Journalist Report – June 4th

June 04, 2024, by Jordan Bimm

The warning sign read: “Water Not For Human Consumption.” But the greenish liquid we were staring at in a cow trough high in the Henry Mountains was more than fit for scientific research. In fact, for neurobiologist Jacopo Razzauti it is a biological goldmine. The water was teeming with life, wriggling with thousands of tiny wormlike critters. “This is larvae heaven,” exclaimed Razzauti, reaching for plastic pipettes and containers.

On the second day of Martian Biology IV, we decided to return to a field site we investigated last year. The Henry Mountains are a prominent range visible from the Hab, appearing as bluish, snow capped peaks in the distance due south. To reach the site we drove roughly 100 km winding up and down the mesa and eventually ascending from the familiar desert to a biologically rich sub-alpine forest. We parked the Crew Car at a site called McMillan Springs Campground, 8,400 feet above sea level.

When we visited this site last year, Razzauti had stumbled upon a cow trough filled with mosquito larvae, his primary object of study as a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Rockefeller University in New York City. Razzauti studies mosquitos to understand this common pest and infamous disease vector responsible for up to 1 million human deaths per year. This year he was anxious to see if the cow trough was still there, and if it again contained a mosquito motherlode.

As soon as Commander Paul Sokoloff parked the Crew Car we were off. Retracting our steps from last year, as if it had only been yesterday, we quickly spotted the trough just below the collection of campsites with their well-used grills and fire rings. As soon as we looked down into the trough our hopes were confirmed, and we quickly got to work.

Razzauti handed me a plastic pipette, a long plastic tube-shaped tool, like a large eye dropper or a small turkey baster. The goal was to collect as many mosquito larvae as possible. Squeezing the blub end of the pipette primes the device for action. Next you try to place the nozzle as close to a wriggling larvae as possible and then release pressure on the blub to instantly suck these proto-pests up into the pipette. Then it’s a simple process to expel the larvae and accompanying water into a small container for transport. The work became a game, and a simple one at that. Within just a few minutes we had captured hundreds of these critters from our impromptu scientific cistern.

“Some made it back to MDRS, but not all of them,” noted Razzauti referencing the portion of the larvae that died on the journey back. At MDRS Razzauti took the larvae container to the Science Dome where he plans to wait for the hardy survivors to develop into pupae, the stage of insect development between larvae and adult. Then he will isolate them, attempt to identify which species of mosquitos are present in our samples, and then track their activity and circadian rhythms. Do they all work on the same clock? Or do they stagger their activity to better share the space? How will these findings compare to last year’s?

Science is often focused on novelty, but today we noticed the value of recursion. You make new discoveries, leverage local knowledge acquired last time, and gain the ability to compare findings from year to year generating valuable insights. It all contributes to the twin goals of making mosquitos less deadly, and furthering our knowledge of non-desert ecosystems reachable from MDRS.

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