Science By The Slice

Aug 20, 2018

A brief look at some of the newest discoveries in the scientific world that you may have missed. Brought to you by the Utah State University College of Science.

Windows To The Earth

Hot springs are windows to fluid-rock interactions deep within the earth, says USU geochemist Dennis Newell. Studying the springs’ chemical composition yields clues about the thermal waters’ origins, he says. The water may be ‘young,’ having recently fallen as precipitation from the sky. Or it could have been stored in underground aquifers for tens of thousands of years. Chemical analysis reveals the water’s ‘fingerprint;’ a history of where it came from and where it’s been. 

Mind The Peruvian Gap

USU geochemist Dennis Newell and students are studying the Peruvian Gap, an area of Peru that lacks volcanic activity. Newell says a likely cause is side effects of flat-slab subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath South America that’s shut off access to the hot mantle far below the earth’s surface. The region’s relatively young Andes Mountains provide a snapshot of how the much older American West’s Rocky Mountains developed.  

Bundle Of Energy

Today’s electronics demand safer, more compact and less expensive batteries. USU chemist Leo Liu and students are studying magnesium batteries, which offer these advantages and may someday replace lithium-ion batteries. A challenge is unreliable performance, which Liu says, is caused by impurities in the battery’s electrolyte. He and his team discovered adding magnesium powder remedies this obstacle and yields improved performance.  

Up, Up And Away

Can helium bond with other elements to form a stable compound? If you’re on Earth, the answer is ‘no.’ But all bets are off if you journey to the center of the Earth or venture to Jupiter or Saturn. USU chemists Alex Boldyrev and Ivan Popov are among a team that demonstrated helium, under high pressure, bonds with sodium to form a stable compound. Our understanding of chemistry has to expand beyond the confines of our planet, Boldyrev says. 

Food On Mars, Food On Earth

Can earthlings live on Mars? They can if they develop self-sufficiency, say USU scientists Lance Seefeldt and Bruce Bugbee. The Aggie researchers are among a NASA team developing the necessary technology to provide Mars pioneers with survival tools. The USU researchers’ challenge includes using light to initiate nitrogen fixation and thus, enable growth of plants, as well as raising those plants in a closed system using recycled water.  

Anti-oxidants-Broken Hearts: Aggies Probe the Biochemistry of Cardiovascular Disease

Antioxidants are oft-mentioned ingredients in health foods, but why are they needed? USU biochemists Joanie Hevel and Yalemi Morales say, while humans depend on oxygen for survival, the life-saving element takes a toll on our bodies. During normal metabolism, free radicals and oxidants form, which causes oxidative stress. Enzymes are affected by this condition, which may contribute to heart disease, cancer and other ailments.

Balancing Bugs

USU entomologist Diane Alston says biorational approaches to integrated pest management are viable alternatives to harmful pesticides. Such approaches use a combination of insect growth regulation, conservation of biological agents and application of microbial insecticides, as well as insect attractants and repellents, to affect insects' communication systems.

Bees-Single Moms to Commune Dwellers

When we think of bees, images of a busy hive inhabited by an imposing queen bee and her specialized minions come to mind. But not all bees live in cooperative harmony, says USU biologist Karen Kapheim. Some are lone rangers. Kapheim and colleagues from around the world study genetic changes associated with bee evolution. A key feature of increased sociality, they say, is a species’ increased capacity to regulate genes in individuals.

Blotched Lizzard-Small Lizard Offers Insight on Large Changes

The common side-blotched lizard, which can survive up to seven years, is found throughout the deserts of the western United States and Mexico.  USU ecologist Susannah French is exploring environmental effects on the reptile, which grows up to six inches in length. The lizard is very territorial and has variable life-spans across its range, she says, which enables researchers to track individuals. French is investigating whether environmental changes, including those caused by human disturbances, resulting in modifications to the lizards’ stress responsiveness, reproductive success and immune function.

Dark-eyed Juncos-Early Bird Gets the Worm

Common North American sparrows called dark-eyed juncos assert their superiority early, says USU ornithologist Kimberly Sullivan. Short-term benefits may accrue to young birds that attain high dominance status early, she says, because juvenile birds that socially dominate their peers are more likely to be successful and efficient foragers, which helps them avoid predators. In addition, the assertive birds tend to be of a healthier weight and have higher oxygen-carrying capacity. These benefits make them more likely to survive harsh winters and become prolific breeders.  

Evolution-Evolution Not Always Advancement

Many wrongly assume that evolution implies progression toward something better, says USU biologist Paul Wolf. Evolution by natural selection is a mechanical process, he says, that simply favors organisms better suited to a particular environment at a particular time. Wolf says evolution does not predict the future. His lab uses a wide array of tools of high tech tools to study plant evolutionary biology, spanning population genetics to deep phylogeny.  

Forebulge Collapse-Nation’s Capital is Sinking; Safety Measures Needed Now

Within the next century, Washington, D.C. could drop by half a foot, making it increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. USU geologist Tammy Rittenour says the subsidence is caused by “forebulge collapse.” This geological phenomenon was initiated by glacial advance and build-up of a North American ice sheet some 20,000 years ago. The sinkage is worsened by climate change, she says, and safety measures are needed now.

Genes-Are Genes Why We Can't Fit in Jeans?

USU researcher Tim Gilbertson says certain fats activate receptors in our bodies that make sweet and salty foods taste better. This may account for our love of potato chips and chocolate. Craving and storing fat was critical for our Paleolithic ancestors’ survival but creates a formidable health challenge in our current era of plentiful food and leisure. Gilbertson says our current obesity epidemic is fueling an increase in such modern-day scourges as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Ice Age-Sub-Zero Heroes: Ice Age Fostered New Species 

When discussing how one species evolved into two or more distinct species, scientists often surmise the uplift of mountains, which split populations of plants and animals, was a contributing factor. Not so fast, says USU entomologist James Pitts. You might expect this of desert species, where the terrain is typically isolated by mountain ranges. But for some organisms, he says, evidence points to glaciations that occurred during the Ice Age. A foremost scholar of wasps known as ‘velvet ants,” Pitts compared molecular data from modern-day ants with data.

Lyme Disease-Ticked Off: Lyme Disease-Carrying Ticks in Utah 

The bad news is Lyme disease can be a debilitating, hard-to-diagnose illness. The good news is your likelihood of contracting the bacterial infection in Utah is low. USU scientists conducted an exhaustive, statewide tick survey, found very few tick species capable of transmitting the bacteria and none infected. They caution this doesn’t mean Lyme disease-carrying ticks don’t exist in our state. Utahns should continue to check for ticks when recreating outdoors.

Math-Do the Math, Do the Time 

In 1915, a bereaved British vicar spied a newspaper report of a new bride drowning in a bathtub that was eerily similar to the demise of his beloved daughter. The victim’s groom was his former son-in-law. The resulting murder trial led to an English common law rule of evidence called the Doctrine of Chances. USU mathematicians Ryan Wallentine and David Brown are investigating this rule, which explores the unlikelihood a defendant would repeatedly and innocently be involved in similar, suspicious circumstances. They say this rule could aid sexual assault convictions.

Math-Math’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

USU mathematician Nathan Geer understands the challenges his students face as they tackle new math skills because he, himself, has worked on certain math problems for years. Geer says students get discouraged because they can’t solve problems immediately. ‘Getting stuck,’ he explains, is part of the learning process. To make math more accessible, Geer is developing three-to-five minute podcasts to acquaint students with new vocabulary and orient them to new material prior to class lectures.  His goal is to help students more quickly grasp core messages and make math learning less intimidating.

Nitrogen-Challenging Limits: USU Biochemists Aid Grasp of Life-Critical Enzyme

We live in a sea of nitrogen, yet our bodies can’t access this life-critical compound from the air. Instead, we get nitrogen from protein in our food. The century-old Häber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation and fertilizer production revolutionized agriculture but carries a heavy carbon footprint. USU biochemist Lance Seefeldt and his students are investigating greener alternatives that could, once again, revolutionize food and energy production ions. 

Small World-Small World, Big Health Challenges

To address the frightening public health concern of increasingly frequent, drug-resistant pathogens, USU Uintah Basin biology professor Lianna Etchberger and her students are on the hunt for new antibiotics. The students collect soil samples and antibiotic-producing microbes in the Vernal area and upload their findings to a central database of samples from around the world.  Their efforts contribute to a global effort to combat disease.

Snakes-Snakes Vault Past Newts in Deadly Evolutionary Arms Race

Adventurous diners of pufferfish know the food’s intoxicating tingle comes from tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin that’s deadly beyond small doses. North American garter snakes have evolved an amazing resistance to the lethal substance, which is found in one of their favorite meals, the California newt. USU biologist Butch Brodie and his students are investigating the genetic basis for this example of co-evolution. They’re exploring the genetic basis of adaptation and the molecular processes that lead to evolutionary changes.

Spider Silk- ‘Watershed’ Breakthrough in Spider Silk Production

Synthetic spider silk holds promise as a leading biomaterial of the future with its unrivaled combination of strength and elasticity. USU biologists are conquering two major hurdles to its affordable, commercial-scale production. The first is development of transgenic bacteria; that is, bacteria with the spider silk protein gene, to produce plentiful quantities. The second is the discovery that water provides a safe solvent to craft usable forms of the protein into fibers, gels, coatings and adhesives for a wide variety of uses. In the future, watch for synthetic ligaments, tendons and skins, as well as safer airbags and lighter body armor.

Up, Up And Away

Can helium bond with other elements to form a stable compound? If you’re on Earth, the answer is ‘no.’ But all bets are off if you journey to the center of the Earth or venture to Jupiter or Saturn. USU chemists Alex Boldyrev and Ivan Popov are among a team that demonstrated helium, under high pressure, bonds with sodium to form a stable compound. Our understanding of chemistry has to expand beyond the confines of our planet, Boldyrev says.

Venomous Frogs-Lethal Headers: USU Biologist Aids Discovery of Venomous Frogs 

USU biologist Butch Brodie is among a team of scientists who’ve identified the first known venomous frogs. Brodie says “venomous”, where an organism uses a delivery mechanism, such as fangs, to inject a toxin, is not the same as poisonous, where toxins must be inhaled or ingested. The venomous frogs, found in Brazil, use sharp spines poking from their skulls to ‘head-butt’ predators and inject deadly venom. 

Wasatch Fault-Technology to Unlock Utah’s Ancient Past  

What caused Utah’s Wasatch Fault? USU geologist Alexis Ault is using a scanning electron microscope on rock samples to find answers. Heat imparts a signature, she says, much like a fingerprint, on a rock’s surface. The signature gives evidence of heat generated by earthquakes over more than a million years. Ault is reconstructing the fault’s history which, she says, will help scientists understand the modern earthquake cycle. 

Water Splitting-Splitting the Difference

Electrolysis of water, known as “water splitting,” is the chemical reaction in which water is separated into oxygen and hydrogen. Efficient and cost-effective water splitting remains the Holy Grail for widespread, affordable energy production from sustainable energy inputs such as solar and wind. Known catalysts produce either oxygen or hydrogen, but not both. With support from a Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars Grant, USU chemist Yujie Sun and students are advancing knowledge of bifunctional catalysts that can simultaneously and cost-effectively produce both oxygen and hydrogen.

Windows To The Earth

Hot springs are windows to fluid-rock interactions deep within the earth, says USU geochemist Dennis Newell. Studying the springs’ chemical composition yields clues about the thermal waters’ origins, he says. The water may be ‘young,’ having recently fallen as precipitation from the sky. Or it could have been stored in underground aquifers for tens of thousands of years. Chemical analysis reveals the water’s ‘fingerprint;’ a history of where it came from and where it’s been. 

Mimicry

This is Science by the Slice. Mimicry is a form of defense in which an animal evolves a close resemblance to another species in appearance, actions, or sound to evade predators. USU biologists Joe Wilson, James Pitts, and colleagues have identified multiple species of velvet ants, a type of wasp, which forms North America’s largest known Malarian mimicry complex. Known as cow-killers because of their powerful sting, the wasps feature bright colors to warn predators to stay away.  

Medical Implants

This is Science by the Slice. Life-threatening infection is an ominous hazard hanging over every invasive medical procedure. USU biologist Randy Lewis and students are investigating the use of medical implants made from synthetic spider silk to reduce infection risk. The researchers say silk-based gels, adhesives, and coatings made from spider protein and water don’t cause an immune response or inflammation. They are also strong and moisture resistant.

Doctrine of Chances

This is Science by the Slice. In 1915, a bereaved British vicar spied a newspaper report of a new bride drowning in a bathtub that was eerily similar to the demise of his beloved daughter. The victim’s groom was his former son-in-law. The resulting murder trial led to an English common law rule of evidence called the Doctrine of Chances. USU mathematicians Ryan Wallentine and David Brown are investigating this rule which explores the unlikelihood a defendant would repeatedly and innocently be involved in similar suspicious circumstances. They say this rule could aid sexual assault convictions.

Cobalt Blue Cluster

This is Science by the Slice. USU chemists Yvonne Popav and Alex Boldyrev are among a multi-university team that observed a three-dimensional, cobalt, boron, molecular cluster that sets a new coordination record in chemistry. The complex consists of two boron rings connected to a central cobalt atom via 16 bonds, the highest coordination number of atoms ever observed for an atom. The findings advance knowledge for designing boron-based nano-materials.      

Carbon Capture

This is Science by the Slice. Effective man-made carbon capture and storage may be possible in underground reservoirs, say USU geologists. Jim Evans and Elizabeth Petrie studied natural sequestration in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. Though capturing carbon is a challenge, they say geochemical reactions occurring in natural storage sites may provide insights into developing ways to contain environmentally harmful emissions.

Don’t ‘Bee’ Alarmed 

Because many bees nest in stems, twigs and crevasses, they’re adept stowaways. For this reason, customs officials monitor entry of non‐native bee species, inadvertently shipped with imported produce and products, with vigilance. USU and USDA entomologists have developed the new, online Exotic Bee ID guide to help officials intercept invasive species that could harm native bees.

Carbon Monoxide: Friend or Foe? 

Because carbon monoxide can be lethal, we equip our homes with monitors and take care not  to idle cars in enclosed spaces. But USU scientists say the deadly gas, in small quantities, could  save our lives. Aggie chemists are developing tiny molecules that could release carbon monoxide  in specific doses, at specific times, at specific locations in the body to reduce inflammation,  promote healing and fight cancer. 

Power in Numbers 

USU biologist Will Pearse is using data from the National Science  Foundation’s massive National Ecology Observatory Network to look into the future. With information collected from the coast‐to‐coast network, known as ‘NEON,” Pearse will use evolutionary history to address practical ecological challenges, including wildfire, pest beetle outbreaks in forests and insect‐borne diseases. 

Bark Worse than Bite? 

That pointy thing sticking out of a bee or wasp? It’s technically known as a “sting,” even though  most of us call it a “stinger.” Technicalities aside, USU entomologists report the length of a sting may indicate how badly it will hurt. In a study of 14 families of wasps, ants and bees, Aggie scientists found the longer the sting, the worse the pain, but the lower the toxicity. Insects with short stings may carry more venom.

The Intriguing Remnants of Lake Bonneville 

Many Utahns have heard of Lake Bonneville, but not as many know about the unique imprint it left on northern Utah and southern Idaho. The ancient Pleistocene lake, of which the Great Salt  Lake is a remnant, covered nearly 32,000 square miles at its peak. In the new, online video  “Geological Highlights of Cache Valley,” USU geologists describe the region’s geology, including  ‘bathtub rings’ left by the huge body of water. 

Likely Site of California’s Next ‘Big One’ 

In 1905, the Colorado River, swollen with heavy rainfall and snowmelt, surged into a dry lake bed along California’s San Andreas Fault and formed the Salton Sea. USU geologist Susanne  Jänecke says the flood’s sediment obscured a critical portion of the fault zone. She and colleagues documented the segment, known as “Durmid  Ladder,’ which, she says, is the likely site of the region’s next major earthquake.

Dead in the Water 

A device the U.S. Navy is developing with USU biologists conjures images you’d expect in a  James Bond thriller. Aggie scientists are sharing expertise they’ve developed in producing synthetic spider silk to help the Navy manufacture synthetic slime from hagfish proteins. Slime from the eel‐like creature greatly expands in seawater. Combined with spider silk, it will wrap relentlessly around boat propellers, effectively foiling smugglers, pirates or terrorists. 

Repurposed Radio Telescope

USU undergrad physicists use cast-off equipment to build an on-campus radio telescope to map the Milky Way Galaxy. Using a repurposed dome brought to Utah State in the 1970s and a recycled satellite dish from Utah Public Radio, researchers are measuring radio waves from celestial objects. The observatory provides a teaching lab for new students to learn how to collect, read and analyze data.