to have a human level companionship with an animal just to support keeping that animal [species] alive.

I think a lot of the criticism of animal rights activists or leveled against animal rights activists and criticisms leveled against biologists and conservation biologist is [the critics] say, “Well, we don’t care about that animal. You know, I don’t love a wolf or whatever”. It’s like, well, you don’t have to feel the same way about a wolf that you do about a human in order to preserve it and protect it. We just have to recognize that not only are they a fascinating creature that deserves to have its own life without human interaction, but that also there is a human benefit to every animal. Every [animal] species, maybe not every bacterial species. There’s a trillion of them, if we can even define that bacteria have species, but certainly vertebrate species or fish species, jellyfish, any animal, potentially any plant, or fungus. All of these organisms can provide us another clue about evolution, another clue about how biology works, about how molecular machinery works, and so even a material scientist should be arguing for [preserving] biodiversity. Everybody should, because biodiversity is the true great wonder, not just of humanity, but of the Earth. And so, as stewards of the Earth, we should protect biodiversity, the biodiversity that evolved here that’s so rare. And so that’s my argument for protecting biodiversity. I won’t say anymore today, at least on that, and I hope you enjoyed [this podcast]. Please do you find time to send questions. I’ll try to have a link [in the feed]. I’ll try to have a way for people to submit questions and things like that soon. So if you are listening to this, maybe write them down and in future episodes, I’ll direct everyone to a link. So anyways, thanks for listening. That’s Bryan White sending off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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