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Recoloured SEM of Gloeomargarita lithophora with amorphous carbonate mineral phase inclusions.

A Gloeomargarita lithophora bacterium containing carbonate granules (white spheres). The microbe’s ability to form such granules internally might explain how it draws radioactive isotopes from its surroundings. Credit: Karim Benzerara and Stefan Borensztajn/CNRS

Environmental sciences

Nuclear waste? These microbes might help with the cleanup

Bacteria discovered in a Mexican lake accumulate two radioactive isotopes in their cells.

A species of photosynthetic bacterium could help to soak up radioactive contaminants in polluted waterways.

Benjamin Kocar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Karim Benzerara at the Sorbonne University in Paris and their colleagues found that the bacterium Gloeomargarita lithophora is particularly adept at sucking up the radioactive isotopes radium-226 and strontium-90. The former has a half-life of 1,600 years, can be found in mining and power-plant runoff, and is one of the most common radioisotopes in groundwater. By contrast, 90Sr mainly reaches waterways from nuclear tests and accidents, and has a half-life of 29 years. Both are thought to pose risks to the environment and human health, and prior research has explored the ability of various microbes, fungi and other organisms to gobble them up.

Compared with organisms studied previously, G. lithophora showed the highest uptake of both 90Sr and 226Ra. This ability is probably related to a process by which G. lithophora draws in substances from its environment to form internal clumps of calcium carbonate.

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Astronomy and astrophysics

Wiggly signal hints of an aurora on a planet far from the Solar System

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Atmospheric science

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Jumping ant guarding pupae and larvae at the nest

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Neuroscience

Ants shrink their brains for motherhood — but can enlarge them when egg-laying ends

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A health worker puts on his personal protective equipment

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Genomics

An unprecedented genomic analysis helped to curb an Ebola outbreak

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Ember and thick smoke from bushfires reach Braemar Bay in New South Wales

Vast bush fires that swept across Australia at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 filled the skies with enough smoke to warm a portion of the atmosphere. Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty

Atmospheric science

Smoke from Australian fires turned up the heat in the southern sky

The catastrophic wildfires of late 2019 and early 2020 triggered a lingering temperature rise in a section of Earth’s lower atmosphere.
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Optics and photonics

One screen, three images — some invisible in ordinary light

A graphene-based device can display several images simultaneously using a range of wavelengths.
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