Accelerating Antarctic ice loss, fiber optic seismometers, mangrove methane: this week in science | Miles O'Brien Productions

Accelerating Antarctic ice loss, fiber optic seismometers, mangrove methane: this week in science

Miles is making his way back from the dolphin research trip–this is Fedor Kossakovski filling in again. Here’s a look back at this week in science, with stories you don’t want to miss.

Accelerating loss of Antarctic ice

A batch of papers out this week in the journal Nature give new urgency to the fight against climate change.

Several teams combined different types of investigations, from satellite imagery to core sampling, to nail down the most robust measurement of Antarctic ice loss.

This comprehensive study of Antarctic ice looked at the period between 1992 and 2017. The findings aren’t surprising if you’ve been following the accelerating loss of ice in Antarctica:

“It confirms previous evidence of a substantial acceleration of ice loss over the period – amounting to a factor ~3 for West Antarctica,” Chris Radley, professor of climate science at University College London who wasn’t involved with the study, told the UK’s Science Media Centre. A factor of “~3” means that the rate the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting has increased about threefold in this period.

There are worries among many scientists the unique structure of the seabed underneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will cause a runaway collapse, raising sea levels several feet in a matter of decades. The issue here is that the bedrock slopes downward on the western side of Antarctica, meaning seawater can quickly keep seep under to further melt the ice sheet above.

Studying the phenomenon of Antarctic ice loss is of utmost importance to understand the impact of human-caused climate change on our rising oceans. That’s why we’ll be following the International Thwaites Glacier Consortium, the largest joint UK-US science endeavor in Antarctica since it was mapped, as scientists search for answers on the continent’s west coast.

The new analysis shows that East Antarctica is less at risk of catastrophic collapse, but that the Antarctic Peninsula is also a place of concern. That’s where the Larsen C iceberg broke off from last year:

Using fiber optic cables to detect earthquakes

Most of the world is covered by water, and monitoring earthquake activity on the seafloor remains difficult and expensive. Instead of deploying new tools, a team of scientists has come up with a way to leverage existing networks of fiber optic cables.

The idea is that seismic waves from earthquakes slightly shift the phase of light bouncing in these cables, which can be monitored. The team was able to use this technique to detect several earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, using both land-based and undersea cables.

The undersea cables are in a less noisy environment, and the team thinks the global telecommunications cable network can be used to not only detect earthquakes but also to detect underwater noise pollution and track marine mammal migration.

The approach of using phase shifting light, called interferometry, to detect vibrations is reminiscent of NASA’s huge LIGO installation, which uses a similar idea to detect gravity waves with phase shifting lasers.

Who you gonna call? Ghost Cytometry!

A new technique for screening and sorting individual cells is blowing other approaches out of the water.

It’s called Ghost Cytometry and it works by NOT taking pictures of the cells. That’s right: Ghost Cytometry can sort individual cells without expensive microscopes and time-consuming image processing.

Instead, cells are injected with a little bit of fluorescent dye and shuttled across a strip of lights. These lights cause the cell to fluoresce in a specific pattern. This light signal is captured with a single pixel detector.

The data is then fed directly into a machine learning algorithm, which can quickly distinguish between cell types–like picking out cancerous cells from healthy blood cells.

This process can categorize 10,000 cells per second, a thousandfold improvement over human-supervised processes currently used. If needed, the data can even be unraveled and images reconstructed–but the machine doesn’t need to actually “see” full images of a cell to classify it.

With all these benefits, Ghost Cytometry is a promising new tool for medical and biochemical investigations. How it came about is also a fun story:

“At the beginning of this project, we were a small team of young scientists in a poorly equipped room,” lead author Sadao Ota said in a press release. “Due to our limited resources, we focused on the most efficient way of using information rather than creating better hardware. This led us to the idea of not developing new image-based techniques in a conventional fashion, but instead to transform visual information into a format that allows rapid processing via machine learning.”

Necessity truly is the mother of invention!

Artistic representation of Ghost Cytometry system. Credit: Sacco Fujishima. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Artistic representation of Ghost Cytometry system. Credit: Sacco Fujishima.

Mangroves make methane, partially offsetting positive carbon impact

Mangrove trees, which grow along brackish tropical estuaries, have recently been identified as powerful capturers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere–40 times better than even fast-growing tropical rainforest.

However, new research is showing that certain microorganisms, called archaea, in those mangrove ecosystems create methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (even considering the fact that it stays in the air for only a decade or so, not centuries like CO2).

When the tides go down in mangrove ecosystems, the archaea is exposed to the air and more of the methane it produces can escape into the atmosphere. Scientists report that this methane production offsets mangroves’ carbon reduction capabilities by roughly 20%.

This is a large percentage which needs to be included in greenhouse gas models going forward. Methane–being odorless and colorless–is a notoriously tricky gas to catalog. Just ask Rob Green, a scientist at JPL who has dedicated his career to sniffing out methane:

Woes for CRISPR use in human cells

Two studies out this week cast some doubt on the usage of powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR in human cells.

Both studies honed in on a gene in human cells called p53. This gene is responsible for protecting its cell from cancerous mutations, but it also appears to resist CRISPR editing.

These anticancer defenses had to be turned off in both experiments to achieve CRISPR editing on different kinds of human cells.

This raises the concern that, if a workaround can’t be found, CRISPR could be used in human applications only with a corresponding increased risk of developing cancer. This is having real-life repercussions already: stocks of CRISPR companies took double digit tumbles earlier in the week.

Considering CRISPR has been around for a while, we shall see if it ever makes its way to widespread human use.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your weekend and Miles will be back very soon!

By the way, if you want to get this roundup and other news earlier, sign up for the newsletter:

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Banner image credit: Judith Rosentreter.

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