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Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

It's not just Gamestop: Elon Musk wants to send Dogecoin to the moon

The world of space exploration just got a little...weirder

Briley Lewis

Astronomy and Astrophysics

University of California, Los Angeles

Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and a notorious internet troll, announced in a tweet that one of SpaceX’s future missions will be paid for with Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency whose name is inspired by the Doge meme. This announcement fits with Musk’s track record of eccentric (and meme-like) moves, such as his launching a red Tesla into space for no good reason and his 2018 market-disrupting tweet that led to a lawsuit by the US Securities and Exchanges Commission. In similar pomp to how Reddit users caused Gamestop's shares to skyrocket in the recent wallstreetbets “GME to the Moon” campaign, Musk’s new tweet now also wants to take Dogecoin to the Moon, both literally and figuratively.

The mission referred to as DOGE-1 is, in fact, real — confirmed by collaborator Geometric Energy Corporation (GEC) in a press release. DOGE-1 will be a small satellite carried to the moon by a Falcon 9 rocket in early 2022, collecting yet unspecified images and other data of the lunar surface. Although Dogecoin started as a joke, this collaboration with GEC adds heft to Dogecoin’s tenuous reputation as a usable currency. GEC even claimed that Dogecoin “has been chosen as the unit of account for all lunar business between SpaceX and Geometric Energy Corporation and sets precedent for future missions to the Moon and Mars.”

As a leader in private space exploration, SpaceX is constantly setting precedents for humanity’s future in space, be it intentionally or not. It’s definitely worth considering what a future with meme missions dictated by the whims of a solitary billionaire would really look like, and if it's the kind of future we want.

This worm has too many butts

Researchers have identified how its internal anatomy adapts as its butts branch off

Simon Spichak


In Darwin, Australia, a species of worm called Ramisyllis multicaudata makes its home inside the canals of a sponge. This worm is special — it can split and branch its posterior end. It is one of only two known species with this awesome adaptation. These worms might help us understand how different body parts grow and differentiate. 

new study by researchers at the Universities of Göttingen and Madrid describe the worm's weird anatomy. Its head sits deep within a coral. Its various posterior ends  — in other words, its many butts — extend throughout the rest of the coral's canals. What always perplexed researchers was how the worm's body, especially its internal anatomy, could adapt to fit the coral. 

It turns out that every time that the worm's posterior splits into two (worms don't have butts, technically), its organs also split in half, and a "muscle bridge" forms to connect the split organs. The anatomy of these bridges suggested to the researchers that the worm's butt only begins splitting in adulthood. Its unique characteristics also allowed them to distinguish main branches from side branches.

They also figured out how this worm reproduces: from its butt, of course! The posterior ends begin to form reproductive organs, a nervous system, and eyes. The nervous system develops a brain-like ring around the intestines. It can then separate and search for a mate. While this study provides a lot more insight on this weird worm, it also shows that there's still a lot we don't know about its anatomy.

Community scientists have discovered an unusual brown dwarf star

Paul Beaulieu and Austin Rothermich were participating in the Backyard Worlds project. You can, too!

Briley Lewis

Astronomy and Astrophysics

University of California, Los Angeles

Did you know that you can help find new things in outer space?

You can, with Backyard Worlds. Backyard Worlds is a community (citizen) science project, a type of collaborative project where a large community helps scientists analyze data. Human eyes are often the best tool we have to look for changes or moving things in pictures of the night sky. If there’s a lot of data to sift through, scientists need more eyes to help look for interesting objects in their photos, and that's where you come in.

With Backyard Worlds, scientists and their community collaborators are searching for brown dwarfs, objects that are too big to be planets but not quite big enough to be stars. They found their first brown dwarf in 2017, and have just made another cool discovery — an unusual brown dwarf orbiting around a small red star

Two community scientists, Paul Beaulieu and Austin Rothermich, spotted the new brown dwarf in images from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope. Their findings are described in a new publication in Research Notes of the AAS

Scientists captured observations of this brown dwarf with the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope in Chile. It doesn’t quite match with any of the standard types of small stars or brown dwarfs, and seems to be right on the boundary between the two. 

Getting more data on this peculiar object will help scientists figure out exactly it is. In the meantime, you can join in the citizen science with Backyard Worlds to discover your own brown dwarf — or, if you’re more interested in galaxies, whales, or some other science, check out the other projects in need of assistance on Zooniverse. You might even get your name on a scientific paper, just like the discoverers of this new brown dwarf.

Sleep deprivation prevents us from blocking out painful memories

Well-rested people are better able to suppress negative thoughts and emotions than sleep-deprived people

Jonas Ho Chan Wai

Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience

University of Nottingham, Malaysia

Our ability to “suppress” memories is quite useful. This prevents us from ruminating on painful moments, and can help us move forward. However, sleep deprivation reduces our ability to do so. In a recent paper in Trends in Cognitive Science, they put forward a model that links sleep deprivation with weakened control over our unwanted memories and emotions.

The researchers suggest that when we do not sleep, the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex (an area associated with self-control, memory, and attention) cannot properly block unwanted thoughts. This makes it difficult for us to suppress our negative memories, and can even make them pop up more frequently. This is corroborated by another recent study, in which sleep-deprived participants were also unable to “control” their memories. Not only were these participants unable to block them out, but they would often re-experience these thoughts frequently.

It appears that lack of sleep also makes us worse at controlling how our memories affect our emotions. In the same study, participants were shown images that could trigger negative feelings. Well-rested participants were not only able to suppress the memory of seeing negative images, but also reported less negative feelings when seeing these images compared to participants who were kept awake all night.

Taken together, this model suggests a link between sleep deprivation, memory and emotion control. Without sleep, many of the cognitive processes of the brain cannot function properly, potentially leading to a cycle of worsening psychological symptoms. For example, a person who has experienced a traumatic event could develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia, worsening their recurring thoughts, which could lead to reduced sleep quality and more unwanted feelings. The researchers even suggest that this model might apply to other disorders that are characterized by unwanted, recurring thoughts, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

Marine archaea make oxygen in the dark using nitrite

Meet Nitrosopumilus maritimus, which is capable of a never-before-seen oxygen synthesis method

Elise Cutts


Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Earth's atmosphere owes its oxygen to life. With an energy boost from sunlight, photosynthesis combines CO2 and water, yielding sugar and oxygen. But turn off the lights, and making oxygen gets tricky. Only a small handful of microbes are known to do it. But dark oxygen production might be far more common — and important — than previously thought. 

Ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) are widespread microbes found everywhere from the seafloor to Mt. Everest. They convert ammonia into nitrite for energy in an oxygen-dependent process called nitrification. Despite this, AOA somehow thrive in oxygen-minimum zones (OMZs), regions in the ocean where oxygen concentrations plummet.

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark recently announced in a pre-print (a completed study which has not yet passed peer-review) that an AOA called Nitrosopumilus maritimus may have let them in on the secret to its success in OMZs. Sealed up in airtight containers, N. maritimus grew in the lab under the watch of super-sensitive oxygen sensors. As expected, the cells quickly consumed all available oxygen, using it for nitrification. But then something strange happened. Right after oxygen concentrations hit zero, they rose again. After two years of experiments it was clear that instead of dying out or hibernating after running out of oxygen, N. maritimus made its own oxygen from nitrite, producing dinitrogen (N2) as a by-product. 

Additional tests confirmed that N. maritimus wasn't using any of the three previously known ways of making oxygen in the dark — its trick was all its own, and not only a novel method of light-independent oxygen production but also a completely new chemical pathway for recycling biological nitrogen into N2.

This new metabolism can't replace photosynthesis—oxygen in the N. maritimus cultures peaked at levels about 1000x lower than would have been expected from photosynthesis. But because AOA are both incredibly common and critical for the nitrogen cycle, dark oxygen production might be far more important and widespread than previously thought.

Living near a Superfund site shortens life expectancy for low-income residents

Unequal access to healthcare amplifies the disparity

Sam Zlotnik

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

University of Florida

Throughout the United States, many people are living and working in close proximity to Superfund sites — areas contaminated with leaked, dumped, or poorly managed hazardous waste. Superfund sites are often laden with heavy metals, asbestos, pesticides, and radioactive compounds, and the cleanup process for these contaminants can take many years.

Recently, a team researchers from the University of Houston and the University of Texas investigated how living near a Superfund site relates to life expectancy. In their study, which was published in Nature Communications, the researchers compared the life expectancies of people living in census tracts with a Superfund site to those living in neighboring tracts. (US census tracts contain approximately 4,000 people.) In addition to the more than 1,300 listed Superfund sites in the US, this study also included an additional 11,700 contaminated sites that are not currently on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List.

They found that people living close to hazardous waste sites tend to have shorter life expectancies than those living further away. And life expectancies decreased even more for people near contaminated sites that were not being actively cleaned up, as well as for those living in flood-prone areas.

But these effects were not distributed equally for all people. The study found a clear negative relationship between contaminated sites and life expectancy in low-income census tracts, but not in higher-income areas. Wealthier residents may be able to avoid the risks of living near hazardous waste by paying for expensive health care and well-protected houses. Similarly, areas where most residents had health insurance showed little relationship between contamination and life expectancy.

While living near hazardous waste is likely to be dangerous for anyone, these risks seem to be magnified for the most socioeconomically disadvantaged residents. And to make matters worse, hazardous waste sites have disproportionately been built in low-income and racially marginalized communities. Hopefully the ongoing and future cleanup of these sites will lessen these disparities.

Animals that eat rotting meat have unique gut microbiomes

Novel arrays of bacteria that can degrade toxins were found in a survey of wild animal gut microbiomes

Madeline Barron


University of Michigan

What do we have in common with blackbirds, frogs, and rabbits? We all have guts that are brimming with bacteria. However, while we know a great deal about human gut bacteria, the relationship between intestinal microbes and the health and lifestyle of wild animals is relatively unclear. Indeed, these tiny gut-dwellers could be the secret behind why some animals eat foods like rotting meat or poisonous plants without getting sick, or are immune to various diseases. 

In a new study published in Science, scientists sought to learn more about the gut microbes in animals from diverse classes, such as mammals or birds, and exhibiting different feeding behaviors, geographical location, and traits like body mass and lifespan. 

The investigators collected poop from 180 species of animals across the world, including everything from penguins and gorillas to kangaroos and turkey vultures. After sequencing DNA in the poop, the investigators used computer programming to characterize the bacterial community within the samples. 

They found that the animals’ gut bacterial communities varied depending on their class and traits like diet, body mass, and social structure (i.e. solitary vs social). Excitingly, over 900 of the 1209 bacterial species identified had never been recognized before. These mysterious microbes likely confer health benefits to their host. For instance, the investigators discovered novel microbe-associated enzymes in the gut of griffon vultures, which eat dead or decaying animals, that can degrade bacterial toxins. These enzymes may protect the birds from getting sick when they chow down on pathogen-infested meat. Similarly, some animals had microbial genes in their guts presumably associated with antibiotic biosynthesis or degradation of human-made chemicals. 

These results shine light on the associations between gut bacteria and animal physiology and behavior. Moreover, they suggest that animal guts may be gold mines for discovering bacteria with potential clinical and industrial applications, including those that produce novel antibiotics or compounds capable of eliminating industrial waste. 

A mass Tyrannosaurus rex grave confirms that they hunted in packs

A collection of T. rex fossils all found in one spot likely died together in a flood

Simon Spichak


New archaeological discoveries and improvements in our technology make it even easier to peek into the lives of Tyrannosaurus rex, the apex predator that roamed the earth more than 60 million years ago. Based on the size of their skulls, many paleontologists didn't think the T. rex was capable of complex behavior. Many were doubtful that T. rex lived or hunted in groups. But a new study of fossils preserved in a Utah quarry suggests that T. rex was indeed social. Researchers assessed a T. rex mass death site, the first of its kind.

In July 2014, the researchers explored the Rainbows and Unicorns Quarry in Utah. To their surprise, they found many fossilized T. rex specimens across a hectare of land. An analysis of the ancient landscape and erosion patterns revealed that the bones had been disturbed by river flooding, and so the researchers were challenged to prove the fossils weren't just brought together by the river.

The researchers looked at the chemical composition of these samples. If the dinosaurs died together, they predicted that they would find similar amounts of chemical elements in the fossils. After conducting their analysis, they verified that the fossils were created in the same environment, at the same time. Likely, this group of T. rex fell victim to flooding on the river.

With many other fossils buried in the quarry, this may be the first of many fascinating discoveries to come.

NASA's Perseverance rover can make oxygen out of Martian air

The goal of putting humans on Mars is now one step closer

Briley Lewis

Astronomy and Astrophysics

University of California, Los Angeles

Visions of humans on Mars are now one step closer to reality. The Perseverance rover, which has already recorded the first sounds from another planet and flown the first helicopter on Mars, recently made another historic first—extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

Last month, the rover fired up one of its experiments known as MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. Like the Ingenuity helicopter, this experiment is a technology demonstration, where scientists try something entirely new and never before attempted as part of a larger space mission. 

Inside the small metal box that is MOXIE, Martian air was heated to almost 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, splitting carbon dioxide (CO2) into one carbon monoxide (CO) and one oxygen atom (O). Mars’s atmosphere is around 96 percent carbon dioxide, so there’s plenty to use there! In its first hour-long test, MOXIE produced 5 grams of oxygen, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes. Scientists will run a few more tests with MOXIE during the rest of the rover’s mission, trying to see how much oxygen it can make and how fast.

MOXIE addresses two huge challenges in human space exploration on Mars — finding enough breathable air for astronauts to stay alive, and bringing enough fuel for the rockets to make a return trip to Earth. Oxygen is a key part of rocket fuel, and getting four astronauts off the Martian surface and back to Earth would take a whopping 55,000 pounds of oxygen! Missions to Mars can’t just carry that much oxygen to Mars for the whole trip — it would make the payloads too heavy. MOXIE only weighs about 17 pounds, so future technology like this could help cut down the weight we have to haul with us on trips to Mars. 

Even if Mars won’t ever be a home quite like Earth, this experiment made a huge leap forward for our prospects of visiting the Red Planet.

Researchers are mapping how information about what we eat travels from our guts to our brains

Research in mice shows that different nutrients each activate specific nerves

Julia A Licholai


Brown University

Like fashion, popular medical topics come in phases. One favored subject now is the gut-brain axis: investigating how our stomachs and guts influence the rest of our bodies, both physically and mentally. 

The first notable focus on “the great abdominal brain” in Western medicine was actually in the nineteenth century, which left us with an abundance of physicians’ writings on the topic. While physicians were particularly interested in the nerves surrounding the guts (these nerves were already known to affect behavior), studying the body holistically lost its popularity in the twentieth century and the focus shifted to studying individual organs and cell types. 

These changes in holistic versus reductionist medical trends reflected the waxing and waning in general curiosity of the gut-brain axis. We are now seeing a renewed trend toward holistic biomedical approaches, with increasing research on the connections between our guts and brains. 

This focus, paired with the recent eruption of neuroscience techniques, has made unique gut-brain axis experiments possible. For example, a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism characterized nerves that relay information from the gut to the brain. They found that in mice, different nutrients recruit distinct nerves, which makes sense given that nutrients are detected by specific receptors. This means that information about nutrients being transmitted from the mice guts to their brains remains segregated.

One type of cell closely linked with food intake in the brain is AgRP neurons (neurons that make a protein called "Agouti-related protein"). An animal eats when these neurons are more active. Conversely, if AgRP neuron activity is suppressed, even starved animals cease caring about food. 

Researchers monitored these AgRP neurons in the brains of mice, while they ingested different foods. Assessing AgRP responses allowed the researchers to infer whether information about how each specific nutrient they were interested in was processed in the brain. Nutrients are primarily detected in the small intestine, and this study reports that certain nutrients are sensed in different parts of the small intestine. By identifying the distinct nerves relaying these signals, the researchers have confirmed that there is a labyrinth of pathways that convey caloric intake from our guts to our brains for maintaining energy balance. 

White-nose syndrome has decimated three species of North American bats

Northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tricolored bat populations have declined by 90 percent

Kristina Muise

Animal Physiology

University of Winnipeg

A challenge of studying many wildlife diseases is to understand the impact on widespread populations, and bats species are no exception. A total of 45 bat species are known in North America, with 25 of those species relying on hibernation to survive winter. Since 2006, a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome , which kills bats during hibernation, has devastated populations as it spreads across North America. In Canada, three hibernating species are listed as federally endangered, however in the US, those same three species are undergoing status assessment.

The full impact of the spreading disease was unknown; however a new study has provided insight into how devastating white-nose syndrome has become. To figure this out, a large collaborative effort was made from researchers and organizations including the North American Bat Monitoring Program, Bat Conservation International, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Geological Survey

Researchers analyzed population data for five bat species taken between 1995 to 2018 from about 200 sites in 27 US states and two Canadian provinces. They found that three species of bats have declined by over 90 percent (Northern long-eared bat, Myotis septrentionalis; little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus; and tricolored bat, Perimyotis subflavus). Declines for the two other species studied (Indiana bat, Myotis sodalist; big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus) we less severe, but are still of great concern.

Heat waves worsen coral reef metabolism — even when they don't bleach

Reefs are feeling the climate crisis through more than just well-studied bleaching

Keira Monuki

Marine Biology

University of California, Davis

Coral reefs are extremely vulnerable to climate change and suffer as ocean temperatures rise. One common sign of an unhealthy coral reef is coral bleaching. Bleaching happens when algal symbionts flee the coral host after experiencing stress, which can be deadly to the coral. 

But bleaching may not be the only consequence of climate change on coral health. Other cellular processes, such as metabolism and pH balance (also called acid-base homeostasis), can deteriorate as organisms increase their defenses against high temperatures. The balance of cellular processes is critical for long-term health, and these processes in corals may be important indicators of worsening coral function in response to climate change.

Biologists from the University of Pennsylvania recently studied bleaching and cellular process changes in corals in Hawai'i during marine heat waves. In a 2015 heat wave, they characterized the corals as either “bleaching resistant,” where the corals did not bleach during the heat wave, or “bleaching susceptible,” where the corals did bleach. During a 2019 heat wave, they also measured metabolism and acid-base homeostasis in both coral types. 

The responses of the two coral types to stress were consistent across the heat waves, meaning bleaching resistant corals in 2015 were also resistant in 2019, and bleaching susceptible corals bleached during both heat waves. Surprisingly, they found that both bleaching resistant and bleaching susceptible corals experienced metabolic depression during the 2019 heat wave. Metabolic depression occurs when animals lower their metabolic rate to conserve energy, often in response to stress. Both coral types also had imbalances in acid-base homeostasis and could not return to normal pH levels after encountering low pH conditions.

Even though the bleaching resistant corals appeared to be healthy, all corals suffered on the cellular level during the heat wave. These changes in cellular processes, over time, can lead to poor coral health and can make corals more vulnerable to future climate changes, especially marine heat waves. This research warns that only studying coral bleaching may lead us to underestimate the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, and that the damage may be more severe than previously understood.

Deep sub-surface "microbial dark matter" hasn't evolved since Pangea

The ancient microbes have survived brutal conditions for millions of years and hit pause on evolution

At two miles below ground, the sun last touched the buried rock when carbon dioxide filled the sky, before the days of Earth's oxygen. Drops of water formed time capsules for early microbial life to survive the deep sub-surface, their methods and madness hidden from Earth's surface for millions of years. Despite accounting for about 10 percent of the planet’s total biomass, we know little of these organisms, which scientists have called “microbial dark matter."

Until recently, our understanding of microbes was limited to those that could grow in a lab. Advancements in genome sequencing and culture techniques have now brought light to the darkness, and from the shadows, microbial secrets emerged. Some survived on the buried remnants of photosynthesis, while others house tools unlike any life on the surface.

One species was Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, or CDA, a sulfur-breathing microbe that has spent the last several hundred million years in total isolation, its only companion the radioactivity spilling from its rocky confines. Now, researchers from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences have found that 165 million years ago, CDA abandoned the very engine of life on Earth: evolution.

Scientists originally discovered CDA in a South African gold mine, and later in both North America and Eurasia. This geographic separation let researchers study how CDA evolved after millions of years. The team used DNA sequencing tools to read the genomes from individual cells. Strikingly, the CDA genomes from all three continents were nearly identical.

While cross-contamination was obvious initial explanation, the team found no evidence of CDA spreading by air, land, or sea. Nor did the microbes stall as spores. All were actively respiring and replicating. After ruling out all of these possible reasons for their results, the researchers concluded that as the supercontinent Pangea split, between 55-165 million years ago, these microbes hit pause on evolution.

CDA is a living fossil, subverting evolutionary change yet surviving millions of years of changes to our planet, including a mass extinction. How CDA managed an evolutionary standstill — perhaps through a meticulous replication process – may have immense application in biotechnology. It may also upend our understanding of microbial evolution. What other secrets to survival might microbial dark matter be hiding?

Yuning Wang

Biochemistry and Structural Biology

University of Western Ontario

Bats are mysterious creatures: They're the only flying mammals, and are much more resistant to the viruses that affect us and other species. Another mystery is their exceptionally long lifespans, which could be more than four times greater than similar-sized mammals. What’s more, bats show very few signs of aging, making it difficult for people to accurately estimate their chronological age.

DNA methylation is a biological process where genetic material accumulates small molecules that affect cells express genes. Assessment of theses "epigenetic" changes has been used as a tool to predict lifespan in humans, determine ages in animals, and understand how and why we age.

Scientists recently were able to estimate the age of bats by analyzing their DNA methylation levels. The DNA extracted from their wing tissue provides an accurate indicator of a bat’s age as well as a predictor of their longevity. The study discovered that the longer maximum lifespan of bats is more closely associated with the lower rates of change in DNA methylation with age, rather than body size.

Subsequent analysis of bat genomes helped researchers to identify regions of genes that may be linked to bats age and longevity. The genes with the highest levels of methylation are found to be mostly involved in innate immunity and cancer suppression, including several proteins that regulate the immune response in bats. The results suggest an explanation for why bats tolerate a lot of deadly viruses, such as Ebola, rabies, and SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and they could someday be used for human benefit.

Google has shown that they don't actually care about ethical AI

AI algorithms are racist and sexist because these biases are baked into our society. We need to fix this

Simon Spichak


It is a well-known fact that artificial intelligence (AI) has racism and sexism baked-in: after all, a model is only as good as the data we train it with, and our society is systemically biased against people who are not white and/or male. 

In 2017 Google developed an Ethical AI team to better understand and mitigate these problems, co-led by Timnit Gebru. In 2018 Gebru co-authored a foundational study about racism in AI that demonstrated that facial recognition algorithms are prone to more error on dark-skinned faces than light-skinned ones. In late 2020, she authored a paper critical of large language models. Without proper oversight, our own biases are integrated into these language models. Google uses many of these algorithms across their products. 

Gebru's work went through special sensitive topic review at Google, which required the paper be reviewed by their legal, policy, and PR teams. In at least three cases, they requested a positive spin on research that identified racist or sexist aspects of their algorithms.

Gebru was asked to retract her paper by Google, and faced retaliation when she refused. She was ultimately fired while on vacation in late 2020 by the head of Google's AI division, Jeffrey Dean. 

Over 2,600 Google employees signed an open letter in sup at Google, which required the paper be reviewed by their legal, policy and PR teams. In nslaught of harassment and racism from online accounts. Detractors threw racial slurs and insults, as they claimed her research was "advocacy disguised as science."

Her manager, Margaret Mitchell remained critical of Google's firing of Gebru and their attempts at promoting diversity, pointing out that Google is more than happy to meet with historical Black colleges and universities (and to promote these meetings), but the company does not support its Black staff identifying potential issues in their AI algorithms. Mitchell was fired in February

These shameful actions by Google show why large technology companies should not exist without any oversight. When racist and sexist algorithms permeate every aspect of our lives, their subtle biases turn into tangible health, economic and societal harms.  

2021's wildfire season could be even more devastating to the western US than last year's record-breaker

Fuel moisture data collected by researchers at San Jose State University indicate this year is already very dry

Kristen Vogt Veggeberg

Science Education

University of Illinois at Chicago

The West Coast of the United States, ranging from northern Washington to the Mexican border, faced one of the most devastating fire seasons ever in 2020. Fire season occurs during the hottest and driest months of the year — between July and November — in California and the Pacific Northwest. In California alone last year, 9,917 fires burned. 

The horrifying devastation to the forests of the West Coast were just some of the many tragedies 2020 brought the world. Even temperate rainforests, such as the Willamette National Forest in Oregon and Big Basin Redwoods State Park in northern California, were subjected to horrific infernos that devastated the forests, burning millions of acres and costing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Now, scientists at San Jose State University are warning of an even worse fire season in store for 2021.

Rainfall and other forms of precipitation in January and February often show how bad a fire season will be, as higher amounts of rainfall will stop larger fires from occurring. However, the researchers at the SJSU FireWeatherLab, which keeps watch over weather in areas sensitive to fires in California, have currently seen one of the lowest amounts of fuel moisture during the late winter of 2021. This means that less precipitation and dew have been keeping the mountains and surrounding forests at a lower risk for wildfires. The data collected in the Santa Cruz Mountains by SJSU researchers can serve as an example of other mountain environments on the West Coast. It signals an upcoming fire season that may, without precautions, become even more deadly than the record breaking one in 2020. 

T. rex walked as slowly as a human, and may have used its tail as a suspension system

In prehistoric times, you could have strolled down the street and chatted with your friendly neighborhood T. rex without even breaking a sweat

Margaux Lopez


Vera C. Rubin Observatory

The mighty Tyrannosaurus rex has just been taken down yet another peg by some meddling paleontologists. While we already knew that a running T. rex would not have been fast enough to catch the fleeing jeep in Jurassic Park, its preferred walking speed has also now been downgraded from a brisk 6.7 miles per hour to a sluggish 3 mph, easily achievable for an average human. In prehistoric times, you could have strolled down the street and chatted with your friendly neighborhood T. rex without even breaking a sweat.

This new estimate is based on the motion of the T. rex’s flexible tail while walking. The tail acts as a counter balance for the T. rex’s giant body but also as a suspension system, storing and releasing energy as it sways up and down with each step. Researchers used a model of the tail’s motion to figure out how fast it would have moved up and down in its natural lowest-energy state, which corresponds with the preferred walking speed. Once you know how often a T. rex takes a step and estimate the length of each step using the animal’s overall size, you can calculate how fast it is moving. And the answer is not very fast.

To its credit, this new flexible tail model could actually have the opposite impact on estimates of the dinosaur’s maximum running speed. That top speed is currently thought to be limited by bone strength, since supporting 6 tons of body weight creates a lot of stress. Using the tail as a shock damper would allow the T. rex to run a fair bit faster than previously estimated without shattering its bones under its own weight. More research is needed to figure out exactly how fast that is, but you’re probably still pretty safe in a jeep. 

Scientists harness a rare true blue color from nature — in red cabbage

Chemists gave this natural pigment an extra blue boost with aluminum ions

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa

Chemical Biology

University of Saskatchewan

Think about last time you were at the grocery store looking around for fresh vegetables. All the items you probably saw were green, red, yellow, or orange. But what about blue?

Blue is quite uncommon in nature and this fact has baffled scientists for several years. Most colors we see in everyday life comes from small molecules called pigments. Pigments absorb a set of wavelengths of light and reflect the remainder, thus producing color. While uncommon, some birds and butterflies, a rare berry type Pollia condensata, and eyes can be blue. But they are all blue for a different reason. Their blue comes from nanosized structures that scatter or reflect the light wavelengths of the color we see.

Red cabbage leaves are colored dark red or purple because of the pigments in them known as anthocyanins. In 2016, researchers at the Ohio State University used an anthocyanin extract from red cabbage and found around eight different types. Remarkably, among these was a tiny amount of a blueish anthocyanin pigment. In April in the journal Science Advances, scientists report turn this pigment into a true blue with a neat chemistry trick.

The international team of researchers described the full molecular structure of this interesting blue pigment, named P2. The pigment molecule is enormous and has several sugar molecules attached to an anthocyanin core. On its own, it is not strongly blue, but P2 can be turned into a “true” blue pigment by adding aluminum ions to it. 

The charged aluminum ions form a stable molecular complex with three big P2s clamped to a central metal aluminum ion in a “Y” shape. And since they revealed the intricate structure of P2, the researchers could also produce more of it than red cabbage normally does. They used enzymes to convert similar, but more abundant, pigments into P2. By using these tricks, this new blue complex pigment can now be produced in larger amounts and be investigated for future use in the food industry.

Rare orchid lures in beetle pollinators using deceitful sexual bait

Longhorn beetles deposit sperm in orchids they pollinate, but why?

Sahana Sitaraman

Neuroscience and Behavior

National Centre for Biological Sciences, India

Rooted down at one spot, unable to attract their "mate" or move towards them, plants are at the mercy of animals and the environment to aid pollination and subsequent reproduction. Insects and other animals are responsible for the pollination of 60 to 90 percent of plant species. This is made possible largely due to the food rewards that pollinators get from plants in the form of nectar, fruits and vegetables. But some species exhibit uniquely different methods to attract their pollen shippers, often luring them with a deceitful sexual bait.

An exceedingly rare species of orchid, Disa forficaria, found in southern Africa, does not produce nectar. Yet, it is reliably visited by males of the longhorn beetle, Chorothyse hessei, which carry away its pollen packets attached to their underside. Before they depart, though, the beetles exhibit vigorous copulatory behavior perched on top of the orchid flower. They bite the furry antennae-like petals and extend their aedeagus — an arthropod equivalent of a penis — to fit into a floral notch. These visits often end in ejaculation, with sperm being deposited at the floral tip. The beetles are under the false impression that the orchid flowers are females of their species. But why?

Callan Cohen, from the University of Cape Town, who first observed this behavior in the longhorn beetles, investigated the reason behind this unusual sexual encounter. He separated the chemicals released by the orchid flower and tested the response of the beetle antennae, an organ which they use to detect odors, to each of them. One of these compounds, named "disalactone", produced electrical responses in the antennae of all tested individuals. The odor molecule was exceedingly attractive to male beetles, so much so that disalactone beads treated with it not only drew in the beetles, but also enticed them to try and mate with them. While it is presumed that the scent must be the same as that of female longhorns, until scientists catch and examine one, we won’t know for sure.

D. forficaria plants are so scarce that only 11 sightings have been recorded in over 200 years. Last observed in 2019 in the study region, it was thought to be extinct. But this new research shows it is still out there, budding and thriving.

This lab-grown meat grows on spinach skeletons

For lab-grown meat to replace a fresh steak, it needs to look like one

In the last decade, lab-grown meat has emerged a sustainable alternative to traditional livestock methods. Livestock strain Earth's land resources and account for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But while scientists can grow thin sheets of cow meat and scrape it together to form a patty, people eat with their eyes as much as their mouths. For lab-grown meat to replace a fresh steak, it needs to look like a steak. 

Growing lab-based meat into 3D structures is difficult because it needs constant delivery of oxygen and nutrients. In living organisms, vascular systems fill that need. Researchers at Boston College previously showed that skeletonized spinach leaves, stripped of everything but their veiny, oxygen-dispersing, vascular system, can support patches of heart muscle cells. Now, they show that lab-grown meat can grow on skeletonized spinach, an essential step to growing steak-shaped meat in the lab.

To skeletonize the spinach leaves, the scientists “decellularized” them, stripping away the greenery and leaving behind a translucent ghost of a leaf. Then, the scientists spread cow muscle cells on the ghostly leaves, like butter on fresh bread. After two weeks, the cells not only survived and multiplied, but also organized into long strands of muscle fiber. These long strands are the building blocks of steak — whether from a cow or from a spinach leaf.  

Lab-grown meat is a technological solution to the environmental crisis. And while we need new and better technology (think, solar panels and battery storage) to change the course, the technology also needs to maximize environmental sustainability. Using spinach, which is in itself environmentally sustainable, doubles down on the sustainability of lab-grown meat.

Tear gas used in 2020 protests wreaked havoc on people's health

The chemical control isn't just a short-term irritant. For many, it caused lasting physical and psychological effects, including menstrual issues

Max G. Levy

Science and Health Journalism and Chemical Engineering

Tear gas is no joke. Despite the fact that it is banned for wartime use by the Geneva Convention, police in the US use the stuff to strong-arm crowds and temper (what they allege to be) riots. But the practice has attracted revised scrutiny in the past year — nationwide protests against police brutality and racism begat more brutality, which hospitalized civilians with injuries from "less lethal" weapons, including tear gas

In a new study, researchers from Kaiser Permanente Northwest Center for Health Research report results from a survey of 2257 adults who attended protests Portland, Oregon. "Almost all respondents," they wrote, had physical or psychological injuries after tear-gas exposure. Nearly 94 percent felt their injuries immediately, and 86 percent had them for days. The study provides scientific support to growing pleas for banning tear gas as a method of crowd-control.

Tear gas is an irritant made of tiny solid chemical aerosols. One common ingredient, chloroacetophenone, is the eye-mouth-throat-lung-skin-burning stuff in Mace. Officials have historically greenlit tear gas as a short-term deterrent — as the chemical equivalent of batting someone's hand away when they're annoying you. But the underlying safety data is decades old and based on exposure in young healthy men

Doctors have known for years that chemical irritants cause serious injuries and even death. This new study presents another compelling case. The survey was anonymous and optional. It took place between July 30 and August 20 and was distributed around Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. The responders reported immediate symptoms like blurred vision and tearing, burning noses, chest tightness and coughing. Hundreds (about 20 percent) even reported rashes and burns.

In contrast with the myth that tear gas is just a short-term irritant, over 80 percent cited delayed health issues. Over half of people who menstruate reported menstrual changes and breast tenderness. The researchers argue that tear gas caused this effect: More days of tear gas exposure led to increased chances of symptoms. The researchers compared survey responses among people who experienced one day of tear gas versus up to five or more days. Mentions of menstrual cramping doubled from 24.3 to 50.9 percent, of increased bleeding nearly tripled, from 14 to 38.3 percent, and of clotting jumped from 3.1 to 20.2 percent.

These new results confirm what many scientists and advocacy organizations have long been saying: Tear gas is brutal on the body. It's banned in warfare, but not still around in policing. Whether the nation's patchwork of powerful municipal police systems will reckon with this fact, however, is another story.

Feral cats' hunting abilities make them particularly effective predators, even when prey see them

Prey can spot cats more often than other similar predators, but that doesn't save them

Enzo M. R. Reyes

Conservation Biology

Massey University

Cats have travelled around the world following human colonization together with dogs and other domesticated animals. Unlike dogs, cats never have been completely domesticated by humans; keeping their predatory instincts and easily becoming feral in new environments to which they have been brought/introduced, becoming a serious threat for native species.

Cats are recognized as one of the main extinction’s causes of native species in several islands including Australia. Research conducted in Australia and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that despite some animals’ ability to recognize them as predators, their anti-predator response isn’t strong enough against the hunting versatility of cats. The researchers attached GPS to 25 cats and ten quolls (a native Australian predator of similar size and feeding habitats to cats) to track their movements every 5-15 minutes in the middle of Tasmania. 

An orange cat on a patio

Enzo M. R. Reyes

They found that native Australian prey animals are able to find cats 20 to 200 times more often than a quoll. This is due to a triple effect combination of high population densities, greater home-range used, and broader habitat preference. The average cat density found in Tasmania was nine cats per km2 compared to 0.4 quolls. Furthermore, cats were found on all the habitats monitored and used their home range more intensively, revisiting it more than twice than quolls. This increases the probability of prey mortality due to the ineffective prey response against cats, possibly associated to Toxoplasma gondi, a parasite that increases risk-taking behavior and attraction to cat odor.

Despite the pessimistic outlook for native Australian prey species, the study highlights another possibility other than broad-scale cat control. Although cats are present in all environments, there is evidence that hunting success decreases in complex habitats or understory structure. So, habitat restoration of understory fauna complexity might bring fine-scale predation refuges for native species.

A "strange, giant" galaxy is breaking all the rules

Without a supermassive black hole to stop them from forming, why aren’t there any young stars?

Margaux Lopez


Vera C. Rubin Observatory

A century ago, astronomer Edwin Hubble defined two main types of galaxies: spirals and ellipticals. 

Spiral galaxies are formed in regions of space with a high density of dark matter, known as dark matter halos. As cold gas and dust are pulled toward the center of the halo via gravity, the particles collide and heat up, creating the cores of new stars. Spiral galaxies are disk-shaped and have lots of younger stars that give off blueish light. 

Elliptical galaxies, on the other hand, are born when two (or more) spiral galaxies merge, losing their defining structure and morphing into a regular elliptical shape. In contrast with spirals, elliptical galaxies do not have much ongoing star formation and are mostly formed from older, redder stars. The bulge at the center of these galaxies is a supermassive black hole that disrupts the star formation process by heating or ejecting the gas that would normally form the core of a new star. Almost all massive galaxies — defined as larger than 100 billion times the size of our sun — are red ellipticals, since they are the result of many previous mergers.

The original uploader was Cosmo0 at English Wikipedia. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Perplexingly, a new study of the massive galaxy SDSS J022248.95-045914.9 disrupts that paradigm. Astronomers expected this massive red galaxy to be elliptical because star formation has been quenched. However, there is no supermassive black hole bulge in the center of the galaxy, and the brightness profile matches what’s normally seen in a spiral galaxy. Moreover, it’s located in a dark matter halo, a region that usually has lots of young stars. The authors looked for other massive galaxies with these characteristics in an existing database, but were unable to find anything.

So how did this strange, giant galaxy form, and why did it stop making new stars if there’s no supermassive black hole to interfere with the process? Astronomers need more data  to confirm the galaxy’s shape and composition and ultimately answer these questions, a perfect task for a revolutionary new survey telescope. But it’s also quite possible that the galaxy just … ran out of gas.

Just 15 percent of psychology studies are strongly rooted in theory

A study of over 2000 papers highlights the need for more theory in psychology research

Eagle Gamma


Psychology is the science of the human mind and behavior. It evolved from the other sciences, like biology, physics, and sociology. Along the way, it has developed into one of the more socially relevant sciences, with its findings applying to government, business, relationships, sports, and many other topics. But a key challenge for the field is that the mind is less tangible than organisms, matter, or even people themselves. The field also has a replication crisis on its hands, in addition to the skepticism that many people already hold towards the notion of studying the mind scientifically.

But does psychology even have functional theory — a set of cumulative explanations for why something is the way it is? For all the work in psychology, including not only scientific investigations but also applications of psychology to medicine and the law, much psychological research may lack a theoretical foundation. Thinkers going back at least as far back as Thomas Kuhn last century have argued that psychology may not have a unifying rationale, and the theories psychologists do use seem to be poorly defined.

In a paper published in PLOS ONE, a group of scientists studied over 2000 papers published in the leading journal Psychological Science, measuring how often they referred to theory. They found that many studies actually do not use theory, and those studies that do tend to refer to them only once. Just 15.3 percent of the papers specifically aimed to test predictions from theories. 

This means that even a prominent psychology journal dedicated to theory-based science only rarely tests theory. The finding may explain the lack of reliability in psychology, and signals a potential failing in the fundamental scientific enterprise of psychology. Can psychology develop a sound theoretical framework? Perhaps this new focus on the matter will push the field toward that goal.

Pets harbor different microbes from their wild relatives

Swapping the diets of wild and domesticated animals could only explain some of the microbial differences

Bhargavi Murthy


Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry

The diversity of the gut microbiome impacts the health and nutrition of humans and (some) animals. While diet exerts the strongest influence on microbiome diversity, ecological factors like industrialization (for humans) and domestication (for animals) play a role, too.

Domestication can cause differences in mammalian gut microbial signatures, and this has been surveyed in a few mammals in independent studies. However, a recent study attempted to examine these differences across nine wild versus domesticated pairs of mammals, using pets, livestock, and laboratory animals. 

The researchers collected fecal samples of wild and domesticated mammals to extract the genetic information about their gut microbial communities. Though they did not see a single hallmark of domestication, they observed a common shift in the microbial composition of all domesticated animals. When they exchanged the diets of wild-caught and lab mice, they found that the dietary swap could only partially erase the microbiome differences between the groups. 

But the researchers were curious to know if the microbiota of lab mice could be artificially "re-wilded." So, they transplanted lab mice with poop from wild mice and also kept them on a wild diet. They saw that just this one fecal transplantation successfully shifted the microbiota of lab mice toward the wild donor profile, even without much help from the wild diet. 

The researchers also tested the swap diet on wolves versus dogs. Interestingly, while wolves gained microbial diversity on dog food, dogs lost diversity when fed with carcasses. Finally, the researchers compared wild chimpanzees to humans to draw parallels between domestication and industrialization. The profile of non-industrialized humans was more similar to chimpanzees than that of their industrialized counterparts, who were, in fact, similar to their pets.

Domestication has, therefore, left significant effects on the microbial gut community across multiple species of mammals. Examining these differences is essential to understanding host-microbiome-environment relationships, especially in the context of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic-resistant bacteria being harbored in domesticated animals.