Science & Technology


Fukushima contaminants in sediment uncovered by typhoons, carried offshore by currents

© Makio Honda, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
Researchers deployed time-series sediment traps 115 kilometers (approximately 70 miles) southeast of the nuclear power plant at depths of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The two traps began collecting samples on July 19, 2011 -- 130 days after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami -- and were recovered and reset annually.
An international research team reports results of a three-year study of sediment samples collected offshore from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in a new paper published August 18, 2015, in the American Chemical Society's journal, Environmental Science and Technology.

The research aids in understanding what happens to Fukushima contaminants after they are buried on the seafloor off coastal Japan.

Led by Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist and marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the team found that a small fraction of contaminated seafloor sediments off Fukushima are moved offshore by typhoons that resuspend radioactive particles in the water, which then travel laterally with southeasterly currents into the Pacific Ocean.

Comment: The authors seem to downplay the risks associate with these buried contaminates while ignoring the ongoing serious environmental and health consequences from this disaster.

Cloud Lightning

Astronaut captures rare sprites while taking photos of Earth from orbit

An astronaut flying over Central America earlier this month captured a beautiful photo of the nighttime sky above Earth illuminated by enormous red bursts of electromagnetic discharge known as a sprite.

The image, captured on August 10 from the International Space Station, shows the moon and a massive thunderstorm, and above the storm cloud is the red sprite, which is similar to lighting.


Bacteria's extraction of phosphate is its secret weapon against pesticides and antibiotics

© Ditlev E. Brodersen, Aarhus University
Figure A. Methyl phosphate. B. Methyl phosphonate. Phosphonate compounds are characterised by a direct link between carbon (C) and phosphorus (P), marked with red. C. The molecular structure of the C-P lyase complex.
Bacteria exhibit extreme adaptability, which makes them capable of surviving in the most inhospitable conditions. New research results produced by Danish and British researchers now reveal the molecular details behind one of the secret weapons used by bacteria in their battle to survive under very nutrient-poor and even toxic conditions.

All living things need phosphate to grow, which is why several hundred million tons of phosphate fertilisers are used every year in agriculture throughout the world. The nutrient content is so low in many parts of the world's oceans that all growth comes to a halt, and bacteria have therefore developed advanced mechanisms to extract phosphate from other substances. These are known as phosphonate compounds, which are produced by many primitive organisms and account for the largest known stock of phosphorus in the marine environment (see figure). Many of these compounds are formed as toxins (antibiotics) as part of the ongoing battle for survival among marine organisms. Several million kilograms of glyphosate (Roundup®) are used as pesticide in agriculture every year, and the accumulation of residues of this phosphonate compound in groundwater has led to growing concern in recent years.

Comment: Studies have shown, that despite manufacturer's claims, Roundup does not break down rapidly in the environment, and is accumulating there in concerning quantities. A recent comprehensive research study on environmental glyphosate levels exposed widespread contamination of soil and water in the US, as well as its water treatment system.

Comment: See also: Roundup herbicide causes antibiotic resistance in bacteria


Why are screams so spine-tingling? Scans reveal they activate the same 'fear circuits' in the brain as smoke alarms

A baby's scream will grab our attention no matter what's on the television or happening around us.

And now scientists have learnt why screams are so arresting - and it's not just because they are loud and high-pitched.

Screams activate 'fear circuits' in our brain because they have a subjective quality called 'roughness' where they quickly switch, or 'modulate', from loud to soft.
© Corbis
Using an MRI scanner, researchers analysed the brains of people listening to recorded screams (Janet Leigh is shown screaming in a grab from the 1960 film Psycho). The scans revealed that the sound activates the amygdala region of the brain, which is typically associated with our fear response
This is what helps give them their jagged, jarring quality that set our nerves on edge.

The same quality of 'roughness' is also found in burglar and car alarms - suggesting engineers may have hit on the feature through trial and error.

Comment: See also: Animal Screams Manipulate Movie Audiences

Comet 2

Meteorite impacts in ancient oceans may have formed DNA building blocks

© Dr. Yoshihiro Furukawa
These are chematics of nucleobases formation by meteorite impact on earth.
A new study shown that meteorite impacts on ancient oceans may have created nucleobases and amino acids. Researchers from Tohoku University, National Institute for Materials Science and Hiroshima University discovered this after conducting impact experiments simulating a meteorite hitting an ancient ocean.

With precise analysis of the products recovered after impacts, the team found the formation of nucleobases and amino acids from inorganic compounds. The research is reported this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Comment: With the increased frequency of meteors entering our atmosphere in recent years, one might wonder what they might be bringing with them, and the effects on earth of their overhead airbursts and impacts.

Snowflake Cold

Solar activity is declining - what to expect?

The Sun by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Is Earth slowly heading for a new ice age? Looking at the decreasing number of sunspots, it may seem that we are entering a nearly spotless solar cycle which could result in lower temperatures for decades. "The solar cycle is starting to decline. Now we have less active regions visible on the sun's disk," Yaireska M. Collado-Vega, a space weather forecaster at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told

But does it really mean a colder climate for our planet in the near future? In 1645, the so-called Maunder Minimum period started, when there were almost no sunspots. It lasted for 70 years and coincided with the well-known "Little Ice Age", when Europe and North America experienced lower-than-average temperatures. However, the theory that decreased solar activity caused the climate change is still controversial as no convincing evidence has been shown to prove this correlation.

Helen Popova, a Lomonosov Moscow State University researcher predicts that if the existing theories about the impact of solar activity on the climate are true, then this minimum will lead to a significant cooling, similar to the one during the Maunder Minimum period. She recently developed a unique physical-mathematical model of the evolution of the magnetic activity of the sun and used it to gain the patterns of occurrence of global minima of solar activity and gave them a physical interpretation.

"Given that our future minimum will last for at least three solar cycles, which is about 30 years, it is possible that the lowering of the temperature will not be as deep as during the Maunder Minimum," Popova said earlier in July. "But we will have to examine it in detail. We keep in touch with climatologists from different countries. We plan to work in this direction."

The solar cycle is the periodic change in the Sun's activity and appearance like changes in the number of sunspots. It has an average duration of about 11 years. The current solar cycle began on in January 2008, with minimal activity until early 2010. The sun is now on track to have the lowest recorded sunspot activity since accurate records began in 1750. The long-term decline in solar activity set in after the last grand solar maximum peaked in 1956.

Comment: See these related articles:


DNA could be used to store data more efficiently than computers, scientists find

© Alamy
Internet pioneer Vint Cerf has warned of a 'digital dark age' descending as computer hardware and software becomes obsolete.
DNA could be used to store digital information and preserve essential knowledge for thousands of years, research has shown.

Scientists exploring the archiving potential of DNA conducted a test in which error-free data was downloaded after the equivalent of 2,000 years.

The next challenge is to find a way of searching for information encoded in strands of DNA floating in a drop of liquid.

Lead researcher Dr Robert Grass, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), said: "If you go back to medieval times in Europe, we had monks writing in books to transmit information for the future, and some of those books still exist. Now, we save information on hard drives, which wear out in a few decades."

DNA has a "language" not unlike the binary code used in computers, said Dr Grass. While a hard drive uses zeros and ones to represent data, the DNA code is written in sequences of four chemical nucleotides, known as A,C,T and G.

But DNA can pack more information into a smaller space, and also has the advantage of durability.

In theory, a fraction of an ounce of DNA could store more than 300,000 terabytes of data, said Dr Grass. And archaeological finds had shown that DNA dating back hundreds of thousands of years can still be sequenced today.


Sweetgrass oil as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes

© Andrew Maxwell Phineas Jones, University of Guelph
Sweetgrass, a plant used in traditional medicine, contains compounds that can repel mosquitoes.
Native North Americans have long adorned themselves and their homes with fragrant sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), a native plant used in traditional medicine, to repel biting insects, and mosquitoes in particular. Now, researchers report that they have identified the compounds in sweetgrass that keep these bugs at bay.

The team will describe their approach in one of more than 9,000 presentations at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, taking place here through Thursday.

Mosquitoes and other insects remain a pesky part of everyday life in many parts of the world, and their bites are linked to a range of serious diseases, such as malaria. To add to the arsenal of insect repellents, Charles Cantrell, Ph.D., investigates the components of plants used in traditional therapies. "We found that in our search for new insect repellents, folk remedies have provided good leads."

Stock Down

Will humans survive the next mass extinction? Don't count on it!

© Dado Ruvic / Reuters
Death from above. In our future?
Despite populating vast swaths of the planet, and appropriating large amounts natural resources in order to survive, human beings are no more likely to survive a mass extinction event than rare or endangered species, scientists say.

A team from the University of Leeds examining the effects of mass extinctions found that widespread species, like humans, are just as likely to become extinct as less populous ones.

This contrasts with regular circumstances, where a populous species is more likely to survive than a rare or endangered one.

The team of scientists examined the fossil records of vertebrates from the Triassic and Jurassic periods - 252 to 145 million years ago. During this period a mass extinction thought to have been caused by a volcanic eruption wiped out almost 80 percent of all living species and gave rise to the dinosaurs.

Comment: Earth is long past due for its next 'shake-up'. And it's not just the current 'biodiversity crisis caused by human activity'; there is also the cosmic element to consider. In short, our survival is not something we can take for granted. And it is largely outside of our control. Who will take over when we're gone? Surely they'll do a better job with this planet than humanity ever did!


Study finds malaria parasites lose drug resistance following changes to health policies

© CC 2.5
Plasmodium sp., Errger der Malaria
Chloroquine (CQ) is a first-line treatment for Plasmodium falciparum infections, which like many other malaria treatments, eventually resulted in the selection of parasites with resistance to the drug. The evolutionary dynamics of antimalarial drug resistance are driven by many factors, including differing transmission contexts and new drug pressures on parasites. Recently, a group of researchers published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examined the loss of CQ resistance (CQR) in French Guiana following a health policy change.

To conduct their study, the researchers studied P. falciparum isolates collected between 1994 and 2013 from symptomatic patients in French Guiana. They conducted DNA extraction and phenotyping from samples to compile a database of genetic information about the various strains. Their analysis revealed the presence of a single mutation in the pfcrt allele encoding a substitution associated with a return of parasite susceptibility to CQ.

In 1995, CQ had become ineffective against the prevalent CQR parasite strains in much of French Guiana and surrounding countries, and was officially abandoned as a course of treatment because of poor clinical efficacy. Quinine plus doxycycline became the subsequent treatment through 2007. Researchers used a gene marker, K76T, as a marker for CQ resistance.

Comment: Also see:
Concerns have been raised as, twice before, resistance to the then gold standard anti-malarial drugs - chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine - started in the same region before spreading to South-east Asia and Africa, leading to the deaths of millions of children.

Experts warn millions of lives are at risk as world's most effective malaria drug loses its potency