Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sea Power, Autism, Ants, Clades, and Nuclear Waste

1—A BETTER SEA POWER TRAP. Wave Energy Converters (WECs) harvest the energy of ocean waves, and represent an enormous potential in the creation of usable alternative energy. But the utility of WECs is hampered by the unpredictability of waves—and by their occasional surprising violence, which can destroy WECs altogether. According to a study recently published in the journal Renewable Energy, a team of scientists at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Exeter have developed an algorithm that, when programmed into a control unit, can give WECs a one-second warning about wave height and force. This allows a WEC to react to each wave individually, collecting energy efficiently and surviving even the roughest assaults. In the lab, the new prediction algorithm improved wave energy collection by 100%, doubling the amount of energy collected. (Renewable Energy is not available online.)

2—HOGWASH TREATMENTS FOR AUTISM? The prevalence of autism is on the rise. But according to Vanderbilt University researchers reporting on August 27 in Pediatrics, every one of the interventions currently used for the growing numbers of adolescents and young children needing substantial support are based on insufficient evidence. The researchers examined 32 studies addressing medical, vocational, and behavioral interventions, and deemed all of them structurally flawed. In light of the current autism “epidemic,” the researchers have concluded that that more rigorous studies about care for adolescents and children with autism are urgently needed.

3—TALKING THROUGH THEIR NOSES. By creating a full map of the olfactory system of worker ants of two distinct species, a research team at Vanderbilt University has come to a new understanding of ant gender roles and ant communication. The map shows that females of the two species each have about 400 distinct odorant receptors. This is four to five times more than most other insects have, and about three times more than male ants of the species studied have. Reporting in the August 2012 issue of PLoS Genetics, the VU scientists speculate that smell is the probable fundament of ant communication. Chemical signals setting off specific odorant sensors would explain how ants live in a complex social system characterized by division of labor and the ability to collaboratively solve complex problems. The researchers suggest a reason that male ants have fewer odorant receptors than females. They are only responsible for fertilizing eggs. Females, it seems organize and do just about everything else.

4—STUMPING DARWIN. A “clade” is a group consisting of a species and all of the many species descendant from it. Given the glacial pace of evolutionary change, one of the most fundamental expectations in evolutionary studies is that species richness in a clade is a measure of its age. Now that central assumption has been thrown into question. Publishing this August in PLoS Biology, evolutionary biologists from UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and UCLA report testing the relationship between clade age and species richness across nearly 1400 major clades of multicellular fungi, plants, arthropods, and vertebrates that collectively account for more than 1.2 million species. The team found no evidence whatsoever between clade age and species richness. “This result appears to hold across the entire tree of life, for taxa as diverse as ferns, fungi, and flies,” the scientists report.

5—SOLVING THE NUCLEAR WASTE PROBLEM WHILE PRODUCING EXTRA ENERGY. Physicists at the University of Texas at Austin have been awarded a U.S. patent for a fusion-fission hybrid nuclear reactor that could someday be used to turn nuclear sludge into usable energy. Parts of the device are still in the conceptual phase. But a “tokamak,” which uses magnetic fields to confine super-high temperature nuclear waste and produce fusion reactions, has been manufactured and is being installed in the UK at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. CCFE, just south of Oxford, is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research.

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