May 14, 2002
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Editor: Josh Chamot
Contents of this News Tip:
Life at the
Extremes - Astonishing Diversity Found in Spain's
"River of Fire"
Living conditions are tough for bacteria, algae, and
other microscopic organisms in Spain's crimson Rio
Tinto, "the river of fire." For the first time, researchers
have prepared a molecular description for eukaryotic
organisms living in the highly acidic, high-metal,
Eukaryotes have a DNA-filled nucleus in their cells,
like plants and animals. Researchers believe that
the presence of eukaryote microbes in Rio Tinto suggests
that extreme conditions are not just the domain of
bacteria and extremophiles.
The work, supported by the National Science Foundation
(NSF) and led by Linda Amaral Zettler of the Marine
Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., has revealed
previously unknown eukaryotes, and others that have
not been seen in such a highly acidic environment.
Previous studies of the Rio Tinto looked to morphology
to describe the river's diversity. As a result, scientists
were unaware of many evolutionary relationships among
the river's eukaryotes. However, by examining the
DNA of the organisms, the scientists uncovered new
In mapping out the family tree for Rio Tinto, Amaral
Zettler and her colleagues have found a close relationship
among the river's acid-loving eukaryotes and other
species that prefer neutral environments. This short
evolutionary distance suggests to scientists that
adaptations are widespread and occurring rapidly,
when measured on an evolutionary time scale.
Says Matt Kane, program director in NSF's division
of environmental biology, "NSF-supported research
on microbial life in extreme environments continues
to result in big payoffs. Microbes are the most abundant
and diverse forms of life on Earth. Opportunities
for exploration and discovery of life in extreme environments
are an integral part of many NSF programs." [Cheryl
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Use Earth-Based Tools to Image Weather in Space
It's not your typical forecast, but owners and operators
of the hundreds of active satellites might appreciate
hearing that Massachusetts Institute of Technology
researchers can now provide, for the first time, real-time
images of space weather using ground-based instruments.
The work, by NSF-funded scientists at MIT's Haystack
Observatory and Lincoln Laboratory, will appear in
an upcoming edition of the American Geophysical Union's
Geophysical Research Letters. The research provides
a completely new view of the information NASA gets
from space-based sensors.
Unexpected disturbances in the plasmasphere - the cloud
of charged particles extending over 10,000 miles above
Earth - affect satellite transmissions and result
in damage to satellites and spacecraft.
"What we see goes far beyond our wildest expectations,"
said John C. Foster, associate director of Haystack
and lead author of the upcoming paper. "We are looking
with new eyes, ground-based eyes, at the phenomena
that give us space weather effects. We are just at
the beginning of a very rich area for research."
Pairing information gleaned from hundreds of special
dual-frequency Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers
with data from Haystack's ionospheric radar, researchers
were able, for the first time, to map the ever-changing
plasmasphere from the ground.
"The scientific and applications interests overlap,"
"With our GPS maps and the high-altitude NASA imagery,
we can construct a global picture of the plasmasphere.
Detailed low-altitude radar and satellite observations
then guide our interpretation of the physics involved.
By putting together multiple views, we can come up
with a consistent picture." [Cheryl Dybas]
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Expedition to Galápagos Marks 25th Anniversary
of Deep Sea Vent Discovery
In 1977, a team of NSF-supported scientists made a
stunning discovery on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean:
deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and a lush community
of exotic life thriving there. The discovery forever
changed the way we look at our planet and life on
Marking the 25th anniversary year of this revolutionary
event, scientists will return to the site where those
first hydrothermal vents were found, some 250 miles
northeast of the Galápagos Islands. On a twelve-day
research expedition - beginning May 24 aboard the
Research Vessel Atlantis - scientists will
study how animal communities at the Galápagos
vents have changed. The team will also search for
new vent life and black-smoker chimneys along still-unexplored
areas of the Galápagos Spreading Center.
The human-occupied submersible Alvin and an
autonomous underwater vehicle called ABE (Autonomous
Benthic Explorer) will be the principal vehicles used
in the explorations. The scientists will revisit the
original vent sites: Clambake, Mussel Bed and the
Garden of Eden. The vents lie at depths of about 2,500
meters (8,000 feet) and were last visited in 1990.
Some of the vent communities first seen in 1977 have
not been seen since, and scientists are not sure how
the vents sites may have changed.
Researchers plan to map the seafloor using the latest
in sonar and autonomous vehicle technology, collect
samples, and conduct a variety of biological, chemical
and geological studies. They will then explore shallower
areas of the Galápagos Spreading Center farther
to the west - an area that has not been previously
mapped in detail or explored.
Scientists aboard Atlantis will share their findings
with students and the general public via daily dispatches
on two Web sites: Dive and Discover (www.divediscover.whoi.edu)
and Ocean Explorer (www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration is funding the
expedition, with additional support from the Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution and NSF.
In addition to the original discovery cruise in 1977,
NSF supported numerous oceanographic expeditions that
led up to the discovery, and subsequent cruises that
have explored hydrothermal vents around the world.
"The discovery of hydrothermal vent communities is
one of the most exciting developments in oceanography
in the past 50 years," adds Jim Yoder, director of
NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences. "This expedition
is a great opportunity to see how these fascinating
communities may have changed over a quarter of a century."
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Oklahoma Weather Researchers with Real-Time Monitoring
This spring, as farmers in Oklahoma tend to their crops,
one of the nation's best equipped weather monitoring
systems is at work providing forecasters with real-time
environment and weather data. Mesonet, a network of
underground sensors supported, in part, with NSF grants,
collects soil moisture data every five minutes. The
information is available not only for research scientists,
but also K-12 schools, public safety officials, growers,
ranchers and state agencies.
The Mesonet's sensors are installed at four
depths at nearly 100 sites across Oklahoma. Although
heavy rains this spring have brought some relief from
the drought across Oklahoma's winter wheat belt, researchers
using Mesonet revealed that an agricultural
drought can continue for many months after the meteorological
drought has ended. The various depth measurements
are crucial to explaining the need for growers to
receive disaster relief after rain has returned.
The Oklahoma Mesonet is a cooperative program
of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University
and was initiated with state funding. NSF has supported
upgrades to the network to enhance its capability
for land-air interaction research. With NSF support,
Mesonet scientists are currently studying how
wheat crops impact the development of storms across
Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plains.
Additionally, a three-year NSF grant has led to the
creation of a K-12 outreach program that provides
Mesonet data and related lessons to about 250
schools across Oklahoma. The National Staff Development
Council included this program in their 1999 "Consumer
Guide", recognizing it nationally as one of the top
25 "results-based" programs for middle school grades.
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