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Scientists Think Microbes May be the Reason Behind Tunnels in Thai Garnets

The researchers argue that the microbes bored into the garnets while they were in the river bed. Microbes in the sediment of the river lack access to chemical energy sources like iron, which is contained in the garnet crystals.

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This image shows a garnet crystal with distinct tubular structures. VOA

Life has found a way to survive in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. Now, scientists believe they might have found a new habitat for hardy microbes — inside garnets.

New research found unusual patterns of tunnels in Thai garnets with deposits of fatty acids in the burrowed pathways, indicating a microbe caused the damage.

Magnus Ivarsson, lead researcher on the study at the University of Southern Denmark, said the research started with an exchange student from Thailand who was studying the gem quality of the garnets. She discovered the tunnels that branched and changed directions, unlike previously described environmental weathering, and consulted Ivarsson.

“When I first saw these structures, these tunnels, I was sort of intrigued by the complexity of them,” Ivarsson told VOA. “I have previously studied other microbial boring in minerals and materials, but I’ve never seen anything with this complexity.”

The garnets are an unexpected habitat for microbes because of their hardness. In fact, according to Ivarsson, this is the hardest mineral yet discovered to be bored by microbes.

“Who knows what we’ll find next. Maybe a diamond bored by microbes. Who knows?” Ivarsson said.

Researchers are careful to point out that no living organisms were discovered within the gemstones.

Dawn Cardace, a researcher in the department of geosciences at the University of Rhode Island, studies how geology and biology interact. She told VOA that while this study didn’t find any DNA of the organisms, “This wasn’t troubling to me, largely because they chose to work with the sample set they have at a very close, submicroscopic scale.” She said they would have needed at least a thousand gemstones in order to collect a DNA sample.

About the research

The researchers relied on several technologies to come to their conclusions.

First, the scientists used microscopy to make 3D maps of the tunnels on the scale of microns. A human hair is about 50 microns wide, but the tunnels in the garnets were generally smaller, hence the need for high-powered microscopes.

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This image is a microphotograph of the network of tubular structures originating at the garnet’s surface. (Photo courtesy of Ivarsson et al, 2018). VOA

The scientists focused on how the tunnels spread and changed directions, and when they converged at crossing points called “anastomosis.” Although environmental weathering can cause cracks and fissures in hard minerals, Ivarsson said weathering processes can’t explain the complexity of the tunnels they observed.

The second step to demonstrate that microbes most likely created the tunnels required analyzing the interior of the boreholes.

“The organic content tells us that there’s been life living in there,” said Ivarsson.

In particular, they detected lipids and fatty acids, which are organic compounds common among bacteria and fungi.

Ivarsson and his colleagues compared these biological traces to hematite and quartz grains found in the same location as the garnets, in the river sediment of the Chiang Mai stream. Neither of the comparable stones showed signs of fatty acids, indicating the biological traces were unique to the garnet tunnels.

When asked about the results, Ivarsson said, “At this point we can say at least that biology has been involved. I would suggest that it’s fungi that has been involved in this. But at the same time, I think we should be really cautious because there might be other processes [at work] that are not known today.”

More studies needed

Cardace agrees that while microbes were certainly living inside the gemstones, further research is needed to prove how the tunnels were created. She said she would like future studies to show “a set of experiments done with candidate microorganisms that could do the metabolic work” the researchers proposed in their paper.

Ivarsson and his colleagues did, however, consider why microbes like fungi might be making the garnets their home. They sampled garnets from river sediment in Thailand, as well as within granite upstream.

Thai Garnet
Thai Garnet Jewelry. Flickr

Ivarsson told VOA, “When we studied these garnets in the granite, we could see that there were no tunnels. But when we looked at the garnets further down the river, we could see that these tunnels structures had evolved. So, something happened along the way, along the transport in the river system.”

The researchers argue that the microbes bored into the garnets while they were in the river bed. Microbes in the sediment of the river lack access to chemical energy sources like iron, which is contained in the garnet crystals. Perhaps, researchers propose, the microorganisms created the filaments within the gemstones to access this resource.

Monetary value

Such changes to the garnets, however, decrease the value of the stones.

Shane McClure, global director of colored stones at the Gemological Institute of America, told VOA that when it comes to determining the value of garnets, “If there’s only one or two [tunnels] and they’re very small, it doesn’t affect the value at all. But if there’s a whole bunch of them and they’re very visible, well then it’s going to affect it quite a bit from a gemstone perspective.”

These gemstones might not be usable for flashy jewelry, but they do demonstrate that life finds a way in all sorts of inhospitable and unexpected locations.

Also Read: Jewellery Trends For 2018

As Ivarsson told VOA, “When we look for life on Mars, we need to know what to look for. And this is one type of biological signature that is definitely interesting in the search for life on Mars or any type of extreme environment.” (VOA)

Next Story

Scientists Find New Ways of Tracking Objects by Combining DNA of Dust Particles

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists

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Scientists say they have new ways of tracking where clothing, medicines and other items are made, making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to sell items that don't work or violate laws. VOA

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists.

Researchers are analyzing the microorganisms in dust particles that land on surfaces and are using artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique genetic codes of the microbes that vary from place to place.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen, a company that is building a microbial map of the world. Phylagen is collecting dust from different places and turning it into data by studying the DNA of the microscopic organisms in the particles.

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This digitally colorized microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) shows Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in yellow. Bacteria are part of the collection of microorganisms that tell scientists where an object has been. VOA

Exposing labor abuses

Phylagen says its findings will provide real world applications. The California-based company says one application involves companies that outsource the manufacturing of products, such as clothing.

According to Human Rights Watch, unauthorized subcontracting of facilities in the apparel industry occurs often, and it is in these places that some of the worse labor abuses happen.

Phylagen is digitizing the genome of different locations by working in more than 40 countries and sampling the dust in hundreds of factories. The goal is to create a database so the microbes on each product can be traced.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Tracking diseases, ships

With a database of distinct microbial DNA, Green said other possible future uses could include predicting the outbreak of disease and helping law enforcement track the movement of ships, since shipping logs can be falsified. Even counterfeit medicines could be traced as the database of microbial information grows, she said.

ALSO READ: Electric Cars Can Help You Live Longer: Study

“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said. (VOA)