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Talk nerdy to me

This week, while you’re (hopefully) sheltering in place, we take a look at the fastest supercomputing network in the world, a light that might kill the virus behind COVID-19, and the importance of ancient poops.

Liquid meat

Grilling meat with your family or friends might seem like a simple activity, but it’s actually quite complex. In fact, thanks to some intriguing physical properties, scientists have had a rough time modeling the cooking of meat—until now.

<strong>Modeling meat.</strong> New 3D computer simulations of the behavior of meat when cooked could improve safety regulations, optimize quality and flavor, and reduce waste. Previously, computing limitations forced scientists to only model meat cooking via a one-dimensional simplified model. However, researchers out of James Madison University have used what they know about the conservation of mass, energy, and momentum to expand these models

Due to their work, we now know that meat acts as a fluid-saturated matrix of elastic proteins that deform during the cooking process. Hopefully, this knowledge will help us build more complex 3D models of this process down the road. And that could lead to improved quality and flavor on our plates and a longer shelf life that could reduce food waste.

A supercomputer at home

Communities all over the globe are banding together to fight COVID-19 in every way they can. For some, this means handing out food to vulnerable populations or simply staying home and flattening the curve. For others, volunteering their computers for valuable research is a viable choice. 

<strong>Donated computing.</strong> A computing network made up of spare cycles on volunteers’ devices gained almost 1 million new users recently, making it six times more powerful than the world’s current #1 fastest supercomputer, Summit. Courtesy Folding@Home.Folding@Home is an organization that allows people to volunteer the unused computing power on their home devices to simulate the protein dynamics of diseases. The group is pushing hard into COVID-19 research, and they’ve seen an amazing response from volunteers. 

The combined power of the volunteer computing network recently reached 2.4 exaFLOPs, technically making Folding@Home the first organization to break the exaFLOP barrier. It’s even dwarfed the power of Summit, the fastest supercomputer in the world.

Of course, this isn’t a single machine, so it doesn’t count on the TOP500 list of fastest supercomputers. But it’s certainly a welcome bit of hopeful news in a dreary world.

Let there be decontaminating light

Although having the most powerful network of computers on our side is comforting, many people are ready for a more immediate solution to our current viral crisis. Thankfully, UC Santa Barbara’s Solid State Lighting & Energy Electronics Center (SSLEEC) has been working on just that.

<strong>Cleansing light.</strong> LED’s that emit UV-C light could be a cheap, effective way to sanitize public spaces like subway cars. Scientists there are researching man-made UV-C light as a way to sterilize surfaces –and maybe even air and water—that has been contaminated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Though even brief exposures to this light is dangerous to humans, UV-C could be an effective method for sanitizing public spaces after hours.

SSLEEC engineers are working to incorporate UV-C light into LEDs by experimenting with different fabrication methods. They originally began their research with the idea of developing cheap, portable solutions for sterilizing water in less-developed parts of the world.

But if the scientists can optimize their discovery, UV-C light could provide a quick, safe, chemical-free way to sanitize public spaces, such as subways, bathrooms, and auto interiors.

Where we come from

Scientists are relatively sure humans arrived on the European continent about 40,000 years ago. But the time between then and the beginning of modern recorded history is often fuzzy. However, recent research may help to clear up some of this mystery.

<strong>Neolithic genomes.</strong> Scientists have analyzed 96 ancient genomes collected from Neolithic settlements in Switzerland. Their discovery offers new insights about ancient migration, social structures, and the ancestry of modern Europeans. Courtesy Urs Dardel, Archäologischer Dienst des Kanton Bern (Switzerland).Scientists from the University of Tübingen, the University of Bern and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have found evidence to support genetic intermixing of European early humans with travelers from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. By sequencing the genomes of 96 ancient people from 13 Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, the researchers found indications of the arrival of this new ancestry sometime around 2800 BCE. 

What’s more, the genetic research can shed light on the culture and daily lives of these ancient peoples. The scientists detected that one of the oldest examples of European lactose tolerance occurred near 2100 BCE. They also found that the societies they researched were most likely “patrilocal.” This means that males stayed close to where they were born, while females generally traveled long distances before settling. 

Particular poops

From the Queen of England down to your very own dog, one universal truth remains: everybody poops.

<strong>Whose poop?</strong> Examples of archaeological paleofeces: (a) from Anhui Province, China, Neolithic period. (b) from Durango, Mexico, ca. 1300 BP. (c) from Durango, Mexico, ca. 1300 BP. While this is a unifying realization, it also presents some problems for archaeologists. Mainly, scientists often have a hard time identifying the origin of feces found at historical sites. Even genetic testing can’t fully determine which animal was the source of the deposit. Ancient humans often ate their dogs, and we all know how much our canine companions love eating the waste of other animals. All this means simply testing for DNA isn’t enough.

Enter CoproID, which stands for coprolite identification. Combining analysis of ancient DNA with a machine learning model trained on modern fecal microbiomes, the creators of CoproID label it as “a reliable method of inferring sources of paleofeces." 

“One unexpected finding of our study is the realization that the archaeological record is full of dog poop," says senior author Christina Warinner.

But now that scientists are able to reliably distinguish human feces from the animals they ate and lived with, they will be able to trace the development of the human gut microbiome through time. This could give us loads of information about what ancient peoples ate, including about the food tolerances people developed over time.

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