God's helper. Book-loving fungus inspired scientists looking for alien life
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Researchers believe they have discovered an analogue of alien life in an Italian library.
Scientists have examined some of the most honored Italian libraries, which would seem to be completely “unfit for life”, and found that something in them nevertheless successfully thrives and even changes the environment for itself, writes Inverse.
Librarians have gone to great lengths to make the Venetian library one of the most inhospitable places in the world, keeping conditions unbearably dry to keep rare old books safe from mold, fungus and other harmful microbes. However, a recent study suggests that this is not enough and, most curiously, this discovery may play an important role in the search for alien life.
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In the course of the study, scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory scanned book covers under an electron microscope and found that the fungus Eurotium halophilicum thrives on them, which scientists suggest is an analogue of alien life. The researchers found that this resourceful fungus has learned to change its environment to suit its needs – for example, it is able to independently prepare a nutritious cocktail of water vapor and salt molecules.
According to planetary scientist Edgard River-Valentin, this is another proof that life can surprise us more than once. After examining book covers under a microscope, she and her colleagues found that fungi have a halo of tiny, hair-like filaments that are made of the same material as its cell walls, says study co-author Anna Micheluz, a scientist-restorer at the Deutsches Museum. As they vibrate, these strands capture water molecules, surrounding the fungus with a layer of air that is more humid than the rest of the air in the carefully controlled library.
However, this is still not enough – Eurotium halophilicum still needs a liquid like the brine that forms when water vapor hits a salt crystal. This is where the most amazing thing begins – tiny crystals of salt on the covers of books that are not visible to the human eye, from time to time collide with water molecules. As a result, the salt turns into a thin film of salty liquid, which is so necessary for the fungus to survive.
According to Micheluz, this fungus has evolved so much that it has learned to capture water, collecting it in its own cloud of moist air, and creating from it the brine necessary for nutrition. Scientists believe that, at times, Eurotium halophilicum is even able to push water molecules and move them closer to salt to get the desired cocktail.
Note that this is very depressing news for librarians who are trying in every possible way to protect books, but good, for scientists who are looking for alien life.
Despite the fact that the librarians have created the most “uncomfortable living conditions” in the Venetian library, the fungus still managed to gain a foothold in it and even thrive. He succeeded in all this because of his ability to reshuffle some of the ecological processes with which he has to deal. By the way, the same fungus sometimes surprises people working in the food industry when it spoils products that are stored in super-dry conditions.
According to Rivera-Valentin, this example shows that conditions that seem to be as unsuitable as possible are sometimes for life may not be so if the organism is capable of manipulating the environment. Scientists believe this is a strong hint that microbes may one day surprise astrobiologists by surviving where they shouldn't.
Researchers note that if microbes are able to exist in uninhabited places, simply creating comfortable conditions for ourselves, then we cannot write off a foreign world just because it seems uninhabited to us.