Secrets in the permafrost

Arctic tundra. Picture from

Everyone knows (at least – everyone who is interested in climate change knows) that as the arctic warms, tons of carbon currently locked away in the permafrost will transform into the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

What no-one knows is exactly how that transition actually occurs. Scientists have been trying to find the links in this chain reaction so they can prevent possibly irreversible global warming following this melting of the permafrost.

As is so often the case, once people start looking in extreme environments they find previously unknown life-forms – this time, microbes. They are part of what scientists are calling Earth’s ‘dark matter’ – the organisms that live in places we have not yet been, such as deep beneath the Earth’s crust, under the ooze of the ocean floors and now in the frozen lands on the Earth’s surface. Just as with the inter-galactic ‘dark matter’ astronomers are so fascinated by, Earth’s dark matter could well out-weigh all the ‘visible’ matter (the plants and animals) we are so familiar with.

Permafrost locks away an estimated 780 – 1400 gigatons of carbon, but researchers aren’t clear how the microbes that lie dormant in the frozen carbon ‘activate’ themselves to take advantage of the thaw.

Studies have now shown that, unsurprisingly, permafrost microbes have lots of proteins for protection against freezing conditions. More surprisingly, however, they also have proteins that indicate they could move through the frozen soil, use iron for energy or live on methane. As the soil thaws, it is these methane-making microbes, or methanogens, that multiply, causing the release of the greenhouse gas.

Cleaning up the oceans

UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Machines that are much smaller than the width of a human hair could help clean up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans.

Nanoengineers have designed tiny tube-shaped micromotors that can zoom around in  water, removing carbon dioxide and converting it to calcium carbonate.

Obviously experiments are at a very early stage, but these micromotors have de-carbonated heavily saturated sea water – taking away 88% of the carbon dioxide within 5 minutes.

The micromotors have the potential to combat ocean acidification, although there is a major drawback at the moment as their construction requires expensive platinum materials. Researchers are now working on developing the next generation of micromotors that can be propelled by sea water, making them more scalable, environmentally friendly and less expensive.

Constructing a sponge

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Sponges (not the one in your bathroom, unless you use a proper loofah) are remarkable animals. Until quite recently we thought they were plants rather than animals – mainly because of their structure and the fact they can regenerate themselves from the smallest part (experimenters have turned a sponge into a sort of soup and it has still managed to regenerate).

Now it turns out they build their skeletons like no other creature, using a building process that looks a lot like the construction of a human building, with spicules providing the architectural supports.

These needle-like forms of silica are produced by one type of cell, then they are moved by transporter cells until they pierce the outer surface of the animal. They are then raised up and their base is cemented in place with collagen matrices to create a pole and beam structure.

So – not only is there a division of labour among the cells to create a production line of spicules, but the end result is something very similar to the steel skeleton of a high-rise construction site.

This is the first known example of collective behaviour by individual cells using non-cellular materials to build a self-organised biological structure – a bit like the collective behaviour of termites building their mound.

Galactic shutdown

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The aptly-named Coma Cluster is one of the largest structures in the universe and is made up of thousands of ‘failed’ galaxies bound together by gravity. This Cluster is about 300 million light years from earth and new research from Australia suggests it could contain up to 100 times more dark matter than visible matter.

Dark matter cannot be seen directly but is thought to make up about 84% of the matter in the universe.

The galaxies in the Coma Cluster are each about the size of our galaxy but they contain only 1% of the stars found in the Milky Way. For some reason, when they fell into the Cluster, the galaxies were ‘quenched’ – that is, they stopped making new stars. Despite being so lacking in stars, these ‘failed’ galaxies still managed to retain their galactic identities and the only explanation for this so far is that they must have had enough dark matter in themselves to protect their visible matter from being ripped apart.

Wind is powering on in Europe

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The EU’s generation of electricity through wind power reached 129 GW, or 8% of its electricity demands.

This may not sound very much, but it is equivalent to the combined annual consumption of Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Ireland.

This percentage is expected to grow to 12% by 2020. At the moment, six countries in the EU – Denmark, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Romania and Germany – generate between 10% and 40% of their electricity from wind.

Globally, wind power installations are increasing massively year on year, with 2014 seeing a 48% increase in turbine capacity compared to 2013. European turbine manufacturers accounted for 78% of the non-China world market and the cost of generating wind energy is continuing to fall, enabling more suppliers to enter the market.

Coral can clean the oceans

A new material that mimics coral could help remove toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic from the world’s oceans.

These heavy metals are finding their way into the oceans through poor controls in manufacturing and industrial processes. Once there, they get absorbed by plants and animals and become more concentrated as they work their way up the food chain, causing damage to all life up to and including humans who rely on fish as their main source of protein.

Even when they are present in low concentrations in the water, they can kill corals as these filter feeders are very efficient at collecting and absorbing heavy metals. Researchers have taken inspiration from this fact and developed coral-like nano-plates using aluminium oxide, which absorb mercury from the water. Traditional flat nano-plates have proved to be 2.5 times less effective at mercury removal than the new, curled-up coral-like versions.

Why do we live on Earth?

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Compared to our nearest neighbours – Mars and Venus – Earth is unbelievably hospitable to life…but why?

What was so special about earth that meant it could evolve life when the planets either side of it so clearly couldn’t?

According to new research it is all down to chance and luck. It seems that Earth’s first crust, which was rich in radioactive heat-generating elements such as uranium and potassium was torn away and lost in space through bombardment by asteroids.

This led, eventually, to the formation of a very differently constituted crust, one that consisted of tectonic plates constantly sliding across the surface. This regular overturning of the surface cools the underlying mantle, maintains the earth’s strong magnetic field and stimulates volcanic activity.

The magnetic field protects the planet from deadly cosmic rays and the erupting volcanoes bring greenhouse gases from deep within the planet to the surface where they help maintain a habitable climate.

If there had been less impact erosion early on, earth could have evolved like Venus, whose catastrophic swings in seismic activity have driven billion-year-long swings in climate, offering no opportunities for life to evolve.

Money: From Barter to online Banking


This is my latest book – it is available from all the usual e-retailers …..

I think the title says it all but basically it follows the development of money from the earliest days when we bartered our surpluses to the world we live in today when most of our money is never more than numbers on a computer screen.

It looks at the way societies evolved the sort of money they needed and how, in return, having that sort of money changed the society ….

It’s an easy read for the non-specialist reader, full of interesting facts (do you know why all our shops have counters? You will once you read this book)

if you go to my publications page, you will find links to the main e-retailers ….

How to save a coral reef – add more fish

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According to scientists in Australia, fish are the key ingredients in a new recipe aimed at restoring degraded coral reef ecosystems.

Having analysed over 800 reefs worldwide, some only slightly fished and others seriously over-fished, it seems that there are key fish species which, once returned to their optimum numbers, provide a kick-start to full restoration of the reef.

Having the right fish in the right numbers also seems to give the reefs greater resilience to large-scale threats such as climate change.

At the moment it is estimated that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened and more than 20% have disappeared completely since the acceleration in climate and fishing disturbances over the last 30 years.

Since only 27% of the world’s reefs lie within marine protected areas, the importance of getting (and keeping) fish stocks to the optimum level for sustainability is vital if this essential piece of the marine ecosystem is to survive.

This new research has found that the key fish species needed to bring degraded reefs back into health are, funnily enough, the very fish that browse and graze the reef, as well as planktivores.

Not that improvement would happen overnight – a moderately fished reef would take about 35 years to recover, while a very depleted ecosystem could take nearly 60 years.

This algae is really taking off

Image result for isochrysis algae

A common algae that is already grown commercially to make fish food is looking like it may be far more valuable to us than that. Never mind keeping our finny friends happy, this particular type of blobby green may also be a source of both biodiesel and even jet fuel.

It’s all to do with an algael fat called alkenone, a compound consisting of long chains of carbon atoms, which researchers believe could be a potential fuel source.

Up to now, biofuel prospectors had dismissed this algae – known as Isochrysis – because its oil is a dark, sludgy solid at room temperature rather than a more useful clear fluid. However it is the sludge that makes this algae so special as it is caused by the alkenones and is the reason the algae could be a unique source of both fuels.

Researchers have now managed to separate out the alkenones from the other fats in the algae to create a free-flowing bio-fuel. They have also, thanks to inventing a Nobel Prize-winning chemical reaction, managed to break the alkenones’  37-39 atom carbon chains into smaller pieces of between 8 and 13 carbons. Whilst 37 carbon atom chains are too big to be used as jet fuel, the smaller sections turn out to be just right.