Snippets - Jan 23

Snippets - Jan 23

Snippets - Jan 23

Brewing beer on Mars?

Here's an interplanetary botany discovery that took college students, and not NASA scientists, to find: hops - the flowers used to add a pleasant bitterness to beer - grow well in Martian soil. "I don't know if it's a practical plant, but it's doing fairly well," said Edward F Guinan, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University, USA.

Last semester, 25 students took Edward's class on astrobiology, about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. For the laboratory part of the course, the students became farmers, experimenting to see which crops might grow in Martian soil and feed future travellers there.

Of course, no one has yet brought back anything from the red planet, but spacecraft like NASA's Phoenix Mars lander have analysed Martian soil in great detail. Based on those measurements, scientists have come up with a reasonably good reproduction on earth - crushed basalt from an ancient volcano in the Mojave Desert.

Martian soil is very dense and dries out quickly. For the most part, the students chose practical, nutritious plants. And one group chose hops. For the experiments, the students had a small patch of a greenhouse, with a mesh screen reducing the sunlight to mimic Mars' greater distance from the sun.

Assessing the quantity and quality of algae

Scientists from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur have developed a novel method to estimate the biomass and pigment concentration of algae, without ever having to touch or disturb the organism.

Two important factors that are required to deduce the yield of fuels or other usable products from a colony of algae are biomass and the pigment concentration of the said colony. This often involves intrusive or destructive testing methods, which requires collecting samples from the colony.

To avoid such measures, the scientists have developed optical based testing method to determine the two properties. They have used a technique called diffuse reflectance spectroscopy. They used two species of algae (Chlorella Vulgaris and Nostoc muscorum), and a mixed culture of the two species in the experiment.

The analysis of the spectra revealed culture specific spectral signatures, allowing the scientists to identify the specific culture based on the spectra it produced. The scientists believe that this method has the potential to develop into a new approach for estimating pigment concentrations in algae samples.

To create sensory cells

Researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Centre of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, for the first time, coaxed human stem cells to become sensory interneurons - the cells that give us our sense of touch. The new protocol could be a step towards stem-cell-based therapies to restore sensation in paralysed people who have lost feeling in parts of their body. The study was published in the journal Stem Cell Reports. Sensory interneurons, a class of neurons in the spinal cord, are responsible for relaying information from the body to the central nervous system, which enables the sense of touch.

Decoding the universe

The most powerful and violent events are not Earth-bound. They're taking place right now in space. The mysteries of the violent and highly magnetised objects in our universe set the foundation for Black Holes and the High Energy Universe, a documentary directed by Thomas Lucas. Specifically, the film is concerned with the study of black holes, quasars, and supernovas, and in exploring the various means our astronomers have employed in researching them. Do black holes really exist? What is the nature of quasars? How are supernovas formed, and what elements do they contain? Just decades ago, these questions remained unanswered. Thanks to a series of exploratory missions, these perplexities are now clearer to us. To watch the documentary, visit

Underwater circuits

Researchers at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linkping University (LiU), Sweden, have developed the world's first complementary electrochemical logic circuits that can function stably for long periods in water. This is a highly significant breakthrough in the development of bioelectronics.

The dominating material used until now has been PEDOT:PSS, which is a p-type material, in which the charge carriers are holes. In order to construct effective electron components, a complementary material, n-type, is required, in which the charge carriers are electrons.

In an article in Advanced Materials, Simone Fabiano from the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at LiU, presents results from an n-type conducting material in which the ladder-type structure of the polymer backbone favours ambient stability and high current when doped.

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