Image: NHS Asthma introduction

Shots of Science – Asthma, Yellowstone & Rare Earth

New Asthma breakthrough

Asthmatics could soon see a major change in their treatment. To date asthma sufferers have been treated for their symptoms after they appear but a new paper published in Science Translational Medicine identified a protein, CaSR, involved in the regulation of calcium levels that also controls airway hyper-responsiveness and inflammation in asthma. The underlying cause of asthma is still unknown, but this new discovery means that the main symptoms could be prevented from ever occurring. The good news is that inhibitors for CaSR already exist for treatment of low serum calcium levels in the blood. The bad news is that, like any drug, it will take time to develop, test, and approve these inhibitors for human use by asthmatics. But for long-time sufferers there may be hope on the horizon.

Yellowstone Park and the Chamber of Secret Magma

Researchers have discovered that the magma chambers underneath Yellowstone National Park are larger than imagined. One shallow magma chamber of about 10,000 cubic kilometers and 10km below the surface had previously been imaged but now scientists in the University of Utah have discovered a second larger chamber reaching from 20km to 50 km below the Earth’s surface containing around 45,000 cubic kilometers of mixed molten and solidified rock. That’s 11 times larger than the Grand Canyon. Large scale eruptions have happened in Yellowstone in the distant past with the last major eruption 640,000 years ago. The presence of the deeper magma chamber means that if Yellowstone erupts once more it could be larger than expected with the larger chamber replenishing the shallow chamber. This discovery doesn’t mean it will erupt any time soon but if it does Yogi Bear will want to escape.

Rare Earth Minerals

Your mobile phone, tablets and computer screens all rely on the availability of rare earth elements and the price of the latest device will be largely determined by the share prices for these elements from the lanthanide section of the periodic table. Stealth technology, fibre optics, screen fluorescents, laser technology, night-vision goggles and various daily items such as rechargeable batteries also all contain these rare raw materials. The elements themselves are metals such as Neodymium, Europium and Samarium. China has had a monopoly in the rare earth element market since the 1980s and the demand for them only increases as the range of technological devices diversifies. China’s control over the share price was keenly felt in 2010 when it reduced its export quota by 37%. China has consolidated its mining operations and cracked down on illegal outfits. Even still, the demand is beginning to outstrip supply and the factories in China using the elements to make iPhones and laptop monitors may soon need to import extra supplies. Given the expense of obtaining these elements from sources outside China, the prices of electronics will be raised if this problem isn’t solved. Nature outlined the various ways in which scientists are trying to counteract this economic and scientific problem. The minerals can be found elsewhere in the world but China extracts and refines them at a lower price. Nature says that some Western scientists are looking to improve the solvents and extractants used in the refining process while others are improving efficiency in extracting them from recycled electronic waste to help break the monopoly in the market. Our advice: Drop your electronic waste down to the recycling centre if you want to keep the price down for your next device.

iPhone taking photo
Image: SplitShire