DATA gathering: A mummy in a CT scan. (Melissa Sotelo of the Spurlock Museum/University of Illinois via NYT) Giant single-celled organism in deep sea

Researchers returning from an expedition to the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, say it is home to giant single-celled organisms more than four inches long. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, dropped underwater high-definition cameras, placed inside bubbles made of thick glass to withstand the extreme pressure, to capture video of the creatures at a depth of 35,000 feet.

The organisms, known as xenophyophores, are the largest individual cells known to exist in the deep sea, said Lisa Levin, the Scripps oceanographer who spotted them in the video. Xenophyophores often act as “habitats for starfish, crustaceans, worms and clams,” she said. “They act like little apartment houses.” That means that with further research, scientists may be able to identify more organisms that live at extreme depths, she said.

Understanding the seafloors may also help scientists understand other parts of the solar system. “NASA believes there may be an analog between what we find in the deepest ocean trench and what may potentially be found on the moon of Jupiter called Europa,” Kevin Hardy, a science engineer at Scripps who went on the expedition, said in a recorded interview. The group was partly financed by NASA. The research has not yet been published in a scientific journal.

Gleaning new insights from mummies

Without resorting to intrusive tools, scientists have used X-rays and CT scans to reveal new information about a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. “You can get an enormous amount of information through medical imaging without damaging priceless artifacts, unlike the studies in the 1960s, where you cut them open,” said Sarah U Wisseman, a mummy expert at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who is leading the research, along with a pathologist, radiologist and a physical anthropologist.

The mummy was of a child who lived in the Greek-Roman period of Egyptian history, 332 B C to A D 395. Wisseman and colleagues scanned it in 1990 – describing it in her book ‘The Virtual Mummy’ (Illinois, 2003) – and then again this year, since technology has improved in recent years.The child’s skull was cracked, and although that was known from the old scans, the new scans reveal it was much worse than previously thought. “There’s an extra piece of a bone pushed into the cranium cavity,” Wisseman said. “We still don’t know if it occurred before or after death.” The new scans also show there was probably a lock of hair on one side of the head – something seen in Roman portraits from the time.