Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA space copter ready for first Mars flight thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove NASA space copter ready for first Mars flight

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This NASA illustration depicts Mars Helicopter Ingenuity during a test flight on the Red Planet

The helicopter that NASA has placed on Mars could make its first flight over the Red Planet within two days after a successful initial test of its rotors, the US space agency said Friday.

The current plan for the first-ever attempt at powered, controlled on another planet is for the four-pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter, dubbed the Ingenuity, to take off from Mars’ Jezero Crater on Sunday at 10:54 pm US eastern time (0254 GMT Monday) and hover 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for a half-minute, NASA said.

“The helicopter is good, it’s looking healthy,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead, in a press conference.

“Last night, we did our 50 RPM spin, where we spun the blades very slowly and carefully,” he said.

The plan for Sunday is to have it rise, flying only vertically, hover and rotate for 30 seconds to take a picture of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on February 18 with the helicopter attached to its underside.

Then the Ingenuity will be lowered back down onto the surface.

The flight will be autonomous, pre-programmed into the aircraft because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars, and also due to the demanding environment of the distant planet.

“Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too,”said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager.

She explained that the planet has significantly less gravity than Earth, but less than one percent the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at the surface.

Graphic on Ingenuity, the helicopter that hitched a ride on the Perseverance rover, which is scheduled to make its first flight attempt no earlier than April 11.

The makes it necessary for the Ingenuity to be able to spin its much faster than a helicopter on Earth in order to fly.

“Put those things together, and you have a vehicle that demands every input be right,” said Aung.

NASA captured the test of the rotors in a short video shot from the rover just a few meters away, showing what looks like a small drone.

Aung said a second test would be conducted today, with the rotors running at high speed.

“The only uncertainty remains the actual environment of Mars,” she said, mentioning possible winds.

NASA calls the unprecedented helicopter operation highly risky, but says it could reap invaluable data about the conditions on Mars.

NASA plans up to five flights, each successively more difficult, in a period of a month.

© 2021 AFP

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Baby elephant dies rejected by family at Swedish zoo thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Baby elephant dies rejected by family at Swedish zoo

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Boras Djurpark, in western Sweden, has a dozen African savannah elephants, but in-captivity births are rare

A two-week old elephant has died after being rejected by her family following the birth of another elephant calf, Sweden’s Boras Zoo announced Friday.

“Despite three days of intensive care with a vet and carers at her side night and day the little animal left us today,” the zoo said in a post on Instagram showing keepers surrounding the mammal.

“Her body could not take any more and she had to go to sleep”.

The female was born on March 26 and had yet to be given a name.

She was rejected after the on Monday of a male elephant at the zoo, which describes itself as one the biggest and most modern in the country.

The zoo said there was nothing that could be done to stop the rejection.

“We are all very saddened, but at the same time we are trying to rejoice that the other elephant seems alert and awake,” the message added.

Boras Djurpark, in western Sweden, has a dozen African savannah , but in-captivity births are rare.

In the wild, have sharply declined after decades of poaching and shrinking habitats.

Half a century ago, 1.5 million elephants roamed Africa, but in the most recent large-scale assessment of population numbers in 2016, only 415,000 remained.

© 2021 AFP

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Thousands flee as volcano erupts on Caribbean island of St Vincent thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Thousands flee as volcano erupts on Caribbean island of St Vincent

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The 4,049-foot La Soufriere, pictured in January 2021, had not erupted in more than 40 years

A volcano that has been dormant for decades erupted Friday on Saint Vincent, darkening skies over the Caribbean island and forcing thousands of panicked locals to flee to safety.

The blast from La Soufriere, the highest peak in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, sent plumes of hot ash and smoke 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) into the air, the local emergency management agency said.

Video posted on the website news784.com showed a tower of ash being belched out and expanding into a ball shape as it rose upwards. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

“Please leave the red zone immediately. La Soufriere has erupted. Ash fall recorded as far as Argyle International Airport,” the National Emergency Management Organization said. The airport and volcano are at opposite ends of the 18-mile long island.

The 4,049-foot La Soufriere—French for “sulphur mine”—had not erupted since 1979 and its largest blow-up happened over a century ago, killing more than 1,000 people in 1902.

It had been rumbling for months before it finally blew.

It is now likely to keep erupting for days or weeks, scientists at the University of the West Indies, in Trinidad and Tobago, tweeted.

“Once there is one explosive eruption it is likely others can occur,” the university’s seismological research center said.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves started issuing evacuation orders late Thursday for residents in so-called red zones, home to some 16,000 people on the biggest island in the archipelago. The total population of the chain is about 100,000.

“Persons living in the ‘Red Zones’ are strongly advised to pack a quantity of personal items, secure your homes and animals; and be ready to be evacuated immediately,” police said in a statement after the eruption.

Zen Punnett, who lives on the island, said people panicked Thursday night as the evacuation orders came out but things were calmer Friday.

Map locating Saint Vincent’s La Soufriere volcano, which erupted April 9

“I can feel and hear rumbling here in the green safe zone. We can see a huge ball of smoke. Keeping calm as much as possible and praying,” Punnett said Friday.

Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises said in a press release they were sending two ships to assist the evacuation effort.

‘Scared out of their wits’

Gonsalves said two more ships from cruise liner company Carnival were also on their way.

Those evacuated would be taken to shelters elsewhere in the island chain or other Caribbean territories that have offered assistance, such as Barbados and Saint Lucia, according to local media.

Philmore Mullin, director of Antigua and Barbuda’s National Office of Disaster Services, told AFP the twin island nation was ready to receive evacuees from Saint Vincent.

He said between 12,000 and 15,000 people had already moved out of the red zones.

“I know for sure they will be scared out of their wits. The question is, what will happen after they move? Volcanoes don’t tell you what they are thinking,” said Mullin.

“If it continues to erupt for a long time it will be life-changing for them. And, depending on the type of eruption, they might not be able to get back home for years.”

The Royal Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force (RSVGPF) said in a statement quoted by local media that all officers had been told to report for duty immediately.

“All members of the (RSVGPF) and its auxiliary forces who are currently on vacation leave are hereby informed that all leave has been canceled with immediate effect,” the release said.

Sirens sounded out on one side of the island of as traffic became gridlocked on the other in the rush to escape, local news portal Searchlight reported.

© 2021 AFP

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Hexbyte Glen Cove New, reversible CRISPR method can control gene expression while leaving underlying DNA sequence unchanged thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove New, reversible CRISPR method can control gene expression while leaving underlying DNA sequence unchanged

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A new CRISPR method allows researchers to silence most genes in the human genome without altering the underlying DNA sequence — and then reverse the changes. Credit: Jennifer Cook-Chrysos/Whitehead Institute

Over the past decade, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system has revolutionized genetic engineering, allowing scientists to make targeted changes to organisms’ DNA. While the system could potentially be useful in treating a variety of diseases, CRISPR-Cas9 editing involves cutting DNA strands, leading to permanent changes to the cell’s genetic material.

Now, in a paper published online in Cell on April 9, researchers describe a editing technology called CRISPRoff that allows researchers to control gene expression with high specificity while leaving the sequence of the DNA unchanged. Designed by Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman, University of California San Francisco assistant professor Luke Gilbert, Weissman lab postdoc James Nuñez and collaborators, the method is stable enough to be inherited through hundreds of cell divisions, and is also fully reversible.

“The big story here is we now have a simple tool that can silence the vast majority of genes,” says Weissman, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “We can do this for multiple genes at the same time without any DNA damage, with great deal of homogeneity, and in a way that can be reversed. It’s a great tool for controlling gene expression.”

The project was partially funded by a 2017 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a reversible gene editor. “Fast forward four years [from the initial grant], and CRISPRoff finally works as envisioned in a science fiction way,” says co-senior author Gilbert. “It’s exciting to see it work so well in practice.”

Genetic engineering 2.0

The classic CRISPR-Cas9 system uses a DNA-cutting protein called Cas9 found in bacterial immune systems. The system can be targeted to in using a single guide RNA, where the Cas9 proteins create tiny breaks in the DNA strand. Then the cell’s existing repair machinery patches up the holes.

Because these methods alter the underlying DNA sequence, they are permanent. Plus, their reliance on “in-house” cellular repair mechanisms means it is hard to limit the outcome to a single desired change. “As beautiful as CRISPR-Cas9 is, it hands off the repair to natural cellular processes, which are complex and multifaceted,” Weissman says. “It’s very hard to control the outcomes.”

That’s where the researchers saw an opportunity for a different kind of gene editor—one that didn’t alter the DNA sequences themselves, but changed the way they were read in the cell.

This sort of modification is what scientists call “epigenetic”—genes may be silenced or activated based on chemical changes to the DNA strand. Problems with a cell’s epigenetics are responsible for many human diseases such as Fragile X syndrome and various cancers, and can be passed down through generations.

Epigenetic gene silencing often works through methylation—the addition of chemical tags to to certain places in the DNA strand—which causes the DNA to become inaccessible to RNA polymerase, the enzyme which reads the genetic information in the DNA sequence into messenger RNA transcripts, which can ultimately be the blueprints for proteins.

Weissman and collaborators had previously created two other epigenetic editors called CRISPRi and CRISPRa—but both of these came with a caveat. In order for them to work in , the cells had to be continually expressing artificial proteins to maintain the changes.

“With this new CRISPRoff technology, you can [express a protein briefly] to write a program that’s remembered and carried out indefinitely by the cell,” says Gilbert. “It changes the game so now you’re basically writing a change that is passed down through cell divisions—in some ways we can learn to create a version 2.0 of CRISPR-Cas9 that is safer and just as effective, and can do all these other things as well.”

Building the switch

To build an epigenetic editor that could mimic natural DNA methylation, the researchers created a tiny protein machine that, guided by small RNAs, can tack methyl groups onto specific spots on the strand. These methylated genes are then “silenced,” or turned off, hence the name CRISPRoff.

Because the method does not alter the sequence of the DNA strand, the researchers can reverse the silencing effect using enzymes that remove methyl groups, a method they called CRISPRon.

As they tested CRISPRoff in different conditions, the researchers discovered a few interesting features of the new system. For one thing, they could target the method to the vast majority of genes in the —and it worked not just for the genes themselves, but also for other regions of DNA that control but do not code for proteins. “That was a huge shock even for us, because we thought it was only going to be applicable for a subset of genes,” says first author Nuñez.

Also, surprisingly to the researchers, CRISPRoff was even able to silence genes that did not have large methylated regions called CpG islands, which had previously been thought necessary to any DNA methylation mechanism.

“What was thought before this work was that the 30 percent of genes that do not have a CpG island were not controlled by DNA methylation,” Gilbert says. “But our work clearly shows that you don’t require a CpG island to turn off by methylation. That, to me, was a major surprise.”

CRISPRoff in research and therapy

To investigate the potential of CRISPRoff for practical applications, the scientists tested the method in induced pluripotent stem cells. These are cells that can turn into countless cell types in the body depending on the cocktail of molecules they are exposed to, and thus are powerful models for studying the development and function of particular cell types.

The researchers chose a gene to silence in the stem cells, and then induced them to turn into nerve cells called neurons. When they looked for the same gene in the neurons, they discovered that it had remained silenced in 90 percent of the cells, revealing that cells retain a memory of epigenetic modifications made by the CRISPRoff system even as they change cell type.

They also selected one gene to use as an example of how CRISPRoff might be applied to therapeutics: the gene that codes for Tau protein, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. After testing the method in neurons, they were able to show that using CRISPRoff could be used to turn Tau expression down, although not entirely off. “What we showed is that this is a viable strategy for silencing Tau and preventing that protein from being expressed,” Weissman says. “The question is, then, how do you deliver this to an adult? And would it really be enough to impact Alzheimer’s? Those are big open questions, especially the latter.”

Even if CRISPRoff does not lead to Alzheimer’s therapies, there are many other conditions it could potentially be applied to. And while delivery to specific tissues remains a challenge for gene editing technologies such as CRISPRoff, “we showed that you can deliver it transiently as a DNA or as an RNA, the same technology that’s the basis of the Moderna and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine,” Weissman says.

Weissman, Gilbert, and collaborators are enthusiastic about the potential of CRISPRoff for research as well. “Since we now can sort of silence any part of the genome that we want, it’s a great tool for exploring the function of the genome,” Weissman says.

Plus, having a reliable system to alter a cell’s epigenetics could help researchers learn the mechanisms by which epigenetic modifications are passed down through cell divisions. “I think our tool really allows us to begin to study the mechanism of heritability, especially epigenetic heritability, which is a huge question in the biomedical sciences,” Nuñez says.

More information:
Cell (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.03.025

Journal information:

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Third of Antarctic ice shelf area at risk of collapse as planet warms thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Third of Antarctic ice shelf area at risk of collapse as planet warms

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Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

More than a third of the Antarctic’s ice shelf area could be at risk of collapsing into the sea if global temperatures reach 4°C above pre-industrial levels, new research has shown.

The University of Reading led the most detailed ever study forecasting how vulnerable the vast floating platforms of ice surrounding Antarctica will become to dramatic collapse events caused by melting and runoff, as climate change forces temperatures to rise.

It found that 34% of the area of all Antarctic ice shelves—around half a million square kilometers—including 67% of ice shelf area on the Antarctic Peninsula, would be at risk of destabilization under 4°C of warming. Limiting temperature rise to 2°C rather than 4°C would halve the area at risk and potentially avoid significant sea level rise.

The researchers also identified Larsen C—the largest remaining ice shelf on the peninsula, which split to form the enormous A68 iceberg in 2017—as one of four ice shelves that would be particularly threatened in a warmer climate.

Dr. Ella Gilbert, a research scientist in the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, said: “Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise. When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.

“We know that when melted ice accumulates on the surface of ice shelves, it can make them fracture and collapse spectacularly. Previous research has given us the bigger picture in terms of predicting Antarctic ice shelf decline, but our new study uses the latest modelling techniques to fill in the finer detail and provide more precise projections.

“The findings highlight the importance of limiting global temperature increases as set out in the Paris Agreement if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, including sea level rise.”

The new study, published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, used state-of-the-art, high-resolution regional climate modelling to predict in more detail than before the impact of increased melting and water runoff on ice shelf stability.

Ice shelf vulnerability from this fracturing process was forecast under 1.5°C, 2°C and 4°C global warming scenarios, which are all possible this century.

Ice shelves are permanent floating platforms of ice attached to areas of the coastline and are formed where glaciers flowing off the land meet the sea.

Every summer, ice at the surface of the ice shelf melts and trickles down into small air gaps in the snow layer below, where it refreezes. However, in years when there is a lot of melting but little snowfall, the water pools on the surface or flows into crevasses, deepening and widening them until the ice shelf eventually fractures and collapses into the sea. If there is water collecting on the surface of the ice shelf, that suggests it could be vulnerable to collapse in this way.

This is what happened to the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002, which fractured following several years of warm summer temperatures. Its collapse caused the glaciers behind the ice shelf to speed up, losing billions of tons of ice to the sea.

The researchers identified the Larsen C, Shackleton, Pine Island and Wilkins ice shelves as most at-risk under 4°C of warming, due to their geography and the significant runoff predicted in those areas.

Dr. Gilbert said: “If temperatures continue to rise at current rates, we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades.

“Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica—preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all.”

More information:
Geophysical Research Letters (2021). DOI: 10.1029/2020GL091733

Third of Antarctic ice shelf area at risk of collap

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Dozens of ultra-compact dwarf galaxies detected thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Dozens of ultra-compact dwarf galaxies detected

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UCD/GCs around the brightest galaxies in the Fornax cluster. Credit: Saifollahi et al., 2021.

Astronomers from the University of Groningen and elsewhere have identified 44 new ultra-compact dwarf galaxies (UCDs). The newly found objects most likely belong to the Fornax Cluster. The discovery is reported in a paper published March 31 on the arXiv pre-print server.

UCDs are very compact with high stellar populations, containing about 100 million stars. They display masses, colors and metallicities between those of and early-type dwarf galaxies. These ultra-compact stellar systems could provide important insights on the formation and evolution of galaxies in the universe.

Located some 65 million away from the Earth, the Fornax Cluster is the second-richest of galaxies nearby. Due to its relatively , it is a valuable source of information about galaxy clusters in general. Previous observations of Fornax Cluster have detected 61 member UCDs in total.

Now, a group of astronomers led by Teymoor Saifollahi of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, reports the finding of dozens of new potential UCDs that may be associated with the Fornax Cluster. By analyzing the data from the Fornax Deep Survey (FDS), Vista Hemisphere Survey (VHS) and archival datasets from the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), they identified 44 candidate UCDs in the outskirts of this cluster.

“With the deep optical images of the Fornax Deep Survey, combined with public near-infrared data, we revisit the UCD population of the Fornax cluster and search for UCD candidates, for the first time, systematically, out to the virial radius of the galaxy cluster,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The team initially selected 220 UCD candidates, and from this broad sample, they chose 44 that have a higher probability of being real UCDs. Almost all of the newly detected UCD candidates are located outside the core of the Fornax Cluster (more than 1,170 light years away from the cluster’s center).

According to the paper, almost half of the newfound ultra-compact dwarf galaxies in the outskirts of the Fornax Cluster appear to be intra-cluster UCDs, further away than 650,000 light years from any galaxy in this cluster brighter than -18 mag. The astronomers noted that this group of UCDs may be formed in low-density environments and represent in-falling UCD populations into the cluster.

The study also identified two over-densities of UCDs outside the core of the Fornax Cluster in the northern and western sides, which appear to overlap the enhancements in the densities of dwarf galaxies in this cluster. This finding suggests that the population of UCDs follow the dwarf galaxies in the Fornax Cluster and may form in low-density, pre-processed group environments, what challenges our current models of UCD formation.

The authors of the paper added that follow-up spectroscopy and radial velocity studies are required in order to confirm the membership of the new UCD candidates. Such measurements would also shed more light on the origin of these UCDs.

More information:
Ultra-compact dwarfs beyond the centre of the Fornax galaxy cluster: Hints of UCD formation in low-density environments, arXiv:2104.00004 [astro-ph.GA] arxiv.org/abs/2104.00004

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Hexbyte Glen Cove New modeling provides greater scrutiny for supply chains thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove New modeling provides greater scrutiny for supply chains

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Arno Senoner; Unsplash.” data-thumb=”https://scx1.b-cdn.net/csz/news/tmb/2021/newmodelingp.jpg”>

Arno Senoner; Unsplash.” width=”800″>
Supply chains can be vast and complex. Even the producers of the products don’t always fully know what happens, good or bad, all along a supply chain. Credit: Arno Senoner; Unsplash.

Unethical or destructive practices can be hidden within supply chains bringing us items we want and need. Dr. Arne Geschke uses data to drill into the complex global production web.

Over the past few years, there has been an aggressive and sometimes corrupt agricultural push into the Cerrado region of Brazil.

Since 2001, nearly 300,000 sq km of biodiverse forest, grassland and scrub has been cut down or burned, with some of the land being used for the lucrative production of soybeans that are exported for animal feed.

A recent investigation in the UK found that chicken sold in major supermarkets were fed using these destructive soybeans. The question was asked, should consumers be made aware of this, especially since some of the chicken would have been labeled as sustainably produced, based only on how the chicken was raised in the UK?

It’s up to regulators, producers and retailers to answer that question, but scrutinizing supply chains so there is information to inform the discussions is the task of researchers like Dr. Arne Geschke (Ph.D.(Science) ’13 MEd ’20).

“We essentially look at and assess the elements in the supply chains operating in countries and industries. We look at all relevant details,” Geschke says.

Global interdependencies

Companies are often unaware of the complexity and implications of their own supply chains, but they may well assess the larger elements that might allow them to maximize profits by say, consolidating factories, reining in or moving production to a country where labor costs are lower.

The analysis done by Geschke has other goals. He, and the University’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) team, crunch huge, supply chain numbers that can reveal hidden environmental devastation, worker exploitation, child labor and corruption.

“It’s so easy to open a can of worms with this,” says Geschke who now, thanks to COVID-19, mostly works from his home in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee. “Australia imports of a lot of carbon-heavy tech goods. We might want to reduce our carbon load but we don’t always have control over it. There are hidden interdependencies with other economies.”

The rise of green investments has made these insights important to more people with financial advisors now competing to offer the greenest possible investment portfolios to their clients. At the same time, companies want to find any dark dealings in their supply chains before someone else drags them into the light.

Assessing and collating this complex data

There are two main ways of gathering supply chain information. The first is called lifecycle assessment which uses a bottom-up approach. You start gathering information about a company then move to its suppliers. “This is labor-intensive. What happens is you quickly run out of puff or funds,” says Geschke, noting that supply chains can have millions of data points to interrogate.

“Take your mobile phone. It probably has some 10,000 components in it,” says Geschke. “Each component is probably created in a factory with heaps of inputs as well. Go deeper with this game, and in no time, you end up with millions or even billions of data points.”

The other method, and the one mostly used at the University, is a top-down approach called input-output analysis and it’s based on the fact that governments and organizations all around the world publish their economic data. That is certainly the case in Australia where businesses are obliged to report in great detail to the Australian Bureau of Statistics which then publishes the information in about 120 categories.

One challenge is ensuring that the information has integrity. For example, the laws of some countries might allow products to be called sustainably produced that would never be allowed that label here. Other countries simply manipulate their figures. The ISA team, working out of the School of Physics, puts a lot of effort into finding the most reliable sources.

“You can ask a commercial data provider for the carbon footprint of a big company, but different providers will have different numbers because there isn’t a universally-agreed way to compile the information,” says Geschke.

“Here at the ISA, we’re working on a system that would allow for a unified global approach that compares apples with apples.”

Helping with the mathematical and hardware design legwork is Geschke’s long-time colleague, Manfred Lenzen, who is Professor of Sustainability Research in the School of Physics. Any other names on the many papers they produce together are usually experts from the fields they are analyzing: for a study on the impact of fishing, a fisheries expert would join the team.

A passion to develop solutions to social and environmental problems

Using the right information and mathematical modeling, you can stitch together the information of two or more countries to get a sense of how they feed into supply chains for various products and commodities. This, and dealing with the hugely powerful computers they use, is the fun part for Geschke even though he didn’t start out thinking mathematics would become so consuming for him.

“I spent most of my teenage years cycling through the forest round Hamburg, where I was born,” he says. “Maths just seemed the way to go.”

After graduating from Hamburg University, he found himself working with the car maker, BMW, developing mathematical models to simulate engine behavior, “It was so boring, and I changed fields.” By this time, he had met his future partner. They were together at university where she was an Australian studying violin. Australia soon became their shared destination.

Working at the University, Geschke found his passion as he helped develop ways to see environmental and social problems that were hidden by complexity, distance or outright deception.

Seeing can be difficult. And sometimes people don’t want to see at all.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

“Carbon footprint should be the star of full supply chain studies and we’ve been raising the alarm for maybe 25 years,” says Geschke. “But people are still umming and erring about it. There are times when I think, “Why am I doing this?”

“But there are other important issues to pursue. Like if you look at data on corruption, you start to understand inequality and how much our western bubble relies on cheap labor from elsewhere.”

Without doubt, the modern world is held together by supply chains, but the ISA also looks at other areas.

“We’re currently running simulations for the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals,” says Geschke. “There are seventeen and we are officially tracking the global progress for a few of them. We use pretty serious computers to run programs but for each year they have to run non-stop for 48 to 50 hours.”

Obviously, a sustainable development goal is a large enterprise to map. But even the of a single consumer product can quickly reveal a vast landscape of inputs.

Take the rare earth metals used in mobile phones. They might be mined in Uganda or Mongolia, taken to another country for processing, sent on again to become components, and again to wherever the phones are assembled. Then there are the phone’s other metals, plastics, glass and constructed components to consider.

For Geschke, the hard work and dedication has recently seen him become one of the most internationally cited researchers in his field. Some of his studies have even crossed from academia into the news media, with one being what you might call a hit. The study investigated the effect of COVID on the international economy.

“That was massive,” he says. “A lot of news outlets ran it as a story.”

Drawing on the findings of another of their studies that looked at the carbon footprint of international tourism, the ISA was able calculate that pre-COVID, international tourism was responsible for between 7% and 10% of carbon impacts around the world, either directly or indirectly. That’s a sizeable proportion.

“These effects are certainly interesting to look at scientifically,” Geschke says. “But really, it all comes down to how can we actually survive on this planet?”

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Parts of U.S.'s southernmost states will 'tropicalize' as climate changes thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Parts of U.S.’s southernmost states will ‘tropicalize’ as climate changes

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As climate change reduces the frequency and intensity of killing freezes, tropical plants and animals that once could survive in only a few subtropical parts of the U.S. are expanding their ranges northward, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. This change is likely to result in some temperate zone plant and animal communities found today across the southern U.S. being replaced by tropical plant and animal communities.

These changes will have complex economic, ecological and human health consequences, the study predicts. Some effects are potentially beneficial, such as expanding winter habitat for cold-sensitive manatees and ; others pose problems, such as the spread of insect-borne human diseases and destructive invasive species.

The researchers found that a number of and animal species are expanding their ranges northward. These tropical and animals include insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, grasses, shrubs and trees. Among them are species native to the U.S. such as mangroves, which are tropical salt-tolerant trees, and snook, a coastal sport fish, and such as Burmese pythons and buffelgrass.

In the study published this month in Global Change Biology, a team of 16 scientists who have studied the effects of killing freezes describe how many cold-sensitive tropical plants and animals are kept in check by temperate zone winter cold snaps. Warming winters allow these organisms to spread north, especially into the eight subtropical U.S. mainland states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Most studies focus on changes in rather than changes in the highest highs and lowest lows, so the powerful effects of extreme cold snaps on ecosystems are poorly understood, according to USGS research ecologist Michael Osland, the study’s lead author.

“As climate changes, may become more or less common. In this instance what we found is that there are fewer freeze events taking place across the southern United States, including the coastal zone of Louisiana. My colleagues and I document how the reduction in freeze events are affecting subtropical regions like Louisiana,” said Louisiana State Climatologist and the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology Richard J. Russell Professor Barry Keim.

The authors document several decades’ worth of changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme cold snaps in San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans and Tampa—all cities with temperature records stretching back to at least 1948. In each city, they found, mean winter temperatures have risen over time, winter’s coldest temperatures have gotten warmer, and there are fewer days each winter when the mercury falls below freezing.

The authors include scientists from LSU, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, University of Arizona, University of California Berkeley, University of California Santa Cruz, University of British Columbia and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

Changes already underway or anticipated in the home ranges of 22 plant and from California to Florida include:

Cold-sensitive mangrove forests have been displacing temperate salt marsh plants along the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts for 30 years. With sea-level rise, mangroves may also move inland, displacing temperate and freshwater forests.

  • Buffelgrass and other annual grasses are moving into Southwestern deserts, fueling wildfire in native plant communities that have not evolved in conjunction with frequent fire.
  • Tropical mosquitos that can transmit encephalitis, West Nile virus and other diseases are likely to further expand their ranges, putting millions of people and wildlife species at risk of these diseases.
  • The southern pine beetle, a pest that can damage commercially valuable pine forests in the Southeast, is likely to move northward with warming winters.
  • Recreational and commercial fisheries are being disrupted by changing migration patterns and the northward movement of coastal fishes.

The authors suggest considering a scientific “rapid response” network to study the effects of cold snaps in the real world as they happen. For example, Osland said “the February 2021 freeze in Texas and Louisiana presented a once-in-several-decades opportunity to better understand the effects of extreme cold events on tropical cold-sensitive species including mangroves, coastal fishes, sea turtles, invasive Cuban tree frogs and invasive Brazilian pepper trees.”

They also suggest in-depth laboratory studies to learn how tropical species can adapt to extreme conditions and modeling to show how lengthening intervals between cold snaps will affect plant and animal communities.

More information:
Michael J. Osland et al. Tropicalization of temperate ecosystems in North America: The northward range expansion of tropical organisms in response to warming winter temperatures, Global Change Biology (2021). DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15563

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Hexbyte Glen Cove The incredible bacterial 'homing missiles' that scientists want to harness thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove The incredible bacterial ‘homing missiles’ that scientists want to harness

Hexbyte Glen Cove

An illustration of tailocins, and their altruistic action painted by author Vivek Mutalik’s daughter, Antara. Credit: Antara Mutalik

Imagine there are arrows that are lethal when fired on your enemies yet harmless if they fall on your friends. It’s easy to see how these would be an amazing advantage in warfare, if they were real. However, something just like these arrows does indeed exist, and they are used in warfare … just on a different scale.

These weapons are called tailocins, and the reality is almost stranger than fiction.

“Tailocins are extremely strong protein nanomachines made by ,” explained Vivek Mutalik, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) who studies tailocins and phages, the bacteria-infecting viruses that tailocins appear to be remnants of. “They look like phages but they don’t have the capsid, which is the ‘head’ of the phage that contains the viral DNA and replication machinery. So, they’re like a spring-powered needle that goes and sits on the , then appears to poke all the way through the making a hole to the cytoplasm, so the cell loses its ions and contents and collapses.”

A wide variety of bacteria are capable of producing tailocins, and seem to do so under stress conditions. Because the tailocins are only lethal to specific strains—so specific, in fact, that they have earned the nickname “bacterial homing missiles”—tailocins appear to be a tool used by bacteria to compete with their rivals. Due to their similarity with phages, scientists believe that the tailocins are produced by DNA that was originally inserted into during viral infections (viruses give their hosts instructions to make more of themselves), and over evolutionary time, the bacteria discarded the parts of the phage DNA that weren’t beneficial but kept the parts that could be co-opted for their own benefit.

But, unlike most abilities that are selected through evolution, tailocins do not save the individual. According to Mutalik, bacteria are killed if they produce tailocins, just as they would be if they were infected by true phage virus, because the pointed nanomachines erupt through the membrane to exit the producing cell much like replicated viral particles. But once released, the tailocins only target certain strains, sparing the other cells of the host lineage.

“They benefit kin but the individual is sacrificed, which is a type of altruistic behavior. But we don’t yet understand how this phenomenon happens in nature,” said Mutalik. Scientists also don’t know precisely how the stabbing needle plunger of the tailocin functions.

These topics, and tailocins as a whole, are an area of hot research due to the many possible applications. Mutalik and his colleagues in Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area along with collaborators at UC Berkeley are interested in harnessing tailocins to better study microbiomes. Other groups are keen to use tailocins as an alternative to traditional antibiotics -which indiscriminately wipe out beneficial strains alongside the bad and are increasingly ineffective due to the evolution of drug-resistance traits.

In their most recent paper, the collaborative Berkeley team explored the and physical mechanisms governing how tailocins attack specific strains, and looked at genetic similarities and differences between tailocin producers and their target strains.

After examining 12 strains of soil bacteria known to use tailocins, the biologists found evidence that differences in the lipopolysaccharides—fat- and sugar-based molecules—attached to the outer membranes could determine whether or not a strain is targeted by a particular tailocin.

“The bacteria we studied live in a challenging, resource-poor environment, so we’re interested to see how they might be using tailocins to fight for survival,” said Adam Arkin, co-lead author and a senior faculty scientist in the Biosciences Area and technical co-manager of the Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies (ENIGMA) Scientific Focus Area. Arkin noted that although scientists can easily induce bacteria to produce tailocins in the lab (and can easily insert the genes into culturable strains for mass production, which will be handy if we want to make tailocins into medicines) there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how bacteria deploy tailocins in their natural environment, as well as how—and why—particular strains are targeted with an assassin’s precision.

“Once we understand the targeting mechanisms, we can start using these tailocins ourselves,” Arkin added. “The potential for medicine is obviously huge, but it would also be incredible for the kind of science we do, which is studying how environmental microbes interact and the roles of these interactions in important ecological processes, like carbon sequestration and nitrogen processing.”

Currently, it’s very difficult to figure out what each microbe in a community is doing, as scientists can’t easily add and subtract and observe the outcome. With properly harnessed tailocins, these experiments could be done easily.

Mutalik, Arkin, and their colleagues are also conducting follow-up studies aiming to reveal tailocins’ mechanisms of action. They plan to use the advanced imaging facilities at Berkeley Lab to take atomic-level snapshots of the entire process, from the moment the tailocin binds to the target cell all the way to cell deflation. Essentially, they’ll be filming frames of a microscopic slasher movie.

More information:
Sean Carim et al, Systematic discovery of pseudomonad genetic factors involved in sensitivity to tailocins, The ISME Journal (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41396-021-00921-1


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Hexbyte Glen Cove The future of biodiversity collections thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove The future of biodiversity collections

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the crucial role played by biodiversity collections in enabling rapid responses to crises and in facilitating ongoing research across numerous fields. Despite the recognized value of this infrastructure, the community nevertheless has further opportunities to maximize its value to the scientific enterprise.

Writing in BioScience, Barbara Thiers of the New York Botanical Garden and colleagues describe (https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/biosci/biab036) the necessary steps for the biodiversity collections community to vouchsafe its position as an important catalyst of research. The authors draw on recommendations from by the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), arguing that an implementation plan for the previously described Extended Specimen Network (ESN) is a logical next step for the community.

According to Thiers and colleagues, the plan should draw on the existing capacity of biodiversity collections to provide researchers with a stable source of research materials, such as those needed to identify the evolution and origin of major pathogens. To undergird the plan, the authors highlight five pillars derived from the NASEM and BCoN reports: collecting new samples, continued digitization, , education and workforce training, and infrastructure and sustainability. With these themes in mind, say the authors, “ collections data stakeholders can now begin the work of creating a set of action items, a timeline, metrics for measuring success, and an oversight mechanism for the implementation of the ESN by 2030.”

The authors highlight that a fully implemented ESN will not only be imperative for collections and their users but also for nations seeking to equitably share specimen-derived benefits in compliance with such as the Nagoya Protocol. Compliance requires careful documentation of specimens and all of their associated records, as well as their use and any benefits derived therefrom. According to the authors, a globally implemented ESN will enable compliance by providing data transparency and maintaining critical records of specimen use and chain of custody.

Thiers and colleagues argue that it is imperative that the ESN be global in its scope. Only through broad international collaboration will it be possible to “develop a comprehensive, permanent federation of all biological collections that fulfills their mission to represent past and present life forms for scientific discovery, wise environmental policy, and a scientifically literate citizenry.”

More information:
Barbara Thiers et al, Implementing a Community Vision for the Future of Biodiversity Collections, BioScience (2021). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biab036

The future of biodiversity collections (2021, April 7)
retrieved 7 April 2021

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