. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Turning a climate problem into a food solution

Like a mirage on the horizon, an innovative process for converting a potent greenhouse gas into a food security solution has been stalled by economic uncertainty. Now, a first-of-its-kind Stanford University analysis evaluates the market potential of the approach, in which bacteria fed captured methane grow into protein-rich fishmeal. The study, published Nov. 22 in Nature Sustainability, finds production costs involving methane captured from certain sources in the U.S. are lower than the market price for conventional fishmeal. It also highlights feasible cost reductions that could make the approach profitable using other methane sources and capable of meeting all global fishmeal demand.

“Industrial sources in the U.S. are emitting a truly staggering amount of methane, which is uneconomical to capture and use with current applications,” said study lead author Sahar El Abbadi, who conducted the research as a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering.

“Our goal is to flip that paradigm, using biotechnology to create a high-value product,” added El Abbadi, who is now a lecturer in the Civic, Liberal and Global Education program at Stanford.

Mystery of high-performing solar cell materials revealed in stunning clarity

Artistic representation of electrons funneling into
high quality areas of perovskite material 
Credit: Alex T. at Ella Maru Studios
The most commonly used material for producing solar panels is crystalline silicon, but achieving efficient energy conversion requires an energy-intensive and time-consuming production process to create a highly ordered wafer structure.

In the last decade, perovskite materials have emerged as promising alternatives to silicon.

The lead salts used to make perovskites are much more abundant and cheaper to produce than crystalline silicon, and they can be prepared in liquid ink that is simply printed to produce a film of the material. They also show great potential for other applications, such as energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and X-ray detectors.

The performance of perovskites is surprising. The typical model for an excellent semiconductor is a highly ordered structure, but the array of different chemical elements in perovskites creates a much ‘messier’ landscape.

This messiness causes defects in the material that lead to tiny ‘traps’, which typically reduce performance. But despite the presence of these defects, perovskite materials still show efficiency levels comparable to their silicon alternatives.

Islands are biodiversity hotspots yet, paradoxically, are also extinction hotspots

Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels
The impacts of invasive alien species, habitat loss and climate change are compounded in small island nations, which are highly dependent on biodiversity for their economic and social wellbeing. The failure to meet global biodiversity targets clearly indicates the need for more effective biodiversity management and conservation efforts, and this in turn requires better understanding of the current barriers to success.

Research with island conservationists in the Western Indian Ocean revealed a raft of barriers operating across management levels, which interfere with their ability to achieve local and national conservation objectives. The most common problems were limited capacity, limited resources and a lack of government coordination. These barriers hinder the ability of countries to meet national targets and contribute to global biodiversity targets. The paper was published today in Conservation Science and Practice.

April Burt, from the University of Oxford and lead author of the study, said, ‘By defining these barriers through systematic research, they can be brought forward for discussion between practitioners across management levels.’

One conservation practitioner described the “fragmentation of efforts”, whereby practitioners have “no idea what is happening on other islands”, and are “all doing the same thing, in slightly different ways but not sharing lessons learned”.

April Burt said, ‘This lack of connection and collaboration makes it difficult to track and synthesize conservation management outcomes, compile national data, identify successful (and unsuccessful) actions and ultimately to maximize resource use and effective management.’

Monday, November 22, 2021

Fundamental particles modelled in beam of light

Scientists at the University of Birmingham have succeeded in creating an experimental model of an elusive kind of fundamental particle called a skyrmion in a beam of light.

The breakthrough provides physicists with a real system demonstrating the behavior of skyrmions, first proposed 60 years ago by a University of Birmingham mathematical physicist, Professor Tony Skyrme.

Skyrme’s idea used the structure of spheres in 4-dimensional space to guarantee the indivisible nature of a skyrmion particle in 3 dimensions. 3D particle-like skyrmions are theorized to tell us about the early origins of the Universe, or about the physics of exotic materials or cold atoms. However, despite being investigated for over 50 years, 3D skyrmions have been seen very rarely in experiments. The most current research into skyrmions focuses on 2D analogues, which shows promise for new technologies.

In a new study, published in Nature Communications, the international collaboration between researchers at the University of Birmingham, Lancaster, Münster (Germany) and RIKEN (Japan) has demonstrated for the first time how skyrmions can be measured in three dimensions.

Justinianic Plague was nothing like flu and may have hit England before Constantinople

Detail of the mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica di San Vitale,
Ravenna, Italy 
Credit: Petar Milošević
‘Plague sceptics’ are wrong to underestimate the devastating impact that bubonic plague had in the 6th– 8th centuries CE, argues a new study based on ancient texts and recent genetic discoveries. The same study suggests that bubonic plague may have reached England before its first recorded case in the Mediterranean via a currently unknown route, possibly involving the Baltic and Scandinavia.

The Justinianic Plague is the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in west Eurasian history and struck the Mediterranean world at a pivotal moment in its historical development, when the Emperor Justinian was trying to restore Roman imperial power.

For decades, historians have argued about the lethality of the disease; its social and economic impact; and the routes by which it spread. In 2019-20, several studies, widely publicized in the media, argued that historians had massively exaggerated the impact of the Justinianic Plague and described it as an ‘inconsequential pandemic’. In a subsequent piece of journalism, written just before COVID-19 took hold in the West, two researchers suggested that the Justinianic Plague was ‘not unlike our flu outbreaks’.

In a new study, published in Past & Present, Cambridge historian Professor Peter Sarris argues that these studies ignored or downplayed new genetic findings, offered misleading statistical analysis and misrepresented the evidence provided by ancient texts.

Sarris says: “Some historians remain deeply hostile to regarding external factors such as disease as having a major impact on the development of human society, and ‘plague skepticism’ has had a lot of attention in recent years.”

How smart is an octopus?

Credit: University of Queensland
The unique brainpower of octopuses – known for their intelligence and Houdini-like escapes – has been revealed by University of Queensland researchers.

Dr Wen-Sung Chung from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute is part of a team that studied four octopus species using MRI techniques to produce detailed 3D images for comparing their unique brain structures.

He said octopus brains varied, depending on where a species lived, when it was active and if it interacted with other animals.

“The octopus is a master of camouflage, capable of solving complex tasks and their cognitive ability is said to approach that of some small mammals,” Dr Chung said.

“We investigated four species, including one deep-sea octopus, one solitary nocturnal species and two different reef dwellers active during daylight.”

Dr Chung said the octopus found in deep waters had a smooth brain like marsupials and rodents, suited for its slow pace of life and limited interactions with other animals.

The reef octopuses had a significantly larger brain with some properties similar to primates, adapted for complex visual tasks and social interaction in a busy, well-lit environment.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

SPARKing the fight against deadly superbugs

Associate Professor Mark Blaskovich
Disarming superbugs that can cause deadly infections is the focus of a powerful database now housed at The University of Queensland.

The database and virtual laboratory, called SPARK, aims to foster the development of new antibiotics to prevent projections of 10 million deaths globally per year from superbugs by 2050.

SPARK– the Shared Platform for Antibiotic Research and Knowledge – enables scientists to share data and insights, learn from past research and generate new knowledge into how to kill bacteria.

Associate Professor Mark Blaskovich said superbugs threatened to make common medical procedures such as joint replacements, liver transplants and chemotherapy too dangerous because of the risk of untreatable infection.

“Without new antibiotics, the world risks a return to the day when a simple schoolyard scrape could lead to a deadly infection,” Dr Blaskovich said.

Superbugs have evolved to develop resistance, with mechanisms that protect them from the effects of a range of antibiotics.

“Many pharmaceutical companies have left the field of antibiotic research and development because of low returns on investment,” Dr Blaskovich said.

“This is where SPARK comes in, filling the gap and helping the global community come together to discover effective new antibiotics.

“SPARK captures the collective wisdom of companies and researchers that have retired from antibiotic discovery and provides a one-stop shop to find a wealth of antibiotic-related data that would otherwise be difficult to access.”

Terra Orbital Drift

Terra has consistently orbited Earth from pole to pole for over twenty years, collecting important data about Earth’s systems. Crossing the equator at 10:30 am mean local time allowed Terra’s five instruments to collect consistent, simultaneous data, important to Earth’s systems research and applications. In 2020, Terra completed its final inclination maneuver, using some of its limited fuel supply, to maintain that crossing time.

Since that final inclination maneuver, Terra has continuously drifted to an earlier equatorial crossing time. By the Fall of 2022, Terra’s crossing time will be earlier than 10:15 am. To ensure Terra, with limited fuel supplies, is a safe distance from other missions in the Earth Observing Satellite constellation orbit, Terra will be lowered to a new orbit, where it will be able to collect valuable data at an even earlier crossing time.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Breeding Plants With Genes From 1 Parent

Photo by Johann Piber from Pexels
Scientists are a step closer to breeding plants with genes from only one parent. New research led by plant biologists at the University of California, Davis, published Nov. 19 in Science Advances, shows the underlying mechanism behind eliminating half the genome and could make for easier and more rapid breeding of crop plants with desirable traits such as disease resistance.

The work stems from a discovery made over a decade ago by the late Simon Chan, associate professor of plant biology in the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, and colleagues.

Plants, like other sexual organisms, inherit a matching set of chromosomes from each parent. In order to transmit a favorable trait, such as pest or drought resistance, to all their offspring, the plant would have to carry the same genetic variant on each chromosome. But creating plants that “breed true” in this way can take generations of cross-breeding.

In 2010, Chan and postdoctoral fellow Ravi Maruthachalam serendipitously discovered a way to eliminate the genetic contribution from one parent while breeding the lab plant Arabidopsis. They had modified a protein called CENH3, found in the centromere, a structure in the center of a chromosome. When they tried to cross wild-type Arabidopsis with plants with modified CENH3, they got plants with half the normal number of chromosomes. The part of the genome from one parent plant had been eliminated to create a haploid plant.

Smokers more likely to die from heart disease than lung cancer

The most likely cause of death for people who smoke is a fatal heart attack, stroke or heart failure that occurs without any warning signs, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

“Most people are aware about the risks of lung cancer with smoking, but many people who smoke do not realize that dying from cardiovascular disease is more likely than dying from lung cancer,” said lead study author Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine cardiologist.

This is the first study showing smokers are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than lung cancer and to show they are more likely to die from a fatal cardiovascular event without warning.

“This is so important because in the U.S., one in five people still report using tobacco, which may have increased with the added stress of the pandemic,” Khan said.

The analysis was an observational study and used individual-level data from multiple cohorts that followed people for several decades to examine risk of cardiovascular disease based on whether someone smoked or not.

“One of the most important findings of this analysis is that the first sign of cardiovascular disease is more likely to be a fatal event in those who smoke,” Khan said. “Smoking is more likely to kill people from heart disease even before someone may know they have heart disease.”

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