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May 14, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact the public information officer listed at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

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, river environment.

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 eukaryotic lineages.

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 Dybas]

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Researchers 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," Foster said.

"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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Oceanographic 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 it.

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." [Cheryl Dybas]

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Mesonet Provides Oklahoma Weather Researchers with Real-Time Monitoring Tool

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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