Listen to the Cosmic Sound of Sandstone Arches in Utah
By Zoe Woodcraft
The sound is like a low, steady rumble, soothing yet powerful. Imperceptible to the human ear, the hums of red rock arches in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments carry with them the deep patterns of the earth's plates sparked by events like ocean currents colliding in the open Pacific that pump the ocean floor. On the surface, wind spilling over the arches amplifies the vibrations, giving voice to movements in the earth that began thousands of miles away.
Scientists like Jeff Moore have only recently discovered the arches' hum. We are one year into the legal battle to defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, and while we fight in the courts, life and discovery continue in these special places. Now, more than ever, the arches need our voices to protect them.
Moore, a professor at the University of Utah, has always been fascinated by what makes rocks break and move. That's how he describes his particular niche in geology, geohazards.
"The earth is teeming with these sorts of mysteries, and it's my job to uncover them," said Moore.
Hardy sandstone gives Utah its famous rock formations. Its layers can split open like an accordion and gently erode over millennia into shapes nearly impossible in earthquake country. Moore began to log the swelling and contracting of Utah's arches as temperatures rose and fell during the day. He wanted to understand their stresses, and know how long their spans will extend out over open air before inevitably collapsing.
"Most people are in awe of these geological wonders, but they don't recognize how fragile they are," said Moore. "They think rock is strong. But if you lay your hand on an arch, you get a sense that it is just hanging on. You can see the cracks … and you quickly realize how tenuous the structure is."
Soon, Moore got to wondering if the ear would be better than the eye at measuring the arches' movements. He spent hours recording the vibrations of the rocks with seismometers the size of camping thermoses. In the lab, he sped up his recordings to make them audible to humans.
[Listen to Soundcloud clips posted at the bottom of this story. Headphones recommended.]
"It sounded like nothing I'd heard before," said Moore, adding that the arches' hum is dependent on factors like their size. "Some of the smaller arches have a higher tone, and are a little squeaky."
In several arch recordings, a mysterious tapping appears on the soundtrack. Asked about the sound, Moore laughed. "It's probably my team walking as we backed away from our equipment. It's humans scurrying from the perspective of the arch."
In late 2017, President Trump threatened to silence the arches' hum after shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by roughly 2 million acres. Mining companies started eyeing monument lands. Earthjustice went to court.
Within those evicted 2 million acres are ancient cliff dwellings and living ceremonial sites sacred to more than five Native American Tribes fighting for these lands. It's places like Valley of the Gods, where no one can travel without getting a crick in their neck staring up at red rock spires. It's dinosaur fossil beds in the Kaiparowitz Plateau of Grand Staircase, where scientists discover new species almost every year. It's the steep habitat for Utah's only native herds of cliff-happy bighorn sheep.
It's also 115 unique arches stripped of their national monument protections.
Arch Hunting in the Monuments
Jeff got to work with his research team planning expeditions in the monuments for the summer of 2018. Aamon Hatch, a local high school science teacher on break, joined. They pored over arch hunting websites where amateur geology enthusiasts share their discoveries by dropping coordinates.
"I began to call them 'the abandoned arches of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase,'" said Moore. "Grand Staircase's arches had been protected for the last 20 years. Bears Ears' arches were newly protected. Now they're left high and dry."
Determined to document as many abandoned arches as they could, the team ventured into the gutted national monuments. It was like no place Moore had been before. The Henry Mountains in Grand Staircase were the last mountains to be mapped in the lower 48. The Escalante River, which feeds into the Colorado, was one of the last rivers to be mapped. In Navajo, the range is called Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní or "mountain whose name is missing."
Moore worries about the impact of human development near these lands—like mine blasting, or the heavy truck traffic new mining roads would bring. The arches evolved in southern Utah partly because the land experiences little seismic activity.
"I worry about them in the way you worry about something you love," he said.
He isn't wrong to worry. The Trump administration is rushing through new plans that could open roughly 700,000 acres of Grand Staircase to mining and drilling. It's a cynical strategy to speed along plans for industrial exploitation that's often worked against public lands. Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh is fighting to hit the brakes on those plans in court.
While Trump's executive branch is trying to outrace the courts, Earthjustice will also be defending our monuments lawsuits against the Justice Department's motion to dismiss them this month. (The weighty question of whether President Trump had the authority to dismantle Bears Ears and Grand Staircase under the Antiquities Act may well be decided, at least preliminarily, at this point.)
Moore's team ultimately found 37 arches in Grand Staircase and 78 in Bears Ears in the territory stripped out of the monuments. Though their initial project is done, Moore suspects there are many more arches in these wild lands.
"When you stand out there today, you have the feeling 'this is where the road ends,'" he said. "In between you and the mountain there are no roads. You can feel the vastness."
Headphones may be needed to hear the lowest tones in this recording of Sunset Arch.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earthjustice.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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