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Is Algae the Jet Fuel of the Future?

For simple, tiny organisms, algae sure keep busy. In some parts of the world, furry clumps of algae are kept as pets. In other parts, the little plants are converted into biodegradable bottles or ink. In others, they wreak havoc, causing mysterious blood rains or intoxicating plankton. And in Germany's AlgaeTec lab, they may have a future as jet fuel.

The development of the airplane was a turning point in Earth’s history for many reasons. Now that humans can fly, there’s no way we’re going to give it up. Yet a single 10-hour jet flight could use as much as 36,000 gallons of fuel. We’re burning through fossil fuels at a mind-boggling rate, but we can’t do that for much longer. So the race is on to find viable, sustainable alternatives. 

Biofuels from corn, flax, and other grains are less destructive options, but some scientists feel it’s unwise to turn food into fuel in a time of worldwide hunger. Additionally, farming those raw materials takes up a whole lot of space. Algae, on the other hand, can be grown in a jar. It grows 12 times faster than soil-rooted plants, and produces a tenfold yield per hectare of growing room.

To tap into algae’s marvelous potential, researchers at the Technology University of Munich (TUM) constructed a state-of-the-art algae lab, where they can test-drive the viability of various species, as well as the plant’s responses to all kinds of growing and climate conditions. “Nobody can really predict whether algae from the tropics will be as productive under German light conditions as in their native environment,” TUM biocatalysis expert Thomas Brück said in a press statement. “Just as nobody knows whether candidates that work here will be equally successful in the light conditions of the Sahara. But now we can test all of these things in our laboratory.” 

Image Credit: Andreas Heddergott/TUM

With 12 million euros in backing from the Bavarian government and jet manufacturer Airbus, the TUM team is hard at work puzzling out the most efficient ways to convert algae into kerosene

The goal is to create a viable product by the year 2050. While optimistic, the research team is clear-eyed about algae’s potential. "To substitute 100 percent of the kerosene use today, we will not do it with algae alone,” Brück told Yahoo. “We need a combination of different technologies to actually enable that substitution.”

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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