You may have missed… tracking chaotic narwhals, breeding better peas, and living materials

The chaos of narwhal behaviour

Called the ‘unicorns of the sea,’ narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are small whales found in the Arctic, famous for their long, single tusks. Narwhals are one of the most endangered Arctic species due to climate change, human activity, and predation by invasive species – which is why monitoring narwhals is so important.

But according to Dr Evgeny A. Podolskiy, a geophysicist from Hokkaido University in Japan: “While animal-borne ocean sensors continue to advance and collect more data, there is a lack of adequate methods to analyse records of irregular behaviour.”

Now, Podolskiy and Professor Mads Peter Heide‐Jørgensen, from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, have developed a new way to do this, using the mathematical equations of chaos theory.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, they analysed data from long-term monitoring of an electronically tagged narwhal, identifying previously undetected daily patterns of activity and how they were affected by changing seasons.

The researchers expect that their new method may be especially useful for assessing the challenges to narwhals and other Arctic animals posed by climate change and the loss of sea ice.

Three-months of diverse narwhal dive records as seen in the abstract phase space. Credit: Evgeny A. Podolskiy, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen. PLOS Computational Biology. September 22, 2022).

Unlocking the code to breeding better peas

Peas are a good source of protein, starch, fibre and minerals and a crucial crop for Australian farmers – they’re versatile and produce reliable yields across a range of environments and soil types.

An international team of scientists has used next-generation sequencing technology to map the genetic structure and variations of 118 cultivated and wild pea genomes, revealing just how peas have evolved up until now and traits that breeders can leverage to improve crops.

“This study provides a deeper understanding of peas and the genes that can play a role in adaptation to climate change and help in developing more climate resilient crops,” says co-author Rajeev Varshney, a professor in the Centre for Crop and Food Innovation at Murdoch University inPerth. “It fills the gap between previous basic models and modern genomics to boost research and crop improvement for the pea.”

The findings have been published in Nature Genetics.

Growing ‘engineered’ living materials for cleaning up contamination

Scientists have created self-assembling, fingernail sized, slime-like colonies of engineered bacteria that can be programmed to soak up contaminations from the environment, or catalyse biological reactions.

They made this autonomous ‘engineered living material’, or ELM, using the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus. C. crescentus was genetically engineered to express a new version of one of its proteins, which they call BUD (for bottom-up de novo,as in from scratch), outside of the cell – secreting a biopolymer matrix that gives the material its slimy form.

The ELM grows in a flask in about 24 hours and is robust enough to survive in a jar on the shelf for three weeks at room temperature – meaning it can be transported without refrigeration.

“The transformative aspect of ELMs is that they contain living cells that allow the material to self-assemble and self-repair in case of damage. Moreover, they can be further engineered to perform non-native functions, such as dynamically processing external stimuli,” says lead author Dr Sara Molinari, a synthetic biologist at Rice University in Houston ion Texas.

The ELM could successfully remove cadmium from a solution and was able to perform biological catalysis. The authors of the study, which was published in Nature Communications, say that is should be relatively simple to modify the ELM for optical, electrical, mechanical, thermal, transport and catalytic applications.

Engineered living materials developed at rice university can be customized for a variety of applications including environmental remediation or as custom catalysts. 850
Engineered living materials developed at Rice University can be customized for a variety of applications, including environmental remediation or as custom catalysts. Credit: Sara Molinari/Ajo-Franklin Research Group

Global warming might affect astronomical observations

Unlike astronomical observations by satellites, the quality of ground-based telescope observations depends on the clarity of the atmosphere. It makes sense then that telescope sites are carefully selected – they’re often built high above sea level to reduce the amount of atmosphere above them, or in deserts where clouds and water vapour are less likely.

But scientists analysing future climate trends based on high resolution climate change models, have shown that climate change will likely affect these observatories’ abilities to examine the cosmos in the future, because they’re only designed to work under current site conditions.

“Even though telescopes usually have a lifetime of several decades, site selection processes only consider the atmospheric conditions over a short timeframe. Usually over the past five years – too short to capture long-term trends, let alone future changes caused by global warming,” says Caroline Haslebacher, lead author of the study and researcher at the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

According to their findings, major astronomical observatories – from Hawaii to the Canary Islands, Chile, Mexico, South Africa and Australia – will likely experience an increase in temperature and atmospheric water content by 2050.

“Potential consequences of the climatic conditions for telescopes therefore include a higher risk of condensation due to an increased dew point or malfunctioning cooling systems, which can lead to more air turbulence in the telescope dome,” concludes Haslebacher.

The results have been published in a new study in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Astronomical observatory
The VLT’s Laser Guide Star: A laser beam launched from VLT´s 8.2-metre Yepun telescope crosses the majestic southern sky and creates an artificial star at 90 km altitude in the high Earth´s mesosphere. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT´s Adaptive Optics system and it is used as reference to correct images from the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Credit: © ESO / G. Hüdepohl (

Wearing a pedometer — even if you don’t look at it — may boost step counts

Apparently, there’s a surprisingly simple way to help increase your exercise time: just strap on an activity monitor. According to new research published in the American Journal of Health Behavior people wearing a pedometer walked an average of 318 more steps per day than those without a tracker.

Surprisingly, this was still the case if walkers had no specific fitness goals or incentives or couldn’t even see the step count the pedometer kept.

“We wanted to find out, absent goals and incentives, does simply tracking fitness change behaviour?” says co-author Bill Tayler, professor in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University (BYU) in the US.

“It’s helpful for individuals to know that even without trying, just being aware that something is tracking your steps increases your activity.”

Please login to favourite this article.