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Deep microbes live long and slow

What it is: Scientists have found bacteria, fungi and viruses 2.5 km under the ocean floor, aged up to 100 million years old.

The microbes were found through an ocean drilling programme in very low concentrations -- about 1,000 bacteria in a teaspoon of rock compared to billions found in the same amount of soil on the surface of Earth.

These were found to have unbelievably low rates of metabolism, reproducing only once in 10,000 years! Remarkably, there were also a fair number of viruses found at this depth. Considering that viruses need a host to survive in, scientists are amazed that they are able to do so in bacterial cells which barely have energy to survive themselves.

Why it matters: The discovery is further pushing the debate of the limits of life. Scientists ponder about what factor will ultimately set a limit on if life is possible -- temperature, depth, or something else? Also, do these microbes even qualify as life at all, given that the metabolic activity in them is almost negligible?

Another interesting implication of this study is if these underground microbial communities could be changing the chemistry of rocks by using up carbon within it, modifying the carbon cycle, and eventually affecting the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by volcanoes.

New form of carbon is stronger than graphene or diamond

What it is: Scientists have calculated the properties of a form of carbon called carbyne, finding them to be far superior to many known metals and polymers today.

Chemists don’t think that carbyne, a carbon-based material, could exist on Earth: if two strands of carbyne meet, they say, they would react explosively. Of what use could it be, then?

Tremendous, it turns out. Scientists from Rice University found out last week that carbyne, if synthesised, could about 2.5 times stronger than diamond, more flexible then typical polymers (but less than DNA), easily manipulated to twist freely or rigidly both, and more than 10 times stiffer than carbon nanotubes are.

All this incentivises researchers to try to synthesise carbyne in the lab, in the process finding a way to surmount their explosive encounters. For this: The researchers have found that two strands of carbyne wouldn’t explode if they were brought together under special conditions such that the energy required to set off a violation reaction wouldn’t be available.

Why it matters: Over the novelty value of a new, superior material, carbyne is still a bunch of carbon atoms at the end of the day. It consists of carbon atoms bonded together with alternating single bonds and triple bonds. Understanding this, nanometre-wide versions of stable carbyne could be made to be used in small machines like nanosatellites or nanorobots.

How do whales avoid sunburn?

What it is: For the first time marine biologists have studied how whales protected themselves from ultra-violet (UV) light exposure, and discovered quite a few similarities with humans.

Biopsies (tissue studies) on three species of whales -- blue, sperm and fin -- showed three different mechanisms of protection.

Blue whale, the fairest of them all, reacted to UV radiation by tanning (ie. increasing the amount of pigment in their skin) similar to humans. More pigment means more solar radiation is absorbed, and less DNA damage to skin cells occurs.

For sperm whales, which spend the longest swimming in the ocean surface, just tanning won’t do the trick. Their cells release stress proteins on exposure to UV light that protect cells from DNA damage, just like how humans release anti-oxidants in response to DNA-damaging free radicals.

Fin whales on the other hand have a lot of pigment called melanin in their skin to start with. This makes them most resistant to DNA damage.

Why it matters: With the diminishing ozone layer, it is important to know the effects of UV light on these endangered species. More interesting, however, is the implications of this study to understand human ageing -- in which UV damage plays a role. Pharmaceutical industries may gather new insights into developing anti-ageing/skin cancer therapies.

Scientists create fastest man-made spinning object ever

What it is: A tiny ball of calcium atoms has been made to rotate at 600 million rotations per minute.

There is a limit at which any object can rotate. As it rotates faster, its mass increases, too. At some point, it could be disintegrated by forces pushing outward – called centrifugal forces – that get stronger as the object gets heavier.

Scientists wanted to see this in action in smaller objects – like atoms. They brought together a group of calcium atoms in a ball 4 micrometers across, levitated it using a laser, and then oriented the beam such that it would impart a tiny twisting force on the ball. As the twist force was made stronger, the ball started to spin faster… until it reached 600 million rotations per minute.

The scientists were looking for a hypothetical force called quantum friction. This is just like friction we see in everyday events, but generated by quantum mechanical forces only.

Why it matters: Finding such a force would help scientists understand why quantum mechanical friction doesn’t apply to bigger objects, and why Newton’s laws’ friction doesn’t apply to small ones like atoms. And to find such a force, quantum mechanics would have to be pushed to its limits – like with madly spinning atoms – so it would show itself.

Quantam cryptography is safe again

What it is: Researchers have found a way to close a technological loophole in quantam cryptography, the process of using physics rather than mathematics to encode information, which had allowed secrets to be left open to eavesdroppers.

Usually, at least in theory, quantam cryptography has been found to be uncrackable. In practice, not so much, as in 2010, an international team of researchers had found a way to hack the system by exploiting a weakness involving the detection of individual photons.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have now found a way out to counter this exploit. A quantam ‘key’ is essentially created by sending randomly polarized signals to one party.

However, during this process, the researchers did not determine the actual polarization but merely whether the signals were at right angles — thus avoiding the photon problem.

Why it matters: While this essentially means quantam cryptography is safe again, it has huge implications for commercial quantum cryptography, which has far been struggling to avoid this loophole. This is a big boost to the security-encryption industry.

Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj and Anuj Srivas

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Why It MattersAugust 21, 2013

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