Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.
MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO 2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.
Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cow farts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.
But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.
Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2.
The device may make it easier to quickly test newborns and could open the door to at-home monitoring.
IN THE MIDDLE Ages, a grim adage sometimes turned up in European folklore and children’s stories: Woe to that child which when kissed on the forehead tastes salty. He is bewitched and soon must die. A salty-headed newborn was a frightful sign of a mysterious illness. The witchcraft diagnosis didn’t hold, of course, but today researchers think that the salty taste warned of the genetic disease we now know as cystic fibrosis.
Take a minute to think about what you’re wearing right now. Not the colors or cuts of fabric you grabbed out of your closet this morning—but the textiles your clothes are made of.
Before your clothes became clothes, they were raw resources that were collected, processed, woven into textiles, then cut and sewn into the garments on your back. And their life cycle doesn’t end there. Nearly 90% of clothing takes an inevitable trip from closet to landfill. The problem is that although this process provides short-term convenience for customers and the fashion industry, in the long run, it’s not sustainable. Making and transporting clothes consumes raw materials and, at every step in the process, emits greenhouse gases.
Their inner ears turn wonky when they grow up in carbon-rich water, which could keep juveniles from finding their way to the reefs. That could mean trouble.
AN IMMOBILIZED FISH lay between Craig Radford’s fingers. The several-week-old Australasian snapper, no longer than a pinkie nail, rested flat on a slab of modeling clay, held down by small staples—“as someone would strap you down on an ambulance bed to hold you there,” says Radford. He stuck tiny electrodes on the fish’s head, then submerged it in a tank and switched on an underwater speaker. It was time to test its hearing.
“If you actually put your head underwater and take the time to listen, it’s amazing what you’ll hear,” Radford says. “From whales to fish to crustaceans—sound plays an important role in many, many different species’ life strategies.”
But Radford’s experiment wasn’t due to curiosity about what the world sounds like to fish. He was worried about how well they could hear it.
Cosmic radio backlights are helping scientists size up “missing” forms of matter and might offer clues about what makes up the universe.
AT FIRST, YUANMING Wang was not excited. More relieved, maybe. The first -year astrophysics PhD student at the University of Sydney sat in front of her computer, looking at images in which she’d found the signs of radio waves from distant galaxies twinkling, just as she had hoped. But because Wang’s discovery relied more on scouring ones and zeros than peering through a telescope—and the discovery itself was just plain weird—it took awhile for the moment to hit.
One day a “magic carpet” based on this light-induced flow technology could carry climate sensors high in the atmosphere—wind permitting.
IN THE BASEMENT of a University of Pennsylvania engineering building, Mohsen Azadi and his labmates huddled around a set of blinding LEDs set beneath an acrylic vacuum chamber. They stared at the lights, their cameras, and what they hoped would soon be some action from the two tiny plastic plates sitting inside the enclosure. “We didn’t know what we were expecting to see,” says Azadi, a mechanical engineering PhD candidate. “But we hoped to see something.”
Let’s put it this way: They wanted to see if those plates would levitate, lofted solely by the power of light.
This glowing microneedle test could catalyze a transition from blood-based diagnostics to a stick-on patch.
A RIVER OF biological information flows just beneath the outermost layers of your skin, in which a hodgepodge of proteins squeeze past each other through the interstitial fluid surrounding your cells. This “interstitium” is an expansive and structured space, making it, to some, a newfound “organ.” But its wealth of biomarkers for conditions like tuberculosis, heart attacks, and cancer has attracted growing attention from researchers looking to upend reliance on diagnostic tools they say are inefficient, invasive, and blood-centric.
In a clinical trial, wearing a small stimulator on their necks helped people with quadriplegia build back movement they had lost years ago.
THE PROVERBIAL STORY of overcoming paralysis tends to start with the legs: Superman vows to walk again; a soap opera character steps out of their wheelchair. “I think society has a tendency to focus solely on the walking aspect of disability,” says Ian Ruder, a magazine editor with the United Spinal Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with spinal cord injuries and disorders. But Ruder, who has used a wheelchair following an injury 23 years ago, says even restoring just a fraction of his hand function would improve his quality of life more than walking. “The difference between being able to pinch with my thumb and not be able to pinch with my thumb is hard to understand for most people,” Ruder says. “That would unlock a whole new level of independence.”
Tosca Terán and Sara Lisa Vogl speak with Massive about stimulating senses in their art
Nature can feel you. Its roots, leaves, and vegetative filaments don’t sense with fingertips or retinas. But they can feel your approach and touch, react accordingly.
In a forthcoming art installation for the Goethe-Institut’s New Nature project, a group of artists want to translate these alien sensations and immerse you in their world. Their “Symbiosis/Dysbiosis” uses fungi, electrodes, lights, sound, and virtual reality to launch you in the microbiome all around you.