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  • Life could have emerged from lakes with high phosphorus
    Monday, December 30, 2019

    Life as we know it requires phosphorus. It’s one of the six main chemical elements of life, it forms the backbone of DNA and RNA molecules, acts as the main currency for energy in all cells and anchors the lipids that separate cells from their surrounding environment.

    But how did a lifeless environment on the early Earth supply this key ingredient?

    “For 50 years, what’s called ‘the phosphate problem,’ has plagued studies on the origin of life,” said first author Jonathan Toner, a University of Washington research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences.

    The problem is that chemical reactions that make the building blocks of living things need a lot of phosphorus, but phosphorus is scarce. A new UW study, published Dec. 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds an answer to this problem in certain types of lakes.

    A lake in Africa with flamingoes and zebras along its shore.

    This 2007 photo shows Lake Magadi in Kenya, a carbonate-rich lake whose bed is made of volcanic rock. The lake’s salty water is rich in microbes and it attracts other life, including these flamingoes and zebras.Stig Nygaard/Flickr

    The study focuses on carbonate-rich lakes, which form in dry environments within depressions that funnel water draining from the surrounding landscape. Because of high evaporation rates, the lake waters concentrate into salty and alkaline, or high-pH, solutions. Such lakes, also known as alkaline or soda lakes, are found on all seven continents.

    The researchers first looked at phosphorus measurements in existing carbonate-rich lakes, including Mono Lake in California, Lake Magadi in Kenya and Lonar Lake in India.

    While the exact concentration depends on where the samples were taken and during what season, the researchers found that carbonate-rich lakes have up to 50,000 times phosphorus levels found in seawater, rivers and other types of lakes. Such high concentrations point to the existence of some common, natural mechanism that accumulates phosphorus in these lakes.

    Today these carbonate-rich lakes are biologically rich and support life ranging from microbes to Lake Magadi’s famous flocks of flamingoes. These living things affect the lake chemistry. Soresearchers did lab experiments with bottles of carbonate-rich water at different chemical compositions to understand how the lakes accumulate phosphorus, and how high phosphorus concentrations could get in a lifeless environment.

    A lake in california with high salt content

    Eastern California’s Mono Lake has no outflow, allowing salts to build up over time. The high salts in this carbonate-rich lake can grow into pillars.Matthew Dillon/Flickr

    The reason these waters have high phosphorus is their carbonate content. In most lakes, calcium, which is much more abundant on Earth, binds to phosphorus to make solid calcium phosphate minerals, which life can’t access. But in carbonate-rich waters, the carbonate outcompetes phosphate to bind with calcium, leaving some of the phosphate unattached. Lab tests that combined ingredients at different concentrations show that calcium binds to carbonate and leaves the phosphate freely available in the water.

    “It’s a straightforward idea, which is its appeal,” Toner said. “It solves the phosphate problem in an elegant and plausible way.”

    Phosphate levels could climb even higher, to a million times levels in seawater, when lake waters evaporate during dry seasons, along shorelines, or in pools separated from the main body of the lake.

    “The extremely high phosphate levels in these lakes and ponds would have driven reactions that put phosphorus into the molecular building blocks of RNA, proteins, and fats, all of which were needed to get life going,” said co-author David Catling, a UW professor of Earth & space sciences.

    A scientific chart

    Colored dots show the level of phosphorus measured in different carbonate-rich lakes around the world. Existing carbonate-rich lakes can contain up to 50,000 times the levels of phosphate foundin seawater, with the highest levels measured in British Columbia’s Goodenough and Last Chance lake system (yellow dots).Toner et al/PNAS

    The carbon dioxide-rich air on the early Earth, some four billion years ago, would have been ideal for creating such lakes and allowing them to reach maximum levels of phosphorus. Carbonate-rich lakes tend to form in atmospheres with high carbon dioxide. Plus, carbon dioxide dissolves in water to create acid conditions that efficiently release phosphorus from rocks.

    “The early Earth was a volcanically active place, so you would have had lots of fresh volcanic rock reacting with carbon dioxide and supplying carbonate and phosphorus to lakes,” Toner said. “The early Earth could have hosted many carbonate-rich lakes, which would have had high enough phosphorus concentrations to get life started.”

    Another recent study by the two authors showed that these types of lakes can also provide abundant cyanide to support the formation of amino acids and nucleotides, the building blocks of proteins, DNA and RNA. Before then researchers had struggled to find a natural environment with enough cyanide to support an origin of life. Cyanide is poisonous to humans, but not to primitive microbes, and is critical for the kind of chemistry that readily makes the building blocks of life.

    The research was funded by the Simons Foundation’s Collaboration on the Origins of Life.

    For more information, contact Toner at 267-304-3488 or and Catling at 206-543-8653 or

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  • Using ice to track how nature has removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in the past | KNKX
    Monday, December 23, 2019
    Researchers are using ice to track the history of the atmosphere. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
  • Watch: How 800,000-year-old ice sounds when dropped in Antarctic glacier | KOMO
    Monday, December 23, 2019
    While studying how the Earth's air cleans itself, one UW researcher made a viral discovery: the sound a piece of ice makes when dropped down a 90-meter-deep Antarctic glacier borehole. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Analysis: Where does beach sand come from? | The Conversation
    Thursday, December 19, 2019
    "There's more to beach sand than meets the eye. It has stories to tell about the land, and an epic journey to the sea. That's because mountains end their lives as sand on beaches," writes David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW. Read More
  • New landslide research from UW | KOMO 4
    Thursday, December 12, 2019
    New research from the UW is tracking the underlying causes to large landslides. Sean LaHusen, a graduate student in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
  • Barrels of ancient Antarctic air aim to track history of rare gas
    Thursday, December 12, 2019


    Ancient air samples from one of Antarctica’s snowiest ice core sites may add a new molecule to the record of changes to Earth’s atmosphere over the past century and a half, since the Industrial Revolution began burning fossil fuels on a massive scale.

    While carbon dioxide and methane are well known, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Rochester are part of a team working to trace a much rarer gas, present at less than one in a trillion molecules. Though rare, the atmospheric detergent known as hydroxyl can scrub the atmosphere and determine the fate of more plentiful gases that affect Earth’s climate.

    Antarctic ice mission seeks mystery molecules that scrub sky” Australian Antarctic Division, October 2018

    Unearthing climate clues buried in ice” University of Rochester, February 2019

    The hunt for sky’s ‘detergent’ begins in Antarctica” Scientific American - November 2018

    More about the project

    An Antarctic fieldcampaign last winter led by the U.S. and Australia has successfully extracted some of the largest samples of air dating from the 1870s until today. These samples are a first step to learning the changes in hydroxyl concentration over the past 150 years. Early results from the fieldwork were shared this week at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting in San Francisco.

    “It’s probably the most extreme atmospheric chemistry you can do from ice core samples, and the logistics were also extreme,” said Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher with dual appointments at the UW and at the University of Rochester.

    But the months the team spent camped on the ice at the snowy Law Dome site paid off.

    “This is, to my knowledge, the largest air sample from the 1870s that anyone’s ever gotten,” Neff said. His 10 weeks camped on the ice included minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and several snowstorms, some of which he shared from Antarctica via Twitter.

    Air from deeper ice cores drilled in Antarctica and Greenland has provided a record of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases, going back thousands of years. While carbon dioxide has a lifetime of decades to centuries, an even more potent gas, methane, has a lifetime of just nine or 10 years.

    Pinpointing the exact lifetime of methane, and how it has changed over the years, depends on the concentration of hydroxyl. That number is important for the global climate models used to study past and future climate.

    To trace the history of hydroxyl, a fleeting molecule with a lifetime of less than a millionth of a second, a field campaign in late 2018 and early 2019 drilled ice to study this very reactive gas by examining its slightly more plentiful companion, carbon with 14 neutrons bonded to an oxygen atom, or "carbon-14 monoxide," which is chemically destroyed by hydroxyl and so tracks hydroxyl’s concentrations.

    snow and tents

    A drones-eye view of the Law Dome drilling site, during the Law Dome Hydroxyl Project.Richard Smith

    Researchers get the carbon-14 monoxide gas from bubbles in the ice that form when snow is compressed.

    “The special thing about glacier ice is that it always has these air bubbles,” Neff said. “Any glacier in the world is going to have that bubbly texture, because it started as a pile of six-fingered snowflakes, and between those fingers is air.”

    One or several decades after hitting the ground, bubbles become completely sealed off from their surroundings due to compression under layers of snow. The heavy snow accumulation at Law Dome means plenty of air bubbles per year, and provides a thick enough shield to protect the carbon-14 monoxide from solar radiation.

    The international team extracted about two dozen 3-foot-long sections of ice per day, then put the tubes of ice in a snow cave to protect them from cosmic rays that are stronger near the poles. Those rays can zap other molecules and distort the historic record.

    “Once the samples are at the surface, they’re hot potatoes,” Neff said.

    The day after extracting a core, the team would clean the ice and place it in a device of Neff and his University of Rochester postdoctoral supervisor Vasilii Petrenko's design: a 335-liter vacuum chamber in a warm bath to melt the ice and process the samples at their source, to avoid contamination and collect the biggest air samples.

    “A single sample size was about 400 or 500 kilograms of ice, about the same weight as a grand piano, to get enough of that carbon-14 monoxide molecule,” Neff said. “At the field camp we turned 500 kilos of ice into one 50-liter canister of air.”

    The team retrieved 20 barrel-shaped canisters of air from various time periods.

    Analysis over the coming months will aim to produce a concentration curve for carbon-14 monoxide and hydroxyl over the decades, similar to the now-famous curves for carbon dioxide and methane. The curves show how gas concentrations have changed in the atmosphere since the industrial era.

    Throughout the effort, Neff has also explored more lighthearted combinations of ice and air. During a trip in early 2016 to prepare for this effort, Neff did an unofficial experiment that went viral on social media when he posted it in February 2018. The video captures the sound a piece of ice makes when dropped down the tunnel created by an ice core drill.

    He shared more photos and videos during this past winter’s expedition to Antarctica, sometimes within hours of returning from a remote camp to an internet-connected research station.

    “It’s great to be able to share something about Antarctica, from Antarctica,” Neff said. “It’s a way that we as geoscientists can share with people the work that they help to support.”

    The project is led by Petrenko at the University of Rochester and David Etheridge at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Other collaborators on the results being presented at the meeting in San Francisco include Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Antarctic Division and Oregon State University. The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Australian Antarctic Division.


    For more information, contact Neff at He is not attending AGU but is available by email.

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  • Hercules Dome, Antarctica: UW glaciologists begin radar work in anticipation of the next deep-ice drilling project
    Tuesday, December 10, 2019
    UW glaciology project jointly led by Knut Christianson and Eric Steig to obtain ice from the last time it was warm in Antarctica, 125,000 years ago. Read More
  • A dirty truth: Humans began accelerating soil erosion 4,000 years ago | Eos
    Tuesday, December 10, 2019
    Recent research combining analysis of carbon dating, sediment accumulation rates and pollen records from 632 lake beds worldwide finds deforestation is tied to increased soil erosion. David Montgomery, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • New kind of alien 'mineral' created on Earth | National Geographic
    Friday, December 6, 2019
    The discovery is helping researchers understand what might linger on the bizarre surface of Saturn's moon Titan. Baptiste Journaux, research associate in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Six UW faculty members named AAAS fellows including ESS Prof. Eric Steig
    Wednesday, November 27, 2019

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science has named six faculty members from the University of Washington as AAAS Fellows, including ESS Professor Eric Steig, according to a Nov. 26 announcement. They are part of a cohort of 443 new fellows for 2019, all chosen by their peers for "scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications."

    The six UW faculty members who have been named as fellows are:

    A person staring into the camera

    Karl Banse

    Karl Banse, professor emeritus in the School of Oceanography, is honored for his continuing work on the ecology of the plankton, the very small algae and animals that float with the currents. His career has focused on how plankton interact with light, temperature, oxygen, bound nitrogen, iron and other nutrients. At sea, Banse worked in the Baltic, the North Sea and Puget Sound, but especially the Arabian Sea. In other work, using an early color global satellite, he investigated the offshore seasonality of phytoplankton chlorophyll. With former students he also studied bottom-living polychaetous annelid worms and published identification keys for the nearly 500 species of these worms found between Oregon and southeast Alaska, between the shore and about 200 meters depth. Banse joined the UW faculty in 1960. The 90-year-old researcher became emeritus in 1995 and remains scientifically active.

    A person staring into the camera

    Simon Hay

    Simon Hay, a professor of health metrics sciences and director of the Local Burden of Disease group at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, was selected for his research resolving infectious diseases in space and time in order to expose inequalities in health metrics and improve intervention strategies. He currently leads an international collaboration of researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines to create even better maps of infectious disease. He has published over 400 peer-reviewed articles and other contributions, including two major, in-depth research papers published independently. His published works are cited more than 18,000 times each year, leading to more than 82,000 lifetime citations. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hay has embarked on a project to expand this research to a much wider range of diseases to ultimately harmonize this mapping with the Global Burden of Disease Study, IHME’s signature project.

    A person staring into the camera

    Michael Lagunoff

    Michael Lagunoff, a professor of microbiology, studies Kaposi's Sarcoma Herpesvirus, a virus that alters the cells lining blood and lymphatic vessels. Those changes can cause Kaposi's Sarcoma, a form of cancer that commonly affects AIDS patients worldwide and people in parts of central Africa. Lagunoff's lab has studied how the Kaposi's Sarcoma Herpesvirus interferes with endothelial cell signaling, gene expression and metabolism to promote the formation of tumors containing numerous blood vessels. His lab used RNA-sequencing, metabolomics, proteomics and other techniques to determine global changes in host-cell gene expression and signaling. This information has helped to identify key cellular pathways induced bythe virus. His team is studying how the virus alters the host cell metabolism to mimic cancer cell metabolism, and is searching for novel therapeutic targets for Kaposi's Sarcoma.

    A person staring into the camera

    Raymond Monnat, Jr.

    Raymond Monnat, Jr., a professor of pathology and genome sciences and an investigator at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, studies DNA damage and repair mechanisms, genome instability, and its role in cancer and other conditions. He is noted for his work on Werner, Bloom and Rothman-Thomson syndromes. These inherited disorders cause distinctive physical characteristics, such as premature aging in Werner's, and predispose to cancer. Monnat's team explores how the loss of key proteins important to DNA metabolism may underlie these rare syndromes. Aberrant expression of those proteins may be common in some adult cancers and affect response to chemotherapy. Monnat and his group use certain genome engineering techniques to try to correct disease-causing mutations in patient-derived stem cells. His lab has also identified "safe-harbor sites" in the human genome where new genetic elements might be inserted without disrupting the expression of nearby genes.

    A person staring into the camera

    Julia Parrish

    Julia Parrish, professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Department of Biology, is elected for her work in marine ecology. Her research focuses on seabird ecology, marine conservation and public science. A committed advocate of citizen science, she founded and directs the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, which for two decades has enlisted coastal residents from California to Alaska to monitor West Coast beaches for dead birds and marine debris. Parrish spoke at the White House in 2013 about public engagement in science and scientific literacy. She holds the Lowell A. and Frankie L. Wakefield endowed professorship, and is associate dean for academic affairs in the UW College of the Environment.

    A person staring into the camera

    Eric Steig

    Eric Steig, a professor of Earth and space sciences, is honored for his work in glaciology and climate science. Steig uses ice cores and other records to study climate variability over thousands of years. He works on the climate history and dynamics of polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers, and develops new tools to extract the chemical clues in samples of ice and other material. Steig was among the leaders of a project to drill the first deep ice core at South Pole, and was on the team that drilled a 2-mile-deep ice core in West Antarctica. His recent research has focused on the links between large-scale climate conditions and changes in West Antarctica, where glaciers are rapidly retreating. In addition to his research and teaching, he is committed to fostering greater public understanding of climate change, and is a founding contributor to

    In addition, Harmit Malik, an investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and an affiliate professor of genome sciences at the UW, was selected for his research on genetic conflict.

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