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Huge Tonga volcanic eruption this year led to bloom of microscopic marine life, find scientists

ScientiFix, our weekly feature, offers you a summary of the top global science stories of the week, with links to their sources.

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New Delhi: The Tonga volcanic eruption — the largest submarine volcanic eruption of this century — led to a dramatic phytoplankton bloom north of the island of Tongatapu, in the Kingdom of Tonga.

A team of scientists from the University of Hawai’i (UH) at Manoa and Oregon State University revealed in a recently published study that the bloom of microscopic marine life covered an area nearly 40 times the size of the island of O’ahu, Hawai’i, within just 48 hours after the eruption that took place in January this year.

The team analysed satellite images of various kinds and determined that the deposition of volcanic ash was likely the most important source of nutrients responsible for phytoplankton growth.

Phytoplankton are the tiny photosynthetic organisms that produce oxygen and serve as the base of the marine food web. The growth of these microbes is often limited by the low concentrations of nutrients dissolved in the surface ocean, but phytoplankton can increase rapidly when nutrients become available.

According to researchers, even though the eruption was submarine, a large plume of ash reached a height of tens of kilometers into the atmosphere. The ash fallout supplied nutrients that stimulated the growth of phytoplankton, which reached concentrations well beyond the typical values observed in the region

The research illustrates the broad interconnectedness and interdependence of different aspects of the environment, perhaps even indicating an under-appreciated link between volcanism and shallow marine ecosystems globally. Read more.

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Scientists identify 49 genes transferred from a plant to crop pest

Scientists have found that 49 plant genes have been transferred to the genome of the silverleaf whitefly — a major crop pest in the tropics and subtropics.

Such a large number of genes transferred between plants and an insect has never been detected before. The findings open the door to new research on relationships between plants and insects that could lead to innovative pest control methods and reduce pesticide use.

According to the team, previous research has shown the transfer of two plant genes to the genome of the silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), with one gene that gives the whitefly the ability to neutralise toxins produced by plants as a defense mechanism.

Intrigued by this finding, scientists from the INRAE (French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment) and CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) — sought to learn how many plant-derived genes were found in the whitefly genome, which was fully sequenced in 2016.

By undertaking a bioinformatics analysis, the researchers identified 49 plant genes in the whitefly genome deriving from 24 independent horizontal gene transfer events. Most of these genes show features of functionality, meaning they are expressed in insects and have sequences with signs of evolutionary pressure, and so play a potential role in insects. Read more.

Scientists train neurons in a dish to play pong

Scientists have managed to train the human and mouse neurons in a dish to play the video game Pong, demonstrating that even brain cells in a dish can exhibit inherent intelligence, modifying their behavior over time.

For the experiment, the team from University College London, the UK connected the neurons to a computer in such a way that the neurons received feedback on whether their in-game paddle was hitting the ball. They monitored the neuron’s activity and responses to this feedback using electric probes that recorded “spikes” on a grid.

The more a neuron moved its paddle and hit the ball, the stronger the spikes got. When neurons missed, their playstyle was critiqued by a software programme created by Cortical Labs. This demonstrated that the neurons could adapt activity to a changing environment, in a goal-oriented way, in real time.

Future directions of this work have potential in disease modeling, drug discoveries, and expanding the current understanding of how the brain works and how intelligence arises. Read more.

NASA captures gamma ray bursts that swept solar system

Astronomers around the world are captivated by an unusually bright and long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation that swept over the Earth on 9 October. The emission came from a gamma ray burst (GRB) — the most powerful class of explosions in the universe — that ranks among the most luminous events known.

Last week, a wave of X-rays and gamma rays passed through the solar system, triggering detectors aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and Wind spacecraft, as well as others.

Telescopes around the world turned to the site to study the aftermath, and new observations continue.

Called GRB 221009A, the explosion provided an unexpectedly exciting start to the 10th Fermi Symposium, a gathering of gamma-ray astronomers now underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The signal, originating from the direction of the constellation Sagitta, had traveled an estimated 1.9 billion years to reach Earth. Astronomers think it represents the birth cry of a new black hole, one that formed in the heart of a massive star collapsing under its own weight. In these circumstances, a nascent black hole drives powerful jets of particles traveling near the speed of light. The jets pierce through the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays as they stream into space. Read more.

‘Smart plastic’ mimic living beings, pave way for flexible robotics

Inspired by living things from trees to shellfish, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have created a new material that is 10 times as tough as natural rubber and could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.

The material changes its properties such as hardness and elasticity in molecules in response to light and a catalyst.

Scientists have long sought to mimic the properties of living structures, like skin and muscle, with synthetic materials. In living organisms, structures often combine attributes such as strength and flexibility with ease.

When using a mix of different synthetic materials to mimic these attributes, materials often fail, coming apart and ripping at the junctures between different materials.

Oftentimes, when bringing materials together, particularly if they have very different mechanical properties, they want to come apart, according to the team. However, they were able to control and change the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to alter how firm or stretchy the material would be. Read more.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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