. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Hidden from the Romans: 200 tons of silver on the shores of the river Lahn

"Tractor Tracks".
The excavations in Bad Ems were initiated by J. Eigenbrod, who spotted suspicious traces in the field from his high seat. The traces constitute changes in the vegetation, indicating ground interventions, in this case the ditches of the Roman camp on the "Ehrlich"
Photo Credit: H.-J. du Roi

In their search for silver ore, the Romans established two military camps in the Bad Ems area near Koblenz in the 1st century AD. This is the result of research carried out as part of a teaching excavation that spanned several years and was carried out by Goethe University's Department of Archaeology and History of the Roman Provinces in cooperation with the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Several surprising findings were made during the process. For one, the exciting research story earned young archaeologist Frederic Auth first place at the Wiesbaden Science Slam. 

When Prof. Markus Scholz, who teaches archaeology and the history of Roman provinces at Goethe University, returned to Bad Ems toward the end of the excavation work, he was astonished: After all, all the photos sent by his colleague Frederic Auth showed but a few pieces of wood. Not surprisingly, Scholz was ill-prepared for what he saw next: a wooden defense construction consisting of sharpened wooden stakes, designed to prevent the enemy's approach. The martial-looking structure was intended to deter enemies from attacking the camp. Such installations – comparable, if you will, to modern barbed wire – are referenced to in literature from the time. Caesar, for instance, mentioned them. But to date, none had been found. The damp soil of the Blöskopf area obviously provided the ideal conditions: The wooden spikes, which probably extended throughout the entire downward tapering ditch around the camp, were found to be well preserved. 

Unknown class of water-rich asteroids identified

Dwarf planet Ceres.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Justin Cowart

Small planets originate from the edge of our Solar System

New astronomical measurements in the infrared range have led to the identification of a heretofore unknown class of asteroids. An international research team including geoscientists from Heidelberg University has succeeded in characterizing these small planets using infrared spectroscopy. They are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and are – similar to the dwarf planet Ceres – rich in water. According to computer models, complex dynamic processes shifted these asteroids from the outer regions of our Solar System into today’s asteroid belt shortly after their creation.

With an equatorial diameter of approximately 900 kilometers, the dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Many other small planets orbit in this region as well. “These are the remains of the building materials from which the planets of our Solar System were created four and a half billion years ago. In these small bodies and their fragments, the meteorites, we find numerous relics that point directly to the process of planet formation,” explains Prof. Dr Mario Trieloff from the Institute of Earth Sciences of Heidelberg University. The current study shows that the small astronomical bodies originate from all regions of the early Solar System. By means of small bodies from the outer Solar System, water could have reached the still growing Earth in the form of asteroids, because the building blocks of the planets in the inner Solar System tended to be arid, according to Prof. Trieloff, who heads up the Geo- and Cosmochemistry research group.

Improving the Performance of Satellites in Low Earth Orbit

On-chip distributed radiation sensors and current-sharing techniques can be used to reduce the impact of radiation on the radio and power consumption of small satellites, respectively, as shown by scientists from Tokyo Tech. Their findings can be used to make small satellites more robust, which can increase the connectivity of networks across the globe.

A database updated in 2022 reported around 4,852 active satellites orbiting the earth. These satellites serve many different purposes in space, from GPS and weather tracking to military reconnaissance and early warning systems. Given the wide array of uses for satellites, especially in low Earth orbit (LEO), researchers are constantly trying to develop better ones. In this regard, small satellites have a lot of potential. They can reduce launch costs and increase the number of satellites in orbit, providing a better network with wider coverage. However, due to their smaller size, these satellites have lesser radiation shield. They also have a deployable membrane attached to the main body for a large phased-array transceiver, which causes non-uniform radiation degradation across the transceiver. This affects the performance of the satellite’s radio due to the variation in the strength of signal they can sense—also known as gain variation. Thus, there is a need to mitigate radiation degradation to make small satellites more viable.

Using sewage to forecast COVID-19 infections

Collecting samples at a wastewater treatment plant for the study
Photo Credit: provided by Masaaki Kitajima

Sifting through sewage for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material could help authorities tailor infection control policies.

A new mathematical model uses wastewater samples to effectively forecast the number of clinical COVID-19 cases in a community five days in advance. The approach was developed and validated by Hokkaido University environmental engineer, Masaaki Kitajima, and colleagues in Japan. It could help healthcare authorities better tailor infection control policies, especially when clinical surveillance is lacking. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Environment International

Testing wastewater samples for SARS-CoV-2 as a means to predict surges in clinical cases has been attracting attention. Scientists have been researching this approach since the beginning of the pandemic. However, current methods aren’t particularly sensitive and can only detect increasing cases without being able to forecast their numbers within a community.

Kitajima and his colleagues had already developed a method to detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples. But this method requires solid material and does not work well with diluted wastewater on rainy days or with treated wastewater that has been clarified and is mostly liquid. So, they modified their approach. Instead of using low-speed centrifugation to create pellets from wastewater samples that then go on to be tested, they used special filters that can capture the viral RNA from diluted wastewater. This is followed by extracting RNA from the filter, amplifying it, and then running polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to detect it. They call the new method Efficient and Practical Virus Identification System with Enhanced Sensitivity for Membrane (EPISENS-M).

Monday, February 20, 2023

Lakes in Greenland collapse and release meltwater during winter causing Arctic inland ice drift to speed up

Lakes collapse and release meltwater during winter causing inland ice to speed up in Greenland
Photo Credit: Dominique Müller

A team of international researchers has shown for the first time how 18 meltwater lakes in Greenland collapse during winter which cause the edges of the ice to flow faster. The new knowledge is essential for understanding how climate change influences the flow of ice masses in the Arctic.

In the middle of winter in 2018, an almost 50-year-old meltwater lake disappeared from the ice sheet in western Greenland. The lake was covered by snow and ice when it collapsed but stored liquid water inside. The water disappeared into newly formed cracks and drifted down through the approximately 2 km thick layer of ice. The water hit the rock bed under the ice and flowed out from under the ice sheet towards the sea. This meltwater acted as lubrication between the rock bed and the thick ice on top. As a result, the large mass of ice could slide faster towards the coast, accelerating an unusually large region of inland ice. The drainage of this lake caused several other lakes in the adjacent area to collapse too. In total, the collapsed lakes have released approximately 180 million tons of meltwater that has ended up in the world's oceans.

This is shown by new international research based on satellite data and led by the French Université Grenoble Alpes with contributions from DTU Space at The Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This new knowledge has just been published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Study finds 'staggering increase' in methamphetamine deaths tied to opioid co-use

Many meth-related deaths are also tied to heroin and/or fentanyl, a new study finds.     
Graphic Credit: Michael B. Vincent

The U.S. methamphetamine mortality rate increased fiftyfold between 1999 and 2021, with most of the added deaths also involving heroin or fentanyl, researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health.

“We looked at trends from 1999 to 2021 and we saw this staggering increase in methamphetamine mortality accompanied by a proportional increase in those deaths that also involved heroin or fentanyl,” said Rachel Hoopsick, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor of kinesiology and community health who led the research.

According to data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 608 deaths were attributed to methamphetamine use in 1999.  That number increased to 52,397 in 2021. Hoopsick and R. Andrew Yockey at the University of Texas, Fort Worth, found that 61.2% of the methamphetamine overdose deaths in 2021 co-involved heroin or fentanyl. Much of the increase in methamphetamine-related mortality occurred between 2010 and 2021 and is showing no sign of abating, Hoopsick said.

Astrophysics: Scientists Observe High-Speed Star Formation

Observation of the Cygnus X Region with the flying observatory SOFIA revealed that stars form there more quickly than previously assumed.
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Image Credit: NASA Spitzer/IRAC MIPS, USRA/SOFIA (L. Proudfit, L. Bonne) and University of Cologne (N. Schneider

Gas clouds in the Cygnus X Region, a region where stars form, are composed of a dense core of molecular hydrogen (H2) and an atomic shell. These ensembles of clouds interact with each other dynamically in order to quickly form new stars. That is the result of observations conducted by an international team led by scientists at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Astrophysics and at the University of Maryland. Until now, it was unclear how this process precisely unfolds. The Cygnus X region is a vast luminous cloud of gas and dust approximately 5,000 light years from Earth. Using observations of spectral lines of ionized carbon (CII), the scientists showed that the clouds have formed there over several million years, which is a fast process by astronomical standards. The results of the study ‘Ionized carbon as a tracer for the assembly of interstellar clouds’ will appear in the next issue of Nature Astronomy. The paper is already accessible online.

The observations were carried out in an international project led by Dr Nicola Schneider at the University of Cologne and Prof Alexander Tielens at the University of Maryland as part of the FEEDBACK program on board the flying observatory SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). The new findings modify previous perceptions that this specific process of star formation is quasi-static and quite slow. The dynamic formation process now observed would also explain the formation of particularly massive stars.

Black mosses reveal climate change effects on Antarctic glaciers

As glaciers in Antarctica have melted, previously ice-entombed black mosses have been exposed. A team led by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researchers conducted extensive analyses on these mosses discovered in the northern Antarctic Peninsula, which revealed sensitive glacier behavioral responses to the climate over the past 1,500 years.

The findings, published in the Geological Society of America journal Geology, the top-ranked publication in the field of geological sciences, provide a clearer picture of climate and ice history in the region.

The principal investigator on the project is David W. Beilman, professor and undergraduate chair of the Department of Geography and Environment in UH Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences.

“The Antarctic Peninsula is a high-biodiversity coastal ecosystem that is one of the richest breeding grounds for penguins, seals and seabirds in the continent. What happens there has global impact including the influence of sea-level rise as ice melts,” said Beilman. “There are great scientific models of glacial expansion and recession, but much less is known about what happens on the ground at sea level where ice, ocean and sensitive coastal life intersect. Our field research addresses this gap and improves our understanding of these ecosystems and the changes resulting from polar warming.”

Researchers Uncover Mechanisms of Brexanolone and the Role of Inflammation in Post-partum Depression

Post-partum depression (PPD) develops after childbirth
Photo Credit: Iuliia Bondarenko

A research collaboration between clinical and preclinical investigators in the Department of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, has found that a drug for post-partum depression works by inhibiting systemic inflammatory pathways.

Post-partum depression (PPD) develops after childbirth and affects both the mother’s and the infant’s health by preventing healthy bonding. Women with PPD experience intense anxiety, feelings of depression, sleeplessness, inability to care for their child, and risk for suicide.

Brexanolone, an IV infusion comprised of a derivative of progesterone, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of PPD in 2019. The fast-acting medication significantly reduces depression symptoms and provides effects for up to 90 days. However, exactly how the drug provides these therapeutic effects has remained a mystery – until now.

A research team led by A. Leslie Morrow, PhD, the John Andrews Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology in the UNC School of Medicine, has found that brexanolone works within the body by inhibiting the key systemic inflammatory pathways that are associated with depression. The new finding is monumental in that it suggests that PPD is likely caused, at least in part, by inflammation.

Studying ship tracks to inform climate intervention decision-makers

Sandia National Laboratories statistician Lyndsay Shand stands in front of a satellite image of ship tracks. Ship tracks are an unintentional example of one method to reflect some sunlight back to space before its heat is absorbed.
Photo Credit: Craig Fritz

Sandia scientists develop computer tools to study inadvertent marine cloud brightening

To understand how these ship tracks move and dissipate, the scientists created a mathematical model of ship tracks and how long they last, which they shared in a paper recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Data Science.

“Ship exhaust is an example of aerosol injections into the lower atmosphere, impacting the local environment, and is a daily occurrence,” said Lyndsay Shand, a Sandia statistician and the project lead. “We’ve been developing analytical tools to understand exhaust impacts on clouds from observational data collected by satellites. For example, we can locate a newly formed ship track and follow its evolution to better understand how it affects the local marine environment over time. We have found ship tracks to persist for more than 24 hours, longer than previously documented.”

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