Tag: life

Spending time in nature reduces stress

ITHACA, N.Y. – New research from an interdisciplinary Cornell team has found that as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting can help college students feel happier and lessen the effects of both physical and mental stress.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

The research, published Jan. 14 in Frontiers in Psychology, is part of a larger examination of “nature therapy” and aims to provide an easily-achievable dosage that physicians can prescribe as a preventive measure against high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues college students face.

“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in — we’re talking 10 minutes outside in a space with nature,” said lead author Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program and lecturer at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”

Meredith and her co-authors reviewed studies that examined the effects of nature on people of college age (no younger than 15, no older than 30) to discover how much time students should be spending outside and what they should be doing while they’re there. They found that 10-50 minutes in natural spaces was the most effective to improve mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.

“It’s not that there’s a decline after 50 minutes, but rather that the physiological and self-reported psychological benefits tend to plateau after that,” said co-author Donald Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science.

To enjoy the positive effects of being outside, students need only to be sitting or walking, the two primary activities the researchers examined in an effort to provide accessible recommendations.

“We wanted to keep this access to nature as simple and achievable as possible,” says Rakow. “While there is a lot of literature on longer outdoor programs, we wanted to quantify doses in minutes, not days.”

For Cornell students, there are a multitude of options for escaping into nature. For urban universities, research suggests that adding green elements to a built space can produce the same results. It is the time spent in nature, not necessarily nature itself, that’s beneficial.

“This is an opportunity to challenge our thinking around what nature can be,” says Meredith. “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”

The impetus for this work is a movement toward prescribing time in nature as a way to prevent or improve stress and anxiety, while also supporting physical and mental health outcomes. The researchers wanted to consider what “dose” would need to be prescribed to college-age students to show an effect. They are hoping that when it’s applied at universities, it becomes part of a student’s routine and is consumed in regular doses, like a pill.

“Prescribing a dose can legitimize the physician’s recommendation and give a tangible goal” says Meredith. “It’s different than just saying: ‘Go outside.’ There is something specific that a student can aim for.”

Meredith and Rakow’s co-authors include Erin Eldermire, head librarian at the Flower-Sprecher Veterinary Library; Cecelia Madsen ’12, M.P.H. ’19; Steven Shelley, M.P.H. ’19, epidemiologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and Naomi Sachs, assistant professor at the University of Maryland.

Earliest Signs of Life

Scientists Find Microbial Remains in Ancient Rocks

Scientists have found exceptionally preserved microbial remains in some of Earth’s oldest rocks in Western Australia – a major advance in the field, offering clues for how life on Earth originated.

The UNSW researchers found the organic matter in stromatolites – fossilised microbial structures – from the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

The stromatolites have been thought to be of biogenic origin ever since they were discovered in the 1980s. However, despite strong textural evidence, that theory was unproven for nearly four decades, because scientists hadn’t been able to show the definitive presence of preserved organic matter remains – until today’s publication in prestigious journal Geology.

“This is an exciting discovery – for the first time, we’re able to show the world that these stromatolites are definitive evidence for the earliest life on Earth,” says lead researcher Dr Raphael Baumgartner, a research associate of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology in Professor Martin Van Kranendonk’s team at UNSW.

Professor Van Kranendonk says the discovery is the closest the team have come to a “smoking gun” to prove the existence of such ancient life.

“This represents a major advance in our knowledge of these rocks, in the science of early life investigations generally, and – more specifically – in the search for life on Mars. We now have a new target and new methodology to search for ancient life traces,” Professor Van Kranendonk says.

Drilling deep, looking closely

Ever since the Dresser Formation was discovered in the 1980, scientists have wondered whether the structures were truly microbial and therefore the earliest signs of life.

“Unfortunately, there is a climate of mistrust of textural biosignatures in the research community. Hence, the origin of the stromatolites in the Dresser Formation has been a hotly debated topic,” Dr Baumgartner says.

“In this study, I spent a lot of time in the lab, using micro-analytical techniques to look very closely at the rock samples, to prove our theory once and for all.”

Stromatolites in the Dresser Formation are usually sourced from the rock surface, and are therefore highly weathered. For this study, the scientists worked with samples that were taken from further down into the rock, below the weathering profile, where the stromatolites are exceptionally well preserved.

“Looking at drill core samples allowed us to look at a perfect snapshot of ancient microbial life,” Dr Baumgartner says.

Using a variety of cutting-edge micro-analytical tools and techniques – including high-powered electron microscopy, spectroscopy and isotope analysis – Dr Baumgartner analysed the rocks.

He found that the stromatolites are essentially composed of pyrite – a mineral also known as ‘fool’s gold’ – that contains organic matter.

“The organic matter that we found preserved within pyrite of the stromatolites is exciting – we’re looking at exceptionally preserved coherent filaments and strands that are typically remains of microbial biofilms,” Dr Baumgartner says.

The researchers say that such remains have never been observed before in the Dresser Formation, and that actually seeing the evidence down the microscope was incredibly exciting.

“I was pretty surprised – we never expected to find this level of evidence before I started this project. I remember the night at the electron microscope where I finally figured out that I was looking at biofilm remains. I think it was around 11pm when I had this ‘eureka’ moment, and I stayed until three or four o’clock in the morning, just imaging and imaging because I was so excited. I totally lost track of time,” Dr Baumgartner says.

Clues for search for life on Mars

Just over two years ago, Dr Baumgartner’s colleague Tara Djokic, a UNSW PhD candidate, found stromatolites in hot spring deposits in the same region in WA, pushing back the earliest known existence of microbial life on land by 580 million years.

“Tara’s main findings were these exceptional geyserite deposits that indicate that there have been geysers in this area, and therefore fluid expulsions on exposed land surface,” Dr Baumgartner says.

“Her study was focused on the broader geological setting of the paleo-environment – lending support to the theory that life originated on land, rather than in the ocean – whereas my study really went deeper on the finer details of the stromatolite structures from the area.”

The scientists say that both studies are helping us answer a central question: where did humanity come from?

“Understanding where life could have emerged is really important in order to understand our ancestry. And from there, it could help us understand where else life could have occurred – for example, where it was kick-started on other planets,” Dr Baumgartner says.

Just last month, NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) scientists spent as week in the Pilbara with Martin Van Kranendonk for specialist training in identifying signs of life in these same ancient rocks. It was the first time that Van Kranendonk shared the region’s insights with a dedicated team of Mars specialists – a group including the Heads of NASA and ESA Mars 2020 missions.

“It is deeply satisfying that Australia’s ancient rocks and our scientific know-how is making such a significant contribution to our search for extra-terrestrial life and unlocking the secrets of Mars,” says Professor Van Kranendonk.