Scientific News (January 2018)

It came from outer space

Astronomers are baffled by the presence of unusual recurring radio pulses that they are receiving from space. FRB – more commonly known in the space industry at Fast Radio Bursts – are proving to be astronomers most tenacious puzzle to date. The FRBs are frequently short-lived; however, astronomers have found a source of repeated flashes. It is believed that the unusual events have been caused by a dead star that possesses an extraordinarily strong magnetic field.

Archives have shown that the first FRB was recorded in 2007 from the Parkes Radio Telescope based in Australia during their search for new examples of magnetised neutron stars, more commonly known as ‘pulsars’ – it is from there that a radio burst from 2001 had been discovered. 18 FRBs have since been discovered. FRBs have also been referred to as “flashes” or “sizzles”.

The causes of these mysterious phenomena have generated various plausible explanations, with a mention of black holes and not excluding the odd nod towards signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Since these discoveries, it is understood that only one source has emitted radio energy on more than on one occasion – FRB 121102, catalogued as ‘Burster’ – over 150 flashes have been revealed since astronomers first encountered it in 2012. It is in a recently published journal that a team of scientists have explained how the emanations may have originated from a neutron star, near a black hole or enclosed within a nebula.

The team of researchers were particularly excitied by the interesting polarisation of the radio waves. Research has shown that when polarised radio waves move through an area that contains a magnetic field, the movement of the waves become distorted – this is known at the Faraday Rotation – the stronger the magnetic force, the greater the distortion.

Daniele Michilli, co-author of the journal from the University of Amsterdam said of the waves, “The only source in the Milky Way that are twisted as much as FRB121102 are in the Galactic Centre, which is a dynamic region near a massive black hole. Maybe FRB121102 is in a similar environment in its host galaxy.” Another explanation is that the twisting could also be as the result of the source being located within a powerful nebula or supernova remnant.

The team have been left baffled by the discovery and many questions have yet to be answered. They have been working hard while investigating the source of the higher frequencies at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico as well as Green Bank Telescope based in Virginia. The team have established so far that properties of the polarisation and the distortion patterns generated are similar to those of radio emissions released from newly formed, energetic neutron stars found within our galaxy – this supports the theory that the bursts have been formed and produced by a neutron star, however, this has not be confirmed.

It was during early 2017 that the same research team located FRB121101 and pinpointed it’s exact location within a star-forming region of a dwarf galaxy more than three billion lights years away from the Earth. The distance between the source suggests that it is able to release such a large amount of energy within each burst, which equates to as much energy in a millisecond as our sun generates in a day. The details were released during the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting held last week in Washington DC.


Shark grazing

Following a recent study of the Bonnethead shark, a relative of the well-known Hammerhead. A group of scientists have revealed that the species is able to survive on a diet of just seagrass that grows at the bottom of the ocean floor. Sharks have a feared reputation of being vicious meat eaters. Not so, according to the 10-year-long study led by Samantha Leigh, a Doctoral Candidate at the University of California. The sharks were found to have large quantities of seagrass within their digestive systems. Studies also revealed that in some of the younger shark species, scientists discovered over 60% of plant based materials within their stomachs.

To begin their research, Ms Leigh and her team fed sharks that had been kept in captivity a diet of 90% seagrass for three consecutive weeks, along with 10% of their food made up from squid. Blood samples were taken from each individual shark. It was following these blood tests that it was confirmed that the sharks were digesting and extracting nutrients held within the plants. In addition to this, the team measured activity within their digestive system with the presence of a digestive enzyme called “β-glucosidase”. This enzyme is known to break down the cellulose material that can be found within seagrass.

The results showed that the structure within the Bonnethead’s stomach is very much in line with their carnivorous cousins, the Hammerheads, and not the expected longer structure that would normally be found within a plant eating animal. Leigh and her team have completed their studies and have concluded that area of coastal waters where the Bonnethead sharks reside should be re-examined, due to the sharks possibly not being the fierce predators that they were originally assumed to be. The details and results following Leigh’s research were revealed at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) Annual Meeting held earlier this month in San Francisco.

Image of Bonnethead Shark courtesy of


Downing Street shuffle…again

Teresa May has reshuffled her government again, and along with changes in major ministerial roles, she has also opted to make a change in some of the lesser roles, meaning that a new Science Minister has been appointed. Jo Johnson was the Minister for Universities and Science, and has now been replaced by Sam Gyimah who now takes up the role. Johnson has since been appointed as Minister for the Department of Transport, a sideways move.

Gyimah, 41 has been a Member of Parliament since 2010, and is considered to be a rising star within the Conservative Party. During the 2016 Referendum, Gyimah was a member of the Remain campaign, tasked with targeting young voters. Gyimah also focused his efforts on making it easier for highly skilled people to obtain visas by calling for immigration reforms.

Apart than this, Gyimah has had very little to do with scientific issues. Sarah Main, Director of the London based lobby group the Campaign for Science and Engineering commented that a previous interest in science is not necessarily a characteristic the new minister needs. Main said, “What is very helpful is if they are really engaged with the brief and willing to get their teeth into it.”

Main stated that with Britain soon to depart the EU, Gyimah will be given an early task of ensuring that scientists stay in the thinking of those negotiating Brexit. “That will be a big challenge this year as negotiations start to go faster, and become more high stakes,” she says.

Gyimah has been hosting a monthly forum, which had been initially started by Johnson, something that Main hopes will continue to run. The aim of this forum is to keep people informed on where the United Kingdom stands in Brexit negotiations. There are several different representatives from science and higher education who attend the forum as well as the Minister for the Department for Exiting the European Union. Ensuring scientists who may be affected by an immigration bill, should be a priority according to Main. It will be vital for Gyimah to be in regular contact with the Home Office to ensure he is the voice for the scientific community.

What will be the effects for education? Gyimah does have a strong interest in education, however he is relatively unknown in the research community. Gyimah has stated on his constituency website page that his desire to enter politics was down to the positive effect that education has had on his life, and that he wanted everyone to have the same experience. Born in the UK, Gyimah is of Ghanian origin. He attended state schools in both countries whilst growing up. Gyimah has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Previously, he has also spent time working at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, before setting up his own small recruitment business, as well as some internet based businesses prior to entering politics.

This is not Gyimah’s first role as a Minister, having a previous role as a Justice Minister prior to completing a one year term as the Minister for Childcare at the Department for Education. He was involved in working with the children and young people’s mental health services. The role that Gyimah has been appointed to has been split previously between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and for the moment it will stay this way. Jo Johnson’s time as Minister saw the Conservative government commit to increasing the levels of finance for both public and private research boosted from 1.7% in 2015 to 2.4% by 2027.

Johnson’s time in the role will be remembered for his controversial and sweeping reforms to the higher education and science funding system. These reforms were passed through parliament in April 2017 – the changes included the setup of UK Research and Innovation. The aim of this was to create a powerful centralized science funding agency, responsible for distributing the £6 Billion the UK has available allocated for research.


Do you like your algae sunny side up?

Genetically modified algae could soon be used as a future power source for rural Africa, in conjunction with solar power cells. The use of living organisms to produce electricity has the potential to provide electricity for remote communities. Studies at the University of Cambridge have tested fuel cells that are powered by living algae; these cells are said to be five times more efficient than the current ones. Scientists believe that these newly developed cells could potentially be used to assemble an electrical grid system for rural areas that may not currently have one.

The newly designed cells make use of the algae’s efficiency in carrying electricity. Sunlight is converted into an electric current through the photosynthetic ability of plants and algae. Further research still need to be done to make living algae based fuel cells as efficient as non-living ones. More recently, solar power has proved to be the green alternative to fossil fuels.

Articles written by Cambridge scientists detailed the breakthrough, which have been published in the journal Nature Energy. Kadi Liis Saar, a chemistry PhD Candidate at the University said, “We took the process and saw there were two separate parts – one where you are generating the charge and one where you are converting the charge into power.”

It was reported that scientists have used advanced algae cells, with some of their genes modified to improve performance. The modifications ensured that when the electrical charge was produced through the process of photosynthesis, minimum power was wasted. Dr Paolo Bombelli, involved in the study said, “This a big step forward in the search for alternative, greener fuels, We believe these developments will bring algal-based systems closer to practical implementation.”

Currently, conventional solar panels are still more energy efficient. It is expected that in time that the new biological solar cells will become more appealing. This is down to the ability of algae to grow themselves with the minimal use of energy. This will be especially beneficial to those who live in remote rural communities, like those in some parts of Africa.

Other advantages to using algae include its ability to store energy naturally. This facility enables the algae to operate even when the Sun is unable to charge them up. Currently scientists are carrying out investigations to make these fuel cells even more efficient. By increasing this efficiency, they will be able to provide competition for solar cells. The process is still at an early stage of development, and investigations are confined to the science lab. Ms Saar views them as playing a key role in the provision of power for remote areas.


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Scientific News (November 2017)

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