Gizmorama - October 23, 2017
Mars colonization takes another huge step forward with new plasma technology. Oxygen on Mars could be in our future.
Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.
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*-- Plasma technology could supply Mars mission with oxygen --*
Researchers in Portugal and France believe the Martian atmosphere could host plasma technology capable of producing oxygen. A reliable source of oxygen will be essential to any future manned explorations of Mars.
Scientists detailed the potential for Mars-based, oxygen-generating plasma technology in a new paper published in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology.
"Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space," Vasco Guerra, researcher at the University of Lisbon, said in a news release. "Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge."
On Earth, scientists are working on plasma technologies to split up CO2 into oxygen and carbon monoxide.
"Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels," Guerra said. "Low temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition."
The new research suggests some of these the CO2 decomposition technologies could be well-suited for the temperature and pressure conditions on Mars -- particularly In-Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU.
Plasma-based In-Situ Resource Utilization breaks apart CO2 by converting electron energy into vibrational excitation. Scientists believe the technology would produce a strong vibrational effect in Mars' colder, low-pressure atmosphere. The reaction would also happen slower, allowing more time for CO2 molecules to be split into oxygen and carbon monoxide.
In addition to producing oxygen for astronauts to breath, the technology could also capture carbon monoxide to be used as an additive in rocket fuel.
"This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars," Guerra said. "It would allow for increased self-sufficiency, reduce the risks to the crew, and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission."
*-- Duplications of noncoding DNA could help explain human-primate split --*
New research suggests the duplication of noncoding DNA could help explain the genetic diversity that fueled the divergence of humans from their primate relatives.
Human-specific duplications are DNA strands of at least 1,000 base pairs that are repeated in humans but not primates or other animals. In order to identify genetic differences between humans and primates, scientists scan the human genome in search of HSDs.
In the latest study, scientists at the University of California, Davis, limited their search for HSDs to noncoding DNA -- segments that don't code for specific genes but play a role in the expression of specific genes.
"What's special about these regulatory elements is that they have the propensity to impact the expression of genes nearby on the same chromosome, as well as elsewhere in the genome," Megan Dennis, an assistant professor of biochemistry at UCD, said in a news release. "This means that one duplication could affect many genes, amplifying its impact."
Many of the first genome sequencing efforts ignored noncoding DNA. Some scientists controversially dubbed the code "junk DNA." However, newer research has shown noncoding DNA play an important role in gene expression.
Because 98 percent of noncoding DNA is identical, the segments are extremely difficult to parse. But by honing in on duplicating segments, researchers can increased the odds of identifying a relevant portion of noncoding DNA.
One of the newly identified duplicating segments is SRGAP2, which scientists believe enhances human-specific neurological traits like an enlarged prefrontal cortex and more efficient brain synapses.
When scientists genetically engineered lab mice to express SRGAP2C, the rodents developed a larger prefrontal cortex.
SRGAP2C is one of several duplicating segments researchers believe play a role in encouraging the neurological traits that separate humans from primates.
Dennis and her colleagues presented their latest research efforts to attendees of the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, held this week in Orlando, Fla.
Scientists believe further analysis of duplicating noncoding DNA segments could also reveal the genetic origins of certain diseases in humans -- specifically neurological disorders like autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
"Our results point to differences between humans and primates, and hint at what makes us unique as humans," Dennis said.
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