Animation: New Water Map of Mars
The hunt for water on Mars has always been a point of interest for researchers.
Earth has life almost everywhere water exists. Water is an ideal target for finding lifeforms, like microbes, that may exist on other planets.
And if Mars is to become a future home, knowing where water exists will be necessary for our survival.
Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have special instruments searching for water on the red planet. After 10 years of in-depth investigation, their latest findings suggest a new “water map” for Mars.
Where Did the Water Go?
Many people know Mars as a dry and dusty planet, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, Mars had a massive ocean called Oceanus Borealis. It dominated the northern hemisphere of the planet. Specific planetary conditions at that time let water exist on its surface. Changes in temperature, climate, and geology over the years gradually pushed water out to the atmosphere or into the ground.
Up to 99% of this ocean water is trapped within the planet’s crust, locked within special rocks called hydrous minerals.
Hydrous minerals are essentially rocks that have water (or its two main elements, hydrogen and oxygen), incorporated into their chemical structure.
There are four main classes of hydrous minerals: silicates, sulfates, silicas, and carbonates. While these minerals look pretty similar to the naked eye, their chemical compositions and structural arrangements vary. They are detectable by sophisticated equipment and can tell scientists how water geologically changes over time.
The new water map of Mars actually highlights the location of these hydrous minerals. It is a geological map of the rocks that are holding what remains of Mars’s ancient ocean.
Other Sources of Water on Mars
Despite being a “graveyard” for the bulk of the planet’s ocean, hydrous minerals are not the only source of water on Mars.
Water ice is present at both of Mars’s poles. The northern polar ice cap contains the only visible water on the planet, while the southern pole covers its water with a frozen carbon-dioxide cap.
In 2020, radar analyses suggested the presence of liquid water, potentially part of a network of underground saltwater lakes, close to the southern pole. In 2022, new evidence for this liquid water suggested that the planet may still be geothermally active.
More frozen water may be locked away in the deep subsurface, far below what current surveying equipment is able to inspect.
Mapping Out the Next Missions
The new water map is highlighting areas of interest for future exploration on Mars.
There is a small chance that hydrous minerals may be actively forming near water sources. Finding where they co-exist with known areas of buried frozen water provides possible opportunities for extracting water.
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin Rover will land in Oxia Planum, a region rich in hydrous clays, to investigate how water shaped the region and whether life once began on Mars.
Many more investigations and studies are developing, but for now, scientists are just getting their toes wet as they explore what hydrous minerals can tell us of Mars’s watery past.
Visualized: The Many Shapes of Bacteria
We introduce the visual diversity of bacteria and illustrate how they are categorized by appearance—from a single cell to an entire colony.
Invisible Diversity: The Many Shapes of Bacteria
Bacteria are amazing.
They were the first form of life to appear on Earth almost 3.8 billion years ago.
They make up the second most abundant lifeform, only outweighed by plants.
And most interesting of all: they exist in practically every environment on our planet, including areas where no other lifeforms can survive. As a result, bacteria exhibit a wide variety of appearances, behaviors, and applications similar to the lifeforms we see in our everyday lives.
The incredible diversity of bacteria goes underappreciated simply because they are invisible to the naked eye. Here, we illustrate how researchers classify these creatures on the basis of appearance, giving you a glimpse into this microscopic world.
A Life of Culture
Though bacteria may look similar to other microorganisms like fungi or plankton, they are entirely unique on a microscopic and genetic level.
Bacteria make up one of the three main domains of life. All life shares its earliest ancestor with this group of microbes, alongside two other domains: the Archaea and the Eukarya.
Archaea are very similar to bacteria, but have different contents making up their cell walls.
Eukarya largely consists of complex, multicellular life, like fungi, plants, and animals. Bacteria are similar to its single-celled members because all bacteria are also unicellular. However, while all Eukarya have nuclear membranes that store genetic material, bacteria do not.
Bacteria have their genetic material free-floating within their cellular bodies. This impacts how their genes are encoded, how proteins are synthesized, and how they reproduce. For example, bacteria do not reproduce sexually. Instead, they reproduce on their own.
Bacteria undergo a process called binary fission, where any one cell divides into two identical cells, and so on. Fission occurs quickly. In minutes, populations can double rapidly, eventually forming a community of genetically identical microbes called a colony.
Colonies can be visible to the human eye and can take on a variety of different shapes, textures, sizes, colors, and behaviors. You might be familiar with some of these:
Superstars of a Tiny World
The following are some interesting bacterial species, some of which you may be familiar with:
This species is unusually large, ranging from 200-700 micrometers in length. They are also incredible picky, living only within the guts of sturgeon, a type of large fish.
D. radiodurans is a coccus-shaped species that can withstand 1,500 times the dose of radiation that a human can.
Despite being known famously for poisoning food and agriculture spaces from time to time, not all E.coli species are dangerous.
Down in the depths of a South African gold mine, this species thrives without oxygen, sunlight, or friends—it is the only living species in its ecosystem. It survives eating minerals in the surrounding rock.
Known for causing stomach ulcers, this spiral-shaped species has also been associated with many cancers that impact the lymphoid tissue.
Most living things cease to survive in cold temperatures, but P. halocryophillus thrives in permafrost in the High Arctic where temperatures can drop below -25°C/-12°F.
‘Bact’ to the Future
Despite their microscopic size, the contributions bacteria make to our daily lives are enormous. Researchers everyday are using them to study new environments, create new drug therapies, and even build new materials.
Scientists can profile the diversity of species living in a habitat by extracting DNA from an environmental sample. Known as metagenomics, this field of genetics commonly studies bacterial populations.
In oxygen-free habitats, bacteria continuously find alternative sources of energy. Some have even evolved to eat plastic or metal that have been discarded in the ocean.
The healthcare industry uses bacteria to help create antibiotics, vaccines, and other metabolic products. They also play a major role in a new line of self-building materials, which include “self-healing” concrete and “living bricks”.
Those are just a few of the many examples in which bacteria impact our daily lives. Although they are invisible, without them, our world would undoubtedly look like a much different place.
Visualizing the Evolution of Vision and the Eye
The eye is one of the most complex organs in biology. We illustrate its evolution from a simple photoreceptor cell to a complex structure.
Roadmapping the Evolution of the Eye
Throughout history, numerous creatures have evolved increasingly complex eyes in response to different selective pressures.
Not all organisms, however, experience the same pressures. It’s why some creatures today still have eyes that are quite simple, or why some have no eyes at all. These organisms exemplify eyes that are “frozen” in time. They provide snapshots of the past, or “checkpoints” of how the eye has transformed throughout its evolutionary journey.
Scientists study the genes, anatomy, and vision of these creatures to figure out a roadmap of how the eye came to be. And so, we put together an evolutionary graphic timeline of the eye’s different stages using several candidate species.
Let’s take a look at how the eye has formed throughout time.
Where Vision Comes From
The retina is a layer of nerve tissue, often at the back of the eye, that is sensitive to light.
When light hits it, specialized cells called photoreceptors transform light energy into electrical signals and send them to the brain. Then the brain processes these electrical signals into images, creating vision.
The earliest form of vision arose in unicellular organisms. Containing simple nerve cells that can only distinguish light from dark, they are the most common eye in existence today.
The ability to detect shapes, direction, and color comes from all of the add-ons evolution introduces to these cells.
Two Major Types of Eyes
Two major eye types are dominant across species. Despite having different shapes or specialized parts, improved vision in both eye types is a product of small, gradual changes that optimize the physics of light.
Simple eyes are actually quite complex, but get their name because they consist of one individual unit.
Some mollusks and all of the higher vertebrates, like birds, reptiles, or humans, have simple eyes.
Simple eyes evolved from a pigment cup, slowly folding inwards with time into the shape we recognize today. Specialized structures like the lens, cornea, and pupil arose to help improve the focus of light on the retina. This helps create sharper, clearer images for the brain to process.
Compound eyes are formed by repeating the same basic units of photoreceptors called ommatidia. Each ommatidium is similar to a simple eye, composed of lenses and photoreceptors.
Grouped together, ommatidia form a geodesic pattern that is commonly seen in insects and crustaceans.
Our understanding of the evolution of the compound eye is a bit murky, but we know that rudimentary ommatidia evolved into larger, grouped structures that maximize light capture.
In environments like caves, the deep subsurface, or the ocean floor where little to no light exists, compound eyes are useful for producing vision that gives even the slightest advantage over other species.
How Will Vision Evolve?
Our increasing dependency on technology and digital devices may be ushering in the advent of a new eye shape.
The muscles around the eye stretch to shift the lens when staring at something close by. The eye’s round shape elongates in response to this muscle strain.
Screen time with cellphones, tablets, and computers has risen dramatically over the years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent studies are already reporting rises in childhood myopia, the inability to see far away. Since the pandemic, cases have increased by 17%, affecting almost 37% of schoolchildren.
Other evolutionary opportunities for our eyes are currently less obvious. It remains to be seen whether advanced corrective therapies, like corneal transplants or visual prosthetics, will have any long-term evolutionary impact on the eye.
For now, colored contacts and wearable tech may be our peek into the future of vision.
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