Our hot new neighbour
A newly discovered exoplanet might be our best chance of studying the atmosphere of rocky worlds, according to an international team of astronomers.
Located 26 light-years away in the constellation of Virgo, Gliese 486b is classified as a super-Earth – bigger than our planet but smaller than the ice giants Neptune and Uranus. Other than its rocky composition, the planet has very little in common with our own; humans would bake on its 430-degree-Celsius surface, which might even have rivers of lava flowing across it.
But astronomers reckon we could still learn a lot about what makes planets habitable by peering into Gliese 486b’s atmosphere, which is handily “puffed up” by its temperature.
“This is the kind of planet we’ve been dreaming about for decades,” says Ben Montet from the University of New South Wales, who co-authored the paper published in Science.
“This finding has the potential to transform our understanding of planetary atmospheres.
“Gliese 486b is the type of planet we’ll be studying for the next 20 years.”
Bee-ware of Australia’s most dangerous animal
Snakes, spiders, ticks, jellyfish – Australia is home to a lot of dangerous critters. But the animal that sends the most people to hospital every year due to a venomous sting or bite is in fact the humble bee.
A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that in 2017–18, 3500 Australians were hospitalised due to contact with a venomous animal or plant – with a quarter of these due to bee stings.
“The majority of hospitalisations for bee stings were due to allergic reactions, with bees and wasps responsible for 12 of the 19 deaths related to venomous bites and stings in 2017–18,” explains James Harrison from AIHW and Flinders University in Adelaide.
Spider bites, on the other hand, accounted for 19% of cases (half of which were caused by redbacks) and venomous snakes accounted for 17%. The remaining seven of 19 deaths during this period were due to snake bites.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Harrison notes, “residents of the very remote regions of Australia had the highest rate of hospitalisations (49 cases per 100,000) while the lowest rate was observed for residents of the major cities of Australia (9 cases per 100,000)”.
Plants set themselves a “bedtime” alarm
Australian and UK scientists have discovered that plants possess a metabolic signal that acts like a bedtime alarm, adjusting the plant’s circadian rhythm to ensure it has enough energy to survive through the night.
When exposed to sunlight, plants create sugars through photosynthesis and then store them for use through the night. This new study, published in PNAS, suggests the metabolic “alarm” signal could tell the plant how much sugar is available at dusk so it knows how to adjust the metabolism in the evening.
The researchers figured this out by looking seedlings and finding a specific set of genes that are active in the evening, including genes that are key to a plant’s circadian clock. The genes are regulated by a molecule called superoxide – and when the team inhibited its production, they observed that it also inhibited the effect of sugar on the circadian clock genes in the evening.
“Distinguishing the effects of light and sugars in photosynthetic cells is challenging,” says co-author Ian Graham from the University of York in the UK.
“Our data suggest a new role for superoxide as a rhythmic sugar-related signal which acts in the evening and affects circadian gene expression and growth.”
The future in steak?
The environmental impacts of eating meat are becoming increasingly apparent, from land and water costs to massive greenhouse gas emissions. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that adopting plant-based diets could be a major opportunity to curb global warming.
But humans are omnivores and require protein – so lab-grown meat has become a burgeoning field of research.
A new study from the University of Tokyo now reports the biofabrication of bovine muscle tissue in the lab, using techniques developed for regenerative medicine to culture millimetre-sized chunks of meat.
Unlike many other forms of cultured meat, this one isn’t mince-like – it’s closer to the grain and texture of real flesh.
The researchers achieved this by taking myoblasts (a cell that contributes to muscle growth) from commercial beef and culturing it in an artificial hydrogel scaffolding. They could then stack it into larger chunks, figuring out the optimal structure to simulate steak meat.
“Our morphological, functional and food feature analyses showed that the cultured muscle tissue holds promise as a credible steak substitute,” says lead author Yuya Morimoto.
“However,” notes co-author Shoji Takeuchi, “there is a long way to go before lab-grown meat is indistinguishable from the real thing and hurdles concerning consumer acceptance and cultural sensibilities are overcome.
“Nevertheless, this innovation promises to be a green and ethical alternative to animal slaughter in meeting our need for dietary meat.”
The study is published in npj Science of Food.
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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