Boost for Solar Cells Also Makes Self-Driving Cars Safer

Solar

Engineers working to make solar cells more cost effective ended up finding a method for making sonar-like collision avoidance systems in self-driving cars.

The twin discoveries started, the researchers say, when they began looking for a solution to a well-known problem in the world of solar cells.

Solar cells capture photons from sunlight in order to convert them into electricity. The thicker the layer of silicon in the cell, the more light it can absorb, and the more electricity it can ultimately produce. But the sheer expense of silicon has become a barrier to solar cost-effectiveness.

So the engineers figured out how to create a very thin layer of silicon that could absorb as many photons as a much thicker layer of the costly material. Specifically, rather than laying the silicon flat, they nanotextured the surface of the silicon in a way that created more opportunities for light particles to be absorbed.

Their technique increased photon absorption rates for the nanotextured solar cells compared to traditional thin silicon cells, making more cost-effective use of the material.

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Clues to why leaves come in many sizes

Rainforest canopy, Panama

The huge variety of leaves in the plant kingdom has long been a source of wonder and fascination.

The leaves of a banana plant, for instance, are about a million times bigger than the leaves of heather.

The conventional wisdom is that leaf size is limited by the balance between how much water is available to a plant and the risk of overheating.

However, a study of more than 7,000 plant species around the world suggests the answer may be more complex.

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How gut bacteria may affect anxiety

illustration of human gut

Tiny molecules in the brain may help gut bacteria hijack people’s emotions.

Bacteria living in the human gut have strange influence over mood, depression and more, but it has been unclear exactly how belly-dwelling bacteria exercise remote control of the brain (SN: 4/2/16, p. 23). Now research in rodents suggests that gut microbes may alter the inventory of microRNAs — molecules that help keep cells in working order by managing protein production — in brain regions involved in controlling anxiety.

The findings, reported online August 25 in Microbiome, could help scientists develop new treatments for some mental health problems.

Mounting evidence indicates “that the way we think and feel might be able to be controlled by our gut microbiota,” says study coauthor Gerard Clarke, a psychiatrist at University College Cork in Ireland. For instance, the presence or absence of gut bacteria can influence whether a mouse exhibits anxiety-like behaviors, such as avoiding bright lights or open spaces.

Clarke and colleagues compared normal mice, whose gastrointestinal tracts were teeming with bacteria, with mice bred in sterile environments, whose guts didn’t contain any microbes. The researchers discovered that in brain regions involved in regulating anxiety — the amygdala and prefrontal cortex — microbe-free mice had an overabundance of some types of microRNA and a shortage of others compared with normal mice. After scientists exposed some sterilized mice to microbes, the rodents’ microRNA levels more closely matched those of normal mice.

The team also examined microRNAs in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of rats whose gut bacteria had been decimated by antibiotics. These rats overproduced or underproduced some of the same microRNAs that were off-kilter in bacteria-free mice. The researchers suspect that gut bacteria affect their host’s anxiety levels by tampering with microRNAs in specific parts of the brain.

“I was a little surprised by the findings — in a positive way — because I think not many people so far have thought about microRNAs in this context,” says Peter Holzer, a neurogastroenterologist at the Medical University of Graz in Austria who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s heading into a new area in gut-brain research that hasn’t been pursued.”

Researchers still aren’t sure how these bacteria dial microRNA production up and down in the brain. Maybe the microbes send signals along the vagus nerve, a kind of information highway that runs from gut to brain. Or perhaps bacteria churn out molecular by-products that provoke the immune system to produce chemicals that cause the brain to produce more or less of particular microRNAs. Outlining microbes’ mental manipulation scheme from start to finish “is still a work in progress,” Clarke says.

Next the team wants to see if probiotic drugs can cultivate certain types of bacteria in the gut, and therefore fine-tune microRNA levels in specific parts of the brain. If scientists can adjust microRNA abundances in a way that assuages anxiety, it could help lead to the development of new medications for psychiatric and neurological disorders.

MicroRNA-based medications may be unrealistic in the short term, though, says gastroenterologist Kirsten Tillisch of UCLA. “People tend to like to extrapolate these types of results to humans and start moving quickly towards clinical applications. It is just so tempting,” says Tillisch, who was not involved in the study. “But we know historically the translation from lab animal to human is hit-and-miss.”

source: Science News

This ancient sea worm sported a crowd of ‘claws’ around its mouth

illustration of an ancient arrow worm

Predatory sea worms just aren’t as spiny as they used to be.

These arrow worms, which make up the phylum Chaetognatha, snatch prey with Wolverine-like claws protruding from around their mouths. Researchers now report that a newly identified species of ancient arrow worm was especially heavily armed. Dubbed Capinatator praetermissus, the predator had about 50 curved head spines, more than twice as many as most of its modern relatives. Arranged in two crescents, the spines could snap shut like a Venus flytrap to catch small invertebrates.

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