Author Archives: Irena Baker

Animal carcasses very important for ecosystems according to a new study

The remains and carcasses of dead animals play an important role in many ecosystems and do so for long periods of time. This is confirmed by a new study conducted by researchers at the German Centre for Integrated Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the University of Groningen who, in a study published in PLOS ONE, explain how carcasses are useful not only as a source of food for other animals, as one might think, but also because they serve as important nutrients for plants, which in turn are very important for virtually every ecosystem.

Researchers have analyzed these characteristics in a nature reserve in the Netherlands, Oostvaardersplassen, which is considered one of the largest wetlands in Europe. In particular, they analyzed how the carcasses of dead deer can have an important impact on the local ecosystem, particularly on biodiversity. They found that dead animal carcasses mainly benefit insects such as flies or other land insects known to be carrion hungry. However, they also found that the remains of dead animals also promote plant growth in the long term because they leave important nutrients in the soil.

For example, they noted that the wild thistle (Carduus crispus, also known as frizzy thistle), a herbaceous plant of the Asteraceae family, grows five times closer to carcasses than in other places. This, in turn, leads to an increase in biodiversity in a chain process, e.g. herbivorous insects feeding on plants, their predators and predators of predators, etc.

The fact is that the researchers, as Roel van Klink, one of the scientists involved in the study, explains, did not expect such significant effects of carcasses on the entire food chain, effects that continue even months after death. These results shed new light on the importance, which was already known, of the remains of dead animals, often not considered to be as important as dead vegetation in terms of resources for ecosystems.

It is a sort of “social taboo,” as Chris Smit of the University of Groningen explains, according to whom for someone, perhaps even unconsciously, it is almost a pity to underline the value of a dead animal for an ecosystem.

In any case, this study makes us reflect on the increasingly pressing laws, imposed also in the European Union, which make it increasingly difficult to leave the carcass of a large dead animal in the place where it died within nature reserves. These regulations should perhaps not always be applied, given the results of this study.

Pollution of oil and gas production sites in the USA also visible from space

As evidence that oil and gas extraction has increased in several areas of the United States, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters also uses satellite imagery to understand the impact levels of such a trend.

The researchers, as Barbara Dix of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, were able to understand the growing impact of fossil fuel extraction in the United States even from satellites: “We are really at the point where we can use satellite data to provide feedback to companies and regulators and see if they are successful in regulating emissions.”

Together with her team, helped by another team of Dutch researchers, Dix used satellite tools to understand nitrogen oxide pollution, including nitrogen dioxide, from engines in large US oil and gas field factories. It is combustion engines that produce nitrogen oxides, gases that are irritating to the human respiratory system and also harmful in other respects.

We are talking about engines for drilling the ground, for the compression of gases, for the separation of liquids and gases and for moving the gas and oil themselves through pipes and storage containers, as explained by Joost de Gouw, professor of chemistry who participated in the study.

The results showed that between 2007 and 2019, in the United States, while the level of nitrogen dioxide pollution caused by vehicles and different types of power plants, many of which became electric, was decreasing, the same cannot be said for specific areas that are then those of oil and gas extraction, especially in New Mexico, Texas and North Dakota.

Solar panels modified to distill water with wasted heat

A group of researchers has discovered that it is possible to capture and use the heat wasted in solar panels for a water distillation process to become clean.

In the study, researchers from King Abdullah University for Science and Technology have in fact made changes to classic solar panels to allow and facilitate a salt water purification process so that it can be drunk safely.

The researchers added several layers under the solar panels that included a three-stage distillation unit. The heat that is not intercepted by the solar panel comes out from the back of the panel where it is used to heat saltwater. Once the latter has evaporated, it passes through a membrane and then condenses and eventually becomes drinking water.

In addition to removing the salt, this distillation process also removes dirt and other particles, particularly dangerous heavy metals. Furthermore, the solar panels modified in this way can produce more efficiently the distilled water than the so-called “solar stills,” water desalinators usually used in emergency situations.

Furthermore, the same solar panels do not see their efficiency reduced: they simply use the heat that would otherwise be lost. Such systems could, of course, be used in all places where drinking water is not easily found but saltwater is present, for example near the sea.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

Astronomers discover black hole with disk that should not be there

A group of researchers analyzed a supermassive black hole with a disk of material that whirls around it “so close that the speed and intensity of the gravitational force influence the way in which the photons of light appear,” as Stefano Bianchi, the first author of the study, states.

The black hole, which has a mass of about 250 million times that of the sun, is located in the center of a galaxy distant from us 130 million light-years and called NGC 3147. According to the astronomers who are studying it, the presence of a disk so close to the black hole event horizon could offer “a unique opportunity to test Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity.”

The peculiarity of this black hole lies in the fact that it does not have enough “food” to be swallowed around itself: the material disk is therefore so thin that it contracts and then swells like a donut instead of becoming flattened.

Previously it was thought that below a certain level of brightness, the accretion disk can no longer exist, as Ari Laor, of the Technion Technological Institute, Israel explains: “What we saw was something completely unexpected, we found the moving gas that produces characteristics that we can explain only as produced by the material that rotates in a thin disk very close to the black hole.”

According to Bianchi, it is a type of record that was expected to be seen only in objects that are 1000 or even 100,000 times brighter. It follows that current theories concerning the patterns of these accretion disks around black holes must be partly revised.

The other interesting feature of the observations, carried out with the Hubble space telescope, are related to the fact that the gas is so directly connected to the gravitational well of the black hole, being very close to it, that its light has difficulty in propagating and therefore it can only be intercepted at wavelengths closer to red.

The study appeared in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Optogenetic chip that imitates the brain created by scientists

Using techniques from the emerging field of optogenetics, a group of researchers from the RMIT University in Australia claims to have built a device that mimics the ways in which the brain stores information.

Thanks to these special techniques, researchers can use light to manipulate neurons, essentially to turn them on or off like a switch. The study was published in Advanced Functional Materials. It is a chip made from an ultra-thin material that responds to different wavelengths of light by modifying an electrical resistance.

According to Sumeet Walia, head of the research team, this new device could be used in the field of artificial intelligence, in particular that which tends to imitate the functionality of the brain: “Our optogenetically inspired chip imitates the fundamental biology of the best computer of nature: the human brain. Being able to store, erase and process information is fundamental for computing, and the brain does it in an extremely efficient way,” says Walia, confident about the possibility of simulating the neural approach of the brain via this chip.

Thought naturally goes to bionic brains, something that for the moment still belongs to science fiction but that the researcher himself brings up in relation to any future applications of such a technology. Moreover, it could also have positive consequences in more practical areas or in any case closer to everyday reality, as Taimur Ahmed, the study’s lead author, admits. The technology on which this is based could in fact be used to better understand how the brain works and perhaps to create new therapies for those suffering from cognitive disorders.