Breaking ice on Jupiter’s moons

Europe’s next big space mission will be a €1bn project to investigate Jupiter’s three icy moons: Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. They are thought to host internal oceans of liquid water that are potential habitats for simple life forms.

But don’t expect exciting results any time soon. The Jupiter Icy moons Explorer – Juice – will be launched in 2022, reach the Jovian lunar system in 2030 and finally go into orbit around Ganymede in 2032.

Although Juice is not designed directly to detect life, its instruments will give scientists a better idea of whether conditions conducive to biology exist on any or all of the three icy moons.

“Studying these watery worlds is the next vital step beyond Mars in the search for the conditions for life in our solar system,” says Andrew Coates of University College London.

Planetary scientists believe that, beneath the moons’ frozen crusts, internal heating processes have melted the ice. Juice should give them a better idea of how much water is present. The project will also study Jupiter itself, to find out more about the interactions between the gas planet and its moons.

But the primary target is Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, which generates its own magnetic field. “Ganymede’s unique magnetic shield helps protect it from Jupiter’s harsh radiation belts and rapidly rotating magnetosphere, and we want to understand its effectiveness,” Coates says. “Europa and Callisto provide key comparisons as we search for the solar system’s ‘sweet spots’ for habitability.”

Now that the European Space Agency (ESA) has officially approved the mission, the process of selecting instruments and experiments for the five-tonne spacecraft can begin. A British scientist, Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London, led the Juice proposal team and UK universities are likely to play an important role in the project.

It will be the first mission to the outer solar system led by ESA. Nasa, the US space agency, was in charge of previous explorations of Jupiter and Saturn, such as the successful Voyager, Galileo and Cassini missions, with scientific support from Europe. This time the roles will be reversed.

ESA selected Juice over two other candidates: the New Gravitational Wave Observatory to detect gravity waves in space, and Athena, a huge X-ray telescope. But the losers remain in line for possible future funding.

The mission’s name, a working title for the proposal and selection stage, is unlikely to stick. ESA is likely to go for something that sounds more serious than Juice, with Laplace a leading contender (in honour of the great French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace).

Biotech takes AIM at kidney disease

For small biotechnology companies, scarcity of resources can limit the number of new drugs that they can test on patients. They tend to focus on one or two clinical trials for related medical conditions.

It is remarkable, therefore, to find US biotech company Reata Pharmaceuticals planning clinical trials in no less than seven diseases that seem quite different: rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, liver disease, two lung conditions, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

In fact, those diseases do have something in common. Inflammation and oxidative stress play a role in all of them – and Reata is developing an oral drug class known as Antioxidant Inflammation Modulators, or AIMs.

Based on discoveries at Dartmouth College and the University of Texas, AIMs activate a “transcription factor” called Nrf2. This protein in turn controls the activity of genes involved in inflammation and associated biological processes.

The first AIM that went into clinical trials, bardoxolone methyl, is showing promising results in patients with chronic kidney disease – a consequence of renal inflammation. The drug has reversed the loss of kidney function associated with the disease.

Armed with a total of $950m from two separate deals with Abbott, the US pharmaceutical giant, Reata is conducting a more extensive trial of bardoxolone methyl in kidney patients, while planning tests of other AIMs later this year.

“Our drugs are not merely inhibiting an enzyme,” says Colin Meyer, Reata vice-president. “They are mimicking an endogenous biological pathway and turning on 250 human genes.”

Thomas Kensler of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has studied Nrf2 for many years. He believes AIMs could help in cancer prevention, by boosting the body’s natural process of detoxifying carcinogens.

A paint job that lets more of the light in

Deep inside the huge Kiruna iron mine in northern Sweden, light is at a premium. So mine managers have brightened up underground workshops and storage areas with a new ultra-white paint that is claimed to reflect more light than any other.

The paint – developed by AkzoNobel of the Netherlands at its Slough research facility west of London – has the highest possible concentration of white pigment (powdered titanium dioxide). At the same time it avoids any darkness in the other solid components, known as extenders, that give paint its body and thickness. It also contains “optical brighteners” similar to those in laundry detergents, and it is designed to dry with tiny air spaces inside the coating, which help to scatter light and make the paint more reflective.

Juha Kivismäki, Kiruna site manager for LKAB, the Swedish iron ore company, says that with the new paint “the workshops have come to life. The employees are feeling much more happy at work.”

David Elliott, leader of the team that developed AkzoNobel’s new LumiTec technology at the Slough facility (formerly ICI Paints), says the paint reflects 94 per cent of incoming light.

The researchers are looking at ways to improve paint reflectivity even further, “though we may face a law of diminishing returns,” Elliott says.

Bacteria that could ‘build’ computers

Magnetic bacteria are inspiring researchers to create a new generation of computer components – and eventually perhaps whole biological computers.

A collaboration between Leeds University and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has worked out how the bacterium Magnetospirillum magneticum eats iron and turns it into crystals of magnetite, a magnetic mineral. The scientists then used a protein from the bacterium to make their own array of nano-scale magnets similar to those that store information on a computer hard drive.

“Using today’s ‘top-down’ method – essentially sculpting tiny magnets out of a big magnet – it is increasingly difficult to produce the small magnets of the same size and shape which are needed to store data,” says Johanna Galloway of Leeds. “Using the method developed here, the proteins do all the hard work; they gather the iron, create the most magnetic compound and arrange it into regularly-sized cubes.”

In a related experiment, a different bacterial protein was used to lay the finest possible nanowires that could connect components.

“It is possible to tune these wires to have a particular electrical resistance,” says Masayoshi Tanaka of Tokyo. “In the future, they could be grown connected to other components, as part of an entirely biological computer.”

The researchers plan now to examine the biological processes behind the behaviour of these proteins in detail, with the aim of developing proteins and chemicals that could be used to grow electronic components from scratch.

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