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January 26, 2023

Science news in review: Nov 28

By AKUL KESARWANI | November 30, 2022

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COURTESY OF NASA, ESA, CSA AND STScI

Measurements taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of the exoplanet WASP-39b revealed water, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium and potassium.

Let’s take a look at the biggest news in science over the past Thanksgiving break! The headlines include the James Webb Space Telescope’s latest screening, a new phylogenetic branch, and the effects of climate change on the immune system,

James Webb Space Telescope provides detailed insight into exoplanet’s atmosphere

Using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a team of researchers, including scientists from the Applied Physics Laboratory, analyzed the chemical and molecular makeup of WASP-39b’s atmosphere from 700 light years away with infrared light. This feat was impossible with previous telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, which only allowed researchers to look at isolated compounds in exoplanets’ atmospheres. 

One of the team’s most important discoveries was the detection of sulfur dioxide — a chemical commonly released in photochemical reactions. Photochemistry plays an important role in the Earth’s atmosphere via photosynthesis and the ozone layer, but this is the first time it has been seen playing a role in a planet outside the Solar System.

Studying the relative abundance of chemical species in the atmosphere can also help scientists determine how the planet was formed. On WASP-39b, the high oxygen-to-carbon ratio suggests the planet — a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn — was originally formed far from its central star, later moving to a distance of only 4.5 million miles. The entire findings from this exoplanet will be released in a series of five papers.

Genetic analysis discovers a new phylogenetic branch of fungi

A study at the University of Alberta revealed that about 600 previously unclassified fungi species are part of a new class Lichinomycetes. Scientists initially struggled to find a common feature between these species, but they found a 300-million-year-old common ancestor by studying the genomes of these species. This was done by sequencing genomes of 30 early diverging lineages and comparing them to 451 existing genomes covering the Ascomycota phylum. Lichinomycetes contains a diverse array of species ranging from beetle gut microbes to earth tongues previously spread across six different taxonomic classes. 

Parasite makes wolves more likely to become the pack leader

A recent study by the Yellowstone Wolf Project reveals that T. gondii, a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, makes wolves behave bolder. The results demonstrate that infected wolves were 46 times more likely to be pack leaders due to their riskier behavior. The study looked at blood samples from 200 wolves living in Yellowstone National Park from 1995 to 2020. By analyzing the same wolves’ behavior, the researchers also discovered that infected wolves were 11 times more likely to leave their packs. Chronic T. gondii infections increase dopamine and testosterone which increases aggression and risk-taking behavior. This hormone change is thought to cause the large behavior difference in wolves.

Pollution impairs the lungs’ immune response

Air pollution has been known to increase the health risks for various diseases, such as heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases. On Nov. 21, a study led by Donna Farber, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia University, revealed that the lungs’ immune response weakens after prolonged air pollution exposure as people age. 

The study concluded that the accumulation of particulate matter can reduce the effectiveness of lymph nodes in the lungs. The researchers looked at lung tissue samples from a cohort of organ donors of varied ages and found that lymph nodes in older subjects’ lungs contained higher densities of particulate matter, a type of air pollution that includes dust, soot and smoke. These lymph nodes are essential for immune responses, but their function decreases with more particulate matter present, which compromises the lung’s overall immune response.


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