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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Chemistry of Pumpkins

We eat them, we carve them, but do we really know what’s behind them? Here, we look at the chemistry of pumpkins.

Source: http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i40/Periodic-Graphics-Chemistry-Pumpkins.html

Pumpkins are grown all around the world for a variety of reasons ranging from agricultural purposes (such as animal feed) to commercial and ornamental sales. Of the seven continents, only Antarctica is unable to produce pumpkins; the biggest international producers of pumpkins include the United States, Canada, Mexico, India, and China. The traditional American pumpkin used for jack-o-lanterns is the Connecticut Field variety.

As one of the most popular crops in the United States, 1.5 billion pounds (680,000,000 kilograms or 680,000 tonnes) of pumpkins are produced each year. The top pumpkin-producing states include Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop that is usually planted in early July. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require that soil temperatures three inches (7.6 cm) deep are at least 60 °F (15.5 °C) and soil that holds water well. Pumpkin crops may suffer if there is a lack of water or because of cold temperatures (in this case, below 65 °F (18.3 °C); frost can be detrimental), and sandy soil with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain. Pumpkins are, however, rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can very quickly re-grow secondary vines to replace what was removed.

Pumpkins produce both a male and female flower; honeybees play a significant role in fertilization. Pumpkins have historically been pollinated by the native squash bee Peponapis pruinosa, but this bee has declined, probably at least in part to pesticide sensitivity, and today most commercial plantings are pollinated by honeybees. One hive per acre (4,000 m² per hive) is recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If there are inadequate bees for pollination, gardeners often have to hand pollinate. Inadequately pollinated pumpkins usually start growing but abort before full development.

"Giant pumpkins" are a large squash (within the group of common squash Cucurbita maxima) that can exceed 1 ton (2,000 pounds) in weight. The variety arose from the large squash of Chile after 1500 A.D through the efforts of botanical societies and enthusiast farmers.

Such germplasm is commercially provocative, and in 1986 the United States extended protection for the giant squash. This protection was limited to small specimens of a very specific parameters, being a weight of 175 pounds, oblong shape, etc. In 2004, the restriction expired except for the requirement of indefinite use of the pseudonym "Dill's Atlantic Giant" for squash fitting the specific parameters or the seeds thereof.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

On this day in science history: Jupiter orbiter Galileo launched

In 1989, the Galileo space orbiter was released from the STS 34 flight of the Atlantis orbiter. Then the orbiter's inertial upper stage rocket pushed it into a course through the inner solar system. The craft gained speed from gravity assists in encounters with Venus and Earth before heading outward to Jupiter. During its six year journey to Jupiter, Galileo's instruments made interplanetary studies, using its dust detector, magnetometer, and various plasma and particles detectors. It also made close-up studies of two asteroids, Gaspra and Ida in the asteroid belt. The Galileo orbiter's primary mission was to study Jupiter, its satellites, and its magnetosphere for two years. It released an atmospheric probe into Jupiter's atmosphere on 7 Dec 1995.

Jupiter and its shrunken great red spot. By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jupiter's mass is 2.5 times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined—this is so massive that its barycenter with the Sun lies above the Sun's surface at 1.068 solar radii from the Sun's center. Jupiter is much larger than Earth and considerably less dense: its volume is that of about 1,321 Earths, but it is only 318 times as massive. Jupiter's radius is about 1/10 the radius of the Sun, and its mass is 0.001 times the mass of the Sun, so the densities of the two bodies are similar. A "Jupiter mass" (MJ or MJup) is often used as a unit to describe masses of other objects, particularly extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs. So, for example, the extrasolar planet HD 209458 b has a mass of 0.69 MJ, while Kappa Andromedae b has a mass of 12.8 MJ.

Theoretical models indicate that if Jupiter had much more mass than it does at present, it would shrink. For small changes in mass, the radius would not change appreciably, and above about 500 M⊕ (1.6 Jupiter masses) the interior would become so much more compressed under the increased pressure that its volume would decrease despite the increasing amount of matter. As a result, Jupiter is thought to have about as large a diameter as a planet of its composition and evolutionary history can achieve. The process of further shrinkage with increasing mass would continue until appreciable stellar ignition is achieved as in high-mass brown dwarfs having around 50 Jupiter masses.


Although Jupiter would need to be about 75 times as massive to fuse hydrogen and become a star, the smallest red dwarf is only about 30 percent larger in radius than Jupiter. Despite this, Jupiter still radiates more heat than it receives from the Sun; the amount of heat produced inside it is similar to the total solar radiation it receives. This additional heat is generated by the Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism through contraction. This process causes Jupiter to shrink by about 2 cm each year.  When it was first formed, Jupiter was much hotter and was about twice its current diameter.

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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Methane muted: How did early Earth stay warm?

For at least a billion years of the distant past, planet Earth should have been frozen over but wasn't. Scientists thought they knew why, but a new modeling study from the Alternative Earths team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute has fired the lead actor in that long-accepted scenario.

Humans worry about greenhouse gases, but between 1.8 billion and 800 million years ago, microscopic ocean dwellers really needed them. The sun was 10 to 15 percent dimmer than it is today - too weak to warm the planet on its own. Earth required a potent mix of heat-trapping gases to keep the oceans liquid and livable.

For decades, atmospheric scientists cast methane in the leading role. The thinking was that methane, with 34 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, could have reigned supreme for most of the first 3.5 billion years of Earth history, when oxygen was absent initially and little more than a whiff later on. (Nowadays oxygen is one-fifth of the air we breathe, and it destroys methane in a matter of years.)

Full structural formula of the methane molecule
"A proper accounting of biogeochemical cycles in the oceans reveals that methane has a much more powerful foe than oxygen," said Stephanie Olson, a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, a member of the Alternative Earths team and lead author of the new study published September 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "You can't get significant methane out of the ocean once there is sulfate."

Sulfate wasn't a factor until oxygen appeared in the atmosphere and triggered oxidative weathering of rocks on land. The breakdown of minerals such as pyrite produces sulfate, which then flows down rivers to the oceans. Less oxygen means less sulfate, but even 1 percent of the modern abundance is sufficient to kill methane, Olson said.

Olson and her Alternative Earths coauthors, Chris Reinhard, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech University, and Timothy Lyons, a distinguished professor of biogeochemistry at UC Riverside, assert that during the billion years they assessed, sulfate in the ocean limited atmospheric methane to only 1 to 10 parts per million - a tiny fraction of the copious 300 parts per million touted by some previous models.

The fatal flaw of those past climate models and their predictions for atmospheric composition, Olson said, is that they ignore what happens in the oceans, where most methane originates as specialized bacteria decompose organic matter.

Seawater sulfate is a problem for methane in two ways: Sulfate destroys methane directly, which limits how much of the gas can escape the oceans and accumulate in the atmosphere. Sulfate also limits the production of methane. Life can extract more energy by reducing sulfate than it can by making methane, so sulfate consumption dominates over methane production in nearly all marine environments.

The numerical model used in this study calculated sulfate reduction, methane production, and a broad array of other biogeochemical cycles in the ocean for the billion years between 1.8 billion and 800 million years ago. This model, which divides the ocean into nearly 15,000 three-dimensional regions and calculates the cycles for each region, is by far the highest resolution model ever applied to the ancient Earth. By comparison, other biogeochemical models divide the entire ocean into a two-dimensional grid of no more than five regions.

"Free oxygen [O2] in the atmosphere is required to form a protective layer of ozone [O3], which can shield methane from photochemical destruction," Reinhard said. When the researchers ran their model with the lower oxygen estimates, the ozone shield never formed, leaving the modest puffs of methane that escaped the oceans at the mercy of destructive photochemistry.

With methane demoted, scientists face a serious new challenge to determine the greenhouse cocktail that explains our planet's climate and life story, including a billion years devoid of glaciers, Lyons said. Knowing the right combination other warming agents, such as water vapor, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, will also help us assess habitability of the hundreds of billions of other Earth-like planets estimated to reside in our galaxy.

"If we detect methane on an exoplanet, it is one of our best candidates as a biosignature, and methane dominates many conversations in the search for life on Mars," Lyons said. "Yet methane almost certainly would not have been detected by an alien civilization looking at our planet a billion years ago - despite the likelihood of its biological production over most of Earth history."

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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The chemistry behind the aroma of coffee

The Aroma of Coffee (Compound Interest
What is it about that delicious smell of coffee? Or, more specifically, what lies behind it? The graphic above takes a look at a selection of the chemical compounds behind this aroma. 

So that's the chemistry, but what about the biology of coffee?

Several species of shrub of the genus Coffea produce the berries from which coffee is extracted. The two main species commercially cultivated are Coffea canephora (predominantly a form known as 'robusta') and C. arabica. C. arabica, the most highly regarded species, is native to the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia and the Boma Plateau in southeastern Sudan and possibly Mount Marsabit in northern Kenya. C. canephora is native to western and central Subsaharan Africa, from Guinea to Uganda and southern Sudan. Less popular species are C. liberica, C. stenophylla, C. mauritiana, and C. racemosa.

All coffee plants are classified in the large family Rubiaceae. They are evergreen shrubs or trees that may grow 5 m (15 ft) tall when unpruned. The leaves are dark green and glossy, usually 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long and 6 cm (2.4 in) wide, simple, entire, and opposite. Petioles of opposite leaves fuse at base to form interpetiolar stipules, characteristic of Rubiaceae. The flowers are axillary, and clusters of fragrant white flowers bloom simultaneously. Gynoecium consists of inferior ovary, also characteristic of Rubiaceae. The flowers are followed by oval berries of about 1.5 cm (0.6 in). When immature they are green, and they ripen to yellow, then crimson, before turning black on drying. Each berry usually contains two seeds, but 5–10% of the berries have only one; these are called peaberries. 

Arabica berries ripen in six to eight months, while robusta take nine to eleven months.

Coffea arabica is predominantly self-pollinating, and as a result the seedlings are generally uniform and vary little from their parents. In contrast, Coffea canephora, and C. liberica are self-incompatible and require outcrossing. This means that useful forms and hybrids must be propagated vegetatively. Cuttings, grafting, and budding are the usual methods of vegetative propagation. On the other hand, there is great scope for experimentation in search of potential new strains.

In 2016, Oregon State University entomologist George Poinar, Jr. announced the discovery of a new plant species that's a 45-million-year-old relative of coffee found in amber. Named Strychnos electri, after the Greek word for amber (electron), the flowers represent the first-ever fossils of an asterid, which is a family of flowering plants that not only later gave us coffee, but also sunflowers, peppers, potatoes, mint — and deadly poisons.

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