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These slimy, hungry blobs may have been the Earth’s first creepy crawlies

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Scientists think they’ve found evidence of extremely ancient organisms that could crawl and wriggle their way through the mud — extraordinary at a time when simple bacteria were previously thought to be the only living things on Earth.

The researchers discovered what appear to be fossilized tunnels bored by hungry blobs creeping through the mud on the floor of a shallow sea 2.1 billion years ago, about a billion years before animals evolved.

Those may have been similar to modern day slime molds — single-celled organisms that sometimes bunch together into a blob or “slug” to crawl in search of food, reports the international team led by Abderazak El Albani of the centre national de la recherche scientifique and the Université de Poitiers in France. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this week.

French researcher Abderazak El Albani proposed in a 2010 study that some of the fossils found in the same rock formation belonged to the earliest multicellular organisms — suggesting such complex organisms evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought. (Abderrazak El Albani/CNRS)

The tunnels appear near and between thick mats of bacteria that may have made a tasty lunch, said Luis Buatois, a University of Saskatchewan researcher who co-authored the paper.

“That’s consistent with the idea of searching for food,” he added. He and his wife, fellow University of Saskatchewan researcher M. Gabriela Mangano, are experts in “trace” fossils. While most fossils we’re familiar with come directly from the bodies of organisms, trace fossils come from other evidence such as tracks or tunnels.

El Albani contacted Mangano and Buatois a few years ago for help figuring out the origin of strange worm-like cords of the mineral pyrite in some 2.1 billion-year-old rocks. He had found them snaking among fossilized bacterial mats in a rock formation near Franceville, Gabon, in Africa. El Albani shared detailed CT scans of the structures, some of which were as long and as thick as a pencil.

We were immediately amazed by what he had,” Buatois recalled.

Earliest multicellular organisms

El Albani proposed in a 2010 study that some of the fossils found in the same rock formation belonged to the earliest multicellular organisms — suggesting such complex organisms evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought.

What was striking about the worm-like fossils was that they seemed to cross different layers of sediment and appeared to have pushed the sediment around. That’s quite different from what’s seen in specimens that are dead or immobile when buried — they tend to sit in a single layer.

“We have evidence of organisms that were able to move. That’s significant,” Buatois said.

What was tricky was trying to imagine what kind of organism could have made the tunnels. They’re unusual, as they change in width along their length and sometimes fuse together from the same direction — impossible for a single organism such as a worm, but similar to the tracks left by slime molds made of blobs of cells that can join, separate and reshape themselves.

“The similarities are remarkable,” Buatois said.

Watch as Princeton professor explores slime mold:

 

While they may have been similar to a slime molds, they were almost certainly unrelated — slime molds didn’t evolve until about 1.5 billion years later.

Pyrite proof?

The idea that the fossils were made by biological organisms is supported by geochemists such as Kurt Konhauser, a University of Alberta professor who also co-authored the study.

Organisms typically ooze slime as a lubricant as they tunnel through mud, Konhauser said. When the tunnel is later filled in with new sediment, bacteria eat that slime, producing a mineral called pyrite that’s otherwise only found in volcanic rock: “You don’t get pyrite unless you get bacteria eating organic carbon.”

And pyrite is what the worm-like features were made of.

What was striking about the cord-like fossils, seen in this 3D scan, is that they seemed to cross different layers of sediment and appeared to have pushed it around. That’s quite different than what’s seen in specimens that are dead or immobile when buried — they tend to sit in a single layer. (A. El Albani & A. Mazurier / IC2MP / CNRS – Université de Poitiers)

A big question that remains is whether the organisms that made the tunnels had a lasting impact on the evolution of living things.

Konhauser suspects they didn’t: “Most likely, whatever it was went extinct.”

That’s because it lived at a very special time in Earth’s history, shortly after photosynthetic bacteria evolved and filled the atmosphere with about half the concentration of oxygen we have today — way more than there was before.

That didn’t last, though. Oxygen levels soon plummeted and didn’t rise again significantly until around 650 million years ago, which is when multicellular life really took off and became obvious in the fossil record.

Evolutionary biologists think that means oxygen was a requirement for complex life. But then why did complex life not evolve the first time oxygen levels peaked?

“What this shows,” Konhauser said, “is that in fact, it’s quite likely that you did get complex life at that time.”

Controversial discovery

Not everyone is convinced that the fossils show evidence of multicellular organisms or organisms that could move.

Juergen Schieber, a geology professor at Indiana University who has studied how slime trails left by burrowing organisms get fossilized, called both claims “dubious.”

In an email, he agreed that organic matter would have been needed to form the pyrite cords, but suggested they were more likely to be rolled up bacterial mats.

Buatois said that was one possibility his team considered, but it didn’t seem to match up with the fossils’ positions relative to the layers of sediments.

“I know that it’s a controversial issue,” he said. “But we’ve been through every possible alternative explanation, and we rejected them all.”

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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