Shot of Science: Tree Rings, Rotten Eggs & Another Earth

Another Earth?

Found in the Cygnus constellation, Kepler-452b is unlike any other Earth-sized planet discovered so far. The star it orbits is very similar to our Sun, and Kepler-452b circles it at a distance which would allow the planet to harbour liquid water and places it in the ‘habitable zone’. 

Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-452b contains any atmosphere or what are its mass and composition, but they suspect that Kepler-452b might have a rocky surface.

Sixty per cent larger than Earth and with an orbital period of 385 days, Kepler-452b – despite its unattractive name – could well become a popular holiday destination (who wouldn’t fancy an instant 20-extra-days bonus?).

If only it wasn’t quite 1,400 light-years away…

Rotten eggs for your testicles

About 7% of men worldwide are infertile, with this percentage rising faster than in women.  Scrotum overheating is well known as an important factor in male infertility. Fashion designers have already come to the rescue and hip hop pants have replaced the skin-tight jeans of the 70s.

But scientists too are trying to make their contribution to the perpetuation of the human species. Their latest discovery is that hydrogen sulphide – the foul-smelling gas released by rotten-eggs, volcanoes, swamps and decomposing material –, when applied to testicular germ cells, protects the precursors of sperm cells from heat stress and death.  So far, their theory has been confirmed in mice and human cultured cells. Possibly, the next step will be a human trial. Any volunteers?

Promising vaccine against MERS

It’s good news all round from the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) front. Just a few days after the end of the South Korean MERS outbreak, the scientific world has revealed that we are one step closer to an effective vaccine against the coronavirus which has seen 1,348 cases and 479 deaths in over twenty-five countries since April 2012.

Previous attempts to a MERS vaccine had used a whole inactivated virus, a live attenuated virus and the tip of the ‘Spike’ protein which the virus uses to attach itself to the host’s cells.

This time, scientists have targeted the DNA sequence of the entire Spike protein, as well as sections of the actual protein which they had used before. The result (in macaques) has been a more diverse and effective immune response than that experienced with previous vaccines.

All very well for the mice and macaques that took part in the study, who are well protected now. But no worries: we are next in the queue.

Tree rings and droughts

Current models for climate change assume that plants recover immediately from droughts. Which, as one could imagine, is not the case, and a group of scientists have just proven it.

After examining the growth of tree stems after severe drought at 1,338 forest sites around the world, they have discovered that trees of all persuasion and background (from pines to beeches, from tropical to temperate to arctic ecosystems), slow their growth for up to four years after severe drought. This means that they will be less efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide and transforming it into organic matter.

Considering that extreme weather events (precisely like droughts) are going to be more common with climate change, it’s obvious that plants’ recovery times must also be factored into climate change models. One would imagine that someone would have thought of it already…