Wish A Happy 190th Birthday To Jonathan The Tortoise

11:40 minutes

A large, old tortoise on grass.
Jonathan the tortoise at his home in St. Helena in 2020. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A birthday should always be celebrated. For Jonathan the tortoise, who turned 190 this week, that celebration involved a salad cake and a three-day party. Jonathan is the oldest known living animal, hatched in 1832. Jonathan, who calls the island of St. Helena home, may be blind and unable to smell, but he maintains a good quality of life and even continues to mate with his companions. Jonathan’s ripe old age surpasses the typical tortoise life expectancy of 150 years. 

In other “old” news, scientists have found fragments of DNA one million years older than the previous record: making these samples two million years old. The fragments were found in Ice Age sediment in Northern Greenland, and are from a time where the climate was much warmer than it is now.

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about these and other science stories of the week, including an end to the monoclonal antibodies we have for COVID and the FDA’s first approval of fecal transplant therapy.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Some news from the world’s biggest island. Scientists in Greenland have made a big discovery, the oldest DNA fragments ever found, and they were trapped in permafrost. These fragments contain samples from various plants and animal life, some long extinct. And it’s from a time when Greenland was pretty balmy, a big departure from the icy country we know today.

This DNA is a big deal, a full 1 million years older than the previous record. So why are scientists so excited about this find? Joining me to talk about this and other science news of the week is someone who knows, Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox, based in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. Welcome back.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, Umair, just how old are we talking about for this oldest DNA?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, we’re talking 2 million years old. And as you noted, this is almost twice as old as our previous record for genetic fossils that we’ve found. And this was exciting, as you noted, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a validation of this technique. Rather than looking at a specific fossil or some piece of resin or something like that, what they did was they actually collected a general sample from the sediment in the permafrost.

And so this is sort of a broad spectrum genetic time capsule that they were able to use. And then, from there, they were able to decode a lot of fragments of different organisms that were around at the time.

DNA is actually a fairly fragile molecule. Your body has to use a lot of different mechanisms and enzymes to keep it up to date. So it breaks down very quickly. And so they were surprised to find anything usable at all. And then, from there, they were able to reconstruct basically a snapshot of what Greenland was like 2 million years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell us. Tell us– what did they reconstruct?

UMAIR IRFAN: What they found was that there were a lot of plants and animals there living in Greenland that aren’t there now, that basically, it was a lot more lush, a lot more forest, and also all these other kinds of land animals, including– one of the most surprising things– was they found evidence of mastodons. And previously, scientists didn’t even know that mastodons could live that far north. And so it was a really surprising thing to just see how diverse and robust this ecosystem was. And as you noted, a complete contrast to where it was today.

And so it shows that Greenland actually underwent a very stark change from the kind of ecosystem it was 2 million years ago to where it is now.

IRA FLATOW: And could this tell us anything about DNA evolution?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, absolutely. It shows how organisms adapt over time. Because we were talking about a very different environmental landscape, we can see these are the kinds of organisms that thrived under these circumstances. And we also can compare it to how we’ve seen the geology and the climatology of the region change over time as well. And so we have this genetic snapshot as well as these geological snapshots that we can compare and see how life evolved, or failed to evolve or adapt, to some of the changes in the environment.

And so we’ve seen rapid climate changes in the past before. And that could potentially give us some insight as to what we can expect into the future.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. Speaking of old things, the world’s oldest animal, I understand, just celebrated his 190th birthday. I wonder if there was cake. I’m talking about a tortoise named Jonathan. Tell us about that, please.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yes. Jonathan, the 440-pound tortoise. He lives in an island in the South Atlantic, called St. Helena. And he was born, as far as we can tell, or as scientists have established, December 4, 1832. And so that would be around the time when Abraham Lincoln was making his first run for public office. And so he’s been around for a lot.

In fact, he’s actually originally from the Seychelles. And he was brought to St. Helena as a gift for the governor of the island. And he was already 50 years old at that point. And so he’s been through a lot.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umair, can you tell us how Jonathan celebrated his birthday?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, he celebrated with a three-day party. He ate a cake made with salad from tomatoes and bananas, some of his favorite food. And he was joined by his companions, David, Emma, and Fred, who are also tortoises that he has also been known to occasionally mate with.

IRA FLATOW: So he must be a lot older than the other tortoises then?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. He is, as far as we know, the oldest living land animal. There might be older creatures that live in the sea. But scientists are, of course, very interested in longevity and some of the secrets that he may offer. I mean, age has caught up with him. He can’t see anymore. He can’t smell. But his keepers say that he can hear and that he likes people being around.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool. Happy birthday, Jonathan, from all of us at Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to our next story, a little more serious. It’s world leaders are in Montreal now, talking about saving biodiversity. This meeting has been going on now, what, it’s supposed to last two weeks. What are they talking about?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. This meeting just kicked off this week. And it sounds familiar. It’s modeled on the same climate meeting that we just saw recently wrap in Egypt. But this one is focused on biodiversity. It’s part of a group, called the Convention on Biological Diversity. Just about every country in the world is party to it except, notably, the Vatican and the US. The US is not officially a party to the accord, but they are sending a delegation to Montreal.

And one of the key things on the agenda is actually coming up with a major global treaty that will set definite benchmarks for preserving life and restoring ecosystems around the world.

IRA FLATOW: So there are goals, then, that they have set?

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s the tricky thing. They want to set about two dozen different benchmarks. And once those are set, they want to be able to hold countries accountable for them. So things like preserving forests, wetlands, and coastal areas, and preventing them from being exploited, but also restoring them as well after they’ve been degraded, mined, or used for farming and then neglected. And this is going to require a fair amount of investment.

And that is also going to be another key thing, that many of the most pristine parts of nature in the world right now are in developing countries. And they want to be compensated from other wealthier countries to help preserve these ecosystems and these resources.

IRA FLATOW: But we didn’t get much participation from world leaders. Trudeau was the only one there, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. It’s much lower key. Activists have been pushing for world leaders to attend, like they did at the big climate meeting as well. But there’s a lot else going on. The World Cup is going on right now, and a lot of people’s attentions are focused elsewhere.

But activists and a lot of scientists say that this is just as important as the climate treaty because life on Earth is how we survive. We need plants, we need animals, to keep life as we know it and our standards of living up. And so this is still something that is very high stakes. And in a couple of weeks, we’ll know whether or not they came up with an agreement.

IRA FLATOW: OK, Umair, we’ll check in about two weeks. Let’s shift gears a whole lot and talk about something some people might think is gross, but it’s actually really cool. And we’ve talked about it on Science Friday a lot– fecal transplants. The FDA just approved the first fecal transplant therapy. Let’s start with the basics. What is fecal transplant therapy?

UMAIR IRFAN: It’s pretty much what it sounds like. It’s basically where you take feces– poop– from a donor that’s otherwise healthy and you isolate the bacteria that we think is healthy, and then you administer it to somebody who may be struggling with some sort of illness.

In this case, what we’re talking about is a therapy called Rebyota. It’s developed by a Swiss company, called Ferring Pharmaceuticals. And it’s used to treat Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, which is a superbug. It causes life-threatening diarrhea and, most concerningly, it tends to affect health care settings. So people who are already hospitalized, who are already actually taking antibiotics, tend to be vulnerable to this infection. And it kills about 30,000 people per year.

And in recent years, scientists have realized that, in addition to tools like antibiotics, it turns out the microbiome, which is the suite of microorganisms that live inside us and on us, play a really important role in protecting us. And it turns out that C. difficile takes advantage of people whose microbiomes are depleted. And the thinking here is, if you can restore it, the good bugs can get rid of the bad bugs.

IRA FLATOW: And how do you get the therapy here? How is it transferred to you?

UMAIR IRFAN: Oh, OK, we’re going to get into some more goofy details here. So yes, this is actually administered as an enema. So you use the back door entrance into the digestive system. And hopefully it’s usually a one-and-done-type deal. And so once the good bacteria take root, that will help drive out the infection. And it can prevent the antibiotic-resistant bacteria from taking root.

But there are also some other companies that are working on orally-administered versions of this, encapsulated in a pill, so you don’t have to actually taste it. But that will hopefully be a more simple and straightforward way to administer the same therapy.

IRA FLATOW: And the therapy is available when? Are some people already getting this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Actually, yes. Doctors have actually been using this for a while. So the FDA approval here is sort of a regulatory signal. What it means is that more doctors and hospitals will be willing to prescribe it. And crucially, it means that more insurance companies will be willing to pay for it. And that means more people will have access to this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s switch gears to a story about another type of therapy. I’m talking about monoclonal antibodies. They seem to be kaput for COVID. Why is that?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. Unfortunately, the FDA revoked its authorization for this monoclonal antibody, called bebtelovimab– I’m sorry– I’m not saying that correctly. But basically, it’s a version of a protein that your immune system uses to target COVID-19. But the problem is COVID-19 continues to change. And we’ve seen, with the recent variants and the subvariants, that it keeps evolving to evade our immunity. And with highly targeted therapies like monoclonal antibodies, those are especially vulnerable. So we’re on this treadmill, where the virus evolves, we come up with a new therapy, and then the virus evolves again.

Fortunately, we have anti-viral drugs that we’re using to treat COVID-19. Those seem to still be holding up. The monoclonals are a second line of defense for people who don’t get the antivirals in time or who still end up in the hospital or have weakened immune systems. But we have this multi-layered strategy with COVID, and losing any layer can be troubling, especially as we’re heading into another winter and we’re also having a rise in other infections, like RSV and influenza.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, quickly, let’s finish things off with one last story about bad science and a nonprofit that wants to fight against it.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. This group is called Clearer Thinking. And my colleague, Sigal Samuel, recently interviewed the founder, Spencer Greenberg. And he launched this thing, called the Transparent Replications Project. We’ve heard a lot of chatter about the replication crisis in science, particularly in social science and in psychology, like classic studies have failed to be reproduced.

And so what this group wants to do is to reproduce psychological studies that are published in prestigious journals, like Science and Nature. And the idea is, one, to validate the results, to see if these things actually hold up. But the other thing is they want to actually change the incentives for scientists.

Getting your paper published in a big name journal, it’s a really important feather in your cap, it’s a really good star on your resume. But knowing that your study is going to be checked and double checked, might give scientists some pause about publishing the first positive result, and force them to go back and actually validate and replicate it themselves first. And that way, over time, we’ll have better results getting published overall.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umair, always great stuff. Thank you for joining us today.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox, based in Washington.

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