Fresh from the lab

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The fight against air pollution has shown impressive results over the past 40 years, yet small airborne particles still kill.

Air pollution

Annual years of life lost per 1,000 inhabitants through exposure to airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns (data from 2012) researchers, the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution has dropped by 80,000 a year thanks to new laws, policies and technologies implemented since 1970. Still, in 2012 alone an estimated 430,000 people died prematurely due to fine-particle pollution. This map of Europe displays the years of life lost (YLL) per 1,000 inhabitants attributable to long-term exposure to PM2.5 – airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns, or about 1/20 the diameter of a human hair. This estimate is more nuanced because it takes into account the age at which the person died, giving greater weight to younger deaths.

Sources: Air quality in Europe, European Environment Agency, 2015. 

View also our first infographic “Small particles, big problems” ▼

Mining blue gold

► RIGHT APPROACH, WRONG RESULT

European clean air policies may be contributing to Arctic warming as sulphate particles are reduced.

Climate change and global warming are consequences of extremely complex interactions between human activities, atmospheric reactions and meteorological phenomena. Surprisingly, new research reveals that successful European efforts to reduce air pollution levels since 1980 can explain a significant portion of Arctic warming over that period. This is due to a reduction in the emission of sulphate particles, which in contrast to soot particles and greenhouse gases, reflect solar radiation and act as a cooling shield for the planet. This phenomenon hits the Arctic especially hard and may explain why this region is warming considerably faster than the rest of the globe.

Stockholm University, SE Linköping University, SE Norwegian Meteorological Institute, NO


► WIND AND SOLAR SAVE WATER

Energy source types and power plant cooling technologies greatly impact water resources.

The energy sector accounts for some 15% of global water use – mainly for cooling. As demand increases, the availability of water for agricultural or domestic use is threatened. A new Austrian-led study modelled different scenarios and found that adaptation in power-plant cooling technology could considerably reduce a potential shortage of fresh water. The scientists recommend a scale-up in energy from such renewable sources as solar and wind, which require much less water.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, AT Graz University of Technology, AT Wageningen University, NL University of Victoria, CA


YOU ARE WHAT YOUR PARENTS ATE

People may be genetically predisposed to obesity and diabetes.

Genetic material is not static: the body can modify it to better meet its needs. Such epigenetic modifications are then inherited by the next generation. German researchers have shown that eggs and sperm from mice fed a high-fat diet contained genetic modifications that led to obesity and diabetes. Offspring born through in vitro fertilization with these germ cells were more susceptible to becoming overweight and diabetic than those from lean egg and sperm donors. This inheritance may be contributing to the current obesity and diabetes problem.

Helmholtz Zentrum München, DE Technical University of Munich, DE


► LSD FOR MENTAL ILLNESS

Changes in brain activity correlate strongly with the drug’s characteristic psychological effects.

The psychedelic drug LSD is known to alter consciousness; now its effects on the brain have been visualised with functional magnetic resonance imaging. The 20 test subjects showed a marked increase in brain activity in the primary visual cortex and in its connectivity with other areas of the brain, which explain the drug’s hallucinogenic effects. The researchers hope to shed light on the biological phenomenon of consciousness and pave the way for LSD’s application in the treatment of mental illness.

Imperial College London, UK + other universities in: UK, DE, NZ, BR, US, CA


► VEGGIES ON MARS

Matt Damon’s survival technique may have some merit.

In the blockbuster movie The Martian, Matt Damon survives by cultivating potatoes on the Red Planet. Whether extra-terrestrial farming is viable remains an open question, but Dutch researchers have shown that crops could indeed grow on Mars. They used soil simulants that mimic Mars and moon soil from volcanic and desert areas. They harvested 10 crops – including tomatoes, rye and peas – which performed almost as well as on nutrient-poor terrestrial soil. Future experiments will assess issues related to safety of the food, which could contain toxic components from the soil.

Wageningen University, nl


► LIGHTING UP WITH URINE

Bacteria break down organic matter to produce electricity.

Those with restricted access to electricity could someday benefit from the use of microbial fuel cells. British scientists have improved a system that harvests electricity produced by bacteria that break down organic matter in the form of urine. They were able to overcome previous limitations by substituting expensive platinum cathodes with cheaper carbon cloth and titanium wire. The previously low output was greatly increased with the use of egg white protein as a catalyst and with shorter electrodes.

University of Bath, UK Queen Mary University of London, UK University of the West of England, UK


► TALL MEN EARN MORE

Fat women and short guys can blame their genes.

A study investigating genetic data from 120,000 Britons found a strong link between income and height in men or low weight in women. Men who are 6.7 cm shorter than their counterparts can expect to earn €167 less per month. In women, height is less important than weight: with an additional 13.6 kg – determined purely by genetics – monthly pay checks drop by as much as €311. The results suggest that short men and overweight women face discrimination on the labour market, or possibly that poor self-esteem leads to lower income.

Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, UK University of Exeter Medical School, UK Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, US


► STEM CELLS TO RESTORE VISION

They could replace the need for corneal grafts.

Blindness-causing diseases of the retina and cornea have been treated with stem cells in a few select trials. While previous efforts were restricted to stem cells regenerating a single diseased tissue type, scientists could potentially regenerate an entire patient’s eye. Researchers injected human stem cells into the eyes of blind rabbits, restoring their vision. The cells regenerated all the tissues in the front of the eye, including the cornea, lens and conjunctiva.

Cardiff University, UK Osaka University, JP

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