In most states it’s illegal for drivers to talk on cell phones. But if the Department of Transportation has its way, soon the cars themselves will talk to each other. A proposed rule would require automakers to equip all new cars and light trucks with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. This “360-degree situational awareness” could detect when another car runs a red light, changes lanes unexpectedly, or makes another sudden move that usually causes a crash. Just imagine smart cars that not only improve traffic congestion, but dramatically reduce traffic accidents and fatalities by up to 80%. But it won’t happen overnight—the rule, once approved, requires 50% of all new cars and light trucks to have the technology within 2 years, and 100% within 4 years. And given the number of old beaters on the roads, it’ll be decades before a majority of these cars make it to the streets.
In other cars-that-think-for-you news: Google has migrated its self-driving car project into a separate company called Waymo, a sign that it plans to bring robot-controlled cars to market within a few years. At the same time, Waymo has offered a sneak peek at its joint venture with Fiat Chrysler—the development of 100 fully autonomous Pacifica Hybrid minivans.
Methane is the latest, and unexpected, global threat to climate change, according to an international team of scientists. Atmospheric concentrations of methane increased slowly in the early 2000s, by an average of 0.5 parts per billion. Around 2007, those numbers rose sharply; by 2014–2015, levels skyrocketed to 10 or more parts per billion annually. Carbon dioxide emissions have leveled off in recent years, in large part because China has reduced its dependence on coal. Methane is now a more pressing concern. While not plentiful in the atmosphere, methane traps 28 times more heat than CO2, making it a more potentially damaging greenhouse gas. The exact cause of the spike is unclear. Many climatologists point to the growth of such industries as cattle raising (cows belch methane during digestion) and rice farming (flooded rice paddies harbor a microbe that produces the gas). Others say increased natural gas drilling in North America leads to greater methane emissions. Experiments are underway to offset or lower methane levels, particularly in the agricultural sector.
“Gut feeling” may be an expression, but there’s real science backing it up. At a recent meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, panelists highlighted the link between the health of a person’s gut bacteria and a tendency for anxiety or mental illness. In one study, when rats were exposed to chronic stress over an extended period, the number and variety of microorganisms living in their gastrointestinal tracts decreased sharply. Similarly, human patients with diagnosed bipolar disorder and depression were found to have a lesser “bacterial species diversity” than those with no mood disorders. These findings imply that common psychiatric medications may have counterproductive microbiome side effects. The panel, therefore, emphasized the need to cultivate gut-bacteria health in any holistic treatment plan. Dr. Chadi Calarge, author of one relevant study, put it plainly: “Human studies suggest that manipulation of the gut microbiome can alter emotions.”
National Geographic reports that a team of paleontologists has discovered an amber specimen, for sale at a market in northern Myanmar, that preserves the feathered tail of a 99 million year old dinosaur. The sample—excavated from an amber mine and meant to be fashioned into jewelry—is thought to be the tail of a small young theropod dating to the mid-Cretaceous period. What makes the find remarkable is that the segmented vertebrae still have both feathers and soft tissue attached. Scientists hope that studying this organic material will provide clues regarding dinosaur pigmentation, the subject of much debate. One thing is clear: the flexible, delicate structure of these feathers indicate they were merely ornamental, and not used for flight.
Sorry, Elon. Forget Mars. A new book makes the case that Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is the celestial body most likely to support human life. In Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, authors Amanda Hendrix and Charles Wohlforth argue that despite an outwardly hostile environment—temperatures close to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, an opaque atmosphere of nitrogen with methane and ethane clouds—Titan has several key features that would enable settlement. The thick atmosphere would protect humans from Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs), a form of space radiation linked to cancer and brain damage. Underground water ice at Titan’s poles could be used for oxygen. And plentiful surface hydrocarbons, both liquid and solid, could be exploited for energy and materials construction. They envision plastic domes covering huge indoor spaces, with residents taking advantage of weaker-than-Earth gravity to propel themselves by flight. The biggest challenge? Finding a faster way to get there. Right now, the trip would take seven years.
Researchers studying drugs that “grow fat” as a way to fight obesity? No, that’s not bizarro-world science. Boston University biochemists, publishing in the journal Cell Metabolism, argue that increasing the amount of brown adipose tissue (“brown fat”) in the body will boost metabolism and control obesity. Highly desirable brown fat converts quickly to energy and heat, as opposed to white adipose tissue, which is used for long-term energy storage and is the type most associated with the obesity epidemic. Newborn babies and hibernating mammals have large concentrations of brown fat to keep warm; until recently scientists didn’t realize that adult humans even had brown fat deposits.
Obesity researchers have increased brown fat levels in two ways: exposing subjects to the cold, stimulating brown fat into activity; and using drugs to prompt growth of brown-like fat within white fat deposits, a process known as “beigeing.” Authors of this study tested both approaches in mice fed a high-fat, high-calorie diet. The most promising results came from injecting affected mice with the chemotherapy drug Roscovitine: less weight gain, lower glucose levels, and a greater beigeing of white fat. Though Roscovitine is highly toxic, and still in clinical trials, researchers are encouraged that one day, brown fat could be targeted pharmacologically as an obesity treatment.