Science Briefs: 4 billion years ago, fresh water on Mars

February 2, 2014 

4 billion years ago, fresh water on Mars

Some of the oldest minerals ever analyzed by NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover show that around 4 billion years ago Mars had liquid water so fresh it could have supported life.

Paulo de Souza of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – Australia’s national science agency – said, “While Mars is too cold now to have the liquid water needed for life, we’ve had evidence for past water activity on the planet from satellite images of valleys and analysis of rocks by the Rovers. But the water that once shaped those landscapes and minerals was as acidic as vinegar.

“Our latest research has found not only the earliest episode of water activity documented yet by the Opportunity Rover, but that the geochemistry of the 4-billion-year-old rocks indicates extensive deposits of past water that’s among the freshest, most life-sustaining found so far anywhere on Mars.”

“If there was ever life on Mars, then this would have been the mud for it to live in.”

The findings were announced in the journal Science.

Researchers make glass that bends without breaking

When you drop a drinking glass on the floor in the future, it may bend – not shatter. That’s because a team led by François Barthelat of Canada’s McGill University was inspired by the mechanics of natural structures such as seashells in order to significantly increase the toughness of glass.

“Mollusk shells are made up of about 95 percent chalk, which is very brittle in its pure form,” said Barthelat, a mechanical engineer. “But nacre, or mother-of-pearl – which coats the inner shells (and) is made up of microscopic tablets that are a bit like miniature Lego building blocks – is known to be extremely strong and tough, which is why people have been studying its structure for the past 20 years.”

The researchers were able to increase the toughness of glass slides (the kind used with microscopes) 200 times by engraving their surfaces with networks of micro-cracks in configurations of wavy lines in shapes similar to the wavy edges of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. This stopped the cracks from propagating and becoming larger. They then filled these micro-cracks with polyurethane, although according to Barthelat, this second process is not essential because the patterns of micro-cracks in themselves are sufficient to stop the glass from shattering.

Honeybee queen is 1 gene apart from workers

Scientists have identified how a single gene in honey bees separates the queens from the workers.

Scientists from Michigan State University and Wayne State University unraveled the gene’s inner workings and published the results in Biology Letters. The gene, which is responsible for leg and wing development, plays a crucial role in the evolution of bees’ ability to carry pollen.

“This gene is critical in making the hind legs of workers distinct so they have the physical features necessary to carry pollen,” said MSU entomologist Zachary Huang. The gene – Ultrabithorax, or Ubx – allows workers to develop a smooth spot on their hind legs that hosts their pollen baskets. On another part of their legs, the gene promotes the formation of 11 neatly spaced bristles, a section known as the “pollen comb.”

While workers have these distinct features, queens do not. The research team was able to confirm this by isolating and silencing Ubx.

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