. Scientific Frontline

Monday, September 25, 2023

Potentially hazardous La Niña weather more common, lasting longer

Wildfire in California.
Photo Credit: Ross Stone

The climate event La Niña that can cause devastating weather, impacting communities and industries from agriculture to tourism, is happening more frequently and lasting longer, according to new public impact research from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Atmospheric scientist Bin Wang from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) found that five out of six La Niña events since 1998 have lasted more than one year, including an unprecedented triple-year event. The study was published in Nature Climate Change.

“The clustering of multiyear La Niña events is phenomenal given that only 10 such events have occurred since 1920,” said Wang, emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences in SOEST.

El Niño and La Niña, the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific, affect weather and ocean conditions, which can impact the public by influencing the marine environment and fishing industry in Hawaiʻi and throughout the Pacific Ocean. Long-lasting La Niñas could also cause persistent climate extremes.

Determining why so many multiyear La Niña events have emerged recently and whether they will become more common has sparked worldwide discussion among climate scientists, yet answers remain elusive.

Widely-used COVID-19 antiviral could be helping SARS-CoV-2 to evolve

Image Credit: visuals3Dde

The drug works by disrupting the virus’s genome, causing it to develop random mutations as it replicates, weakening the virus to prevent replication, thereby enabling clearance of infection.

But in research published today in Nature, scientists have shown that in some cases, mutated forms of the virus have been able to be transmitted from patients treated with molnupiravir and spread within the community.

Dr Christopher Ruis from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge said: “Molnupiravir is one of a number of drugs being used to fight COVID-19. It belongs to a class of drugs that can cause the virus to mutate so much that it is fatally weakened. But what we’ve found is that in some patients, this process doesn’t kill all the viruses, and some mutated viruses can spread. This is important to take into account when assessing the overall benefits and risks of molnupiravir and similar drugs.”

Molnupiravir, marketed under the brand name Lagevrio, is licensed for the treatment of COVID-19 in several countries, including the UK, USA and Japan. It has been used to treat the disease since late 2021.

Heat extremes in the soil are underestimated

Climate change intensifies extreme heat in the soil.
Photo Credit: André Künzelmann (UFZ)

For a long time, little attention was paid to soil temperatures. In contrast to air temperatures near the surface, hardly any reliable data was available because of the considerably more complex measurement. A research team leaded by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) with participation of Leipzig University has now found not only that soil and air temperatures can differ but also that climate change has a much greater impact on the intensity and frequency of heat extremes in the soil than in the air. According to a study recently published in Nature Climate Change, this is particularly the case in Central Europe.

For the study, the research team coordinated by UFZ remote sensing scientist Dr Almudena García-García collected data from a wide range of sources: data from meteorological measuring stations, remote sensing satellites, the ERA5-Land data reanalysis set, and simulations of Earth system models. The researchers fed these data into the TX7d index, which is defined as the average of the daily maximum temperature in the hottest week of the year. It reflects the intensity of heat extremes (i.e. how high extreme temperatures can be). The researchers thus calculated the index for the 10-cm-thick upper soil layer and for the near-surface air at a height of up to 2 m for the years 1996 to 2021. At two thirds of the 118 meteorological measuring stations evaluated, the trend in heat extremes is stronger in the soil than in the air. “This means that heat extremes develop much faster in the soil than in the air”, García-García, lead author of the study. Based on the data available, this is especially true in Germany, Italy, and southern France. In terms of figures, according to station data, the intensity of heat extremes in Central Europe is increasing 0.7°C/decade faster in the soil than in the air.

Marker for brain inflammation finally decoded

TSPO protein (in green) was quantified in microglia (in red) in proximity to lesion characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, the amyloid plaques (in blue) and pTau lesions (in white), in post mortem human brain samples.
Image Credit: Stergios Tsartsalis

An international team co-led by UNIGE and HUG has decoded the only protein that can be used to "see" neuroinflammation. This discovery will improve the understanding of neurological and psychiatric disease mechanisms.

 Inflammation is the sign that our body is defending itself against aggression. But when this response escalates, for example in the brain, it can lead to serious neurological or psychiatric diseases. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG), Imperial College London and Amsterdam UMC, investigated a marker protein targeted by medical imaging to visualize cerebral inflammation, but whose interpretation was still uncertain. The team reveals that a large quantity of this protein goes hand in hand with a large quantity of inflammatory cells, but its presence is not a sign of their overactivation. These results, published in Nature Communications, pave the way for optimal observation of neuroinflammatory processes and a re-reading of previous studies on the subject.

Functional architecture that builds itself

Nanocomponents as organic dyes or nanoparticles bind to the surface of the chips and form 3D molecular architectures.
Photo Credit: Christoph Hohmann / LMU

Imagine hundreds of Lego bricks coming together and spontaneously forming, say, a house. And then, before you know it, the whole play mat is filled with hundreds of houses. Although this does not work in real life, it can be accomplished effortlessly at the molecular level – provided the conditions are right. Nature has mastered the principle of self-organization by exploiting intermolecular forces and electrostatic attraction. In this way, complex 3D structures with a specific function are seemingly formed by magic. Light-harvesting complexes for photosynthesis or hydrophobic, self-cleaning lotus leaves are two examples. “It’s exactly this principle of self-assembly that we’re adapting for our purposes and using to develop methods for functionalizing surfaces on the nanometer scale. To do this, we combine lithographic methods with DNA origami, enabling us to construct ordered 3D nanostructures,” explains Dr. Irina Martynenko, a postdoctoral researcher in physics professor Tim Liedl’s research group at LMU. The research team has now published its results in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. “The fields of application for nano- and micro-structured substrates are extremely diverse, ranging from microchips and biosensors to solar cells. This makes the principle of self-assembly so advantageous,” observes Martynenko.

Scientists develop a new model for understanding sudden death in epilepsy

Image Credit: geralt

Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a model for studying one type of familial epilepsy, opening the door to understanding—and eventually targeting—the mechanisms that lead to the disorder and its associated fatalities.

The research, published in the journal Annals of Neurology, has already revealed important insights into interactions between breathing, heart rate and brain activity during fatal seizures.

Mutations in a gene called DEPDC5 are a common cause of familial focal epilepsy and increase the risk of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a devastating consequence of epilepsy that ranks second only to stroke in potential life-years lost due to neurological diseases. But scientists have been unable to determine the underlying processes that lead to SUDEP in DEPDC5-related epilepsy.

“Without a clear understanding of the precise mechanisms that drive SUDEP, it is extremely difficult to predict its occurrence in patients,” said Yu Wang, associate professor of neurology at the U-M Medical School who also works with epilepsy patients at Michigan Medicine. “Having an accurate model that we can study at the molecular level is essential for understanding the complex pathophysiology of this condition and identifying therapeutic targets.”

How can the use of plastics in agriculture become more sustainable?

Photo Credit: Mark Stebnicki

It is impossible to imagine modern agriculture without plastics. 12 million tons are used every year. But what about the consequences for the environment? An international team of authors led by Thilo Hofmann from the Division of Environmental Geosciences at the University of Vienna addresses this question in a recent study in Nature Communication Earth and Environment. The research shows the benefits and risks of using plastics in agriculture, and identifies solutions that ensure their sustainable use. 

Once celebrated as a symbol of modern innovation, plastic is now both a blessing and a curse of our time. Plastic is ubiquitous in every sector, and agriculture is no different. Modern agriculture, which is responsible for almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major drain on the planet's resources, is inextricably linked to plastic. The new study from the University of Vienna was conducted by Thilo Hofmann, environmental psychologist Sabine Pahl and environmental scientist Thorsten Hüffer, along with international co-authors. Their research reveals that plastic plays a multi-faceted role: from mulch films that protect plants to water-saving irrigation systems, plastic is deeply embedded in our food production.

How OSIRIS-REx is helping scientists study the sonic signature of meteoroids

A Sandia National Laboratories solar-powered hot air balloon taking flight bears sensors including a GPS tracker and reusable infrasound sensor. This flight supported past infrasound research at Sandia.
 Photo Credit: Sandia National Laboratories

In the high desert of Nevada, Elizabeth Silber watched NASA’s Sample Return Capsule from OSIRIS-REx descend into Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, but unlike most scientists, she wasn’t there for the asteroid rocks.

Silber, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories, is working with researchers from Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, TDA Research Inc., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Hawaii and the University of Oklahoma in a campaign to record and characterize the infrasound and seismic waves generated by the capsule as it moved through Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed, about 26,000 miles per hour. This was the largest observational campaign of any hypersonic event in history, and Silber hopes the data will improve scientists’ ability to use infrasound to detect meteoroids and other objects moving at hypersonic speeds.

Scientists currently use infrasound, a low-frequency sound wave that is generally inaudible to humans, to detect and observe volcanic activity, earthquakes and explosions. Silber said infrasound can also be observed when meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere, but atmospheric conditions like wind can distort the signal, and there’s usually relatively little information available about the incoming meteoroid to help with data analysis.

Copper-based catalysts efficiently turn carbon dioxide into methane

Soumyabrata Roy is a Rice University postdoctoral research associate in materials science and nanoengineering and the study’s lead author.
Photo Credit: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University
Technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere keep improving, but solutions for what to do with the carbon once it’s captured are harder to come by.

The lab of Rice University materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan and collaborators developed a way to wrest the carbon from carbon dioxide and affix it to hydrogen atoms, forming methane ⎯ a valuable fuel and industrial feedstock. According to the study published in Advanced Materials, the method relies on electrolysis and catalysts developed by grafting isolated copper atoms on two-dimensional polymer templates.

“Electricity-driven carbon dioxide conversion can produce a large array of industrial fuels and feedstocks via different pathways,” said Soumyabrata Roy, a research scientist in the Ajayan lab and the study’s lead author. “However, carbon dioxide-to-methane conversion involves an eight-step pathway that raises significant challenges for selective and energy-efficient methane production.

“Overcoming such issues can help close the artificial carbon cycle at meaningful scales, and the development of efficient and affordable catalysts is a key step toward achieving this goal.”

Could seaweed hold the key to the fountain of youth?

Photo Credit: Kindel Media

Scientists from Flinders University have discovered rich anti-aging properties in South Australian brown seaweed that significantly increase collagen levels in the skin and protect against the deterioration of both collagen and elastin.

“We found that extracts from South Australian brown seaweed have huge potential to be used to help slow the effects of aging on our skin,” says Professor Wei Zhang, College of Medicine and Public Health.

“Collagen acts as a building block for bones, teeth, muscles, skin, joints and connective tissue, while elastin gives skin its elasticity and strength – and both these proteins are popularly promoted by the beauty industry as essential for the appearance of healthy skin,” he says.

Professor Zhang explains the Flinders team has found that extracts from SA’s brown seaweed not only stimulated the growth of collagen, but also inhibited a process called glycation, which leads to the deterioration of collagen and elastin.

“So far anti-glycation agents haven’t been strong enough to have a major impact on anti-aging, so our discovery is really exciting as we can see the potential to develop stronger anti-glycation extracts from brown seaweed.”

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