The interactive talk show "Ask An Astrobiologist" features Amanda Stockton in the Sept. 25, 2018, episode.

Stockton is an assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Her research comprises three astrtobiology-related themes: analysis of extraterrestrial organic molecules in the search for life beyond Earth, fingerprinting life at Earth’s extremes, and exploring the origins of biomolecules and the emergence of life.

A primary thrust of the first theme is the development of in situ instrumentation to go out and directly examine the organic chemical environment in the extraterrestrial environment itself through landed instruments (e.g. for Mars), fly-by instruments (e.g. for Enceladus), and impactor instruments (e.g. for Europa and small bodies). 

Stockton will answer questions from host Sanjay Jom and those submitted via Twitter, Facebook, and SAGANet.chat.

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September 13, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Conan Zhao is the winner of ScienceMatters Episode 3 quiz.

ScienceMatters Episode 3 features M.G. Finn, chair of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Finn described his efforts to create a vaccine against the dreadful parasitic disease leishmaniasis.

The quiz question was: What sugar molecule mentioned in Episode 3 is the main reason surgeons can’t transplant organs from animals into humans?

The answer is in the rest of the story, here.

 

September 12, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Mention “peat moss,” and many people will conjure up the curly brown plant material that gardeners use. “Oh, the thing you get at Home Depot” – is a common reaction Joel Kostka receives when he mentions that he studies peat moss. His response: “Peat moss is a really cool plant that’s important to the global carbon cycle.”

Joel Kostka is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. The National Science Foundation has just awarded him and three co-principal investigators a $1.15 million, three-year grant to study the microbes in peat moss. The goal is to understand the microbiome’s role in nutrient uptake and the methane dynamics of wetlands and the impact of climate change on these activities.

Kostka’s collaborators are Jennifer Glass, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Xavier Mayali, a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and David Weston, a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“It has been shown that microbes that live with peat moss help them to grow better by aiding their uptake of carbon and major nutrients such as nitrogen,” Kostka says. “This project will explore which microbes help to keep peat moss plants healthy, how plants and microbes interact, and how these relationships will be affected by climate change?”

Peat moss, also called Sphagnum, carpets the surface of peatlands. This type of wetland locks up huge amounts of carbon in the form of thick, peat soil deposits. When peat is broken down by microbes, greenhouse gases – methane and carbon dioxide – are produced. Methane is of particular interest, because when released to the atmosphere, it has a warming potential that is 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

Scientists hypothesize that environmental warming could cause peatlands to release a lot more methane, which in turn would accelerate climate change.    

“Our project is fundamental science. We’re trying to figure out how the microbes help the plants grow better.”

Lots of evidence suggest that peatlands will produce more methane as the environment warms up. “Methanogens [methane-producing bacteria] don’t like the cold,” Kostka says. “The warmer it gets, the better they are in producing methane.”

Methane in peatlands bubbles up to the peat moss layer. Methane-consuming microbes in peat moss eat some of the gas released. In effect, microbes in peat moss comprise a biofilter that reduces the amount of methane reaching the atmosphere.

However, “we hypothesize that the methane-eating microbes in peat moss may crash as the climate gets warmer,” Kostka says.  That sets up a double-whammy scenario: As the climate gets warmer, microbes in peatlands produce more methane, while other microbes in peat moss become less able to consume the greenhouse gas. “We could get an explosion of methane much more than we can predict,” Kostka says.   

Information about plant microbiomes is scant. Most plants whose microbiomes are being studied are crops, like corn and soybeans. “Few studies are available on plants that are environmentally important but not so economically important,” Kostka says. “A lot of our work is to build better models for how these wetlands respond to climate change.”

“Few studies are available on plants that are environmentally important but not so economically important. A lot of our work is to build better models for how these wetlands respond to climate change.”

Georgia Tech’s Glass will study the geochemical aspects of the peat moss microbiome. She will measure how fast peat moss microbes fix nitrogen and consume methane. She will also identify the trace nutrients available to peat moss in the wetland.

“Because these peatlands receive most of their nutrient input from precipitation, they contain extremely low concentrations of some bioessential trace metals,” Glass says. “We're interested in testing how trace nutrient availability impacts the growth of methane-cycling microbes exposed to warming temperatures.”

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Mayali will use NanoSims, an imaging mass spectrometer, to identify what microbes are eating the methane or fixing nitrogen. He will incubate microbe samples with substrates – methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen – enriched in rare isotopes such as carbon-13 instead of the normally abundant carbon-12. Analysis by NanoSims creates isotope maps that enables detailed tracing of who did what.

“Our instrument is able to not only track who is eating the methane or fixing nitrogen from the air, but more importantly, how much and where it ultimately ends up, for example into the Sphagnum plant versus being kept by the microbes,” Mayali says.

Meanwhile, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Weston will use genetically characterized peat moss and microbial members to construct synthetic communities to test how host moss genes influence microbiome assembly and functioning. “Peat moss microbiomes are extremely complex with thousands of members with diverse metabolic capabilities,” Weston says.

“To help determine the role of specific community member interactions,” Weston adds, “we will decompose the field system into simplified synthetic communities where community changes and nutrients can be accurately measured and subjected to precise environmental manipulations.”

“We can engineer wetlands to encourage the growth of peat moss, but that’s not our goal,” Kostka says. “Our project is fundamental science. We’re trying to figure out how the microbes help the plants grow better.”

September 11, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Data, data, and more data.

The rapid growth of data seems wild and limitless. But various Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) institutes have been making theoretical sense of it.

TRIPODS institutes receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Among them is Georgia Tech’s TRIAD – the Transdisciplinary Research Institute for Advancing Data Science. TRIAD researchers are poised to share data science insights with the Atlanta higher education community.

Meanwhile, NSF aims to expand the scope of TRIPODS institutes. Today the agency awarded 19 collaborative projects at 23 universities. The awards are called TRIPODS+X grants. X is the scope-expanding activity; it could be research, visioning, or education.

Among the award recipients is Georgia Tech’s project: TRIPODS+X:EDU Collaborative Education: Data-driven Discovery and Alliance, led by Prasad Tetali, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Georgia Tech.

The award to Georgia Tech and its alliance partners – Agnes Scott, Morehouse, and Spelman Colleges – aims to train a diverse workforce for the inevitable data-driven future. The project will also engage faculty at the minority-serving institutions to help them teach data science and develop related curricula.

"TRIPODS+X is exciting not only for its near-term impact addressing some of society's most important scientific challenges, but [also] because of its potential for developing tools for future applications," says Anne Kinney, NSF assistant director Mathematical and Physical Sciences. 

With the $200,000 TRIPODS+X:EDU grant, the alliance partners will develop undergraduate data-science-focused courses. Through boot camps, workshops, and other joint activities, they will prepare data science modules to integrate into science curricula at the partner institutions. The goal is to prepare students who can address the emerging challenges in data science.

“The NSF-supported educational alliance is exciting in many ways,” says Prasad Tetali.

“It gives an opportunity to infuse the foundational data science curriculum with real-world applications from the physical and life sciences,” Tetali says. “It will also likely catalyze collaborative research in data science and related fields between Georgia Tech and Atlanta area colleges.”  

Following are the individuals involved in the TRIPODS+X: EDU project:

Principal Investigators

  • Chris DePree, Agnes Scott College
  • Alan Koch, Agnes Scott College
  • Wenjing Liao, Georgia Tech School of Mathematics
  • Brandeis Marshall, Spelman College       
  • Chuang Peng, Morehouse College
  • David Sherrill, Georgia Tech School of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Prasad Tetali, Georgia Tech School of Mathematics and School of Computer Science
  • Joshua Weitz, Georgia Tech School of Biological Sciences

Senior Personnel

  • Thinh Doan, Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Flavio Fenton, Georgia Tech School of Physics
  • Xiaoming Huo, Georgia Tech School of Industrial and Systems Engineering
  • Renata Rawlings-Goss, Georgia Tech Institute for Data Engineering and Science
  • Justin Romberg, Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Photo Caption

From left to right, top row: Joshua Weitz, Justin Romberg, and David Sherrill; middle row: Alan Koch, Brandeis Marshall, Chris DePree, and Wenjing Liao; bottom row: Thinh Doan, Prasad Tetali, and Chuang Peng

September 11, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

They may look a little like space capsules, but nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers stay planted on the floor and use potent magnetism to explore opaque constellations of molecules.

Three Atlanta area universities jointly launched a nuclear magnetic resonance collaboration called the Atlanta NMR Consortium to optimize the use of this technology that provides insights into relevant chemical samples containing so many compounds that they can otherwise easily elude adequate characterization. The consortium has been operating since July 2018.

Crab pee

Take, for example, crab urine. It’s packed with hundreds to thousands of varying metabolites, and researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology wanted to nail down one or two of them that triggered a widespread crab behavior. Without access to NMR they may not have found them at all even after an extensive search.

The spectrometer pulled the right two needles out of the haystack, so the researchers could test them on the crabs and confirm that they were initiating the behavior.

Emory University, Georgia State University and Georgia Tech already have NMR technology, but the Atlanta NMR Consortium will enable them to fully exploit it while cost-effectively staying on top of upgrades.

“NMR continues to grow and develop because of technological advances,” said David Lynn, a chemistry professor at Emory University.

That means buying new machines every so often, and one new NMR spectrometer can run into the millions; annual maintenance for one machine can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, reducing costs and maximizing usage makes good sense.

Medicine, geochemistry

The human body, sea-side estuaries, and rock strata present huge collections of compounds. NMR takes inventory of complex samples from such sources via the nuclei of atoms in the molecules.

A nucleus has a spin, which makes it magnetic, and NMR spectrometry’s own powerful magnetism detects spins and pinpoints nuclei to feel out whole molecules. These can be large or small, from mineral compounds with three or four component atoms to protein polymers with tens of thousands of parts.

Researchers in medicine, biochemistry, ecology, geology, food science – the possible list is exhaustive -- turn to NMR to untangle their particular molecular jungles. The consortium wants to leverage that diversity.

“As we go in different directions, we will benefit from a cohesive community of people who know how to use NMR for a wide range of problems,” said Anant Paravastu, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“The most important goal for us is the sharing of our expertise,” said Markus Germann, a professor of chemistry at Georgia State.

Consortium members will benefit the most from the pooled NMR resources, but non-partners can also book access. Read more about the Atlanta NMR Consortium here on Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences website

Transformers: Space, from Washington Post Live

Space, once famously dubbed “the final frontier,” now seems more accessible than ever. With new developments in propulsion, design, mission planning, research and technology, the future of spaceflight appears to be full of opportunity and America is poised to play a leading role.

On Friday, September 14, The Washington Post will bring together key government officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein. They will be joined by renowned scientists and leaders in the field of space exploration for a program examining the many factors shaping American leadership in space, the new “space race,” the future of space tourism and exploration that could lead to a future beyond Earth.

Among the invited scientists is Britney Schmidt, astrobiologist and assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Guest list is here.

Transformers: Space is produced in partnership with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the Association of Space Explorers (ASE).

Sign up here to receive livestream notification. The program will be streamed live at wapo.st/transformersspace.

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September 10, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Episode 4 of ScienceMatters' Season 1 stars Nastassia Patin. Listen to the podcase here and read the transcript here!

Massive whale sharks headline the Ocean Voyager exhibit at Georgia Aquarium.  Its tiniest residents are the ones that concern Nastassia Patin. Patin is a postdoctoral researcher working in the lab of Frank Stewart. Stewart is an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences and a member of Georgia Tech's Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

Patin's research interests are microbial ecology, environmental microbiology, chemical ecology, metagenomics. Episode 4 describes her findings after studying the microbiome of the Ocean Voyage exhibit at Georgia Aquarium.  What she’s learning may help keep all aquariums clear and healthy.

Take a listen at sciencematters.gatech.edu.

Enter to win a prize by answering the question for Episode 4:

What is the name of the Georgia Aquarium sea turtle mentioned in Episode 4?

Submit your entry by 11 AM on Monday, Sept. 17, at sciencematters.gatech.edu. Answer and winner will be announced shortly after the quiz closes.

The British Consulate-General in Atlanta kicks off the 2018 European Climate Diplomacy Week by hosting a forum on winning together by working together to fight climate change.

Kim Cobb, professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Emma Howard-Boyd, chair of the U.K. Environment Agency will offer their thoughts on how business, government, and academia can work together to fight climate change and harness economic value. 

After introductions by the U.K. and French consul generals, Cobb and Howard-Boyd will each give a short keynote address, leaving plenty of time for audience Q&A. 

Light refreshments will be served.

Eventbrite registration is requested.

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The NASA Astrobiology Institute marks its 20th anniversary this year and Georgia Tech is throwing a party! This celebration will feature talks and a poster session by faculty members, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellows, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in Georgia Tech's vibrant astrobiology community.

The celebration is hosted by Frank Rosenzweig, professor of biological sciences and principal investigator of the NAI program Reliving the Past. 

The event is sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences, and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. 

The event is by by invitation only.

Speakers, Morning Session starting at 8:30 AM

Thom Orlando, professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"An Overview of REVEALS and CSTAR Programs"

Amanda Stockton, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"High Impact Chemistry: The Icy Moons Penetrator Organic Analyzer"

Loren Williams, professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"Visualizing the Origins of Life in Biopolymers"

Nick Hud, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and principal investigator of the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE)
"Some Highlights of CCE Discoveries on the Possible Origins and Early Evolution of Biopolymers"

Martha Grover, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering
"Prebiotic Replication of an RNA Duplex Containing an Active Ribozyme"

Chris Reinhard, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Climate and Atmospheric Biosignatures on Reducing Worlds"

Jeff Bowman for Britney Schmidt, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Oceans Across Space and Time: A Multi-Institutional Effort to Understand and Identify Life in Extraterrestrial Oceans"

Jennifer Glass, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Laughing Gas as a Precursor to Aerobic LIfe"

Will Ratcliff, assistant professor of biological sciences
"Solving Physical Challenges during the Origin of Multicellularity by Evolving Simple Development

James Wray, associate professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Orbital Spectral Signatures of Changing Habitable Environments on Mars" 

Lunch and Poster Session, 12:30-1:45 PM
 
Speakers, Afternoon Session, starting at 2 PM

Pedram Samani, postdoctoral researcher, Georgia Tech
"Experimental Evolution of Anisogamy: An Inquiry into the Origins of Sexes"

Peter Conlin, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Experimental Evolution of Adaptive Phenotypic Plasticity in a Temporally Varying Environment"

Caroline Turner, NPP Fellow, University of Pittsburgh
"Environmental Similariy (Mostly) Predicts Genetic Similarity"

Nadia Szeinbaum, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"A Microbial Ecology Perspective on the Success of Oxygenic Photosynthesis"

Moran Frankel-Pinter, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Dynamic Polymerization of Prebiotic Depsipeptides Allows Selection of Stable Structures"

Micah Schaible, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Ionizing Radiation Effects on the Surfaces of Airless Bodies"

Event Details

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September 6, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

On Sept. 13, starting at 11 A.M., mathematicians, musicians, and dancers will breathe life into the classic problem known as the Seven Bridges of Königsberg (7BK). The interactive exposition and performance celebrates this problem’s journey from 18th-century Prussia, in the small town of Königsberg, to 21st-century Atlanta.

On the Georgia Tech campus is a representation of Königsberg and the seven bridges that connect its four land masses, which are divided by a river. The rendition – along the Atlantic Drive Promenade, on a site called the Seven Bridges Plaza – affirms that art, science, and mathematics are but different ways to grasp the world.

The Sept. 13 music and dance performance – The Seven Bridges of Königsberg – especially hopes to demystify and humanize mathematics, says Evans Harrell, an emeritus professor in the School of Mathematics.

The event begins with an interactive exposition by members of the Georgia Tech student organization Club Math. On each of the four land masses representing Königsberg, Club Math members will be at stations to discuss the 7BK problem; the life and times of Leonhard Euler, whose solution to the 7BK problem gave birth to graph theory; the role of graph theory in the modern world, and a special aspect of graph theory called the four-color theorem.

“Our project is also an experiment about how scientific stories can be told and about how the sciences can inspire original art.”

Euler, the Seven Bridges, and Graph Theory

The 7BK problem asks: Can one walk around Königsberg, crossing each of the seven bridges exactly once?

The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler proved that it is impossible to cross each of the seven bridges of Königsberg only once. The proof considered not only the case of Königsberg, but all possible ways a city could be connected by bridges and when it is possible to cross each bridge only once. In developing the proof, Euler invented a new field of mathematics, now called graph theory.

Euler’s insight was to simplify the problem, says Georgia Tech mathematics professor Dan Margalit. Graph theory reduces the problem to one about points – called vertices – and the lines – called edges – connecting them. The vertices correspond to the land masses and the edges are the bridges. The 7BK problem thus rendered, it is not hard to see  the answer.

Margalit explains: Any attempted solution has two variations. In the first case, the journey starts and ends at the same land mass. Here, the number of bridges – or edges – associated with each land mass – or vertex – is even. Because every arrival at a land mass comes with a departure, every vertex has an even number of edges. Therefore any continuous path uses an even number of edges at each vertex. This is impossible in Königsberg because each land mass has an odd number of bridges.

In the second case, the journey ends in another place from where it started. Again the number of edges at each vertex must be even except at the start and end. Because to leave the start requires only one bridge, as does arriving at the end. Therefore, at the start and end vertices, the total number of edges will be an odd number. But at all other vertices, the number of edges would be even, as before. 

Again this is impossible in Königsberg, because all the land masses have an odd number of bridges.

Graph theory permeates the modern world. “Facebook is a graph: vertices are people and edges are friendships," Margalit says. "Graph theory has many other applications all over science and mathematics."

“Facebook is a graph: vertices are people and edges are friendships.”

Math in Motion

For the Sept. 13 performance, Harrell partnered with the Georgia Tech School of Music’s Chaowen Ting. She will conduct the Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra in performing original music by composer Marshall Coats. The music will accompany dances choreographed by artistic director Kristel Tedesco.

In a behind-the-scenes video, Tedesco says she recognized the similar struggles of mathematicians and artists working in imaginary worlds “and trying to find truth within them.” The resulting performance, she adds, aims to spark and stimulate the public’s curiosity about mathematics.

“We wish to engage the public in the wonder of mathematics and science, of music and dance, and the surprising ways that they can work together,” Harrell says. “Our project is also an experiment about how scientific stories can be told and about how the sciences can inspire original art.”

Support for the event came from Science in Vivo and Georgia Tech's College of Design, College of Sciences, and Office of the Arts.

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