Scientific News

An observatory that will allow us to study primordial universe has nearly been completed

Only one last piece is missing to complete the new Simons astronomical observatory, a telescope that will be used to obtain new information on the formation of the universe and its origins.

Engineers, technicians and scientists are making the final touches to the LATR (Large Aperture Telescope Receiver), one of the most important pieces, considered the central detector as well as the “heart” of the entire observatory.

The observatory Simons will rely on a series of telescopes placed in Atacama desert, Chile, and will be used in particular to study deeper into the cosmic microwave background radiation, ie the residual radiation left by the big bang, a group of waves very weak important to know the first moments of the universe.

This is a very weak signal that can be easily disturbed by any “background noise.” Precisely to avoid this disturbance, the LATR detector will operate at very low temperatures, even at absolute zero, a temperature that can only be obtained through cryogenic techniques. This is why the engineers have designed a massive metal shell that will house this central detector.

This is the largest experiment aimed at studying the cosmic ground-based radiation ever made (thus not considering orbiting telescopes), an experiment that can count on sensitivity at least 10 times higher than any other study of this radiation.

The observatory should gather the first data in the spring of 2021.

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Two potentially habitable exoplanets found 12.5 light years away

Two extrasolar planets have been found that are potentially habitable according to two researchers from two Israeli institutes. The two planets orbit the star of Teegarden, a red dwarf 12.5 light-years away from us.

This star was discovered in 2003 by the astrophysicist Bonnard Teegarden while the two planets, “b” and “c,” were discovered in June by another team.

According to Amri Wandel and Lev Tal-Or, the two researchers, one from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the other from Tel Aviv University, the two planets orbit their star in only 4.9 and 11.4 days what which, combined with the size of the star itself, ensure that the two planets can be inserted into the so-called “habitable zone.”

In addition, both have an orbit with one side always facing the star. In essence, they do not have the cycle of day and night. This type of planet was initially considered, at least until a few years ago, as uninhabitable as one side would always be too hot and the other always too cold.

However, new theories have confirmed that a thin strip of land at the borders between these two zones can be habitable provided that the other conditions, such as the orbital location of the planet itself in the habitable zone, are satisfied.

According to the two researchers, it is likely that both planets can support liquid water on their surface. The two planets also have dimensions comparable to those of the Earth.

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Trees exchange information when beetles attack

A new study published in Science of the Total Environment shows once again how trees and plants in general are interconnected when it comes to survival. It is one of those studies that show that trees can literally communicate with each other even to counter “predators.”

The study, conducted by a scientist at the University of Alberta, focused on the pines of Lodgepole, a species widespread especially in North America but which over time has been “introduced” into Scandinavian countries as well Sweden and Norway.

The researcher found that when attacked by pine beetles, these trees release particular volatile chemical compounds to warn nearby trees about the threat. These “messages” can only be decoded by trees of the same species, as reported by the scientist Altaf Hussain who led the study.

It is not the first study that shows a communication system between trees, but past research has mostly focused on the mechanisms based on networks of roots under the ground. This is the first study that shows a form of communication that takes place via volatile chemicals.

These substances are transferred from trees attached to trees not yet attached within 30 meters distance via a mushroom associated with the same beetle. This study could help to implement a possible form of contrast against the dwarf pine beetles which are one of the most serious threats with regard to North American forests, particularly Canadians.

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Artificial intelligence and satellites used to predict volcanic eruptions

Researchers and scientists are resorting to artificial intelligence to predict, or at least detect in time, volcano eruptions. Considering that there are more than 800 million people living close to active volcanoes, such research takes on a certain importance.

Using satellite images, the MOUNTS project (Monitoring Unrest from Space) currently monitors 18 active volcanoes, including Etna, and does so by analyzing satellite images. However, the data sets provided by the satellites are so large and full-bodied, and are updated almost daily, that manual checks are not possible and computer algorithms must be used.

The images also reflect the smallest changes related to the deformation of the terrain near volcanoes. Just to make the “control” phase more efficient, the researchers developed artificial neural networks, a type of artificial intelligence, to automatically detect important ground deformation events, signals that suggest that the magma itself is moving underneath the terrain.

In essence, researchers, as reported by Andreas Ley, a researcher at the Technical University of Berlin involved in the MOUNTS project, do not want to continuously monitor volcanoes, they want computers to report when something interesting is happening.

The system has already been able to detect early signals of different eruptions. Last month, for example, he detected a deformation of the land connected to an evolution which then took place on the island of Reunion concerning the volcano Piton de la Fournaise.

On this occasion, the system itself sent automatic emails not only to the researchers but also to the users who had registered with the appropriate website to get updates.

The deformations of the ground detectable by the satellites do not cover all situations and for this reason, the researchers decided to integrate these important data with other equally important data such as those related to gas emissions near the cone and to volcano temperature increases or of the area around it. This data is naturally collected via ground sensors. Now, with all this data, it is possible to work on algorithms based on automatic learning to predict eruptions more and more efficiently.

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Teeth can be repaired and regenerated thanks to stem cells

Triggering a natural tooth regeneration on command could be possible in the future thanks to a new discovery made by researchers at the Biotechnology Center of the Technical University of Dresden (BIOTEC) concerning a group of stem cells.

Scientists at the German institute, along with several other colleagues, have in fact discovered a new population of mesenchymal stromal cells that could be useful to repair teeth. This is what researchers observed in some experiments on mice: these cells contributed to the regeneration of dentin, which is the hard and resistant tissue that underlies the structure of the tooth.

When the researchers activated these stem cells through a gene called Dlk1, a signal was activated that caused the cells of the dental tissue to increase or to decrease the number of cells produced.

For the moment the experiments have been carried out only on mice and therefore further research will be necessary to verify that what happened on the teeth of rodents can also occur on human teeth.

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“Intelligent” road signs that change color depending on the viewing angle have been developed

A new technology that could allow better visualization of road signs in the dark was developed by researcher Limin Wu of the University of Fudan, China, in collaboration with other scientists.

Wu and his team have developed a thin film that reflects light in particular ways, brightly shining or changing color in the dark. The study, published in Science Advances, describes this film made from polymeric microspheres attached to the sticky side of a transparent ribbon.

When a white light, for example, illuminates this film during the night, or at least in the dark, certain observers will see one color while another will come in another, depending on the angle of observation or if the same light source is moving less.

Extremely useful features regarding the “intelligent” road signs were noted by Qiaoqiang Gan, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo who contributed to the study: “If a person is listening to music at high volume or not paying attention while walking or driving, a signal that changes color can help alert you better to the traffic situation.”

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Frogs create small artificial ponds to protect tadpoles from predators

A group of researchers has discovered a particular behavior in goliath frogs that they define as the “first example of a construction of a nest in an African amphibian.”

According to the researchers, who published their work in the Journal of Natural History, these frogs can build real little ponds for their little ones, environments that they then guard and care for.

To “build” these ponds they manage to move rocks weighing up to one pound, a good effort even considering that they are huge frogs that can weigh up to 5 pounds and can reach a length of 34 cm. They create these small ponds at the edges of the rivers using the flow of the latter. By blocking the flow of water, they create a sort of safe haven from the numerous predators that can live in such an aquatic environment.

The very fact that they move such large rocks to block the flow of water would also explain the gigantism that developed during their evolution, as explained by Marvin Schäfer of the Natural History Museum in Berlin, one of the authors of the study.

The researchers noted this behavior in various specimens on the Mpoula River in Cameroon.

Initially they wanted to know more about the reproduction of this particular species of frog but then discovered strange small pools of water created thanks to the accumulation of large stones as well as other elements such as leaves and gravel that were meant to be said for real “nests” that parents created for their children.

They also discovered that the frogs themselves could also spend all night to protect these sites from predators by ending their wake only at dawn.

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Malaria discovered on the salivary gland of mosquitoes

There is a sort of “bottleneck” in the body of the mosquitoes that cause malaria and that causes the parasites of this disease are not transmitted all over the body of people when mosquitoes bite them.

The discovery was made by a group of scientists from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that parasites inside mosquitoes are stopped by a “road block” during their escape attempt in the insect’s salivary glands during the sting. It is estimated that less than a tenth of the parasites present in the mosquito’s salivary gland at the time of puncture is transmitted into the body of humans, as stated by Michael Wells, a researcher engaged in the study.

The researchers analyzed, in particular, the salivary gland of the Anopheles mosquito. This gland is made up of three lobes of cells that produce saliva enclosed in a sort of protective film called the basement membrane. The parasites, to enter the body of humans, must cross this membrane, penetrate into a layer of salivary cells and then “swim” in an area called the secretory cavity to finally reach the salivary duct. Researchers have discovered that few manage to reach the latter conduit.

This discovery could naturally serve to devise new strategies to reduce malaria infection, one of the most serious diseases, especially in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, as well as one of the most widespread so that it is estimated that there are 220 million people who they have contracted all over the world. It could also serve as regards the contrast to other diseases transmitted by the same mosquitoes, first of all Zika fever.

Deborah Andrew, professor of cell biology at Johns Hopkins University and one of the main authors of the study, comments as follows: “Our results add substantial details to the role of mosquito salivary glands as access organs to diseases spread by them insects. By improving the transmission barriers that naturally exist in mosquitoes, we can potentially block the spread of malaria and other deadly mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika fever.”

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A mystery regarding a glitch in neutron stars has been solved

Neutron stars are the densest stars in the universe (if you don’t consider the black holes as stars) and they rotate very fast and regularly. A small percentage of them, however, show a mysterious behavior that scientists have called a “glitch:” some portions of the interior of the star move outwards and this seems to allow the same stars to rotate faster for short periods.

In a new study, published in Nature Astronomy, a group of researchers analyzed just one of these stars, the Pulsar of the Sails, a neutron star about a thousand light-years away from us.

This is one of the most famous neutron stars not only because it is part of that 5% of the pulsar with the “glitch” but also because this “anomaly” occurs every three years, which allows a more detailed study, despite the cause of this feature was never really explained by astronomers.

Analyzing data from observations made by telescopes, the researchers first confirmed the glitch because the star started at some point to spin faster before slowing down again. They also succeeded in indirectly analyzing the inside of the star by discovering a particular superfluid neutron soup in the inner layer of the crust, as reported by Paul Lasky, one of the authors of the study.

This soup moves outwards hitting the outer crust and making it spin faster. This first phase is followed by a second phase which sees another superfluid soup that reaches the first, during which the normal rotation of the star is re-established.

This is not the solution of the enigma but in any case, this study provides important information to inspire future studies on this mysterious glitch that characterizes some neutron stars.

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Ancient pigs underwent genetic change after arriving in Europe

A new study seems to solve what is considered as a paradox concerning the evolutionary history of pigs. The latter has in fact been domesticated for the first time in the Near East and therefore today’s pigs should resemble genetically wild boars in this area. However, this is not the case: today’s European pigs resemble, at a genetic level, mostly European boars rather than those of the Near East.

The researchers analyzed the DNA signatures of more than 2,000 ancient pigs, traces collected over the years in the areas of the Near East and Europe and dating back to the last 10,000 years.

The results show that pigs arrived in Europe 8000 years ago and at that time showed genetic correlations with those of the Near East. However, with the passage of time, there has also been a hybridization with the European boar and this has meant that the traces of the DNA changed so much that they could no longer find, or almost today, traces of the wild boars of the East.

This study, therefore, declares that the traces of wild boar originating from the Near East have instead remained in the DNA of today’s European pigs and this would also be explained in some particular characteristics relating to the color of the coat.

The researchers also found that higher levels of similarity with boars from the Near East were found in pigs on Mediterranean islands, which could be explained by the fact that the populations of these places had minor exchanges with other populations of the European mainland, which has also seen in parallel also minor hybridizations between the wild boars of these islands and the European ones.

This research is also important because it shows that with today’s techniques it is now possible to see the history of the entire genome of a species in the “slow motion” and with a large level of detail.

Laurent Frantz, lead author of the study and researcher at Queen Mary University in London states the following: “We have all been taught that the great change was the initial process of domestication, but our data suggest that almost none of the human selection compared to the first 2,500 years of domestication of pigs have been important in the development of modern European commercial pigs.”