Friday, April 9, 2021

COVID mutants multiply as scientists race to decode variations 

Covid-19 illustration from CDC.


When Bette Korber, a biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, spotted the first significant mutation in the Covid-19 virus last spring, some scientists were skeptical. They didn’t believe it would make the virus more contagious and said its rapid rise might just be coincidence.


“By watching it carefully, we can stay ahead of the virus and that is what everyone is scrambling to do right now,” said Korber, who is working to create new mathematical tools for spotting medically significant variants.


The flood of new genome data is so great that the Los Alamos lab had to upgrade its servers to deal with the incoming data. Meanwhile, Korber is on four Zoom calls a week with experts worldwide to devise criteria for deciding when mutations are concerning enough to merit detailed laboratory follow-up on how they may impact vaccines. (Full Story)


Mason updates community leaders on LANL initiatives


Thom Mason, LANL photo.


At the quarterly Community Conversation breakfast held remotely Wednesday, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Director Thom Mason updated more than 140 attendees on the Laboratory’s budget, infrastructure, recent scientific discoveries, and initiatives in education, economic development and support to community nonprofits.


Mason began by touting recent research in using the LANL proton accelerator to produce specialized isotopes to fight cancer by zapping diseased cells. That’s not LANL’s only recent contribution to medical science. New software can simulate the brain and how it reacts to trauma in order to help doctors treat brain trauma, Mason said. (Full Story)


What NASA's Mars Perseverance Rover mission has achieved in its first 50 days


NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA image.


Since its February 18 landing, the car-sized rover has captured public attention and made global headlines as it explores the Martian surface.The mission is only just getting started, but Perseverance has already got a number of achievements under its belt.


Perseverance has been investigating rocks, and scientists have already determined that several of them are chemically similar to volcanic rocks here on Earth.


The rover has used its on-board laser to zap nearby rocks, and scientists can use this tool to work out what they're made of. One such rock, named Yeehgo, had signs that water is locked up inside its minerals, Roger Wiens, a geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told the journal Nature. (Full Story)


See where NASA just zapped this odd Martian rock with a laser


A curious, holey rock on Mars, NASA image.


From distances of over 20 feet away, a laser strike concentrates the power of one million light bulbs onto rocks and soil, producing flickers of light. These flickers are excited atoms, and the SuperCam analyzes this light to glean if a rocky target might have preserved past signs of Martian life — A holey, peculiar rock certainly struck the Perseverance science team as a place of interest. What type of rock is it? Why is it so holey?


"We thought we better check it out," Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who leads the SuperCam team, told Mashable. "We’re trying to investigate the different types of rocks we see."  (Full Story)


New research shows Mars did not dry up all at once


ChemCam on Curiosity, NASA image.


While attention has been focused on the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars last month, its predecessor Curiosity continues to explore the base of Mount Sharp on the red planet and is still making discoveries. Research published today in the journal Geology shows that Mars had drier and wetter eras before drying up completely about 3 billion years ago.


“A primary goal of the Curiosity mission was to study the transition between the habitable environment of the past, to the dry and cold climate that Mars has now. These rock layers recorded that change in great detail,” said Roger Wiens, a coauthor on the paper and scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he is on the ChemCam team. ChemCam is the rock-vaporizing laser that sits on the mast of the Curiosity rover and analyzes the chemical composition of Martian rocks. (Full Story)


Why an intense fire season may be shaping up in 2021


LANL Firetec model. LANL image.


During the fire seasons of today, there are boosted odds for unnaturally, unusually big wildfires — particularly when it's already dry (like 2021). "This year has the potential for a significant intersection between dry fuels and highly accumulated fuels," said Rod Linn, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert in wildfire modeling.


Further confounding matters, the rainy season is growing shorter in the Golden State, which means more opportunity for fires to spread over the dry land, particularly in the fall. "It's not just the severity [of fire conditions], it's the length of time in which the land is fire-prone," said Los Alamos' Linn. (Full Story) 


Colorado River basin due for more frequent, intense hydroclimate events


Colorado River basin, USGS map.


In the vast Colorado River basin, climate change is driving extreme, interconnected events among earth-system elements such as weather and water. These events are becoming both more frequent and more intense and are best studied together, rather than in isolation, according to new research.


"We found that concurrent extreme hydroclimate events, such as high temperatures and unseasonable rain that quickly melt mountain snowpack to cause downstream floods, are projected to increase and intensify within several critical regions of the Colorado River basin," said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper in the journal Water. "Concurrent extreme events of more than one kind, rather than isolated events of a single type, will be the ones that actually harm people, society, and the economy." (Full Story)


Moving toward a clean-energy future by advancing fuel cell technology


The U.S. transportation industry is the nation’s largest generator of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly one-third of climate-warming emissions. To move towards a clean-energy future, developing zero-emissions technologies for heavy-duty vehicles is critical. A new partnership comprising Los Alamos National Laboratory, Advent Technology Holdings Inc., Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will work over the next few years to bring to market high-temperature proton exchange membrane (HT-PEM) fuel cells that convert hydrogen and other renewable fuels into electricity.


“As the heavy-duty transportation industry seeks greener alternatives to combustion engines, HT-PEM fuel cells promise a clean, efficient alternative,” said Rod Borup, Los Alamos program manager for Fuel Cells and Vehicle Technology. (Full Story)


Core Concept: Muography offers a new way to see inside a multitude of objects


Muon radiography detector prototype, LANL photo.


After the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001, the US government investigated whether muography could be used to search for smuggled nuclear material. Physicist Chris Morris of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, and his team succeeded. Instead of counting muons blocked by an object, the physicists tracked those that were deflected by the dense concentration of charge in atomic nuclei. This change in trajectory can be spotted in a detector—actually, two detectors—to compare the paths of muons before and after they pass through the material of interest.


“We built a scanner that was big enough so that we put a little ramp up and drive a Jeep into it and examine the contents of the Jeep and pretty much showed it worked,” Morris says. Revealing the technology in 2003, the team claimed its scanner could find “a block of uranium concealed inside a truck full of sheep” (Full Story)


Translation software enables efficient DNA data storage

In support of a major collaborative project to store massive amounts of data in DNA molecules, a Los Alamos National Laboratory–led team has developed a key enabling technology that translates digital binary files into the four-letter genetic alphabet needed for molecular storage.


“Our software, the Adaptive DNA Storage Codec (ADS Codex), translates data files from what a computer understands into what biology understands,” said Latchesar Ionkov, a computer scientist at Los Alamos and principal investigator on the project. “It’s like translating from English to Chinese, only harder.” (Full Story)


Also from the LA Reporter

Optical biosensor device aids in biomarker identification


Waveguide platform offers at least 10 times greater sensitivity than conventional systems. LANL photo.


Work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in conjunction with its research partners, provides valuable new insights into the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) using blood tests. A paper in the journal PLOS ONE today demonstrates the role that host-pathogen interactions play in detecting key biomarkers in blood, facilitating the diagnosis of disseminated or sub-clinical TB disease.


“We described two tailored assay strategies for the direct detection of a particular biomarker by taking advantage of its association with fat-carrying lipoproteins in our body,” said Harshini Mukundan, lead scientist on the project. “Our findings highlight the role that host-pathogen interactions play during TB disease and the need to account for these interactions in the design of diagnostic assays. (Full Story)



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