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Giant viruses found on Greenland ice sheet

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Giant viruses found on Greenland ice sheet


Every spring when the sun rises in the Arctic after months of darkness, life returns. The polar bears pop up from their winter lairs, the arctic tern soar back from their long journey south and the musk oxen wade north.

But the animals are not the only life being reawakened by the spring sun. Algae lying dormant on the ice starts blooming in spring blackening large areas of the ice.

When the ice blackens it’s ability to reflect the sun diminishes and this accelerates the melting of the ice. Increased melting exacerbates global warming.

But researchers might have found a way to control the snow algae growth — and maybe in the long run reduce some of the ice from melting. Living on the ice alongside the algae, postdoc Laura Perini from the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University and her colleagues, have found giant viruses.

She suspects that the viruses feed on the snow algae and could work as a natural control mechanism on the algae blooms.

“We don’t know a lot about the viruses, but I think they could be useful as a way of alleviating ice melting caused by algal blooms. How specific they are and how efficient it would be, we do not know yet. But by exploring them further, we hope to answer some of those questions,” she says.

Bigger than bacteria

Viruses are normally much smaller than bacteria. Regular viruses measure 20-200 nanometers in size, whereas a typical bacteria is 2-3 micrometers. In other words a normal virus is around 1000 times smaller than a bacteria.

That is not the case with giant viruses though.

Giant viruses grow to the size of 2.5 micrometers. That is bigger than most bacteria.

But the giant viruses are not only bigger in size. Their genome is much bigger than regular viruses. Bacteriophages — virus infecting bacteria — have between 100,000 and 200,000 letters in their genome. Giant viruses have around 2,500,000.

Never found on the ice before

Giant viruses were first discovered in 1981, when researchers found them in the ocean. These viruses had specialized in infecting green algae in the sea. Later, giant viruses were found in soil on land and even in humans.

But it’s the first time that giant viruses have been found living on the surface ice and snow dominated by microalgae, Laura Perini explains.

“We analyzed samples from dark ice, red snow and melting holes (cryoconite). In both the dark ice and red snow we found signatures of active giant viruses. And that is the first time they’ve been found on surface ice and snow containing a high abundance of pigmented microalgae.

“A few years ago everyone thought this part of the world to be barren and devoid of life. But today we know that several microorganisms live there — including the giant viruses.”

“There’s a whole ecosystem surrounding the algae. Besides bacteria, filamentous fungi and yeasts, there are protists eating the algae, different species of fungi parasitizing them and the giant viruses that we found, infecting them.

“In order to understand the biological controls acting on the algal blooms, we need to study these last three groups.”

Haven’t seen them with the naked eye

Even though the viruses are giant, they can’t be seen with the naked eye. Laura Perini hasn’t even seen them with a light microscope yet. But she hopes to do so in the future.

“The way we discovered the viruses was by analyzing all the DNA in the samples we took. By sifting through this huge dataset looking for specific marker genes, we found sequences that have high similarity to known giant viruses,” she explains.

To make sure that the viral DNA didn’t come from long dead microorganisms, but from living and active viruses, they also extracted all the mRNA from the sample.

When the sequences of the DNA that form genes are activated, they are transcribed into single stranded pieces called mRNA. These pieces work as recipes for building the proteins the virus needs. If they are present the virus is alive.

“In the total mRNA sequenced from the samples, we found the same markers as in the total DNA, so we know they have been transcribed. It means that the viruses are living and active on the ice,” she says.

DNA and RNA in viruses

At the center of the giant viruses is a cluster of DNA. That DNA contains all the genetic information or recipes needed to create proteins — the chemical compounds that are doing most of the work in the virus.

But in order to use those recipes, the virus needs to transcribe them from double-stranded DNA to single stranded mRNA.

Normal viruses can’t do that. Instead they have strands of RNA floating around in the cell waiting to be activated, when the virus infects an organism and hijacks its cellular production facilities.

Giant viruses can do that themselves which makes them very different from normal viruses.

Whereas DNA from dead viruses can be found in samples, mRNA is broken down much faster. mRNA is therefore an important marker of viral activity. In other words mRNA-recipes of certain proteins show that the viruses are alive and kicking.

Not sure exactly how they work

Because giant viruses are a relatively new discovery not a lot is known about them. In contrast to most other viruses they have a lot of active genes that enable them to repair, replicate, transcribe and translate DNA.

But why that is and exactly what they use it for is not known.

“Which hosts the giant viruses infect, we can’t link exactly. Some of them may be infecting protists while others attack the snow algae. We simply can’t be sure yet,” Laura Perini says.

She’s working hard on discovering more about the giant viruses and has more research coming out soon.

“We keep studying the giant viruses to learn more about their interactions and what is exactly is their role in the ecosystem. Later this year we’ll release another scientific with some more info on giant viruses infecting a cultivated microalgae thriving on the surface ice of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” she concludes.



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Prying open the AI black box

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Prying open the AI black box


Artificial intelligence continues to squirm its way into many aspects of our lives. But what about biology, the study of life itself? AI can sift through hundreds of thousands of genome data points to identify potential new therapeutic targets. While these genomic insights may appear helpful, scientists aren’t sure how today’s AI models come to their conclusions in the first place. Now, a new system named SQUID arrives on the scene armed to pry open AI’s black box of murky internal logic.

SQUID, short for Surrogate Quantitative Interpretability for Deepnets, is a computational tool created by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) scientists. It’s designed to help interpret how AI models analyze the genome. Compared with other analysis tools, SQUID is more consistent, reduces background noise, and can lead to more accurate predictions about the effects of genetic mutations.

How does it work so much better? The key, CSHL Assistant Professor Peter Koo says, lies in SQUID’s specialized training.

“The tools that people use to try to understand these models have been largely coming from other fields like computer vision or natural language processing. While they can be useful, they’re not optimal for genomics. What we did with SQUID was leverage decades of quantitative genetics knowledge to help us understand what these deep neural networks are learning,” explains Koo.

SQUID works by first generating a library of over 100,000 variant DNA sequences. It then analyzes the library of mutations and their effects using a program called MAVE-NN (Multiplex Assays of Variant Effects Neural Network). This tool allows scientists to perform thousands of virtual experiments simultaneously. In effect, they can “fish out” the algorithms behind a given AI’s most accurate predictions. Their computational “catch” could set the stage for experiments that are more grounded in reality.

“In silico [virtual] experiments are no replacement for actual laboratory experiments. Nevertheless, they can be very informative. They can help scientists form hypotheses for how a particular region of the genome works or how a mutation might have a clinically relevant effect,” explains CSHL Associate Professor Justin Kinney, a co-author of the study.

There are tons of AI models in the sea. More enter the waters each day. Koo, Kinney, and colleagues hope that SQUID will help scientists grab hold of those that best meet their specialized needs.

Though mapped, the human genome remains an incredibly challenging terrain. SQUID could help biologists navigate the field more effectively, bringing them closer to their findings’ true medical implications.



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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard

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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard


Four and a half billion years ago, our solar system was a cloud of gas and dust swirling around the sun, until gas began to condense and accrete along with dust to form asteroids and planets. What did this cosmic nursery, known as a protoplanetary disk, look like, and how was it structured? Astronomers can use telescopes to “see” protoplanetary disks far away from our much more mature solar system, but it is impossible to observe what ours might have looked like in its infancy — only an alien billions of light years away would be able to see it as it once was.

Fortunately, space has dropped a few clues — fragments of objects that formed early in solar system history and plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, called meteorites. The composition of meteorites tells stories of the solar system’s birth, but these stories often raise more questions than answers.

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of planetary scientists from UCLA and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory reports that refractory metals, which condense at high temperatures, such as iridium and platinum, were more abundant in meteorites formed in the outer disk, which was cold and far away from the sun. These metals should have formed close to the sun, where the temperature was much higher. Was there a pathway that moved these metals from the inner disk to the outer?

Most meteorites formed within the first few million years of solar system history. Some meteorites, called chondrites, are unmelted conglomerations of grains and dust left over from planet formation. Other meteorites experienced enough heat to melt while their parent asteroids were forming. When these asteroids melted, the silicate part and the metallic part separated due to their difference in density, similar to how water and oil don’t mix.

Today, most asteroids are located in a thick belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that Jupiter’s gravity disrupted the course of these asteroids, causing many of them to smash into each other and break apart. When pieces of these asteroids fall to Earth and are recovered, they are called meteorites.

Iron meteorites are from the metallic cores of the earliest asteroids, older than any other rocks or celestial objects in our solar system. The irons contain molybdenum isotopes that point toward many different locations across the protoplanetary disk in which these meteorites formed. That allows scientists to learn what the chemical composition of the disk was like in its infancy.

Previous research using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile has found many disks around other stars that resemble concentric rings, like a dartboard. The rings of these planetary disks, such as HL Tau, are separated by physical gaps, so this kind of disk could not provide a route to transport these refractory metals from the inner disk to the outer.

The new paper holds that our solar disk likely didn’t have a ring structure at the very beginning. Instead, our planetary disk looked more like a doughnut, and asteroids with metal grains rich in iridium and platinum metals migrated to the outer disk as it rapidly expanded.

But that confronted the researchers with another puzzle. After the disk expansion, gravity should have pulled these metals back into the sun. But that did not happen.

“Once Jupiter formed, it very likely opened a physical gap that trapped the iridium and platinum metals in the outer disk and prevented them from falling into the sun,” said first author Bidong Zhang, a UCLA planetary scientist. “These metals were later incorporated into asteroids that formed in the outer disk. This explains why meteorites formed in the outer disk — carbonaceous chondrites and carbonaceous-type iron meteorites — have much higher iridium and platinum contents than their inner-disk peers.”

Zhang and his collaborators previously used iron meteorites to reconstruct how water was distributed in the protoplanetary disk.

“Iron meteorites are hidden gems. The more we learn about iron meteorites, the more they unravel the mystery of our solar system’s birth,” Zhang said.



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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star

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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star


Supermassive black holes pose unanswered questions for astronomers around the world, not least “How do they grow so big?” Now, an international team of astronomers, including researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, has discovered a powerful rotating, magnetic wind that they believe is helping a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole to grow. The swirling wind, revealed with the help of the ALMA telescope in nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, suggests that similar processes are involved both in black hole growth and the birth of stars.

Most galaxies, including our own Milky Way have a supermassive black hole at their centre. How these mind-bogglingly massive objects grow to weigh as much as millions or billions of stars is a long-standing question for astronomers.

In search of clues to this mystery, a team of scientists led by Mark Gorski (Northwestern University and Chalmers) and Susanne Aalto (Chalmers) chose to study the relatively nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, only 120 million light years distant. It’s a very active galaxy, forming stars ten times as fast as in our own galaxy.

“Since this galaxy is very luminous in the infrared, telescopes can resolve striking details in its centre. We wanted to measure light from molecules carried by winds from the galaxy’s core, hoping to trace how the winds are launched by a growing, or soon to be growing, supermassive black hole. By using ALMA, we were able to study light from behind thick layers of dust and gas,” says Susanne Aalto, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Chalmers University of Technology.

To zero in on dense gas from as close as possible to the central black hole, the scientists studied light from molecules of hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Thanks to ALMA’s ability to image fine details and trace movements in the gas — using the Doppler effect — they discovered patterns that suggest the presence of a magnetised, rotating wind.

While other winds and jets in the centre of galaxies push material away from the supermassive black hole, the newly discovered wind adds another process, that can instead feed the black hole and help it grow.

“We can see how the winds form a spiralling structure, billowing out from the galaxy’s centre. When we measured the rotation, mass, and velocity of the material flowing outwards, we were surprised to find that we could rule out many explanations for the power of the wind, star formation for example. Instead, the flow outwards may be powered by the inflow of gas and seems to be held together by magnetic fields,” says Susanne Aalto.

The scientists think that the rotating magnetic wind helps the black hole to grow.

Material travels around the black hole before it can fall in — like water around a drain. Matter that approaches the black hole collects in a chaotic, spinning disk. There, magnetic fields develop and get stronger. The magnetic fields help lift matter away from the galaxy, creating the spiralling wind. Losing matter to this wind also slows the spinning disk — that means that matter can flow more easily into the black hole, turning a trickle into a stream.

For Mark Gorski, the way this happens is strikingly reminiscent of a much smaller-scale environment in space: the swirls of gas and dust that lead up to the birth of new stars and planets.

“It is well-established that stars in the first stages of their evolution grow with the help of rotating winds — accelerated by magnetic fields, just like the wind in this galaxy. Our observations show that supermassive black holes and tiny stars can grow by similar processes, but on very different scales,” says Mark Gorski.

Could this discovery be a clue to solving the mystery of how supermassive black holes grow? In the future, Mark Gorski, Susanne Aalto and their colleagues want to study other galaxies which may harbour hidden spiralling outflows in their centres.

“Far from all questions about this process are answered. In our observations we see clear evidence of a rotating wind that helps regulate the growth of the galaxy’s central black hole. Now that we know what to look for, the next step is to find out how common a phenomenon this is. And if this is a stage which all galaxies with supermassive black holes go through, what happens to them next?,” asks Mark Gorski.



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