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Rare microbes lead scientists to discover new branch on the tree of life

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Canadian researchers have discovered a new kind of organism that’s so different from other living things that it doesn’t fit into the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, or any other kingdom used to classify known organisms.

Two species of the microscopic organisms, called hemimastigotes, were found in dirt collected on a whim during a hike in Nova Scotia by Dalhousie University graduate student Yana Eglit.

A genetic analysis shows they’re more different from other organisms than animals and fungi (which are in different kingdoms) are from each other, representing a completely new part of the tree of life, Eglit and her colleagues report this week in the journal Nature.

“They represent a major branch… that we didn’t know we were missing,” said Dalhousie biology professor Alastair Simpson, Eglit’s supervisor and co-author of the new study.

“There’s nothing we know that’s closely related to them.”

In fact, he estimates you’d have to go back a billion years — about 500 million years before the first animals arose — before you could find a common ancestor of hemimastigotes and any other known living things.

This is the part of the Bluff Wilderness Trail in Nova Scotia where graduate student Yana Eglit collected some dirt that ended up containing two species of rare hemimastigotes. (Submitted by Yana Eglit)

The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.

Back at the lab, she soaked the dirt in water, which often revives microbes that have gone dormant, waiting for the next big rainstorm. Over the next few weeks, she checked on the dish through a microscope to see what might be swimming around.

Strange movements

Then, one day, about three weeks later, she saw something that caught her eye — something shaped like the partially opened shell of a pistachio. It had lots of hairs, called flagella, sticking out. Most known microbes with lots of flagella move them in co-ordinated waves, but not this one, which waved them in a more random fashion. 

“It’s as if these cells never really learned that they have many flagella,” Eglit said with a laugh. She had seen something with that strange motion once before, a few years ago, and recognized it as a rare hemimastigote.

Hemimastigotes were first seen and described in the 19th century. But at that time, no one could figure out how they fit into the evolutionary tree of life. Consequently, they’ve been “a tantalizing mystery” to microbiologists for quite a long time, Eglit said.

Light microscopes show the two hemimastigotes, Spironema, left, and Hemimastix kukwesjijk, found in the same dish. (Yana Eglit/Nature)

Like animals, plants, fungi and ameobas — but unlike bacteria — hemimastigotes have complex cells with mini-organs called organelles, making them part of the “domain” of organisms called eukaryotes rather than bacteria or archaea.

About 10 species of hemimastigotes have been described over more than 100 years. But up until now, no one had been able to do a genetic analysis to see how they were related to other living things.

Realizing that she had something very rare and special, Eglit flagged another graduate student Gordon Lax, who specializes in genetic analyses of individual microbes — a new and tricky technique — to see where they fit in the evolutionary tree. The pair dropped everything to analyze the new microbe.

The co-authors of the new study include, left to right, Dalhousie University postdoctoral researcher Laura Eme, Eglit and fellow graduate student Gordon Lax. (Michelle Léger)

New species

Eglit wanted to see if she could find more of the creatures in the dish, and, as she was looking, she spotted another kind of hemimastigote.

To our tremendous surprise, two of these extremely rarely seen organisms ended up in one dish.”

There were more of the second kind, which turned out to be a new species.

The researchers named itHemimastix kukwesjijk after Kukwes, a greedy, hairy ogre from the mythology of the local Mi’kmaq people. (The suffix “jijk” means “little.”)

Eglit watched carefully as it hunted. Hemimastix shoots little harpoons called extrusomes to attack prey such as Spumella, a relative of aquatic microbes called diatoms. It grasps its prey by curling its flagella around it, bringing it to a “mouth” on one end of the cell called a capitulum “as it presumably sucks its cytoplasm out,” Eglit said.

Hemimastix kukwesjijk feeds on its prey in this microscope image. It attacks the prey with harpoon-like organs, then uses its flagella to bring the prey to its mouth, called a capitulum, and sucks out the juices or cytoplasm. (Yana Eglit/Nature)

Once she knew what it ate, she reared its prey in captivity so she could also feed and breed captive Hemimastix: “We were able to domesticate it, in a way.”

That means scientists can now give captive specimens to other scientists to study, and their rarity is not the issue it was before.

Based on the genetic analysis they’ve done so far, the Dalhousie team has determined that hemimastigotes are unique and different enough from other organisms to form their own “supra-kingdom” — a grouping so big that animals and fungi, which have their own kingdoms, are considered similar enough to be part of the same supra-kingdom.

They are now doing a more complete genetic analysis of Hemimastix. That’s expected to turn up new data that will help scientists piece together the evolutionary history of life on Earth with more detail and more accuracy.

Eglit says it’s “extremely exciting” that it’s still possible to discover something so different from all known life on Earth.

“It really shows how much more there is out there.”

But Simpson noted that discoveries like this one are pretty rare: “It’ll be the one time in my lifetime that we find this sort of thing.”

Biology professor Alastair Simpson tells Mainstreet host Bob Murphy how a microbe found in a dirt sample from the Bluff Wilderness Hiking Trail near Halifax led to the discovery of a previously unknown branch in the evolutionary ‘Tree Of Life.’ The research has just been published in the journal Nature. 8:23

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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