Category: Environment

Will we find life — “not as we know it” — on Saturn’s moon Titan


Click to enlargeAzotosome, the theorized cell membrane on Titan

Liquid water is a requirement for life on Earth. But in other, much colder worlds, life might exist beyond the bounds of water-based chemistry.

Taking a simultaneously imaginative and rigidly scientific view, Cornell chemical engineers and astronomers offer a template for life that could thrive in a harsh, cold world – specifically Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. A planetary body awash with seas not of water, but of liquid methane, Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does.

Their theorized cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero, is published in Science Advances…The work is led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy…with first author James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering. The paper’s co-author is Jonathan Lunine…the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy…

On Earth, life is based on the phospholipid bilayer membrane, the strong, permeable, water-based vesicle that houses the organic matter of every cell. A vesicle made from such a membrane is called a liposome. Thus, many astronomers seek extraterrestrial life in what’s called the circumstellar habitable zone, the narrow band around the sun in which liquid water can exist. But what if cells weren’t based on water, but on methane, which has a much lower freezing point?

The engineers named their theorized cell membrane an “azotosome,” “azote” being the French word for nitrogen. “Liposome” comes from the Greek “lipos” and “soma” to mean “lipid body;” by analogy, “azotosome” means “nitrogen body.”

The azotosome is made from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in the cryogenic seas of Titan, but shows the same stability and flexibility that Earth’s analogous liposome does. This came as a surprise to chemists like Clancy and Stevenson, who had never thought about the mechanics of cell stability before; they usually study semiconductors, not cells.

The engineers employed a molecular dynamics method that screened for candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. The most promising compound they found is an acrylonitrile azotosome, which showed good stability, a strong barrier to decomposition, and a flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. Acrylonitrile – a colorless, poisonous, liquid organic compound used in the manufacture of acrylic fibers, resins and thermoplastics – is present in Titan’s atmosphere.

Excited by the initial proof of concept, Clancy said the next step is to try and demonstrate how these cells would behave in the methane environment – what might be the analogue to reproduction and metabolism in oxygen-free, methane-based cells.

In part, Stevenson said he was inspired by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote about the concept of non-water-based life in his 1962 essay, “Not as We Know It.” I think we can conclude as Asimov would – intelligence formed of life “not as we know it” – but with science grounded in material reality, will develop an understanding of science identical in premises as any of our own species’ physical scientists. Leading or trailing one another the results must be the same since material reality remains the same.

Perceptions can vary widely. An intelligent lifeform evolved through differing chemistry wouldn’t be likely to have the same senses or senses arrayed in the same hierarchy. The possibilities are intriguing.

Truly, a worthwhile adventure. I wish them well.

Biobattery plant turns a wide range of biomass into energy, consumables

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Energy and Safety Technology have developed a “biobattery” in the form of a highly efficient biogas plant that can turn raw materials like straw, scrap wood and sludge into a variety of useful energy sources including electricity, purified gas and engine oil. The new plant design, currently being put to the test in a prototype plant in Germany, is said to be highly modular and economically viable even at the small scale.

The production of biogas  –  gas created by the breakdown of organic matter, by fermentation or through the action of anaerobic bacteria  –  is an interesting complement to other sources of renewable energy since it can not only generate electricity at little cost to the environment, but also create biofuel, fertilizer and engine oil. One issue, however, is that these plants only accept few organic substances as raw materials.

A new biogas plant developed at the Fraunhofer Institute could solve this problem by taking a number of materials that would normally have to be disposed of at great cost – like industrial biomass waste, sewage sludge, straw, scrap wood or manure – and process them with high efficiency into a more useful output, all through a highly modular, flexible design…

The end products can be used in various ways: the oil can be turned into fuel for ships or airplanes; the gases are used to produce electricity in a combined heat and power plant; and the biochar can be used as fertilizer.

Besides the flexibility that comes from accepting multiple raw materials and producing multiple outputs, another crucial advantage to the biobattery is that, according to the scientists’ financial analysis, even a small-scale plant requiring a small investment would be financially profitable. Because of the built-in modularity, the plant could then be gradually upgraded to process more materials with higher efficiency.

In their own way, the Fraunhoher Institute is as interesting a source for advancing life on this wee planet as the Max Planck Institute. Though not as dedicated to basic research as the latter, Fraunhofer turns out more practical science and engineering than most of their peers in the Western world.

This is one more example. RTFA for another few paragraphs of detail. Living as we do on a planet dominated by a species whose progress in economics and commerce is generally accompanied by an inordinate amount of waste – and wastefulness – Fraunhofer’s efforts are more than welcome.

Wyoming rakes in more than $4.4 Million from taxes on wind-power


Click to enlargeDave Showalter

More than $4.4 million was generated from taxes on wind production across Wyoming in the last fiscal year, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Albany, Carbon, Converse, Laramie, Natrona and Uinta counties share in $2.7 million with the state’s portion of the revenue at slightly more than $1.7 million…

This year’s taxes from wind-generated electricity are the tip of the iceberg to state and local coffers. When the Chokecherry Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project’s 1,000 wind turbines come online, they could eventually bring in more $10 million in revenues annually, from wind generation alone.

Coupled with property taxes and the sales and use tax, Chokecherry promises to be a financial boon to Carbon County, said Kara Choquette, communications director for the Power Company of Wyoming…

“This represents a very significant and positive financial impact for the county, all of the public entities that get a portion of the property taxes and all of the cities and towns that get a portion of the sales and use tax.” Choquette said. “Along with the generation tax, it’s in the hundreds and millions of dollars. That’s a pretty significant increase over what Wyoming is getting now from all of the wind turbines combined.”

We have much of the same potential plus more solar – especially in downstate New Mexico. Of course the state engineer’s office made the determination that we could be a net power exporting state in wind-generated electricity 20 years ago. Our beloved PNM took no notice.

Congrats to Wyoming for making this growing infrastructure part of a larger picture beyond public utility executives patting themselves on the back.

Of course, we’re all farting around – dawdling behind Colorado when it comes to doing something sensible like legalizing marijuana. A renewable resource that slows traffic, generates income for the state and jobs for the young at heart – and brings miles of smiles.

Pic of the Day


Click to enlargeAP Photo/Bill Sikes

Parking meters sits mostly buried in a mound of snow Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, along a street in downtown Boston. Another winter storm that could bring an additional foot or more of snow to some areas is forecast for the region beginning Saturday evening.

Just in case I need reminding of another reason why I left New England.

WV oil train derailment, explosion, fire — those were the new “safer” tank cars


Click to enlargeAP Photo/Marcus Constantino

The fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil in West Virginia is one of three in the past year involving tank cars that already meet a higher safety standard than what federal law requires – leading some to suggest even tougher requirements that industry representatives say would be costly.

Costly to who?

Hundreds of families were evacuated and nearby water treatment plants were temporarily shut down after cars derailed from a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude Monday, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning down a house nearby. It was snowing at the time, but it is not yet clear if weather was a factor.

The fire smoldered for a third day Wednesday. State public safety division spokesman Larry Messina said the fire was 85 percent contained.

The train’s tanks were a newer model – the 1232 – designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. The same model spilled oil and caught fire in Timmins, Ontario on Saturday, and last year in Lynchburg, Virginia.

A series of ruptures and fires have prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.

If approved, increased safety requirements now under White House review would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars being used to carry highly flammable liquids.

Between “optimized profits” and bought-and-paid-for elected officials ranging from the state level to the hog trough that is Congress – railroads and oil companies figure they may as well be self-insured instead of making life a little safer for folks who live near the tracks. It’s as simple as that.

Which means it takes pressure from other ordinary folks around the country to get improved safety.

A rapidly growing city of Paperholm(s) — by Om Malik

Tumblr is a wonderful place — you just don’t know what you are going to stumble into! A few weeks ago, I ended up on Paperholm, a website where Edinburgh-based architect/artist Charles Young has been sharing photos of miniature homes he has been creating out of paper. Since August 2014, he has shared multiple creations – each intricate, beautiful and nearly perfect. Obsessed with these paper homes, I cold emailed Young wondering what got him started. “The project started as a way of keeping myself making work,” he replied. “By having to produce something every day you’re forced to be creative and productive…”

What made him pick paper as a medium of creation? “The use of paper is really about its material properties,” Young replied in an email. “Using it as a construction material, at this scale, watercolour paper has a balance of delicacy and strength that make it ideal.” Like Young, I too am obsessed with paper — I prefer to write with fountain pens on good quality (Japanese) paper. That act allows me to slow down the brain, think, compose, rethink and ink what is on my mind.

Now for the important question — how long does he expect to be doing this? “Even at this stage I’m not sure how long I will continue with the project. I’d like to complete at least a year of daily models but Paperholm is really more about keeping inventive and developing my own technical skills.”

Charles, as a fan, let’s just say, I am happy for whatever you create. These paper homes are a delightful addition to my life!

I’ve been reading Om longer than I have been blogging. His insight into technology has expanded a dozen different ways; but, especially into style and fashion. In this instance, into the materials and methods used for expression.

During first cuppa in the morning – sometime between 4:30 and 5:15AM – I check my personal blog to make certain nothing screwed up down in Waco, Texas. That’s where the servers are hosting us. Then, I wander over to see what Om has on his mind. He’ll be up and running because we’re on the same servers. And he’s an early riser, too. :)

Always worthwhile.

Fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia – State of Emergency declared

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.27.48 PM
Click to access video

A train derailment Monday afternoon in West Virginia caused multiple explosions and a massive fire, and the CSX-owned train is leaking crude oil into the Kanawha River…

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency about 6 p.m. Eastern time.

Nearly three hours after that declaration, the fire was still burning, and 1,000 people had been evacuated, according to Lawrence Messina, the state’s public safety spokesman…

At least one home near the derailment in Fayette County caught fire and was destroyed, Messina said.

The derailment happened about 1:20 p.m. Eastern time as the 109-car train carrying Bakken crude oil was going from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., Messina said. As many as 15 train cars were involved in the derailment and fire…

Crude oil from at least one of the rail cars is leaking into the Kanawha River, Messina said.

West Virginia American Water shut down its Montgomery treatment plant because the facility draws water from an area near the incident…

The plant will not be reopened until it is confirmed the water is safe, it said.

“Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts.”

― Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

Reprogramming plants for drought tolerance


Transgenic Arabidopsis on the right survived drought vs non-transgenic on the left

Crops and other plants are constantly faced with adverse environmental conditions, such as rising temperatures (2014 was the warmest year on record) and lessening fresh water supplies, which lower yield and cost farmers billions of dollars annually.

Drought is a major environmental stress factor affecting plant growth and development. When plants encounter drought, they naturally produce abscisic acid (ABA), a stress hormone that inhibits plant growth and reduces water consumption. Specifically, the hormone turns on a receptor (special protein) in plants when it binds to the receptor like a hand fitting into a glove, resulting in beneficial changes — such as the closing of guard cells on leaves, called stomata, to reduce water loss — that help the plants survive.

While it is true that crops could be sprayed with ABA to assist their survival during drought, ABA is costly to make, rapidly inactivated inside plant cells and light-sensitive, and has therefore failed to find much direct use in agriculture. Several research groups are working to develop synthetic ABA mimics to modulate drought tolerance, but once discovered these mimics are expected to face lengthy and costly development processes.

The agrochemical mandipropamid, however, is already widely used in agricultural production to control late blight of fruit and vegetable crops. Could drought-threatened crops be engineered to respond to mandipropamid as if it were ABA, and thus enhance their survival during drought?

Yes, according to a team of scientists, led by Sean Cutler at the University of California, Riverside.

The researchers worked with Arabidopsis, a model plant used widely in plant biology labs, and the tomato plant. In the lab, they used synthetic biological methods to develop a new version of these plants’ abscisic acid receptors, engineered to be activated by mandipropamid instead of ABA. The researchers showed that when the reprogrammed plants were sprayed with mandipropamid, the plants effectively survived drought conditions by turning on the abscisic acid pathway, which closed the stomata on their leaves to prevent water loss.

The finding illustrates the power of synthetic biological approaches for manipulating crops and opens new doors for crop improvement that could benefit a growing world population.

One of the growing areas of research wherein scientists work to adapt plants to conditions not otherwise considered arable or useful for cropping. Drought-tolerance is only one of the areas. There are folks working to encourage food crops in both high-salt and high-alkaline environments.

Farmers have historically followed the roads that lead to simplest and easiest profits – once agriculture evolved beyond sustenance family farming. That generally put the focus on the most arable land, good water access, etc.. Opening up new lands, new climates, broader soil chemistry and temperature permits growing food for more.

Hopefully, common sense prevails over religion, culture and dirt-poor economics while family size continues to diminish – along with demand.

NYC subway cultures drug resistant bacteria, DNA from Anthrax, Plague


Click to enlargeHeatmap of the Pseudomonas genus

The study, published in Cell Systems, demonstrates that it is possible and useful to develop a “pathogen map” — dubbed a “PathoMap” — of a city, with the heavily traveled subway a proxy for New York’s population. It is a baseline assessment, and repeated sampling could be used for long-term, accurate disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation, and large scale health management for New York, says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Christopher E. Mason…

The PathoMap findings are generally reassuring, indicating no need to avoid the subway system or use protective gloves, Dr. Mason says. The majority of the 637 known bacterial, viral, fungal and animal species he and his co-authors detected were non-pathogenic and represent normal bacteria present on human skin and human body. Culture experiments revealed that all subway sites tested possess live bacteria.

Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These represent organisms that New Yorkers touch every day, but were uncharacterized and undiscovered until this study. The findings underscore the vast potential for scientific exploration that is still largely untapped and yet right under scientists’ fingertips.

WTF? They’re under everyone’s fingertips.

“Our data show evidence that most bacteria in these densely populated, highly trafficked transit areas are neutral to human health, and much of it is commonly found on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Mason says. “These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria.”

But the researchers also say that 12 percent of the bacteria species they sampled showed some association with disease. For example, live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present in 27 percent of the samples they collected. And they detected two samples with DNA fragments of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), and three samples with a plasmid associated with Yersinia pestis (Bubonic plague) — both at very low levels. Notably, the presence of these DNA fragments do not indicate that they are alive, and culture experiments showed no evidence of them being alive.

RTFA to see why the researcher say we shouldn’t worry. Certainly, the diversity of microorganisms is a positive activator for our immune systems.

Interesting how they went about the research – and what this presents as a baseline for future evaluations. And an added plus is the unique – and still closed – station shuttered since Superstorm Sandy. Marine species still alive and stable in what should be an abnormal environment for them.

Thanks, Helen

Children of the Night — from Reuters Wider Image

Seris Bros
Click to enlarge

Twenty-one-year-old French twins Vincent and Thomas Seris lead an ordinary life no different to others their age – as long as it takes place after sunset.

During the day, the men only venture out in attire resembling astronauts to protect themselves from the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays, or risk developing fatal types of cancer.

Colloquially referred to as the “Children of the Night” — or Les Enfants de la Lune in French — the Seris twins are among 70 to 80 people in France who suffer from Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP), a rare genetic disorder.

The two men have been testing out a new protective mask which is transparent and ventilated and developed by several hospitals in the country.

There are up to 10,000 XP sufferers in the world, according to the French association “Les Enfants de la Lune.”

Surviving in circumstances comfortable in comparison to poorer folks in a poorer country, you still can’t count the Seris brothers as lucky – being able to live a long and fulfilling life. Still, they are treated by most ignorant strangers as if they were lepers passing through a market in the 18th Century.

RTFA. A worthwhile read. The Wider Image is one of the best things about Reuters.