Vol. 2 / No. 11 — A New Antibiotic from Maine, Eight New Exoplanets from Kepler, and One Almost Landing from SpaceX

Not pictured above: the new antibiotic Texiobactin; photo: Flickr user Michael Mortensen, CC BY 2.0
Not pictured above: the new antibiotic Texiobactin; photo: Flickr user Michael Mortensen, CC BY 2.0

From a Grassy Field in Maine

It’s only the second week of 2015, and we already have a contender for the biggest medical news of the year. The TL;DR is that we have a brand new antibiotic in our arsenal against antibiotic resistant bacteria, and that’s not even the best part. This week it was revealed in the journal Nature that a team of researchers, led by professor Kim Lewis of Northeastern University in Boston, had not only discovered a new, previously unknown antibiotic that should prove effective against resistant strains of C. difficile, tuberculosis, and MRSA, but had also found a promising way to look for more. Let’s back up: there are a lot of bacteria living in soil, and to survive, many of those bacteria have developed chemical compounds to defend themselves. Unfortunately until now we haven’t been able to grow most of those bacteria in a lab, because they die when they’re take out of the soil they live in. Enter the iChip. The idea is simple, but technologically challenging: find a way to keep giving the bacteria in the soil access to the nutrients in the soil, while at the same time isolating them in a petri dish. The iChip basically acts as a go-between, allowing just that: on one side of the chip is the soil, on the other is the growth medium, and in between is the chip, with its microscopic wells that isolate the bacteria and allow it to be studied. The new antibiotic, called Texiobactin, is just a wonderful by-product of the new method — as a proof of concept, the team took some soil from a grassy field in Maine and isolated bacteria from it, eventually culturing one such bacteria that produced a new antibiotic chemical. But the ability to do this kind of work, the ability to study the roughly 99% of soil bacteria we couldn’t previously culture, could return dozens, even hundreds of new compounds. It’s still early days yet, but the problem of antibiotic resistance may have been solved, starting with a grassy field in Maine. Check out more on the story at ScienceMag, or read the article at Nature.

Artist's rendition of an exoplanet orbiting Beta Pictoris, Photo: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org), CC BY 2.0
Artist’s rendition of an exoplanet orbiting Beta Pictoris, Photo: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org), CC BY 2.0

Eight New Exoplanets

Kepler is still at it, with the number of exoplanets it’s discovered passing a thousand this week. Astronomers revealed eight new exoplanets in the so-called habitable zones of their respective stars, where the amount of solar radiation received is enough to keep water liquid but not boil it all away (Venus gets twice as much light as Earth, and we’ve seen how well it’s doing). Five of them are less than twice the diameter of Earth, and two of them look, right now, particularly good. Kepler-438b has a diameter about a tenth larger than Earth’s, and though it orbits a smaller star, it also does so more closely, meaning it gets about forty percent more light than Earth. The other, Kepler-442b, is a little bigger, about one and a third the diameter of Earth, and gets about two thirds of the light we do. They’re very far away (470 and 1100 light years away, respectively), so getting more detailed measurements is a challenge. But the more we learn, the more likely life elsewhere in the galaxy seems to get. Click to get more on the story from phys.org, Discover magazine, and Ars Technica.

Oh and here’s a link to some NASA-commissioned “travel posters” to some exoplanets for your viewing pleasure.

X marks the spot for SpaceX's new floating landing pad / Photo: Elon Musk / Spacex
Close, but no cigar for SpaceX’s latest retrieval attempt / Photo: < ahref=”https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/536262624653365248/photo/1″>Elon Musk / Spacex

Close, But No Cigar

In the early hours of Saturday morning, SpaceX launched its CRS-5 resupply mission to the International Space Station after the launch was scrubbed with less than a minute and a half to go on the 6th, citing something called “actuator drift.” The Dragon capsule with its payload of supplies is on its way to the ISS, and should reach the station on Monday. Meanwhile, the other mission objective, trying to land the first-stage on the deck of an autonomous drone barge at sea, was less successful. While the first stage was successfully directed back to the barge, its descent wasn’t slowed quite enough, and it landed rather hard. As Elon Musk tweeted, following the event, “Didn’t get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and … actual pieces.” Still, it’s not the end of the road for reusability by any stretch of the imagination, as the company will be trying again on a launch in February. They even think they’ve identified what went wrong: a loss of hydraulic fluid. So maybe next month we’ll get that resuable rocket we’ve always wanted. Check out the LA Times for more.

In related news, earlier in the week Elon Musk did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) over at reddit, and the Verge has the highlights.

And if you love a good night launch, check out this video below.

CES 2015

It’s a strange year when the annual Consumer Electronics Show is smaller news than, well, pretty much anything else, but this year it hasn’t been so much about new things as about new versions of old things. Everyone covering it has a best of list, but they all seem to come up a bit short of truly exciting. Everyone seems to agree that the LG G Flex 2 is a great curved phone, and that Razer’s Android TV box is a pretty neat gadget. The talking heads seem split on what the next big VR headset is going to be, now that nobody wants to talk about the Oculus Rift: PopSci like the Razer OVR, the Verge likes the Sixsense STEM, while Gizmodo seems partial to Avegard’s Glyph. There were more wearables, a car or two, some ladies in a pool, and more of the same. One small standout seems to be this little box that goes on your wall and charges your devices from up to fifteen feet away, without wires, and another is the “compute stick” from Intel that’ll turn any HDMI screen into a computer (windows or linux) on the cheap. Expect to hear more on those in the future. Check out The Verge, PopSci, Wired, GizmodoPC Magazine, or pretty much anyone else but me for a long and only mildly tedious rundown of an okay year at CES.

Net Neutrality Near?

There are rumblings out of the FCC, being reported this week by the ever-hopeful Ars Technica’s Ministry of Innovation, that they may soon move to reclassify broadband internet under Title II, in a move that would prevent so-called internet “fast lanes” and create a two-tiered (not neutral) internet. In other news, the FCC may also attempt to reclassify broadband as 25mpbs and up, and even try to reclassify mobile broadband under Title II as well. Expect more official news on these developments in February, to be followed by the FCC getting the heck sued out of it by disgruntled profiteers masquerading as essential service providers.

TV News

Two positive developments in science television news came out this week: first, it was announced that your personal astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk, will soon be coming to the National Geographic channel as their first late night talk-show. As a fan of the podcast, I can’t wait. It’ll be filmed in front of a live audience at the Hayden Planetarium, and should start broadcasting in April, according to the Verge. The second piece of news is that the new head of the Discovery Channel, Rich Ross, thinks they need to ditch the fake stuff (namely the mermaid and megalodon stuff). Check out Entertainment Weekly for more.

Best of the Rest

What a week for news! Here’s some of the stuff I couldn’t cover in more detail: Ars has a piece on a truly magnificent (and ridiculous) bit of hacking; Buzzfeed has the scoop on how you can now play Oregon Trail (and 2399 other DOS games) online for free; Daily Kos has the story on the ongoing fight against hotel chains that want to ban personal wifi hotspots (so they can sell you overpriced wifi themselves); The Verge has the rundown on Microsoft’s new “Spartan” browser, coming with Windows 10, as well as a piece on how programmers have made a computer able to reliably win at poker; and ScienceMag has the paradoxical news that testosterone injections may be just what the doctor ordered for terminal prostate tumours.

Finally, there was a whole lot of pretty on the internet this week: NASA spotted the biggest X-ray flare ever from the center of our own galaxy, Hubble updated its iconic photo of the Pillars of Creation, and they also released the largest, most detailed, most beautiful photo of Andromeda ever taken: you can see the web version here, download the 100 megapixel one here (it’s hundreds of megs), or just wait and see if they ever release the 1500 megapixel version.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.