Was Our Moon Once Habitable?

6:58 minutes

half shadow moon
Credit: Diogo Rodrigues Gonçalves/CC BY 2.0/via Wikimedia Commons

A new study says there may have been times in our moon’s history in which it could have sustained liquid water, and perhaps microbial life. Writing in the journal Astrobiology, researchers report that it might have been possible for liquid water to exist on the lunar surface around 4 billion years ago, and again around 500 million years later.

[What is it like uncovering your own genetic history? Carl Zimmer tells us about his experience.]

Tanya Basu, senior editor at the Daily Beast, joins John Dankosky to talk about that study, and other stories from the week in science—including the ongoing heat waves in the Arctic and elsewhere, a tale of hurricanes and lizard evolution, and an unusual study involving cat poop and entrepreneurial behavior.

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Segment Guests

Tanya Basu

Tanya Basu is science editor at The Daily Beast in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away.

Later this hour we’ll be talking about urban evolution– how species have adapted to life in the big city. But first, one adaptation that humans have had to make this summer is to rising temperatures. Across the globe in the northern hemisphere, heat waves have been common this summer. Even the Arctic is at all-time highs.

Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Tanya Basu, senior editor for science at The Daily Beast. She’s right here in our New York studios. Welcome back to the show.

TANYA BASU: Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s start talking about this heat wave. It’s not surprising, of course, that we’ve got a lot of hot weather. Where’s it really bad right now?

TANYA BASU: It’s really bad, I would say, all over the place. There’s been a lot of deaths in Japan. Japan has had temperatures go up to 100 degrees, 108 degrees.

Greece, there’s wildfires now. It’s hitting the Arctic. We’re hitting a lot of the Scandinavian countries that usually don’t go over 80 degrees and are going closer to 90, which means that there are forest fires that are just raging there. And they don’t know how to deal with it, because they’ve never had forest fires before.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, very high temperatures in Quebec and other places that were not expecting high temperatures. Now, are all these events connected and are they connected to climate change?

TANYA BASU: Yeah. So definitely climate change is playing a role. There’s also the fact that jet streams are very slow right now, and there’s a little bit of atmospheric pressure just hanging out which means that these forest fires are able to spread more. So all these forest fires, although they’re in different regions around the world, are definitely connected, and climate change plays a big role.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s move on, and let’s move to the moon– specifically the ancient moon, and whether or not there was water on the moon way back when.

TANYA BASU: Yeah. So there were two periods that scientists were looking at. One was four billion years ago, another was 500 million years ago, which is very recent, considering that life on Earth began 3.7 billion years ago. And that means that there could have been water vapor that existed on the moon that could have supported microbial life at the same time that we were here on Earth.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, that’s amazing. So where would this water have come from, do you think?

TANYA BASU: So it probably came from underground. There were a lot of volcanic activity going on at that time, and so there could have been things in water, in addition to other things coming out from the moon, that could have been able to support very, very basic creatures.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Very basic creatures. Very tiny creatures, not big ones.

TANYA BASU: No. Very, very tiny ones.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to move on to some creatures that have been adapting– a story about lizards and really rapid adaptation. This is fascinating.

TANYA BASU: This is such a great story. So basically last summer this researcher goes to Turks and Caicos and is studying rats and how they’re affecting these lizards that are local there. And then Hurricane Irma hits and then Hurricane Maria hits, and he’s like, let me go back and see how these lizards have potentially adapted. And he finds that they’ve really changed in those few months. So there’s a lot of natural selection at work.

These lizards are showing toe pads that are 6% to 9% bigger than usual. They’re showing hind legs that are shorter– which is unusual, because you would think that they’d want to be larger so that they could jump away. But the shorter ones actually let them stick onto leaves longer, and therefore, when there’s a lot of wind going by they can stick onto the leaves and protect themselves. This is within just one generation and two hurricanes. And they also found that a lot of these lizards that had smaller toe pads, which means that they couldn’t stick to the leaves, actually got wiped out.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s happening that quickly? And we’ll be talking more about urban evolution and how quickly evolution can happen but, my goodness, that seems really fast.

TANYA BASU: It’s so fast. It’s within less than a generation.

JOHN DANKOSKY: One of the things about this study that I like so much is how exactly they figured out this and what they used to blow the lizards around.

TANYA BASU: Oh, they used– what was it, a wind blower?

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s a leaf blower.

TANYA BASU: A leaf blower, exactly.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking about the lowest tech possible way of trying to figure this out.


JOHN DANKOSKY: I love this. OK, we’re going to move from lizards to goldfish. You may have heard the story, but Goldfish crackers– there’s actually a problem with Goldfish crackers. Oh my goodness, what’s wrong with them?

TANYA BASU: And more. It’s not just Goldfish crackers. There’s also Ritz crackers, there’s Swiss rolls, which are commonly often referred to as Ho Hos.

Basically, when a lot of manufacturers create these snacks they use whey, which is dried milk. It’s a way to create creaminess in these products without the cream. And it seems like there’s salmonella, which is unusual. You think of salmonella something with chicken, with eggs. But salmonella also occurs in dried milk and whey, and therefore a lot of these manufacturers are recalling them just so that we don’t get sick.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s in Ho Hos, too?


JOHN DANKOSKY: Uh-oh. Well, are these all coming from the same company? Is there one company that makes all the whey?

TANYA BASU: Yeah, it seems like there’s one in Minnesota, and the FDA is investigating to see what exactly occurred. But all the whey in these products are coming in from Minnesota.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, I’ve been waiting all week to talk about this story with you, and here’s why– because I just adopted two brand new kittens. My life is being overrun by cats right now. And there’s a story making the rounds about a parasite associated with cats. That doesn’t sound good, but there’s maybe a silver lining to this story. OK, what are we finding here?

TANYA BASU: I’m going to reassure you. But also, before I do, it’s a viral story about this cat parasite– a parasite that’s found in their feces, basically– that can get into humans. Now, nothing to worry about. Humans don’t usually show any symptoms or anything.

But these researchers found that some humans that have this infection in them might have signs of being able to take more risks, or show signs of being in management and entrepreneurship. That’s crazy, a little bit, so I want to break it down a little bit.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Please do. Yes. We’ve got some time.

TANYA BASU: So, this infection– basically what these researchers did was look at 1,300 university students. And they tested the saliva of them and saw that if you had signs of this infection within you– which is, by the way, usually asymptomatic– you were 1.7 times more likely to pursue management and you were 1.4 times more likely to be a business major. Now, those are pretty low rates–


TANYA BASU: –and there is a correlation, but there’s a lot of things that could be different here. For example, we’re talking it’s a correlation. That means those facts are connected, but that’s not that one causes the other. Just because I had a cat and I had this infection doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be a risk taker. So there’s that.

There’s also the idea of we don’t exactly know what the pathway of exposure is. So for example, it could be that I had a cat at one time and then I decided, independent of that, even if I had the infection, that I wanted to be a business owner and to start a business of my own. So that’s also another thing. We know there is a connection. That is interesting, it’s something we should note, but–

JOHN DANKOSKY: It sounds like one of those things that makes for a great viral story, something to share on Facebook with your friends, but I don’t know that I’d go to the bank with that one.

TANYA BASU: No, no, maybe don’t. Maybe just play with your kittens independent of this.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I will safely play with my kittens and enjoy them, but probably won’t get any other benefits other than just the cuteness. Tanya Basu is senior editor for science at The Daily Beast. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Appreciate it.

TANYA BASU: Thank you for having me.

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