Yearly Archives: 2019

Aircraft emissions have impacts on air quality even greater than those they have on the climate

A new study, produced by MIT researchers and published in Environmental Research Letters, shows that the impact of aircraft on air quality is even more serious than the impact they have on the climate. Specifically, the researchers found that the same aviation sector, now in continuous growth, is the cause of at least twice the damage to air quality compared to damage to the climate.

According to Sebastian Eastham, a researcher at the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the emissions caused by air transport represent one of the most important factors with regard to man-made climate change, a factor that can be calculated at a level of 5%.

Considering the entire flight, which also includes the take-off and landing phases, the same emissions produced by the aircraft are responsible for at least 16,000 premature deaths a year due to air pollution. This is 0.4% of the total deaths caused by air quality, a figure that almost always is not considered at all when analyzing air pollution.

As for possible solutions, the same researchers admit that reducing a type of emissions then almost automatically leads to the increase of another type.

“We could reduce NOx emissions by designing engines with lower combustor temperatures. However, the resulting loss of thermodynamic efficiency would mean that we need to burn more fuel, or more CO2. These are the types of compromises that need to be quantified and our study offers a quick way for those who have to make decisions to do so.”

Following the analysis they carried out, the researchers found that reducing CO2 emissions and aircraft contrails did not achieve the greatest net climate benefit. On the contrary, reducing NOx emissions during the flight would bring the greatest net benefits. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that aircraft emissions and air transport, in general, have an impact on air quality greater than the impact they have on the climate, an impact that is 1.7 to 4.4 times higher.

Children of older female mice more prone to heart problems

Particular changes in the placenta of older females can lead to heart problems in older sons according to a study, published in Scientific Reports, conducted on rats. The researchers discovered differences defined in the press release as “significant” regarding the development and growth of the fetus and its connection with the placenta according to its sex.

The researchers carried out experiments with pregnant female rats aged 3-4 months or 9.5-10 months. Older females had an age which, according to the researchers, may correspond to a human age of about 35 years which is considered a sort of “limit” beyond which one begins already to speak of “advanced maternal age.” The researchers found that for sons born to older mothers there were more likely to be heart problems and hypertension.

While with female fetuses the placenta showed no particularly negative changes in its structure and in its function, and in some cases, the same placenta provided more benefit to female fetuses in cases of older mothers than younger mothers. With male fetuses, this did not happen and the same changes in the placenta seemed to limit the growth of the fetus.

These findings could lead to “better management of human pregnancies and the development of targeted interventions to improve the long-term health of children born to older mothers,” explains Tina Napso, a Cambridge University researcher and one of the authors of the study.

This further study shows that the pregnancy of older mothers is more at risk than the pregnancy of younger mothers not only for the mother herself but also for the baby.

As Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, researcher at the Center for Trophoblast Research at the same English university, explains, “With the average age of first pregnancy in women becoming ever higher, and especially in developed countries, it is very important to understand how age interacts of the mother and the sex of the child to determine the child’s pregnancy and health in old age.”

Marshes can save the world from ongoing climate change

Marshes could save the world: this is the conclusion reached in an article published in Horizon Magazine according to which peat bogs, swamps with a large abundance of slow-moving water at low temperatures, can represent an “excellent” deposit for carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is one of the most powerful and most capable of changing the earth’s climate and it is important to “sequester” it or store it so that it is not lost to the environment. There are many methods that scientists are devising to achieve this goal but more and more often we resort to the same nature that has already shown that it can perform this task perhaps even more efficiently than any method developed in the laboratory. Among the many types of natural environments that can “sequester” carbon dioxide there are also marshes: peat bogs, made mostly of decaying dead plant material, can cause carbon dioxide to deposit under this layer.

The plant material is usually broken down by the enzymes that are in turn present in the microorganisms. In peat bogs, however, there are also other compounds called phenols that stop the functioning of some of these sets and lead to a “spectacular failure of decomposition,” as Chris Freeman, biogeochemist of Bangor University, UK, explains, who is studying the swamps and their ability to store carbon dioxide. This is a somewhat precarious equilibrium: it would suffice for only one of these enzymes, called phenol oxidase, to come into action because the decomposition process starts again and the peat bogs begin to release their carbon into the environment. It is, as defined in the press release, a “delicate standstill that holds the door to climate disaster.”

Now scientists fear that this can happen with global warming and with the ever more pressing drought and for this very reason Freeman himself, together with researcher Juanita Mora-Gomez, now at the Earth Sciences Institute of Orléans, have started a new project called microPEAT to study the bogs of Wales, the Arctic and Colombia with much more detail. They took samples from these swamps and brought them to the laboratory to subject them to pressing drought conditions and to understand the resulting effects.

In fact, what was feared happened with the champions of Wales and the Arctic: with drought, the microbes in the peat changed their metabolism and began to emit carbon. However, with the Colombian champions, the same state of drought went instead to further suppress the phenoloxidase enzymes. Researchers want to understand the reason for this differentiation but already believe that there are some particular points in the peat bogs that may be more resistant to climate change than others.

Answering these questions could be very important to prevent the release of carbon into the environment and therefore the acceleration of global warming. This is a “very important possibility,” as Freeman himself explains, a sort of “plan B for the planet.”

Experimental HIV vaccine successfully elicits antibodies that neutralize viruses in rabbits

Research for the development of a truly effective vaccine for HIV continues. A new study, this time conducted by the scientists of the Scripps Research Institute and published on Immunity describes the results that the same researchers have obtained with an experimental vaccine, results that have led to “an important milestone.” It is a vaccine that urges antibodies so that they can neutralize a wide variety of HIV strains.

For now, tests have been carried out on rabbits but the same antibodies have proven to be “largely neutralizing” when they targeted at least two critical virus sites. These results give researchers hope for the development of a new, effective HIV vaccine, a vaccine that can elicit neutralizing antibodies at multiple HIV sites to provide a solid production against this virus.

“It is an initial principle test but important, and we are now working to optimize the design of this vaccine,” says Richard Wyatt, professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps as well as one of the authors of the study. The new vaccine is based on a protein that mimics HIV protein called “Env.” In fact, this protein boasts a molecular mechanism that allows it to bind to an immune cell receptor known as CD4. This receptor can be used as a “portal” to break into the cell.

The Env version designed by researchers is stable enough to be used as a vaccine, at least on rabbits. Out of 12 animals with HIV on which this particular protein was inoculated, five developed antibodies that could neutralize more HIV isolates.

Poorer people have a greater risk of heart disease due to worse sleep

Insufficient sleep would be one of the reasons why economically disadvantaged people are more likely to suffer from heart disease and this seems to affect women more. A study published in Cardiovascular Research has come to this conclusion.

As explained by Dusan Petrovic, a researcher at the University Center for General Medicine and Public Health in Lausanne, “women with low socioeconomic status often combine the physical and psychosocial tension of manual and poorly paid jobs with family responsibilities and stress, which negatively affects on sleep and its effects on restoring health compared to men.”

The same researcher believes that structural reforms must be carried out, at all levels of society, to ensure that women can sleep more. One could think, for example, of reducing noise, one of the fundamental reasons for insufficient sleep, facilitating the purchase and installation of double-glazed windows or limiting traffic or prohibiting the construction of houses near highways to airports.

The researchers analyzed data from 111,205 people from four European countries. The same people were divided into three groups according to socioeconomic status (low, medium or high). Coronary heart disease or stroke were then considered based on medical records while sleep quality was established based on what the participants themselves declared.

Climate change on Mars may be understood soon thanks to InSight rover

The climatic changes in the history of Mars can be analyzed by measuring the temperatures of the subsoil: it is to this result that some researchers of the University of Stirling have arrived who have relied on the technology related to the probe of the heat flows that is on board of one NASA rover present on Mars arrived in the context of the InSight mission, NASA’s latest on Mars.

The researchers, who have worked on hypothetical models, have discovered that the planet’s climate changes, such as those that occurred on Earth, can therefore be effectively detected by this particular tool. The research was carried out by Nicholas Attree, who led the research team, who together with his colleague Axel Hagermann is working on the NASA InSight mission which saw the landing of the rover on Mars in November last year.

Researchers are working on the particular tool Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3), provided by the German planetary research institute in Berlin, which will excavate Mars to record its temperatures and measure heat flow. Depending on the amount of heat the probe will measure and the quality of the measurements, it will be possible to create Martian climate evolution models.

The team could therefore also identify past climate changes in Mars as long as they are very large changes: “We have found that it is unlikely that small changes caused by climate change will be detected by HP3,” said Attree. “However, it may be possible to detect very large changes, and this is important because we might be able to perform similar measurements on other planets.”

The work was published in Planetary and Space Science.

Green spaces in the city decrease premature deaths

Green spaces in cities are important and can prevent premature deaths for any cause according to a new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The analysis was based on new longitudinal studies concerning seven different countries for a total of 8 million inhabitants and, as specified in the press release, “provides strong evidence of the impact of the increase in green areas on mortality.”

Considering that almost half of the world’s population lives in urban contexts and considering that in many of these areas green spaces are lacking or not enough, this research reveals once again how much this is not just “urban decoration” but a method direct and effective to improve the health of citizens. In particular, green spaces, according to researchers, reduce stress, improving mental health, and are a weapon of contrast for cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome and in general for premature deaths.

Similar studies have been carried out in the past but have focused on specific areas or have used different methods to measure citizens’ exposure to plants and general greenery. Precisely for this reason, researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), who collaborated with the Colorado State University and the world health organization, decided to focus on longitudinal studies carried out in different areas.

The researchers used a particular methodology to measure exposure to green called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) also based on satellite images. They then compared these data with those related to statistics for premature mortality for all causes. The study considered the inhabitants of areas of Canada, the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, Switzerland and China.

The researchers discovered a link between the amount of greenery around homes with a significantly reduced amount of premature mortality. Deaths decreased by an average of 4% for each 0.1 increase in vegetation score when it was present within 500 meters of the houses.

As David Rojas, a researcher at ISGlobal and first author of the study, says, these results “support interventions and policies to increase green spaces as a strategy to improve public health.”

Food packaging compounds detected in breast milk

Compounds that are used in ink that are in turn used in many types of food packaging, the so-called photoinitiators, have been identified by a research group in human breastmilk after past research had already detected it in human blood serum. The same researchers, who published their own study in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, however, ensure that these levels do not seem to be of concern to the health of either the mother or the infants.

These substances are mainly used in the photopolymerization process, a technology which is considered more environmentally friendly than others, and which is used to synthesize light-sensitive materials such as ink, coatings and UV-curable resins.

In the press release that presents the research, it is explained that evidently not all these substances are exhausted during the reaction process and that several of them therefore tend to end up in food. Only at high levels do these substances have toxic or carcinogenic effects. The maximum amount ingested calculated by the researchers was still four times lower than the safety level set by the European food safety authorities.

To carry out the research, the researchers analyzed the mother’s milk of 60 US women by detecting 15 different types of photoinitiators, the most common of which was benzophenone which was detected in 97% of the samples and which represented 79% of the total photoinitiator substances.

Parkinson’s new molecular drivers discovered by researchers

New molecular drivers associated with Parkinson’s disease have been discovered by the Mount Sinai group of researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine. The researchers used a special technique called multiscale gene network analysis (MGNA), developed by the researchers themselves, to identify some molecular drivers that underlie various functions of genes that are themselves involved in Parkinson’s disease.

In fact, about 80% of Parkinson’s cases cannot be linked to a known cause: while 20% can be referred to as genetic mutations, for the remaining cases, the majority, the impact of the same genes or in any case the same causes that lead to the disease are not clear.

As explained by Bin Zhang, professor of genetics and geochemical sciences of the American institute, this study not only revealed the new molecular drivers “but also clarifies the functional context of the known genes of the Parkinson’s disease risk factor.”

The analysis of the multiscale genetic network uses genetic, epigenetic, clinical, transcriptomic and pathological data in tissue analysis to identify possible links. It is an effective method to analyze those very complex mechanisms that are the basis not only of Parkinson’s but also of other neurobiological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The same method can provide “new mechanistic knowledge about Parkinson’s disease that could lead to new therapeutic opportunities,” explains Suzana Petanceska, director of the AMP-AD Target Discovery program of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Very thin organic films could be used for the electronics of the future

The shrinking of electronic devices is one of the greatest technological advances of human beings. This type of progress is made possible through the use or discovery of new materials that allow the construction of electrical circuits in ever-smaller spaces.

It is precisely in this context that we introduce the discovery made by a group of scientists from the University of Chicago who collaborated with Cornell University and the Argonne National Laboratory to develop extremely thin films made of organic materials which, as explained in the study published in Science, could represent a new springboard towards even smaller electronics with new capabilities.

The film is much more efficient at the extremely high temperatures that are usually needed to produce inorganic films. Researchers have already tested this film as an electric capacitor, achieving good results, which inspires some confidence in any use in electronics. However, the same researchers think of other possible uses: nanorobots, fabrics that bend or take on a certain shape when exposed to water or light, membranes to filter water or to make batteries more efficient, sensors to detect toxins and even possible uses in the field of quantum computing.

“If you can transform materials into atomically thin layers, you can stack them into sequences and get new features, and there are some very good reasons to think that organic films can be really useful,” said Yu Zhong, one of the authors of the study. “But up to now, it has been very difficult to check the thickness of the film and make it in large quantities.”