All posts by Gemma Conroy

Graveyards Are Surprising Hotspots for Biodiversity

Two weeks after the spring equinox, farmers in China’s Hebei province pay a visit to deceased loved ones in tiny graveyards among the vast wheat fields to mark Qingming Jie, an annual festival for remembering ancestors. After burnt offerings turn to ash and the incense smoke clears, these private family graveyards are left largely undisturbed until next year, quietly allowing nature to take its course.

It turns out that such graveyards in crop fields are more than peaceful places for people to pay their respects; they also function as miniature botanical preserves, a new study finds. Even the tiniest burial sites support a diverse array of native plants, helping to conserve patches of relatively untouched habitat in the study area—one of the most heavily farmed regions in China.

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Can a Cold Water Bath Save the Great Barrier Reef?

In early 2020, Australia was in the grip of its second hottest summer on record. As catastrophic bush fires turned the sky black, sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef soared above 29 °C, causing more than a quarter of the corals on the reef to turn a ghostly white. It was the third mass coral bleaching event to hit the UNESCO World Heritage Site in just five years.

In light of the ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising ocean temperatures, scientists are scrambling to find ways to halt the reef’s rapid decline, from artificially brightening clouds to reflect more sunlight, to bolstering coral populations using in vitro fertilization.

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Rise of the zombie ants

When Jean-François Doherty first dipped into research papers on parasitic host-manipulation five years ago, he felt as though he was reading science fiction.

The technical jargon was peppered with colourful words and phrases such as ‘zombie’, ‘hijack’ and ‘mind control’. Even ‘puppeteer’ was used to describe host manipulation, whereby a parasitic organism significantly alters the appearance or behaviour of its host.

The “ample use of anthropomorphisms and words borrowed from science fiction” bothered Doherty, a PhD student studying host manipulation by hairworms at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “I knew these words were objectively inaccurate.”

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Post-pandemic, fieldwork faces a remote future

When Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, realised that many of his students would be unable to learn new fieldwork skills this year, he switched to teaching them how to analyse existing datasets more creatively.

In March, he and co-leader Amanda Bates launched the PAN-Environment working group to explore how lockdown measures are affecting the environment.

To date, 150 researchers have contributed more than 70 datasets collected in 47 countries, including turtle hatchling counts on deserted beaches in India and illegal deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest.

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These two geochemists have one of the largest publishing networks in science

Geochemists Larry Edwards and Hai Cheng want to reconstruct the last half a million years on Earth in more detail than ever before.

After a chance meeting at a lab party almost three decades ago, the pair have developed some of the most powerful dating techniques in their field.

While conventional radiocarbon dating can reach back 40,000 years, Edwards and Cheng’s approach to uranium-thorium dating can reconstruct the past 600,000 years.

Their improvements to uranium-thorium dating, which estimates the age of a rock based on how much uranium and thorium it contains, have enabled researchers to track the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, the forming and melting of ice sheets, and abrupt fluctuations in Earth’s climate.

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This scientific ‘power couple’ has one of the largest publishing networks in biology

Structural biologists Jan Steyaert and Els Pardon have developed protein-imaging techniques using nanobodies.

Biologists Jan Steyaert and Els Pardon are using miniature versions of antibodies – components of the immune system – to visualize the delicate architecture of different types of proteins.

Known as nanobodies, they crystallise protein structures as a way of protecting them against the effects of invasive imaging procedures – a technique that has become highly sought-after by researchers working in drug design. Steyaert and Pardon, who are based at the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, have been working together on this approach for more than two decades.

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These materials scientists are a ‘power couple’ in the physical sciences

Two decades ago, Takashi Taniguchi had one goal: to produce a flawless piece of cubic boron nitride (c-BN), an ultra-hard material with a similar crystal structure to diamond, so he could explore the material’s potential as a semiconductor.

While Taniguchi spent hours trying to produce pure c-BN crystals without defects in his lab at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan, it was the by-products of his work that caught the attention of his research partner, Kenji Watanabe.

These tiny crystals of hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) would soon become the material that Taniguchi and Watanabe are today renowned for. Since publishing their first paper on the material’s ultra-violet properties in 2004, the pair have worked together to produce high-quality h-BN crystals that are coveted by materials scientists around the world, as reported by Nature in August 2019.

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Front line scientists call for mental health support in the wake of catastrophic ecosystem loss

When ecologist Daniella Teixeira visited her bushfire-ravaged study site on Kangaroo Island, South Australia in February this year, the scale of the damage hit her hard.

Teixeira, an ecologist at The University of Queensland, Australia, felt numb and deeply sad as she set foot among the blackened trees and melted nest boxes that were once home to the black glossy cockatoos she studied during her PhD. The fires had burnt through one-third of the island since they started in December 2019.

“Going back to the sites where I did my research was the hardest thing,” says Teixeira. “It was like a graveyard.”

But Teixeira was unsure about where to seek support for the emotional toll she was experiencing. She was also discomfited to hear other researchers urging the community to focus on action instead of anxiety and sadness.

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Scientists reveal what they learnt from their biggest mistakes

Be it a botched experiment or a coding error, mistakes are easily made but harder to handle, particularly if they find their way into a published paper.

Although retracting a paper due to an error may not seem a desirable career milestone, it is seen as important for building trust within the research community and upholding scientific rigor.

A 2017 study found that authors who retract their papers due to a mistake earn praise from peer-reviewers and other researchers for their honesty.

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‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline

When Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral-reef system, was hit by record-breaking marine heat waves that bleached two-thirds of it in 2016 and 2017, many researchers were left in a state of shock. Social scientist Michele Barnes witnessed this disaster first hand. She works at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, which is adjacent to the reef. Barnes decided to interview scientists and others working on the reef to investigate their response to this climate-change-driven catastrophe.

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