Jul 12, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: A "ghost particle" from another galaxy

IceCube lab. Photo: Martin Wolf/IceCube/NSF

In a finding that advances our understanding of fundamental particles in the universe, scientists announced today they've detected a high-energy neutrino from outside our galaxy and, for the first-time, pinpointed its source, Alison Snyder and I write.

Why it matters: The evidence, detailed in two new studies in the journal Science, further demonstrates the potential for multi-messenger astronomy — that is, astronomy that looks at the whole electromagnetic spectrum — to help scientists answer longstanding mysteries about high-energy physics.

What they are: Neutrinos are subatomic particles with no electrical charge and almost no mass. They rarely interact with matter: A few hundred billion neutrinos move through every square inch of everything — human, home and planet — every second.

"I call them the snobs of the universe because they don't interact very much."
— Roopesh Ojha, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and UMD-Baltimore County

Their lack of interaction makes them difficult to detect, but on the plus side, Ojha says, it also means they can carry unadulterated information about where they came from.

Their origin: Evidence from a slew of observatories suggests the neutrino likely originated in an active galaxy known as a blazar. The blazar — TXS 0506+056 —is located about 4 billion light-years from Earth.

  • Like the Milky Way, blazars contain a supermassive black hole, but unlike our own galaxy the black hole is actively dragging in stars and dust and spewing out matter and light in a jet that happens to point toward Earth.

How they were detected: The high-energy neutrino was seen using an array of 5,000 sensors drilled deep underneath the South Pole, known as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

"It is a new sense. It is an entirely new means for us to learn about the cosmos," Ojha says.

Go deeper: Read the rest of our story in the Axios Stream.

2. New way to deliver gene edits to fight cancer

T-cells with green fluorescent label. Photo: Alex Marson Lab

Some of the most promising cancer therapies alter the DNA of T-cells so they will attack cancerous cells. Researchers reported earlier this week in Nature that they developed an alternative process that doesn't use viruses to accomplish this and could lead to safer, more precise treatments for cancer and other diseases.

"This could be a faster, cheaper, better way of making the next generation of cell therapies."
Alexander Marson, study author, UCSF associate professor of microbiology and immunologyShow less

Background: Gene therapy aims to reprogram genes in the immune system's T-cells that can play a role in both causing and fighting diseases. Traditional methods use viral vectors (viruses stripped of their infectious parts) to take the edited DNA across the cell membrane for gene therapy or cancer immunotherapy (such as creating CAR-T cells, which were first approved last August).

  • However, study author Theo Roth says it takes considerable time and resources to make clinical-grade viruses and issues caused by the sometimes imprecise insertion of edited genes can cause serious side effects. On top of that, there is a backlog in developing those viral vectors.

What they found: The researchers were able to briefly shock cells with electricity (called electroporation) to make the cell membranes more permeable to DNA edited with CRISPR-Cas9, Roth says.

Another benefit is that while viral vectors may take up to a year to build, the new method may only take a couple weeks. And, the method seems to allow longer strands of edited DNA to be inserted with more precision, which opens up the possibility of using CRISPR technology to treat diseases that require longer edited strands.

The concerns: Gene editing is touted as having great potential, but some recent studies have demonstrated it could cause more harm than good. While this new method could "potentially improve safety," the study states, more testing needs to be done.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

3. We're smashing heat records in the dark
Expand chart
Map and magnitude of hottest overnight low temperature records. Data: National Centers for Environmental Information; Map: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Heat waves roasted much of the Lower 48 states during the past several weeks, setting thousands of temperature records. A large number of these records — 3,655 during the past 30 days — were for warmest daily low temperature. This compared to just 309 records for the coldest overnight lows during the same period.

In some cases, such as in southern California, the overnight lows were as warm as the average daytime high for the date. This was also true during the East Coast heat wave in late June and early July. On July 2, Burlington, Vt., set a record for its hottest overnight low temperature on record for any night of the year, when the temperature never fell below 80°F .

What's behind the trend: As the world warms, we're seeing a decrease in the diurnal temperature range in many areas. This typically involves a more rapid increase in nighttime lows compared to daytime highs, although both are rising. Nighttime temperatures are warming faster than daytime highs around the world, which is consistent with what we know about human-caused global warming, since carbon dioxide impedes the flow of heat back into space.

How hot it's getting: Across the country, summer nights have warmed by 1.4°F per century since 1895, whereas days during the same period have only increased by about 0.7°F per century, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Deadly implications: When temperatures are hot during the day and stay hot at night, people have a harder time cooling off, exacerbating the health risks of heat waves. Heat was the number 1 weather-related killer in the U.S. during the past 30 years.

Go deeper: Human "fingerprint" on California's blistering heat wave.

4. Axios stories worth your time
Expand chart
Data: European Space Agency Sentinel 3 satellite via NOAA; Map: Axios Visuals

1. Inequality, poverty, unhealthy foods and other factors are preventing cancer rates from declining more significantly and uniformly across the U.S., Eileen writes.

2. People with recent onset type 1 diabetes could benefit from a generic drug aimed at addressing high blood pressure, according to a new study, Henrietta Reilly reports.

3. Florida is grappling with a harmful algae outbreak that has spread from Lake Okeechobee to nearby rivers and estuaries, harming tourism, recreation, and fishing, per Henrietta.

4. Southern California's record-shattering heat wave is exactly the type of event that scientists have tied to global warming in numerous studies. Los Angeles recorded its hottest daytime high temperature on record, at 111° F.

5. The U.S. is unprepared for the AI future, according to a Center for a New American Security report shared first with Axios. It warns of AI's potential to enable propaganda, espionage and cybercrime, Kaveh Waddell writes.

6. A new poll shows American belief in global warming reaches 10-year high, according to Ben Geman.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

1. Passion: It's grown not found, according to new research. Olga Khazan writes for The Atlantic: "[T]his study suggests that even the idea of finding your 'true' interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field."

2. Supercomputing: The race is on between China and the U.S. to build the first exascale computer, which could run complex simulations and deliver advances in climate science, AI and other fields, per MIT Technology Review's Martin Giles. Key stat: "Every person on Earth would have to do a calculation every second of every day for just over four years to match what an exascale machine will be able to do in a flash."

3. Rats and reefs: Rat infestations can be harmful to coral reef ecosystems by starving them of the nutrients they need to survive, according to a new study. Scientists examined islands in the Pacific and found rat-free ones to be associated with healthier coral and seabird life.

6. Something wondrous

The star cluster RCW 38, as captured by the HAWK-I infrared imager mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. Credit: ESO.

A constant problem astronomers have in focusing on distant star clusters is the issue of blurring in the atmosphere due to turbulent mixing.

In response, scientists have developed corrective infrared optics that allow large telescopes to see more clearly through the dust and glowing gas surrounding young stars.

The image of the young star cluster RCW 38 seen above was taken as a test of a new laser-aided Hawk-1 camera mounted on Unit Telescope 4 of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.

While previous images of RCW 38 have been captured in infrared before, this level of clarity was not seen via optical wavelengths.

According to ESO's press release, the central area is visible as a bright, blue-tinted region, and contains numerous very young stars and protostars that are still in the process of forming.

"The intense radiation pouring out from these newly born stars causes the surrounding gas to glow brightly. This is in stark contrast to the streams of cooler cosmic dust winding through the region, which glow gently in dark shades of red and orange. The contrast creates this spectacular scene — a piece of celestial artwork," per the release.

"This opens new ways to investigate celestial objects, in particular faint source near bright stars, fine structure in interstellar nebulae and also in active galactic nuclei far away."
Bruno Leibundgut, ESO VLT program scientist, tells Axios.

What's next: One of the most important developments in ESO's observing capabilities is the construction of the Extremely Large Telescope, which will be the world's largest optical telescope upon its completion, according to ESO press officer Calum Turner.

"Being able to observe with an angular resolution that is comparable to what the Hubble Space Telescope has been offering for nearly 3 decades with a telescope that is even larger will open up new research fields," Leibundgut says.
Alison Snyder