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Himalayan Marmots are Revealing How Animals Adapt to Living at Extreme Elevations

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himalayan marmot

A Himalayan marmot. (Credit: Yuanqing Tao)

How do animals live in the cold, oxygen-starved environments of the high mountains? Himalayan marmots — beaver-ish rodents of unusual size — may have an answer, find scientists who have assembled a complete draft genome of the animal. The analysis may provide insight to how we adapt to the cold.

“As one of the highest-altitude-dwelling mammals, the Himalayan marmot is chronically exposed to cold temperature, hypoxia [lack of oxygen], and intense UV radiation,” Enqi Liu of Xi’an Jiaotong University Health Science Center in China said in a statement.

High-altitude Home

Himalayan marmots, herbivorous rodents about the size of a housecat, call the high elevations of China, Nepal, Pakistan and India home. A thick fur coat, large body size and unique hibernating habits allow the animals to exist in the harsh climate of the world’s “third pole,” the Tibetan Plateau.

The rodents hide out in burrows some 30 feet deep with their families for more than six months at a time during the winter, but they also possess a set of unique genetic adaptations that have molded their bodies into altitude champions. Liu and team wanted to know what kind of genetic innovations allow the animals to make a living in such an extreme environment.

The researchers sequenced the genome of a male Himalayan marmot. When they compared the Himalayan marmot’s genome to four other marmot species’ genetic material, they found the Himalayan marmot split from its closest evolutionary relative about 2 million years ago. It’s evidence that their move to a more lofty homeland may have helped turn them into their own species.

Extreme Adaptation

Then, the researchers compared the genomes of Himalayan marmots that live above 14,000 feet above sea level to the genomes of Himalayan marmots that live at a much lower elevation, about 6,000 feet. The team saw differences between the two groups in genes that facilitate adaptation to a high-altitude environment such as response to low oxygen, heart function and heat generation. One gene, however, stood out from the rest.

Himalayan marmots that live at very high-altitude have a mutation in a gene called Slc25a14. All other mammals the researchers looked at, including mice, bonobos and other marmots, have one version of the gene. But, the high-altitude living Himalayan marmots have a unique version that may confer special abilities, the team reports today in the journal iScience.

The gene helps control the function of mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses. It also has neuroprotective effects and plays a role in maintaining metabolism as well as temperature regulation. The researchers suspect the genetic change may have aided Himalayan marmot’s adaptation to their high-altitude home and the finding could have implications for human health.

“The identification of distinctive genetic traits will contribute to potential medical applications,” Liu and colleagues write.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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