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Science Top 5: Underrated discoveries

Science Top 5: Underrated discoveries

By Katie Wilson, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Sep. 21, 2011 at 12:30 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY -- The discoveries of scientists and researchers often have huge implications for the existence of human life and the universe that surrounds us. Yet, the general public is often not aware of the research or derived implications that may impact our day-to-day life and even the future of mankind. Deciphering scientific results and lingo can often seem overwhelming for the general lay person. Many times, scientific discoveries are minor news and go unnoticed. The following five major scientific discoveries impact human lives and the world around us, but are not well known concepts among the general public.

Solar flares

Solar flares are large explosions that occur in the sun's atmosphere and emit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation. If these releases of radiation are directed toward planet Earth, their effects can be crippling to our satellite systems and power grids. In effect, they could halt electronic communication and cause vast power outages.

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Once a solar flare occurs on the sun, it takes the radiation typically between one and two days to reach Earth. In June 2011, a major solar flare was caught on film by NASA scientists. Though this flare did not directly hit Earth, it is expected that solar flares will become increasingly active over the next 11 years. Scientists predict that the peak of activity will occur in 2013 and early into 2014. It is expected that there will be more frequent and even larger flares during this time.

Large solar flares can be visible with the naked eye and appear as a bright white light. When the energy from a solar flare interacts with Earth's magnetic field, it can create geomagnetic storms. These storms result in aurora lights, similar to those of the aurora borealis, though they are visible at latitudes closer to the equator.

Our infrastructure may be impacted by a very large solar storm directed toward Earth. Scientists continue to study how the flares occur in hopes of predicting where the next emission will happen. The flares also create storms in space around Earth's atmosphere, though predicting weather in space is a fairly new science that is still evolving. Researchers hope that studying the flares will offer insight into preparation we can implement to minimize the negative effects.

Antimatter

Antimatter matter is formed by smashing together 
particles at speeds close to that of light.
Antimatter matter is formed by smashing together particles at speeds close to that of light.

Antimatter may seem like it belongs in the pages of sci-fi novels, though its creation has now become a reality. Normal matter is composed of particles, antimatter is composed of antiparticles. Most of the visible universe is made up of normal matter. Antimatter's existence in space is one of physic's greatest mysteries.

Scientists have been able to create antimatter in a lab setting. This matter is formed by smashing together particles at speeds close to that of light. Though once the antimatter comes into contact with any other form of natural matter, it's massive energy is released. The effects of such a release can cause a potentially catastrophic explosion.

Scientists at CERN's Geneva lab have been able to create a sizable amount of antimatter and keep it suspended using vacuum force and a magnetic trap. Harnessing the extreme energy of antimatter could provide a renewable source of energy for our society without the devastating effects of fossil fuels. Scientists continue to search for methods of handling antimatter, ways its energy can be used to benefit our society and methods for measuring how much exists in our universe.

Evolving microbes

Microbes are unicellular organisms that surround us: They live on, under and above Earth's surface. These microorganisms are vital to life, they act as “decomposers,” breaking down and recycling matter. Microbes are often used in medicines, digestive health and cooking.

These helpful organisms also have a dangerous side -- bacteria and sometimes viruses that can endanger the lives of humans and develop into epidemics. Continually evolving, microbes adapt to become resistant to antibiotics and medicines. Scientists have found that these microbes can evolve faster than we can keep up.

Staphylococcus bacteria are resistant to antibiotics and can turn small cuts into major, life-threatening infections. Highly adaptive microbes develop and can expand to invade a wider variety of hosts. This leads to bacteria becoming transferable between humans and animals. This has been witnessed as hantavirus from mice, the bird flu from poultry and the swine flu from pigs. It has also led to outdated diseases, such as tuberculosis, making a comeback with newly adaptive strains resistant to widely used effective vaccines.

Bacteria are well versed in the art of evolution. They are quick to adapt and evade drug treatments due in part to their ease of evolving into new strains. Microbes reproduce quickly, allowing them to quickly adapt to new drugs or antibiotics. Their sheer numbers are daunting.

Science Top 5: Underrated discoveries

One of the most interesting discoveries in the evolution of microbes comes from their ability to evolve through horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria share DNA and are able to transfer genetic material to and from one another, allowing them to pass these newly inherited traits to their offspring. Bacteria do not need to be closely related to share genetic materials, the transfer can even take place between different strains. An example of this would be a human incorporating a dog's DNA into his genetics simply by petting the family dog.

As microbes evolve, scientists continually work to develop vaccines and medicines to prohibit their spread. New strains of the influenza virus are commonly varied each year. Researchers update outdated vaccines so that this year's vaccine is effective on the newly evolved microbes of the current year.

The aging gene

Juan Ponce de León once searched for the elusive fountain of youth to turn back the hands of time and revitalize his youthful grandeur. Scientists believe they may have found just that - the gene responsible for aging. This discovery was made by looking at the rates of aging among humans. Some individuals age much faster than their peers, and researchers studied and identified a gene not present in people who age quickly.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School were able to prematurely age mice in their study. Then by activating the discovered gene, the mice began to reverse the aging process. Their organs, brains and fertility began to regenerate into a more youthful state, though their ability to handle insulin was affected.

This gene is thought to control telomeres that are the end caps for chromosomes. As time goes on, these telomeres become worn, frayed and shorter. Individuals with longer telomeres suffer less effects of aging. The newly discovered gene is thought to be responsible for the length of telomeres and their repair. Those with healthy telomeres enjoy the benefits of not aging as quickly as those with damaged telomeres. Conducting a study on earthworms, British researchers found that the gene for aging also has a direct correlation to an individual's immunity, lifespan and the ability to resist diseases.

Scientists hope that by influencing this gene they can slow the process of aging and even prolong the time before individuals start experiencing age-related disorders. By studying how the lack of the gene relates to these disorders, they hope to gain more insight into possible cures for these common age-related ailments.

Self-replicating synthetic life

J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., has discovered many scientific contributions in the world of genomics. He is the founder, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). This nonprofit organization is geared toward exploring plant, microbial, human and environmental genomic research with a focus on renewable energy sources and ethical conduct within genomics.

Science Top 5: Underrated discoveries

The scientists at JCVI created the first synthetic, self- replicating organism. The genetic code for this organism was mapped and coded on a computer, making it the first organism to basically have a computer for a parent. It even has its own website encoded directly into its genetic material. Using only its digitized genome and chemical synthesis, the organism was born, and no natural DNA was used.

The synthetically created cells were then able to self- replicate, making additional sustainable copies of the parent. These designer organisms are built to exact specification instead of the traditional random evolution of organisms in our world. JCVI hopes to use this scientific process to create life that benefits human existence. The possibilities are endless. Scientists may be able to create biofuels, vaccines, medicines and even organisms with a specific function, perhaps ridding the environment of harmful pollution.

This newly created synthetic organism is specifically imprinted with a genetic watermark of sorts. This will allow scientists to identify the organism as being synthetic in nature and also allow them to trace its DNA.

The creation of this synthetic organism does not come without controversy. Many fear that if allowed to enter nature, this new organism could wreak havoc on existing life. Others worry that this technology could be used to create new biological weapons. Many religious groups condemn the research and fear that scientists at JCVI are attempting to play God, and the unintended repercussions could be catastrophic.

Katie Wilson

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