Four Notable Things About the Most Distant Star Scientists Have Ever Glimpsed

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Between the glowing blue and yellow swirls of distant galaxies, this tiny pinprick of light doesn’t look like much: a white smudge on the infinite black of the universe.

But this tiny speck has enormous significance for astronomers. It’s the most distant star ever seen, affording astronomers a glimpse back in time.

Images showing how astronomers spotted the most distant star imaged, which was not visible in 2011 but popped up in 2016 thanks to gravitational lensing.
Icarus, the most distant star ever imaged, wasn’t visible in previous years (2011); it was only thanks to gravitational lensing that it twinkled into view (2016). Image credit: NASA, ESA, P KELLY/University of Minnesota

The star, MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1 (more simply known as “Icarus”) was about 9 billion light years away when it emitted the light now reaching Earth. Most other objects spotted at this distance are either galaxies or exploding stars (AKA supernovas), which produce much more light than this distant glimmer.

Thanks to the constant expansion of the universe, Icarus would now be much further away from our planet; by now, it’s probably gone supernova itself, and formed either a black hole or neutron star. (For why we can still view it, though, see #3.)

Here are four things you should know about this distant galactic neighbor, and why we’re just seeing it for the first time.

1. Spotting Icarus was a stroke of good luck

Icarus is so far away that we technically shouldn’t be able to see it: it’s about 100 times further away than the most distant star telescopes have been able to view before now. Fortunately, astronomers got a little bit of help from the universe in spotting it (and the Hubble telescope, props to that).

Icarus was visible because of an astronomical phenomenon called gravitational lensing. In short, the gravity of large, stacked-up celestial objects (in this case, a cluster of galaxies) bend light, creating a magnifying glass-effect for anything behind them. Overall, researchers told The Guardian, Icarus was magnified more than 2,000 times.

Icarus also got a special boost from an extra-magnifying star within the galaxy cluster, making it appear four times brighter over the course of the time the astronomers studied it. Thank you, physics.

2. The star is a blue supergiant

Icarus would be an oddity in the universe — if it were still around. Analysis of the star’s light showed it was a blue supergiant, one of the hottest and highest-mass stars we know of; the blue supergiant Rigel A, the bright left “foot” of the constellation Orion, is 23 times more massive than the sun, and estimated to be several hundred thousand times brighter.

Stars like Icarus and Rigel are rare in the universe today, but in the early universe, they were common; according to io9, most of the early stars were blue supergiants at some point in their lives.

That makes sense, since Icarus’ distant light is actually somewhat like a time machine.

3. Icarus gives a view back in time

The universe is way, way bigger than you can probably comprehend. And because of this astronomical (sorry) size, it can take a really long time for light to reach Earth from the cosmic wilderness. Even traveling at its immense speeds, by the time light from this distant star reached Earth, 9 billion years had passed.

When Icarus released the photons currently hitting the Hubble’s cameras, Earth hadn’t even formed yet — it would be another 4.4 billion years before our solar system even began to coalesce from the dust of the universe. Such distant views of the universe are helping astronomers learn about what the universe was like before our time, even giving us glimpses back to the moments after the Big Bang.

4. The view let scientists test dark matter theory

The Guardian reports that the team also used their view of Icarus to test a theory about dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up 27 percent of the universe (its counterpart, dark energy, makes up another 68 percent). One theory proposed that dark matter was made of black holes, but what the researchers saw of Icarus didn’t support that theory — looking back at a decade of Hubble images, they didn’t see Icarus’ brightness vary over time. If the black-hole-dark-matter theory was correct, the star would have appeared brighter.

In the coming years, scientists hope to peer even further into our universe’s history with more powerful telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Recent budget cuts from the White House threatened the future of WFIRST. If the government was unsure just how much these space telescopes could accomplish, this discovery from their predecessor might serve as an apt reminder.

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Chileans Criticize US Scientists Over Treatment of Ata the “Alien” Mummy

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It looks like an alien, but its story is much stranger. And now it’s causing an international incident.

Chilean scientists and government officials are protesting a study published in the journal Genome Research on March 22. It’s not the study’s conclusions or science they take issue with, though. It’s the study’s subject: the body of a mummified Chilean girl.

Alien enthusiasts are pretty obsessed with Ata, a 6-inch-long skeleton that was discovered in 2003. Oscar Munoz found the tiny mummy in a leather pouch in a Chilean ghost town near the Atacama Desert (hence its name), and soon after, rumors began swirling as to Ata’s origin.

See, the Chilean mummy looked human-ish, but it also looked, well, kind of not.

Why Haven’t We Found Aliens? An Analysis of the Problem [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Ata had a conical head shape and large eye sockets that looked straight out of a sci-fi film. The mummy was barely the length of a 19-week-old human fetus, but had bones as mature as those of a six-year-old. It also had hard teeth and only 10 pairs of ribs while humans have 12.

Cue the alien hunter hype.

Eventually, the Chilean mummy landed in the private collection of a Spanish businessman. In 2012, he gave Steven Greer, a doctor and founder of the Center for the Study of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (CSETI), permission to analyze it. Greer, in turn, gave Garry Nolan, an immunologist at Stanford University, samples of Ata’s bone marrow and other genetic material.

In 2013, Nolan dashed the hopes of alien hunters everywhere by concluding that Ata was fully human. “There’s no doubt about it,” he told Science Magazine at the time.

Case closed, right? Not so much.

This week, Nolan and his team published new research about the Chilean mummy in the journal Genome Research. In it, the researchers provide an explanation for Ata’s alien-like appearance: seven different genetic mutations.

“Once we understood that it was human, the next step was to understand how something could come to look like this,” Nolan told National Geographic.

Chile strongly disagrees. The next step should have been returning Ata to her country of origin.

Once Nolan published his findings in 2013, Ata was no longer an “it” but a “she,” and as such, the tiny mummy should have received all the protections given to the remains of any other human.

On March 25, Cristina Dorado, a biologist at Chile’s University of Antofagasta, published a commentary in Etilmercurio citing a number of legal and ethical issues with Nolan’s latest work. She wrote that, while the study did have scientific value, it failed to consider the legal and ethical implications of studying a human body.

Furthermore, the researchers themselves concluded that Ata, whom Dorado calls “the girl from La Noria,” was likely born just 40 years ago, meaning her parents could still be alive.

Dorado called upon Genome Research to retract the article, but that doesn’t seem likely. The journal’s editor, Hilary Sussman, told The New York Times the publication “will return to [the issue of studying DNA from ancient human remains] in future issues of the journal.” In other words, it’s not happening right now.

Still, as Dorado notes, this is far from the first example of the “plunder and sale of mummified bodies.” Genome Research might not retract the article on Ata, but perhaps the controversy surrounding the study will give other scientists pause before they move forward with research on human remains.

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Scientists Found a Galaxy With Almost No Dark Matter. Here’s What That Means.

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Roughly 65 million light-years away from Earth is a galaxy called NGC 1052-DF2 (DF2 for short). But DF2 may as well be called F-U, because that’s what it’s saying to scientists who thought they understood galaxies, dark matter, and really anything about our universe.

What makes DF2 so special, you may ask? It appears to contain virtually no dark matter.

We’ve never seen dark matter directly. We only believe dark matter exists because we can see how it affects “regular,” or baryonic, matter. Based on these indirect observations, researchers have estimated that dark matter makes up about 27 percent of our universe.

Since dark matter was (sort of) discovered, researchers assumed dark matter was essential to galaxy formation. Dark matter would clump together. Then, the gravity from those clumps would attract baryonic matter, forming the stars, planets, and other objects we can actually see within a galaxy. Easy, right?

Based on this understanding, the team studying DF2 thought they had a pretty good idea how much dark matter it contained. But when they calculated how much dark matter DF2 actually had, they discovered it contained only 1/400th the amount they expected.

“It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work,” Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University professor and lead author of a paper on DF2, now published in Nature, said in a press release. “This result also suggests that there may be more than one way to form a galaxy.”

DF2 is unique in other ways, too. It doesn’t fit the characteristics of a spiral galaxy, which typically have dense, central regions, spiral arms, and a disk. But it also isn’t like known elliptical galaxies, which have a black hole at their center.

Instead, DF2 is a rare ultra-diffuse galaxy. “It’s so sparse that you see all of the galaxies behind it,” van Dokkum said. “It is literally a see-through galaxy.”

This might seem counterintuitive, but DF2 actually supports the existence of dark matter, which some theories argue doesn’t exist.

“For those kinds of theories, it wouldn’t be possible to ever have a galaxy that looks as though it doesn’t have dark matter,” Jocelyn Monroe, a particle physicist and dark matter expert at Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved in the study, told The Verge. “So [this galaxy is] really interesting for the potential it has to exclude some of these ideas.”

The researchers hope to pin down the age of DF2. “At the moment, we only know its older than 10 billion years, but we’d like to know if it’s 10 billion years old or 13 billion years old, which is right after the Big Bang,” van Dokkum told ABC.

If DF2 does end up being 13 billion years old, it could rack in another superlative: the oldest galaxy ever discovered.

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Health IoT: Scientists develop diet wearable – for your teeth

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tooth wearable tracks your diet

Scientists at the Tufts University School of Engineering have developed a wearable sensor that can stick to a single tooth to track a user’s diet, based on chemical changes in the mouth.

The sensor, which is mounted onto a tooth and communicates wirelessly with a mobile device, transmits information on the intake of glucose, salt, and alcohol. The subtle device has a 2mm x 2mm footprint and transmits information in response to an incoming radio signal.

The Tufts University research will soon be published in the journal Advanced Materials.

The technology has obvious preventative potential. Giving medical professionals insight into dietary habits could support the treatment of allergies, food intolerances, and eating disorders. It could also help dentists detect problems before they grow to be more serious.

Read more: Health IoT: KardiaBand sensor could replace invasive blood tests

A mouthful of personal data

The team at the Tufts University School of Engineering has say that, in future, sensors such as this could be able to detect and record of a wide range of nutrients, chemicals, and physiological states, well beyond the tracking of glucose, salt, and alcohol intakes.

“In theory, we can modify the bio-responsive layer in these sensors to target other chemicals – we are really limited only by our creativity,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto, corresponding author of the study and Professor of Engineering at Tufts.

“We have extended common RFID technology to a sensor package that can dynamically read and transmit information on its environment, whether it is affixed to a tooth, to skin, or to any other surface.”

Read more: L’Oreal helps customers tackle skin cancer risk with wearable sensor

The assumption is that miniature sensors such as this will work alongside mobile applications and be monitored by healthcare professionals. In the current climate, this may raise concerns among some citizens about data security and privacy.

There are obvious health benefits to round-the-clock dietary monitoring. But convincing the public that in-mouth wearables should be a mass market product may be the biggest challenge facing the technology.

Read more: Robot swans to measure water quality in Singapore

Plus… Danish scientists develop sensor to detect dangerous drinking water

Danish researchers at Aarhus University have developed a sensor capable of detecting specific bacteria in drinking water, such as E. coli.

The sensor uses DNA-magnetic particle technology to seek out and isolate the bacteria using nano-sized magnets. The sensor can connect directly to a smartphone to provide a reading that detects a single cell of E. coli in less than one hour. Traditional detection methods require lab tests and can take several days.

The research team is aiming to have a commercial product ready for market within three years.

Read more: Health IoT: App helps sports stars predict and manage injuries

Internet of Business says

The innovative application of sensors, wearables, and AI has been a strong theme already this year. Read our in-depth report on the issues facing health services as care providers get to grips with a fast-changing world.

Read more: AI in the NHS: the great health and citizen enabler? | In-depth report

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AI Helps Scientists Discover New Viruses — Here’s Why That Matters

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Viruses are all around us, and we currently haven’t classified even a fraction of that huge and diverse population. The tiny organisms that can only survive inside a living host can wreak havoc on our bodies, but that’s not the only reason researchers are so compelled by them. We now know that viruses could be playing a part in “non viral diseases” such as liver cirrhosis, or even chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease — but we still don’t understand how.

To get there, we need machine learning.

Because viruses can’t be grown in the lab, scientists have traditionally looked for new species by sampling various diverse environments (including metro carriages and sewage systems). But picking single microbes out of the dirt is a slow process that makes it difficult for researchers to understand the behavior of fast-evolving viruses.

That’s where AI comes in. Machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence used to identify complex patterns — the algorithm gets trained through a pool of data before becoming autonomous, and can be used to scan massive genomic datasets in search of new viruses.

For example, Nature reports, bioinformatician Deyvid Amgarten, who works at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, used machine learning to identify virus genomes hidden in compost piles at the city’s zoo. He told Nature he will use his findings to learn how viruses can help break down organic matter and make composting more efficient.

His work was inspired by a tool built by Jie Ren. Ren, a computational biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, used his algorithm to examine and compare faeces samples from people with liver cirrhosis, and healthy people. His team found some viruses more common in healthy people than in those with cirrhosis, a clue that viruses could be playing a part in the disease.

According to Nature, findings such as Ren’s leave scientists wondering if viruses could also influence elusive diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, which is estimated to affect around three million adults in the U.S. alone. Immunologist Derya Unutmaz, who works at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, echoes these speculations, observing that viruses may be the source of inflammatory reactions that could impair our metabolism and immune system.

From identifying the role of viruses in non-viral diseases, to matching viruses with specific families of bacteria to fight drug resistance, artificial intelligence may revolutionize how we navigate the largely uncharted landscape of these tiny microbes that play such a huge part in our lives.

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Scientists Claim They’ve Developed a Male Birth Control Pill — Again

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Certain breakthroughs always seem just out of scientists’ reach.

Warp drive. Scalable fusion reactors.

And, of course, a male birth control pill.

This week, yet another team of researchers raised the hopes of reproductively responsible men everywhere claiming they’d developed a safe and effective once-a-day male birth control pill.

However, guys shouldn’t toss their condoms just yet. While this drug seems promising, it’s still a long way from the local pharmacy.

Stephanie Page, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, presented her team’s research into the male birth control pill, called dimethandrolone undecanoate (DMAU), at the annual Endocrine Society meeting in Chicago.

male birth control pill
Image Credit: frolicsomepl / Pixabay

Once a day, for 28 days, each of the 100 men between age 18 and 50 ingested either a placebo or DMAU in one of three doses. On the first and last days of the study, each man gave blood samples so the researchers could determine his hormone and cholesterol levels.

According to the study, the men who took the highest dose, 400 mg, showed a “marked suppression” of testosterone levels, as well as the levels of two hormones needed to produce sperm. The researchers claim these hormone responses are “consistent with effective contraception.” That is, it would probably work as birth control.

Every subject in the trial passed all safety tests, and very few reported any symptoms traditionally linked to too much or too little testosterone, Page said in a press release. They had problems with sexual function and no mood changes, either, she noted during the presentation.

However, each man taking DMAU did gain weight and had lower levels of HDL cholesterol (that’s the “good” kind).

This isn’t the first experimental male contraceptive to have these side effects. Typically, drugs like these have two major problems: the oral testosterone they contain damages the liver, and the drugs leave the body too quickly — men would need to take the pills at least twice a day for them to be effective.

DMAU actually addresses those issues. To the first point: the dimethandrolone in DMAU is a testosterone modified to eliminate liver toxicity. And the second: the long-chain fatty acid undecanoate ensures the drug stays in the user’s system for a full 24 hours.

So, that’s the good news. The bad news is this was a super small study. 100 men, reduced to 83 by the end of the brief 28 days of the study, is hardly grounds for an FDA approval. Still, Page claims the team is currently conducting longer-term DMAU studies.

Even more reason to take the findings with a grain of salt: the team’s research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Until other members of the scientific community have a chance to pick apart the study and verify its methods and conclusions, DMAU will remain just another in the long list of potential male birth control pills.

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Scientists Engineered A Suit That Makes You Feel Like You’re Driving Hungover

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You’ve heard the refrain before: don’t drink and drive. Tens of thousands of people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents every year. Luckily, though, people seem to be getting the message — drunk driving fatalities on roadways have decreased by 51 percent since 1982.

But how about the morning after? After all, you’re not drunk anymore. Sure, you don’t feel 100 percent, you’ve got a headache and an intense craving for fried food, but that shouldn’t impair your driving… right?

But according to automaker Ford, you’d be wrong.

The company devised a suit that reproduces the effects of a killer hangover. Heavy cuffs weigh down the arms and legs, plus weights strapped on the chest slow movements. A pair of big headphones blast a pounding noise to simulate a headache. The wearer dons goggles that blur their vision and simulate light sensitivity through a small lamp attached to the side.

A Quartz reporter tried the suit out driving across a simple cone path in a big, empty parking lot. Sluggish and confused, he knocked over a full row of cones and found the overall experience thoroughly unpleasant. Honestly, who wouldn’t.

But here’s a question: is hungover driving even a thing? Futurism could find no scientific studies on the subject. And we’re all for safety, but it does seem awfully convenient that Ford engineered a suit that somehow makes its Driving Skills for Life campaign seem even more critical.

But Ford may have a point. Scientists may not know that being hungover doesn’t impair driving, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t. We know that drunk driving killed more than 10,000 people in 2015. But we have no idea of how many people were injured or killed by hungover drivers — there are simply no studies either way. Just watching that video shows that research into hungover driving is probably called for.

Until those studies come, it’s worth being aware that hangovers — suit-induced, or au naturel — could affect your driving. Stay safe out there, y’all.

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To Save Polar Glaciers, Scientists Recommend Ludicrous Schemes

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Some reasons you should be worried about the planet’s glaciers:

Conclusion: time is running out for the world’s glaciers.

Most of us don’t worry too much about that. Climate plans are unlikely to shift our mindsets dramatically at the polls. And that means climate action slowly slips through the cracks, until a catastrophic event, likely fueled by global warming, reminds us of what’s at stake.

Scientists, on the other hand, have known about this for a while, and they’re really worried. They freaked out. And now even scientists, arguably the most cautious group of people on the planet, are suggesting some crazy last-ditch solutions.

The first of the cockamamy, desperate schemes: a wall 100 meters (330 feet) high, built across the 5-kilometer (62-mile) fjord in front of Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier. Its purpose: to block warm water from reaching the sea.

There are other proposals laid out in Nature article that advocates for extreme interventions intended to save the polar ice caps. One would involve creating an archipelago of artificial islands to support the most vulnerable glaciers in West Antarctica to stop warmer waters from circulating. Another: pump cooled brine under the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica to slow down ice melt from below.

The authors, from China, Finland and the U.S., acknowledge that all these projects would cost billions of dollars and disrupt the environment in ways we can’t fully predict.

But plans like these are becoming not only necessary, but economically competitive — noacting on the climate will be even more expensive. “Without coastal protection, the global cost of damages could reach US$ 50 trillion a year,” the researchers write.

“We understand the hesitancy to interfere with glaciers — as glaciologists, we know the pristine beauty of these places,” the authors continue. “But we have also stood on ice shelves that are now open ocean. If the world does nothing, ice sheets will keep shrinking and the losses will accelerate.” And even if “greenhouse gas emissions are slashed, which looks unlikely, it would take decades for the climate to stabilize.”

Statements like these are especially notable because scientists are usually so careful in their statements. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, is under constant scrutiny for its cautious attitude to communicating climate risks. And those who spread scary messages are blamed for failing to convey the nuances of global warming.

But we’re past the point where we can afford to be uncompromising. When a group of nature-loving glaciologists seriously suggests schemes usually relegated to characters like Wile E. Coyote, it’s probably time we pay attention. After all, they write, “the greatest risk is doing nothing.”

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Here’s What Scientists Can Learn From Newly-Discovered Deep-Earth Mineral

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It turns out that diamonds are more precious than we gave them credit for. Inside a small sliver of diamond, researchers found calcium silicate perovskite (CaSiO3) — a mysterious deep-Earth mineral that no one had previously seen in nature. While this mineral is the fourth most abundant material on Earth, it becomes unstable when it rises above the high-pressure environments found 650 kilometers (400 miles) or more below the surface.

But here’s the thing — the diamond was found less than 1 km (0.62 miles) below the surface in South Africa’s Cullinan diamond mine, making this not only the first siting of CaSiO3, but also a unique example of how such a mineral could survive a trip to our low-pressure environment.

“Nobody has ever managed to keep this mineral stable at Earth’s surface,” lead researcher Graham Pearson, a geochemist at the University of Alberta, said in a press release. “The only possible way of preserving this mineral at Earth’s surface is when it’s trapped in an unyielding container like a diamond.”

Image Credit: Nester Korolev/University of British Columbia
Image Credit: Nester Korolev/University of British Columbia

The diamond itself is unique as well. While diamonds typically form between 150 and 200 km (93 and 124 miles) below Earth’s surface, researchers estimated that this crystal likely originates from about 700 km (430 miles) below, where CaSiO3 is formed. The pressure was greater at this lower level, allowing the deep-Earth mineral to be trapped and held stably.

Now that scientists not only have proof of this mineral’s existence but a natural physical sample, they can further study it. “The specific composition of the perovskite inclusion in this particular diamond very clearly indicates the recycling of oceanic crust into Earth’s lower mantle. It provides fundamental proof of what happens to the fate of oceanic plates as they descend into the depths of the Earth,” Pearson said in the press release.

This initial study, which is published Wednesday, March 7, in the journal Nature, included spectroscopic analysis to confirm that the substance in the diamond was actually CaSiO3. Researchers at the University of British Columbia will continue this work and expand our knowledge of the mineral’s age and how it originated.

By better understanding both this mineral and the unique diamond it stowed away in, scientists can better understand the inner workings of our planet and how they may impact both our present and our future.

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By Tweaking a Single Gene, Scientists Trick Plants Into Being More Water-Efficient

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Scientists have discovered a way to make plants more water-efficient, thereby enabling them to grow faster and produce more crops. The research, published to the journal Nature Communications, is part of an international project known as Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE.

Katarzyna Glowacka, a postdoctoral researcher at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the project. Together, she and the research team modified the expression of a single gene to increase the levels of a photosynthetic protein known as PsbS in tobacco plants.

Increasing PsbS essentially tricks the plant into partially closing its stomata — tiny pores on the leaves that allow carbon dioxide to enter for photosynthesis, but simultaneously let water escape. With the stomata only partially open, the tobacco plant doesn’t lose as much water.

The amount of carbon dioxide the plant has, surrounding humidity, as well as the quality and quantity of light can impact whether the stomata are open or closed. The PsbS proteins signal to the plant how much light is nearby, so an artificially increased level of PsbS indicating that there isn’t enough light for photosynthesis, prompting the stomata to close.

Ultimately, tweaking the amount of PsbS increased the tobacco plant’s water-efficiency, or the ratio of how much carbon dioxide enters the plant to how much water is lost, by 25 percent without sacrificing the plant’s yield.

“These plants had more water than they needed, but that won’t always be the case,” Glowacka explained in a press release. “When water is limited, these modified plants will grow faster and yield more — they will pay less of a penalty than their non-modified counterparts.”

PsbS is found in all plants, meaning the experiment done with tobacco could work for other plants too. To prove this, the team will now attempt to improve the water-efficiency of food crops, and test the crops’ efficiency when water is limited.

RIPE isn’t the first project that has tried to try to improve crop efficiency. Last year, researchers from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York used CRISPR gene-editing to increase the yield of tomatoes; in 2015, the DuPont company used CRISPR to modify corn and wheat. RIPE’s work is yet another example of genetically modifying plants technically speaking, yet it only changes the plant’s behavior, rather than its shape or size.

Another postdoctoral researcher at the IGB, Johannes Kromdijk, said in the same press release: “Making crop plants more water-use efficient is arguably the greatest challenge for current and future plant scientists.” Undoubtedly, despite the continuous public debate surrounding whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe sources of food, these modifications will continue to improve crop quality and resiliency.

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