Friday, December 3, 2021


Omicron mutations alarm scientists, but new variant first must prove it can outcompete delta


People pass through Waterloo train station in London.

Credit: Matt Dunham/AP.


When the variant now known as omicron first appeared on a global database of coronavirus genomic sequences, scientists were stunned. This was the weirdest creature they’d seen to date. It had an unruly swarm of mutations. Many were known to be problematic, impeding the ability of antibodies to neutralize the virus. But there had never been a variant with so many of these mutations gathered in a package. Even though scientists recognized some of these mutations, many others were new and utterly enigmatic.


Laboratory experiments can help characterize whether mutations are consequential or just a random change of no great significance. But omicron is so new that it has not yet been sent through a gantlet of laboratory tests.


“It looks grim, but it needs to be tested and we don’t know how these mutations will act together,” said Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Full story)



Californium complex offers bonding insights



Newton’s californium complex has provided the first crystal structure featuring a californium-carbon bond, helping probe bonding trends in the nether regions of the periodic table.


Californium is the heaviest element available in milligram quantities. Its scarcity and radioactivity pose huge experimental challenges.


“We’re really pushing the limits of the smallest scale at which you can do classical synthetic chemistry,” says Andrew Gaunt, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and part of the team that created the complex. (Full story).



Diverse satellite images sharpen our picture of Earth


Being able to accurately detect changes to the Earth’s surface using satellite imagery can aid in everything from climate change research and farming to human migration patterns and nuclear nonproliferation. But until recently, it was not possible to flexibly integrate images from multiple types of sensors — for example, ones that show surface changes (such as new building construction) versus ones that show material changes (such as water to sand). Now, with a new capability, we can — and in doing so, we get a more frequent and complete picture of what’s happening on the ground.


At Los Alamos National Laboratory, we’ve developed a flexible mathematical approach to identify changes in satellite image pairs collected from different satellite sensor types that use different sensing technologies, allowing for faster, more complete analysis. It’s easy to assume all satellite images are the same and, thus, comparing them is simple. But the reality is quite different. Hundreds of different imaging sensors are orbiting the Earth right now, and nearly all take pictures of the ground in a different way from the others. (Full story)



Global Warming, Not Just Drought, Drives Bark Beetles To Kill More Ponderosa Pines


Bark beetle. Courtesy photo


In California’s Sierra Nevada, western pine beetle infestations amped up by global warming were found to kill 30% more ponderosa pine trees than the beetles do under drought alone. A new supercomputer modeling study hints at the grim prospect of future catastrophic tree die-offs and offers insights for mitigating the combined risk of wildfires and insect outbreaks. “Forests represent a crucial buffer against warming climate and are often touted as an inexpensive mitigation strategy against climate change,” said Zachary Robbins, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, graduate student at North Carolina State University, and lead author of the paper on beetles and ponderosa pine tree die-offs. “Our research shows that warming shortens the time between beetle generations, supercharging beetle population growth. That can then spur catastrophic mortality in forest systems during drought in the Sierra Nevada and throughout the Western United States.”


In the recently published study in Global Change Biology, Robbins and his collaborators developed a new modeling framework to assess the risk western pine beetles, or bark beetles, pose in many forest ecosystems under climate change. If the effects of compromised tree defenses (15% to 20%) and increased bark beetle populations (20%) are additive, the team determined that 35% to 40% more ponderosa pines would die from beetle attacks for each degree Celsius of warming. 


“Our study is the first to attribute a level of tree mortality to the direct effect of warming on bark beetles, using a model that captures both beetle reproduction and development rates and host stress,” Robbins said. “We found that even slight increases in the number of annual generations of bark beetles due to warming can significantly increase tree mortality during drought.” (Full story)



Program aims to help Indigenous women get into the world of physics


Astrid Morreale, researcher in the Nuclear

and Particle Physics and Applications group at LANL,

co-principal investigator on the project.


Indigenous women are the most underrepresented group in physics. Los Alamos National Laboratory is trying to change that with a new program aiming to help women and break down stereotypes. The lab is teaming up with Fort Lewis College in Durango to change that.


A new program funded by the Department of Energy started last month. Two Fort Lewis undergraduate Indigenous women, majoring in physics will now get mentoring from LANL scientists for a year. “At some point, they will be taking a trip to the European lab which is the largest laboratory for our field in Europe,” said LANL physicist Astrid Morreale.


Morreale says it’s more than just training. “Also break down the stereotypes some people may have on what it takes to be a physicist and what does a physicist look like. It is important to have people from different backgrounds, different ways of life,” Morreale said.


She says while the program aims to help Indigenous women, she stresses that the lab and the field of physics have much to gain by bolstering participation from underrepresented groups. “But in my field in particular which is very international we can’t really succeeded if you don’t have diversity,” Morreale said.


Ariello Platero, a member of the Navajo Nation, and Julie Nelson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, were picked for the program this year. (Full story)