Scientific News

Microplastics are carried by winds around the world

Microplastics, i.e. small pieces of plastic of microscopic size resulting from plastic pollution, can be transported through the air by the wind and even for very long distances until they pollute areas that at least apparently seem immaculate because they are not frequented by human beings.
This is confirmed by a new study that appeared in the periodical Earth-Science Reviews that analyzes the current state of the so-called “atmospheric microplastics”.

The detection of considerable quantities of microplastics, plastic particles with a size ranging from 100 nanometers to 5 mm, has come on several occasions in recent years so that very often have made news findings of generous amounts in places such as mountains or deserts, very far from population centers.

The research group led by Shichang Kang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, examined the current state of knowledge on atmospheric microplastics and highlighted the impact that these can have on the global environment when deposited in remote areas.
With this further study, microplastics are probably definitively recognized as air pollutants and another type of particulate matter.

“The current research on atmospheric microplastics is in its early stages and therefore suffers from insufficient comparable data on abundance and characterization”, the researchers report that further research, with more standardized methods for sampling and measurement, should be carried out in the future to really understand the level of severity of this type of pollution also in relation to direct exposure with humans.

Scientific News

Dissolution of South Pole and Greenland six times more than in the 1990s

Antarctica and Greenland are pouring six times more water into the seas from melting ice than in the 1990s, rising from 81 to 475 billion tonnes per year in less than 30 years, a worrying result of a new study published in Nature by Andrew Shepherd of Leeds University in collaboration with Erik Ivins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

According to the study, the ice layers present at the ends of the planet (North and South Pole), layers as thick as several kilometers, have been reduced by 6.4 trillion tons from 1992 to 2017.
Greenland alone would have lost 3900 billion tons of ice between 1992 and 2018, causing a sea level rise of 10.8 mm. The peak was 345 billion tons in 2011, while between 2013 and 2017 there was a slowdown with 222 billion tons of melted ice per year due to atmospheric circulation that favoured cooler conditions.

Of course, these phenomena only raise sea levels, which makes tropical storms and cyclones more frequent, destructive and deadly.
“Every inch of sea level rise leads to coastal flooding and coastal erosion, disrupting life across the planet,” Shepherd himself explains.
The same scientist states that if these scenarios were to continue at today’s rate, in the worst case scenario there could be a 17 cm rise in sea level by 2100.

Needless to say, this is due to global warming: almost all the ice that has melted in Antarctica and half of the ice that has melted in Greenland is due to the warming of the oceans that accelerate the movement of glaciers towards the sea.

This is because the oceans absorb most of the excess heat, coming from above the surface and caused by global warming.
Calculations were made on the basis of data from satellites, measurements taken at the sites themselves and computer modelling.

Scientific News

Bloggers Investigate Irish Sea Moss

I don’t know about you, but recently I’ve been noticing a million different ‘superfoods’ and trendy diet programs that have been promoted by Instagram influencers. It seems like every week there’s some new superfood that’s supposed to give you all kinds of different benefits. The latest one to come across my radar is Irish Sea Moss, with the scientific name of Chondrus crispus.

OK, so what’s special about irish sea moss? Lots of things, apparently. And there’s even scientific evidence for it! (or some at least). Here’s a rundown of the benefits of it along with relevant links to studies for each claim:

Irish Sea Moss Benefits & Side Effects

But here’s what I think. Irish sea moss is probably unlikely to do much, if anything, for most people. And you can do much more good for yourself by just exercising as usual and maintaining a clean, healthy diet. There’s no need to keep buying random stuff just because it’s the flavor of the day.

And anyways, who wants to eat or drink seaweed? Looking at the pics from britannica don’t make it look very appetizing.

Scientific News

Water appeared on Earth later than thought: life formed immediately?

Most of the water that formed the Earth’s oceans and the elements essential for life, such as carbon and nitrogen, appeared when the formation of the planet was almost complete, so much later than previously theorized.
This is what a new study in Nature suggests, which therefore contrasts with past geological investigations and studies according to which these elements, essential for water, and therefore also for life, were already on the planet at the beginning of formation.

Fischer-Gödde explains the method of study: the researchers have analyzed some of the oldest of the mantle rocks among those that have remained preserved, analyses that allow us to scrutinize the oldest history of the Earth: “We have compared the composition of the oldest, about 3.8 billion years ago, of the mantle rocks of the Aegean Archaean with the composition of the asteroids from which they were formed and with the composition of the Earth’s mantle today”.

The researchers analyzed in particular the abundance of isotopes of a metal belonging to the platinum group called ruthenium in the earth’s mantle of the archaean period. This rare metal can be regarded as an indicator of the late growth phase of the Earth as Mario Fischer-Gödde of the Institute of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Cologne explains: “Platinum [group] metals such as ruthenium have an extremely high tendency to combine with iron. Therefore, when the Earth was formed, ruthenium must have been completely discharged into the metal core of the Earth”.

The conclusions of this study therefore reinforce a theory that water on Earth arrived through impacts, numerous in the early periods after the formation of the Earth, of asteroids and comets, as explained by Carsten Münker, researcher at the University of Cologne participating in the study: “The fact that we are still finding traces of rare platinum metals in the Earth’s mantle means that we can assume that they were added only after the formation of the core was completed and were certainly the result of subsequent collisions of the Earth with asteroids or smaller planetesimals.

And given that it has been shown by other studies that life on Earth is very ancient and that the first forms of life appeared not long after the formation of the planet, it is worth noting that life on Earth began surprisingly quickly, practically within a few hundred million years after the formation of the first oceans.

These conclusions, among other things, instill much greater hope of finding life on other planets: if life began here on Earth so quickly, then perhaps those random reactions that originated it may not be as rare as previously thought.

Scientific News

ExoMars mission launch postponed to 2022

As already anticipated, given the difficulties that engineers and scientists have found during the tests, the ExoMars mission, which should see the arrival of a rover on Mars, has been postponed to 2022 (originally the launch to take place by 2020).
This was announced by the European Space Agency and Roscosmos with the justification that the necessary tests for all components of the spacecraft require more time.

The final objective of the mission remains the same: to investigate the possible presence of life on Mars, even in the past, and to understand more about the presence of water on this planet.
The rover that should land on the red planet has been named Rosalind Franklin and, among the various accessories, also boasts a drill that will allow you to make a hole in the Martian surface in order to look for important traces underground, traces that could perhaps indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life.

The further tests will be carried out not only on the instruments and parachutes that will facilitate the landing of the lander containing the rover but also on the software that will be used to manage the trip and the landing itself.
The two space agencies also point out that the delay is partly due to the worsening of the new coronavirus that is spreading in European countries.

“We have made a difficult but considered decision to postpone the launch until 2022. It is mainly driven by the need to maximise the robustness of all ExoMars systems and the force majeure circumstances linked to the exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe, which has left our experts with virtually no possibility to travel to partner industries. I am confident that the steps we and our European colleagues are taking to ensure the success of the mission will be justified and will undoubtedly only bring positive results for the implementation of the mission,” says Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos.

The launch could take place between August and October 2022; the date is, of course, also conditioned by the so-called “launch windows” which allow favourable launches to the red planet only about once every two years.

Scientific News

Efficient hybrid tandem solar cells created by Korean scientists

High-efficiency tandem photovoltaic devices with quantum colloidal solar cells and photoactive materials of organic mass heterogjunction have been developed by a team of UNIST researchers led by Professor Sung-Yeon Jang.
The colloidal quantum solar cells (CQD) have soon attracted considerable attention in the field of photovoltaic energy because they are flexible and lightweight, easier to manufacture than conventional silicon solar cells and without loss of efficiency.

Quantum dots are nanoscopic-sized semiconductor particles. They have various useful and interesting characteristics, primarily an emission wavelength that depends on the size.
Basically, quantum points can absorb light in the near infrared, something that other cells and active photo layers cannot do.

Jang’s research team has developed a new photoactive quantum point technology that compensates for the loss of external quantum efficiency in the near infrared region. They also used an intermediate layer to achieve power conversion efficiency. These new tandem hybrid solar cells are made at room temperature and therefore their manufacture is cheaper than silicon solar cells.
“The hybrid tandem device has shown almost negligible degradation after storing air for three months,” says Jang himself.

Scientific News

A new species of turtle in Texas that lived almost 100 million years ago has been classified

Analyzing the remains found at the Arlington Archosaur Site, a site with various fossil remains from the late Cretaceous period in Texas, a team of researchers described four species of extinct turtles, one of which is named after paleontologist Derek Main.

This site was discovered in 2003 and proved to be a prolific location for late Cretaceous remains, remnants of life forms that lived more than 90 million years ago. It is a wetland located near the shore of a peninsula and already in the past has provided several fossils of ancient crocodiles, dinosaurs, mammals, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and even plants.

However, the turtle fossils discovered at this site had proved quite rare, at least until this study that was published in Palaeontology Electronica. The new species was named Trinitichelys maini. It is a Baenidae turtle, an extinct group of North American aquatic turtles that lived from the Cretaceous to the Eocene era.

Of medium size, these turtles showed strongly fused bones and upper shell and lived near rivers. The Trinitichelys maini is the oldest turtle of this group found in the North American subcontinent of Appalachia, a region that during the Cretaceous period was separated from Laramidia, the western subcontinent of North America.

In addition to the new classification, researchers described three other turtles, one of which is the oldest side-necked turtle (Pleurodira order) ever found in North America. These turtles are characterized by the particular way they withdraw their heads inside their shells: they do so by bending their necks on the horizontal plane.

The other two turtles described are one belonging to the group of trionichids (Trionychidae), or soft-shelled turtles, and another belonging to the genus Naomichelys (family Helochelydridae ).

Scientific News

Key mechanism of epilepsy in Angelman syndrome discovered by researchers

In the course of research defined as “innovative,” a team of researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Singapore, discovered a mechanism considered to be basic with regard to epilepsy in Angelman syndrome. This discovery, according to the researchers themselves, could lead to new therapies in the future.

Angelman’s syndrome (AS) is a rare genetic disease due to a defect in the process of chromosome duplication, often accompanied by delays in psychological and motor development, cognitive disabilities and other symptoms including epilepsy. In the course of the study, researchers at the Singapore Institutes used a new experimental methodology with human neural cells and brain organelles to understand the mechanism of epileptic seizures in this syndrome.

The researchers discovered the role of the ion channel in the hyperactivity of the brain network that triggers convulsions. The latter would be linked to gene deficiency of the ubiquitin ligase protein E3A (UBE3A) within neurons. As this is a syndrome that cannot be treated at present, this discovery could, therefore, be very important.

“Our study used 2D human neuronal cultures that allowed the accelerated discovery of functional differences at the single-cell level in the brain of normal individuals compared to those with AS,” explains Hyunsoo Shawn Je, the senior author of the study. “The use of mini 3D human brains allowed us to monitor spontaneous network activities, linking the results of abnormal firing from individual neurons and convulsive-like activities, just like those observed in the brains of AS patients.”

Scientific News

Psilocybin produced by Escherichia coli modified with magic mushroom genes

A team of researchers at Miami University in Ohio has managed to engineer Escherichia coli bacteria to produce psilocybin, a psychedelic substance usually produced by so-called “magic mushrooms” and which in recent years is proving increasingly interesting in the treatment of people suffering from depression or other mental illnesses such as addiction.

Since mushroom cultivation can be quite difficult and can take months, it has never proved to be very practical for the production of drugs. On the other hand, the synthetic production of psilocybin itself is equally difficult and the process is very expensive. The researchers have therefore thought of modifying these microbes so that they can generate up to 1.16 grams of psilocybin per litre of culture medium. This is the highest yield to date for engineered microorganisms producing this substance and opens the door to more widespread therapeutic use.

They have in particular ensured that the Escherichia coli bacteria incorporated three genes of the fungus Psilocybe cubensis. In this way the bacteria began to synthesize psilocybin from the 4-hydroxyindol molecule.

As Alexandra Adams, a chemical engineering student at the above mentioned university and one of the authors of the study published in Scientific American, explains, the main advantage of this procedure is that it is much cheaper than all the other methods.

Currently the only limit is represented by the danger that these bacteria could also generate toxic or allergenic microbial material and the latter must be absolutely removed before any possible use of the resulting psilocybin but in any case the results seem impressive.

Scientific News

Radio telescope MeerKAT takes pictures with thousands of galaxies billions of light years away

A new image of the deep universe has been realized thanks to the data received by the MeerKAT radio telescope made by 64 antennas located in South Africa. The image shows tens of thousands of small points of light but they are not stars: each of these points is a distant galaxy and each of them could potentially contain hundreds or thousands of billions of stars.

The most interesting feature of the image, however, is that the most distant galaxies represent the weakest points of light. Acquiring data and information about these “primordial” galaxies can in fact help astronomers understand when the first stars and galaxies were born. Most stars are currently thought to have been born between 8 and 11 billion years ago, an era also known as “cosmic noon.”

It is usually very difficult to acquire light from these galaxies so far away not only because of the distance but also because of the gas clouds that can overlap and make them invisible. And this is where radio telescopes come into play, operating at a wavelength through which these gas clouds can be “surpassed” to catch a glimpse of the farthest hidden galaxies.

In fact, an international team of astronomers has succeeded in using the MeerKAT radio telescope, now sensitive enough to detect even these galaxies billions of light years away. The result is the image that can be seen on this page that represents a portion of the southern sky, comparable to that occupied by five full moons, with tens of thousands of galaxies, an area that does not contain particular radio sources whose glow could disturb the data acquisition.

Of course, as with all objects located at a certain distance, here too we can speak of a sort of “time machine” with which we can look at the past of the cosmos. And, as James Condon, one of the authors of the study and researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA, explains, “since only short-lived stars that are less than 30 million years old send radio waves, we know that the image is not contaminated by old stars. The radio light we see from each galaxy is therefore proportional to its speed of stellar formation at that time”.

Thanks to this image and the data collected with MeerKAT, researchers now know that during the “cosmic noon” era, even more stars were formed than previously calculated and that there are probably many more galaxies in the universe than ever theorized.