That’s mainly thanks to NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite,
Sponges, which are humans’ very distant evolutionary relatives, don’t have nervous systems. But a detailed analysis of sponge cells turns up what might just be an echo of our own brains: cells called neuroids that crawl around the animal’s digestive chambers and send out messages, researchers report in the Nov. 5 Science.
The finding not only gives clues about the early evolution of more complicated nervous systems, but also raises many questions, says evolutionary biologist Thibaut Brunet of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “There’s a lot more to explore.”
The cells were lurking in Spongilla lacustris, a freshwater sponge that grows in lakes in the Northern Hemisphere. “We jokingly call it the Godzilla of sponges” because of the rhyme with Spongilla, say Jacob Musser, an evolutionary biologist in Detlev Arendt’s group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.
Simple as they are, these sponges have a surprising amount of complexity, says Musser, who helped pry the sponges off a metal ferry dock using paint scrapers. “They’re such fascinating creatures.”
With sponges procured, Arendt, Musser and colleagues looked for genes active in individual sponge cells, ultimately arriving at a list of 18 distinct kinds of cells, some known and some unknown. Some of these cells used genes that are essential to more evolutionarily sophisticated nerve cells in other organisms for sending or receiving messages in the form of small blobs of cellular material called vesicles.
One such cell, called a neuroid, caught the scientists’ attention. After seeing that this cell was using those genes involved in nerve cell signaling, the researchers took a closer look. A view through a confocal microscope turned up an unexpected locale for the cells, Musser says. “We realized, ‘My God, they’re in the digestive chambers.’”
This would be the first new route known to emerge on an east-west axis in a long-distance migratory bird, researchers report October 22 in Current Biology. The finding could have implications for how scientists understand the evolution of bird migration routes over time and how the animals adapt to a shifting climate.
Richard’s pipits (Anthus richardi) typically breed in Siberia during the summer and travel south for the winter to southern Asia. Occasionally, “vagrant” birds get lost and show up far from this range, including in Europe. But as a Ph.D. student at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, evolutionary biologist Paul Dufour noticed, along with colleagues, that described sightings and photo records of the pipits wintering in southern France had increased from a handful of birds annually in the 1980s and 1990s to many dozens in recent years.
So, Dufour, now at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and his team started monitoring the pipits in France and Spain to see where the birds were coming from, and if the birds were visiting Europe on purpose or just getting lost.
The researchers captured seven pipits in France during the winter of 2019–2020, tagging them with a sensor that estimates the birds’ geographic positions based on light levels and length of day. The team then released the birds. The next winter, the team successfully recaptured three of them. Those sensors showed that the birds had all flown back to the same part of southwestern Siberia for the summer before returning to France.
The researchers also examined images in citizen-science databases of 331 Richard’s pipits that were photographed in Europe and North Africa, categorizing the birds by apparent age. Among songbirds, Dufour says, vagrants are always young birds. Songbirds tend to follow a route based on instincts written into their DNA, replicating the trip their ancestors took. But storms or mutations that create faulty wayfinding abilities can send young songbirds off target.
Wherever it arrives, the songbird’s first migration creates a mental map for every migration after, so any adult birds in Europe have made the trip more than once. Since more than half of the birds in southern Europe and nearby northwestern Africa documented in the winter were adults, Dufour and his colleagues think that many of these pipits are seasonal migrants.
Contemporary shifts in migration routes are more common in species that travel via the cues of a traveling group, like geese or cranes. Songbirds usually migrate alone, following their instinctual route when young, Dufour says, so changes to migration patterns are rarer.
What’s more, east-west migration is unusual in birds. Most species that travel this way are ones that migrate short distances within the tropics, says Jessie Williamson, an ornithologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who was not involved with the research. “It’s exciting that an understudied migratory behavior like east-west migration is in the spotlight,” she says.
If the pipits’ European trek is in fact now an established route, it’s possible that the detour was facilitated by climate change, which may also be meddling with birds’ migrations in other ways (SN: 12/17/19). Dufour and his team used computer models that estimate climate suitability for the pipits in Europe based on variables like temperature and precipitation. The researchers compared two periods — 1961 to 1990 and 1990 to 2018 — and found that warmer temperatures in the latter period have made most parts of southern Europe a better wintering location for the birds than they were before.
The selection of European wintering grounds may also involve the deterioration of ancestral, southern Asian sites, but the researchers haven’t investigated that yet. Climate change could be affecting that too, Dufour says. But “we suspect that habitat modification in Southeast Asia — increasing urbanization, less open areas — may also be part of the equation.”
Ginny Chan, an ecologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach who was not involved with the research, says that the types of environmental changes that could be hurting bird populations “are happening very quickly in the traditional wintering range [for Richard’s pipits] in South and East Asia.” In India, the Richard’s pipit population has declined by more than 90 percent over the last couple of decades, Chan says.
Other Siberian bird species that typically migrate south but have recently shown up in Europe in growing numbers, like the yellow-browed warbler and Siberian chiffchaff, may also be making their own westward routes, Dufour suspects.
If other Siberian songbird species are also establishing new western migration routes, this could mean that migratory songbirds are more flexible travelers than scientists previously thought, Dufour says.
Large, circular digestive structures called choanocyte chambers help move water and nutrients through sponges’ canals, in part by the beating of hairlike cilia appendages (SN: 3/9/15). Neuroids were hovering around some of these cilia, the researchers found, and some of the cilia near neuroids were bent at angles that suggested that they were no longer moving.
The team suspects that these neuroids were sending signals to the cells charged with keeping the sponge fed, perhaps using vesicles to stop the movement of usually undulating cilia. If so, that would be a sophisticated level of control for an animal without a nervous system.
Over 40 years, dozens of Amazonian bird species have declined in mass. Many species have lost nearly 2 percent of their average body weight each decade, researchers report November 12 in Science Advances. What’s more, some species have grown longer wings. The changes coincide with a hotter, more variable climate, which could put a premium on leaner, more efficient bodies that help birds stay cool, the researchers say.
“Climate change isn’t something of the future. It’s happening now and has been happening and has effects we haven’t thought of,” says Ben Winger, an ornithologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn’t involved in the research but has documented similar shrinkage in migratory birds. Seeing the same patterns in so many bird species across widely different contexts “speaks to a more universal phenomenon,” he says.
Biologists have long linked body size and temperature. In colder climates, it pays to be big because having a smaller surface area relative to one’s volume reduces heat loss through the skin and keeps the body warmer. As the climate warms, “you’d expect shrinking body sizes to help organisms off-load heat better,” says Vitek Jirinec, an ecologist at the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, Calif.
Many species of North American migratory birds are getting smaller, Winger and colleagues reported in 2020 in Ecology Letters. Climate change is the likely culprit, Winger says, but since migrators experience a wide range of conditions while globe-trotting, other factors such as degraded habitats that birds may encounter can’t be ruled out.
To see if birds that stay put have also been shrinking, Jirinec and colleagues analyzed data on nonmigratory birds collected from 1979 to 2019 in an intact region of the Amazon that spans 43 kilometers. The dataset includes measurements such as mass and wing length for over 11,000 individual birds of 77 species. The researchers also examined climate data for the region.
All species declined in mass over this period, the researchers found, including birds as different as the Rufous-capped antthrush (Formicarius colma), which snatches insects off the forest floor, and the Amazonian motmot (Momotus momota), which scarfs down fruit up in trees. Species lost from about 0.1 percent to nearly 2 percent of their average body weight each decade. The motmot, for example, shrunk from 133 grams to about 127 grams over the study period.
These changes coincided with an overall increase in the average temperature of 1 degree Celsius in the wet season and 1.65 degrees C in the dry season. Temperature and precipitation also became more variable over the time period, and these short-term fluctuations, such as an especially hot or dry season, better explained the size trends than the steady increase in temperature.
“The dry season is really stressful for birds,” Jirinec says. Birds’ mass decreased the most in the year or two after especially hot and dry spells, which tracks with the idea that birds are getting smaller to deal with heat stress.
Other factors, like decreased food availability, could also lead to smaller sizes. But since birds with widely different diets all declined in mass, a more pervasive force like climate change is the likely cause, Jirinec says.
Wing length also grew for 61 species, with a maximum increase of about 1 percent per decade. Jirinec thinks that longer wings make for more efficient, and thus cooler, fliers. For instance, a fighter jet, with its heavy body and compact wings, takes enormous power to maneuver. A light and long-winged glider, by contrast, can cruise along much more efficiently.
“Longer wings may be helping [birds] fly more efficiently and produce less metabolic heat,” which can be beneficial in hotter conditions, he says. “But that’s just a hypothesis.” This body change was most pronounced in birds that spend their time higher up in the canopy, where conditions are hotter and drier than the forest floor.
The finding suggests that sponges are using bits and bobs of communications systems that ultimately came together to work as brains of other animals. Understanding the details might provide clues to how nervous systems evolved. “What did animals have, before they had a nervous system?” Musser asks. “There aren’t many organisms that can tell us that. Sponges are one of them.”
Tweaking and implanting embryonic stem cells on the tail stumps of mourning geckos (Lepidodactylus lugubris) allowed the reptiles to grow tails that are more like the original than ever before, researchers report October 14 in Nature Communications. These findings are a stepping-stone to developing regenerative therapies in humans that may one day treat hard-to-heal wounds.
The mission was originally scheduled to launch between 2007 and 2011, but a series of budget and technical issues pushed its start date back more than a decade. Remarkably, the core design of the telescope hasn’t changed much. But the science that it can dig into has. In the years of waiting for Webb to be ready, big scientific questions have emerged. When Webb was an early glimmer in astronomers’ eyes, cosmological revolutions like the discoveries of dark energy and planets orbiting stars outside our solar system hadn’t yet happened.
“It’s been over 25 years,” says cosmologist Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago. “But I think it was really worth the wait.”
An audacious plan
Webb has a distinctive design. Most space telescopes house a single lens or mirror within a tube that blocks sunlight from swamping the dim lights of the cosmos. But Webb’s massive 6.5-meter-wide mirror and its scientific instruments are exposed to the vacuum of space. A multilayered shield the size of a tennis court will block light from the sun, Earth and moon.
For the awkward shape to fit on a rocket, Webb will launch folded up, then unfurl itself in space (see below, What could go wrong?).
“They call this the origami satellite,” says astronomer Scott Friedman of the Space Telescope Science Institute, or STScI, in Baltimore. Friedman is in charge of Webb’s postlaunch choreography. “Webb is different from any other telescope that’s flown.”
Its basic design hasn’t changed in more than 25 years. The telescope was first proposed in September 1989 at a workshop held at STScI, which also runs the Hubble Space Telescope.
At the time, Hubble was less than a year from launching, and was expected to function for only 15 years. Thirty-one years after its launch, the telescope is still going strong, despite a series of computer glitches and gyroscope failures (SN Online: 10/10/18).
The institute director at the time, Riccardo Giacconi, was concerned that the next major mission would take longer than 15 years to get off the ground. So he and others proposed that NASA investigate a possible successor to Hubble: a space telescope with a 10-meter-wide primary mirror that was sensitive to light in infrared wavelengths to complement Hubble’s range of ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared.
Infrared light has a longer wavelength than light that is visible to human eyes. But it’s perfect for a telescope to look back in time. Because light travels at a fixed speed, looking at distant objects in the universe means seeing them as they looked in the past. The universe is expanding, so that light is stretched before it reaches our telescopes. For the most distant objects in the universe — the first galaxies to clump together, or the first stars to burn in those galaxies — light that was originally emitted in shorter wavelengths is stretched all the way to the infrared.
Giacconi and his collaborators dreamed of a telescope that would detect that stretched light from the earliest galaxies. When Hubble started sharing its views of the early universe, the dream solidified into a science plan. The galaxies Hubble saw at great distances “looked different from what people were expecting,” says astronomer Massimo Stiavelli, a leader of the James Webb Space Telescope project who has been at STScI since 1995. “People started thinking that there is interesting science here.”
In 1995, STScI and NASA commissioned a report to design Hubble’s successor. The report, led by astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif., suggested an infrared space observatory with a 4-meter-wide mirror.
The bigger a telescope’s mirror, the more light it can collect, and the farther it can see. Four meters wasn’t that much larger than Hubble’s 2.4-meter-wide mirror, but anything bigger would be difficult to launch.
Dressler briefed then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in late 1995. In January 1996 at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting, Goldin challenged the scientists to be more ambitious. He called out Dressler by name, saying, “Why do you ask for such a modest thing? Why not go after six or seven meters?” (Still nowhere near Giacconi’s pie-in-the-sky 10-meter wish.) The speech received a standing ovation.
Six meters was a larger mirror than had ever flown in space, and larger than would fit in available launch vehicles. Scientists would have to design a telescope mirror that could fold, then deploy once it reached space.
The telescope would also need to cool itself passively by radiating heat into space. It needed a sun shield — a big one. The origami telescope was born. It was dubbed James Webb in 2002 for NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968, who fought to support research to boost understanding of the universe in the increasingly human-focused space program. (In response to a May petition to change the name, NASA investigated allegations that James Webb persecuted gay and lesbian people during his government career. The agency announced on September 27 that it found no evidence warranting a name change.)
Goldin’s motto at NASA was “Faster, better, cheaper.” Bigger was better for Webb, but it sure wasn’t faster — or cheaper. By late 2010, the project was more than $1.4 billion over its $5.1 billion budget (SN: 4/9/11, p. 22). And it was going to take another five years to be ready. Today, the cost is estimated at almost $10 billion.
The telescope survived a near-cancellation by Congress, and its timeline was reset for an October 2018 launch. But in 2017, the launch was pushed to June 2019. Two more delays in 2018 pushed the takeoff to May 2020, then to March 2021. Some of those delays were because assembling and testing the spacecraft took longer than NASA expected.
Other slowdowns were because of human errors, like using the wrong cleaning solvent, which damaged valves in the propulsion system. Recent shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic pushed the launch back a few more months.
“I don’t think we ever imagined it would be this long,” says University of Chicago’s Freedman, who worked on the Dressler report. But there’s one silver lining: Science marched on.
The age conflict
The first science goal listed in the Dressler report was “the detailed study of the birth and evolution of normal galaxies such as the Milky Way.” That is still the dream, partly because it’s such an ambitious goal, Stiavelli says.
“We wanted a science rationale that would resist the test of time,” he says. “We didn’t want to build a mission that would do something that gets done in some other way before you’re done.”
Webb will peek at galaxies and stars as they were just 400 million years after the Big Bang, which astronomers think is the epoch when the first tiny galaxies began making the universe transparent to light by stripping electrons from cosmic hydrogen.
But in the 1990s, astronomers had a problem: There didn’t seem to be enough time in the universe to make galaxies much earlier than the ones astronomers had already seen. The standard cosmology at the time suggested the universe was 8 billion or 9 billion years old, but there were stars in the Milky Way that seemed to be about 14 billion years old.
“There was this age conflict that reared its head,” Freedman says. “You can’t have a universe that’s younger than the oldest stars. The way people put it was, ‘You can’t be older than your grandmother!’”
In 1998, two teams of cosmologists showed that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. A mysterious substance dubbed dark energy may be pushing the universe to expand faster and faster. That accelerated expansion means the universe is older than astronomers previously thought — the current estimate is about 13.8 billion years old.
“That resolved the age conflict,” Freedman says. “The discovery of dark energy changed everything.” And it expanded Webb’s to-do list.
Top of the list is getting to the bottom of a mismatch in cosmic measurements. Since at least 2014, different methods for measuring the universe’s rate of expansion — called the Hubble constant — have been giving different answers. Freedman calls the issue “the most important problem in cosmology today.”
The question, Freedman says, is whether the mismatch is real. A real mismatch could indicate something profound about the nature of dark energy and the history of the universe. But the discrepancy could just be due to measurement errors.
Webb can help settle the debate. One common way to determine the Hubble constant is by measuring the distances and speeds of far-off galaxies. Measuring cosmic distances is difficult, but astronomers can estimate them using objects of known brightness, called standard candles. If you know the object’s actual brightness, you can calculate its distance based on how bright it seems from Earth.
Studies using supernovas and variable stars called Cepheids as candles have found an expansion rate of 74.0 kilometers per second for approximately every 3 million light-years, or megaparsec, of distance between objects. But using red giant stars, Freedman and colleagues have gotten a smaller answer: 69.8 km/s/Mpc.
Other studies have measured the Hubble constant by looking at the dim glow of light emitted just 380,000 years after the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background. Calculations based on that glow give a smaller rate still: 67.4 km/s/Mpc. Although these numbers may seem close, the fact that they disagree at all could alter our understanding of the contents of the universe and how it evolves over time. The discrepancy has been called a crisis in cosmology (SN: 9/14/19, p. 22).
In its first year, Webb will observe some of the same galaxies used in the supernova studies, using three different objects as candles: Cepheids, red giants and peculiar stars called carbon stars.
The telescope will also try to measure the Hubble constant using a distant gravitationally lensed galaxy. Comparing those measurements with each other and with similar ones from Hubble will show if earlier measurements were just wrong, or if the tension between measurements is real, Freedman says.
Without these new observations, “we were just going to argue about the same things forever,” she says. “We just need better data. And [Webb] is poised to deliver it.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Webb science has been the rise of the field of exoplanet explorations.
“When this was proposed, exoplanets were scarcely a thing,” says STScI’s Friedman. “And now, of course, it’s one of the hottest topics in all of science, especially all of astronomy.”
The Dressler report’s second major goal for Hubble’s successor was “the detection of Earthlike planets around other stars and the search for evidence of life on them.” But back in 1995, only a handful of planets orbiting other sunlike stars were even known, and all of them were scorching-hot gas giants — nothing like Earth at all.
Since then, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting distant stars. Scientists now estimate that, on average, there is at least one planet for every star we see in the sky. And some of the planets are small and rocky, with the right temperatures to support liquid water, and maybe life.
Most of the known planets were discovered as they crossed, or transited, in front of their parent stars, blocking a little bit of the parent star’s light. Astronomers soon realized that, if those planets have atmospheres, a sensitive telescope could effectively sniff the air by examining the starlight that filters through the atmosphere.
The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003, and Hubble have started this work. But Spitzer ran out of coolant in 2009, keeping it too warm to measure important molecules in exoplanet atmospheres. And Hubble is not sensitive to some of the most interesting wavelengths of light — the ones that could reveal alien life-forms.
That’s where Webb is going to shine. If Hubble is peeking through a crack in a door, Webb will throw the door wide open, says exoplanet scientist Nikole Lewis of Cornell University. Crucially, Webb, unlike Hubble, will be particularly sensitive to several carbon-bearing molecules in exoplanet atmospheres that might be signs of life.
“Hubble can’t tell us anything really about carbon, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane,” she says.
If Webb had launched in 2007, it could have missed this whole field. Even though the first transiting exoplanet was discovered in 1999, their numbers were low for the next decade.
Lewis remembers thinking, when she started grad school in 2007, that she could make a computer model of all the transiting exoplanets. “Because there were literally only 25,” she says.
Between 2009 and 2018, NASA’s Kepler space telescope raked in transiting planets by the thousands. But those planets were too dim and distant for Webb to probe their atmospheres.
So the down-to-the-wire delays of the last few years have actually been good for exoplanet research, Lewis says. “The launch delays were one of the best things that’s happened for exoplanet science with Webb,” she says. “Full stop.”
That’s mainly thanks to NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched in April 2018. TESS’ job is to find planets orbiting the brightest, nearest stars, which will give Webb the best shot at detecting interesting molecules in planetary atmospheres.
If it had launched in 2018, Webb would have had to wait a few years for TESS to pick out the best targets. Now, it can get started on those worlds right away. Webb’s first year of observations will include probing several known exoplanets that have been hailed as possible places to find life. Scientists will survey planets orbiting small, cool stars called M dwarfs to make sure such planets even have atmospheres, a question that has been hotly debated.
If a sign of life does show up on any of these planets, that result will be fiercely debated, too, Lewis says. “There will be a huge kerfuffle in the literature when that comes up.” It will be hard to compare planets orbiting M dwarfs with Earth, because these planets and their stars are so different from ours. Still, “let’s look and see what we find,” she says.
A limited lifetime
With its components assembled, tested and folded at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in California, Webb is on its way by boat through the Panama Canal, ready to launch in an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. The most recent launch date is set for December 18.
For the scientists who have been working on Webb for decades, this is a nostalgic moment.
“You start to relate to the folks who built the pyramids,” Stiavelli says.
Other scientists, who grew up in a world where Webb was always on the horizon, are already thinking about the next big thing.
“I’m pretty sure, barring epic disaster, that [Webb] will carry my career through the next decade,” Lewis says. “But I have to think about what I’ll do in the next decade” after that.
A gecko’s tail is an extension of its spine — with the vertebrae to prove it. Regenerated tails, however, are simpler affairs. “It’s just a bunch of concentric tubes of fat, muscle and skin,” says Thomas Lozito, a biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
That’s because stem cells in adult geckos produce a molecular signal that encourages the formation of cartilage in new tails, but not bone or nervous tissues (SN: 8/17/18). Lozito and his colleagues used embryonic stem cells, which can develop into a wider range of tissues than adult stem cells, modified them to ignore this signal and then implanted them on the tail stumps of geckos that had their tails surgically removed. The tails that grew from these modified stem cells had bonelike grooves in the cartilage and generated new neural tissue at the top of the tail.
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