This week we learned about German bacteriologists who picked a powerful new antibiotic made by a microbe that lives in people’s noses, a leaf-like solar cell that turns CO2 into usable fuel and an arctic heatwave that released anthrax spores from decades-old frozen reindeer. There’s more Proceed with caution.
Scientists at the University of Tubingen in Germany found a new potent antibiotic compound made from bacteria found in people’s noses. The bacterium, Staphylococcus lugdunensis, produces a compound—called lugdunin—that prevents the growth of a different and potentially dangerous kind of staph, S. auerus. A runaway S. aureus can mutate into the dreaded, drug-resistant form known as MRSA, which kills thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone. “We’ve found a new concept of finding antibiotics,” the journal Science quoted Tubingen bacteriologist Andreas Peschel. “We have preliminary evidence at least in the nose that there is a rich source of many others, and I’m sure that we will find new drugs there.”
Engineers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have come up with a “potentially game-changing” solar cell that traps carbon dioxide and uses sunlight to convert it into a synthetic gas that can be used as fuel. “Unlike conventional solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries, the new device essentially does the work of plants, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, solving two crucial problems at once,” the team wrote in a news release. “A solar farm of such ‘artificial leaves’ could remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and produce energy-dense fuel efficiently.”
Scientists at Columbia University have developed a flexible sheet camera that adapts its optics when it is wrapped around objects and keeps gathering high-quality images. Shree Nayar, the Columbia professor of computer science who designed the device, built the camera with his colleague from an elastic array of adaptive lenses “that enables the focal length of each lens in the sheet camera to vary with the local curvature.” Said Nayar: “Cameras today capture the world from essentially a single point in space. We believe there are numerous applications for cameras that are large in format but very thin and highly flexible.”
Researchers have been playing with superatoms—clusters of atoms that have the ability to emulate the properties of different elements. They’ve already made a cluster of aluminum atoms behave like the chemical element germanium. Now a team from Columbia University led by Xavier Roy built the first molecule made from superatoms. The breakthrough could lead to faster computers, better sensors and denser computer memory. “These superatom molecules have a rich electrochemical profile and chart a path to a whole family of superatom molecules with new and unusual properties,” Roy and his team wrote in the journal Nano Letters. “We’re aiming to make things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Roy told New Scientist.
An arctic heat wave sounds like an oxymoron but that’s what’s happening in western Siberia this summer. With temperatures as high 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius), the thawing tundra has apparently released anthrax spores that have spent 75 years hibernating inside a reindeer carcass. For the first time since the 1940s, anthrax has sickened people and killed reindeer in the area. The Washington Post quoted a 2011 paper by a pair of Russian scientists who warned that “as a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”