The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include a proposed solution to tackle water poverty, transmissible Alzheimer’s and the possibility of self-cloning rice.
By Ishan Costello
Yet another proposed technological solution to water poverty
Nearly one quarter of the Earth’s human inhabitants lack access to safe drinking water. This number is only expected to increase; not only because water withdrawal has outpaced even our high population growth since 1940, but because the effects of global warming are taking effect on the planet’s delicately balanced water cycles. This manifests in the form of shrinking freshwater stores, and an increasing frequency of droughts and floods.
Though fighting climate change itself is the most essential task ahead of us in terms of battling this crisis sustainably, many research groups have long been developing methods for obtaining freshwater from dirty or salinated sources to combat water poverty. One relatively low-cost method involves using the thermal radiation from a solar-heated blackbody to heat water to its boiling point and condensing the vapour into pure water. Though variants on this technology have existed for a while, previous incarnations involved a blackbody ‘lid’ floating atop a dirty water source, with the heat transferred to the water through conduction, and the vapour escaping through pores in the lid to be collected. A major shortcoming of this technology is that the dirt and minerals in the water foul the lid, degrading its ability to absorb sunlight over time.
The powerfully simple solution to this issue in the latest version of the method comes from the light-absorbing lid’s being suspended above the water, instead of floating atop it, meaning that the water is heated by the blackbody’s radiative thermal emissions, as opposed to through conduction. Additionally, because the radiation given off by the solar-heated lid only penetrates 100µm into the water, it heats much more efficiently – producing steam of temperatures up to 133˚C and allowing for further applications, including autoclaving, sterilisation, and even cooking.
Click here to read more about this interesting finding!
Between 1958 and 1985, roughly 30,000 children with genetic disorders and growth deficiencies around the world were treated with injections of human growth hormone obtained from human corpses. Of the 1,000 or so UK-born children, four died with unusually high levels of amyloid-beta (Aβ) in their brains, a protein which forms the neuronal plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
New research found traces of Aβ in the vials from which those injections were administered, indicating the possibility that Aβ can be ‘seeded’ intravenously, though this research alone merely confirmed a correlation between the injections and the growth of Aβ in the brain. Experimental investigation of this possibility at UCL found that injections of Aβ-contaminated growth hormone into mice – which have been genetically engineered to produce Aβ – develop clumps of the protein in their brains, whereas brain injections of synthetic growth hormone do not.
It should be noted that though the research indicated that Aβ can seed in brains under the right conditions, it doesn’t mean that the disease is transmissible in ordinary circumstances.
I for one, welcome our new whole-grain overlords
Research using CRISPR-Cas9, the gene editing technology both praised and feared for its affordability and ease of use, has produced yet another bizarre but potentially tremendously productive genetic anomaly. In this case, the species involved is Oryza sativa – rice. Ectopic (i.e. out of place) expression of the BABY BOOM1 (BBM1) transcription in rice egg cells is sufficient for parthenogenesis (unfertilised reproduction from an ovum), indicating that a single gene can bypass the fertilisation checkpoint in female gametes.
Ordinarily, this is impossible, due to BBM1’s expression being naturally specific to the male allele. However, the CRISPR technology was used to 1) substitute the gamete division protocol, meiosis, for mitotic division in rice, and 2) force the expression of BBM1 in the egg cell. This results in rice that can reproduce asexually – in other words, it can clone itself. The trait is heritable through multiple generations of clones, and the technology could be used to increase the yield of rice crops.