December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

From the last two weeks we've got the good, the bad and the fungi, the commerce of biodiversity and life as a commonplace ...

We’ve got the good, the bad and the fungi to start with, then a look at the commerce of diversity before the most recent extra-terrestrial life revelations.

Fickle fungi

Mushroom season may be waning but fungi are still on the menu at Nature where two news stories this week contrast the delights and the dangers of the third kingdom. Soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum ruins bananas and has found its way to Jordan and Mozambique where previously it was confined to small pockets of Asia and one region in Australia. Once the fungal strain becomes established it’s almost impossible to eliminate and it’s feared that the strain could spread to Latin American and the Caribbean, which together produce 80% of the world’s banana exports. Alternative transgenic banana strains resistant to the soil fungus have been trialed in Australia and early signs were promising but the full results are not yet in.

On the flip side, endophytes are our fungal buddies because they work symbiotically with crops and can improve yields by up to 85% during periods of drought. The seeds are coated with a mix of seven types of fungi that reduce the amount of water the crops need, and make them more resistant to cold snaps. This symbiotic method would be a welcome alternative to the single-use genetically modified ‘terminator seeds’ that Brazil seem perilously close to reapproving. BioEnsure is the company that has developed this commercially viable fungi mix that has gained approval from the Food and Drugs Administration, and so may soon be in widespread use.

Diversity = dollars $$$

The Gnats region of India is one of the most biodiverse places in the world but that diversity could be under threat from mining companies taking an interest in the area’s rich mineral reserves. Indian ministers have just passed law stating that a third of the region should be protected against many types of industrial activities, but opponents say that this designation is arbitrary and doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Many of our most useful technologies have been developed by mimicking nature including a recent synthetic gel developed by researchers in Pittsburgh. The team used the template of amphibian limb regeneration to synthesise the gel, which could lead to self-healing tyres and self-healing paint.

Biodiversity hotspots are goldmines of chemicals and biological processes that can be harnessed for profit. Perhaps, the sound economic strategy for the Indian Parliament would be to think long-term about the potential of the Gnats region.

Life search

We can all sleep a little easier with fresh revelations that life may not be as unique to our little planet as we sometimes fear. New research suggests that parts of the universe were suitable for water formation just 15 million years after the big bang, which would leave about 13.7 billion years for life to develop in aqueous conditions.

Indeed, life may be as close as Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble telescope has revealed two huge plumes of water spurting as high as 200km above the moon’s surface and further pictures indicate parts of Europa are mineral-rich. The latest prediction is that life developed in an ocean below the crust by feeding off minerals and by harnessing the energy created by the powerful tidal forces responsible for the colossal pair of jet fountains.

Finally, a crater towards the north of Mars looks like a primary candidate for a freshwater lake that could have been teeming with microbes sometime in the past. Tests from the Mars rover Curiosity suggest minerals were present and that the water had the low salinity and neutral pH that would have made it ideal for housing tiny microbes. So the last fortnight has brought positive news for the search for extra-terrestrial life. Perhaps we’re not so anomalous after all.


IMAGE: Wikicommons