Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”

###

This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit http://www.lbl.gov.

Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”

###

This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit http://www.lbl.gov.

The breathing sand

An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. -  Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR
An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. – Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR

A desert at the bottom of the sea? Although the waters of the North Sea exchange about every two to three years, there is evidence of decreasing oxygen content. If lower amounts of this gas are dissolved in seawater, organisms on and in the seabed produce less energy – with implications for larger creatures and the biogeochemical cycling in the marine ecosystem. Since nutrients, carbon and oxygen circulate very well and are processed quickly in the permeable, sandy sediments that make up two-thirds of the North Sea, measurements of metabolic rates are especially difficult here. Using the new Aquatic Eddy Correlation technique, scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Koblenz-Landau, the Scottish Marine Institute and Aarhus University were able to demonstrate how oxygen flows at the ground of the North Sea. Their methods and results are presented in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

“The so-called ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique detects the flow of oxygen through these small turbulences over an area of several square meters. It considers both the mixing of sediments by organisms living in it and the hydrodynamics of the water above the rough sea floor”, Dr. Peter Linke, a marine biologist at GEOMAR, explains. “Previous methods overlooked only short periods or disregarded important parameters. Now we can create a more realistic picture.” The new method also takes into account the fact that even small objects such as shells or ripples shaped by wave action or currents are able to impact the oxygen exchange in permeable sediments.

On the expedition CE0913 with the Irish research vessel CELTIC EXPLORER, scientists used the underwater robot ROV KIEL 6000 to place three different instruments within the “Tommeliten” area belonging to Norway: Two “Eddy Correlation Landers” recorded the strength of oxygen fluxes over three tidal cycles. Information about the distribution of oxygen in the sediment was collected with a “Profiler Lander”, a seafloor observatory with oxygen sensors and flow meters. A “Benthic chamber” isolated 314 square centimetres of sediment and took samples from the overlying water over a period of 24 hours to determine the oxygen consumption of the sediment.

“The combination of traditional tools with the ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique has given us new insights into the dynamics of the exchange of substances between the sea water and the underlying sediment. A variety of factors determine the timing and amount of oxygen available. Currents that provide the sandy sediment with oxygen, but also the small-scale morphology of the seafloor, ensure that small benthic organisms are able to process carbon or other nutrients. The dependencies are so complex that they can be decrypted only by using special methods”, Dr. Linke summarizes. Therefore, detailed measurements in the water column and at the boundary to the seafloor as well as model calculations are absolutely necessary to understand basic functions and better estimate future changes in the cycle of materials. “With conventional methods, for example, we would never have been able to find that the loose sandy sediment stores oxygen brought in by the currents for periods of less water movement and less oxygen introduction.”

Original publication:
McGinnis, D. F., S. Sommer, A. Lorke, R. N. Glud, P. Linke (2014): Quantifying tidally driven benthic oxygen exchange across permeable sediments: An aquatic eddy correlation study. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, doi:10.1002/2014JC010303.

Links:

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Eddy correlation information page

Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB

University of Southern Denmark

University of Koblenz-Landau

Scottish Marine Institute

Aarhus University

Images:
High resolution images can be downloaded at http://www.geomar.de/n2110-e.

Video footage is available on request.

Contact:
Dr. Peter Linke (GEOMAR FB2-MG), Tel. 0431 600-2115, plinke@geomar.de

Maike Nicolai (GEOMAR, Kommunikation & Medien), Tel. 0431 600-2807, mnicolai@geomar.de

The breathing sand

An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. -  Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR
An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. – Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR

A desert at the bottom of the sea? Although the waters of the North Sea exchange about every two to three years, there is evidence of decreasing oxygen content. If lower amounts of this gas are dissolved in seawater, organisms on and in the seabed produce less energy – with implications for larger creatures and the biogeochemical cycling in the marine ecosystem. Since nutrients, carbon and oxygen circulate very well and are processed quickly in the permeable, sandy sediments that make up two-thirds of the North Sea, measurements of metabolic rates are especially difficult here. Using the new Aquatic Eddy Correlation technique, scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Koblenz-Landau, the Scottish Marine Institute and Aarhus University were able to demonstrate how oxygen flows at the ground of the North Sea. Their methods and results are presented in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

“The so-called ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique detects the flow of oxygen through these small turbulences over an area of several square meters. It considers both the mixing of sediments by organisms living in it and the hydrodynamics of the water above the rough sea floor”, Dr. Peter Linke, a marine biologist at GEOMAR, explains. “Previous methods overlooked only short periods or disregarded important parameters. Now we can create a more realistic picture.” The new method also takes into account the fact that even small objects such as shells or ripples shaped by wave action or currents are able to impact the oxygen exchange in permeable sediments.

On the expedition CE0913 with the Irish research vessel CELTIC EXPLORER, scientists used the underwater robot ROV KIEL 6000 to place three different instruments within the “Tommeliten” area belonging to Norway: Two “Eddy Correlation Landers” recorded the strength of oxygen fluxes over three tidal cycles. Information about the distribution of oxygen in the sediment was collected with a “Profiler Lander”, a seafloor observatory with oxygen sensors and flow meters. A “Benthic chamber” isolated 314 square centimetres of sediment and took samples from the overlying water over a period of 24 hours to determine the oxygen consumption of the sediment.

“The combination of traditional tools with the ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique has given us new insights into the dynamics of the exchange of substances between the sea water and the underlying sediment. A variety of factors determine the timing and amount of oxygen available. Currents that provide the sandy sediment with oxygen, but also the small-scale morphology of the seafloor, ensure that small benthic organisms are able to process carbon or other nutrients. The dependencies are so complex that they can be decrypted only by using special methods”, Dr. Linke summarizes. Therefore, detailed measurements in the water column and at the boundary to the seafloor as well as model calculations are absolutely necessary to understand basic functions and better estimate future changes in the cycle of materials. “With conventional methods, for example, we would never have been able to find that the loose sandy sediment stores oxygen brought in by the currents for periods of less water movement and less oxygen introduction.”

Original publication:
McGinnis, D. F., S. Sommer, A. Lorke, R. N. Glud, P. Linke (2014): Quantifying tidally driven benthic oxygen exchange across permeable sediments: An aquatic eddy correlation study. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, doi:10.1002/2014JC010303.

Links:

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Eddy correlation information page

Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB

University of Southern Denmark

University of Koblenz-Landau

Scottish Marine Institute

Aarhus University

Images:
High resolution images can be downloaded at http://www.geomar.de/n2110-e.

Video footage is available on request.

Contact:
Dr. Peter Linke (GEOMAR FB2-MG), Tel. 0431 600-2115, plinke@geomar.de

Maike Nicolai (GEOMAR, Kommunikation & Medien), Tel. 0431 600-2807, mnicolai@geomar.de

Microfossils reveal warm oceans had less oxygen, geologists say

Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. -  Syracuse University
Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. – Syracuse University

Researchers in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are pairing chemical analyses with micropaleontology—the study of tiny fossilized organisms—to better understand how global marine life was affected by a rapid warming event more than 55 million years ago.

Their findings are the subject of an article in the journal Paleoceanography (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

“Global warming impacts marine life in complex ways, of which the loss of dissolved oxygen [a condition known as hypoxia] is a growing concern” says Zunli Lu, assistant professor of Earth sciences and a member of Syracuse’s Water Science and Engineering Initiative. “Moreover, it’s difficult to predict future deoxygenation that is induced by carbon emissions, without a good understanding of our geologic past.”

Lu says this type of deoxygenation leads to larger and thicker oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) in the world’s oceans. An OMZ is the layer of water in an ocean where oxygen saturation is at its lowest.

Much of Lu’s work revolves around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a well-studied analogue for modern climate warming. Documenting the expansion of OMZs during the PETM is difficult because of the lack of a sensitive, widely applicable indicator of dissolved oxygen.

To address the problem, Lu and his colleagues have begun working with iodate, a type of iodine that exists only in oxygenated waters. By analyzing the iodine-to-calcium ratios in microfossils, they are able to estimate the oxygen levels of ambient seawater, where microorganisms once lived.

Fossil skeletons of a group of protists known as foraminiferas have long been used for paleo-environmental reconstructions. Developing an oxygenation proxy for foraminifera is important to Lu because it could enable him study the extent of OMZs “in 3-D,” since these popcorn-like organisms have been abundant in ancient and modern oceans.

“By comparing our fossil data with oxygen levels simulated in climate models, we think OMZs were much more prevalent 55 million years ago than they are today,” he says, adding that OMZs likely expanded during the PETM. “Deoxygenation, along with warming and acidification, had a dramatic effect on marine life during the PETM, prompting mass extinction on the seafloor.”

Lu thinks analytical facilities that combine climate modeling with micropaleontology will help scientists anticipate trends in ocean deoxygenation. Already, it’s been reported that modern-day OMZs, such as ones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, are beginning to expand. “They’re natural laboratories for research,” he says, regarding the interactions between oceanic oxygen levels and climate changes.”

###

The article’s lead author is Xiaoli Zhou, a Ph.D. student of Lu’s in Syracuse’s Earth sciences department. Other coauthors are Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in geology and geophysics at Yale University; Ros Rickaby, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oxford (U.K.); and Arne Winguth, assistant professor of oceanography at The University of Texas at Arlington.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in environmental geology, wetland hydrogeology, crustal evolution, sedimentology, isotope geochemistry, paleobiology, paleolimnology, and global environmental change.

Microfossils reveal warm oceans had less oxygen, geologists say

Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. -  Syracuse University
Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. – Syracuse University

Researchers in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are pairing chemical analyses with micropaleontology—the study of tiny fossilized organisms—to better understand how global marine life was affected by a rapid warming event more than 55 million years ago.

Their findings are the subject of an article in the journal Paleoceanography (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

“Global warming impacts marine life in complex ways, of which the loss of dissolved oxygen [a condition known as hypoxia] is a growing concern” says Zunli Lu, assistant professor of Earth sciences and a member of Syracuse’s Water Science and Engineering Initiative. “Moreover, it’s difficult to predict future deoxygenation that is induced by carbon emissions, without a good understanding of our geologic past.”

Lu says this type of deoxygenation leads to larger and thicker oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) in the world’s oceans. An OMZ is the layer of water in an ocean where oxygen saturation is at its lowest.

Much of Lu’s work revolves around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a well-studied analogue for modern climate warming. Documenting the expansion of OMZs during the PETM is difficult because of the lack of a sensitive, widely applicable indicator of dissolved oxygen.

To address the problem, Lu and his colleagues have begun working with iodate, a type of iodine that exists only in oxygenated waters. By analyzing the iodine-to-calcium ratios in microfossils, they are able to estimate the oxygen levels of ambient seawater, where microorganisms once lived.

Fossil skeletons of a group of protists known as foraminiferas have long been used for paleo-environmental reconstructions. Developing an oxygenation proxy for foraminifera is important to Lu because it could enable him study the extent of OMZs “in 3-D,” since these popcorn-like organisms have been abundant in ancient and modern oceans.

“By comparing our fossil data with oxygen levels simulated in climate models, we think OMZs were much more prevalent 55 million years ago than they are today,” he says, adding that OMZs likely expanded during the PETM. “Deoxygenation, along with warming and acidification, had a dramatic effect on marine life during the PETM, prompting mass extinction on the seafloor.”

Lu thinks analytical facilities that combine climate modeling with micropaleontology will help scientists anticipate trends in ocean deoxygenation. Already, it’s been reported that modern-day OMZs, such as ones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, are beginning to expand. “They’re natural laboratories for research,” he says, regarding the interactions between oceanic oxygen levels and climate changes.”

###

The article’s lead author is Xiaoli Zhou, a Ph.D. student of Lu’s in Syracuse’s Earth sciences department. Other coauthors are Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in geology and geophysics at Yale University; Ros Rickaby, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oxford (U.K.); and Arne Winguth, assistant professor of oceanography at The University of Texas at Arlington.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in environmental geology, wetland hydrogeology, crustal evolution, sedimentology, isotope geochemistry, paleobiology, paleolimnology, and global environmental change.

Snail shells show high-rise plateau is much lower than it used to be

This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. -  Joel Saylor
This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. – Joel Saylor

The Tibetan Plateau in south-central Asia, because of its size, elevation and impact on climate, is one of the world’s greatest geological oddities.

At about 960,000 square miles it covers slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and its elevation is on the same scale as Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range of Washington state. Because it rises so high into the atmosphere, it helps bring monsoons over India and other nations to the south while the plateau itself remains generally arid.

For decades, geologists have debated when and how the plateau reached such lofty heights, some 14,000 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the highest Himalayan peaks just south of the plateau.

But new research led by a University of Washington scientist appears to confirm an earlier improbable finding – at least one large area in southwest Tibet, the plateau’s Zhada Basin, actually lost 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation sometime in the Pliocene epoch.

“This basin is really high right now but we think it was a kilometer or more higher just 3 million to 4 million years ago,” said Katharine Huntington, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the research.

Co-authors are Joel Saylor of the University of Houston and Jay Quade and Adam Hudson, both of the University of Arizona. The paper was published online in August and will appear in a future print edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The Zhada Basin has rugged terrain, with exposed deposits of ancient lake and river sediments that make fossil shells of gastropods such as snails easily accessible, and determining their age is relatively straightforward. The researchers studied shells dating from millions of years ago and from a variety of aquatic environments. They also collected modern shell and water samples from a variety of environments for comparison.

The work confirms results of a previous study involving Saylor and Quade that examined the ratio of heavy isotope oxygen-18 to light isotope oxygen-16 in ancient snail shells from the Zhada Basin. They found the ratios were very low, which suggested the basin had a higher elevation in the past.

Oxygen-18 levels decrease in precipitation at higher elevations in comparison with oxygen-16, so shells formed in lakes and rivers that collect precipitation at higher elevations should have a lower heavy-to-light oxygen ratio. However, those lower ratios depend on a number of other factors, including temperature, evaporation and precipitation source, which made it difficult to say with certainty whether the low ratios found in the ancient snail shells meant a loss of elevation in the Zhada Basin.

So the scientists also employed a technique called clumped isotope thermometry, which Huntington has used and worked to refine for several years, to determine the temperature of shell growth and get an independent estimate of elevation change in the basin.

Bonding, or “clumping” together, of heavy carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the carbonate of snail shells happens more readily at colder temperatures, and is measured using a tool called a mass spectrometer that provides data on the temperature of the lake or river water in which the snails lived.

The scientists found markedly greater “clumping,” as well as lower ratios of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in the ancient shells, indicating the shells formed at temperatures as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 F) colder than average temperatures today, the equivalent of as much as 5,000 feet of elevation loss.

Just why the elevation decline happened is open to speculation. One possibility is that as faults in the region spread, the Zhada Basin lowered, Huntington said. It is unknown yet whether other parts of the southern plateau also lowered at the same time, but if elevation loss was widespread it could be because of broader fault spreading. It also is possible the crust thickened and forced large rock formations even deeper into the Earth, where they heated until they reached a consistency at which they could ooze out from beneath the crust, like toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

She noted that climate records from deep-sea fossils indicate Earth was significantly warmer when the cold Zhada Basin snail shells were formed.

“Our findings are a conservative estimate,” Huntington said. “No one can say this result is due to a colder climate, because if anything it should have been warmer.”

Snail shells show high-rise plateau is much lower than it used to be

This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. -  Joel Saylor
This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. – Joel Saylor

The Tibetan Plateau in south-central Asia, because of its size, elevation and impact on climate, is one of the world’s greatest geological oddities.

At about 960,000 square miles it covers slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and its elevation is on the same scale as Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range of Washington state. Because it rises so high into the atmosphere, it helps bring monsoons over India and other nations to the south while the plateau itself remains generally arid.

For decades, geologists have debated when and how the plateau reached such lofty heights, some 14,000 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the highest Himalayan peaks just south of the plateau.

But new research led by a University of Washington scientist appears to confirm an earlier improbable finding – at least one large area in southwest Tibet, the plateau’s Zhada Basin, actually lost 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation sometime in the Pliocene epoch.

“This basin is really high right now but we think it was a kilometer or more higher just 3 million to 4 million years ago,” said Katharine Huntington, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the research.

Co-authors are Joel Saylor of the University of Houston and Jay Quade and Adam Hudson, both of the University of Arizona. The paper was published online in August and will appear in a future print edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The Zhada Basin has rugged terrain, with exposed deposits of ancient lake and river sediments that make fossil shells of gastropods such as snails easily accessible, and determining their age is relatively straightforward. The researchers studied shells dating from millions of years ago and from a variety of aquatic environments. They also collected modern shell and water samples from a variety of environments for comparison.

The work confirms results of a previous study involving Saylor and Quade that examined the ratio of heavy isotope oxygen-18 to light isotope oxygen-16 in ancient snail shells from the Zhada Basin. They found the ratios were very low, which suggested the basin had a higher elevation in the past.

Oxygen-18 levels decrease in precipitation at higher elevations in comparison with oxygen-16, so shells formed in lakes and rivers that collect precipitation at higher elevations should have a lower heavy-to-light oxygen ratio. However, those lower ratios depend on a number of other factors, including temperature, evaporation and precipitation source, which made it difficult to say with certainty whether the low ratios found in the ancient snail shells meant a loss of elevation in the Zhada Basin.

So the scientists also employed a technique called clumped isotope thermometry, which Huntington has used and worked to refine for several years, to determine the temperature of shell growth and get an independent estimate of elevation change in the basin.

Bonding, or “clumping” together, of heavy carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the carbonate of snail shells happens more readily at colder temperatures, and is measured using a tool called a mass spectrometer that provides data on the temperature of the lake or river water in which the snails lived.

The scientists found markedly greater “clumping,” as well as lower ratios of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in the ancient shells, indicating the shells formed at temperatures as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 F) colder than average temperatures today, the equivalent of as much as 5,000 feet of elevation loss.

Just why the elevation decline happened is open to speculation. One possibility is that as faults in the region spread, the Zhada Basin lowered, Huntington said. It is unknown yet whether other parts of the southern plateau also lowered at the same time, but if elevation loss was widespread it could be because of broader fault spreading. It also is possible the crust thickened and forced large rock formations even deeper into the Earth, where they heated until they reached a consistency at which they could ooze out from beneath the crust, like toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

She noted that climate records from deep-sea fossils indicate Earth was significantly warmer when the cold Zhada Basin snail shells were formed.

“Our findings are a conservative estimate,” Huntington said. “No one can say this result is due to a colder climate, because if anything it should have been warmer.”

Asian monsoon much older than previously thought

University of Arizona geoscientist Alexis Licht (bottom left) and his colleagues from the French-Burmese Paleontological Team led by Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers, France (center with hiking staff) used fossils they collected in Myanmar to figure out that the Asian monsoon started at least 40 million years ago. -  French-Burmese Paleontological Team 2012
University of Arizona geoscientist Alexis Licht (bottom left) and his colleagues from the French-Burmese Paleontological Team led by Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers, France (center with hiking staff) used fossils they collected in Myanmar to figure out that the Asian monsoon started at least 40 million years ago. – French-Burmese Paleontological Team 2012

The Asian monsoon already existed 40 million years ago during a period of high atmospheric carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures, reports an international research team led by a University of Arizona geoscientist.

Scientists thought the climate pattern known as the Asian monsoon began 22-25 million years ago as a result of the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya Mountains.

“It is surprising,” said lead author Alexis Licht, now a research associate in the UA department of geosciences. “People thought the monsoon started much later.”

The monsoon, the largest climate system in the world, governs the climate in much of mainland Asia, bringing torrential summer rains and dry winters.

Co-author Jay Quade, a UA professor of geosciences, said, “This research compellingly shows that a strong Asian monsoon system was in place at least by 35-40 million years ago.”

The research by Licht and his colleagues shows the earlier start of the monsoon occurred at a time when atmospheric CO2 was three to four times greater than it is now. The monsoon then weakened 34 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 then decreased by 50 percent and an ice age occurred.

Licht said the study is the first to show the rise of the monsoon is as much a result of global climate as it is a result of topography. The team’s paper is scheduled for early online publication in the journal Nature on Sept. 14.

“This finding has major consequences for the ongoing global warming,” he said. “It suggests increasing the atmospheric CO2 will increase the monsoonal precipitation significantly.”

Unraveling the monsoon’s origins required contributions from three different teams of scientists that were independently studying the environment of 40 million years ago.

All three investigations showed the monsoon climate pattern occurred 15 million years earlier than previously thought. Combining different lines of evidence from different places strengthened the group’s confidence in the finding, Licht said. The climate modeling team also linked the development of the monsoon to the increased CO2 of the time.

Licht and his colleagues at Poitiers and Nancy universities in France examined snail and mammal fossils in Myanmar. The group led by G. Dupont-Nivet and colleagues at Utrecht University in the Netherlands studied lake deposits in Xining Basin in central China. J.-B. Ladant and Y. Donnadieu of the Laboratory of Sciences of the Climate and Environment (LSCE) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, created climate simulations of the Asian climate 40 million years ago.

A complete list of authors of the group’s publication, “Asian monsoons in a late Eocene greenhouse world,” is at the bottom of this release, as is a list of funding sources.

Licht didn’t set out to study the origin of the monsoon.

He chose his study site in Myanmar because the area was rich in mammal fossils, including some of the earliest ancestors of modern monkeys and apes. The research, part of his doctoral work at the University of Poitiers, focused on understanding the environments those early primates inhabited. Scientists thought those primates had a habitat like the current evergreen tropical rain forests of Borneo, which do not have pronounced differences between wet and dry seasons.

To learn about the past environment, Licht analyzed 40-million-year-old freshwater snail shells and teeth of mammals to see what types of oxygen they contained. The ratio of two different forms of oxygen, oxygen-18 and oxygen-16, shows whether the animal lived in a relatively wet climate or an arid one.

“One of the goals of the study was to document the pre-monsoonal conditions, but what we found were monsoonal conditions,” he said.

To his surprise, the oxygen ratios told an unexpected story: The region had a seasonal pattern very much like the current monsoon – dry winters and very rainy summers.

“The early primates of Myanmar lived under intense seasonal stress – aridity and then monsoons,” he said. “That was completely unexpected.”

The team of researchers working in China found another line of evidence pointing to the existence of the monsoon about 40 million years ago. The monsoon climate pattern generates winter winds that blow dust from central Asia and deposits it in thick piles in China. The researchers found deposits of such dust dating back 41 million years ago, indicating the monsoon had occurred that long ago.

The third team’s climate simulations indicated strong Asian monsoons 40 million years ago. The simulations showed the level of atmospheric CO2 was connected to the strength of the monsoon, which was stronger 40 million years ago when CO2 levels were higher and weakened 34 million years ago when CO2 levels dropped.

Licht’s next step is to investigate how geologically short-term increases of atmospheric CO2 known as hyperthermals affected the monsoon’s behavior 40 million years ago.

“The response of the monsoon to those hyperthermals could provide interesting analogs to the ongoing global warming,” he said.

Asian monsoon much older than previously thought

University of Arizona geoscientist Alexis Licht (bottom left) and his colleagues from the French-Burmese Paleontological Team led by Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers, France (center with hiking staff) used fossils they collected in Myanmar to figure out that the Asian monsoon started at least 40 million years ago. -  French-Burmese Paleontological Team 2012
University of Arizona geoscientist Alexis Licht (bottom left) and his colleagues from the French-Burmese Paleontological Team led by Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers, France (center with hiking staff) used fossils they collected in Myanmar to figure out that the Asian monsoon started at least 40 million years ago. – French-Burmese Paleontological Team 2012

The Asian monsoon already existed 40 million years ago during a period of high atmospheric carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures, reports an international research team led by a University of Arizona geoscientist.

Scientists thought the climate pattern known as the Asian monsoon began 22-25 million years ago as a result of the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya Mountains.

“It is surprising,” said lead author Alexis Licht, now a research associate in the UA department of geosciences. “People thought the monsoon started much later.”

The monsoon, the largest climate system in the world, governs the climate in much of mainland Asia, bringing torrential summer rains and dry winters.

Co-author Jay Quade, a UA professor of geosciences, said, “This research compellingly shows that a strong Asian monsoon system was in place at least by 35-40 million years ago.”

The research by Licht and his colleagues shows the earlier start of the monsoon occurred at a time when atmospheric CO2 was three to four times greater than it is now. The monsoon then weakened 34 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 then decreased by 50 percent and an ice age occurred.

Licht said the study is the first to show the rise of the monsoon is as much a result of global climate as it is a result of topography. The team’s paper is scheduled for early online publication in the journal Nature on Sept. 14.

“This finding has major consequences for the ongoing global warming,” he said. “It suggests increasing the atmospheric CO2 will increase the monsoonal precipitation significantly.”

Unraveling the monsoon’s origins required contributions from three different teams of scientists that were independently studying the environment of 40 million years ago.

All three investigations showed the monsoon climate pattern occurred 15 million years earlier than previously thought. Combining different lines of evidence from different places strengthened the group’s confidence in the finding, Licht said. The climate modeling team also linked the development of the monsoon to the increased CO2 of the time.

Licht and his colleagues at Poitiers and Nancy universities in France examined snail and mammal fossils in Myanmar. The group led by G. Dupont-Nivet and colleagues at Utrecht University in the Netherlands studied lake deposits in Xining Basin in central China. J.-B. Ladant and Y. Donnadieu of the Laboratory of Sciences of the Climate and Environment (LSCE) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, created climate simulations of the Asian climate 40 million years ago.

A complete list of authors of the group’s publication, “Asian monsoons in a late Eocene greenhouse world,” is at the bottom of this release, as is a list of funding sources.

Licht didn’t set out to study the origin of the monsoon.

He chose his study site in Myanmar because the area was rich in mammal fossils, including some of the earliest ancestors of modern monkeys and apes. The research, part of his doctoral work at the University of Poitiers, focused on understanding the environments those early primates inhabited. Scientists thought those primates had a habitat like the current evergreen tropical rain forests of Borneo, which do not have pronounced differences between wet and dry seasons.

To learn about the past environment, Licht analyzed 40-million-year-old freshwater snail shells and teeth of mammals to see what types of oxygen they contained. The ratio of two different forms of oxygen, oxygen-18 and oxygen-16, shows whether the animal lived in a relatively wet climate or an arid one.

“One of the goals of the study was to document the pre-monsoonal conditions, but what we found were monsoonal conditions,” he said.

To his surprise, the oxygen ratios told an unexpected story: The region had a seasonal pattern very much like the current monsoon – dry winters and very rainy summers.

“The early primates of Myanmar lived under intense seasonal stress – aridity and then monsoons,” he said. “That was completely unexpected.”

The team of researchers working in China found another line of evidence pointing to the existence of the monsoon about 40 million years ago. The monsoon climate pattern generates winter winds that blow dust from central Asia and deposits it in thick piles in China. The researchers found deposits of such dust dating back 41 million years ago, indicating the monsoon had occurred that long ago.

The third team’s climate simulations indicated strong Asian monsoons 40 million years ago. The simulations showed the level of atmospheric CO2 was connected to the strength of the monsoon, which was stronger 40 million years ago when CO2 levels were higher and weakened 34 million years ago when CO2 levels dropped.

Licht’s next step is to investigate how geologically short-term increases of atmospheric CO2 known as hyperthermals affected the monsoon’s behavior 40 million years ago.

“The response of the monsoon to those hyperthermals could provide interesting analogs to the ongoing global warming,” he said.