Tag: Nature

Fire-Ravaged Kangaroo Island?

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“The bushfire crisis on Kangaroo Island is heart-breaking,” Professor Higgins-Desbiolles says, “and for a holiday destination that relies on tourism, the summer-holiday fires could not have come at a worse time.

Credit: Gary Jenkins
Fire on Kangaroo Island
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Kangaroo Island is one of South Australia’s most iconic tourism destinations, but as fires continue to rage across the once pristine environment, many holidaymakers are questioning whether to keep or cancel their travel plans.

While tourism authorities are calling for people to continue to visit Kangaroo Island, sustainable tourism expert, UniSA’s Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles says the situation is far more complex than boosting tourist numbers.

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“The bushfire crisis on Kangaroo Island is heart-breaking,” Professor Higgins-Desbiolles says, “and for a holiday destination that relies on tourism, the summer-holiday fires could not have come at a worse time.

“Kangaroo Island is a tourism dependent economy, and while tourism operators and authorities are calling for people to keep visiting Kangaroo Island, the fires are not yet out, CFS volunteers and defence personal are still being deployed, and infrastructure like the water treatment facilities are damaged.

“Additionally, critical services like the Kangaroo Island ferry are needed to transport emergency service personnel and equipment. I just think it’s too soon at this moment.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says while it’s strategically important to plan the recovery of Kangaroo Island’s tourism businesses and primary producers, immediate tourist visits may not be the answer.

“While it is still be possible to visit Kangaroo Island at this time, it may not be the most viable or ethical decision under the current circumstances,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says.

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“For those of us who love Kangaroo Island and want to see its economy recover and thrive, the advice for the short term is provide donations if you can, buy Kangaroo Island produce and products, and when the time is right, book your holidays there and plan to consciously direct your spending to support the local economy.

“This is an incredibly emotional and confronting time for the 4500-plus residents of Kangaroo Island who are still reeling from the devastation and loss form the fires. They’re only just beginning a long road to recovery.

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“For those with later bookings on KI, please don’t cancel those just yet. If the local authorities give the greenlight, your holiday bookings may be just what helps Islanders get back on their feet.

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 “The grassroots campaign – #gowithemptyeskies – perhaps says it best: ‘When these fires have stopped, and the towns impacted are safe and trying to regain some sense of ‘normal’….plan a road trip. Go with empty eskies, empty cars and low fuel…(and) buy from their shops…empty eskies make, more of a difference that you could ever imagine.”

“It’s a small step, but one to which we can all safely contribute beyond the devastation of the fires.”

Deep sea vents had ideal conditions for origin of life

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Photo by Silas Baisch
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By creating protocells in hot, alkaline seawater, a UCL-led research team has added to evidence that the origin of life could have been in deep-sea hydrothermal vents rather than shallow pools.

Previous experiments had failed to foster the formation of protocells – seen as a key stepping stone to the development of cell-based life – in such environments, but the new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, finds that heat and alkalinity might not just be acceptable, but necessary to get life started.

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“There are multiple competing theories as to where and how life started. Underwater hydrothermal vents are among most promising locations for life’s beginnings – our findings now add weight to that theory with solid experimental evidence,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Nick Lane (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment).

Deep under the Earth’s seas, there are vents where seawater comes into contact with minerals from the planet’s crust, reacting to create a warm, alkaline (high on the pH scale) environment containing hydrogen. The process creates mineral-rich chimneys with alkaline and acidic fluids, providing a source of energy that facilitates chemical reactions between hydrogen and carbon dioxide to form increasingly complex organic compounds.

Some of the world’s oldest fossils, discovered by a UCL-led team, originated in such underwater vents.

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Scientists researching the origins of life have made great progress with experiments to recreate the early chemical processes in which basic cell formations would have developed. The creation of protocells has been an important step, as they can be seen as the most basic form of a cell, consisting of just a bilayer membrane around an aqueous solution – a cell with a defined boundary and inner compartment.

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Previous experiments to create protocells from naturally-occurring simple molecules – specifically, fatty acids – have succeeded in cool, fresh water, but only under very tightly controlled conditions, whereas the protocells have fallen apart in experiments in hydrothermal vent environments.

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The study’s first author, Dr Sean Jordan (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment), said he and his colleagues identified a flaw in the previous work: “Other experiments had all used a small number of molecule types, mostly with fatty acids of the same size, whereas in natural environments, you would expect to see a wider array of molecules.”

For the current study, the research team tried creating protocells with a mixture of different fatty acids and fatty alcohols that had not previously been used.

The researchers found that molecules with longer carbon chains needed heat in order to form themselves into a vesicle (protocell). An alkaline solution helped the fledgling vesicles keep their electric charge. A saltwater environment also proved helpful, as the fat molecules banded together more tightly in a salty fluid, forming more stable vesicles.

For the first time, the researchers succeeded at creating self-assembling protocells in an environment similar to that of hydrothermal vents. They found that the heat, alkalinity and salt did not impede the protocell formation, but actively favoured it.

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“In our experiments, we have created one of the essential components of life under conditions that are more reflective of ancient environments than many other laboratory studies,” Dr Jordan said.

“We still don’t know where life first formed, but our study shows that you cannot rule out the possibility of deep-sea hydrothermal vents.”

The researchers also point out that deep-sea hydrothermal vents are not unique to Earth.

Professor Lane said: “Space missions have found evidence that icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn might also have similarly alkaline hydrothermal vents in their seas. While we have never seen any evidence of life on those moons, if we want to find life on other planets or moons, studies like ours can help us decide where to look.”

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The study involved researchers from UCL and Birkbeck, University of London, and was funded by the BBSRC and bgC3.