A team of engineers has developed a group of tiny bio-hybrid machines that can swim like sperm to move through biological fluids on their own.
These bio-bots are modelled on single-celled creatures with long tails, or flagella, and are a combination of a flexible polymer body and a series of heart cells. These muscle cells, when cultured near the junction of the polymer head and tail, self-align and synchronise their beating, sending a wave down the tail, which moves the bio-bot forwards.
Quite how these heart cells communicate with each other is still a mystery, but they must be doing so otherwise the beats wouldn’t become synchronised and the tail wouldn’t move.
The team have also built a two-tailed bot which moves even faster and are daring to dream of self-navigating future bots that react to chemicals or light, opening opportunities for medical or environmental applications.
An unexpected side-effect of the European Union’s policy on bio-fuels (basically, let’s have lots of it) is that we need even more wild pollinators like bees and hoverflies – and there just aren’t enough to go round.
It seems that demand across Europe for pollination services has risen five times faster than the number of bee colonies. Countries like the UK, France, Germany and Italy just don’t have enough honeybees to do the job. In fact, the UK is almost the worst off, with less than 25% of the honeybee colonies it needs. Only the Republic of Moldovia is worse off and it is both the poorest country in Europe and the one most reliant on agriculture for its income.
Taking Europe as a whole, it is estimated there is a deficit of a staggering 13.6 million colonies.
Of course, honeybees are needed for more than just bio-fuel crops. Their value to the agricultural industry in general is put at nearly £9 billion a year, with farmers using placed hives for more than 100 different fruit and vegetable crops.
If you have the space and the inclination to help plug the gap and give yourself (and the rest of us) greater food security, go to the British Beekeepers Association website (www.bbka.org.uk) and find out how.
Caterpillars lose their appetite if the weather is too hot or too cold, but can put on up to 20% of their body weight in an hour if the temperature is just right.
Their chances of survival depend totally on this ability to eat voraciously, grow rapidly and quickly become a butterfly so climate change could be disastrous for them.
However all is not gloom and doom as two butterfly species in Colorado and California have managed to evolve fast enough to feed rapidly at higher temperatures than their great-great-great-grandparents of 40 years ago.
The two types of Sulphur butterfly have evolved slightly differently – one eating faster just at higher temperatures, the other eating faster at both high and low temperatures – but both are better equipped to cope with a hotter, more variable climate than their recent ancestors.
Of course, these are only two out of thousands of species of butterfly so it would be stupid to assume every caterpillar is managing to adapt as quickly, but maybe creatures with such a supercharged metabolism have a head start?
This is the tenth year camera manufacturer Olympus has sponsored a ‘light microscope photography contest’ and here are some of the stunning entrants:
First place went to this Humped Bladderwort trap entrance, showing the open trap of the aquatic carnivorous plant with many smaller microscopic plants inside.
I’d like to introduce you to Desmidiales, which is a type of green algae and this photograph shows ‘a mandala made of Desmids’.
Last but far from least is a section through a lily flower bud.
Amazing aren’t they?
Around 35 million years ago (give or take a million or two) a massive meteor blasted into the floor of a shallow ocean and created a 56-mile wide crater, now known as Chesapeake Bay in North America.
Apart from all the usual surface damage such an event would cause, devastating the local ecosystem, it also created havoc below ground. Aquifers were seriously deformed and pockets of saltwater-bearing rocks left stranded, trapped behind the walls of the impact crater. The state of Virginia has a well-known “inland saltwater wedge” whose boundary with fresh groundwater appears to coincide with the outer rim of this ancient crater.
Now even more salty groundwater has been found, over half a mile below the waters in the Bay and at 100 – 145 million years old, it is the oldest sizeable body of seawater so far discovered on the planet.
Interestingly, this ancient pool of seawater is twice as salty as modern sea water, but it is too soon to speculate why.
What with the weather and the price of heating, solar or PV panels are looking increasingly attractive but they have two major drawbacks.
For a start, they are very shiny and so reflect a lot of sunlight straight back into the sky and secondly, they are a devil to try and keep clean (unless you own enough land to be able to have them at ground level).
However, help may be at hand, from the miraculous and astonishing nano-technology. Scientists suggest it may be possible to add a nanoscopic relief pattern to the cells’ surface. This would give us the triple whammy of making them non-reflective (significantly improving their efficiency), non-stick and self-cleaning.
The “features” of the nano-pattern on the cells are so small that individual bits of it are shorter than the wavelength of light, trapping sunlight and ensuring more of its energy is spent in electricity generation.
The pattern also makes the surface of the cell behave like a lotus leaf, which is very water repellent, so not only will it offer droplets no grippable surface, but cleansing rain will also run off, leaving the panel clean and dry.
A new material – Stanene – could be the world’s first to conduct electricity with 100% efficiency at the everyday temperatures enjoyed by us and our computer chips rather than the unearthly deep-freeze of nearly absolute zero.
Named partly from the Latin for tin – stannum – it consists of just a single layer of tin atoms and has the potential to take energy efficiency to a whole new level.
Scientists have spent the last ten years studying an amazing class of materials known as topological insulators which only conduct electricity on their surfaces and edges, rather than through their middles. Reducing a topological insulator to the point where it is only one atom thick gives it the extraordinary property of being able to conduct electricity with absolute efficiency, unlike every other material we know of which loses a chunk of the initial energy in the process of transfer.
There are a number of topological insulators around, but only Stanene is a perfect conductor at room temperature, giving it the most commercial potential.
Rare Earth Elements (the clue is in the name) are in short supply and we need more and more of them to build all sorts of things, from hybrid car batteries to flat-screen TVs.
Global demand for Rare Earth Elements (REEs for short) is expected to top 185,000 tons by 2015 and although some are actually quite plentiful, others live up to their name and are in short supply.
Scientists have been trying to recycle REEs from industrial waste water but up until now haven’t been able to find a way to do it that wasn’t hopelessly expensive and impractical.
Now though, it seems help is at hand…..a nanomaterial known as nano-magnesium hydroxide which has already proved its usefulness by removing some metals and dyes from waste-water, captured over 85% of REEs experimentally diluted in water.
This handy material, that looks like a flower under a high-powered microscope, offers us the triple whammy of saving REEs, protecting the environment and, since it will reduce our need to import REEs from abroad, it will also bring economic benefits.
Never mind planets that manage very nicely thank you without a star (see last post), scientists have now found others that are happily orbiting their personal sun so closely that according to all the physics we currently know, they shouldn’t exist either……
One in particular is Earth-sized and has an Earth-like density so is likely to be made of pretty similar material but it is just a bubbling ball of molten lava, circling its star in less than 9 hours in one of the tightest planetary orbits yet seen.
The problem, as far as scientists are concerned, is that current theories of planet formation can’t explain how it could either have formed so close to its star, or how it could have formed elsewhere and moved inwards. Not only that, but when this planetary system was forming, the star would have been bigger, so actually the planet’s present orbit would have been inside the star itself…..
Curiouser and curiouser……..So, it couldn’t have formed where it is as you can’t (as far as we understand things) create a planet inside a star, but neither could it have developed further out and moved inwards as there is no mechanism (that we know of) that would have stopped it going all the way in and being destroyed.
However it seems that the trick, whatever it is, is quite common as there is a whole new class of planets being discovered, all of whom are Earth-sized and all orbit their particular stars in less than 12 hours. Not that any of them can look forward to a long life, in astronomical terms, as gravitational tides will eventually move them so close to their star that its gravity will rip them apart.
Perhaps all Sol-type stars have such planets? Perhaps there used to be something similar running around inside Mercury’s orbit long ago?
We all know what planets are – whether they are small and rocky like the Earth or large and gaseous like Neptune, the one thing they have in common is that they orbit a star.
They formed, we believe, from accumulations of matter that slowly coalesced into planetary bodies of varying size and density and they are held by gravity in an endless orbit around their particular star.
Eventually the star dies and either consumes its planets in a massive supernova or, if it isn’t big enough to go out with such a bang, it collapses into a small dead star that carries on travelling through space surrounded by small dead planets.
However all these assumptions are going to have to be re-thought as some astronomers have now discovered a free-floating planet, unattached to any star whatsoever.
The things they know about it include the fact that It is only 80 light years from the Earth, has a mass six times that of Jupiter and apparently was formed very recently – just 12 million years ago. The things they don’t know include how and where it was formed and why it has ended up all on its lonely ownsome….