This week we learned that astronomers looking at a star in our cosmic backyard found three “potentially habitable” planets spinning around it, scientists from the U.K. discovered a source of true green energy when they turned grass intro copious amounts of hydrogen, and biologists in Africa observed humans and birds communicate with one another and exchange honey-hunting tips. Read on and marvel.
Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a group of researchers from MIT, the University of Liège and elsewhere found a nearby planetary system that includes three Earth-size and “potentially habitable” planets. “Judging from the size and temperature of the planets, the researchers determined that regions of each planet may be suitable for life,” MIT said in a news release. Astronomically speaking, the planets are in our backyard—just 40 light years away, orbiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Two of them appear to be “primarily rocky” and wrapped in compact atmospheres similar to those found on the solar system’s rocky planets. “Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?” said first author Julien de Wit, a postdoctoral student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, where the atmosphere is dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere with heavy clouds, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere. The next step is to try to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets.” The results were published in the journal Nature.
Scientists in Wales and Northern Ireland have found a way to extract “significant amounts” of hydrogen from grass with just sunlight and a simple catalyst, potentially opening a new source of renewable energy. Hydrogen has a high energy density but doesn’t release greenhouse gasses during combustion. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that this kind of raw biomass has been used to produce hydrogen in this way,” said Cardiff University professor Michael Bowker, a co-author of the study. “This is significant as it avoids the need to separate and purify cellulose from a sample, which can be both arduous and costly.” The research was published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings A.
Biologists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town have observed that people in Africa communicate with bird species called honeyguides and use the information to find bees’ nests. They wrote that honey hunters in Mozambique “use special calls to solicit the help of honeyguides and that honeyguides actively recruit appropriate human partners. This relationship is a rare example of cooperation between humans and free-living animals.” Humans benefit because the birds lead them to honey and the birds profit because humans subdue the stinging bees and allow them to feast on wax. “What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” wrote evolutionary biologist Claire Spottiswoode. The research was published in the journal Science.
Researchers at MIT and the University of California, San Diego have programmed a harmless strain of Escherichia coli bacteria to sniff out cancer and produce and deliver “toxic payloads” to tumors. “The new approach exploits bacteria’s natural tendency to accumulate at disease sites,” the team wrote in a news release. The genetically modified bugs, which can be injected or swallowed, kill cancer three ways. “One circuit produces a molecule called hemolysin, which destroys tumor cells by damaging their cell membranes,” the team wrote. “Another produces a drug that induces the cell to undergo programmed suicide, and the third circuit releases a protein that stimulates the body’s immune system to attack the tumor.” “When deployed together with a traditional cancer drug, the bacteria shrank aggressive liver tumors in mice much more effectively than either treatment alone,” the scientists said. The research was reported in the journal Nature.
Biologists from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Berkeley reported that some of the bacteria in our guts that “guide the early development of our intestines, train our immune systems to fight pathogens and may even affect our moods and behavior” were “passed down over millions of years, since before we were human.” Said Andrew Moeller, a former graduate student at UT Austin and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley: “Maybe we can trace our gut microbes back to our common ancestors with all mammals, all reptiles, all amphibians, maybe even all vertebrates. If that’s true, it’s amazing.” The results were reported in the journal Science.