A NASA scientist has reported finding fossils inside an ancient meteorite (pictured), spurring intense debate over whether they might be aliens. The study was published late Friday in the Journal of Cosmology, along with assurances from the journal's editor that it will be carefully reviewed. "Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists ... to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis," journal editor and Harvard astrophysicist Rudy Schild tells the AFP. The journal began publishing online critiques today.

According to the study, NASA scientist Richard Hoover found "microfossils" similar to cyanobacteria — also known as blue-green algae, or pond scum — inside freshly fractured pieces of three meteorites. And based on his analysis, Hoover has concluded that these fossils are indigenous to the space rocks. "[T]hese fossilized bacteria are not Earthly contaminants," the study asserts, "but are the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons and other astral bodies." If confirmed, of course, the discovery would be huge — the first evidence of extraterrestrial life. And it's intriguing that a prominent scientist has thrown his weight behind such a sensational claim. But as with previous claims of alien life, this one is not without its detractors, many of whom are outspoken about their objections. As University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers writes in Pharyngula, "this work is garbage. I'm surprised anyone is granting it any credibility at all."

Myers lists a variety of reasons why the fossils aren't aliens, including their remarkable preservation — "Who knew that milling about in a comet for the lifetime of a solar system was such a great preservative?" he writes sarcastically, adding that "I'm looking forward to the publication next year of the discovery of an extraterrestrial rabbit in a meteor." Myers certainly isn't alone in his skepticism, but not everyone is so doubtful; the University of Arizona's Cody Youngbull writes that it's "something to get excited about," while the University of Alabama's Elena Pikuta suggests the study "represents a sensational discovery that will have the potential to change our understanding on the origin of biosphere." The journal will continue printing online critiques through March 10.

(Sources: Reuters, Agence France-Presse, MSNBC, Journal of Cosmology, Pharyngula)


Spring is springing earlier than it used to in the Arctic, and that has begun to trigger a cascade of side effects, a new study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography warns. Not only is sea ice melting sooner, but satellite data show that tiny oceanic algae are also blooming prematurely, peaking up to 50 days earlier than they did just 14 years ago. "The trend is obvious and significant," study leader Mati Kahru tells the Washington Post, "and in my mind there is no doubt it is related to the retreat of the ice."

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the study is based on observations made between 1997 and 2009 by three U.S. and European climate satellites, which can spot the algae blooms' vivid colors (pictured above). The blooms peaked earlier and earlier in 11 percent of the observed areas, the researchers report, with the affected zones covering nearly 250 million acres of Canada's Foxe Basin and Baffin Sea, as well as the Kara Sea in Russia. "A 50-day shift is a big shift," says plankton expert Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University, who wasn't involved in the study. "As the planet warms, the threat is that these changes seen closer to land may spread across the entire Arctic."

The danger isn't just for the algae themselves, but the broader Arctic food web they support. When phytoplankton populations explode, so do krill and other zooplankton, which feed on the marine algae. Fish, shellfish, whales and other large animals then eat the zooplankton, while seabirds, seals and even polar bears feast on the fish. And if the phytoplankton's timing gets thrown off enough, it could devastate the entire ecosystem. "It's all about when food is available," says William Sydeman of the Farallon Institute, adding that mistimed phytoplankton blooms could "have cascading effects up the food web all the way to marine mammals."

(Source: Washington Post)


House Republicans are pitching unprecedented cuts to U.S. environmental laws, and while the proposals are unlikely to become law themselves, they do highlight the GOP's determination to scale back ecological protections, the Los Angeles Times reports. "I've never seen anything remotely like this," the director of UCLA's Environmental Law Center tells the Times. "The sheer scope of it is overwhelming."

The GOP spending bill passed the House last month, and next faces a tough test in the Senate. Among its heaviest cuts are a 30 percent reduction to the EPA's budget, the largest cut to any agency. It also prohibits the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions (pictured above), and from passing new water-pollution limits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and in Florida. The bill would also block a federal plan to restrict the use of off-road vehicles in national forests, would remove endangered species protections for gray wolves, and would slash hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal land-acquisition program. A wide range of state-level protections would also get the axe, such as a program aimed at restoring populations of threatened salmon in California. This has angered many environmentalists in California and elsewhere; as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., describes it, the bill is a "slash-and-burn proposal" and "a backdoor attack on our national landmark environmental laws."

Boxer and other Senate Democrats have vowed to block the cuts, since they still hold a slight majority in that chamber of Congress. And even if the bill does pass the Senate, President Obama has suggested he would veto it, likely dooming its chances for now. Still, the GOP has shown its commitment to cutting environmental protections, and as a researcher with the conservative Heritage Foundation tells the Times, they'll find a way to do it. "I think they're going to try and use every tactic in the book," he says. "This is largely what they came into office saying they were going to do."

(Source: Los Angeles Times)


As an army of scientists and wildlife managers fight to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, a trucker has been fined for trying to bring more than 4,000 pounds of the invasive fish into southeastern Canada, the Windsor Star reports. The man, Feng Yang, was fined $50,000 for his illegal haul, which included several tons of both bighead and grass carp, flopping around three dry tanks in the back of his truck. It wasn't his first offense, either — Yang was also fined $40,000 for committing a similar offense back in 2006.

The carp were being held in three 10-foot-high tanks without any water, as Yang apparently tried to avoid detection while smuggling them into the country. Asian carp can survive "extended periods of time" out of water, explains Bill Ingham, the Canadian border investigator who found the flopping contraband. And Yang apparently isn't alone in his quest to get Asian carp into Canada, Ingham tells the Star: After Yang was stopped in November, two more truckloads of illegal carp have already been stopped in 2011. Charges are pending in those cases, he says.

The $50,000 fine against Yang is the largest yet for smuggling Asian carp into Ontario, and as a government spokesman says, it's a warning to other would-be smugglers. "It's a matter of hoping this kind of conviction will send a message that it's not worth the while to try to sneak these fish across the border," he says. Asian carp were first imported to the U.S. in the 1960s and '70s as a way to clear out algae in aquaculture ponds, but they soon escaped and began wreaking ecological havoc in the Mississippi River watershed. Experts now fear they could decimate the Great Lakes' fishing industry if they become established there.

(Sources: Ontario Star, Michigan Messenger)


A big-shot botanist is born, extinction outpaces evolution, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (meteorite fossils): Journal of Cosmology/NASA

Photo (Arctic algae blooms): NASA

Photo (carbon dioxide emissions): EPA

Photo (jumping Asian carp): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.