Birds can “see” magnetic fields, study reports

Two newly published papers show that birds likely use a special protein in their eyes to navigate around the world.

While birds have been the subject of study for centuries, researchers have never fully understood how they travel around the world with such ease. To shed light on that mystery, scientists at Lund University and the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg found evidence that the protein known as Cry4 might be responsible for avian navigation.

Cry4 is from a protein class known as cryptochromes. Such molecules are sensitive to blue light.and help regulate circadian rhythms. Now, researchers have cause to believe they help birds detect magnetic fields as well.

Past research shows that the cryptochromes in birds’ eyes allows the animals to orient themselves through a process known as magnetoreception. Scientists also know that birds can only sense magnetic fields if certain wavelengths are available.

To follow up on such research, the teams behind the two new studies looked at both zebra finches and Europeans robins. They looked at the birds by analyzing gene expression of the cryptochromes, Cry1, Cry2, and Cry4.

That showed, while Cry1 and Cry2 fluctuated each day, Cry4 — which expressed at constant levels — was the most likely candidate for magnetoreception. That held true for both zebra finches and robins.

“We also found that Cry1a, Cry1b, and Cry2 mRNA display robust circadian oscillation patterns, whereas Cry4 shows only a weak circadian oscillation,” the researchers wrote in their study, according to Science Alert.

In addition, the teams also discovered that Cry4 sits in a region of the retina that receives a lot of light. That further adds credence to the idea that it is used for magnetoreception. In addition, European robins have increased their Cry4 expression over time.

While both teams believe more research is needed before anyone can definitively say that Cry4 is responsible for magnetoreception, the evidence laid out in the two studies is quite strong. The next step is to analyze birds with non-functioning Cry4 and see how they perceive magnetic fields. Only then will teams be able to tell just how important the protein is.

The two studies are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and Current Biology.

SCI Science

World’s most extensive family tree sheds light on more than 11 generations

Scientists have compiled the world’s largest family tree, an endeavor that reveals new insights into both European and North American history.

Researchers from Columbia University used to create the tree, which encompasses roughly 13 million people. After downloading over 80 million public profiles, researchers used mathematical analysis to organize the data. That allowed them to create an interconnected family tree that spans out over 11 generations.

“Family trees have vast applications in multiple fields from genetics to anthropology and economics,” the authors wrote in the study, according to Newsweek. “However, the collection of extended family trees is tedious and usually relies on resources with limited geographical scope and complex data usage restrictions.”

Nearly 85 percent of people looked at in the study came from either Europe or North America. As a result, the tree allowed the team to get a look into how both continents are connected. While they learned a range of interesting things, one of the most useful was the shifting patterns of marriage and migration over time.

For instance, before 1850, many people married within the family. Though researchers previously believed people in the West stopped marrying relatives as a result of improved transport networks, the new data revealed that between 1800 and 1850 people were more likely to marry a fourth cousin. As a result, the team believes the practice died out because it became less socially acceptable over time.

Another surprising discovery is that women in both North America and Europe migrated more than men over the last 300 years. However, when men did migrate they traveled greater distances on average.

This new data is important because it could help answer a wide range of genealogical and scientific questions.

“We hope people use it,” said Yaniv Erlich, a data scientist and computational biologist at the New York Genome Center, according to National Geographic. “You can look at local disasters, individual families, anthropological questions, fertility rates—the data could be used for all of those things.”

A new study published in the journal Science reports.

NWT_Earth NWT_Environment SCI

Antarctic snowfall increased over the last two centuries

Antarctica has experienced a 10 percent increase in snowfall over the last 200 years, according to recent research set to be presented at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria

This new discovery comes from a group of scientists with the British Antarctic Survey, who analyzed Antarctic ice cores and found that the continent accumulated nearly 272 gigatons of water over the last two centuries. Almost all of that extra water came from increased snowfall.

Such information is important because, not only does it alter the current perception of Antarctica’s climate, but it could change current sea level rise models as well.

“There is an urgent need to understand the contribution of Antarctic ice to sea-level rise and we use a number of techniques to determine the balance between snowfall and ice loss,” lead author Elizabeth Thomas, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “When ice loss is not replenished by snowfall then sea level rises.”

Satellite pictures — which often help researchers understand shifting climates — typically only give information going back 20 years or so. As a result, ice core analysis, which are able to track snowfall for several hundred years, are more effective. In this case, they revealed that Antarctica’s surface mass balance drastically shifted from snowfall throughout the twentieth century.

Though the snowfall is everywhere, it mainly concentrated on the Antarctic Peninsula. There, the annual average is 10 percent higher than it was 200 years ago.

This discovery could alter current perceptions of climate change, but the team states the findings do not override any observations of melting or glacial retreat. Even so, they will allow scientists make more accurate sea level rise predictions as time goes on.

“We know that the two major influencers affecting change — the mass gain from snowfall and the mass loss from melting — are acting differently from one another,” added Thomas, according to UPI. “Our new findings take us a step towards improving our knowledge and understanding.”


Key parts of the ozone layer are not healing

Though recent research revealed that the ozone above Antarctica is slowly healing, the layer is not recovering over Earth’s most highly populated regions, a new study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics reports.

In the research, a group of international scientists found that, despite conservation efforts, the ozone layer is thinning in the lower stratosphere above non-polar areas. The reduced protection is particularly concerning near the equator, where sunlight is the strongest.

Though scientists are not sure why the ozone layer is dropping at lower latitudes, they believe the decline is linked to a chemical used in paint stripper, as well as atmospheric circulation triggered by climate change.

“The study is in lower to mid latitudes, where the sunshine is more intense, so that is not a good signal for skin cancer,” said study co-author Joanna Haigh, a researcher at Imperial College London, according to The Guardian. “It is a worry. Although the Montreal protocol has done what we wanted it to do in the upper stratosphere, there are other things going on that we don’t understand.”

To better understand the worrisome trend, the team combined measurements of atmospheric ozone from 11 different datasets to generate a record of the last 30 years. They then looked at ozone levels between the 60th parallels — an area that ranges from Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska in the north to the tip of South America — and studied the stratosphere.

That revealed the lower stratosphere, which contains the most ozone, had falling levels. As a result, it is likely going to stay in its depleted state rather than heal.

There is no set reason for this decline, but scientists postulate that global warming could be the cause. That is because ozone is produced by chemical reactions that occur over the tropics before large air circulation currents move them towards the poles. Warming trends could strengthen such currents, moving more ozone to the poles and leaving less at lower latitudes.  

However, previous studies have also shown that “very short lived substances” (VSLS) — industrial chemicals that destroy ozone — could be a factor as well. Many believed they break down too quickly to make it to the stratosphere, but the new research once again calls them into question.

 “The finding of declining low-latitude ozone is surprising, since our current best atmospheric circulation models do not predict this effect,” said lead author William Ball, an atmospheric scientist at ETH Zurich university in Switzerland, according to Newsweek. “Very short-lived substances could be the missing factor in these models.”

There are many theories out there, but more research needs to be conducted before any can be confirmed. The team hopes they will be able to answer some questions in the coming months and help provide insight into why the ozone is collapsing in the way that it is.


Noise pollution could harm heart health, study reports

High amounts of noise pollution may lead to or trigger cardiovascular disease, according to a new review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

This connection may be surprising, but it is not necessarily new. Many past studies have shown a link between noise pollution and heart problems. For instance, scientists have connected road traffic and planes to issues like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart failure.

Even so, while there is a lot of information about the topic, it is not well understood.

To shed light on the link, a team from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany compiled and analyzed findings from dozens of previous studies on noise and health problems. They found that noise is not just annoying, it disrupts the body on the cellular level. In fact, it triggers a stress response and activates the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. That then causes a spike in stress hormones, which can lead to vascular damage over time.

There is also a chance that noise may be a driving factor behind both oxidative stress and metabolic abnormalities, which could both contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes. As a result, those at risk for heart disease should try to avoid living in noisy areas when possible.

Another issue with noise is that it can disrupt a person’s sleep, even if they are not aware they are waking up. Noise in the night can cause a stress reaction that may lead to more problems later on. However, noise during the day can cause problems as well.

“When we’re exposed to loud noises, the sympathetic nervous system dominates,” explained James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at the Mid America Heart Institute, Saint Luke’s Hospital who was not involved in the study, according to TIME. “That can really put your system on alert and makes you jumpy, which can wear down your resilience — just like any other type of physical or mental stress.”

While there is no established volume threshold for heart-disease risk, the team states that long exposure to sounds over 60 decibels can potentially harm the cardiovascular system. For reference, a telephone ring produces about 80 decibels, a jackhammer about 100, and an airplane takeoff about 120.

To reduce noise, researchers believe that earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones could help cut back on health problems. A type of relaxation therapy known as autogenic training may also work as well.

Researchers hopes to continue to study the link between noise pollution and health in hopes of getting officials to take a notice of potential environmental stressors. Some cities have taken steps to reduce noise pollution, but that is likely not going to be enough.

“What we need is policy change,” said lead author Thomas Münzel, a researcher at Johannes Gutenberg University, according to ABC News. “We can acknowledge noise as a cardiovascular risk factor, but since doctors and patients can’t regulate it, we need our governments to pay attention to the WHO noise limits and change the laws accordingly.”

NWT_Environment Science

Microplastics threaten marine filter-feeders, study reports

A group of international researchers has found that if more research is not done on the impact plastic pollution has on rays, whales, and sharks, many of the large marine species could die off in the near future. 

Microplastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to ocean life, and the team in the recent study has found evidence that it hits larger species particularly hard. The researchers discovered that large marine animals are swallowing hundreds of tiny bits of plastic every day, a trend that could greatly reduce many filter feeder populations.

Even so, despite that risk there is very little research being done on the topic. To try and change that trend, the team analyzed a range of studies and found that the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Coral Triangle all need to be better monitored for the presence of microplastics.

The small particles are dangerous because, once ingested, they can damage the digestive system and lead to toxin exposure. That could then affect many biological processes, including growth and production. While the plastics affect many species, filter feeders — which swallow hundreds of cubic meters of water a day — are particularly susceptible to ingesting them. That is problematic because the larger species are a key part of many ecosystems.

“Our studies on whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez and on fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea confirmed exposure to toxic chemicals, indicating that these filter feeders are taking up microplastics in their feeding grounds,” said study co-author Maria Fossi, a professor at the University of Siena in Italy, according to BBC News. “Exposure to these plastic-associated toxins pose a major threat to the health of these animals since it can alter the hormones, which regulate the body’s growth and development, metabolism, and reproductive functions, among other things.”

Whale sharks feeding in an important breeding ground at the Sea of Cortez off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula are estimated to ingest under 200 pieces of plastic per day. In addition, fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea likely swallow closer to 2,000 microplastic particles per day.

The new research hopes to stem those issues by highlighting several key coastal regions for future research and monitoring. Whale sharks and other flagship species may act as a the center point for such study, especially in countries that rely on wildlife tourism. Many large filter feeding species are on the edge of extinction, and the team hopes more awareness could stem the tide and help prevent them from disappearing altogether.

“It is worth highlighting that utilizing these iconic species, such as whale sharks, manta rays and whales to gain the attention of and engage with communities, policy makers and managers will go far to enhance stewardship of entire marine ecosystems,” said Elitza Germanov, a PhD student at Murdoch University.

The new research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

NWT_Energy PHYS Physics

Last reservoir of ordinary matter discovered

A team of international scientists have found the last batch of ordinary matter hiding out in the universe, a new study in the journal Nature reports.

Ordinary matter — also known as “baryons” — makes up all physical objects in existence. However, though astronomers have long know that, they have only been able to track down roughly two-thirds of the amount physicists predicted was created by the Big Bang.

For the new research, scientists discovered the last missing third in the space between galaxies. Research shows it exists as filaments of oxygen gas that sit at temperatures of roughly 1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

This discovery is extremely important for the field of astrophysics because it could create a much better picture of how the universe first came about.

“This is one of the key pillars of testing the Big Bang theory: figuring out the baryon census of hydrogen and helium and everything else in the periodic table,” said study co-author Michael Shull, a researcher at the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS), according to Science Daily.

Roughly 10 percent of ordinary matter sits in galaxies and 60 percent is in diffuse clouds that hang between galaxies.

Back in 2012 researchers predicted the missing 30 percent sat in a web-like pattern known as the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM).

To test that theory, the team in the new study pointed satellites at a quasar known as 1ES 1553. Such bodies are black holes that sit at the center of their galaxy. Analyzing them is important because, by seeing how quasar radiation moves through space scientists can track missing baryons.

Using such information from 1ES 1553, the team discovered signatures of a type of highly-ionized oxygen gas lying between the quasar and our solar system.

That accounts for the missing matter, which then helps build a much more complete picture of the universe. Both for how it came about and the way it go to its current state.

“[T]he missing baryons have been found,” wrote the team, according to Gizmodo.


Carnivorous plant inspires anti-biofouling technology

Scientists from the University of Sydney have taken inspiration from carnivorous plants in order to develop new nanostructured surface coatings with anti-fouling properties, a study published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces reports.

Biofouling — which refers the build-up of dangerous biological material — is a large economic issue that costs the aquaculture and shipping industries billions of dollars each year in both maintenance and extra fuel usage.  The issue has always been a problem, but it has gotten even worse since officials banned the anti-fouling agent tributyltin and created the need for new, non-toxic methods to stop marine biofouling.

To overcome that, the team in the study created new nanomaterials that prevents bacteria from growing on certain surfaces. The unique coating works through a series of  ‘nanowrinkles’ that are inspired by the carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plant, which traps a layer of water on the tiny structures around its opening to trap play.

As biofouling tends to occur on surfaces that are wet for extended periods of time, the slippery surface developed by the team stops bacteria from sticking on. That prevents the forming of biofilm, which then shuts down larger fouling process.

“We are keen to understand how these surfaces work and also push the boundaries of their application, especially for energy efficiency,” said study co-author Chiara Neto, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, according to “Slippery coatings are expected to be drag-reducing, which means that objects, such as ships, could move through water with much less energy required.”

Researchers tested the new materials by tying them to shark netting in Sydney’s Watson Bay. This showed that the slippery surfaces resisted almost all fouling from a common species of marine bacteria, while control Teflon samples that did not have the lubricating layer were completely fouled. In addition, the coatings are flexible and transparent, making them perfect for underwater cameras and sensors as well. The team hopes to continue developing the materials in order to find more applications for them in the future.

NWT_Biology Science TECH

Scientists uncover second way bacteria make methane

Researchers from various U.S. universities have discovered a new way microorganisms produce natural methane, according to recent research published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are the main way natural nitrogen gas transforms into a form that humans and plants can both process. Of all those bacterial species, nearly 10 percent have the genetic code to create a back-up enzyme known as iron-only nitrogenase.

In the new research, scientists found that the enzyme enables bacteria to convert nitrogen gas to ammonia and carbon dioxide into methane at the same time. The ammonia is the main product of that process, and methane is simply a side effect. That means the newly discovered enzymatic pathway is a previously unknown channel for the natural biological production of methane.

“Methane is potent greenhouse gas. That is why it is important to account for all of its sources,” said study co-author Caroline Harwood, the Gerald and Lyn Grinstein Professor of Microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, according to

Methane is released from fossil fuels, but it is also generated from microbial activity. In fact, microorganisms form and consume at least a billion tons of methane per year. As a result, further study of the gas could have large ecological significance.

This research could also be important for the medical community because methane plays a role in the interactions between the microbes that inhabit humans and animals. For instance, scientists suspect methane in the gut contributes to certain digestive disorders.

This new finding builds on previous research that shows iron-only nitrogenase is active in microbes more often and in more conditions than previously thought. The team found it in the microorganism Rhodopseudomonas palustris, as well as three other nitrogen-fixing bacterial species that create the enzyme. They hope to expand on the study to see what else they can learn about the new pathway, as well as find what other applications it might have. 

“Our findings are significant because they give scientists a second target to chase in understanding biological methane formation and rising methane emissions,” said study co-author Lance Seefeldt, a professor in Utah State University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in a statement. “In addition, the discovery could drive efforts to turn waste gasses into usable fuels.”

PHYS TECH_Technology

Discovery brings researchers one step closer to quantum computing

A group of researchers from the University of New South Wales have discovered what could be a major step forward in the field of quantum computing, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The team managed to get quantum bits (qubits) — which are the most basic quantum computing units — to communicate with each other. As that has never happened before, this is a big break-through for the unique technology.

This discovery is important because it means scientists are one step closer to “entangling” their qubits, which essential to creating a function quantum computer.

Entanglement is a strange physical phenomenon where groups of small particles interact with each other in a way where they can no longer be described independently, no matter how far apart they are. That is key for future computing is because it would unlock their full power.

For instance, one quantum chip containing 50 or 60 qubits would have more power than the world’s fastest supercomputers. Once those entangled qubits reach 300 or more, there would be enough power to perform an unimaginable amount of calculations in a single instant, according to Newsweek.

Normal computers can exist in one of two states: 0 or 1. However, qubits can exist in 0, 1, and everything else in between. That means they can perform multiple calculations at once, making them much more powerful than normal computers.

While the world’s first scalable, silicon-based quantum computer is still a ways off, there is no doubt that the new discovery has a lot of potential. Quantum computers would help many fields and enables scientists to process information in a brand new way. This is the first step on a long journey, but it is an important one nonetheless. 

“There’s nothing to prohibit us getting them closer,” study co-author Michelle Simmons, a researcher at the University of New South Whales, according to The Guardian. “The great thing is that the devices are small enough that we can make predictive models for the theory. Every time we get results we benchmark that with a theory and that helps us understand the system so much better.