Science Highlights

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Each year, scientists with the Office of Science, at our national laboratories, and supported by the Office of Science at the nation’s colleges and universities, publish thousands of research findings in the scientific literature. About 200 of these are selected annually by their respective program areas in the Office of Science as publication highlights of special note.

For the archive of past publication highlights, click here.

April 8, 2019
Researchers compared the structures of four centers in photosynthesis electron transfer: the Heliobacterial reaction center (HbRC; green), the purple bacterial reaction center (PbRC, red), and Photosystem I (PSI, blue) and Photosystem II (PSII, yellow).
A New View on a Very Old Problem: Evolution of the Photochemical Reaction Centers
Researchers offer insights into how a key piece of photosynthetic machinery changed over 3 billion years.
March 21, 2019
The nitrogenase enzyme couples the energy-releasing formation of hydrogen (H2) (reductive elimination) to the energy-requiring cleavage of the triple bond in nitrogen (N2) (oxidative addition) (bottom, center).
How Does Mother Nature Tackle the Tough Triple Bond Found in Nitrogen?
Researchers demystify how the nitrogenase enzyme breaks bonds to learn a better way to make ammonia.
March 21, 2019
Scientists determined that the structure of the Heliobacterium photosystem is more symmetrical than more recently evolved photosystems. They used advanced X-ray crystallography to determine fine details of the proteins in the photosystem.
A Detailed View of the Ancestor of Photosynthesis
The symmetrical light-gathering, energy-producing complex offers insights into how modern photosystems evolved.
March 21, 2019
Foreground: microbial community under dry conditions (left) and microbial community under irrigated conditions (right).
Some Bacteria Make a Big Difference in Dryland Wheat Farming
Even a single species of bacteria can positively affect soils and plants, improving and even enabling agriculture in semi-arid areas.
March 14, 2019
A research team is advancing understanding of how microbial communities function in the wild, by studying rumen of live moose foraging in the field.
Sampling Guts of Live Moose to Understand How They Break Down Biomass
First-of-a-kind study advances understanding of microbial and viral communities involved in biomass breakdown.
March 14, 2019
Scientists are studying the microbial communities created during the fracking process to see how they can be managed to improve gas production.
How Injected Microbes Persist in Hydraulically Fractured Shale
Scientists reveal the importance of an amino acid that supplies energy and protection for microbial communities deep underground.
March 14, 2019
New geochemical research clearly shows how toxic material like uranium binds with iron-bearing minerals like hematite in the soil, allowing scientists to predict long-term behavior.
Fitting a Square Peg in a Round Hole: The Surprising Structure of Uranium Bound in Hematite
An atomic view of how toxic uranium binds to iron minerals in the environment enables better predictions of its behavior.
March 8, 2019
Scientists identified three different types of water molecules surrounding a heavy, anionic metal-chloride complex (bottom) using spectroscopy (top) at an air/water interface.
Unique Interface and Unexpected Behavior Help Explain How Heavy Metals Act
Three types of water molecules form around a platinum-based ion, offering insights for waste processing and metal refining.
March 4, 2019
Studies of a modified small flowering plant show that plants defending themselves against insect attack grow more slowly & produce fewer flowers (right). When not defending themselves, plants grow faster & produce more flowers (left)—and ultimately seeds.
To Grow or Not to Grow? That Is the Question for Plants
Scientists show metabolic tradeoffs result from a specific change to the grow-defend balance.
March 4, 2019
The trihydrogen cation, H3 , plays a major role in interstellar chemistry where it facilitates the formation of water and organic molecules. Researchers have discovered how the cation forms when organic molecules are excited by an intense laser pulse.
Forming the Ion that Made the Universe
Research offers details on the chemistry of the trihydrogen ion.
March 1, 2019
Cryo-soft X-ray tomography of an algal cell shows the large accumulation of fat (yellow). Nucleus, purple; chloroplast, green; mitochondria, red; lipid bodies, yellow.
Feeding Sugars to Algae Makes Them Fat
Adding glucose to a green microalga culture induces accumulation of fatty acids and other valuable bioproducts.
March 1, 2019
The separation of lithium fluoride (Li and F) ion pairs involves two stages: (1) an increase of the water coordination about the contact ion pairs, CIP to CIP* and (2) spatial separation of the CIP* to solvent-separated ion pairs, SSIP*.
Water: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way
Elegant theory shows how water helps separate ions involved in material synthesis and manufacturing.
March 1, 2019
Scientists study coherence in the ultrafast collective motions of atoms in molecules. Why? Research suggests function can be enhanced by coherence.
Seeing Coherent Patterns at the Microscopic Scale
Review highlights insights into coherence, which could help overcome roadblocks in next-generation energy systems.
March 1, 2019
Novel colloidal quantum dots are formed from an emitting cadmium selenium (CdSe) core (red) enclosed into a shell (green). The core is compressed (lines) more strongly perpendicular to the crystal axis than along it.
Squeezed Quantum Dots Produce More Stable Light
Exploiting a strain-engineering approach could provide nanoscale light sources with a nonfluctuating emission wavelength.
March 1, 2019
At the interface, water slows the dissociation of chloride and sodium ions.
Ions on the Edge
Ions at the edge of water, exposed to air, don’t separate like they do when surrounded by water, offering insights for desalination and corrosion.
February 28, 2019
Carbon and energy balances may prove to be a simplified way to predict microbial functions in soils that are often flooded and how such functions effect climate, soil health, and crop productivity.
A Simplified Way to Predict the Function of Microbial Communities
A pioneering study on how microbes work could advance models of frequently flooded soil’s elements and nutrients.
February 27, 2019
Root nodules, which allow some bacteria to fix nitrogen into soils for greater plant productivity, have a surprisingly complex metabolism, which could be optimized to develop more sustainable agriculture.
Unexpected Complexity: A 3D Look into Plant Root Relationships with Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria
Scientists develop a molecular map of metabolic products of bacteria in root nodules to aid sustainable agriculture.
February 27, 2019
Ozone damage starts as stipple, which are dark pinpoint spots, visible on the left side of this snap bean leaf. The more extensive yellow-ringed brown patches on the top and right side of this leaf are evidence of severe ozone damage.
Maximizing Ozone Signals
Technique enables efficient & precise estimates of trends in ozone & other atmospheric constituents within selected geographical regions & timeframes.
February 27, 2019
This map is an example from the global gridded data set that shows the spatial distribution of annual mean water withdrawal in six sectors.
How Much Water Does the World Use?
Global data set shows monthly water use by irrigation, manufacturing, and other uses, helping researchers to analyze water use by region and season.
February 26, 2019
Composite images of 16 radiographs of 11-week-old poplar seedling in sand (top). The intensity indicates water content (bottom).
Get to the Root: Tiny Poplar Roots Extract More Water than Their Larger Counterparts after Drought
Researchers link root water uptake to root traits and assess (poor) performance of common models.
February 26, 2019
The scientists used radiometers, shown here, to isolate the signal of methane’s greenhouse effect. Radiometers are among the many instruments at ARM’s Southern Great Plains observatory the team used as part of this study.
First Observation of Methane’s Increasing Greenhouse Effect at the Earth’s Surface
Predictions of the direct impacts of greenhouse gases must account for local temperature and humidity conditions.
February 26, 2019
Who Can Sort the Rain?
Surface measurements of rain drop sizes shed light on cloud processes and cloud types.
February 25, 2019
In freshwater wetlands of the Great Lakes region, mercury accumulation in plants poses a significant human health concern. In a 2018 study, researchers showed the influence of wetland vegetation in regulating mercury toxicity in a Great Lakes estuary.
Why Toxic Methylmercury Production Increased in a Great Lakes Estuary
Research offers evidence that microbes and organic matter raise toxin levels, potentially helping improve mercury monitoring.
February 25, 2019
In areas with weak surface winds, additional evaporation from the ocean’s surface is a major energy source for driving tropical patterns that create rainfall.
Gust or Bust: Blustery Winds Important for Modeling Tropical Rainfall
Researchers find gusty winds increase surface evaporation that drives summer rainstorms in the Tropical West Pacific.
February 24, 2019
Phytoplankton: the foundation of the oceanic food chain.
Starving the Oceans
Nutrients increasingly moving to the deep ocean with strong climate warming could lead to drastic drops in surface ocean life and fishery yields.