10 Aug 2021 STEAM / STEM

5 Good-News Science Discoveries You’ve Missed

Don’t get down in the dumps! There’s fresh science news every day to get excited about. Here are five recent discoveries, inventions or experiments to make you excited for the future.

Climate change, the pandemic and baffling social media obsessions can get us all down. But there are very good reasons to stay positive and excited about science!

We’ve assembled 5 recent science news stories to remind you of the weird and wonderful world of STEM research.

1) Microbes that turn plastic into food

Germs are usually a nuisance, but researchers have discovered some that can be incredibly useful in the world of recycling.

Researchers have started to notice that certain E-coli bacteria can break down plastics into vanillin, the substance in vanilla beans that gives them their distinctive smell and flavour.

Others have found similar results using bacteria taken from a cow’s stomach. The bacteria can eat plastic and turn it into cells made of 55% protein, which can then be turned into food.

If these methods work, they can have a huge impact on climate change and pollution. 34% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and one of the biggest causes of pollution in the world is waste plastic. So using microbes to A) make food and B) get rid of plastic is exciting news!

Last month, Professor Steve Techtmann, from Michigan Technological University, and Professor Ting Lu, from the University of Illinois, won a shared £845,769 for their plan to use the microbes to make food, so you could be eating an old plastic fork sooner than you think.

2) Scientists have found a new way to convert wasted heat into energy

In physics news, researchers are close to finding a solution to one of the biggest bothers in energy production.

Think about a combustion engine, they’re noisy, they rattle and they get very hot. All of these are signs that it is inefficient, because some of the fuel burnt is turned into useless things like noise and heat instead of useful, forward motion.

The biggest issue with any engine or motor is heat production. From heat alone, a car engine loses 65% of all energy produced.

To try and make that energy back and turn the heat into something useful, experts are trying new materials which convert heat into electricity. These are called thermoelectric materials.

At the moment, making materials that work well are expensive and can only be used on high budget items like spacecraft and Mars rovers. However, researchers have started to find that versions made using magnesium, a relatively cheap metal, can have the same effect.

Why is this good news? If their plan works, it means those really inefficient engines can regain some of the energy lost through heat and can use less fuel or electricity to run. On a wider scale, that’s better for the environment, saves us money and, many years down the line, could even extend your phone’s battery life!

3) Detecting the presence of endangered animals using the air alone

A technique has been developed that lets us detect animal DNA using nothing but the air around us, in massive news for protecting rare and endangered species.

All animals breath out absolutely tiny amounts of DNA all the time. But it’s difficult to gather the air, find the miniscule DNA samples in it and differentiate between it all to find out which animals have been around.

But that didn’t stop Professor Elizabeth Clare from the University of York having a go. Her team placed 20 vacuum pumps to suck up air all around Hamerton Zoo Park in Cambridgeshire last winter to see if they could identity the animals living there using their samples.

They took 72 air samples in total and managed to multiply the DNA inside of them so they could read the genetic code and find out which animal was which. And it was a success! They found tiger, dingo and lemur DNA in the samples, all different animals at the zoo.

In the future, it’s hoped that this technology can help conservation efforts for endangered animals. It means we can accurately detect the presence of certain animals in an area without ever needing to see them. This is important for tracking more shy or rare animals who do their best to avoid humans wherever possible, like tigers.

4) Using genetic engineering to stop malaria

In this science news, British biologists have found a way to kill off malaria-spreading mosquitoes using genetic engineering.

Malaria is a constant danger for people across tropical countries, mainly those in Africa. It’s spread by mosquitoes, which act as a ‘vector’ (an animal which helps a disease move from one host to another) by passing malaria onto humans in their bite. The disease can make people very ill and, without proper medical care, can sometimes be fatal.

There are two ways to stop malaria then- make a vaccine which stops the disease or stop mosquitos giving it to you in the first place. Thankfully, we’re closer to both of those than we ever have been before.

Back in 2018, scientists managed to change a mosquito’s DNA code to stop them reproducing in lab experiments. This meant after a few generations, the mosquitoes died out. The exciting experiments have been repeated on and off for the last few years.

Now it’s been suggested that these genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in as soon as 10 years time! So it could be possible that we’ll finally stop the spread of a disease which killed over 400,000 people in 2019 alone.

In other positive news in the fight against malaria, the advances in science accelerated thanks to the covid vaccine has had a positive impact on malaria research. A new vaccine against malaria has been shown to be 77% effective, one of the best yet!

5) Supernova explosion data captured for the first time

In an astrophysics first, the very start of a supernova has been studied in very fine detail. It can teach us more about our own sun and solar system.

In a study that’s taken since 2017 to complete, scientists have finally unravelled the mystery of what happened during supernova SN2017jgh.

A supernova is a devastating explosion that happens at the end of a sun’s life. Astronomers have known about them for generations, but have never been able to observe them very closely.

Supernovas are tricky to predict and are only visible for a few days, so if you’re looking at the wrong stars at the wrong time you might miss them. That was until Nasa’s Kelper space telescope was lucky enough to record data from a once-in-a-hundred-year event.

After years of studying the data, scientists around the world finally know exactly what happens during the explosion. They know that this sun was a yellow supergiant, a star over 100 times the size of the sun and over 10,000 times the size of Earth!

Studying this supernova is essential so we can learn how our own sun will evolve and change over it’s lifetime. Don’t worry though, you won’t have to build a supernova bomb shelter any time soon. Our sun is relatively young, it’ll take another 5.5 billion years before it’s on it’s last legs.

Want to know more?

Looking for your science fact fix, why not check out the rest of the STEAMWORKS blog. Read our Women in Engineering day post for more inspirational figures to remind you of the power of STEM, or check out our STEM in Sheffield blog to see how your local area is steeped in science history.