Antarctic seas host a surprising mix of lifeforms – and now we can map them



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In contrast to common perceptions, Antarctic seafloor communities are highly diverse. This image shows a deep East Antarctic reef with plenty of corals, sponges and brittlestars. Can you spot the octopus?
Australian Antarctic Division

Jan Jansen, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, University of Tasmania

What sort of life do you associate with Antarctica? Penguins? Seals? Whales?

Actually, life in Antarctic waters is much broader than this, and surprisingly diverse. Hidden under the cover of sea-ice for most of the year, and living in cold water near the seafloor, are thousands of unique and colourful species.

A diverse seafloor community living under the ice near Casey station in East Antarctica.

Our research has generated new techniques to map where these species live, and predict how this might change in the future.

Biodiversity is nature’s most valuable resource, and mapping how it is distributed is a crucial step in conserving life and ecosystems in Antarctica.




Read more:
Explainer: what is biodiversity and why does it matter?


Surprises on the seafloor

The ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent is an unusual place. Here, water temperatures reach below freezing-point, and the ocean is covered in ice for most of the year.

While commonly known for its massive icebergs and iconic penguins, Antarctica’s best-kept secret lies on the seafloor far below the ocean surface. In this remote and isolated environment, a unique and diverse community of animals has evolved, half of which aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.

These solitary sea squirts stand up to half a metre tall at 220m depth in the dark, cold waters of East-Antarctica. Images such as this one were taken with cameras towed behind the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis.
Australian Antarctic Division

Colourful corals and sponges cover the seafloor, where rocks provide hard substrate for attachment. These creatures filter the water for microscopic algae that sink from the ocean surface during the highly productive summer season between December and March.

In turn, these habitat-forming animals provide the structure for all sorts of mobile animals, such as featherstars, seastars, crustaceans, sea spiders and giant isopods (marine equivalents of “slaters” or “woodlice”).

The Antarctic seafloor is also home to a unique group of fish that have evolved proteins to stop their blood from freezing.

Most Antarctic fish have evolved ‘anti-freeze blood’ allowing them to survive in water temperature below zero degrees C.
Australian Antarctic Division

Mapping biodiversity is hard

Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of all life forms on Earth. The unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss is one of the biggest challenges of our time. And despite its remoteness, Antarctica’s biodiversity is not protected from human impact through climate change, pollution and fisheries.




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Although scientists have broadly known about Antarctica’s unique marine biodiversity for some time, we still lack knowledge of where each species lives and where important hotspots of biodiversity are located. This is an issue because it hinders us from understanding how the ecosystem functions – and makes it hard to assess potential threats.

Why don’t we know more about the distribution of Antarctic marine species? Primarily, because sampling at the seafloor a few thousand metres below the surface is difficult and expensive, and the Antarctic continental shelf is vast and remote. It usually takes the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis ten days to reach the icy continent.

A selection of the diverse and colourful species found on the Antarctic seafloor.
Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

To make the most of the sparse and patchy biological data that we do have, in our research we take advantage of the fact that species usually have a set of preferred environmental conditions. We use the species’ relationship with their environment to build statistical models that predict where species are most likely to occur.

This allows us to map their distribution in places where we have no biological samples and only environmental data. Critically, until now important environmental factors that influence the distribution of seafloor species have been missing.




Read more:
Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent


Using predictions to make a map

In a recent study, we were able to predictively map how much food from the ocean-surface was available for consumption by corals, sponges and other suspension feeders at the seafloor.

The science behind linking food-particles from the ocean surface to the biodiversity of Antarctic seafloor fauna. Satellites (1) can detect the amount of algae at the ocean-surface. Algae-production is particularly high in ice-free areas (2) compared to under the sea-ice (3). Algae sink from the surface (4) and reach the seafloor. Where ocean-currents are high (5), many corals feed from the suspended particles. In areas with slow currents (6), particles settle onto the seafloor and feed deposit-feeding animals such as seacucumbers.
Jansen et al. (2018), Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 71-80.

Although biological samples are still scarce, this allowed us to map the distribution of seafloor biodiversity in a region in East Antarctica with high accuracy.

Further, estimates of how and where the supply of food increased after the tip of a massive glacier broke off and changed ocean conditions in the region allowed us to predict where abundances of habitat forming fauna such as corals and sponges will increase in the future.

Colourful and diverse communities are also found living in shallow waters.
Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctica is one of the few regions where the total biomass of seafloor animals is likely to increase in the future. Retreating ice-shelves increase the amount of suitable habitat available and allow more food to reach the seafloor.

For the first time in history, we now have the information, computational power and research capacity to map the distribution of life on the entire continental shelf around Antarctica, identify previously unknown hotspots of biodiversity, and assess how the unique biodiversity of the Antarctic will change into the future.


The Conversation


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Jan Jansen, Quantitative Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, Professor, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, Research fellow, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How to grow crops on Mars if we are to live on the red planet



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We can create the right kind of food plants to survive on Mars.
Shutterstock/SergeyDV

Briardo Llorente, Macquarie University

Preparations are already underway for missions that will land humans on Mars in a decade or so. But what would people eat if these missions eventually lead to the permanent colonisation of the red planet?

Once (if) humans do make it to Mars, a major challenge for any colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical.

Humans on Mars will need to move away from complete reliance on shipped cargo, and achieve a high level of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture.




Read more:
Discovered: a huge liquid water lake beneath the southern pole of Mars


The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars – which adds new information to the question of whether we will find life on the planet – does raise the possibility of using such supplies to help grow food.

But water is only one of many things we will need if we’re to grow enough food on Mars.

What sort of food?

Previous work has suggested the use of microbes as a source of food on Mars. The use of hydroponic greenhouses and controlled environmental systems, similar to one being tested onboard the International Space Station to grow crops, is another option.

This month, in the journal Genes, we provide a new perspective based on the use of advanced synthetic biology to improve the potential performance of plant life on Mars.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing field. It combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science (among many other disciplines) to impart new and improved functions to living organisms.

Not only can we read DNA, but we can also design biological systems, test them, and even engineer whole organisms. Yeast is just one example of an industrial workhorse microbe whose whole genome is currently being re-engineered by an international consortium.

The technology has progressed so far that precision genetic engineering and automation can now be merged into automated robotic facilities, known as biofoundries.

These biofoundries can test millions of DNA designs in parallel to find the organisms with the qualities that we are looking for.

Mars: Earth-like but not Earth

Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways.




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The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide.

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith. This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals that are toxic to humans.

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃.

Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars.

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions.

Adapting plants to Mars

A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry.

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions.

With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade.

This includes improving photosynthesis and photoprotection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality.

These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology.

Benefits for Earth

Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth.




Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth


The growing global population is increasing the demand for food. To meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment.

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection.

The ConversationSo ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth.

Briardo Llorente, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gardening improves the health of social housing residents and provides a sense of purpose



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Gardens bring people together.
Elaine Casap/Unsplash

Tonia Gray, Western Sydney University; Danielle Tracey, Western Sydney University; Kumara Ward, Western Sydney University, and Son Truong, Western Sydney University

Studies indicate spending time in nature brings physical, mental and social benefits. These include stress reduction, improved mood, accelerated healing, attention restoration, productivity and heightened imagination and creativity.

Increased urbanisation has made it more difficult to connect with nature. And members of lower socioeconomic and minority ethnic groups, people over 65 and those living with disability are less likely to visit green spaces. This could be due to inaccessible facilities and safety fears.

A gardening program for disadvantaged groups, running in New South Wales since 1999, has aimed to overcome the inequity in access to green spaces. Called Community Greening, the program has reached almost 100,000 participants and established 627 community and youth-led gardens across the state.




Read more:
The science is in: gardening is good for you


Our independent evaluation explored the program’s impact on new participants and communities in social housing by tracking six new garden sites in 2017. Around 85% of participants told us the program had a positive effect on their health and 91% said it benefited their community. And 73% said they were exercising more and 61% were eating better. One participant said engaging in the program even helped them quit smoking.

These insights have advanced our understanding of how community gardening improves the mental and physical health of Australians living in social housing communities in our cities.

Our study

Trends towards urbanisation and loss of green space have sparked concerns about population health and well-being. This has led to a growing body of research on the impact of community gardens on children and adults.

The Community Greening program is supported by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney in partnership with Housing New South Wales. Anecdotal feedback gathered by the botanic garden over the past two decades has shown gardening improves well-being and cohesion, fosters a sense of belonging, reduces stress and enhances life skills.

Community Greening provides gardens for people in social housing.

Based on this understanding, Community Greening aims to:

  • improve physical and mental health
  • reduce anti-social behaviour
  • build community cohesion
  • tackle economic disadvantage
  • promote understanding of native food plants
  • conserve the environment
  • provide skills training to enable future employment opportunities
  • share expert knowledge of the garden.

Our research investigated these outcomes in participants, and whether they changed during the course of the program. We collected data using questionnaires over seven months (before and after participation). We also conducted focus group interviews with participants and open-ended questionnaires with staff working at the community sites.




Read more:
Social housing protects against homelessness – but other benefits are less clear


Of the 23 people who completed both questionnaires before and afterwards, 14 were female and nine were male. They had an average age of 59, ranging from 29-83. Fifteen participants were born in Australia while the rest came from Fiji, Iran, Poland, New Zealand, Philippines, Chile, Afghanistan and Mauritius. One participant identified as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and five people (22%) reported English was not their first language.

Initially, 27% reported they had never gardened prior to the program. At the post-test questionnaire, the frequency of attendance improved for many of them. Over 40% gardened once a week and 22% every day.

Gardening benefits

Overall, we found participants felt a sense of agency, community pride and achievement. The gardening program helped encourage change and community development. Some were happy to learn a new hobby.

Community Greening participants found a lot of benefits to gardening.
Research infographic/Screenshot, Author provided

Gardening also served as an opportunity to socialise with neighbours. In previous years within some social housing communities, it was commonplace for residents to simply stay inside their units without interacting with anyone.

Many participants said they saw a marked improvement in their health and well-being. One participant remarked:

I suffer with a lot of health problems, and a lot of times I’ve been sitting at home, been depressed and not been happy about my illness, and since I’ve become more involved with the garden it helped me to not worry about my health so much like I used to and it actually improved my eating habits. It has changed my life positively. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself anymore…

Some described the gardening experience as calming and cathartic – especially those who suffered from depression and anxiety. Some spoke of the positive aspect of having something to do each day and their feelings of achievement.

Another participant said:

Going outside gives me not only physical exercise, but it provides a certain amount of joy in that you’re seeing the benefit of your hard work coming through in healthy plants. Whether it’s vegetables or a conifer, you’re seeing it grow and you’re seeing the benefit…

Additional improvements in social health included a genuine enthusiasm for working in a team, with increased co-operation and social cohesion between staff and tenants. The housing managers and social workers work alongside tenants helping to foster trust, co-operation, social collaboration and healthy relationships.

The ConversationMore importantly, this research has provided validation that Community Greening has aligned with contemporary social-housing priorities. These include supporting health and well-being, nurturing a sense of community, enhancing safety and developing a sense of place.

Tonia Gray, Associate Professor, Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University; Danielle Tracey, Associate Professor, Adult and Postgraduate Education, Western Sydney University; Kumara Ward, Lecturer, Early Childhood Education, Western Sydney University, and Son Truong, Senior Lecturer, Secondary Education, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Curious Kids: How do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life?


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Sea turtle eating a plastic bag.
from www.shutterstock.com

Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.


My name is Sanuki and I’m 8 years old. I live in Melbourne. My question is how do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life? – Sanuki, age 8, Melbourne.


Good question, Sanuki!

Plastic bags harm marine (and land) environments in a few ways.

Turtles (and other animals) may mistake plastic bags for food. Turtles like to eat jellyfish, and we think turtles eat the plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish.

When turtles eat plastic, it can block their intestinal system (their guts). Therefore, they can no longer eat properly, which can kill them. The plastics in their tummy may also leak chemicals into the turtle. We don’t know whether this causes long term problems for the turtle, but it’s probably not good for them.




Read more:
Australian waters polluted by harmful tiny plastics


How plastic impacts the ecosystems

Plastic bags can also smother corals and other seabed communities. When plastic bags end up in our oceans, animals (including seals, dolphins and seabirds) can get tangled up in them. An animal with a plastic bag around its neck will have trouble moving through the water, catching its prey or feeding, and escaping predators.

Plastic can smother seabed and coral, impacting ecosystems.
from www.shutterstock.com

On land, plastic bags are an eyesore. They get stuck in trees, along fence lines, or as litter at our parks and beaches.

Many people don’t realise that plastic bags can also cause flooding. Previously in Ghana (in West Africa), plastic bags blocked storm water drains during a big rainstorm. This caused flooding so bad that people were killed.

Making plastic requires a lot of energy and work

Plastic bags can even be harmful before they are used. It takes a lot of resources and energy to create a plastic bag. A key ingredient is oil. As a fossil fuel, oil must be extracted from the ground. Do we want to use fossil fuel resources to make a product that is only used once (we call this a “single use plastic”)?

Many millions of barrels of oil are used to make plastic bags every year. A lot of energy is also used to make and transport plastic bags. It is better for the environment if we reduce our energy use.




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This South Pacific island of rubbish shows why we need to quit our plastic habit


The push towards plastic-free

Lately, lots of people recognise the impacts that plastic bags have, and they are working on alternatives. Many local and state governments have passed plastic bag bans here in Australia, which helps stop the use of single use plastic bags.

In fact, New South Wales is the only state in Australia where you can still get thin, single use plastic bags at the grocery store.

So, remind your parents to bring their reusable cloth bags whenever you go shopping. You just might save a turtle.


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. They can:

* Email your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au

* Tell us on Twitter


CC BY-ND

The ConversationPlease tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.