Category Archives: News

Automated Eyes Watch Plants Grow

A decade ago, a group of crop scientists set out to grow the same plants in the same way. They started with the same breeds and adhered to strict growing protocols, but nonetheless harvested a motley crop of plants that varied in leaf size, skin-cell density, and metabolic ability. Small differences in light levels and plant handling had produced outsize changes to the plants’ physical traits, or phenome.

The plunging price of genomic sequencing has made it easier to examine a plant’s biological instructions, but researchers’ understanding of how a plant follows those instructions in a given environment lags. “There is a major bottleneck for a lot of breeders to be able to get their phenotypic evaluation in line with their genetic capabilities,” says Bas van Eerdt, business development director at PhenoKey, in ’s-Gravenzande, Netherlands.

Read the rest of this news story in the January issue of IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].

This Robot Transforms Itself to Navigate an Obstacle Course

When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but the world starts to look more interesting if your hammer can change shape.

For the builders of a class of robots called modular self-reconfigurable robots (MSRR), shape-shifting is the first step toward endowing robots with an animal-like adaptability to unknown situations. “The question of autonomy becomes more complicated, more interesting,” when robots can change themselves to meet changing circumstances, said roboticist Hadas Kress-Gazit of Cornell University.

Read the rest of this blog post at IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].

Science as a global public good

Elizabeth Blackburn’s work on telomeres, for which she was jointly awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has turned her into a socially minded scientist. In a keynote lecture at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in June, Blackburn — a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco — called on scientists young and old to follow the same path: “Let’s use our scientific prowess to be more active, politically.”

Read the rest of this news story in Nature Outlook: [html] [pdf].

Oil in Your Wine

Every great bottle of wine begins with a humble fungal infection. Historically, winemakers relied on naturally occurring yeasts to convert grape sugars into alcohol; modern vintners typically buy one of just a few laboratory-grown strains. Now, to set their products apart, some of the best winemakers are revisiting nature’s lesser-used microbial engineers. Not all these strains can withstand industrial production processes and retain their efficacy—but a natural additive offers a possible solution, new research suggests.

Industrial growers produce yeast in the presence of oxygen, which can damage cell walls and other important proteins during a process called oxidation. This can make it harder for yeasts—which are dehydrated for shipping—to perform when winemakers revive them. Biochemist Emilia Matallana of the University of Valencia in Spain and her colleagues have been exploring practical ways to fend off such oxidation for years. After showing that pure antioxidants worked, they began searching for a more affordable natural source. They found it in argan, an olivelike fruit used for food and cosmetics. The trees it grows on are famously frequented by domesticated goats.

Matallana and her team treated three varieties of wine yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) with argan oil, dehydrated them and later rehydrated them. The oil protected important proteins in the yeasts from oxidation and boosted wine fermentation, the researchers reported in a study published online in June in Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies.

Microbiologists are now interested in studying how and why each yeast strain responded to the argan oil as it did, says enologist Ramón González of the Institute of Grapevine and Wine Sciences in Logroño, Spain, who was not involved in the work. The oil may one day enable vintners to use a wider range of specialized yeasts, putting more varied wines on the menu. As for how the oil affected the wine’s taste, Matallana says it was “nothing weird.”

This story first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Scientific American: [html] [pdf].