Alien Molecule

isopropyl cyanide

Isopropyl Cyanide, the molecule found light years away that could tell us about how we were formed

Where did life come from? Are we alone in the universe? These are common questions which scientists from all around the world are trying to answer everyday, and that have yet to be answered. But we could be closer to understanding the origin of life thanks to the combined work of researchers at Cornell University, the Max Planck Institute, and Cologne University in Germany, who have discovered a complex organic molecule deep in the heart of the universe.

The molecule itself is isopropyl cyanide and consists of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Compared to other chemicals floating around in space, it’s special because it’s branched, rather than straight, and larger than usual. In fact, it may be the largest molecule ever detected in a region of space without a fully formed star.

Obviously, scientists didn’t go all that way themselves to retrieve a sample of the compound to analyse it, and sounding rockets don’t go that far. Instead, they used ALMA, a set of radio telescopes in Chile which can detect microwaves produced by chemicals many light years away, to scan an area of space an examine its chemical makeup. Surprisingly, they found isopropyl cyanide, 400 light years away, in gas cloud Sagittarius B2, where a star is in the process of being formed.

It is not a clear sign or of life, so all you crazy UFOs enthusiasts can calm down, but it is an interesting discovery. Its complex structure, although simpler, is reminiscent of amino acids, the building blocks of life. These are often found in meteorites, so a popular theory is that the ingredients for life were formed in space and then drifted onto our planet, where they became ‘alive’.

Finding out more about how this chemical is formed and the conditions under which it is produced could be used to paint a better picture of how life managed to originate in our planet.


Shedding Light on Light

Messing around with the very essence of matter, scientists at Princeton University in New Jersey have managed to change the nature of light into unprecedented characteristics.

To do so, all you need is a superconducting wire with photons flowing through it and a machine containing 100 billion atoms made of superconducting material. Easy, right?

These atoms can then be modified to act as one single atom, thanks to the unusual properties of superconduction and so once this is done, you just need to push these two objects closer to end up with a group of photons acting like crystals.


Light as we know it has drastically changed

This is so bizarre because usually, photons of light are free from interacting with each other. But in this experiment, they were able to ‘bond’ together to form a crystal structure. This happens because of a quantum process called entanglement, where two photons can become connected over large distances. When the giant atom was brought closer to the photons, these linked to it and exhibited similar properties to it, effectively making light solid. The mechanism could be varied so that light behaved like a liquid or a gas, and with further refinements, like even more exotic materials such as superfluids; fluids with zero viscosity which flow defying gravity.

Although this discovery sounds like just interesting information, it actually has applications. Obviously, it is important to understand matter and how it works (a science named condensed matter physics), since it brings us closer to discovering new materials or characteristics of objects which we can use in our favour. For example, it could help devise the very sought-after room-temperature superconductor, with which electricity could be transmitted in our day-to-day lives with an incredible efficiency, since it offers no resistance.

As if the nature of light wasn’t hard enough to comprehend already, with wave-particle duality, here’s a new behaviour to complicate things even more. Sorry, students, sounds like you’ve got something else to make sense of.

Superhero Chloroplasts

This week, I bring you another plant-related article, this time discuss how scientists are trying to upgrade the photosynthetic process in plants.


A chloroplast, which, in the future, could be filled with honeycomb-like structure called carboxysomes

It has been a billion years since an eukaryote ingested a chloroplast and by accident created the essential symbiotic relationship to which we owe all the energy by which we survive. However, the way chloroplasts work hasn’t really changed in all these years, even though the environment has, and its system is quite obsolete. On the other hand, the descendants from the species of the first chloroplast, the cyanobacteria, have really changed their photosynthesis, which is much more efficient than that of chloroplasts.

The main difference between our world and the world a billion years ago, at least for this topic, is CO2 and 02 levels in the atmosphere. Before, there was an enormous amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which cyanobacteria and chloroplasts could exploit to produce food by photosynthesis. But as plants became more abundant, they absorbed the CO2 and released 02 , giving rise to our current balance of elements in the air. The most favourable conditions for a fast photosynthetic rate are high levels of CO2 in the air but since this is not the case anymore, there is a need for some changes in the organisms themselves. Plants, which have remained mostly unchanged, have reduced their efficiency, whereas cyanobacteria, which have evolved, actually improved it. The key to their success lies in their ability to maintain high levels of CO2 within the cell, thanks to carboxysomes. These are tiny, regularly-shaped compartments that fill the bacteria, and are specialised in maintaining CO2 trapped in them, so there is more of it available for photosynthesis. They even have protein pumps in their membrane which actively pumps CO2 into the cell.

This unique mechanism is what scientists are now trying to copy into a normal plant chloroplast. To do so, they would use genetic engineering: adding genes from the marvelous cyanobacteria to the chloroplasts so they would develop the pumps, which could increase efficiency between 15-25%; an outstanding upgrade. Transferring the carboxysome technology would be a bit more complicated, requiring more genes and the knowledge on how to make the structure itself, which at the moment is lacking.

Still, this innovative improvement offers an immense upgrade, which would sure be useful to farmers and food suppliers, who have found a rapid increase in their customer pool but a slow increase in their yield, a problem which could be remedied if this solution worked.

As always, there is some opposition, arguing that if plants have evolved for millions of years and have never developed a new way for photosynthesis to occur, there must be a reason for a reason, so natured shouldn’t be tinkered with. The pros and cons for this situation are many, and it is a subject which divides the scientific community.

The Tree of Light

Today I bring you an interesting project I came across on my search for a new topic, which I found too interesting to ignore.

When you walk down a street at night, you will probably find lamp posts around you shedding light so you can see where you’re going. If you also happen to be in a park, you will probably see trees somewhere. Well what if I told you there was a way to combine these two seemingly opposite objects into one? The product is a surprisingly simple yet brilliant idea: trees that glow in the dark.

Glowing plants are not new to the field; in fact, they have been around since the 1980s. But it is only in the recent years that the idea of making glowing trees and planting them on the streets has appeared. It could indeed solve many problems: it would cut down electricity use and improve the city’s biosphere, being greener in not one but two ways.

To make a glowing tree, scientists have 2 methods. One involves genetic engineering, where genes from bioluminescent organisms such as bacteria are inserted into plant cells, and if a whole plant develops from that one cell, the whole plant will emit a soft glow. There have also been experiments which used firefly and jellyfish genes, but they were not as efficient and in some cases the plant had to be sprayed with a specific substance for it to actually glow.

The other method, which is a lot more specific, is to dip the plant in a solution of gold nanoparticles. The plant then absorbs the gold into its system, so when UV light is shone onto the plant, the electrons in the gold became excited, and produced a bluish glow when the UV is stopped.

A popular case of glowing plants occurred just last year, when a Kickstarter fund called ‘The Glowing Plant Project’ collected almost $500,000 and with the money was able to create plant seeds which, if treated nicely, would grow into a full, glowing plant. Its aim was to popularize biotechnology and genetic engineering in the mainstream public, and to do so, sent some seeds to all the donors. Of course, there was some repercussions, mostly by scientists disliking the idea of releasing engineered plants into people’s hands with no real regulation.

glowing tree street

Don’t they?

Whether it has drawbacks or not, glowing plants and trees are a fascinating idea, which could have many important applications; the use of glowing trees to substitute lamp posts being only one of many.

They do look pretty cool too.