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GM helps spuds beat blight

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John Valley - University of Wisconsin-Madison
This fragment of zircon – enlarged in this photo – was extracted from a remote rock outcrop in Australia. It’s age: 4.4 billion years.

Genetic modification helps spuds beat blight

In a three-year genetic-modification research trial, British scientists from The Sainsbury Laboratory boosted resistance of potatoes to late blight – their most important disease – without deploying fungicides.

In 2012, the third year of the trial, the potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. Non-transgenic Desiree plants were 100 percent infected by early August while all genetically modified plants remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment. There was also a difference in yield: a 16-plant block of GM tubers weighed 6 to 13 kg (13.3 to 28.6 pounds); non-GM tubers weighed 1.6 to 5 kg per block (3.5 to 11 pounds).

The trial was conducted with Desiree potatoes to address the challenge of building resistance to blight in potato varieties with popular consumer and processing characteristics.

The introduced gene, from a South American wild relative of potato, triggers the plant’s natural defense mechanisms by enabling it to recognize the pathogen. Cultivated potatoes possess around 750 resistance genes, but in most varieties, late blight is able to elude them.

The findings were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. tsl.ac.uk

Oldest piece of Earth crust? A zircon

With the help of a tiny fragment of zircon extracted from a remote rock outcrop in Australia, the picture of how our planet became habitable to life about 4.4 billion years ago is coming into sharper focus.

Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, an international team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscientist John Valley reveals data that confirm the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago, just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system. The work shows, Valley said, that the time when our planet was a fiery ball covered in a magma ocean came earlier.

“This confirms our view of how the Earth cooled and became habitable,” he said. “This may also help us understand how other habitable planets would form.”

The new study confirms that zircon crystals from Western Australia’s Jack Hills region crystallized 4.4 billion years ago, building on earlier studies that used lead isotopes to date the Australian zircons and identify them as the oldest bits of Earth’s crust. wisc.edu

Fuel from plastic

shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags – an abundant source of litter on land and at sea – can be converted into diesel, natural gas and other useful petroleum products, researchers report.

The conversion produces significantly more energy than it requires and results in transportation fuels – diesel, for example – that can be blended with existing ultra-low-sulfur diesels and biodiesels. Other products, such as natural gas, naphtha (a solvent), gasoline, waxes and lubricating oils such as engine oil and hydraulic oil also can be obtained from shopping bags.

There are other advantages to the approach, which involves heating the bags in an oxygen-free chamber, a process called pyrolysis. “You can get only 50 to 55 percent fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil,” said Brajendra Sharma, a research scientist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center who led the project. “But since this plastic is made from petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80 percent fuel from it through distillation.”

A report of the study appears in the journal Fuel Processing Technology. illinois.edu

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