Sep 6, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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Situational awareness: Hurricane Florence is spinning in the Atlantic, and computer model projections show it is a growing threat to the East Coast next week. Here are key messages from the National Hurricane Center.

1 big thing: Deeper corals aren't refuges after all

Researcher Norbert Englebert surveys a coral reef. Photo: Pim Bongaerts/California Academy of Sciences

Deep-water coral reefs may not offer adequate protection to corals being degraded by heatwaves at the surface of the ocean, according to new research.

Why it matters: Those reefs, at between 100–500 feet underwater, are frequently viewed as conservationists’ best hope in saving vulnerable corals.

  • The widespread degradation of coral reefs — which nurture creatures that provide critical food supplies for millions of people — is one of the clearest impacts from climate change affecting humanity.

The details: The study, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, examines the extent to which coral bleaching penetrated to deeper waters during the Great Barrier Reef's devastating mass bleaching event in 2016.

  • During this event, 30% of the Barrier Reef's shallow water corals died.

How they did it: Using temperature measurements at various depths at nine sites on the Great Barrier Reef and in the western Coral Sea, plus surveys conducted by divers down to 130 feet, the researchers concluded that deeper depths offered some protection from intense bleaching. However, this protection came with caveats:

  • Initially, cooler waters moving up from deeper waters kept the deep-water corals from bleaching. But once these currents shut down as the austral summer ended, the water temperatures skyrocketed in these zones, too.
  • The researchers characterized the impacts on the deep reefs as "severe" — 40% of the coral colonies studied were bleached, and 6% died.
  • The toll closer to the surface: 69% of coral colonies bleached at a depth of just 16 feet.
  • Researchers also found the species of corals change with water depth. That hints at the difficulty of a leading conservation strategy involving relocating vulnerable corals from the surface to deeper waters.

The context: Several studies published in the past few years raise doubt that deep-water corals can serve as refuges for coral species deemed vulnerable at the surface.

  • For example, a study published in the journal Science in July, found that deep-water reefs are "distinct, impacted, and in as much need of protection as shallow coral reefs."
  • Another recent paper reported reefs on the island nation of Palau have seen an uptick in bleaching events, though at different intervals and with varying severity compared to surface reefs.

Yes, but: One limitation of the new study, according to study author Pedro Rodrigues Frade from the University of Algarve, is that it does not indicate what ultimately happened to the deep coral reefs after the bleaching event.

  • The research team hopes to return to their monitoring sites to see if these corals bounced back or suffered longer-term damage, like many of the surface reefs did.

Thomas Frölicher, a climate researcher at the University of Bern who was not affiliated with the study, tells Axios the new research also shows that scientists need to better understand local ocean currents, which can control the fate of deeper reefs.

2. Immunotherapy target brain cancers

MRI of a patient with a glioblastoma tumor. Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

An international team of scientists says it's developed a molecule that can target the two most common brain cancers, successfully slowing down tumor growth in a pre-clinical study on animals published in Nature Wednesday, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: The targeted brain cancers — adults' glioblastoma and children's medulloblastoma — are aggressive cancers often fatal within 2 years (as seen when glioblastoma claimed the life of Sen. John McCain). The team hopes this new method, which successfully breaches the blood-brain barrier, can be an important step forward in finding an effective treatment.

What they did: The team first determined the best way to breach the brain barrier by studying the mechanism used by another disease, multiple sclerosis, to get around the barrier.

  • Then, "using lessons learned from MS," they developed a molecule that can get around the barrier by attaching to certain cells of the barrier (known as ALCAM), study co-author Nabil Ahmed tells Axios.
  • The T-cells are engineered to bind to an antigen produced by the cancer (called HER2), allowing it to locate and attack the tumors.

What they found: In testing in mice, the molecule, known as HS-CD6, "robustly infiltrated brain cancers after intravenous injection and exhibited potent antitumor activity," the study states.

  • The therapy did not appear to be toxic, which is a common failing of immunotherapies, and appeared to only attack the tumor sites, the authors said.
"The HS molecule that can overcome this [blood-brain] obstacle is a first-in-class; no similar molecules have been previously described. ... I am quite excited about the possible advantage of this to patients with incurable brain cancers that could hopefully benefit from using this in the clinic."
Nabil Ahmed, Baylor College of Medicine

What they're saying:

  • Stanford University's Michelle Monje-Deisseroth says it's a "major leap forward" in understanding the trafficking of T-cells to brain tumors.
  • Heidelberg University's Michael Platten writes in Nature that it "lays out a viable strategy for immunotherapy in glioblastoma" but faces key challenges including concerns about toxicity and targeting the wrong cells.

Go deeper: Read Eileen's full piece here.

3. How to cost-effectively decarbonize power

Workers install solar panels at the on-grid power project of China Huaneng Group on June 13 in Huai'an, China. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Renewables are just part of the answer to how we can best transition to a zero carbon power sector by midcentury, Ben Geman writes. It will also take other low-carbon tech options, and policymakers should not close the door on any of them, a new paper by MIT researchers finds.

Why it matters: So-called "deep decarbonization" of electricity systems by mid-century is an important part of preventing runaway global warming.

What they did: The study in the peer-reviewed journal Joule offers a new taxonomy for how to think about a decarbonized power mix. The study explored almost 1,000 power sector scenarios based on various emissions limits, regional differences, technology uncertainties and more.

It's the latest entry on the "no" side of a debate among some academics and activists over whether renewables and storage alone can decarbonize energy systems.

The details: The study breaks down climate-friendly energy technologies into three basic categories:

  • Variable renewable resources, like wind and solar.
  • "Fast-burst" resources, including batteries and pricing changes, that can provide quick adjustments to supply or demand.
  • "Firm" low-carbon resources including nuclear, natural gas with carbon capture and hydro-dams with large reservoirs.

What they found: We're going to need to rely on that last category — "firm" low-carbon resources, in order to affordably get power sector emissions down to zero.

“It’s not about specific technologies. It’s about those key roles that we need filled on the low-carbon team,” study co-author Jesse Jenkins tells Axios.

The big picture: The study arrives as California is on the cusp of enacting legislation that requires a zero carbon power mix by 2045.

What they're saying: Energy experts who were not involved in the study tell Axios it makes valuable contributions.

Costa Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University says it helps to show that even steep cost declines in renewables and batteries aren't enough.

  • "What the authors have shown in this paper, is that getting to a zero carbon energy system is considerably more costly without firm low-carbon resources even when considering that variable renewables and fast-burst balancing resources could get really cheap," he said.
4. Axios stories worthy of your time
Expand chart
Data: Hazan and Zoabi, 2015, via a World Economic Forum article; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Education and family choices: American women with an advanced degree are having more kids on average than those with only bachelor's degrees, Stef W. Kight writes.

Ebola: The outbreak in the DRC has spread to a new city of about 1 million people, complicating containment efforts, Eileen reports.

Lower carbon oil: Saudi Arabia is promoting their vast oil supplies as having a lower carbon intensity than other major producers, per Ben Geman.

Anti-aging drug boom looms: As the average age in developed economies rises in coming years, the anti-aging drug market may expand, Steve LeVine writes.

Cancer: Driver, a new health startup, hopes to connect cancer patients and survivors to treatments, according to Bob Herman.

Coming epidemics: Peter Hotez writes for Axios Expert Voices about the factors that are making the U.S. increasingly vulnerable to epidemics.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

First views of Ultima Thule from the New Horizons spacecraft. At the time of these observations, Ultima Thule was 107 million miles from the spacecraft. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Data searching: Google launched a new service that will allow people to search scientific and other datasets, reports The Verge's James Vincent.

Huge push for open-access publishing: 11 major European research funders announced a plan to mandate, starting in 2020, that scientists they fund make resulting studies free to read upon publication, per Nature's Holly Else.

Meet NASA's newest spacecraft: NASA is set to launch a new satellite, ICESat-2, on Sept. 15. It will track Earth's melting ice sheets with greater precision than ever before, writes Maddie Stone for Earther.

Ultima Thule comes into view: NASA's intrepid New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in 2015, caught site of its next target, writes Miriam Kramer for Mashable.

6. Something wondrous
View of Saturn's North Pole from the Cassini spacecraft. Image includes observations from the UV to the infrared spectrums. GIF: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University

The Cassini spacecraft, which ended its mission in September 2017, has led scientists to another new discovery about Saturn: A warming, towering polar vortex sits hundreds of miles above the clouds at its northern pole when it nears its summer season.

  • This vortex isn’t like Earth’s now-infamous polar one, which is a ring of high winds at upper levels of the atmosphere above the North Pole during the winter.
  • Instead, it takes the shape of a hexagon both in the lower and upper altitudes of the polar region, and NASA researchers now say the two circulations may be connected.
  • It’s not yet known exactly how the vortex maintains the hexagonal shape for such great heights, according to a new study published Sept. 3 in Nature Communications.

"While we did expect to see a vortex of some kind at Saturn's north pole as it grew warmer, its shape is really surprising," Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester said in a statement. "Either a hexagon has spawned spontaneously and identically at two different altitudes, one lower in the clouds and one high in the stratosphere, or the hexagon is in fact a towering structure spanning a vertical range of several hundred kilometres."

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading! See you next Thursday.