NASA's newest fleet of far-out exploration ideas include projects that could one day return samples from Saturn's moon Titan, allow astronauts to experience artificial gravity in space, or send staggering quantities of planetary data back to Earth.
The agency announced the latest recipients under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which examines early-stage ideas for exploring the universe. While many of these projects may be decades from launch, NASA and related groups may use some of the ideas in future programs. [...]
"There is an overwhelming number of new participants in the program this year," Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, said in a statement from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "All but two of the researchers selected for Phase I awards will be first-time NIAC grant recipients, showing NASA's early-stage opportunities continue to engage new creative thinkers from all over the country." [...]
Below is the full list of 2021 Phase I recipients; the brief descriptions are taken directly from each project's individual experiment pages on the NIAC website.
“Younger paleontologists are working to overcome some historical legacies of their discipline and change how people learn about natural history.” (New York Times $$)
In 2019, Mohamad Bazzi, a doctoral student at Uppsala University in Sweden, launched an expedition to Tunisia in search of fossils. He and his colleagues traveled to the phosphate mines around the city of Gafsa, where 56-million-year-old rocks record a time of rapidly warming oceans and mass extinctions, particularly of apex predators like sharks.
Mr. Bazzi made some distinctive choices for this paleontological expedition.
For starters, his team hired Tunisians to help dig, rather than bringing students from his university. Mr. Bazzi and his colleagues also chose to reach out to the residents of Gafsa wherever possible, holding impromptu lectures on the area’s fossil history to interested onlookers. This was a contrast with the secretiveness of many paleontologists in the field, who might worry about their sites being raided for the fossil black market.
The fossils the team collected from Gafsa are important for learning more about how animals adapted to the hothouse world of the Eocene, a period that may foretell what’s in store for the planet in coming years if carbon emissions don’t slow.
But while Mr. Bazzi’s team removed the fossils from Tunisia, they did so under an agreement with local institutions that Mr. Bazzi himself insisted on: After he finished his research, the remains would be returned.
“The mapmakers say they are not done. Next, they hope to develop similar maps that could help scientists find and describe thousands of species of invertebrates and plants.”
Ecologists involved in mapping all life on Earth have now taken the next step: predicting where the life we don’t know about is waiting to be discovered. As a first pass, they have created an interactive map showing diversity hot spots with the richest potential for new mammal, bird, reptile, and amphibian species. They describe their results today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
“Unknown species are usually left out of conservation planning, management, and decision-making,” says co-author Mario Moura, an ecologist at the Federal University of Paraíba. “If we want to improve biodiversity conservation worldwide, we need to better know its species.”
“The examples of Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin give us all the evidence we need that state-led ‘management’ does not ensure the protection and recovery of gray wolves.”
In Wisconsin, just weeks after gray wolves were delisted from the ESA, an ill-conceived hunt during the wolves’ mating season left 216 gray wolves dead — approximately 20% of the entire wolf population in the state — during a three-day slaughter.
Meanwhile, in Montana, a state in which wolves lost ESA protections in 2011, not by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but by an undemocratic congressional rider, the federal delisting emboldened politicians to up unscientific efforts to eliminate wolves from the landscape. In the past month, the Montana Senate passed a bill allowing for private bounties for dead wolves and the Montana House passed bills expanding the wolf trapping season and allowing snares in an effort to further decimate wolves.
These recent activities follow on the heels of a similarly unsettling example of failed state-level wolf management in Idaho, where wolves have also been delisted since 2011. There, over a recent 12-month period, trappers, hunters, and state and federal agencies killed an astounding 570 wolves, including at least 35 wolf pups as young as 4 weeks old.
In the hours after we die, certain cells in the human brain are still active. Some cells even increase their activity and grow to gargantuan proportions, according to new research from the University of Illinois Chicago. [...]
These 'zombie genes'—those that increased expression after the post-mortem interval—were specific to one type of cell: inflammatory cells called glial cells. The researchers observed that glial cells grow and sprout long arm-like appendages for many hours after death. "That glial cells enlarge after death isn't too surprising given that they are inflammatory and their job is to clean things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke" [...]
What's significant, Loeb said, is the implications of this discovery—most research studies that use postmortem human brain tissues to find treatments and potential cures for disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, do not account for the post-mortem gene expression or cell activity.
"Most studies assume that everything in the brain stops when the heart stops beating, but this is not so," Loeb said. "Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven't quantified these changes until now."
Studying genetic material on a cellular level, such as single-cell RNA-sequencing, can provide scientists with a detailed, high-resolution view of biological processes at work. This level of detail helps scientists determine the health of tissues and organs, and better understand the development of diseases such as Alzheimer's that impacts millions of people. However, a lot of data is also generated, and leads to the need for an efficient, easy-to-use way to analyze it.
Now, a team of engineers and scientists from the University of Missouri and the Ohio State University have created a new way to analyze data from single-cell RNA-sequencing by using a computer method called "machine learning." This method uses the power of computers to intelligently analyze large amounts of data and help scientists draw faster conclusions and move to the next stage of the research. Their methodology is detailed in a new paper published by Nature Communications.
The treatment is a potent protease inhibitor, the same kind of technology used to treat HIV and hepatitis C.
- Pfizer said Tuesday the phase one trial of a pill to treat COVID-19 is underway in the U.S.
- Preclinical studies showed the oral antiviral “demonstrated potent in vitro anti-viral activity against SARS-CoV-2, as well as activity against other coronaviruses.”
- Pfizer is also studying an intravenous antiviral therapy to treat COVID-19 that is being used in a clinical trial involving hospitalized patients.
Octopuses, like humans, sleep in two stages (science mag)
Do octopuses dream? Scientists haven’t cracked that mystery, but they have come a bit closer. A new study reveals that, like us, our eight-legged friends experience both an active and a quiet sleep stage. Because humans and octopuses are separated by more than 500 million years of evolution, the discovery suggests a two-stage sleep pattern evolved independently twice.
“We haven't shared an ancestor with an octopus since we were just single cells in the ocean,” says Marcos Frank, a neuroscientist at Washington State University who was not involved with the research. “It's incredible, if this holds up.”
Pollinators have a critical, but largely unappreciated, role to play when it comes to climate change, says ecologist Jeff Ollerton.
Around 75 per cent of the world’s main types of crops rely on pollinators. Without them, our diets and farmers would be poorer. But their value in combating climate change is often overlooked. Almost 90 per cent of the 352,000 species of flowering plants are pollinated by insects and vertebrates such as birds and bats. As such, pollinators ensure the continuation of plant populations that lock up carbon in their woody stems, roots, bulbs and tubers. The best way to restore natural habitats to help fight global warming is through natural regeneration from seeds, and for that we need pollinators.
But this may not be the most important role of pollinators in relation to climate change; how they affect soils may be more critical. When a pollinator visits a flower it sets in motion a chain of events that leads not just to seeds, but also to a series of structures that support plant reproduction. These include woody fruit casings that protect the developing embryo, as well as dispersal structures such as the wings of sycamore seeds. All of these contain a very high proportion of carbon. Once they have fulfilled their function, they fall to the ground where they enter the soil as a source of locked-in carbon.
A pernicious agricultural pest owes some of its success to a gene pilfered from its plant host millions of years ago.
The finding, reported today in Cell1, is the first known example of a natural gene transfer from a plant to an insect. It also explains one reason why the whitefly Bemisia tabaci is so adept at munching on crops: the gene that it swiped from plants enables it to neutralize a toxin that some plants produce to defend against insects.
Early work suggests that inhibiting this gene can render the whiteflies vulnerable to the toxin, providing a potential route to combating the pest. “This exposes a mechanism through which we can tip the scales back in the plant’s favour,” says Andrew Gloss, who studies plant–pest interactions at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “It’s a remarkable example of how studying evolution can inform new approaches for applications like crop protection.”
€4.5 billion is earmarked for five areas: climate change; cancer; oceans and other bodies of water; smart cities; and soil and food.
Over the next seven years, the European Union’s giant research-spending scheme will distribute a record €95.5 billion (US$116 billion) — including €5.4 billion from a COVID-19 recovery fund — to basic-science projects and cross-border research collaborations to be carried out by tens of thousands of researchers across 27 member states and more than a dozen other countries.
Horizon Europe is an evolution, rather than a reinvention, of the EU’s previous research programmes. Like its predecessor Horizon 2020, which ran from 2014 to 2020, it is a mixed bag of funding schemes. It includes grants for individual scientists in all fields, and for large multinational collaborations covering grand societal challenges such as health, climate change and the digital revolution.
But Horizon Europe also includes new elements that reflect increasing attention to open science, equality, interdisciplinary research and practical applications. Here, Nature takes a look at some of the major changes.
A new type of rock created during large and exceptionally hot volcanic eruptions has been discovered beneath the Pacific Ocean.
An international team of researchers including the University of Leeds unearthed the previously unknown form of basalt after drilling through the Pacific ocean floor.
The discovery suggests that ocean floor eruptions sourced in the Earth's mantle were even hotter and more voluminous than previously thought. Report co-author is Dr. Ivan Savov, of Leeds' Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics, in the university's School of Earth and Environment.
He said: "In an era when we rightly admire discoveries made through space exploration, our findings show there are still many discoveries still to make on our own planet.
Mysterious deaths of bald eagles, mallards and other lake life in the southeastern United States have puzzled scientists for more than 20 years. After a long slog exploring the quirks of cyanobacteria gluing themselves to an invasive water weed, a research team has found a toxin that could be the culprit.
And it’s an odd one, the team reports March 26 in Science.
Nicknamed AETX, the toxin has an unusual chemical structure requiring building blocks rich in the element bromine, says Susan Wilde, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Yet those bromide building blocks are not routinely abundant in southern lake water. That’s where the life story of a particular water weed comes in. (Go read the whole article, it’s a complex process that results in the toxin.)
Bromine can get into lakes from various sources, some natural and not, such as power plants. Researchers discovered that the invasive Hydrilla builds up extreme concentrations of bromine compounds, 20 times greater than the concentrations in the lake bottom mud and 500 to 1,000 times greater than in lake water. In late summer, the warm water stays at the top of the lake trapping chilly, dark, low-oxygen water below. The weedy Hydrilla stops flourishing and starts leaking bromine-rich compounds. That’s when the cyanobacteria have the ingredients to make their deadly toxin.
This new research, out today in Science, looked at a newly discovered, endangered songbird located only in South America—the Iberá Seedeater—and found that this bird followed a very rare evolutionary path to come into existence at a much faster pace than the grand majority of species.
By comparing this bird to a closely related neighbor (the Tawny-Bellied Seedeater) in the same group (the southern capuchino seedeaters), the researchers determined that genetic shuffling of existing variations, rather than new random mutations, brought this species into existence—and their own behaviors are keeping them apart.
This species is one of only two known examples across the globe to have traveled this path, challenging the typical assumptions of how new species form.
"One of the aspects of this paper that makes it so cool is that we were able to address this question of how the Iberá Seedeaters formed from multiple different perspectives," said Sheela Turbek, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology (EBIO) at CU Boulder and the study's lead author.
In addition to being home to men with questionable decision-making skills, Florida also seems to have some issues with bizarre animal behavior, whether it's freezing iguanas dropping from trees or alligators battling pythons in the Everglades. When it comes to those animals, however, Floridians can truly put the blame on non-natives. Neither pythons nor green iguanas made the Sunshine State their home until we brought them there as pets.
In fact, there are lots of problematic invasive species that have spread through the pet trade, from predatory fish that can drag themselves between bodies of water to a crayfish that clones itself to reproduce. Those high-profile cases lead to some obvious questions, like whether pets really are more likely to be invasive and, if so, why?
Two Swiss researchers, Jérôme Gippeta and Cleo Bertelsmeier have now attempted to answer these questions. And their conclusion is that yes, our pets are more likely to be problems.
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|Since 2007, Overnight News Digest has gathered news stories from around the world, sometimes coupled with a daily theme, original research or commentary. The different editors of OND add their own presentation styles and content choices, typically publishing each day near 9 pm Pacific time (Midnight Eastern time). Saturday editions focus on science stories.