Microorganism

These killer whales exhale sickening germs

killer whales
killer whales

People usually try to give killer whales their space. Getting close to one’s blowhole is especially risky. But Canadian and America scientists got that close — and for a good reason. “We wanted to know what kind of fungi and bacteria they had in their breath,” explains Stephen Raverty, who led the study. His team turned up germs, or microbes, that might cause disease. What they learned may help researchers protect these animals, which are endangered (at risk of extinction).

Raverty is a veterinary pathologist. That’s a scientist who studies animal diseases. He works for Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture in Vancouver, British Columbia. He and his team studied a population of endangered killer whales, or orcas. These are the biggest dolphins on Earth. The group they studied lives off of the West Coast of North America. Scientists call this population the southern resident killer whales. They migrate between California and British Columbia, depending on the season.

As of December 2016, there were only 78 whales left in this group. That’s down from 98, two decades earlier. Scientists hope to keep the population from shrinking even more. Checking the whales’ breath can give researchers a peak into the animals’ health.

The whales hold their breath while diving. When they surface, they exhale in a big burst from their blowholes. Afterward, they inhale fresh air.

The researchers used small motorboats to get within about 6 meters (20 feet) of the whales. By coming at them from the side or back, they didn’t get in the animals’ way or frighten them. When they were close enough, the researchers waved a 5.5-meter pole over a whale’s blowhole as it surfaced.

The pole had five petri dishes attached to it. When researchers twisted the pole’s handle one way, the lids on the petri dishes opened. This allowed them to catch liquid droplets and exhaled breath. When the scientists twisted the pole’s handle the other way, the lids closed again.

droplet collection
droplet collection

The team filled the petri dishes with the exhaled breath from 12 killer whales. In some cases, breaths from the same whale were sampled more than once between 2006 and 2009.

“The whales were very cooperative,” says Raverty. “There was no evidence we scared them.” Still, it took the researchers four years to…

Scientists Develop Germ-Fighting Fake Mucus

image credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We really don’t talk enough about the wonders of mucus. The goo produced by your nose, mouth, eyes, guts, and other parts is one of your greatest defenders, working hard to keep you safe in a germ-filled world. Now scientists have harnessed some of that power, creating a synthetic mucus that may help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The research will be presented this week at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in Chicago.

Each of us produces about a gallon of mucus per day, enough to provide a thin coating over 2000 square feet of our innards. It’s a surprisingly versatile substance, for us and other animals. Last year, acoustic scientists reported that dolphins’ snot may be an essential ingredient in producing the clicks and whistles they use for echolocation. More recently, drug researchers found a…

Food for microbes found on Enceladus

Enceladus’ plume
FINDING FOOD A deep dive into Enceladus’ plume, shown here in an artist’s illustration, reveals that the moon harbors molecular hydrogen. On Earth, the gas serves as a food source for some microbes, suggesting life could exist on Enceladus, too.

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus packs snacks suitable for microbial life.

Data from the Cassini spacecraft show that the vaporous plume shooting out of the moon’s southern pole contains molecular hydrogen. It is probably generated when water in the moon’s subterranean ocean reacts with rock in its core, researchers report in the April 14 Science. Such reactions at hydrothermal vents and in other extreme environments on Earth produce high abundances of hydrogen, which some microbes use for food. There’s enough hydrogen on Enceladus to sustain microbial life, the team suggests.

“We are not saying Enceladus has life, but the discovery does move the moon higher on the list of potentially habitable places in the solar system,” says study coauthor J. Hunter Waite of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Enceladus became a good target for finding life beyond Earth when researchers found a global ocean under the moon’s icy exterior and hints of hydrothermal activity (SN: 10/17/15, p. 8; SN: 4/18/15, p. 10)….