Microbes deep within

Discoveries of life deep within the earth’s crust are challenging concepts of what was thought to be a ‘suitable’ environment to sustain life.

Microbial communities have been detected in rock as far as 3 km into seabed and continental crust. Their existence in habitats devoid of sunlight, water and nutrient poor, anoxic and hot is forcing scientists to reevaluate the limits of life.

Sites in the world’s deepest mines, boreholes, oceanic hydrothermal vents and cracks in the ocean floor have become accessible to scientists through ultra-deep sampling; scientific drilling projects and deep ocean submersible research vehicles. These technologies allow researchers to obtain samples for further analysis in the lab and to install in-situ monitoring equipment.

Early results from one site, Hole C0020A in the Japan Sea, indicate a slow-growing microbial community able to metabolize a range of carbon and nitrogen compounds more than 2 km below the seafloor.

HABITABLE?: These active hydrothermal vent chimneys may support microbial life. Photo: Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program.

Other studies have revealed multiple, unique bacterial and archaeal species not encountered before, some existing at temperatures in excess of 100ºC. But this subterranean life is not just limited to microbes; various fungal species and more complex organisims have also been found, including 4 invertebrate species (flatworms, rotifers, segmented worms, and arthropods) at a depth of 1.4 km below the Earth’s surface.

Debate rages in this new field of research about the scale of the underground biomass, what has been dubbed the ‘deep biosphere’. There are suggestions that life can exist up to 10 km into the crust and estimates of the subsurface biomass range from 15-50% of the world’s total biomass.

Research is now focusing on understanding how such life survives. Sparsely distributed and slow-growing, these lifeforms seem to invest all their energy into maintain their existence rather than growth. Initial results suggest that these microbes are able to metabolise a suite of chemicals released by the interaction of water and rock such as sulfate, nitrate, methane, ammonia, and iron, as well as carbon.

Although in it’s infancy, this fledgling, but rapidly expanding, field of science is turning previously held assumptions on their head. Ongoing research may give us a better understanding of the deep biomass but for now questions – about the origins of life on earth, and the possibility that life here may have originated underground; the definition of what is hospitable for life, not only on earth but on other planets; and also how the presence of these microbes and their activity is affecting processes on the surface – remain unanswered.

Spiky citizen science

The echidna is certainly one of Australia’s iconic species but relatively little is known about these shy, spiky monotremes. A University of Adelaide project is trying to fill the knowledge gaps about echidnas and their wild populations. And you can get involved!

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have been studying the molecular biology of the planet’s oldest mammals, the platypus and echidna, and are asking the general public to contribute data to their research. There are only two wild populations of echidnas that have been extensively studied, one in Kangaroo Island and one in Tasmania, but very little is known about mainland populations.

The Echidna: Conservation Science Initiative project is trying to alter this by collecting a large enough data set from all around Australia to confer knowledge on population abundance, threats and possible conservation actions, all without having to track or capture these animals.

How can you help? If you see an echidna in the wild, or even your own backyard, take a photo or video and if you can find some poo that’s even better! DNA and hormones contained in the scats can provide information on the echidna’s environment, diet, health, stress levels and even reproductive status.

You will also need to record information of location, date and time of the scat sample collection and

observation photos of echidnas. Then send the scat in for analysis and upload the information into the Atlas of Living Australia.

You can also download the Echidnas CSI app to your phone, which will record date, time and location automatically and you won’t need to input this data manually: http://grutznerlab.weebly.com/echidna-csi.html

You can find more information on the project on the Atlas of Living Australia website or type ‘echidna CSI’ into your search engine.

Filling the gaps in pest control

A new role has been created to support pest animal control and programmes in our region.

There are five pest groups within the Watershed Landcare area, these being the Hargraves Hill End Wild Dog Group, Ilford Running Stream Pest Group, Rylstone District Wild Dog Association, Munghorn Wild Dog Group and the newly formed Piambong Yarrabin Pest Group.

These groups are volunteer run and strive to support landholders and residents within their areas to manage wild dogs and other pest animals. While 3 of these groups have been active for more than 15 years, like a lot of volunteer run, community groups, struggle with membership and getting landholders to be involved in programmes.

Five Pest Animal Group Coordinators are now helping to support groups such as these in the Central Tablelands. In the Mudgee region the position is hosted by Watershed Landcare, through funding from the Central Tablelands LLS, and works closely with the CT LLS Mudgee Biosecurity team. This is a unique partnership and is getting a lot of interest from around the state.

Beth Greenfield has been appointed as the Pest Animal Group Coordinator for the Mudgee area. Ms Greenfields priorities have been building relationships, communication and helping pest groups with governance and funding applications. There is also a focus on working collaboratively with the National Parks and Wildlife Service on pest management where there are common boundaries.

One of the notable achievements since the inception of the Pest Animal Group Coordinator role, just 6 months ago, is getting full coverage of pest groups in the Mudgee area. There was a lack of clarity about where existing group boundaries lay; these have now been mapped, and stretched where there were gaps, so every property in our region is now encompassed by one of the 5 pest groups.

Ms Greenfield has also been working on awareness raising to increase landholders’ reporting of wild dog sightings or their activity.

“There are many examples of people seeing dogs, not telling anyone and stock deaths occurring in the area shortly afterwards.” said Ms Greenfield.

“We’re trying to get people to take action when they see a dog and to get the word out.” she continued.

If you have seen evidence of wild dogs or suspect you are suffering from livestock attack or losses please contact your local pest group or the CT LLS Mudgee office.

Watershed Landcare Pest Animal Group Coordinator, Beth Greenfield, can be contacted for more information on 0438 090 525 or by email beth.greenfield@watershedlandcare.com.au.