You may have missed… largest cosmic explosion; sponging lead from water; “postal workers” in cells; and Devils Hole cave system.

What you might have missed in last week’s science.

Water supply in the smallest habitat of all known vertebrates

Researchers investigating the famous “Devils Hole” cave system in Nevada have used calcite deposits to reconstruct water level changes in the cave up to hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The team developed a model for this arid region to understand changes in groundwater recharge – when water filters down from the surface.

An underwater image of a man in diving gear, drilling into the wall of an underwater cave
Using an underwater drill specially developed for the expedition to Devils Hole, the researchers took samples from the calcite deposits in the cave. Credit: Robbie Shone

The results are described in a new study in Communications Earth & Environment.

“…We can now draw quantitative conclusions about changes in precipitation for the entire region over the last 350,000 years using the precise data from the cave,” says geologist Simon Steidle, a PhD candidate at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and co-author on the paper.

This new information is especially relevant for a fish whose only habitat is the water in Devils Hole – the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis). This tiny fish is only a few centimetres in length and has the smallest habitat of all known vertebrates.

Two small fish swimming, both are a vibrant, deep blue colour
Two male Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) photographed in Devils Hole, Nevada. Credit: Olin Feuerbacher/USFWS

Even small changes in water availability, triggered by the use of groundwater for irrigation or by climate change, are importance for its survival.

The largest cosmic explosion ever seen

A team of astronomers has witnessed the largest cosmic explosion ever recorded. It’s ten times brighter than any known supernova and three times greater than the brightest tidal disruption event – where a star falls into a supermassive black hole.

The explosion, known as AT2021lwx, took place nearly 8 billion light years away (when the universe was about 6 billion years old) and has currently lasted more than three years.

The researchers believe that it occurred as a result of an extremely large cloud of gas (mostly hydrogen) or dust, that is being sucked into a black hole.

AT2021lwx isn’t technically the brightest explosion on record – that belongs to the gamma-ray burst known as GRB 221009A, detected last year which lasted only a short time compared to AT2021lwx, and therefore the the overall energy released by AT2021lwx is far greater.

Lead researcher, Dr Philip Wiseman, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, UK, says that “with new facilities, like the Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time, coming online in the next few years, we are hoping to discover more events like this and learn more about them.

“It could be that these events, although extremely rare, are so energetic that they are key processes to how the centres of galaxies change over time.”

The research is in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Sponging up lead from water

Engineers have developed a new sponge that can remove metals like lead and cobalt from contaminated water and leave drinkable water behind, according to a new study in the journal ACS ES&T Water. 

The researchers coated a commercially available cellulose sponge with slurries of manganese-doped goethite nanoparticles which are inexpensive, easily available and nontoxic to humans.

Four small brown cubes of sponge on a white background
Commercially available cellulose sponges coated with nanoparticles. Credit: Caroline Harms/Northwestern University

According to first author Benjamin Shindel – a PhD student in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, US – the nanoparticles “have high-surface areas and abundant reactive surface sites for adsorption, and are stable, so they can be reused many times.”

When submerged in contaminated water containing more than one part per million of lead, the sponge filtered enough to bring lead concentrations to approximately two parts per billion – making it safe to drink.

AI helps map the “postal workers” in cells

Researchers have used artificial intelligence to build a three dimensional model of a bundle of proteins called the Commander complex to better understand dementia and infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

“Just as the postal system has processes to transport and sort cargo, cells in our bodies have molecular machines that transport and sort proteins,” says Professor Brett Collins, from the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Biosciences, Australia, who co-led the research.

“Cargo transport is all about getting the right parcels to the right destination at the right time and in cells, the Commander complex controls this system to ensure the right amount of protein is delivered to the right place.”

The team deciphered the complete structure using electron microscopy and machine learning methods, which they say would not have been possible even two years ago.

This protein transport system is implicated in many diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and infections.

Collins says that “knowing the 3D shape of these proteins helps us understand how they function, why mutations cause disease, and how to design drugs to target them.”

The research is published in Cell.

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