Science Briefs: Its beak bigger than its ancient bite

July 14, 2013 

Its beak was bigger than its ancient bite

A bizarre, pouched super-predator that terrorized South America millions of years ago had huge sabre-like teeth – but its bite was weaker than that of a domestic cat, new research shows.

Australian and American marsupials are among the closest living relatives of the extinct Thylacosmilus atrox, which had tooth roots extending rearwards almost into its small braincase. “Thylacosmilus looked and behaved like nothing alive today,” said University of New South Wales paleontologist Stephen Wroe, leader of the research team.

“To achieve a kill the animal must have secured and immobilized large prey using its extremely powerful forearms, before inserting the sabre-teeth into the windpipe or major arteries of the neck – a mix of brute force and delicate precision.”

For its size, its huge canine teeth were larger than those of any other known sabre-tooth, including Smilodon, the North American sabre-toothed “tiger.”

Wroe’s team of Australian and U.S. scientists constructed and compared sophisticated computer models of Smilodon and Thylacosmilus, as well as a living conical-toothed cat, the leopard. The results are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

New method turns forest residues into cheap biofuel

According to research by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, lignocellulosic biomass can be used in the production of high-quality biofuels for the price of less than one euro per liter. A new technology developed in Finland allows the transfer of more than half the energy of raw wood materials to the end-product.

VTT focused on the production of four biofuels using a method based on pressurized fluidized-bed gasification. The fuels studied were methanol, dimethyl ether (DME), Fischer-Tropsch liquids and synthetic gasoline.

The results show that the production of renewable biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass – mainly bark and forestry residues – could achieve an energy efficiency of 50 percent, depending on the end-product and process conditions. Should the thermal energy produced as a by-product be exploited for district heat or industrial steam, overall efficiency could reach 74 percent.

Converted into gasoline-equivalent price per liter, the estimated production cost would be 0.57 euros per liter – about $2.85 per gallon.

New tiny tweezers can grab enzymes

In new research, Hao Yan and his colleagues at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute describe a pair of tweezers shrunk down to an astonishingly tiny scale. When the jaws of these tools are in the open position, the distance between the two arms is about 16 nanometers, much smaller than a grain of sand.

The group demonstrated that the nanotweezers, fabricated by means of the base-pairing properties of DNA, could be used to keep biological molecules spatially separated or to bring them together as chemical reactants, depending on the open or closed state of the tweezers.

In a series of experiments, regulatory enzymes are tightly controlled with the tweezers, which can switch reactions on or off depending on their open or closed condition. Enzymes are large molecules responsible for thousands of chemical interactions essential to life.

Results of the new research appear in the journal Nature Communications.

Science briefs

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