MIT chemist Admir Masic really hoped his experiment wouldn’t explode.
Masic and his colleagues were trying to re-create an ancient Roman technique for making concrete, a mix of cement, gravel, sand and water. The researchers suspected that the key was a process called “hot mixing,” in which dry granules of calcium oxide, also called quicklime, are mixed with volcanic ash to make the cement. Then water is added.
Hot mixing, they thought, would ultimately produce a cement that wasn’t completely smooth and mixed, but instead contained small calcium-rich rocks. Those little rocks, ubiquitous in the walls of the Romans’ concrete buildings, might be the key to why those structures have withstood the ravages of time.
That’s not how modern cement is made. The reaction of quicklime with water is highly exothermic, meaning that it can produce a lot of heat — and possibly an explosion.
“Everyone would say, ‘You are crazy,’” Masic says.
But no big bang happened. Instead, the reaction produced only heat, a damp sigh of water vapor — and a Romans-like cement mixture bearing small white calcium-rich rocks.
Researchers have been trying for decades to re-create the Roman recipe for concrete longevity — but with little success. The idea that hot mixing was the key was an educated guess.
Masic and colleagues had pored over texts by Roman architect Vitruvius and historian Pliny, which offered some clues as to how to proceed. These texts cited, for example, strict specifications for the raw materials, such as that the limestone that is the source of the quicklime must be very pure, and that mixing quicklime with hot ash and then adding water could produce a lot of heat.
The rocks were not mentioned, but the team had a feeling they were important.
“In every sample we have seen of ancient Roman concrete, you can find these white inclusions,” bits of rock embedded in the walls. For many years, Masic says, the origin of those inclusions was unclear — researchers suspected incomplete mixing of the cement, perhaps. But these are the highly organized Romans we’re talking about. How likely is it that “every operator [was] not mixing properly and every single [building] has a flaw?”
What if, the team suggested, these inclusions in the cement were actually a feature, not a bug? The researchers’ chemical analyses of such rocks embedded in the walls at the archaeological site of Privernum in Italy indicated that the inclusions were very calcium-rich.
That suggested the tantalizing possibility that these rocks might be helping the buildings heal themselves from cracks due to weathering or even an earthquake. A ready supply of calcium was already on hand: It would dissolve, seep into the cracks and re-crystallize. Voila! Scar healed.
But could the team observe this in action? Step one was to re-create the rocks via hot mixing and hope nothing exploded. Step two: Test the Roman-inspired cement. The team created concrete with and without the hot mixing process and tested them side by side. Each block of concrete was broken in half, the pieces placed a small distance apart. Then water was trickled through the crack to see how long it took before the seepage stopped.
“The results were stunning,” Masic says. The blocks incorporating hot mixed cement healed within two to three weeks. The concrete produced without hot mixed cement never healed at all, the team reports January 6 in Science Advances.
Cracking the recipe could be a boon to the planet. The Pantheon and its soaring, detailed concrete dome have stood nearly 2,000 years, for instance, while modern concrete structures have a lifespan of perhaps 150 years, and that’s a best case scenario (SN: 2/10/12). And the Romans didn’t have steel reinforcement bars shoring up their structures.
More frequent replacements of concrete structures means more greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete manufacturing is a huge source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so longer-lasting versions could reduce that carbon footprint. “We make 4 gigatons per year of this material,” Masic says. That manufacture produces as much as 1 metric ton of CO2 per metric ton of produced concrete, currently amounting to about 8 percent of annual global CO2 emissions.
Still, Masic says, the concrete industry is resistant to change. For one thing, there are concerns about introducing new chemistry into a tried-and-true mixture with well-known mechanical properties. But “the key bottleneck in the industry is the cost,” he says. Concrete is cheap, and companies don’t want to price themselves out of competition.
The researchers hope that reintroducing this technique that has stood the test of time, and that could involve little added cost to manufacture, could answer both these concerns. In fact, they’re banking on it: Masic and several of his colleagues have created a startup they call DMAT that is currently seeking seed money to begin to commercially produce the Roman-inspired hot-mixed concrete. “It’s very appealing simply because it’s a thousands-of-years-old material.”
In full swing
The swaying feeling in jazz music that compels feet to tap may arise from near-imperceptible delays in musicians’ timing, Nikk Ogasa reported in “Jazz gets its swing from small, subtle delays” (SN: 11/19/22, p. 5).
Reader Oda Lisa, a self-described intermediate saxophonist, has noticed these subtle delays while playing.“I recorded my ‘jazzy’ version of a beloved Christmas carol, which I sent to a friend of mine,” Lisa wrote. “She praised my effort overall, but she suggested that I get a metronome because the timing wasn’t consistent. My response was that I’m a slave to the rhythm that I hear in my head. I think now I know why.”
On the same page
Murky definitions and measurements impede social science research, Sujata Gupta reported in “Fuzzy definitions mar social science” (SN: 11/19/22, p. 10).
Reader Linda Ferrazzara found the story thought-provoking. “If there’s no consensus on the terms people use … then there can be no productive discussion or conversation. People end up talking and working at cross-purposes with no mutual understanding or progress,” Ferrazzara wrote.
Fly me to the moon
Space agencies are preparing to send the next generation of astronauts to the moon and beyond. Those crews will be more diverse in background and expertise than the crews of the Apollo missions, Lisa Grossman reported in “Who gets to go to space?” (SN: 12/3/22, p. 20).
“It is great to see a broader recognition of the work being done to make spaceflight open to more people,” reader John Allen wrote. “Future space travel will and must accommodate a population that represents humanity. It won’t be easy, but it will be done.”
The story also reminded Allen of the Gallaudet Eleven, a group of deaf adults who participated in research done by NASA and the U.S. Navy in the 1950s and ’60s. Experiments tested how the volunteers responded (or didn’t) to a range of scenarios that would typically induce motion sickness, such as a ferry ride on choppy seas. Studying how the body’s sensory systems work without the usual gravitational cues from the inner ear allowed scientists to better understand motion sickness and the human body’s adaptation to spaceflight.
Sweet dreams are made of this
A memory-enhancing method that uses sound cues may boost an established treatment for debilitating nightmares, Jackie Rocheleau reported in “Learning trick puts nightmares to bed” (SN: 12/3/22, p. 11).
Reader Helen Leaver shared her trick to a good night’s sleep: “I learned that I was having strong unpleasant adventures while sleeping, and I would awaken hot and sweaty. By eliminating the amount of heat from bedding and an electrically heated mattress pad, I now sleep well without those nightmares.”
In “Why do we hate pests?” (SN: 12/3/22, p. 26), Deborah Balthazar interviewed former Science News Explores staff writer Bethany Brookshire about her new book, Pests. The book argues that humans — influenced by culture, class, colonization and much more — create animal villains.
The article prompted reader Doug Clapp to reflect on what he considers pests or weeds. “A weed is a plant in the wrong place, and a pest is an animal in the wrong place,” Clapp wrote. But what’s considered “wrong” depends on the humans who have power over the place, he noted. “Grass in a lawn can be a fine thing. Grass in a garden choking the vegetables I’m trying to grow becomes a weed. Mice in the wild don’t bother me. Field mice migrating into my house when the weather cools become a pest, especially when they eat into my food and leave feces behind,” Clapp wrote.
The article encouraged Clapp to look at pests through a societal lens: “I had never thought of pests in terms of high-class or low-class. Likewise, the residual implications of [colonization]. Thanks for provoking me to consider some of these issues in a broader context.”
The answer to one of the greatest mysteries of the universe may come down to one of the smallest, and spookiest, particles.
Matter is common in the cosmos. Everything around us — from planets to stars to puppies — is made up of matter. But matter has a flip side: antimatter. Protons, electrons and other particles all have antimatter counterparts: antiprotons, positrons, etc. Yet for some reason antimatter is much rarer than matter — and no one knows why.
Physicists believe the universe was born with equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Since matter and antimatter counterparts annihilate on contact, that suggests the universe should have ended up with nothing but energy. Something must have tipped the balance.
Some physicists think lightweight subatomic particles called neutrinos could point to an answer. These particles are exceedingly tiny, with less than a millionth the mass of an electron (SN: 4/21/21). They’re produced in radioactive decays and in the sun and other cosmic environments. Known for their ethereal tendency to evade detection, neutrinos have earned the nickname “ghost particles.” These spooky particles, originally thought to have no mass at all, have a healthy track record of producing scientific surprises (SN: 10/6/15).
Now researchers are building enormous detectors to find out if neutrinos could help solve the mystery of the universe’s matter. The Hyper-Kamiokande experiment in Hida City, Japan, and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, S.D., will study neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos. A difference in neutrinos’ and antineutrinos’ behavior might hint at the origins of the matter-antimatter imbalance, scientists suspect.
Watch the video below to find out how neutrinos might reveal why the universe contains, well, anything at all.
Super strong artificial silk? That’s so metal.
Giving revamped silkworm silk a metallic bath may make the strands both strong and stiff, scientists report October 6 in Matter. Some strands were up to 70 percent stronger than silk spun by spiders, the team found.
The work is the latest in a decades-long quest to create fibers as strong, lightweight and biodegradable as spider silk. If scientists could mass-produce such material, the potential uses range from the biomedical to the athletic. Sutures, artificial ligaments and tendons — even sporting equipment could get an arachnid enhancement.
“If you’ve got a climbing rope that weighs half of what it normally does and still has the same mechanical properties, then obviously you’re going to be a happy climber,” says Randy Lewis, a silk scientist at Utah State University in Logan who was not involved with the study.
Scrounging up enough silky material to make these super strong products has been a big hurdle. Silk from silkworms is simple to harvest, but not all that strong. And spider silk, the gold-standard for handspun strength and toughness, is not exactly easy to collect. “Unlike silkworms, spiders cannot be farmed due to their territorial and aggressive nature,” write study coauthor Zhi Lin, a structural biologist at Tianjin University in China, and colleagues.
Scientists around the world have tried to spin sturdy strands in the lab using silkworm cocoons as a starting point. The first step is to strip off the silk’s gummy outer coating. Scientists can do this by boiling the fibers in a chemical bath, but that can be like taking a hatchet to silk proteins. If the proteins get too damaged, it’s hard for scientists to respin them into high-quality strands, says Chris Holland, a materials scientist at the University of Sheffield in England who was not involved in the study.
Lin’s team tried gentler approaches, one of which used lower temperatures and a papaya enzyme, to help dissolve the silk’s coating. That mild-mannered method seemed to work. “They don’t have little itty-bitty pieces of silk protein,” Lewis says. “That’s huge because the bigger the proteins that remain, the stronger the fibers are going to be.”
After some processing steps, the researchers forced the resulting silk sludge through a tiny tube, like squeezing out toothpaste. Then, they bathed the extruded silk in a solution containing zinc and iron ions, eventually stretching the strands like taffy to make long, skinny fibers. The metal dip could be why some of the strands were so strong — Lin’s team detected zinc ions in the finished fibers. But Holland and Lewis aren’t so sure.
The team’s real innovation may be that “they’ve managed to unspin silk in a less damaging way,” Holland says. Lewis agrees. “In my mind,” he says, “that’s a major step forward.”
Penicillin, effective against many bacterial infections, is often a first-line antibiotic. Yet it is also one of the most common causes of drug allergies. Around 10 percent of people say they’ve had an allergic reaction to penicillin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now researchers have found a genetic link to the hypersensitivity, which, while rarely fatal, can cause hives, wheezing, arrythmias and more.
People who report penicillin allergies can have a genetic variation on an immune system gene that helps the body distinguish between our own cells and harmful bacteria and viruses. That hot spot is on the major histocompatibility complex gene HLA-B, said Kristi Krebs, a pharmacogenomics researcher for the Estonian Genome Center at the University of Tartu. She presented the finding October 26 at the American Society of Human Genetics 2020 virtual meeting. The research was also published online October 1 in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Several recent studies have connected distinct differences in HLA genes to bad reactions to specific drugs. For example, studies have linked an HLA-B variant to adverse reactions to an HIV/AIDS medication called abacavir, and they’ve linked a different HLA-B variant to allergic reactions to the gout medicine allopurinol. “So it’s understandable that this group of HLA variants can predispose us to higher risk of allergic drug reactions,” says Bernardo Sousa-Pinto, a researcher in drug allergies and evidence synthesis at the University of Porto in Portugal, who was not involved in the study.
For the penicillin study, the team hunted through more than 600,000 electronic health records that included genetic information for people who self-reported penicillin allergies. The researchers used several genetic search tools, which comb through DNA in search of genetic variations that may be linked to a health problem. Their search turned up a specific spot on chromosome 6, on a variant called HLA-B*55:01.
The group then checked its results against 1.12 million people of European ancestry in the research database of the genetic-testing company 23andMe and found the same link. A check of smaller databases including people with East Asian, Middle Eastern and African ancestries found no similar connection, although those sample sizes were too small to be sure, Krebs said
It’s too soon to tell if additional studies will “lead to better understanding of penicillin allergy and also better prediction,” she said.
Penicillin allergies often begin in childhood, but can wane over time, making the drugs safer to use some years later, Sousa-Pinto says. In this study, self-reported allergies were not confirmed with a test, so there’s a chance that some participants were misclassified. This is very common, Sousa-Pinto says. “It would be interesting to replicate this study in … participants with confirmed penicillin allergy.”
The distinction matters, because about 90 percent of patients who claim to be allergic to penicillin can actually safely take the drug (SN: 12/11/16). Yet, Sousa-Pinto says, those people may be given a more-expensive antibiotic that may not work as well. Less-effective antibiotics can make patients more prone to infections with bacteria that are resistant to the drugs. “This … is something that has a real impact on health care and on health services,” he says.
Humankind is seeing Neptune’s rings in a whole new light thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope.
In an infrared image released September 21, Neptune and its gossamer diadems of dust take on an ethereal glow against the inky backdrop of space. The stunning portrait is a huge improvement over the rings’ previous close-up, which was taken more than 30 years ago.
Unlike the dazzling belts encircling Saturn, Neptune’s rings appear dark and faint in visible light, making them difficult to see from Earth. The last time anyone saw Neptune’s rings was in 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, after tearing past the planet, snapped a couple grainy photos from roughly 1 million kilometers away (SN: 8/7/17). In those photos, taken in visible light, the rings appear as thin, concentric arcs.
As Voyager 2 continued to interplanetary space, Neptune’s rings once again went into hiding — until July. That’s when the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, turned its sharp, infrared gaze toward the planet from roughly 4.4 billion kilometers away (SN: 7/11/22).
Neptune itself appears mostly dark in the new image. That’s because methane gas in the planet’s atmosphere absorbs much of its infrared light. A few bright patches mark where high-altitude methane ice clouds reflect sunlight.
And then there are the ever-elusive rings. “The rings have lots of ice and dust in them, which are extremely reflective in infrared light,” says Stefanie Milam, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and one of JWST’s project scientists. The enormity of the telescope’s mirror also makes its images extra sharp. “JWST was designed to look at the first stars and galaxies across the universe, so we can really see fine details that we haven’t been able to see before,” Milam says.
Upcoming JWST observations will look at Neptune with other scientific instruments. That should provide new intel on the rings’ composition and dynamics, as well as on how Neptune’s clouds and storms evolve, Milam says. “There’s more to come.”
As people around the world marveled in July at the most detailed pictures of the cosmos snapped by the James Webb Space Telescope, biologists got their first glimpses of a different set of images — ones that could help revolutionize life sciences research.
The images are the predicted 3-D shapes of more than 200 million proteins, rendered by an artificial intelligence system called AlphaFold. “You can think of it as covering the entire protein universe,” said Demis Hassabis at a July 26 news briefing. Hassabis is cofounder and CEO of DeepMind, the London-based company that created the system. Combining several deep-learning techniques, the computer program is trained to predict protein shapes by recognizing patterns in structures that have already been solved through decades of experimental work using electron microscopes and other methods.
The AI’s first splash came in 2021, with predictions for 350,000 protein structures — including almost all known human proteins. DeepMind partnered with the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory to make the structures available in a public database.
July’s massive new release expanded the library to “almost every organism on the planet that has had its genome sequenced,” Hassabis said. “You can look up a 3-D structure of a protein almost as easily as doing a key word Google search.”
These are predictions, not actual structures. Yet researchers have used some of the 2021 predictions to develop potential new malaria vaccines, improve understanding of Parkinson’s disease, work out how to protect honeybee health, gain insight into human evolution and more. DeepMind has also focused AlphaFold on neglected tropical diseases, including Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, which can be debilitating or lethal if left untreated.
The release of the vast dataset was greeted with excitement by many scientists. But others worry that researchers will take the predicted structures as the true shapes of proteins. There are still things AlphaFold can’t do — and wasn’t designed to do — that need to be tackled before the protein cosmos completely comes into focus.
Having the new catalog open to everyone is “a huge benefit,” says Julie Forman-Kay, a protein biophysicist at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto. In many cases, AlphaFold and RoseTTAFold, another AI researchers are excited about, predict shapes that match up well with protein profiles from experiments. But, she cautions, “it’s not that way across the board.”
Predictions are more accurate for some proteins than for others. Erroneous predictions could leave some scientists thinking they understand how a protein works when really, they don’t. Painstaking experiments remain crucial to understanding how proteins fold, Forman-Kay says. “There’s this sense now that people don’t have to do experimental structure determination, which is not true.”
Proteins start out as long chains of amino acids and fold into a host of curlicues and other 3-D shapes. Some resemble the tight corkscrew ringlets of a 1980s perm or the pleats of an accordion. Others could be mistaken for a child’s spiraling scribbles.
A protein’s architecture is more than just aesthetics; it can determine how that protein functions. For instance, proteins called enzymes need a pocket where they can capture small molecules and carry out chemical reactions. And proteins that work in a protein complex, two or more proteins interacting like parts of a machine, need the right shapes to snap into formation with their partners.
Knowing the folds, coils and loops of a protein’s shape may help scientists decipher how, for example, a mutation alters that shape to cause disease. That knowledge could also help researchers make better vaccines and drugs.
For years, scientists have bombarded protein crystals with X-rays, flash frozen cells and examined them under highpowered electron microscopes, and used other methods to discover the secrets of protein shapes. Such experimental methods take “a lot of personnel time, a lot of effort and a lot of money. So it’s been slow,” says Tamir Gonen, a membrane biophysicist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Such meticulous and expensive experimental work has uncovered the 3-D structures of more than 194,000 proteins, their data files stored in the Protein Data Bank, supported by a consortium of research organizations. But the accelerating pace at which geneticists are deciphering the DNA instructions for making proteins has far outstripped structural biologists’ ability to keep up, says systems biologist Nazim Bouatta of Harvard Medical School. “The question for structural biologists was, how do we close the gap?” he says.
For many researchers, the dream has been to have computer programs that could examine the DNA of a gene and predict how the protein it encodes would fold into a 3-D shape.
Here comes AlphaFold
Over many decades, scientists made progress toward that AI goal. But “until two years ago, we were really a long way from anything like a good solution,” says John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland’s Rockville campus.
Moult is one of the organizers of a competition: the Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction, or CASP. Organizers give competitors a set of proteins for their algorithms to fold and compare the machines’ predictions against experimentally determined structures. Most AIs failed to get close to the actual shapes of the proteins.
Then in 2020, AlphaFold showed up in a big way, predicting the structures of 90 percent of test proteins with high accuracy, including two-thirds with accuracy rivaling experimental methods.
Deciphering the structure of single proteins had been the core of the CASP competition since its inception in 1994. With AlphaFold’s performance, “suddenly, that was essentially done,” Moult says.
Since AlphaFold’s 2021 release, more than half a million scientists have accessed its database, Hassabis said in the news briefing. Some researchers, for example, have used AlphaFold’s predictions to help them get closer to completing a massive biological puzzle: the nuclear pore complex. Nuclear pores are key portals that allow molecules in and out of cell nuclei. Without the pores, cells wouldn’t work properly. Each pore is huge, relatively speaking, composed of about 1,000 pieces of 30 or so different proteins. Researchers had previously managed to place about 30 percent of the pieces in the puzzle.
That puzzle is now almost 60 percent complete, after combining AlphaFold predictions with experimental techniques to understand how the pieces fit together, researchers reported in the June 10 Science.
Now that AlphaFold has pretty much solved how to fold single proteins, this year CASP organizers are asking teams to work on the next challenges: Predict the structures of RNA molecules and model how proteins interact with each other and with other molecules.
For those sorts of tasks, Moult says, deep-learning AI methods “look promising but have not yet delivered the goods.”
Where AI falls short
Being able to model protein interactions would be a big advantage because most proteins don’t operate in isolation. They work with other proteins or other molecules in cells. But AlphaFold’s accuracy at predicting how the shapes of two proteins might change when the proteins interact are “nowhere near” that of its spot-on projections for a slew of single proteins, says Forman-Kay, the University of Toronto protein biophysicist. That’s something AlphaFold’s creators acknowledge too.
The AI trained to fold proteins by examining the contours of known structures. And many fewer multiprotein complexes than single proteins have been solved experimentally.
Forman-Kay studies proteins that refuse to be confined to any particular shape. These intrinsically disordered proteins are typically as floppy as wet noodles (SN: 2/9/13, p. 26). Some will fold into defined forms when they interact with other proteins or molecules. And they can fold into new shapes when paired with different proteins or molecules to do various jobs.
AlphaFold’s predicted shapes reach a high confidence level for about 60 percent of wiggly proteins that Forman-Kay and colleagues examined, the team reported in a preliminary study posted in February at bioRxiv.org. Often the program depicts the shapeshifters as long corkscrews called alpha helices.
Forman-Kay’s group compared AlphaFold’s predictions for three disordered proteins with experimental data. The structure that the AI assigned to a protein called alpha-synuclein resembles the shape that the protein takes when it interacts with lipids, the team found. But that’s not the way the protein looks all the time.
For another protein, called eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4E-binding protein 2, AlphaFold predicted a mishmash of the protein’s two shapes when working with two different partners. That Frankenstein structure, which doesn’t exist in actual organisms, could mislead researchers about how the protein works, Forman-Kay and colleagues say.
AlphaFold may also be a little too rigid in its predictions. A static “structure doesn’t tell you everything about how a protein works,” says Jane Dyson, a structural biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Even single proteins with generally well-defined structures aren’t frozen in space. Enzymes, for example, undergo small shape changes when shepherding chemical reactions.
If you ask AlphaFold to predict the structure of an enzyme, it will show a fixed image that may closely resemble what scientists have determined by X-ray crystallography, Dyson says. “But [it will] not show you any of the subtleties that are changing as the different partners” interact with the enzyme.
“The dynamics are what Mr. AlphaFold can’t give you,” Dyson says.
A revolution in the making
The computer renderings do give biologists a head start on solving problems such as how a drug might interact with a protein. But scientists should remember one thing: “These are models,” not experimentally deciphered structures, says Gonen, at UCLA.
He uses AlphaFold’s protein predictions to help make sense of experimental data, but he worries that researchers will accept the AI’s predictions as gospel. If that happens, “the risk is that it will become harder and harder and harder to justify why you need to solve an experimental structure.” That could lead to reduced funding, talent and other resources for the types of experiments needed to check the computer’s work and forge new ground, he says.
Harvard Medical School’s Bouatta is more optimistic. He thinks that researchers probably don’t need to invest experimental resources in the types of proteins that AlphaFold does a good job of predicting, which should help structural biologists triage where to put their time and money.
“There are proteins for which AlphaFold is still struggling,” Bouatta agrees. Researchers should spend their capital there, he says. “Maybe if we generate more [experimental] data for those challenging proteins, we could use them for retraining another AI system” that could make even better predictions.
He and colleagues have already reverse engineered AlphaFold to make a version called OpenFold that researchers can train to solve other problems, such as those gnarly but important protein complexes.
Massive amounts of DNA generated by the Human Genome Project have made a wide range of biological discoveries possible and opened up new fields of research (SN: 2/12/22, p. 22). Having structural information on 200 million proteins could be similarly revolutionary, Bouatta says.
In the future, thanks to AlphaFold and its AI kin, he says, “we don’t even know what sorts of questions we might be asking.”
Getting out into society after a long isolation gets awkward. Ask the Pahrump poolfish, loners in a desert for some 10,000 years.
This hold-in-your-hand-size fish (Empetrichthys latos) has a chubby, torpedo shape and a mouth that looks as if it’s almost smiling. Until the 1950s, this species had three forms, each evolving in its own spring. Now only one survives, which developed in a spring-fed oasis in the Mojave Desert’s Pahrump Valley, about an hour’s drive west of Las Vegas.
Fish in a desert are not that weird when you take the long view (SN: 1/26/16). In a former life, some desert valleys were ancient lakes. As the region’s lakes dried up, fish got stuck in the remaining puddles. Various stranded species over time adapted to quirks of their private microlakes, and a desert-fish version of the Galapagos Islands’ diverse finches arose.
“We like to say that Darwin, if he had a different travel agent, could have come to the same conclusions just from the desert,” says evolutionary biologist Craig Stockwell of North Dakota State University in Fargo.
The desert “island” where E. latos evolved was Manse Spring on a private ranch. From a distance, the spring looked “just like a little clump of trees,” remembers ecologist Shawn Goodchild, who is now based in Lake Park, Minn. The spot of desert greenery surrounded the Pahrump poolfish’s entire native range, about the length of an Olympic swimming pool.
By the 1960s, biologists feared the fish were doomed. The spring’s flow rate had dropped some 70 percent as irrigation for farms in the desert sucked away water. And disastrous predators arrived: a kid’s discarded goldfish. Conservation managers fought back, but neither poison nor dynamite wiped out the newcomers. And then in August of 1975, Manse Spring dried up.
Conservation managers had moved some poolfish to other springs, but the long-isolated species just didn’t seem to get the dangers of living with other kinds of fishes. The poolfish were easily picked off by predators in their new home.
Lab tests of fake fish-murder scenes may help explain why. For instance, researchers tainted aquarium water with pureed fish bits. In an expected reaction, fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) freaked at traces of dead minnow drifting through the water and huddled low in the tank. The Pahrump poolfish in water tainted with blender-whizzed skin of their kind just kept swimming around the upper waters as if corpse taint were no scarier than tap water. Literally. Stockwell and colleagues can say that because they ran a fear test with nonscary dechlorinated tap water. Poolfish didn’t huddle then either, the team reports in the Aug. 31 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Then, however, Stockwell and a colleague were musing about some rescued poolfish in cattle tanks when nearby dragonflies caught the researchers’ attention.
Before dragonflies mature into shimmering aerial marvels, the young prowl underwater as violent predators. In moves worthy of scary aliens in a sci-fi movie, many dragonfly nymphs can shoot their jaws out from their head to scoop up prey, including fish eggs and fish larvae. With young dragonflies prowling a pool’s bottom and plants, poolfish moving up the water column “would be a good way to reduce their risk,” Stockwell says. Testing of that idea has begun.
Fish that people thought were foolishly naïve may just be savvy in a different way. Especially after isolation in a desert with dragons.
Bacteria go to extremes to handle hard times: They hunker down, building a fortress-like shell around their DNA and turning off all signs of life. And yet, when times improve, these dormant spores can rise from the seeming dead.
But “you gotta be careful when you decide to come back to life,” says Peter Setlow, a biochemist at UConn Health in Farmington. “Because if you get it wrong, you die.” How is a spore to tell?
For spores of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, the solution is simple: It counts.
These “living rocks” sense it’s time to revive, or germinate, by essentially counting how often they encounter nutrients, researchers report in a new study in the Oct. 7 Science.
“They appear to have literally no measurable biological activity,” says Gürol Süel, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Diego. But Süel and his colleagues knew that spores’ cores contain positively charged potassium atoms, and because these atoms can move around without the cell using energy, the team suspected that potassium could be involved in shocking the cells awake.
So the team exposed B. subtilis spores to nutrients and used colorful dyes to track the movement of potassium out of the core. With each exposure, more potassium left the core, shifting its electrical charge to be more negative. Once the spores’ cores were negatively charged enough, germination was triggered, like a champagne bottle finally popping its cork. The number of exposures it took to trigger germination varied by spore, just like some corks require more or less twisting to pop. Spores whose potassium movement was hamstrung showed limited change in electric charge and were less likely to “pop” back to life no matter how many nutrients they were exposed to, the team’s experiments showed.
Changes in the electrical charge of a cell are important across the tree of life, from determining when brain cells zip off messages to each other, to the snapping of a Venus flytrap (SN: 10/14/20). Finding that spores also use electrical charges to set their wake-up calls excites Süel. “You want to find principles in biology,” he says, “processes that cross systems, that cross fields and boundaries.”
Spores are not only interesting for their unique and extreme biology, but also for practical applications. Some “can cause some rather nasty things” from food poisoning to anthrax, says Setlow, who was not involved in the study. Since spores are resistant to most antibiotics, understanding germination could lead to a way to bring them back to life in order to kill them for good.
Still, there are many unanswered questions about the “black box” of how spores start germination, like whether it’s possible for the spores to “reset” their potassium count. “We really are in the beginnings of trying to fill in that black box,” says Kaito Kikuchi, a biologist now at Reveal Biosciences in San Diego who conducted the work while at University of California, San Diego. But discovering how spores manage to track their environment while more dead than alive is an exciting start.
Prairie voles have long been heralded as models of monogamy. Now, a study suggests that the “love hormone” once thought essential for their bonding — oxytocin — might not be so necessary after all.
Interest in the romantic lives of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) was first sparked more than 40 years ago, says Devanand Manoli, a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Biologists trying to capture voles to study would frequently catch two at a time, because “what they were finding were these male-female pairs,” he says. Unlike many other rodents with their myriad partners, prairie voles, it turned out, mate for life (SN: 10/5/15).
Pair-bonded prairie voles prefer each other’s company over a stranger’s and like to huddle together both in the wild and the lab. Because other vole species don’t have social behaviors as complex as prairie voles do, they have been a popular animal system for studying how social behavior evolves.
Research over the last few decades has implicated a few hormones in the brain as vital for proper vole manners, most notably oxytocin, which is also important for social behavior in humans and other animals.
Manoli and colleagues thought the oxytocin receptor, the protein that detects and reacts to oxytocin, would be the perfect test target for a new genetic engineering method based on CRISPR technology, which uses molecules from bacteria to selectively turn off genes. The researchers used the technique on vole embryos to create animals born without functioning oxytocin receptors. The team figured that the rodents wouldn’t be able to form pair-bonds — just like voles in past experiments whose oxytocin activity was blocked with drugs.
Instead, Manoli says, the researchers got “a big surprise.” The voles could form pair-bonds even without oxytocin, the team reports in the March 15 Neuron.
“I was very surprised by their results,” says Larry Young, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved with the study but has studied oxytocin in prairie voles for decades.
A key difference between the new study and past studies that used drugs to block oxytocin is the timing of exactly when the hormone’s activity is turned off. With drugs, the voles are adults and have had exposure to oxytocin in their brains before the shutoff. With CRISPR, “these animals are born never experiencing oxytocin signaling in the brain,” says Young, whose research group has recently replicated Manoli’s experiment and found the same result.
It may be, Young says, that pair-bonding is controlled by a brain circuit that typically becomes dependent on oxytocin through exposure to it during development, like a symphony trained by a conductor. Suddenly remove that conductor and the symphony will sound discordant, whereas a jazz band that’s never practiced with a conductor fares just fine without one.
Manoli agrees that the technique’s timing matters. A secondary reason for the disparity, he says, could be that drugs often have off-target effects, such that the chemicals meant to block oxytocin could have been doing other things in the voles’ brains to affect pair-bonding. But Young disagrees. “I don’t believe that,” he says. “The [drug] that people use is very selective,” not even binding to the receptor of oxytocin’s closest molecular relative, vasopressin.
Does this result mean that decades of past work on pair-bonding has been upended? Not quite.
“It shows us that this is a much more complicated question,” Manoli says. “The pharmacologic manipulations … suggested that [oxytocin] plays a critical role. The question is, what is that role?”
The new seemingly startling result makes sense if you look at the big picture, Manoli says. The ability for voles to pair-bond is “so critical for the survival of the species,” he says. “From a genetics perspective, it may make sense that there isn’t a single point of failure.”
The group now hopes to look at how other hormones, like vasopressin, influence pair-bonding using this relatively new genetic technique. They are also looking more closely at the voles’ behavior to be sure that the CRISPR gene editing didn’t alter it in a way they haven’t noticed yet.
In the game of vole “love,” it looks like we’re still trying to understand all the players.
The fate of a potential new Alzheimer’s drug is still uncertain. Evidence that the drug works isn’t convincing enough for it to be approved, outside experts told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during a Nov. 6 virtual meeting that at times became contentious.
The scientists and clinicians were convened at the request of the FDA to review the evidence for aducanumab, a drug that targets a protein called amyloid-beta that accumulates in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. The drug is designed to stick to A-beta and stop it from forming larger, more dangerous clumps. That could slow the disease’s progression but not stop or reverse it.
When asked whether a key clinical study provided strong evidence that the drug effectively treated Alzheimer’s, eight of 11 experts voted no. One expert voted yes, and two were uncertain.
The FDA is not bound to follow the recommendations of the guidance committee, though it has historically done so. If ultimately approved, the drug would be a milestone, says neurologist and neuroscientist Arjun Masurkar of New York University Langone’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Aducanumab “would be the first therapy that actually targets the underlying disease itself and slows progression.”
Developed by the pharmaceutical company Biogen, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., the drug is controversial. That’s because two large clinical trials of aducanumab have yielded different outcomes, one positive and one negative (SN: 12/5/19). The trials were also paused at one point, based on analyses that suggested the drug didn’t work.
Those unusual circumstances created gaps in the evidence, leaving big questions in some scientists’ minds about whether the drug is effective. Aducanumab’s ability to treat Alzheimer’s “cannot be proven by clinical trials with divergent outcomes,” researchers wrote in a perspective article published November 1 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The drug should be tested again with a different clinical trial, those researchers say.
But other groups, including the Alzheimer’s Association, are rooting for the drug. In a letter sent to the FDA on October 23, the nonprofit health organization urged aducanumab’s approval, along with longer-term studies of the drug.
“While the trial data has led to some uncertainty among the scientific community, this must be weighed against the certainty of what this disease will do to millions of Americans absent a treatment,” Joanne Pike, chief strategy officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, wrote in the letter. She noted that by 2050, more than 13 million Americans 65 and older may have Alzheimer’s. More than 5 million Americans currently have the disease.
Even with an eventual approval, questions would remain for patients and their caregivers, says Zaldy Tan, a geriatric memory specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Cost and logistics are going to be complex issues to tackle,” he says. One estimate puts aducanumab’s price tag at $40,000 annually, and treatment would require injections, for instance, which would require regular visits to a health care facility.
Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez saw the future of energy on a broiling-hot day last September.
An email alert hit her inbox from the San Diego Gas & Electric Company. “Extreme heat straining the grid,” read the message, which was also pinged as a text to 27 million people. “Save energy to help avoid power interruptions.”
It worked. People cut their energy use. Demand plunged, blackouts were avoided and California successfully weathered a crisis exacerbated by climate change. “It was very exciting to see,” says Hidalgo-Gonzalez, an electrical engineer at the University of California, San Diego who studies renewable energy and the power grid.
This kind of collective societal response, in which we reshape how we interact with the systems that provide us energy, will be crucial as we figure out how to live on a changing planet.
Earth has warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, when the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels began belching heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Scientists agree that only drastic action to cut emissions can keep the planet from blasting past 1.5 degrees of warming — a threshold beyond which the consequences become even more catastrophic than the rising sea levels, extreme weather and other impacts the world is already experiencing.
The goal is to achieve what’s known as net-zero emissions, where any greenhouse gases still entering the atmosphere are balanced by those being removed — and to do it as soon as we can.
Scientists say it is possible to swiftly transform the ways we produce and consume energy. To show the way forward, researchers have set out paths toward a world where human activities generate little to no carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — a decarbonized economy.
The key to a decarbonized future lies in producing vast amounts of new electricity from sources that emit little to none of the gases, such as wind, solar and hydropower, and then transforming as much of our lives and our industries as possible to run off those sources. Clean electricity needs to power not only the planet’s current energy use but also the increased demands of a growing global population.
Once humankind has switched nearly entirely to clean electricity, we will also have to counterbalance the carbon dioxide we still emit — yes, we will still emit some — by pulling an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere permanently.
Achieving net-zero emissions won’t be easy. Getting to effective and meaningful action on climate change requires overcoming decades of inertia and denial about the scope and magnitude of the problem. Nations are falling well short of existing pledges to reduce emissions, and global warming remains on track to charge past 1.5 degrees perhaps even by the end of this decade.
Yet there is hope. The rate of growth in CO2 emissions is slowing globally — down from 3 percent annual growth in the 2000s to half a percent annual growth in the last decade, according to the Global Carbon Project, which quantifies greenhouse gas emissions.
There are signs annual emissions could start shrinking. And over the last two years, the United States, by far the biggest cumulative contributor to global warming, has passed several pieces of federal legislation that include financial incentives to accelerate the transition to clean energy. “We’ve never seen anything at this scale,” says Erin Mayfield, an energy researcher at Dartmouth College.
Though the energy transition will require many new technologies, such as innovative ways to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere, many of the solutions, such as wind and solar power, are in hand — “stuff we already have,” Mayfield says.
The current state of carbon dioxide emissions
Of all the emissions that need to be slashed, the most important is carbon dioxide, which comes from many sources such as cars and trucks and coal-burning power plants. The gas accounted for 79 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. The next most significant greenhouse gas, at 11 percent of emissions in the United States, is methane, which comes from oil and gas operations as well as livestock, landfills and other land uses.
The amount of methane may seem small, but it is mighty — over the short term, methane is more than 80 times as efficient at trapping heat as carbon dioxide is, and methane’s atmospheric levels have nearly tripled in the last two centuries. Other greenhouse gases include nitrous oxides, which come from sources such as applying fertilizer to crops or burning fuels and account for 7 percent of U.S. emissions, and human-made fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons that account for 3 percent.
Globally, emissions are dominated by large nations that produce lots of energy. The United States alone emits around 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. It is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions throughout history and ceded the spot for top annual emitter to China only in the mid-2000s. India ranks third.
Because of the United States’ role in producing most of the carbon pollution to date, many researchers and advocates argue that it has the moral responsibility to take the global lead on cutting emissions. And the United States has the most ambitious goals of the major emitters, at least on paper. President Joe Biden has said the country is aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Leaders in China and India have set net-zero goals of 2060 and 2070, respectively.
Under the auspices of a 2015 international climate change treaty known as the Paris agreement, 193 nations plus the European Union have pledged to reduce their emissions. The agreement aims to keep global warming well below 2 degrees, and ideally to 1.5 degrees, above preindustrial levels. But it is insufficient. Even if all countries cut their emissions as much as they have promised under the Paris agreement, the world would likely blow past 2 degrees of warming before the end of this century.
Every nation continues to find its own path forward. “At the end of the day, all the solutions are going to be country-specific,” says Sha Yu, an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. “There’s not a universal fix.”
But there are some common themes for how to accomplish this energy transition — ways to focus our efforts on the things that will matter most. These are efforts that go beyond individual consumer choices such as whether to fly less or eat less meat. They instead penetrate every aspect of how society produces and consumes energy.
Such massive changes will need to overcome a lot of resistance, including from companies that make money off old forms of energy as well as politicians and lobbyists. But if society can make these changes, it will rank as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. We will have tackled a problem of our own making and conquered it.
Here’s a look at what we’ll need to do.
Make as much clean electricity as possible
To meet the need for energy without putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, countries would need to dramatically scale up the amount of clean energy they produce. Fortunately, most of that energy would be generated by technologies we already have — renewable sources of energy including wind and solar power.
“Renewables, far and wide, are the key pillar in any net-zero scenario,” says Mayfield, who worked on an influential 2021 report from Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project, which focused on the U.S. economy.
The Princeton report envisions wind and solar power production roughly quadrupling by 2030 to get the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050. That would mean building many new solar and wind farms, so many that in the most ambitious scenario, wind turbines would cover an area the size of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma combined.
Such a scale-up is only possible because prices to produce renewable energy have plunged. The cost of wind power has dropped nearly 70 percent, and solar power nearly 90 percent, over the last decade in the United States. “That was a game changer that I don’t know if some people were expecting,” Hidalgo-Gonzalez says.
Globally the price drop in renewables has allowed growth to surge; China, for instance, installed a record 55 gigawatts of solar power capacity in 2021, for a total of 306 gigawatts or nearly 13 percent of the nation’s installed capacity to generate electricity. China is almost certain to have had another record year for solar power installations in 2022.
Challenges include figuring out ways to store and transmit all that extra electricity, and finding locations to build wind and solar power installations that are acceptable to local communities. Other types of low-carbon power, such as hydropower and nuclear power, which comes with its own public resistance, will also likely play a role going forward.
Get efficient and go electric
The drive toward net-zero emissions also requires boosting energy efficiency across industries and electrifying as many aspects of modern life as possible, such as transportation and home heating.
Some industries are already shifting to more efficient methods of production, such as steelmaking in China that incorporates hydrogen-based furnaces that are much cleaner than coal-fired ones, Yu says. In India, simply closing down the most inefficient coal-burning power plants provides the most bang for the buck, says Shayak Sengupta, an energy and policy expert at the Observer Research Foundation America think tank in Washington, D.C. “The list has been made up,” he says, of the plants that should close first, “and that’s been happening.”
To achieve net-zero, the United States would need to increase its share of electric heat pumps, which heat houses much more cleanly than gas- or oil-fired appliances, from around 10 percent in 2020 to as much as 80 percent by 2050, according to the Princeton report. Federal subsidies for these sorts of appliances are rolling out in 2023 as part of the new Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that contains a number of climate-related provisions.
Shifting cars and other vehicles away from burning gasoline to running off of electricity would also lead to significant emissions cuts. In a major 2021 report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that one of the most important moves in decarbonizing the U.S. economy would be having electric vehicles account for half of all new vehicle sales by 2030. That’s not impossible; electric car sales accounted for nearly 6 percent of new sales in the United States in 2022, which is still a low number but nearly double the previous year.
Make clean fuels
Some industries such as manufacturing and transportation can’t be fully electrified using current technologies — battery powered airplanes, for instance, will probably never be feasible for long-duration flights. Technologies that still require liquid fuels will need to switch from gas, oil and other fossil fuels to low-carbon or zero-carbon fuels.
One major player will be fuels extracted from plants and other biomass, which take up carbon dioxide as they grow and emit it when they die, making them essentially carbon neutral over their lifetime. To create biofuels, farmers grow crops, and others process the harvest in conversion facilities into fuels such as hydrogen. Hydrogen, in turn, can be substituted for more carbon-intensive substances in various industrial processes such as making plastics and fertilizers — and maybe even as fuel for airplanes someday.
In one of the Princeton team’s scenarios, the U.S. Midwest and Southeast would become peppered with biomass conversion plants by 2050, so that fuels can be processed close to where crops are grown. Many of the biomass feedstocks could potentially grow alongside food crops or replace other, nonfood crops.
Cut methane and other non-CO2 emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions other than carbon dioxide will also need to be slashed. In the United States, the majority of methane emissions come from livestock, landfills and other agricultural sources, as well as scattered sources such as forest fires and wetlands. But about one-third of U.S. methane emissions come from oil, gas and coal operations. These may be some of the first places that regulators can target for cleanup, especially “super emitters” that can be pinpointed using satellites and other types of remote sensing.
In 2021, the United States and the European Union unveiled what became a global methane pledge endorsed by 150 countries to reduce emissions. There is, however, no enforcement of it yet. And China, the world’s largest methane emitter, has not signed on.
Nitrous oxides could be reduced by improving soil management techniques, and fluorinated gases by finding alternatives and improving production and recycling efforts.
Sop up as much CO2 as possible
Once emissions have been cut as much as possible, reaching net-zero will mean removing and storing an equivalent amount of carbon to what society still emits.
One solution already in use is to capture carbon dioxide produced at power plants and other industrial facilities and store it permanently somewhere, such as deep underground. Globally there are around 35 such operations, which collectively draw down around 45 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. About 200 new plants are on the drawing board to be operating by the end of this decade, according to the International Energy Agency.
The Princeton report envisions carbon capture being added to almost every kind of U.S. industrial plant, from cement production to biomass conversion. Much of the carbon dioxide would be liquefied and piped along more than 100,000 kilometers of new pipelines to deep geologic storage, primarily along the Texas Gulf Coast, where underground reservoirs can be used to trap it permanently. This would be a massive infrastructure effort. Building this pipeline network could cost up to $230 billion, including $13 billion for early buy-in from local communities and permitting alone.
Another way to sop up carbon is to get forests and soils to take up more. That could be accomplished by converting crops that are relatively carbon-intensive, such as corn to be used in ethanol, to energy-rich grasses that can be used for more efficient biofuels, or by turning some cropland or pastures back into forest. It’s even possible to sprinkle crushed rock onto croplands, which accelerates natural weathering processes that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Another way to increase the amount of carbon stored in the land is to reduce the amount of the Amazon rainforest that is cut down each year. “For a few countries like Brazil, preventing deforestation will be the first thing you can do,” Yu says.
When it comes to climate change, there’s no time to waste
The Princeton team estimates that the United States would need to invest at least an additional $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years for the country to have a shot at achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Congress has begun ramping up funding with two large pieces of federal legislation it passed in 2021 and 2022. Those steer more than $1 trillion toward modernizing major parts of the nation’s economy over a decade — including investing in the energy transition to help fight climate change.
Between now and 2030, solar and wind power, plus increasing energy efficiency, can deliver about half of the emissions reductions needed for this decade, the International Energy Agency estimates. After that, the primary drivers would need to be increasing electrification, carbon capture and storage, and clean fuels such as hydrogen.
The trick is to do all of this without making people’s lives worse. Developing nations need to be able to supply energy for their economies to develop. Communities whose jobs relied on fossil fuels need to have new economic opportunities.
Julia Haggerty, a geographer at Montana State University in Bozeman who studies communities that are dependent on natural resources, says that those who have money and other resources to support the transition will weather the change better than those who are under-resourced now. “At the landscape of states and regions, it just remains incredibly uneven,” she says.
The ongoing energy transition also faces unanticipated shocks such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy prices soaring in Europe, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially slashed global emissions but later saw them rebound.
But the technologies exist for us to wean our lives off fossil fuels. And we have the inventiveness to develop more as needed. Transforming how we produce and use energy, as rapidly as possible, is a tremendous challenge — but one that we can meet head-on. For Mayfield, getting to net-zero by 2050 is a realistic goal for the United States. “I think it’s possible,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot more work to be done.”
As far back as roughly 25,000 years ago, Ice Age hunter-gatherers may have jotted down markings to communicate information about the behavior of their prey, a new study finds.
These markings include dots, lines and the symbol “Y,” and often accompany images of animals. Over the last 150 years, the mysterious depictions, some dating back nearly 40,000 years, have been found in hundreds of caves across Europe.
Some archaeologists have speculated that the markings might relate to keeping track of time, but the specific purpose has remained elusive (SN: 7/9/19). Now, a statistical analysis, published January 5 in Cambridge Archeological Journal, presents evidence that past people may have been recording the mating and birthing schedule of local fauna.
By comparing the marks to the animals’ life cycles, researchers showed that the number of dots or lines in a given image strongly correlates to the month of mating across all the analyzed examples, which included aurochs (an extinct species of wild cattle), bison, horses, mammoth and fish. What’s more, the position of the symbol “Y” in a sequence was predictive of birth month, suggesting that “Y” signifies “to give birth.”
The finding is one of the earliest records of a coherent notational system, the researchers say. It indicates that people at the time were able to interpret the meaning of an item’s position in a sequence and plan ahead for the distant future using a calendar of sorts — reinforcing the suggestion that they were capable of complex cognition.
“This is a really big deal cognitively,” says Ben Bacon, an independent researcher based in London. “We’re dealing with a system that has intense organization, intense logic to it.”
A furniture conservator by day, Bacon spent years poring through scientific articles to compile over 800 instances of these cave markings. From his research and reading the literature, he reasoned that the dots corresponded to the 13 lunar cycles in a year. But he thought that the hunter-gatherers would’ve been more concerned with seasonal changes than the moon.
In the new paper, he and colleagues argue that rather than pinning a calendar to astronomical events like the equinox, the hunter-gatherers started their calendar year with the snowmelt in the spring. Not only would the snowmelt be a clear point of origin, but the meteorological calendar would also account for differences in timing across locations.
For example, though snowmelt would start on different dates in different latitudes, bison would always mate approximately four lunar cycles — or months — after that region’s snowmelt, as indicated by four dots or lines.
“This is why it’s such a clever system, because it’s based on the universal,” Bacon says. “Which means if you migrate from the Pyrenees to Belgium, you can just use the same calendar.”
He needed data to prove his idea. After compiling the markings, he worked with academic researchers to identify the timing of migration, mating and birth for common Ice Age animals targeted by hunter-gatherers by using archaeological data or comparing with similar modern animals. Next, the researchers determined if the marks aligned significantly with important life events based on this calendar. When the team ran the statistical analysis, the results strongly supported Bacon’s theory.
When explaining the markings, “we’ve argued for notational systems before, but it’s always been fairly speculative as to what the people were counting and why they were counting,” says Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, who peer-reviewed the paper. “This adds a lot more depth and specificity to why people were keeping calendars and how they were using them.”
Linguistic experts argue that, given the lack of conventional syntax and grammar, the marks wouldn’t be considered writing. But that doesn’t make the finding inherently less exciting, says paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger of the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar in Portugal, who wasn’t involved in the study. Writing systems are often mistakenly considered a pinnacle of achievement, when in fact writing would be developed only in cultural contexts where it’s useful, she says. Instead, it’s significant that the marks provide a way to keep records outside of the mind.
“In a way, that was the huge cognitive leap,” she says. “Suddenly, we have the ability to preserve [information] beyond the moment. We have the ability to transmit it across space and time. Everything starts to change.”
The debate over these marks’ meanings continues. Archaeologist April Nowell doesn’t buy many of the team’s assumptions. “It boggles my mind why one would need a calendar … to predict that animals were going to have offspring in the spring,” says Nowell, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “The amount of information that this calendar is providing, if it really is a calendar, is quite minimal.”
Hayden adds that, while the basic pattern would still hold, some of the cave marks had “wiggle room for interpretation.” The next step, he says, will be to review and verify the interpretations of the marks.
In Appalachia’s coal country, researchers envision turning toxic waste into treasure. The pollution left behind by abandoned mines is an untapped source of rare earth elements.
Rare earths are a valuable set of 17 elements needed to make everything from smartphones and electric vehicles to fluorescent bulbs and lasers. With global demand skyrocketing and China having a near-monopoly on rare earth production — the United States has only one active mine — there’s a lot of interest in finding alternative sources, such as ramping up recycling.
Pulling rare earths from coal waste offers a two-for-one deal: By retrieving the metals, you also help clean up the pollution.
Long after a coal mine closes, it can leave a dirty legacy. When some of the rock left over from mining is exposed to air and water, sulfuric acid forms and pulls heavy metals from the rock. This acidic soup can pollute waterways and harm wildlife.
Recovering rare earths from what’s called acid mine drainage won’t single-handedly satisfy rising demand for the metals, acknowledges Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute in Morgantown. But he points to several benefits.
Unlike ore dug from typical rare earth mines, the drainage is rich with the most-needed rare earth elements. Plus, extraction from acid mine drainage also doesn’t generate the radioactive waste that’s typically a by-product of rare earth mines, which often contain uranium and thorium alongside the rare earths. And from a practical standpoint, existing facilities to treat acid mine drainage could be used to collect the rare earths for processing. “Theoretically, you could start producing tomorrow,” Ziemkiewicz says.
From a few hundred sites already treating acid mine drainage, nearly 600 metric tons of rare earth elements and cobalt — another in-demand metal — could be produced annually, Ziemkiewicz and colleagues estimate.
Currently, a pilot project in West Virginia is taking material recovered from an acid mine drainage treatment site and extracting and concentrating the rare earths.
If such a scheme proves feasible, Ziemkiewicz envisions a future in which cleanup sites send their rare earth hauls to a central facility to be processed, and the elements separated. Economic analyses suggest this wouldn’t be a get-rich scheme. But, he says, it could be enough to cover the costs of treating the acid mine drainage.
In the digital era, the manufacturing industry needs to penetrate the new generation of information technology into all aspects of design, process, production and logistics, and build new intelligent factories, digital factories and intelligent workshops to help upgrade the intelligent manufacturing of traditional industries. butThe planning and construction of intelligent factory is a very complicated system engineering. How should enterprises "simplify"?
What is a "smart factory"?
The factory is an efficient production and manufacturing mode, which integrates digitalization, networking, automation, intelligent technology and manufacturing technology, coordinates the production process and optimizes the production process, and realizes the optimization and integration of product design, production, logistics, quality inspection and other links.
The foundation and core of building an intelligent factory is ERP system informatization and automatic management. Based on MES system, APS system, WMS system, PLM system, etc. are horizontally configured, and sensor technology, wireless communication, intelligent digital technology and other technologies are used.Create an intelligent factory with interconnected devices and efficient collaboration..
Enterprise resource planning system,It is the core system of enterprise informatization, managing sales, production, procurement, warehouse, quality, cost accounting, etc.
Product life cycle management system,It is responsible for the management of product design drawings, documents, design process, design changes and engineering configuration, providing the most important data source BOM for ERP system and the most important data source process route file for MES system.
Manufacturing system,It is responsible for the digital management of the production process in the workshop, realizes the deep integration of information and equipment, and provides complete, timely and accurate production execution data for ERP system, which is the foundation of intelligent factory.
Warehouse management system,It has the functions of warehousing, warehousing, warehouse allocation, etc. It receives warehousing and warehousing bills from ERP system and warehousing and warehousing instructions from MES system, and cooperates with AGV trolley to complete the automation of material distribution, thus realizing the unified warehousing information management of three-dimensional warehouse and plane warehouse.
APS/ equipment management, etc
Data collection and management,It is the blood of data intelligent factory construction, which flows among application systems. By collecting the equipment status data in real time, the capacity data of equipment can be provided for production scheduling.
Green years, fingertips, the arrival of graduation season. Yesterday, I was still in a trance, and I felt that time was so short. Far and wide, each going his own way. Started their different life paths. Looking forward to it.
How to design and practice an intelligent factory?
In the construction of smart factories, the misunderstanding of most enterprises lies inAt the initial stage of construction, systematic planning and design were not emphasized.That is, the material flow system and information flow system were not systematically planned and designed, and the existence of the intelligent factory was discovered after it was built and operated.Isolated island of automation and isolated island of informatization, seriously affecting the overall operation efficiency and quality of intelligent factories, thus affecting the full play of the value of intelligent manufacturing in enterprises.
Enterprise intelligent factory construction can take"Overall planning and step-by-step implementation"Principle, the architecture and function design of each system and the interface design of data between systems are the key to the planning. Each system should realize the seamless integration of information and data interaction, so as to achieve the ultimate goal of "intelligent manufacturing" of enterprises.
Dingjie Software believes that,There is no unified path for intelligent factory construction, and enterprises of different industries, scales and manufacturing modes have different ways to promote intelligent factories.
There are three steps in planning a scientific intelligent factory: defining the construction/renovation goal of the intelligent factory, planning a clear realization path, and having digital ideas.
Future factory panorama
Dingjie has been deeply involved in the manufacturing industry for 40 years, and has assisted more than 1,000 customer enterprises to upgrade their workshops and plan and build new factories. Based on the "top-level design and planning of smart factories", Dingjie has spared no effort to give enterprises comprehensive support and assistance from the methodology of practice path, scheme deployment and benefit realization. It has explored some successful ways and created a series of smart factory practices in the industry.
Practice of "Other People’s Home" Smart Factory
① Smart factory, empowering manufacturing service.
Zhiqi Railway Equipment Co., Ltd. mainly produces wheelsets, axle parts and related parts for high-speed trains, EMU trains, urban rail vehicles and other railway vehicles.
In 2009, Zhizhi cooperated with Dingjie in information projects for more than 10 years. In 2017, it started the intelligent manufacturing project. In 2018, it was selected as the "Intelligent Manufacturing Pilot Demonstration Project" of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Dingjie Software is tailored for Zhiqi."Networking of production equipment, visualization of production data, paperless production documents, transparent production process, fewer people in the production site and intelligent production links"Intelligent manufacturing strategic planning, and the first layout in the field of intelligent manufacturing and AI artificial intelligence application, seeking the change and breakthrough of manufacturing methods, and accelerating the realization of manufacturing service through artificial intelligence and digital operation.
② Yahoo Smart Factory, to improve the application efficiency of the whole process.
Zhejiang Yahoo Auto Parts Co., Ltd. is a national high-tech enterprise specializing in the research, development, production and sales of car seat accessories, providing matching car seat accessories for brands such as FAW-Volkswagen, Shanghai Volkswagen and Weimar.
In 2015, Yahoo began to understand contact intelligent manufacturing, and embarked on the road of intelligent transformation step by step. Yahoo Dingjie integrates ERP, BPM, PLM, MES and intelligent logistics systems, breaks through barriers between operation layer and workshop layer, gradually improves and promotes management benefits, and has won unanimous praise from enterprises, customers and government organizations, and was selected."List of Intelligent Factories in Digital Workshops in Zhejiang Province".
③ The model factory of intelligent manufacturing of the larger group, and the whole process quality traceability.
Ningbo Bigger Group, one of the top 100 bearing enterprises in China, owns a number of automatic production lines for bearings and other auto parts, with total assets of over RMB 1 billion, and its products have entered the world’s outstanding auto manufacturing companies.
Through digitalization of design, products, production equipment, manufacturing process and management, Dingjie and Alibaba Cloud help Ningbo Bigger Group.Create a "digital workshop" with an annual output of 2 million sets of precision bearings, to achieve a 25% increase in production efficiency, a 22% reduction in operating costs, and a 35% reduction in product development cycle.