Oxygen-free is the way to be?


Loriciferan organism, via BBC NewsLife is a fundamental component of the Universe.

Allow me, please, to explain. That statement, sounding mystical as it does, arises in a certain context.

Whether we find ourselves arguing with Creationists or discussing the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, a question arises concerning the odds of life developing in the Universe. There is even the Drake Equation, intended to predict the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.

And for some, the numbers prescribe a low possibility. For the Creationists, life is nothing short of miraculous, requiring God’s hand to come about.

XKCD - The Drake EquationBut the Universe is vast, perhaps even infinite in its potential. Which suggests that however we calculate the odds, life becomes nearly an inevitability.

And in recent years, people have started to recognize this. Some look hopefully to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, wondering what surprises might await in or beneath the ice of, for instance, Europa.

Here at home, on Earth, our outlook on life is rapidly changing, and the latest announcement from the Mediterranean will only fuel that transformation. Patrick Jackson explains, for the BBC:

Scientists have found the first animals that can survive and reproduce entirely without oxygen, deep on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.

The team, led by Roberto Danovaro from Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy, found three new species from the Loricifera group.

He told BBC World Service they were about a millimetre in size and looked like jellyfish in a protective shell ….

…. One of the three new Loriciferans (so-called because of their protective layer, or lorica) has already been officially named Spinoloricus Cinzia, after the professor’s wife.

The other two, currently designated Rugiloricus and Pliciloricus, have still to be formally described.

They were discovered in the course of three oceanographic expeditions conducted over a decade in order to search for living fauna in the sediment of the Mediterranean’s L’Atalante basin.

The basin, 200km (124m) off the western coast of Crete, is about 3.5km (2.2m) deep and is almost entirely depleted of oxygen, or anoxic.

Two of the three species discovered were found to be carrying eggs:

Although it was not possible to extract the animals alive in order to show that they could live without oxygen, the team was able to incubate the eggs in anoxic conditions aboard on the ship.

The eggs hatched successfully in a completely oxygen-free environment.
“It is a real mystery how these creatures are able to live without oxygen because until now we thought only bacteria could do this,” said Professor Danovaro, who heads Italy’s Association of Limnology (the study of inland waters).

“We did not think we could find any animal living there. We are talking about extreme conditions – full of salt, with no oxygen.”

The discovery of the new Loriciferans represents, he said, a “tremendous adaptation for animals which evolved in oxygenated conditions”.

XKCD - The Flake EquationFor the casual observer or armchair student, the discovery is simply a reminder that life is incredibly persistent. Philosophically, we might consider that in a Universe as vast and strange as our own, differentiation is essentially a matter of ratios—a balance of matter and energy, and the arrangement of those components. Given enough time and room to play, the Universe will, eventually, spawn life. Indeed, if one must have faith in something of cosmic scale, the propsition that life will find a way seems a pretty safe bet.

But we see the energy, and the matter, the atoms and the elements, and then the more complicated arrangements of molecules; these all seem inevitable. They must eventually exist, according to the natural laws we humans have identified. More and more, our observations suggest that life, too, is one of those things that the Universe cannot do without.

Hello, Spinoloricus cinzia, it is very much a pleasure to meet you.

(Image credits: BBC, XKCD; click for full version at original source.)

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