Scientists accidentally discover new, stable form of plutonium

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The team who discovered the stable new form of plutonium, standing with the ROBL spectrometer that confirmed the findK. Kvashnina/ESRF

A team of scientists has discovered a new, stable form of plutonium – and done so by accident. The famously unstable element is tricky to transport, store and dispose of, but the find could lead to new ways to tackle those problems.

Plutonium is famously unstable, which is of course what makes it both an incredibly powerful source of energy and a potentially-devastating environmental disaster. Some isotopes of plutonium can persist for tens of millions of years, which is bad news if it gets into the groundwater.

Given those stakes, it’s important to learn as much as we can about plutonium, to ensure it’s being created, used, transported, stored and disposed of as safely as possible. Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) were doing just that when they accidentally discovered a new, stable form of plutonium.

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Four revolutionary technologies that are now obsolete

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Japan’s last pager has emitted its final beep.

Tokyo Telemessage, the country’s only remaining pager provider, shut down its radio signals this week, following decades of dwindling subscribers.

Pagers first went on sale in Japan in the 1960s and were known as pokeberu, or “pocket bells”. They were a popular way of contacting someone on the go. Callers could send a short message by dialling a pager number from a landline.

The device was initially used to reach salespeople who were out on the road, but later became a status symbol, clipped to the belts of city workers to demonstrate industriousness.

By the end of the 1980s, there were 60 million pager users worldwide. But within a decade, its popularity was rapidly overtaken by the mobile phone. In the UK, 86% of kids over six-years-old in the UK are now unable to identify a pager.

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Gene editing transforms gel into shape-shifting material

 

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The CRISPR technique can trigger the new material to release drugs or pick up biological signals

Is there anything CRISPR can’t do? Scientists have wielded the gene-editing tool to make scores of genetically modified organisms, as well as to track animal development, detect diseases and control pests. Now, they have found yet another application for it: using CRISPR to create smart materials that change their form on command.

The shape-shifting materials could be used to deliver drugs, and to create sentinels for almost any biological signal, researchers report in Science on 22 August1. The study was led by James Collins, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Collins’ team worked with water-filled polymers that are held together by strands of DNA, known as DNA hydrogels. To alter the properties of these materials, Collins and his team turned to a form of CRISPR that uses a DNA-snipping enzyme called Cas12a. (The gene-editor CRISPR–Cas9 uses the Cas9 enzyme to snip a DNA sequence at the desired point.) The Cas12a enzyme can be programmed to recognize a specific DNA sequence. The enzyme cuts its target DNA strand, then severs single strands of DNA nearby.

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New analysis techniques unearth a trove of unusual minerals

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Nataliyamalikite was discovered in Kamchatka’s Avacha Volcano, which emits sulfurous vapor that’s high in thallium.YURI SMITYUK/GETTY IMAGES

THE LANDSCAPE OF Kamchatka Peninsula steams with sulfurous vapor, its 29 active volcanoes forming a hazy backdrop for the region’s herds of reindeer and rivers of salmon. One of the most geologically active places in the world, Kamchatka juts out from the eastern coast of Russia to resemble a larger version of Florida. A process almost like alchemy occurs here: Like a set of roiling cauldrons, Kamchatka’s volcanoes mix unusual combinations of atomic elements to forge minerals that are unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

And in the past few years, researchers have discovered several new minerals on Kamchatka. “They pop up by accident,” says Joël Brugger, a geologist at Monash University in Australia, who helped discover a new mineral on the peninsula called nataliyamalikite in 2017. “You just have to keep your eyes open.” Researchers don’t set out to make these discoveries, usually. Instead, they stumble upon new minerals during their studies of broader geologic processes that might, for example, cause rare metals to collect in unusually large concentrations in a specific volcano.

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Hydrogel uses sunlight to harvest fresh water from the sea

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The research team (led by Tan Swee Ching, at right) with samples of the hydrogel

In many arid coastal regions, a great quantity of valuable fresh water is lost into the atmosphere every day, as it evaporates from the surface of the ocean. This situation prompted scientists to create a new hydrogel that’s highly effective at capturing moisture from the sea air, and then releasing it as fresh water.

Developed by a team at the National University of Singapore, the zinc-based material is claimed to be over eight times more absorbent than existing drying agents such as silica gel and calcium chloride – it can absorb more than four times its dry weight in water. Additionally, unlike the case with traditional drying agents, no electricity is required to get that water back out of it, plus the gel can be reused over 1,000 times.

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New analysis techniques unearth a trove of unusual minerals

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Nataliyamalikite was discovered in Kamchatka’s Avacha Volcano, which emits sulfurous vapor that’s high in thallium.YURI SMITYUK/GETTY IMAGES

THE LANDSCAPE OF Kamchatka Peninsula steams with sulfurous vapor, its 29 active volcanoes forming a hazy backdrop for the region’s herds of reindeer and rivers of salmon. One of the most geologically active places in the world, Kamchatka juts out from the eastern coast of Russia to resemble a larger version of Florida. A process almost like alchemy occurs here: Like a set of roiling cauldrons, Kamchatka’s volcanoes mix unusual combinations of atomic elements to forge minerals that are unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

And in the past few years, researchers have discovered several new minerals on Kamchatka. “They pop up by accident,” says Joël Brugger, a geologist at Monash University in Australia, who helped discover a new mineral on the peninsula called nataliyamalikite in 2017. “You just have to keep your eyes open.” Researchers don’t set out to make these discoveries, usually. Instead, they stumble upon new minerals during their studies of broader geologic processes that might, for example, cause rare metals to collect in unusually large concentrations in a specific volcano.

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Scientists are discovering the secrets behind whole-body DNA regeneration

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A team at Harvard has released a study on panther worms which revealed a regenerative master switch called early growth response, or EGR.

Scientists want to know why some fauna, like some species of the humble jellyfish, can regenerate their whole bodies following an injury. In a paper published last Friday, a team at Harvard have made some breakthroughs.

With three-banded panther worms as their test subjects, Harvard’s Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Mansi Srivastava and her team discovered a master control gene that’s activated by noncoding DNA, according to the Harvard Gazette.

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Scientists find first evidence of huge Mars underground water system

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The first evidence for a planet-wide underground water system will help aid future missions in our hunt for life on Mars.

Mars wasn’t always a dusty, barren planet.

Previous modeling has demonstrated the planet was once overflowing with water that eventually retreated under the surface. But new research details the first direct geological evidence for a “planet-wide groundwater system” explaining Mars’ watery history and providing new sites for future missions to hunt for signs of life.

The revelations come via some plucky Mars geologists and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter. The spacecraft, launched in 2003, circles the planet and is fitted with a number of high-resolution cameras constantly snapping images of the Martian surface. Researchers at the University of Utrecht, led by Francesco Salese, pored over these images, intently studying 24 deep craters in Mars’ northern hemisphere looking for signs that water once flowed there.

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Synthetic organisms are about to challenge what ‘alive’ really means

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We need to begin a serious debate about whether artificially evolved humans are our future, and if we should put an end to these experiments before it is too late.

In 2016, Craig Venter and his team at Synthetic Genomics announced that they had created a lifeform called JCVI-syn3.0, whose genome consisted of only 473 genes. This stripped-down organism was a significant breakthrough in the development of artificial life as it enabled us to understand more fully what individual genes do. (In the case of JCVI-syn3.0, most of them were used to create RNA and proteins, preserve genetic fidelity during reproduction and create the cell membrane. The functions of about a third remain a mystery.)

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Earth’s mysterious ‘deep biosphere’ may harbor millions of undiscovered species

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Scientists say the underground ecosystems are a “subterranean Galapagos” just waiting to be studied.

This unidentified nematode from the Kopanang gold mine in South Africa lives 1.4 kilometers below the surface.Gaetan Borgonie / Extreme Life Isyensya, Belgium

Life on Earth takes billions of shapes, but to see most of them you’ll have to dig deep below the planet’s surface.

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The next big thing in cannabis? Terpenes

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The future of the industry is all in the nose.

Looking for a new angle to approach the cannabis business? While medical and lifestyle entrepreneurs have been honing in on the active cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, it turns out the real soul of the plant has been right under our noses.

Terpenes are the future of cannabis. These organic, aromatic compounds exist naturally in the essential oils of all plants — they’re what give herbs, flowers, and fruits their signature aromas. But terpenes are also the specific reason why various strains of cannabis affect the body and mind in subtly different ways.

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This astrophysicist explains the surprisingly complex concept of ‘nothing’

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Philosophers have debated the nature of “nothing” for thousands of years, but what has modern science got to say about it?

In an interview with The Conversation, Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, explains that when physicists talk about nothing, they mean empty space (vacuum).

This may sound straightforward, but experiments show that empty space isn’t really empty – there’s a mysterious energy latent in it which can tell us something about the fate of the universe.

Rees was interviewed for The Conversation’s Anthill podcast on Nothing. This Q&A is based on an edited transcript of that interview.

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