- Number 370 |
- August 27, 2012
The Carboniferous period was a good time for biomass: there was no natural microbe that would completely break down the dead plant matter. Because carbon remained trapped, levels of oxygen soared—allowing bugs to breathe easier and grow multiple feet long. The compiling biomass became coal, and most of the world’s supply was generated during that period 300-360 million years ago. But the era may have come to an end from an unlikely source: fungus. An international team of scientists, including researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), has proposed that a new species of fungus broke down dead plant matter, the source for coal.
Picture this: You've brought your sick child to the doctor's office. After checking her pulse and blood pressure, he takes a nasal or throat swab and inserts it into a mysterious black box. Before the doctor finishes his examination, the black box beeps, indicating that the pathogen that's making your child sick has been identified.
Sound far-fetched? Actually, this scenario is closer to becoming a reality. Thanks to work by Reginald Beer and his team of scientists and engineers at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, sub-three-minute amplification of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is now possible.
Once impossible, scientists can now eavesdrop on microbes, thanks to a new technique from scientists at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and three universities. Microbes converse by releasing simple and complex molecules, called metabolites. The metabolites interact with and alter their environment and nearby cells. To listen in, the team combined nanospray desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, or nanoDESI, and a new bioinformatics technique. This approach allows scientists to identify and quantify, in time and space, the metabolites around living bacterial colonies.
"This is a real discovery tool—showing us how microbial communities interact," said Dr. Julia Laskin, a PNNL chemist who has been successfully advancing the frontiers of nanoDESI for 3 years.
Scientists at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory have observed for the first time how a laser penetrates dense, electron-rich plasma to generate ions. The process has applications for developing next generation particle accelerators and new cancer treatments.
The results, published online August 19 in Nature Physics, also confirm predictions made more than 60 years ago about the fundamental physics of laser-plasma interaction. Plasmas dense with electrons normally reflect laser light like a mirror. But a strong laser can drive those electrons to near the speed of light, making the plasma transparent and accelerating the plasma ions.