Week In Review: Past, Present and Future

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: September 19, 2013
Past, Present and Future


For me, one of the coolest things about science is its ability to teach us about the world at any time. Take a tall rock face, for example. The different layers of rock can tell you about the planet’s climate, water flow and land shape millions of years ago. Surveying the wildlife can tell you the ecological role of that particular rock face right now. And the climate around that rock face can tell you what it might look like in the future after erosion or glaciation.

This week, North Carolina scientists presented findings as old as the dawn of life and as prospective as hundreds of years in the future.

Urzymes: A Possible Key Player in the Origin of Life
Beginning with the distant past, scientists have believed for decades that life originated with a single molecule: RNA, DNA’s less hearty and complex cousin. The story goes that RNA was the original carrier of genetic information, and that RNA derivatives called ribozymes translated RNA’s genetic code to make proteins. Genetic RNA and ribozymes made the proteins, and the proteins controlled the basic functions of life. Scientists call this the RNA World Hypothesis.

But new research from UNC Medical Center is calling the RNA World Hypothesis into question. Scientists have shown that RNA and ribozymes can make proteins, but Dr. Charles Carter, who conducted the research says that the random interactions that created the first prototypes for life would have taken more time to happen than the current age of the universe.

Carter’s paper, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, argues that instead of ribozymes, rudimentary enzymes called urzymes decoded RNA to make proteins. Carter and his group examined two large groups of enzymes involved in genetic replication and found that they had a common core: the urzymes. The group then showed that urzymes can translate RNA into proteins. 

This RNA – Peptide World Hypothesis is attractive for a few reasons. First, the fact that the urzymes are common across species and many enzymes, their origin is extremely old, plausibly life’s origin old. Second, urzymes are built of basic protein pieces called peptides, which scientists know existed that far back. Scientists, on the other hand, are more unsure about the existence of ribozymes. Neither theory explains how RNA replicated itself, but Carter will be examining enzymes called polymerases, which copy genetic material to see if they have a similar urzyme unit.

Perspectives on Mountaintop Removal
On to the present, energy demand is a constant focus of both researchers and politicians, and a particularly controversial energy source in the Appalachian Mountains is mining coal by mountaintop removal. Basically, instead of digging a tunnel into a mountain’s side and removing coal from within, miners will blow up the top of a mountain and take coal from the top. 

Proponents of mountaintop removal say that it is safer and more cost-effective than sending miners into a shaft while critics say (and have shown) that the process pollutes nearby rivers. This week, Duke researchers published a paper in the journal PLoS ONE, putting some perspective on the costs of mountaintop removal.

Using satellite and production data of mountaintop mines from 1985 to 2005, the researchers calculated that to meet the US coal demand with mountaintop mining alone, miners would need to clear an area the size of Washington DC every 81 days or 10 city blocks per hour. They also found that the trees removed to supply the United States with coal in a year have the potential to remove as much carbon dioxide as 33,600 homes release in a year.

Clouded Future for Cloud Forests
On to the future, the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains are in danger of being destroyed by global warming, according to a new study from Wake Forest University. 

Cloud forests are rainforests at high elevations (usually more than a mile up). Clouds form along mountain slopes and keep these remote habitats shrouded in mist. This habitat is also home to the newly discovered olinguito. Temperatures change quickly as elevation changes, so the plants that live in the cloud forests have a very narrow range in which they can thrive. It’s a forester’s tale of Goldilocks, go too high and the plants get too cold, too low and they get too hot. Each plant lives in a narrow range where the temperature is just right.

But as the planet warms, the temperature in the cloud forest is no longer just right, forcing the organisms to try to move up to a colder part of the mountain. The issue is that a natural boundary exists, called an ecotone, beyond which trees cannot grow, and as the planet warms, the plants are moving up the mountains but the ecotone isn’t. Thus, climate change is slowly shrinking the habitable portions of the cloud forest. The team published their findings in the journal PLoS ONE.

Citizens Making the Next Scientists
NC State Professor Rob Dunn recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to find new ways to train the scientists of the future. Dunn and his colleagues at Your Wild Life have recruited citizens from around North Carolina to help with projects ranging from the microbiology of our belly buttons to the bacteria that live on our doorknobs. 

Now Dunn, researchers from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and middle school teachers from around the country will develop tools for the classroom. In the first year of this project, 4 labs at the Museum of Natural Sciences will develop classroom modules devoted to the group performing a single experiment, which will contribute to scientific knowledge.

Starting in 2014, these units will make their way into classrooms and every year the project will expand. Dunn hopes to recruit 10,000 teachers from across the country to participate in this project.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.