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06/15/2016: Twisty molecules with ‘handedness’ that are essential to life found in deep space

mother_nature_news_chiral_2016It might be weird to think about molecules as expressing “handedness.” After all, molecules don’t have hands. But there is a class of organic molecules known as chiral molecules that can be thought of as being either left-handed or right-handed, similar to the way we favor one appendage over the other.

Basically, chiral molecules with different handedness will share the same chemical structure, but with different geometries. They’re essentially arranged as mirrors of one another, in such a way that they’re non-superposable. So it’s impossible to flip one to make it match the other.

“When you shake somebody’s hand, your right hand shakes another right hand, and it forms that nice, interlocking gesture; if you try to shake a left hand with your right hand it’s a little awkward because the interaction is different,” explained Brett McGuire, a researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia. “Chiral molecules work the same way.”

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06/14/2016: A Molecule In Space Could Help Us Understand The Origin Of Life On Earth

popular_science_chiral_2016Are your molecules lefties or righties?

There are a lot of concepts that help life exist here on Earth. One is as simple as whether a molecule is right handed or left handed. As straightforward as it is, we still don’t know how the molecules got that way. But a recent discovery of a molecule in space might help us out.

The complex molecules that exist here on our planet often come in two versions, each mirror images or enantiomers of one another. But while its ordinary on Earth, we’ve never seen these kinds of molecules anywhere else in the universe. Now, for the first time, a team of scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia, the California Institute of Technology, and Harvard University discovered one of these so-called “chiral” molecules in space. The researchers think this discovery could help explain why some chiral molecules on Earth exist more commonly as one hand than as another.

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06/14/2016: Astronomers find first evidence of chiral chemistry in distant cosmic cloud

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_IV__CompositeAn organic (if toxic) alcohol could point the way toward finding more “handed” molecules — the kind that make up RNA, DNA, and other building blocks to life.

 To make life, our bodies require many chemicals to have a certain “handedness,” a left or right orientation called chirality that determines the behavior of those substances in our bodies. The requirement is the molecular equivalent of why sticking your left hand onto your right wrist won’t work — despite being mirror images, they are not interchangeable.  Chiral molecules are an essential building block of life. They are ubiquitous on Earth and in some comets / asteroids, but scientists have never observed them in interstellar space.Until now.

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06/07/2016: Growing crops, business in WV no small potatoes

Daily_Mail_potatoes_2016What can people in West Virginia do to make the state more economically productive and diverse, particularly to overcome the loss of many of its traditional big money industries?

How about agriculture?

A crazy idea considering the rugged terrain of much of the Mountain State, but when you look further, is it such a crazy idea after all?

The Sunday Gazette-Mail featured a group of farmers working together at a place you’d least expect it, the grounds of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank.

Last week, farmers planted the last of six five-acre plots on a stretch of level land between the Observatory’s headquarters building and the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope with potatoes. The work, done by six teams of Pocahontas County farmers using a state-owned planting machine, is part of an effort by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to encourage farmers to consider growing potatoes as a new cash crop.

Records show that in 1927, West Virginia’s best year for agricultural production, about 53,000 acres were devoted to potato production statewide, compared with less than 1,000 acres today.

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6/6/2016: Green Bank tour celebrates role in extraterrestrial intelligence search

Gazette_SETI_Tour_2016The first scientific search for intelligent life in the universe began in 1960 at the Green Bank Observatory, in Pocahontas County, with a four-month effort to detect interstellar radio signals from two stars in a relatively nearby constellation.

It continues today, as the observatory’s 300-foot Green Bank Telescope serves as a key component of Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year international search targeting the one million stars nearest Earth as well as the centers of the 100 galaxies closest to our Milky Way.

This summer, the Green Bank Observatory is hosting a series of behind-the-scenes tours allowing visitors to explore the Pocahontas County radio astronomy facility’s pioneering role in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI, for short) and learn about the key part it plays in Breakthrough Listen, the world’s most comprehensive SETI effort, involving a decade-long, $100 million probe that began in January.

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