Week In Review: Open-Access Science | 26 Oct to 1 Nov

From a new date for earliest life on earth to the potentially controversial findings that Antarctica is gaining more ice than it’s loosing, here are 5 of the latest scientific studies published open-access. That means they are free and available for anyone and everyone to read and enjoy!


1) Life on Earth could have started 300 million years earlier than previously thought: Scientists have studied 4.1 billion year old zircon minerals from rocks in western Australia, and discovered that one of them contained graphite – pure carbon. Analyses of the carbon suggests that photosynthesis was an active processes at least 4.1 billion years ago. According to the scientists behind the new results, not only did life exist 300 million years earlier than previously thought, it also existed in an environment not too dissimilar to today.

Read the press release and the original study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


2) NASA scientists report the accumulation of Antarctic snow outweighs the loss of melting ice sheets: Many other studies report a net loss of ice from Antarctica, including the 2013 IPCC report. The Scientists behind the new report contradict this. They measured changes in the surface height of the Antarctic ice sheet between 1992 and 2008 using satellite data. Whilst the gain in ice has been steady during this time, at 200 billion tons per year, losses from melting glaciers have increased by 65 billion tons per year. They suggest Antarctica has been steadily accumulating ice in this way since the end of the last Ice Age, but caution that melting glaciers may soon exceed this long-term trend of net gain.

Read the original press release to get an overview some of the intricacies and implications of the new research, and the original scientific article published in Journal of Glaciology for a fully picture.

Rates of ice mass changes, Antarctica

This map shows the rates of mass changes (in gigatons (Gt)) for various regions in Antarctica between 2003 and 2008. Red indicates net gain of ice in East Antarctica (EA), West Antarctica interior (WA2), and across the hole of Antarctica in general (All), and blue indicates net loss in West Antarctica coastal zone (WA1) and the Antarctic Peninsula (WP). (Illustration: Jay Zwally/ Journal of Glaciology)


3) Chemists explore new methods to make fuel from water: A new discovery should improve the efficiency of key processes in the quest to split water with sunlight to produce hydrogen fuel. The electrode used for splitting water has been improved to absorb solar photons more efficiently, while at the same time improving the flow of electrons from one electrode to another. According to the study, the discoveries offer new conceptual tools that can be applied to help extract fuel from water.

Read the press release and the original scientific article published in Nature Communications.

Splitting water into hydrogen provides a means of harvesting the hydrogen for fuel. This image depicts the water-splitting process in a light-sensitive electrode material (BiVO4), which UChicago and University of Wisconsin researchers investigated in an experimental and computational study. (Illustration: Peter Allen)

This image depicts the water-splitting process in a light-sensitive electrode material (BiVO4) investigated in the recent experimental and computational study. (Illustration: Peter Allen)


4) New study helps demonstrate the evolution of our allergies: Biologists have documented the molecular similarities between proteins that cause allergies and multicellular parasites. The results support a common hypothesis that allergic reactions are an overactive response of the body’s immune system to harmless environmental allergens, like pollen. The immune system evolved to protect us against parasitic worms but in their absence it turns it’s attention to harmless allergens. The new findings are expected to help develop treatments for common allergies.

Read the press release and the original scientific article published in PLOS Computational Biology.


5) Volkswagen’s emissions cheat may cause 60 premature deaths in US: A new study suggests that Volkswagen’s evasion of vehicle emissions standards in over 482,000 diesel vehicles sold in the USA has directly contributed to 60 premature deaths across the country between 2008 and 2015. In the new study, scientists write that the cheat device (software) allowed the vehicles to emit up to 40 times more emissions than permitted by the USA Clean Air Act. These excess emissions are estimated to contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions. There are economic effects too due to work absences as a result of these conditions. Returning VW vehicles to complaint emission levels of oxides of nitrogen and other pollutants by 2016, is estimated to avert another 130 premature deaths.

Read all about how they reached these estimates in the press release and the original scientific article published in Environmental Research Letters.


Bell, E., Boehnke, P., Harrison, T., & Mao, W. (2015). Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1517557112

Zwally, H. Jay, Li, Jun, Robbins, John W, Saba, Jack L, Yi, Donghui, & Brenner, Anita C (2015). Mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet exceed losses Journal of Glaciology DOI: 10.3189/2015JoG15J071

Kim TW, Ping Y, Galli GA, & Choi KS (2015). Simultaneous enhancements in photon absorption and charge transport of bismuth vanadate photoanodes for solar water splitting. Nature communications, 6 PMID: 26498984

Tyagi, N., Farnell, E., Fitzsimmons, C., Ryan, S., Tukahebwa, E., Maizels, R., Dunne, D., Thornton, J., & Furnham, N. (2015). Comparisons of Allergenic and Metazoan Parasite Proteins: Allergy the Price of Immunity PLOS Computational Biology, 11 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004546

Barrett, S., Speth, R., Eastham, S., Dedoussi, I., Ashok, A., Malina, R., & Keith, D. (2015). Impact of the Volkswagen emissions control defeat device on US public health Environmental Research Letters, 10 (11) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/114005


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