Tree of 40 Fruits


I’m sure we’ve all seen a tree or two at some point in our lives, sometimes carrying fruit, but never a single tree with branches full of 40 different varieties of fruit.

This truly innovating project was actually led not by a scientist, but by an artist. His name is Sam Van Aken, and he is an art professor at Syracuse University in New York who some years ago planned to create a tree where each branch produced a different fruit, so that in spring, every branch would bloom into a different colour, but all in shades of pink, white and red.

tree 40 fruit

A CGI image of what the tree will look like in spring

To accomplish this gardening feat, he used a technique called chip grafting. It consists of cutting a fragment of a flowering tree that gives one type fruit (including the bud), and adding that onto a previously-made cut on the ‘master tree’ (the original tree that will hold all the different fruits). Then, it is held together with tape and left during the winter so the two parts join.

And so step by step, the tree became larger, and every year it had the ability to produce more and more fruits until, after 9 years, it could make up to 40 types. This project has been carried out for quite some time, so now, in total, there are 16 of these hybrid trees, each with a different combination of fruits. However, they all produce variations of stone fruits, like apricots, cherries, plums and peaches because they are easily compatible. To find these trees, you should look all over the US, in museums and community centres, or if you’ve got enough money to spend on this, you can even buy your own for around $30,000.

The idea originally was just to create beautiful trees as a work of art, but as Van Aken was collecting different varieties of fruits to add to his trees, he discovered a growing problem: a lower variety of species had become available, and only a few were being grown at an industrial scale. The less-common varieties were not being used because they were not as good for selling: the colour may not be as appealing, the size may be too small or too large, or the may last very little time on the shelf. This meant that some of the native, antique species were being lost, which worried the artist and made him change the focus of the project onto conservation. So now, not only do his trees carry some of these rarer species so they are still around, but he’s also spending the money he earns from the ‘Trees of 40 Fruits’ into creating an orchard collecting all the different varieties of stone fruit, especially the uncommon ones, so they are still go and people can even go and have a taste!

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Super Brain Network


Although it may seem directly taken from a science fiction movie, scientists at Duke University have actually managed to connect the brains of several organisms so that without any real communication they have been able to work together to carry out tasks.

In a series of experiments, researchers opened the skull of both monkeys and rats and using electrodes and wires, linked members of the same species together so that, even if they could not share complex thoughts or emotions, they could synchronise their neural activity.

When doing some experiments on rats, the connection was investigated by having one of the animals undergo an electrical stimulus, so its brain activity increased. The other rats, despite not being stimulated directly, automatically changed their neural activity to match that of the first rat, so it looked like they too had received the stimulus, and felt its effects.

But not only does this connection make them more ‘empathic’, it also makes them more intelligent. When scientists sent temperature and atmospheric pressure information into their brains, coded by electrical impulses, the rats could put all the information they had received together and solve problems regarding the chance of rainfall. They could do this by themselves, without any linking, but the brain network helped them obtain better scores.

computer

Linking brains is no longer a science fiction movie plot

With monkeys, three of them were connected through the motor region of their brains, after being trained individually to control a virtual arm with thoughts alone. Once they were connected, each was able to control only certain aspects of the arm’s movement, like only being able to move the arm horizontally and vertically, and even those abilities it had to share with another monkey, so that each had an equal contribution to the movement in that direction. However, as messy as this sounds, they synchronised and managed to work with each together, combining their skills to control the arm and grab an imaginary ball displayed on the computer.

The applications for this are not to make a huge human population brain network, where we can share our thoughts and emotions, as not only are they too complex for it to be possible to share them this way, but it would also be unethical and have privacy issues. However, it can be used in people who have had some damage to their brain. For example, someone who has suffered from a stroke and can no longer talk normally can be connected to a healthy person, so said area synchronises with the healthy area and accelerates the healing process.

Boosting Spiders


Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most common fears, affecting slightly less than 50% of women and 15% men. But regardless of how scary they can be, spiders are fascinating creatures, and you can’t deny their skill. They can spin the second toughest natural material in this planet: spider silk.

Spider silk can be found in spider webs, which are made by quite the process. It is called ballooning, a hilariously weird name that describes the method by which spiders release silk strings into the air so the wind carries them away, until they attach to a surface. Step by step, fibres criss-cross until a web is formed.

You may have already met this creation when cleaning your old, dusty attic or from running face first into them in the woods, but what many people don’t know is that its strength is, in proportion, comparable to that of steel. However, it may not seem as strong because it is much thinner and less dense.

But let’s not get too caught up in spiders and their ways of life. Although their silk can boast of incredible characteristics, we as humans always insist on pushing harder and trying to improve what we see. In this case, this lead to scientists to add a man-made touch into the mix to toughen up silk.

Two groups of spiders, both from the species Pholcidae, were kept in different environments. One group was sprayed with water and graphene molecules dissolved in it whereas the others got water with carbon nanotubes. Then, in a mechanism still unknown to the researchers, the spiders were able to use the carbon compounds in the solutions to make stronger silk. This could’ve happened because they drank the water and the graphene and carbon nanotubes ended up in the silk-producing areas of their bodies or more simply, because the silk ended up covered in the solution and the compounds coated it.

spider web

Let’s hope the toughened up spiders don’t rebel against us

That is what the team of researchers will be investigating further, but for now, they are basking in the glory of being able to produce the strongest fibre ever: an artificial silk between 3.5 and 6 times stronger than the natural version. In perspective, this means the silk produced by these buffed up spiders is just as strong as Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests.

Who knows where this coalition between spiders and humans could go next. One idea is to repeat the process with other animals, like silkworms, which also produce their own type of silk. Before though, they need to know how we could actually use this type of silk, whether in sutures and clothes or in the craziest idea yet: creating huge silk nets strong enough to catch and hold falling airplanes.

FrankenBattery


We live in a world where energy is currency. Wars are fought over petrol and other fossil fuels, whilst millions of people work tirelessly to provide alternatives like solar energy to prevent global warming and provide a greener and safer future for our planet.

Since energy is so important, a lot of research is put into it, yielding fascinating results. The most recent one has to do with lithium-sulfur batteries. Their mechanism is not new; in fact, it has been known for decades. But there have always been practical imperfections with their functioning. Scientists seem to have discovered a way to solve them and create one of the most useful batteries to date.

lithium sulfur battery

Lithium-sulfur cells coould soon power your phone, your computer, your car, etc…

Normally, this battery consists of two electrodes, one made of lithium and the other of a carbon-sulfur compound. When the battery works, ions from one electrode move to the other through the electrolyte, creating a current. Unfortunately, lithium can react with the sulfur and form lithium sulphides, which dissolve into the electrolyte and slowly use up the sulfur electrode. Up until now, the solution had been to add some other chemicals, like titanium oxide or manganese dioxide, which would stabilise the sulfur and prevent it from dissolving so easily in the electrolyte. But the method which seems the most promising is actually the most unexpected: adding DNA.

Yes, you read that right. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the organic molecule that codes for all of our characteristics actually improves lithium-sulfur batteries. DNA is made of oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus, and luckily for material scientists, all these elements easily bond with sulfur. This makes DNA ideal for trapping sulfides, preventing them from dissolving in the electrolyte. In turn, it improves the efficiency of these batteries by almost 3 times. Even better: DNA is cheap and biodegradable, and a very small amount is needed for it to improve the battery’s performance.

The interest in this specific type of batteries is not unjustified. They have a high energy density (can deliver up to 3 times as much energy as lithium ion cells), are cheaper to produce and greener for the environment. It is therefore not strange that scientists are trying to do as much work as possible to help improve this technology. However, the battery world is a slow one, and although an idea may look good in the lab, it is harder to extrapolate that into the industry. But keep your hopes up! Lithium-sulfur batteries could very well substitute the widely used lithium ion cells in only 15 years, with original ideas like the one exposed on this article to push it through.

Philae Fall


The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

philae

How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 2


Today, with Jean Tirole being awarded the Economics Nobel Prize, was the last day of the Nobel Prize award season. Last week, we looked into the winners for physiology and physics, so we still have one scientific award to investigate: chemistry.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to… Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.

Microscopes are a valuable tool for all scientists, from physicists examining subatomic particles to biologists investigating cells. But for many years, it was believed that microscopes were limited in how much magnification they could provide. The smallest they could go was 200 nanometres, or at least that was what they though until these laureates came along. The key to their innovation was brought by the use of fluorescence to increase resolution.

Hell created a mechanism called STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) to take higher resolution pictures which involved laser lights. As an example, he used an E. coli bacterium coated with fluorescent molecules and a special microscope which emitted two tiny rays of light. One of these excited some molecules so certain parts of the bacterium glowed, whilst the other did the opposite, and made the sample duller. This might seem contradictive, except the centre of the convergence was left to shine, so only a small area was illuminated. A picture was then taken of the glowing part, and the procedure repeated at many angles. Combining the pictures taken, he was able to form an image of an unprecedented resolution.

microscope

Imagine being able to look deeper into cells – it’s possible now thanks to this year’s Chemistry winners

This is close to what Moerner and Betzig did. They used fluorescent proteins, which could be activated by short pulses of lights. They shone these onto a different part of the sample every few milliseconds, so they only glowed for a short period of time. By superimposing the images of the lighted parts, they were able to capture individual molecules in images! This amazing method is now called single-molecule microscopy and has been used in a wide variety of studies, from HIV research to gene modification.

Thanks to these men’s work and dedication towards science, we can now see deeper into our world than we have ever done before. A few years ago, we could only look at individual cells, never inside of them. But now, we can actually see what they contain, into their small organelles like mitochondria and the Golgi body that allow cells to do all the complex processes that keep us alive. Not only this, we can actually investigate individual molecules from chemicals, advancing the field of chemistry. Their contribution to our knowledge pool is immeasurable, both directly and indirectly, and for this, they are well-deserving of the Chemistry Nobel Prize.

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

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.

chloroplast

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.

 

Rosetta Pioneer


rosetta spacecraft

The Rosetta Spacecraft, an inspiration to all other spacecrafts

After ten years of travelling (Are we there yet?), the spacecraft Rosetta, lead by investigators in ESA (European Space Agency), has finally reached its destiny: the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Since the 2nd of March of 2004, the explorer has travelled the unimaginable distance of 400 million kilometres, and it was only now, on the 6th of August of 2014, that it managed to move close enough to the comet and actually obtain a relative velocity of 1 m/s compared to the space rock. This makes Rosetta the first man made object to rendezvous with a comet.

67p comet

[67P Comet] Does it look like a rubber duck to you?

 67P, which resembles a rubber duck due to the odd shape formed by two rocks fusing in space, is of interest because it was formed from the remnants of the original formations in the beginning of our Solar System, so it could provide vital information on water and the origin of life. That’s why Rosetta will now spend the next 16 months investigating 67P’s characteristics, first from 100km away to study its shape and eventually moving closer. But Rosetta won’t work alone. A small probe named Philae will soon land on the surface of the comet, after scientists at the ESA decide on a safe landing spot. Once there, it will dig into the surface and analyse what its composition, and even use X-rays to visualise the structure. Meanwhile, the dusty and icy comet will travel at 55000 km/h towards the Sun, heating up expelling dust which Rosetta will analyse.

There’s a lot to be learned form this comet, and this will take time, but after ten years, the climax of the story has only but started. Be prepared to hear amazing discoveries from this dedicated project.