Scientists convert plastic waste into vanilla flavoring

In the future, your vanilla ice cream may be made from plastic bottles. Scientists have figured out a way to convert plastic waste into vanilla flavoring with genetically engineered bacteria, according to a new study.

Vanillin, the compound that carries most of the smell and taste of vanilla, can be extracted naturally from vanilla beans or made synthetically. About 85% of vanillin is currently made from chemicals taken from fossil fuels, according to The Guardian

Vanillin is found in a wide variety of food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, cleaning and herbicide products, and the demand is “growing rapidly,” the authors wrote in the study. In 2018, the global demand for vanillin was about 40,800 tons (37,000 metric tons), and it’s expected to grow to 65,000 tons (59,000 metric tons) by 2025, according to the study, published June 10 in the journal Green Chemistry.

The demand for vanillin “far exceeds” the vanilla bean supply, so scientists have resorted to synthetically producing vanillin. For the new study, researchers used a novel method to convert plastic waste into vanillin, as a way to both supply vanillin and reduce plastic pollution.

Previous studies showed how to break down plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate into its basic subunit, known as terephthalic acid. In the new study, two researchers at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to convert terephthalic acid into vanillin.  Terephthalic acid and vanillin have very similar chemical compositions and the engineered bacteria only needs to make minor changes to the number of hydrogens and oxygens that are bonded to the same carbon backbone. 

The researchers mingled their genetically engineered bacteria with terephthalic acid and kept them at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degree Celsius) for a day, according to The Guardian. About 79% of the terephthalic acid subsequently converted into vanillin. 

The global plastic waste crisis is now recognized as one of the most pressing environmental issues facing our planet,” the authors wrote in the study. About 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world, and only 14% are recycled, according to The Guardian. Those that are recycled can only be turned into fibers for clothing or carpets. 

“Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be made,” co-author Stephen Wallace, a senior lecturer in biotechnology at The University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian.

Now, the study authors hope to further improve the bacteria to be able to convert even more terephthalic acid into vanillin.

Read more about this technology in The Guardian.

Originally published on Live Science.

NASA’s Webb to Study How Massive Stars’ Blasts of Radiation Influence Their Environments

In a nearby stellar nursery called the Orion Nebula, young, massive stars are blasting far-ultraviolet light at the cloud of dust and gas from which they were born.

This intense flood of radiation is violently disrupting the cloud by breaking apart molecules, ionizing atoms and molecules by stripping their electrons, and heating the gas and dust.

“The fact that massive stars shape the structure of galaxies through their explosions as supernovas has been known for a long time. But what people have discovered more recently is that massive stars also influence their environments not only as supernovas, but through their winds and radiation during their lives,” said one of the team’s principal investigators, Olivier Berné, a research scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Toulouse.

While it might sound like a Friday-night watering hole, the Orion Bar is actually a ridge-like feature of gas and dust within the spectacular Orion Nebula. A little more than 1,300 light-years away, this nebula is the nearest region of massive star formation to the Sun. The Orion Bar is sculpted by the intense radiation from nearby, hot, young stars, and at first glance appears to be shaped like a bar. It is a “photodissociation region,” or PDR, where ultraviolet light from young, massive stars creates a mostly neutral, but warm, area of gas and dust between the fully ionized gas surrounding the massive stars and the clouds in which they are born. This ultraviolet radiation strongly influences the gas chemistry of these regions and acts as the most important source of heat.

PDRs occur where interstellar gas is dense and cold enough to remain neutral, but not dense enough to prevent the penetration of far-ultraviolet light from massive stars. Emissions from these regions provide a unique tool to study the physical and chemical processes that are important for most of the mass between and around stars. The processes of radiation and cloud disruption drive the evolution of interstellar matter in our galaxy and throughout the universe from the early era of vigorous star formation to the present day.

“The Orion Bar is probably the prototype of a PDR,” explained Els Peeters, another of the team’s principal investigators. Peeters is a professor at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the SETI Institute. “It’s been studied extensively, so it’s well characterized. It’s very close by, and it’s really seen edge on. That means you can probe the different transition regions. And since it’s close by, this transition from one region to another is spatially distinct if you have a telescope with high spatial resolution.” 

The Orion Bar is representative of what scientists think were the harsh physical conditions of PDRs in the universe billions of years ago. “We believe that at this time, you had ‘Orion Nebulas’ everywhere in the universe, in many galaxies,” said Berné. “We think that it can be representative of the physical conditions in terms of the ultraviolet radiation field in what are called ‘starburst galaxies,’ which dominate the era of star formation, when the universe was about half its current age.” 

The formation of planetary systems in interstellar regions irradiated by massive young stars remains an open question. Detailed observations would allow astronomers to understand the impact of the ultraviolet radiation on the mass and composition of newly formed stars and planets.

In particular, studies of meteorites suggest that the solar system formed in a region similar to the Orion Nebula. Observing the Orion Bar is a way to understand our past. It serves as a model to learn about the very early stages of the formation of the solar system.

Humans Could Develop a Sixth Sense, Scientists Say

Scientists in Japan recently demonstrated this feat in the lab, proving humans can use echolocation—or the ability to locate objects through sound—to identify the shape and rotation of various objects. That could help us stealthily “see” in the dark, whether we’re sneaking downstairs for a midnight snack or heading into combat.

As bats swoop around objects, they send out high-pitched sound waves from distinct angles that bounce back at different time intervals. This helps the tiny mammals learn more about the geometry, texture, or movement of an object.

If humans could similarly recognize these time-varying acoustic patterns, it could quite literally expand how we see the world, says Miwa Sumiya, Ph.D., the first author of the new study, which appears in Plos One.

“Examining how humans can acquire new sensing abilities to recognize environments using sounds [i.e., echolocation] may lead to the understanding of the flexibility of human brains,” Sumiya, a researcher at the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Osaka, Japan, tells Pop Mech. “We may also be able to gain insights into sensing strategies of other species [like bats] by comparing with knowledge gained in studies on human echolocation.”

Dolphins also use echolocation to identify and hunt down fish.

To test this theory out, Sumiya’s team created an elaborate setup. In one room, the researchers gave participants a pair of headphones and two different tablets—one to generate their synthetic echolocation signal, and the other to listen to the recorded echoes. In a second room (not visible to participants), two oddly shaped, 3D cylinders would either rotate or stand still.

When prompted, the 15 participants initiated their echolocation signals through the tablet. Their sound waves released in pulses, traveled into the second room, and hit the 3D cylinders.

It took a bit of creativity to transform the sound waves back into something the human participants could recognize. “The synthetic echolocation signal used in this study included high-frequency signals up to 41 kHz that humans cannot listen to,” Sumiya explains.

Story published courtesy of Popular Mechanics

By Sarah Wells

Energy Unleashed by Volcanic Eruptions Deep in Our Oceans Could Power All of the United States

Eruptions from deep-sea volcanoes were long-thought to be relatively uninteresting compared with those on land. While terrestrial volcanoes often produce spectacular eruptions, dispersing volcanic ash into the environment, it was thought that deep marine eruptions only produced slow moving lava flows.

But data gathered by remotely operated vehicles deep in the North East Pacific and analyzed by scientists at the University of Leeds, has revealed a link between the way ash is dispersed during submarine eruptions and the creation of large and powerful columns of heated water rising from the ocean floor, known as megaplumes.

These megaplumes contain hot chemical-rich water and act in the same way as the atmospheric plumes seen from land-based volcanoes, spreading first upwards and then outwards, carrying volcanic ash with them. The size of megaplumes is immense, with the volumes of water equivalent to forty million Olympic-sized swimming pools. They have been detected above various submarine volcanoes but their origin has remained unknown. The results of this new research show that they form rapidly during the eruption of lava.

The research was carried out by Sam Pegler, from the School of Mathematics and David Ferguson, from the School of Earth and Environment and is being published today (April 21, 2021) in the journal Nature Communications.

Together they developed a mathematical model which shows how ash from these submarine eruptions spreads several kilometers from the volcano. They used the ash pattern deposited by a historic submarine eruption to reconstruct its dynamics. This showed that the rate of energy released and required to carry ash to the observed distances is extremely high — equivalent to the power used by the whole of the USA.

David Ferguson said: “The majority of Earth’s volcanic activity occurs underwater, mostly at depths of several kilometers in the deep ocean but, in contrast to terrestrial volcanoes, even detecting that an eruption has occurred on the seafloor is extremely challenging. Consequently, there remains much for scientists to learn about submarine volcanism and its effects on the marine environment.”

The research shows that submarine eruptions cause megaplumes to form but the release of energy is so rapid that it cannot be supplied from the erupted molten lava alone. Instead, the research concludes that submarine volcanic eruptions lead to the rapid emptying of reservoirs of hot fluids within the earth’s crust. As the magma forces its way upwards towards the seafloor, it drives this hot fluid with it.

Story credit: University of Leeds

NIH scientists develop breath test for methylmalonic acidemia

Researchers also used the test to assess the severity of the disease in people and help determine if they would benefit from surgical or experimental genomic therapies that target the liver. The study results were published in Genetics in Medicine. Scientists at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) led the project team, with collaborators from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Institute of Mental Health.

MMA is a rare genomic disease that impairs the body’s ability to metabolize certain proteins and fats. This causes toxic substances to build up, which may result in kidney disease, pancreatitis, movement disorders, intellectual impairments, complications in many organs, and, in severe cases, death. One in 80,000 children born in the United States are diagnosed with MMA during newborn screenings. Currently, MMA is incurable, but people with MMA manage their symptoms through dietary restrictions and vitamin supplements. In extreme cases, patients receive liver or combined liver and kidney transplants, which help restore normal levels of metabolic proteins.

“Vast fluctuations in metabolic substances in the bodies of patients make it difficult for us to tell if treatments like genome editing and transplants are likely to be successful,” said Charles P. Venditti, M.D., Ph.D., senior author and senior investigator in the NHGRI Medical Genomics and Metabolic Genetics Branch. “Instead of looking at levels, we decided to measure metabolism itself.”

One form of MMA is caused by mutations in the methylmalonyl-CoA mutase gene (MMUT), which encodes for the MMUT protein. People with this form of MMA have a deficiency in the MMUT protein, which plays a pivotal part in metabolism. The protein is involved in the biological steps that help break down food, fats, cholesterol and amino acids.

MMUT helps break down food into a chemical byproduct called propionate, which is followed by an integral process involved in metabolism called oxidation. Through oxidation, a healthy body converts propionate into energy and carbon dioxide, which is exhaled, but that process is faulty for people with MMA.

Because MMUT protein function is compromised in people with MMA, Venditti and his team chose to assess how well the MMUT protein helped break down propionate in both patients who did and not did not receive treatment. The researchers believed this would act as a proxy for how much oxidation was happening in a patient’s body.

“We wanted to measure exhaled carbon dioxide because we planned to use a breath test to track oxidation of propionate in a non-invasive way,” said Irini Manoli, M.D., Ph.D., co-author and associate investigator in the NHGRI Medical Genomics and Metabolic Genetics Branch. “The trick was to somehow ‘mark’ the carbon dioxide so we could see which patients are unable to oxidize propionate because of a faulty MMUT protein.”

Usually, the carbon dioxide we exhale as a result of propionate breaking down in the body contains a lighter, more common form of carbon, carbon 12. But because carbon dioxide that contains carbon 12 is released by several metabolic processes in the human body, simply measuring carbon dioxide exhaled by MMA patients would not show how well MMUT helped oxidize propionate.

Researchers can now collect and sequence DNA from the air

It could spook some people but the future of DNA sequencing is taking mankind to the air with DNA found to be everywhere. For the first time, researchers have collected animal DNA from mere air samples, according to a new study. 

The DNA that living things, human and otherwise, shed into the environment is called environmental DNA (eDNA). Collecting eDNA from water to learn about the species living there has become fairly common, but until now, no one had attempted to collect animal eDNA from the air. 

“What we wanted to know was whether we could filter eDNA from the air to track the presence of terrestrial animals,” study author Elizabeth Clare, an ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, said in a video abstract for the study, published Mar. 31 in the journal PeerJ. “We were interested in whether we could use this ‘airDNA’ as a way to assess what species were present in a burrow or a cave where we could not easily see or capture them,” she added.

As a proof-of-concept experiment, Clare and her colleagues tried collecting DNA from the air in an animal facility housing a model organism, the naked mole rat. The researchers detected both human and mole rat DNA in air from both the mole rat enclosures and the room where the enclosures are housed.  

“The demonstration that the DNA from relatively large animals can also be detected in air samples dramatically expands the potential for airborne eDNA analysis,” said Matthew Barnes, an ecologist at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, who was not involved in the new study. 

In the last decade, the collection and analysis of eDNA to study and manage plant and animal populations has taken off, Barnes said. “The analogy that I use is like the detective at the crime scene, finding a cigarette butt and swabbing it for DNA to place the criminal at the crime scene. We do that with eDNA except for instead of looking for criminals, we’re looking for a rare or elusive species,” Barnes said. The species might be endangered or an invasive species new to an environment, he said. 

Prior to this study, some researchers had collected plant DNA from the air, but most of those experiments involved plants that were “expected to intentionally release plumes of DNA into the air in the form of pollen and dispersing seeds,” Barnes said. Animals, on the other hand, don’t do that. “We had no idea if this would work,” Clare told Live Science.

But while animals don’t shoot pollen spores into the air, they do shed DNA in the forms of saliva and dead skin cells, for example. To see if animal eDNA from these sources could be collected, Clare and her colleagues vacuumed air from an enclosure of naked mole rats and from the room housing the enclosures through filters similar to the HEPA filters commonly found in heating and ventilation systems. The researchers then extracted DNA from the filters and sequenced it. To identify the species the DNA came from, the researchers compared the sequences to reference sequences in a database. 

The finding of human DNA within the animal enclosure at first surprised the researchers, Clare told Live Science. However, given that humans care for the mole rats, it made sense in retrospect, Clare said.

The presence of human DNA in nearly every sample from the study is “a major hurdle,” Barnes said. On one hand, it encouragingly shows that the detection method is sensitive, Barnes said. But “this could also suggest that airborne samples are particularly easy to contaminate with DNA from the research team, especially when mammals are the target of analysis,” he added. 

To avoid such contamination, researchers might have to use clean room techniques — think air filters, gowns and hair nets — to avoid adding their DNA to the environments they’re studying or to DNA samples they’re working with, he said.

Thermo Fisher Scientific to Invest $600 Million in Bioprocessing Production, Create 1,500 New Jobs

One of the top providers of scientific instrumentation, reagents and consumables, software, and services — announced March 10 that it is making a major investment to expand its bioprocessing production capabilities.

The Waltham, Massachusetts-based company plans to invest $600 million to more than double its current production capacity by 2022 in a move that will support biopharma customers. It’s expected to create more than 1,500 new jobs across the company’s 11 manufacturing sites in North America, Europe, and Asia. 

Thermo Fisher Scientific noted the customers the investment supports are ramping up their own immediate production activity related to COVID-19, along with long-term efforts to develop new vaccines and biologics to treat other conditions.

The company said specific investments will include single-use technologies expansions, purification expansions, and cell culture media and process liquid expansions.

In a press release announcing the investment, Thermo Fisher Scientific executive vice president Michel Lagarde said single-use technologies, cell culture media, and purification resins are among the critical materials highest in demand amid the growing bioprocessing market. Besides expanding capacity, the company’s investment will reduce regional redundancy.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has annual revenue of approximately $330 billion and has more than 80,000 employees.

Story and Image Credit: Thermo Fisher Scientific