A Spiral, a Fossil, a Martian Rock and Eye Genes

USGS/Graham and Newman's geological time spiral: 'A path to the past.' (2008)By Monday afternoon, I’d picked a topic for my ‘Saturday’ post.

Since I’ve still got stuff I want to say about Venus, the Orion Nebula, cosmology and ChatGPT, I may not get around to four items from this month’s news:

  • A glowing spiral spotted over Alaska
  • The latest Tully monster research
  • An odd-looking rock on Mars
  • How genes for an important protein got into the vertebrate gene pool.

So I’ll drop links and excerpts into this post, chat a bit about each, and then get to work on this week’s topic. That’s my plan, at any rate.

High-Flying Helix Over Alaska

What Caused This Strange Glowing Spiral Over Alaska? There’s a Simple Answer
(April 17, 2023)

“…To photographer Todd Salat, auroras are worth a patient wait in the cold night air. Yet early Saturday morning, near the city of Delta Junction, he caught sight of a meteorological phenomenon that was quite unlike anything he’d ever seen.

“Against a stunning backdrop of rippling green light, a blue spiral blossomed from a bright light on the northern horizon, growing larger as it quickly moved across the sky….

“…”A few hours prior to the spiral’s appearance, half a continent away at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket containing dozens of satellites as part of their Transporter-7 mission….”

The Falcon 9’s first stage landed, and will be prepped for its next flight. The upper stage delivered its satellites to orbit. Then it would have started tumbling before reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

That, almost certainly, is what Rodd Salat saw — and caught on time-lapse video: a spiral of vented fuel from the tumbling upper stage.

Eventually we’ll have fully-reusable launch vehicles. Until we do, folks will occasionally see spiral clouds swiftly drifting overhead.

Oh, Look! It’s — Thing
Tully Monster Reclassified: Not a Vertebrate (Probably)

New details of Tully monster revealed
“3D scanning of enigmatic fossil may have brought an end to debate about whether it is a vertebrate or invertebrate”
Press Release, The University of Tokyo (April 17, 2023)

“For more than half a century, the Tully monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium), an enigmatic animal that lived about 300 million years ago, has confounded paleontologists, with its strange anatomy making it difficult to classify. Recently, a group of researchers proposed a hypothesis that Tullimonstrum was a vertebrate similar to cyclostomes (jawless fish like lamprey and hagfish). If it was, then the Tully monster would potentially fill a gap in the evolutionary history of early vertebrates. Studies so far have both supported and rejected this hypothesis. Now, using 3D imaging technology, a team in Japan believes it has found the answer after uncovering detailed characteristics of the Tully monster which strongly suggest that it was not a vertebrate. However, its exact classification and what type of invertebrate it was is still to be decided….

“…Despite considerable effort, studies both supporting and rejecting this hypothesis have been published in recent years, and so a consensus had not been reached. However, new research by a team from the University of Tokyo and Nagoya University may have finally brought an end to the debate. ‘We believe that the mystery of it being an invertebrate or vertebrate has been solved,’ said Tomoyuki Mikami, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo at the time of the study and currently a researcher at the National Museum of Nature and Science. ‘Based on multiple lines of evidence, the vertebrate hypothesis of the Tully monster is untenable. The most important point is that the Tully monster had segmentation in its head region that extended from its body. This characteristic is not known in any vertebrate lineage, suggesting a nonvertebrate affinity.’…”

The Tully monster is among my favorite extinct critters, partly because it’s not quite like anything alive today. Another excerpt:

“…The team studied more than 150 fossilized Tully monsters and over 70 other varied animal fossils from Mazon Creek. With the aid of a 3D laser scanner, they created color-coded, three-dimensional maps of the fossils which showed the tiny irregularities which existed on their surface through color variation. X-ray micro-computed tomography (which uses X-rays to create cross sections of an object so that a 3D model can be created), was also used to look at its proboscis (an elongated organ located in the head). This 3D data showed that features previously used to identify the Tully monster as a vertebrate were not actually consistent with those of vertebrates….”
New details of Tully monster revealed
Press Release, The University of Tokyo (April 17, 2023)

I’d be astounded if this is the last word in the ‘what is the Tully monster’ debate.

Another point about this latest bit of research. There’s data, processes scientists use to analyze data, and results of the analysis. One of the things that’s apparently new in this research is how the data — Tully monster fossils was analyzed.

Then there’s Etacystis, an H-shaped critter whose fossils were found in the Mazon Creek fossil beds. It’s weird, too.

A Spiky Martian Rock

Mars Rover Camera Has Spotted Bizarre Bone-like Structures
Good News Network (April 15, 2023)

“The Mars Curiosity rover has discovered some bizarre bone-like structures on the surface of Mars.

“The photographs, released by NASA, appear to show strange protrusions from rocks on the Red Planet.

“The observations, taken on Martian day Sol 3786 (April 1) by both the rover’s mast camera and ChemCam, shows a slab made presumably of rock with rows of equally spaced ‘spikes’ sticking out of them.

“Guesses at what is shown in the images range from fish bone fossils to a dragon-like creature. Others insisted the Martian winds probably eroded the rocks over a large expanse of time. One person reported that they never saw anything like this, even after ‘looking into Mars images since the Sojourner mission back in 1997.’…”

NASA illustration: Mars 2020 caching strategy.)To me, the rock formation looks a lot like a stylized fish skeleton. And I’d really like us to find life on Mars. Or elsewhere.

But I’m pretty sure the folks who say it’s probably the result of wind erosion are on the right track.

On the other hand, geological samples being collected by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover may include unambiguous fossils of Martian life. Or, even less likely, living Martian organisms: or recently-living, since the trip from Mars to Earth may not be survivable.

If we do find evidence that there was, or is, life on Mars, that’d be a big deal. If we don’t, we’ll still learn more about a planet that’s not all that different from Earth.

And that’s about as philosophical as I’ll get today.

Found: Another Piece of the Vertebrate Eye Puzzle

Bacterial origin of a key innovation in the evolution of the vertebrate eye
Chinmay A. Kalluraya, Alexander J. Weitzel, Brian V. Tsu, Matthew D. Daugherty; PNAS (April 10, 2023)

Since the time of Charles Darwin, explaining the stepwise evolution of the eye has been a challenge. Here, we describe the essential contribution of bacteria to the evolution of the vertebrate eye, via interdomain horizontal gene transfer (iHGT), of a bacterial gene that gave rise to the vertebrate-specific interphotoreceptor retinoid-binding protein (IRBP). We demonstrate that IRBP, a highly conserved and essential retinoid shuttling protein, arose from a bacterial gene that was acquired, duplicated, and neofunctionalized coincident with the development of the vertebrate-type eye >500 Mya. Importantly, our findings provide a path by which complex structures like the vertebrate eye can evolve: not just by tinkering with existing genetic material, but also by acquiring and functionally integrating foreign genes….”

IRBP is just part of the vertebrate visual system, so this hasn’t unveiled all secrets of how our eyes developed. But if other scientists verify this study’s findings, we’re a step or two closer to understanding part of the puzzle.

Horizontal gene transfer — moving genetic material from one unrelated critter to another, instead of from parent to offspring — is a rabbit hole I will leave for another time.

Finally, a Picture and Links

Brian H. Gill's 'Be Happy.' (2016)
Brian H. Gill’s “Be Happy”. (2016)

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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