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UArizona studying plants' communication with their environment – Cronkite News

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TUCSON – The machine, with sharp teeth and a long metal rod, sounds like a kitchen blender, but this is far from your average appliance.

“This is a tissue homogenizer,” said Jesse Woodson, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Plant Sciences.

The “very fancy blender” is part of a project conducted by scientists at UArizona to understand how plants talk with each other. The ultimate goal is to engineer plants to help them survive a warmer world.

“We want to be able to establish communication with plants,” Woodson said. “And in order to do that, we need to know how plants are thinking about their environment and be able to sense their environment.”

Woodson and his team of students working in the lab are part of a much larger network of researchers. The National Science Foundation in October gave a $25 million grant to teams at UArizona, Cornell University and the Boyce Thompson Institute, both in New York, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to study plant communication in hopes of modifying plants for a future environment that’s likely to be warmer and drier.

(Audio by Emma VandenEinde/Cronkite News)

Their research is part of the foundation’s new Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems, or CROPPS. The scientists are working to better predict and manipulate agriculture at the molecular level to improve productivity and sustainability, according to the National Science Foundation. The transdisciplinary effort brings together scientists, engineers and computer scientists to create electronic systems that can monitor and control the responses of plants.

UArizona received $3.5 million to study plant genes and how they react biologically to their environment. The team will use data analytics, but as the project starts up, they want to understand the language of plants first.

Although their communication is not audible, plants send internal signals all the time.

“They might be sending those signals internally within the body of the plant to help the shoots understand what’s going on in the roots,” said Rebecca Mosher, the lead investigator on the CROPPS project for UArizona. “They might be sending those signals to microbes in the soil to try to recruit those microbes. And so we want to understand those signals so that we can maybe tap into them and communicate with the plants ourselves.”

These internal signals are similar to the signals our brains send us when we are stressed or in need of nutrition. However, Woodson said, plants lack one response that humans have. Plants can’t move.

“If we want to get away from something, we can run away. But a plant has to stay there and they have to deal with whatever happens,” he said. “So if it’s a hot day, it’s a dry day, there’s too much sun, if there’s not enough sun, the plant needs to do something about that in order to grow.”

When the plant is forced to grow in one spot, it creates a “survival guide” that it passes down to the next plant, which then learns how to conserve resources and adapt to its environment.

“You can’t always go by the looks or how big its brain is, but how much it can alter itself in order to fix the environment and with it in which it has to live,” Woodson said. “It’s going to have to deal with that at a very genetic level. So they need lots of genes and a lot of information stored in those cells to be able to grow and do well.”

Rebecca Mosher is the lead investigator for the UArizona team participating in a multi-university project funded by the National Science Foundation to understand how plants communicate with their environment. (Photo by Emma VandenEinde/Cronkite News)

Experimenting to understand

Before the plants —which include rice and soybeans —enter the lab, they grow in greenhouses on the roof of a parking garage south of the Tucson campus. In those greenhouses, the plants’ environment is altered.

“We might give it very high light or lots of heat, a whole variety of abiotic stresses,” Mosher said. “We can also infect it with pathogens, so a biotic stress. And then we’ll collect that tissue and take it into the laboratory.”

Inside the lab, the team extracts cells using different methods – from spinning plants in a centrifuge to jostling them in vials filled with beads. Then researchers look at cells under the microscope.

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The tissue homogenizer – a rod with sharp teeth at the end – is one of the most important devices researchers use because it cuts through the tough plant tissue to get to a plant’s cells. Inside those cells are chloroplasts, which are responsible for sensing light in its environment and performing photosynthesis.

“A lot of what we’re trying to look at is how components within cells, how cells do photosynthesis and respond to the environment,” Woodson said. “This homogenizer is basically a very fancy blender that breaks open the cells so we can pull out those chloroplasts to do experiments in the lab.”

Cristian Salazar De Leon, one of the graduate students on Woodson’s team, said the chloroplasts can reveal a lot about how plants react in high heat situations.

“Most of us look into a pathway where chloroplasts do the photosynthesis in plant cells (and look at) how they’re recycled, how they’re damaged and how the plant deals with those damaged cells,” Salazar De Leon said.

From there, the scientists can find which genes are responsible for helping the plant grow in harsh environments, then cross-pollinate plants to respond similarly. Salazar De Leon is working to prove that removing a particular gene that encodes for a specific enzyme can kill a plant. He hopes to find those patterns in other plants as well.

“This is just like one piece of an entire biochemical pathway that allows plants to be able to respond to UV light stress,” he said.

Cristian Salazar De Leon cross-pollinates Arabidopsis plants under the microscope. The small flowering plants lack a gene that helps them live under high-stress conditions. (Photo by Emma VandenEinde/Cronkite News)

Arizona’s climate perfect for testing

Although the NSF-funded universities each have their own lab for testing, Arizona’s climate offers a unique environment for experimentation.

“Our environment is incredibly hot, incredibly arid, the world is going to be turning more and more like Arizona as the planet heats up,” Woodson said.

Last year was the sixth warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. And 2020 was even hotter – it was the second warmest year on record. Temperatures in December 2021 made it the fifth-warmest December in 142 years.

As temperatures increase because of human activity that contributes to global warming, these experiments with plants could help scientists better support plants and crops in the future that are more resilient to temperature changes.

“If we can understand how plants grow with limited water in really hot environments, perhaps we can create new breeds and varieties that would be able to grow better,” Woodson said.

The UArizona project is expected to last five years. More research, the scientists say, could unlock more about plants and how they are adapting to climate change.

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SpaceX launches two Starlink missions in 24 hours – Teslarati

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Two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets have completed back-to-back Starlink launches less than 24 hours apart, successfully delivering 106 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO).

Originally scheduled just a handful of hours apart, slight delays eventually saw Starlink 4-13 and Starlink 4-15 settle on 6:07 pm EDT, May 13th and 4:40 pm EDT, May 14th, respectively. Entering the final stretch, launch preparations went smoothly and both Falcon 9 rockets ultimately lifted off without a hitch.

Starlink 4-15, May 14th. (Richard Angle)

The series began with Starlink 4-13 on Friday. SpaceX chose Falcon 9 B1063 to support the Starlink launch and the booster did its job well, wrapping up its fifth launch since November 2020 with a rare landing aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Since SpaceX permanently transferred OCISLY from the East Coast to the West Coast in mid-2021, the drone ship has only supported five booster recoveries. Save for an unusual East Coast Starlink launch in May 2021, Falcon 9 B1061 has also primarily been tasked with supporting SpaceX’s West Coast launch manifest. With only one older pad – Vandenberg Space Force Base’s (VSFB) SLC-4 complex – available to SpaceX, the company’s West Coast Falcon launches are also considerably rarer than its East Coast missions.

SpaceX has also taken to using the pad – which is in an optimal location to launch satellites that orbit Earth’s poles – to launch several batches of Starlink satellites into more ordinary equatorial orbits, essentially augmenting the capabilities of its two Florida launch sites.

Starlink 4-13 and 4-15 were more or less identical, in that regard; both launched 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites into LEO to continue filling out the fourth of five Starlink orbital ‘shells’ that will make up SpaceX’s first licensed constellation. Since SpaceX began Plane 4 (or Group 4) launches in November 2021, the company has now completed 15 missions that carried a total of 860 Starlink V1.5 satellites into orbit. Excluding a solar storm-related fluke that destroyed almost an entire launch worth of satellites, all but 8 remain operational in orbit. According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell’s independent tracking, about 300 Group 4 Starlink satellites have reached operational orbits, while another 500 or so are either raising their orbits or waiting for the right moment to do so.

The original and current planned orbits of SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation. (WCCF Tech)

As of May 2022, the first shell or ‘group’ of SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation has about 1500 operational Starlink satellites of a nominal 1584. If all working Group 4 satellites currently in orbit become operational, SpaceX has another ~770 satellites or 15 launches to go to complete the shell (17 to finish Shell 1 and Shell 4). If SpaceX maintains its current six-month launch cadence of one Starlink mission every ~11 days, SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation could have around 3400 working satellites in orbit and be more than three-quarters complete by the end of 2022.

SpaceX, by all appearances, fully intends to push its vehicles and workforce to the absolute limits in 2022 in a bid to complete as many as 60 orbital launches. To launch Starlink 4-15, for example, SpaceX made an unprecedented decision to debut a brand new Falcon 9 booster on the internal mission, demonstrating just how fully its customers have embraced reusability and how much the company wants to expand its fleet of Falcon 9 boosters as quickly as possible.

Following Starlink 4-13 and 4-15, SpaceX has completed 20 launches in the first 19 weeks of 2022 and has another two launches scheduled in the last two weeks of May.

SpaceX launches two Starlink missions in 24 hours





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Photos: Total lunar eclipse bathes Moon in red – Al Jazeera English

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Skywatchers have gathered in different parts of the globe to enjoy a total lunar eclipse that graced the skies for longer than usual.

For about an hour and a half on Sunday night into early Monday morning, the Moon was bathed in the reflected red and orange hues of the Earth’s sunsets and sunrises.

It was one of the longest totalities of the decade and the first so-called “Blood Moon” in a year.

Observers in the eastern half of North America and all of Central and South America had prime seats for the whole show, weather permitting.

Partial stages of the eclipse were visible across Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

A total eclipse occurs when the Earth passes directly between the moon and the sun and casts a shadow on our constant, cosmic companion.

The moon was expected to be 362,000km (225,000 miles) away at the peak of the eclipse.

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Q and A: She discovered the black hole at the center of our galaxy. This week, she finally saw it – Phys.org

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Credit: EHT Collaboration, CC BY-SA

This week, the world got its first-ever look at Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. The image of a hazy golden ring of superheated gas and bending light was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of eight radio observatories scattered across the globe.

Feryal Özel, a University of Arizona astronomer and founding member of the EHT consortium, said that seeing the black hole’s image was like finally meeting in real life a person you’ve only interacted with online.

For Andrea Ghez, an astrophysicist at UCLA, the encounter was perhaps more like a biographer meeting her subject after decades of pursuit.

In 2020, Ghez was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for her role in the discovery of a supermassive object at the core of the Milky Way. That object is now known to be Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short.

Ghez studies the center of our galaxy and the orbits of thousands of stars encircling the dense object at its very heart. Though she wasn’t involved with the EHT project, she said its “impressive” achievements—including its 2019 unveiling of the black hole anchoring a distant galaxy known as Messier 87—offer intriguing new possibilities for the study of the cosmos.

The Los Angeles Times spoke to her about black holes, cosmic surprises and what Einstein has to do with the GPS app on your phone. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to finally lay eyes on the thing you’ve spent your career studying?

It’s super exciting. We live in a really interesting moment where technology is advancing so rapidly in so many arenas and giving us new insights into these incredibly exotic objects.

Does it look different than you anticipated?

No, actually. It’s remarkably similar. You should see this ring at roughly two and a half times the Schwarzschild radius (the radius of the event horizon, the boundary around a black hole beyond which no light or matter can escape). That’s the prediction of where gravity should bend, and that’s exactly where you see it. That’s impressive.

How much have technological capabilities changed for researchers since you started studying black holes?

Huge, huge advances. I often say we’re surfing on a wave of technological development. Everything that we do really can be described as technology-enabled discovery.

One of the things that I love about working in these areas where the technology is evolving really quickly is that it affords you the opportunity to see the universe in a way you haven’t been able to see before. And so often that reveals unexpected discoveries.

We’re really lucky that we’re living at this moment where technology is evolving so quickly that you can really rewrite the textbooks. The Event Horizon Telescope is a similar story.

What unanswered questions about the universe excite you most?

I have a couple favorites right now. The one that I’m super excited about is our ability to test how gravity works near the using star orbits, and also as a probe of dark matter at the center of the galaxy. Both of those things should imprint on the orbits.

A simple way that I like to think about it is: The first time around, these orbits tell you the shape. And then after that you get to probe more detailed questions because you kind of know where in space the star is.

For example, S0-2 (which is my favorite star in the galaxy, and probably in the universe) goes around every 16 years. Now we are on the second passage, and that’s giving us the opportunity to test Einstein’s theories in ways that are different than what the Event Horizon Telescope is probing, as well to constrain the amount of dark matter that you might expect at the center of the galaxy. There are things that we don’t understand about the early results, and to me that’s always the most exciting part of a measurement—when things don’t make sense.

What’s your approach in those moments?

You have to have complete integrity with your process. Things may not make sense because you’re making a mistake, which is the uninteresting result, or they may not make sense because there’s something new to be discovered. That moment when you’re not sure is super interesting and exciting.

We’ve just discovered these objects at the center of the galaxy that seem to stretch out as they get close to the black hole, then become more compact. They’re called tidal interactions. If you think of the movie “Interstellar” with that big giant tidal wave, this would be like a big tidal wave that just lifts off the planet. If we’re seeing stars having those kinds of interactions, it means that the star has to be, I don’t know, a hundred times larger than anything we predicted to exist in this region. So that makes you scratch your head.

Does the new image of Sgr A* reinforce your finding that, for now, Einstein’s theory of general relativity seems to do the best job of explaining how gravity operates throughout the universe?

Yes. Absolutely. Black holes kind of represent the breakdown of our understanding of how gravity works. We don’t know how to make gravity and quantum mechanics work together. And you need those two things to work together to explain what a black hole is, because a black hole is strong gravity plus an infinitesimally small object.

Wait, what? I thought black holes were huge

No. The image is of the phenomena that happens around the black hole. The black hole has no finite size, but there is this abstract size of the event horizon, which is the last point that light can escape. And then the gravitational interaction with local light gets concentrated in this ring that’s two-and-a-half times bigger that the event horizon.

Anyway, we know that represent the breakdown of our knowledge. That’s why everyone keeps testing Einstein’s ideas about gravity there, because at some point you expect to see what you might call the expanded version of gravity, in the same way that Einstein was the expanded version of Newton’s version.

Is it fair to say that Newton’s laws do a decent job of explaining how gravity works here on our little planet, but we need Einstein once we head out into the universe?

Yes, except for what we take for granted today: our cellphones. The fact that we can find ourselves so well on Google or Waze or your favorite traffic app is because GPS systems position your phone with respect to satellites going around the Earth. Those systems have to use Einstein’s version of gravity. So, yes. We could use Newton until we cared about things like this.


Explore further

Seeing Milky Way’s new black hole is ‘only the beginning’: US researcher


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Q and A: She discovered the black hole at the center of our galaxy. This week, she finally saw it (2022, May 16)
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