A Worm Enzyme Might Help Rid World of Some Thrown-Away Plastic

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Henderson Island beach. Photo: Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

It is widely believed that is possible to rid ourselves of plastic items we no longer want by throwing them away. A study of Henderson Island, a 14.4 sq mile (37.3 sq km) spit of land in the Pitcairn Islands, which are far from anywhere else in the far reaches of the South Pacific, has demonstrated with frightening certainty that, as an old saying has it, “there’s no such place as away.”

Virtually every available surface, and too many buried ones to count on Henderson Island, are covered with bits of plastic, much of it from China, significant amounts also from Japan and Chile, according to scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK. Some 37 million pieces in all have made Henderson Island one of if not the largest homes globally for parted-with plastic.

The scientists’ report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, said the plastics debris density on Henderson Island is higher than anywhere else on earth. While its accumulated 37 million pieces of discarded plastic is but a drop in the proverbial bucket of the 5 trillion plastic pieces – some 250,000 tons worth – littering the world. And its presence in this once pristine piece of property makes a mockery of the island’s status as a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” site, as “one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

That declaration was made as recently as 1988 – a mere 29 years ago.

Not only is the accumulated plastic an eyesore to those rare souls who approach close enough to uninhabitable Henderson to see it, it’s a real risk to wildlife on and near the island. As the plastic drifts closer to Henderson, which sits amidst what’s called the South Pacific’s ocean gyre, an enormous area comprising one of half a dozen major circulating areas for ocean currents, water from vast areas on either side of the Pacific contribute trash as well as water from diverse sources. (That’s why Henderson’s plastic comes from so far afield.) Sea creatures ingest or get tangled in plastic materials, which either kill them quickly or slowly choke the life out of them. Land animals, too, often become victims of plastic materials eaten because they smelled or appeared edible.

These problems are destined to become more widespread unless mankind, collectively, takes steps to reduce the creation and use of plastic materials.

That and finding, in the guts of a certain species of wax worms, the enzyme that enables it to “eat” plastic:That such an enzyme exists stems from findings of a part-time Spanish beekeeper, a day-job researcher who found that the worms, whose caterpillar parents like to munch on beeswax inside his hives, were able to eat their way out a plastic bag he’d put some in.

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A hole eaten through a plastic bag by a wax worm. (Photo: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Great scientific answers, and solutions, have been launched from less auspicious starts than that! Who knows? In time a wax worm enzyme could, if replicated on a large enough scale, take a bite out of the world’s plastic waste problem. But don’t hold your breath: That kind of advance isn’t likely to happen with this, or even the next, decade or three.


This blog and its stable-mate, FoodTradeTrends.com, have been seen, in 18 months, in no fewer than 85 countries!

		
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14,000-year-old human evidence found in Western British Columbia

ancient site

Photo: Joanne McSporran

A coastal strip of land in British Columbia has been occupied at least 14,000 years – back to the time of the last Ice Age, when warm water influences from the Pacific Ocean kept this area from freezing. A CBC report last month, detailing how a meters-deep excavation turned up evidence dating back at least that far, said the discovery lends credence to oral histories of the area by the Heiltsuk Nation, an aboriginal group there. The ancient site, uncovered last November, shows that people occupied this area long before the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the creation of the Pyramids in Egypt, the Vancouver Sun said.

The Triquet Island settlement, reachable only by air or sea, has produced a hoard of valuable artifacts, including pieces of bent wood, compound fish hooks and assorted stone tools. The site is one of the oldest evidence of human habitation ever found in North America.

William Housty, a member of Heiltsuk Nation, told Smithsonian.com that the validation by “Western science and archeology” of his people’s long-time occupation of the area can help the Heiltsuk people as they negotiate with the Canadian government over title rights to their traditional territory.

Ambitious Amateur Explorer Makes Amazing Discovery: Dawn-of-Time Space Dust

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Jon Larson’s “night job” is as a well-known jazz musician in Norway. His volunteer “day job” for the past half dozen years or so has been to search accumulated detritus in rain gutters for space debris. He convinced Dr. Matthew Genge, a Senior Lecturer in Earth and Planetary Science at Imperial College, London, to ‘have his back’, lending his scientific knowledge to analyzing “suspect” bits and bobs. To the total amazement of Dr. Genge, they’ve succeeded beyond even Larson’s wildest dream: They’ve collectively collected and identified particles of “space dust” having “origins dating back to the birth of the solar system,” as an article on LiveScience.com put it.

Their write-up was based on one in the journal Geology, which noted that Larson collected something like 500 “micrometeorites” that were identified as such “on the basis of their compositions, mineralogies, and textures.” No such early-space discoveries of this magnitude have ever before been recorded.

And the significance of this is? Even though they have only tiny specimens to work with, scientists can, in studying these particles, learn more about how our universe formed and, hopefully, make discoveries that, in some hard-to-imagine way, will advance human knowledge about how we came to “be”.

The LiveScience article notes that, “Our solar system is filled with dust from collisions between asteroids and venting from comets; The most visible sign of this dust encountering Earth are the meteor showers that light up the upper atmosphere as Earth orbits though one of the many dusty trails left behind these interplanetary vagabonds. However, the tiny particles that rain through the atmosphere as “shooting stars” burn up completely, leaving only a bright flash in their wake. Their journey comes to an abrupt end as a blaze of super-heated glory.

Dr. Genges noted that, ““These particles [in gutter sediment] are almost definitely not coming from meteor showers as that dust comes in too fast — it comes in at maybe 30 kilometers per second [67,000 miles per hour] — and it completely evaporates in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The gutter particles are thought to enter the atmosphere at a speed of around 12 kilometers per second (27,000 miles per hour) where atmospheric heating does inevitably heat up the particles, but the dust survives the fall. Judging by their size of around 0.3 millimeters, these are likely the fastest dust particles to survive the hot atmospheric entry, Genges said. Through analysis of the 500 specimens, the researchers found there to be a mix of particles that originate from asteroids and others that originate from comets.

“We have found dust particles that we think come from comets and they are subtly different from those that come from asteroids … they are carbon rich. Whereas the ones from asteroids look similar to the material from meteorites, that are also from asteroids,” he added.

Separating the cosmic particles from plain old gutter dirt is no easy task, but the researchers used an important trait found in these space particles to their advantage — they contain minerals that make them magnetic. So, by magnetically separating the dirt under the microscope, these particles could be found.

“These [particles] are very similar to the cosmic dust from deep sea sediments,” said Genges. “The main difference is that these are very young. Because they’ve been largely collected from roofs on commercial buildings, those buildings have their gutters cleaned at least every 3-5 years, so we know these [particles] have landed on Earth at least in the last 5 years. Whereas particles found on the seabed are up to 50,000 years old. These are a sample of what’s landing on Earth, practically today.”

As this dust has fallen to Earth within the last 5 years, the researchers could even deduce how the solar system dust falling on Earth has changed over the last million years. The dust found in city gutters contains fewer crystals than the dust that has been found in million-year-old ice Antarctica, for example, but the particles are remarkably similar to cosmic dust that fell onto Earth in medieval times.

According to an Imperial College London press release, the researchers think that the changes in dust particle structure could be down to very small orbital changes in the solar system’s planets over millions of years. The slight gravitational disturbances likely change the trajectory of the interplanetary dust, causing it to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at different speeds and angles. These slight changes can therefore influence how much heating is caused by atmospheric entry which, in turn, influences the size of the particles that make it to the ground and influence the shape of the crystals inside the microscopic grains.

In short, these tiny cosmic grains of dust hold an incredible amount of information about the state of the planets’ orbits when they hit Earth, but they are also the very tiny fossilized remains of our solar system, emerging directly from the material in the nebula that went on to form our sun and the planets.

“The actual materials of comets and asteroids have a very long history; they date back to the birth of our solar system four and a half billion years ago,” said Genges.

When Oscar Wilde composed his famous quote, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” little did he know that, one day, a Norwegian amateur scientist would be looking for star dust in the gutter.

NIH Director Plays Guitar/Cello Duet With Famed Cellist Yo Yo Ma

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People in distinguished positions occasionally get to have extraordinary experiences: Going very, very special places, or meeting people whose lives are somehow magical.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, recently had such an experience when he, a self-described “amateur guitar picker,” spun a duet with world-renowned classical cellist Yo Yo Ma. They played what Dr. Collins described as, in his blog on the NIH web site, “a creative interpretation of the traditional song, ‘How Can I Keep From Singing?’”

The occasion was when Mr. Ya visited NIH for its annual J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture, where he participated in conversation on the intersection of music and science.

The blog post said:

Brain Arias Involved in Playing MusicBefore the rapt audience at the NIH Clinical Center’s Masur Auditorium, Ma demonstrated various ways to interpret the notes and dynamics of Bach, opening the door to the fascinating topic of the neuroscience of music. As you can see in the image [above], when a person plays a violin or other musical instrument, a variety of areas throughout the brain are activated. [1] Another recent study suggests that the human brain possesses its own “music room” in the cerebral cortex, composed of populations of neural cells that are selectively dedicated to processing the sounds of music, as opposed to sounds of speech. [2] What’s more, neuroscientists have found that certain brain cells release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control reward and pleasure, both before and during the times that people listen to musical passages with the power to give them ‘the chills’.”

Another topic raised by Ma was how the open exchange of information has served to accelerate progress not only in biomedical research, but in the making of world-class string instruments. We even touched upon the question of why music exists: what evolutionary advantage might it have provided to Homo sapiens as a species? Perhaps it was a way for social groups to join together around a common purpose and improve their chances of survival?

Alas,” Dr. Collins said, “we could reach no firm conclusions on such a complicated topic in the short time allotted. Maybe we can pick up that conversation—and pluck a few more strings on our instruments—at another time!”

Alas, indeed! Those are some deep issues, issues that deserve the investment of more money this country can afford in grants, etc. – and that’s before the new president is spending part of his time in Washington. (He seems to want to run things from the ‘Gold House’, the one with his name on it on Fifth Avenue in New York City.)

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Dr. Collins is a physician-geneticist noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book. He served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH from 1993-2008.

Spinach To Human: ‘Hey, there’s a bomb around here!’

Plant to person communication

Yep, you read that right: A spinach plant – or some other type – could be ‘programmed’ to detect and alert a human, via a computer-recognized signal, of the presence of an explosive device.

They never even taught this concept in Science Fiction 101!

Who even comes up with these ideas?  – the concept that a plant’s can be groomed to detect “nitroaromatics” in nearby substances that may – hopefully on rare occasions – point to the presence of an explodable  device. As it happens, ‘they’ were Min Hao Wong, a grad student at MIT, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc,  now an assistant professor at the University of California/Riverside. Their discovery was announced a few days ago (on Oct. 31) in the scientific journal Nature Materials.

Wong, Giraldo and their team – which included seven others then working at MIT — embedded a spinach plant’s  leaves with carbon nanotubes—tiny carbon cylinders able to detect “nitroaromatics”—chemical compounds often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals compounds is absorbed naturally by the plant (either in the air or through groundwater), the embedded nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera, MIT said. “The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user,” the school said in a release.

Question: Could spinach so equipped detect, after being consumed by a human, the ‘explosive’ gut feeling when too-hot peppers are eaten?

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

To add another strange note to this tale, Carbon P. Dubbs, a co-founder of what’s now known as UOP (formerly Universal Oil Products), sported the middle name ‘Petroleum.’

In the news release from MIT, Strano said, “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.” The senior author of the paper listing Wong and Giraldo as the lead scientists on the project, Strano believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Min Hao Wong has started a company called Plantea to further develop this nanobionics technology.

ZOOM!!! New Intel Processor 70% Faster Than a 5-Year-Old PC

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Intel in Israel has announced the launch of the company’s fastest-ever chip – some 70% faster than a 5-year-old PC, The Times of Israel has reported.

Development, led by the company’s facility in Haifa, the largest Intel group outside of the U.S., promises a double-digit rise in computer performance, longer battery life, and better security, the company said.

The seventh-generation new Intel Core enhanced 14-nanometer-plus processor, called Kaby Lake, is its “strongest and fastest ever,” Intel said in a statement, and aims to meet the demands of increased connectedness and internet use, and growing consumption of high-quality video, ultra-high-definition (UHD) premium and user-generated content, 360-degree video formats, Virtual Reality and digital sports content. It will power ultra-thin notebooks and two-in-one laptop-tablet hybrids.

Built on the foundation of the Skylake processors, which Intel launched last year and were also led from Israel, the Kaby Lake processors are more than 70 percent faster than a 5-year-old PC and 3.5 times better in 3D graphics performance, the company said in a statement.

The new processors will have a longer-lasting battery — 9.5 hours of 4K video playback — and better security, and will enable more natural and intuitive interactions of users with their PCs, Intel said.

“The seventh-generation processors push our performance forward,” Ran Senderovitz, general manager at Intel Israel Development Centers, said in a phone briefing with reporters.

The Israeli team, with its colleagues worldwide, has pushed the boundaries of “global technology to new places,” he said. “We are talking about amazing technologies, technologies of 14nm. So it is like taking a hair and dividing it by 8,000.”

Kaby Lake will allow computers to dispense with a fan and have a small battery, making them light and thin, some of them just 7 millimeters thick and weighing 1.3 kilograms.

“We are getting closer to a level in which computers are becoming as thin as smartphones,” Senderovitz said.

The first computers with the new processors are aimed initially at private customers and small and medium businesses. Intel expects to see over 100 computer designs using the Kaby Lake in the fourth quarter of the year. Additional products, targeted at enterprises, workstations and enthusiasts’ notebooks and desktops, are expected in January, Intel said.

Wind Poses Threat To Cyclists Hearing

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BOOM! BANG! Such sounds, and even wind noise, if loud enough, can pose hearing-damage risks to cyclists, a new study says.

While cycling – on bicycles, as opposed to motorcycles – has long been heralded as a good source of exercise and an excellent excuse to dress in funny outfits, often decorated with non-sponsoring sponsors’ badges, it’s never before been cited, to our knowledge, as a potential source of hearing damage.

But there you are: Researchers are going all sorts of strange places these days.

The research was conducted by study co-leader Dr. Anna Wertz and colleagues in, of all places, Detroit, Michigan (home of Henry Ford’s pioneering automobile plant), under the auspices of Henry Ford Hospital, where Dr. Wertz is an otolaryngologist. (That’s a popular one in the ‘list of hard-to-pronounce words’!)

For the cycling-related study, microphones were attached to cyclists’ ears to measure wind noise at various speeds. Wind noise ranged from 85 decibels at 15 mph to 120 decibels at 60 mph.

“These findings are important because noise-induced hearing loss can begin with sounds at or above 85 decibels,” said study co-leader Dr. Anna Wertz. How loud is that? Heavy city traffic registers 85 decibels; an ambulance siren or a clap of thunder from a nearby storm can reach 120 decibels, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“Short-term exposure to loud sounds isn’t likely to have a lasting effect on hearing, but prolonged or repeated exposure can lead to permanent damage,” Wertz added in a hospital news release.