SciTech Briefs

Sharon Wu Feb 28, 2016

Massive Californian gas leak frightens climate scientists

According to a study in Science, a natural gas well in the Aliso Canyon released more than 100,000 tons of a strong greenhouse gas called methane, which has 25 times the warming energy of carbon dioxide. This gas leak has been called one of the largest leaks ever recorded, lasting an entire 112-day period. The leak caused the evacuation of 11,000 people after the governor declared a state of emergency.

Lead researchers from the University of California, Davis were studying the methane cloud formed from the leak in an airplane with specialized equipment. The researchers actually flew through the methane clouds, incurring rough turbulence and some of “the worst flights” the researchers “have ever done,” according to Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis.

However, many researchers became ill from the unpleasant fumes of the gas and were unable to continue boarding the plane. The study revealed that the gas leak added an additional 9 percent to the annual methane emissions in California, which will impact the state’s ability to meet their target level of greenhouse emissions this year.

Source: Discovery News

Memory, intelligence individualized among spectrum of humans

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found a novel way to measure the way brains differ between people and give rise to different personalities. The cognitive neuroscientists collected magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from participants, who were also administered a series of cognitive and fitness tests.

The researchers looked at many features of the brain, including nerve fiber bundles, white-matter tracts, brain volume, cortical thickness, and blood flow. The researchers attempted a statistical analysis of several brain factors, but could not come up with a correlation between these factors and individual differences in intelligence and memory.

“Brains are as different as faces,” said Patrick Watson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Beckman Institute. “This study helped us understand what a ‘normal’ brain looks like. By looking at unexpected brain differences, we were able to [hone] in on parts of the brain related to things like memory and intelligence.” Findings of the research can be accessed on the Open Science Framework, an online platform that promotes research on brain structure and function.

Source: Science Daily

Facebook builds community with new emoticons

As of last Wednesday, Feb. 24, Facebook users can choose to click an emotion, in addition to the “like” button, as they comment on a status update. Called reactions, the five new emojis were released by Facebook in response to demand urging alternatives to the “like” button, such as a “dislike” button, in order to allow for expression of sentiments besides happiness.

To choose from one of the new emojis, users hold onto the “like” button on either their mobile phones or desktops. From there, the users can press on any of the reactions, which will show up on a tally in the status update. After compiling data on the emotions people would like to express, Facebook chose emojis that were translatable in different cultures throughout the world.

The reactions now include love, haha, wow, sad, and angry. Facebook’s intent behind the emojis is to foster supportive thoughts on the social media network, rather than serving as a comprehensive collection of human emotions. That being said, this development is another add-on to the already robust library of emotional expressers online, including GIF images.

Source: USA TODAY

Data from reactor suggests existence of fourth neutrino

Sensitive reactors at a nuclear reactor facility in Daya Bay, about 55 kilometers away from Hong Kong, suggest that a new, ghostly type of neutrino exists, besides the three currently known types. Abundant in nature, neutrinos are small, massless, electrically neutral particles that interact with gravity and weak nuclear forces.

Researchers from various institutions used the Daya Bay reactors to analyze more than 300,000 electron antineutrinos, which act as antimatter counterparts to electron neutrinos, however researchers could only use the standard particle physics model to predict less than 6 percent of the particles.

While the deficit of the electron antineutrinos is not statistically significant enough to become a discovery by physicists, the results hint at the existence of a fourth neutrino, which would open a new branch of study in physics. A fourth neutrino could not only lead to the discovery of more particles, but could also provide a way of detecting relative amounts of plutonium and uranium, which could be used to monitor nuclear weapon activity. The findings were reported in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters.

Source: Science News

Bacteria capable of incorporating virus RNA, safeguarding

Collaborators from four institutions, including The University of Texas at Austin and the Stanford University School of Medicine, have published findings on a bacteria capable of incorporating pieces of ribonucleic acid (RNA) derived from harmful viruses into their own genome. This essentially means that the bacteria is capable of adapting its defenses to recognize these harmful viruses.

The mechanism was discovered in a bacterium called Marinomonas mediterranea, which is usually located in the ocean.

The mechanism was found to be a protective one, in which the bacteria could use the genetic information to detect and disrupt the functioning the virus, should they both come in contact again in the future.
With knowledge of this mechanism, the researchers hope to created genetically engineered crops that employ this virus detection system. Furthermore, it would allow researchers to learn more about the way pathogens infect their hosts in both bacteria and plants.

Published in Science, the research findings could impact industries including agriculture and dairy.

Source: Science Daily

Record number of manatees seen in Florida waters

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there were a record number of manatees, also known as sea cows, living in waters around Florida last Thursday. With a minimum estimate of 6,250, this manatee population is a slight increase from the 6,036 manatees seen last year. The numbers were based on aerial surveys.

For decades, manatees have been categorized as an endangered species, with their livelihoods threatened by urbanization, water pollution, and collisions with boats. However, as suggested by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the status of manatees may be changed to “threatened” due to increases in their population.

Other manatees within the same species exist in the Caribbean, along the coast of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. In total, an estimated 13,000 manatees live along the coast of North America, so the presence of so many in one space is intriguing. Researchers seek to study the manatees in the spring, when the manatees return from warmer waters.

Source: Discovery News