. Scientific Frontline

Monday, January 31, 2022

New study finds some flowers unchanged for 100 million years

Flower preserved in amber
Credit: The Open University
An international research team has discovered 100-million-year-old fossil flowers preserved in amber, showing that some flowers found living today in South Africa have remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.

The flowers, discovered by experts from The Open University, Qingdao University, and others, are nearly identical to those of modern Phylica species, which are part of the Cape Fynbos flora that is exposed to frequent wildfires.

The fossils were found alongside long-extinct burned plants, pointing to wildfires being an important aspect of early flower evolution.

The sudden appearance of flowering plants as fossils in middle Cretaceous time was described by Charles Darwin as an “abominable mystery” and usually, flower fossils are rare, not well preserved and come from an extinct group of species.

However, this study, published in Nature Plants, found an exception – the research team found flowers, trapped in fossil ambers, that are almost identical to plants living today near Cape Town, South Africa.

Robert A. Spicer, Emeritus Professor at The Open University, described the historical context of the flowers and what the findings can tell us about the plant evolution:

“These exquisitely preserved flowers, fruits, leaves and pollen from 100 million years ago provide a snapshot of an important time in the evolution of flowering plants, showing that early flowers were not primitive as many people suppose, but were already superbly adapted to survive the frequent wildfires that ravaged the warm ‘greenhouse’ world of the Cretaceous.

Number of Earth’s tree species estimated to be 14% higher than currently known, with some 9,200 species yet to be discovered

Coniferous mixed forest, Val Saisera, Italian Julian Alps, Italy.
Image credit: Dario Di Gallo, Regional Forest Service of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy

A new study involving more than 100 scientists from across the globe and the largest forest database yet assembled estimates that there are about 73,000 tree species on Earth, including about 9,200 species yet to be discovered.

The global estimate is about 14% higher than the current number of known tree species. Most of the undiscovered species are likely to be rare, with very low populations and limited spatial distribution, the study shows.

That makes the undiscovered species especially vulnerable to human-caused disruptions such as deforestation and climate change, according to the study authors, who say the new findings will help prioritize forest conservation efforts.

“These results highlight the vulnerability of global forest biodiversity to anthropogenic changes, particularly land use and climate, because the survival of rare taxa is disproportionately threatened by these pressures,” said University of Michigan forest ecologist Peter Reich, one of two senior authors of a paper scheduled for publication Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Low Volcanic Temperature Ushered in Global Cooling and the Thriving of Dinosaurs

Researchers in Japan, Sweden, and the US have unearthed evidence that low volcanic temperatures led to the fourth mass extinction, enabling dinosaurs to flourish during the Jurassic period.

Large volcanic eruptions create climatic fluctuations, ushering in evolutionary changes. Yet it is the volcanic temperature of the eruption that determines whether the climate cools or warms.

Since the emergence of early animals, five mass extinctions have taken place. The fourth mass extinction occurred at the end of the Triassic Period - roughly 201 million years ago. This mass extinction saw many marine and land animals go extinct, especially large-body, crocodilian-line reptiles known as pseudosuchia. Approximately 60-70% of animal species disappeared. As a result, small bodied dinosaurs were able to grow and prosper.

Scientists think the fourth mass extinction was triggered by the eruptions in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province - one of the largest regions of volcanic rock. But the correlation between the eruption and mass extinction has not yet been clarified.

Understanding coral reef connectivity important to focus conservation efforts

Coral reef in Fiji.
Photo credit: Joao Paulo Krajewski

Local fisheries and their associated biodiversity benefit from the transfer of larvae between reefs, with some benefitting more than others, prompting recommendations to protect larval connectivity among coral reefs. A team of international researchers, led in part by the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) within the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, emphasize that coral reef connectivity is crucial to supporting the benefits coral reefs provide. Their study is published in Science.

Researchers identified significant gaps and opportunities for positioning marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) strategically on coral reefs.

The findings indicate fundamental differences in the relative importance of coral reefs’ connectivity characteristics and their role in maintaining biodiversity and supporting local fisheries. That’s according to the study’s lead author, Luisa Fontoura, a postdoctoral researcher from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences in Australia and recently-graduated doctoral student and UH Mānoa faculty Elizabeth Madin.

2D materials could be used to simulate brain synapses in computers

Credit: KTH Royal Institute of Technology

With the introduction of a new component material, researchers at KTH take another step toward computers that mimic the human brain.

Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and from Stanford University have fabricated a material for components that enable the commercial viability of computers which mimic the human brain.

Electrochemical random access (ECRAM) memory components made with 2D titanium carbide showed outstanding potential for complementing classical transistor technology, and contributing toward commercialization of powerful computers that are modeled after the brain’s neural network. Such neuromorphic computers can be thousands of times more energy efficient than today’s computers.

These advances in computing are possible because of some fundamental differences from the classic computing architecture in use today, and the ECRAM, a component that acts as a sort of synaptic cell in an artificial neural network, says KTH Associate Professor Max Hamedi.

“Instead of transistors that are either on or off, and the need for information to be carried back and forth between the processor and memory—these new computers rely on components that can have multiple states, and perform in-memory computation,” Hamedi says.

Quantum leap on film

Jumping electrons: Using a combination of scanning tunneling microscopy and laser spectroscopy with attosecond pulses, Max Planck researchers have filmed electrons in PTCDA molecules arranged next to each other. The position of two molecules are made visible by graphical models. One electron at a time switches back and forth between a higher-energy state and a lower-energy state. The blue coloring stands for a low electron density and the red for a high one. The electron is initially in the energetically higher state. This can be recognized by the relatively high proportion with low electron density (blue). Excited by a laser, it then jumps back and forth between the higher-energy and lower-energy states. The lower-energy state can be recognized by the generally more even distribution of electron density (green, yellow, and orange). After about 1.4 femtoseconds (three images), the electron once again reaches the higher-energy state.
Credit:  Manish Garg / MPI for Solid State Research

An ultra-fast microscope combines atomic spatial and temporal resolution and thus enables unprecedented insights into the dynamics of electrons in molecules

In order to better understand (and possibly control) fast chemical reactions, it is necessary to study the behavior of electrons as precisely as possible – in both space and time. However, up to now, microscopy methods have delivered only either spatially or temporally sharp images. By cleverly combining established techniques of tunneling microscopy and laser spectroscopy, a team led by Klaus Kern, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, has now overcome these obstacles. Using their atomic quantum microscope, they can make the movement of electrons in individual molecules visible.

It is essential not only for understanding biological processes (e.g. plant photosynthesis) to map the electron dynamics in molecules but also for many technical applications such as the development of solar cells or new types of electronic components. Until now, imaging methods have sometimes delivered images that are difficult to reproduce – or even contradictory. This is because they cannot map the fast electrons directly but rather must resort to techniques that can only reconstruct the behavior of the electrons.

Molecular machine in the nanocontainer

Lars Schäfer from Theoretical Chemistry examined a nanocreis with colleagues from South Korea. Credit: Ruhr University Bochum / Marquard

What a toy: A tiny gyro that has space in a cell and can be controlled from the outside.

The theoretical chemists Dr. have a molecular gyroscope that can be controlled remotely by light. Chandan Das and Prof. Dr. Lars Schäfer from the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) constructed together with an international team at the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea. In addition, they managed to characterize the rotary movements of this synthetic nanomachine with computer simulations. The authors describe their results in the journal Chem.

Navigation of aircraft or satellites

Machines that are enclosed in a cage or housing can have interesting properties. You can convert any energy supplied into programmed functions. One such system is the mechanical gyroscope. This toy fascinates with its constant rotation. Gyroscopes are also used in practice, for example in navigation systems of aircraft or satellites and in wireless computer mice. "What makes these gyroscopes so advantageous is not only the rotor, but also the housing, which aligns the rotor in a certain direction and protects it from obstacles," says Lars Schäfer.

At the molecular level, many proteins work as biological nanomachines. They are present in every biological cell and perform precise and programmed actions or functions, also within a limited environment. The machines can be controlled by external stimuli. "In the laboratory, the synthesis and characterization of such complex structures and functions in an artificial molecular system is a major challenge," said Schäfer.

Study shows how temperate rainforests can aid the fight against climate change

Fenced livestock enclosures at the edge of oak woodland at Piles Copse where efforts are ongoing to encourage woodland expansion.
Credit: Thomas Murphy University of Plymouth

There is global recognition that woodland expansion could be one of the most effective solutions in the fight against climate change.

However, new research has shown that the level of growth needed to produce the number of trees required by UK targets is unlikely to be achieved through natural means alone.

Environmental scientists and ecologists at the University of Plymouth showed that browsing behavior by livestock is a major determinant of the expansion and connection of fragmented UK upland oak woodlands – so-called ‘temperate rainforests.

The study, focused on Dartmoor in South West England, found the presence of livestock led to far fewer oak saplings surviving. When saplings did survive, they were smaller and in poorer condition, and seldom lived beyond eight years old without protection.

Interestingly, however, disturbance by grazing livestock may not be all bad and its precise impact may depend on surrounding plant species.

Individuals with immunodeficiency at high risk of mortality following SARS-CoV-2 infection

Patients with primary and secondary immunodeficiency are at higher risk of mortality following SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with the general population, according to a new study led by the University of Birmingham.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected individuals with primary immunodeficiency (PID) and secondary immunodeficiency (SID). These conditions arise when the immune system’s ability to fight infectious disease is compromised or entirely absent as a result of genetic mutations (PID) or other factors, such as immunosuppressive drugs, blood cancers or chemotherapy (SID).

In a significant national effort, and the largest study of its kind to date, the United Kingdom Primary Immunodeficiency Network (UKPIN) collated the outcomes of individuals with PID and SID following infection and treatment for COVID-19.

This retrospective study, published in the journal Clinical & Experimental Immunology, aims to better understand the risk of severe disease and death following SARS-CoV-2 infection in patients with primary or secondary immunodeficiency. The outcomes of 310 individuals from across the United Kingdom were reported to a UKPIN case series between March 2020 and July 2021.

The team found that 45.8% of patients with PID or SID were hospitalized with COVID-19, a significantly higher rate than for the UK general population, and died up to 26 years younger than the median age of death from COVID-19 in the UK. The risk of dying in patients with primary or secondary immunodeficiency was also higher than the general population, varying between subgroups of these conditions. For example, 16.3% of individuals with primary immunodeficiency receiving immunoglobulin replacement and 27.2% with secondary immunodeficiency died from infection during the first three waves of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the UK.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Hubble Captures Chameleon Cloud I

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman and T. Esplin (Pennsylvania State University), et al., and ESO; Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)
Hi-Res Zoomable Image

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image captures one of three segments that comprise a 65-light-year wide star-forming region named the Chamaeleon Cloud Complex. The segment in this Hubble composite image, called Chamaeleon Cloud I (Cha I), reveals dusty-dark clouds where stars are forming, dazzling reflection nebulae glowing by the light of bright-blue young stars, and radiant knots called Herbig-Haro objects.

Herbig-Haro objects are bright clumps and arcs of interstellar gas shocked and energized by jets expelled from infant “protostars” in the process of forming. The white-orange cloud at the bottom of the image hosts one of these protostars at its center. Its brilliant white jets of hot gas are ejected in narrow torrents from the protostar’s poles, creating the Herbig-Haro object HH 909A.

Featured Article

Autism and ADHD are linked to disturbed gut flora very early in life

The researchers have found links between the gut flora in babies first year of life and future diagnoses. Photo Credit:  Cheryl Holt Disturb...

Top Viewed Articles