Scientific News

The oldest fossil forest in Asia has been discovered

The group of fossilized trees discovered in the Chinese province of Anhui has been defined as the most ancient fossil forest ever found in Asia and one of the greatest examples of Devonian forests. It is 250,000 m² of a fossil forest that lived mostly during the Devonian period, ie between 419 and 359 million years ago. It is a period also referred to as “the age of the fish” but which, however, has seen progress at the evolutionary level very important even in plants.

The study, published in Current Biology, describes how these trees should look: they resembled palm trees with trunks without branches and with upper leafy parts. They lived in an environment near the coast very often subject to flooding.

The trees were on average 3.2 meters high (the height of one of the found fossil trunks was however estimated at 7.7 meters) and were inserted into a new species called Guangdedendron micron. The researchers think it could be one of the trees that provided the largest amount of biomass that then formed the coal we extract today.

The first fossils of trunks of licopsid trees have been found in these places in 2016 but research in these quarries is still ongoing. This is the third Devonian fossil forest of this size found after one in the United States and one in Norway.

The trees were quite tall and the relatively small size of the trees could make Xinhang forest “very similar to a sugarcane field” as noted by Deming Wang, a professor at Peking University and one of the authors of the study with Min Qin of Linyi University.

The fossils were formed on the walls of various clay quarries in this region of China, near a four-meter thick sandstone bed. The height of the trees was estimated by analyzing the diameters of the fossilized trunks.

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Freshwater megafauna in sharp decline according to study

Freshwater animals represent about one-third of all vertebrate species in the world, presenting a highly respected variety. However, it is unfortunate that life itself in the rivers, lakes and all the bodies of freshwater in the world is in sharp decline, as confirmed by new research published in Global Change Biology.

The research, in particular, has focused on freshwater megafauna, which is all those animals of a certain size that weigh at least 50 pounds. We speak, therefore, of crocodiles, large fish such as sturgeons, giant tortoises, and so on.

By gathering data on 126 species of freshwater megafauna from various parts of the world, researchers have concluded that from 1970 to 2012 these populations even decreased by 88%.
This is a double decrease compared to the heavy defections affecting terrestrial or marine vertebrate populations.

Sonja Jähnig, a researcher at the Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB), lead author of the study, talks about alarming results that confirm the already very strong concerns before this study regarding freshwater biodiversity.

The most important decreases occurred in the Indo-Malaysian ecozone (India and neighboring countries plus south-east Asia), with a 99% decrease, and in the Palearctic eco-zone (almost all of Asia, Europe and North Africa), which saw a 97% decrease.

Among the most affected species are those related to large fish such as sturgeons, salmonids and giant catfish that show an average drop of 94%. These species are followed by reptiles that show an average decrease of 72%.

The main reasons behind the decrease in the populations of these animals are due to the excessive exploitation by human beings and the loss of the flow of the rivers, a phenomenon that occurs especially when the flow of water is blocked by the dams, as recalls Fengzhi He, first author of the study and expert in freshwater megafauna.

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Scientists discover how sharks shine green to get noticed by their mates

There are some species of sharks that in the depths of the sea seem to emit a bright green light. This is a biofluorescence phenomenon that only other sharks of their species can see.

The phenomenon of biofluorescence in certain species of sharks has never been fully studied, at least until today: David Gruber, a professor at the City University of New York, has published with his colleagues a new study on iScience to clarify this mechanism and is quite different from those who use other sea creatures to “shine”.

Gruber, along with his colleague Jason Crawford, a professor at Yale University, analyzed in particular this characteristic in two species of sharks, Cephaloscyllium ventriosum, endemic to the eastern Pacific, and Scyliorhinus retifer, endemic to the western Atlantic.

They first understood that the skin of these two sharks could present two shades, one lighter and one darker, through the extraction of particular chemical substances. They finally discovered that it was a particular fluorescent molecule responsible for the effect, a molecule that was present only in fair skin.

As Gruber himself explains, “the exciting part of this study is the description of a completely new form of marine biofluorescence from sharks – one based on brominated metabolites of small molecules of tryptophan-quinurenine.”

Thanks to this system, they can see each other better without the other animals being able to see the difference in color and in the fluorescence of the skin: “Imagine if you were bright green, but only you could see me bright green and the others could not,” reports Crawford hinting how this feature can be beneficial in many situations. In addition, scientists have discovered that these molecules that carry out biofluorescence also show antimicrobial properties.

Ore ii two scientists intend to exploit this knowledge to see if they can be useful to generate “molecular systems for imaging in the laboratory or in medicine,” according to Crawford, according to which “imaging is an incredibly important biomedical target that these types of systems could help progress in the future.”

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Oil platforms could pump CO2 into rocks under the sea

Oil platforms modified to pump carbon dioxide into the rocks below the seafloor: this is a project that a group of scientists from the University of Edinburgh is working on. The latter have discovered that the current disused oil platforms can still be very useful without at the same time being harmful to the environment in terms of carbon dioxide pollution.

According to the calculations made by the scientists, the modifications to be made to the oil platforms so that they can function as pumping stations for CO 2 storage sites would even be 10 times cheaper than the safe deactivation itself, a highly regulated process that requires several phases. The researchers have in particular analyzed the oil field of Beatrice, located 24 miles north-east of the Scottish coast and have evidently come to the conclusion that it is feasible.

The decommissioning of this field should cost, according to the press release on the University of Edinburgh website, over 260 million pounds. Using this field as a pumping station to cram carbon dioxide for thirty years, you would spend 10 times less.

Researchers have discovered that much electricity can still be generated using natural gas and thermal energy that can still be extracted from saltwater in oil or exhaust gas fields. By mixing the saltwater of the oil field with the CO 2 resulting from the natural gas combustion process, it is possible to inject that carbon dioxide safely and permanently into the depths of the subsoil.

Jonathan Scafidi, a researcher at the School of Geosciences of the University of Edinburgh, lead author of the study, states the following: “The removal of high-cost platforms is short-sighted. Reusing them to dispose of CO 2 in rocks for several kilometers below the seafloor will not only be cheaper, but will provide an economic means of reducing UK CO 2 emissions to reach the Net-zero 2050 target.”

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Blood pressure can be detected with a video shot from a smartphone

In the future, detecting blood pressure could be at least as easy as taking a selfie: this is what makes us understand research published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging according to which a transdermal optical imaging technology can be used to measure human blood pressure by detecting only micro-changes in the face through a video, even one shot from a smartphone.

Even today, smartphones have cameras that are sensitive enough to detect the ambient light that enters the external state of the skin of the face. With this information, you can create a model of blood flow that can then be used to monitor the same blood pressure without having to resort to complicated devices.

As reported by Kang Lee, professor of neuroscience at the University of Toronto, Canada, today arterial hypertension is one of the main human diseases and one of the main causes of death precisely because adequate daily or periodic monitoring is not performed in subjects risk.

Furthermore, the devices available today are quite inconvenient to use or not very precise so that often the same manufacturers of these devices recommend making multiple measurements each time and making an average. Lee and his new device have already been tested on 1328 Canadian and Chinese adults.

The software was installed on an iPhone and through the app installed on the device, the researchers were able to measure the systolic, diastolic and pulse pressure, measurements taken from a video shot from the same camera as the smartphone.

Currently, the video to obtain the necessary data must last at least two minutes but the researchers are trying to lower this duration to 30 seconds to make the process even more user-friendly.

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Important discovery made in age-related macular degeneration

An important turning point with important implications for those suffering from macular degeneration linked to the dry age (AMD): this is what the result obtained from research published on JCI Insight claims.

The researchers found that a component that lines the blood vessels of the retina, or claudin-5, may be one of the primary factors in the development of this disease. Natalie Hudson, the first author of the study, also explains this: “We were initially surprised by the fact that these blood vessels in the internal retina contributed to a pathology similar to AMD, but now it seems that their dysfunction may represent one of the first initial factors of the disease.”

Age-related macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of blindness in older people. It involves a loss of central visual acuity so that the same common daily activities become difficult to perform or impossible. There are two forms, one dry and one wet. There is some therapy for the wet one but there are no approved treatments or cures for the dry one that represents most of the cases.

This finding could be useful for new targeted approaches and new therapies focused, for example, on the integrity of retinal blood vessels, as explained by Matthew Campbell, assistant professor of genetics at the Irish institute and another author of the study.

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Mitochondria in live cells observed with unprecedented details

Currently, to look inside a living cell, optical microscopy is used because the electron microscopes are characterized by a strong heat relative to the beam of electrons they emit heat that can literally burn the object of the analysis. Furthermore, the electron microscope is characterized by a mostly two-dimensional vision.

A typology of microscopy that is advancing so much in the last few years is the fluorescence one: a molecule specially designed to be fluorescent can mark the biomolecules of the structure to be analyzed so that it can be distinguished from the surrounding environment.

The same fluorescence microscopy has undergone considerable technical progress year after year, the most important of which was that developed by Stefan Hell in the second half of the 90s when he discovered the STED microscope (Stimulated Emission Depletion), a discovery for which he then received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014.

STED microscopy uses two lasers that illuminate the same point, a complicated technology on the basis of which it has been possible to make a huge leap forward in particular in life sciences and biology in general.

A further step forward has now been made by Shigehiro Yamaguchi and Masayasu Taki, two researchers from the Institute for Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM) of the University of Nagoya. The two have developed a particular marker molecule, called “MitoPB Yellow”, which can be absorbed by the inner membrane of the mitochondria and which has a long life under a STED radius.

Through this new molecule, researchers were able to observe the survival and death processes of mitochondria live at unprecedented resolution, after having treated them with a particular reagent that suppresses DNA replication.

They were able to create still images with a resolution of 60 nanometers (roughly one-thousandth in the width of a human hair) and various time-lapse sequences that show how mitochondria react, within a few minutes, to a nutrient deprivation changing shape to survive.

Needless to say, being able to see how processes inside mitochondria occur in living cells could be crucial to diagnosing or even treating different mitochondrial diseases.

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Scientists find why cats eat grass

One of the strangest things that many cats do is to eat grass. In some ways, it is a mystery that has never really been solved by scientists, at least until now.

This time a group of researchers presented their theory during an annual convention of the International Society for Applied Ethology in Bergen, Norway. According to researchers, cats tend to eat grass because it helps them expel parasites from the intestine.

In fact, the herb itself only increases the activity of the intestine muscles, particularly those of the digestive tract. However, the fact remains that these parasites today are not substantially more present in the body of the cats and then the researchers thought that probably it is a trait that has developed at an evolutionary level in some distant ancestor and that has not yet disappeared in today’s cats.

Eating plants can be considered a common behavior in cats: it is estimated that 71% of domestic cats have been seen eating grass at least once in their lifetime. Because of this common trait, hypotheses have also developed that are not supported by science if they are not real urban legends.

According to one of the latter, the herb helps cats to vomit when they feel sick, but this is considered by the researchers to be untruthful as there are few cases in which cats vomit after eating grass and the few cases in which cats actually vomit after eating grass it would be an unintended consequence.

And no, grass does not help cats to throw up hairballs.

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Dark chocolate can alleviate depressive symptoms

Dark chocolate can alleviate depressive symptoms according to a study published in Depression and Anxiety conducted by researchers at University College London who reviewed the data of 13,626 adults in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey database.

The researchers analyzed various other factors including weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, family income and any chronic health problems. Based on these factors, the researchers discovered that those who ate black chocolate were 70% less likely to show depressive symptoms than patients who claimed they had not eaten chocolate.

Sarah Jackson, UCL researcher and principal author of the study, admits that further research will have to be carried out, especially in the long term, for confirmation. According to the researcher, in fact, in the long term, depression could prevail and lose interest in chocolate or there may be long-term factors that the researchers could not take into consideration through the data provided in the database.

However, according to the researcher, the study provides evidence that the consumption of dark chocolate “may be associated with reduced chances of clinically relevant depressive symptoms.” Previous research had already shown that particular ingredients in chocolate can be linked to good humor or even feelings of euphoria similar to those caused by cannabinoids.

In fact, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, an important neuromodulator with regard to the regulation of human mood. However, several experimental tests have shown that the palatability and the sensation of pleasantness relative to eating chocolate also counts, not just these special ingredients it contains. In addition, further research has also shown a greater concentration of flavonoids in dark chocolate, compared to the non-melting chocolate, it can be linked to the improvement of certain inflammatory profiles in turn connected to the onset of depression.

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33% of new cases of childhood asthma in Europe caused by air pollution

Another piece of research, this time conducted by a Spanish institute, confirms that among the main factors of asthma for children is air pollution.

According to the new study, published in the European Respiratory Journal and conducted by the Institute for Global Health in Barcelona (ISGlobal), 33% of new annual cases (over 190,000 cases) of childhood asthma could be avoided if European countries “were able to reduce air pollution levels to the lowest levels recorded in the literature.”

This means that air pollution is basically the basis of one-third of children’s asthma cases. According to the study, up to 11% of new cases (over 66,000 cases) of childhood asthma could also be avoided every year if European countries “respected the WHO guidelines on air quality of PM 2.5.” The latter is a classification that indicates that fine particulate matter, essentially the powders, whose grains are fine to this point (at least 2.5 µm, or a quarter of a 100th of a millimeter) to be able to penetrate into the human lungs.

Researchers analyzed data from 18 European countries while data on exposure to air pollutants were obtained through a statistical model based on multiple measurements performed in Europe.