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20 Cool UT Science Stories from 2020 (Not about COVID-19)

20 Cool UT Science Stories from 2020 (Not about COVID-19)

University of Texas at Austin researchers have been instrumental in tracking the spread of the coronavirus, developing critical antibody treatments to save lives, developing diagnostics and creating the vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 that are currently being distributed around the world.

But a lot of other notable moments in Texas Science also came this year, despite the challenges of a pandemic – and many had little or nothing to do with the coronavirus. Read on to find out what else UT scientists have discovered and been celebrated for this year.

A Varroa mite, a common pest that can weaken bees and make them more susceptible to pathogens, feeds on a honey bee. Photo credit: Alex Wild/University of Texas at Austin.

Bacteria to Save the Bees

Researchers have developed a new strategy to protect honey bees from a deadly trend known as colony collapse: genetically engineered strains of bacteria. The engineered bacteria live in the guts of honey bees and act as biological factories, pumping out medicines protecting the bees against two major causes of colony collapse: Varroa mites and deformed wing virus.

Texas Scientists Take Top Prizes

Several University of Texas at Austin scientists won some of the world's most notable research prizes. Physicist Steven Weinberg became the first Longhorn to win the prestigious Breakthrough Prize, just months after his colleague in the department, Allan MacDonald, was selected for the renowned Wolf Prize. Integrative biologist Mark Kirkpatrick, physicist Katherine Freese and astronomer John Kormendy were elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences. And mathematician Uri Treisman received one of the most prestigious awards in American education, the James Bryant Conant Award.

The Complex Swan Songs of Black Holes

Scientists have been studying gravitational waves from the collision of black holes for several years now. The ripples in space time cause gravitational waves that send out a kind of chirp and then send out a signal like a ringing bell. UT scientists were on the team that discovered that when two black holes collide and merge, the remnant black hole chirps not once but multiple times and in a way that reveals information about its shape. 

Invasive Moths Threaten Iconic Cactus

UT researchers have known that the invasive cactus moth has already made its way to Texas and is destroying prickly pear cactus, an iconic fixture of the Texas landscape that is vital for the ecosystem. A new study found that this moth has the potential to spread to all of the state and could cause large scale agricultural and ecological devastation if left unchecked.

Cancer Drug Resistance Factor Identified

Researchers in the Department of Molecular Biosciences have identified a protein that may help doctors determine if cancer patients with certain types of aggressive tumors may become resistant to a class of drugs used to treat high-risk breast, prostate and ovarian cancers. This breakthrough could help doctors plan more effective treatment plans for their patients.

Bacterial Cannon Fodder

In a discovery important for efforts to address antibiotic resistance, UT scientists discovered how some cells within a bacterial swarm will sacrifice themselves so that other cells in the swarm have a better chance of surviving onslaught by antibiotics.

Credit: Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences

Solving Billions of Equations Simultaneously

Researchers from the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Department of Mathematics are studying how to use a random sampling of equations in order to solve large systems of algebraic equations that contain billions or trillions of variables very quickly. The step forward could prove key for future computing advances.

Texas Picked as Machine Learning Powerhouse

Machine learning is an artificial intelligence technology with the power to transform everything from transportation to entertainment to health care. And Texas is leading in it: the National Science Foundation chose UT for its new AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning, and philanthropic donors established a new Machine Learning Laboratory, which will support related research and educational initiatives for the long haul.

DNA Data Storage Gets a Boost

As humans continue to amass huge amounts of data and information, scientists have been looking for a medium that doesn't take up much space, can last a long time and could easily be read thousands of years from now. DNA is a great solution, but it comes with some challenges. UT researchers think they've overcome some of them. 

Immune Cells Identified as Driver of Alcohol Use Disorder

Researchers in the Department of Neuroscience have identified microglia, the primary immune cells in the brain, as a central driver of alcohol use disorder. The scientists are the first to link these cells to the molecular, cellular and behavioral changes that promote the increased drinking that's associated with alcohol dependence.

Romantic Relationships Holding Steady

Researchers in the Human Development and Family Science department have found that during the pandemic, couples in romantic relationships have continued patterns established before anyone had thought about quarantining together for months. If pairs were happy before the pandemic, they are still happy. If they were unhappy before the pandemic, they are still unhappy.

A Genetic Cause for Scoliosis

Scoliosis, one of the most common spinal disorders in humans, is an abnormal curvature of the spine. Researchers in the Department of Nutritional Sciences have identified a genetic mechanism behind the formation of the Reissner Fiber, a key spinal structure, and have been able to link the absence of the fiber to scoliosis in zebrafish.

An artist's concept of Kepler-1649c orbiting around its host red dwarf star. This newly discovered exoplanet is in its star’s habitable zone and is the closest to Earth in size and temperature found yet in Kepler's data. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Earth-Sized, Possibly Habitable World Discovered

A team of UT astronomy researchers discovered an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its star buried in old data from the Kepler space telescope. This planet, Kepler-1649c, was found upon reanalysis of the data and is the exoplanet closest in size and estimated temperature to Earth that has been found to date.

Long-Lived Trees Critical for Carbon Storage

Researchers have found that trees that grow quickly, live a long time and reproduce slowly may be more critical to understanding climate change than previously thought. Climate models treat most trees the same, but these old-timers absorb carbon differently. Understanding more about them will likely make climate models more accurate.

Social Support May Be Key in Addiction Recovery

Neuroscience researchers found that patients in recovery for drug addiction who were offered social support, such as group meetings, were less likely to relapse when compared to patients who were forced to abstain from drugs and go "cold turkey," such as those who were incarcerated. 

Dr. Craig Connolly takes a groundwater sample to measure the concentration and age of organic carbon and nitrogen in groundwater flowing beneath the beach. Credit: Jim McClelland.

Unknown Source of Carbon in the Arctic is Found

Researchers with the UT Marine Science Institute discovered that groundwater in parts of the Arctic contribute almost as much carbon to the coastal waterways as nearby rivers. This has scientists marveling at a once overlooked contributor to local coastal ecosystems – and concerned about what it may mean in an era of climate change.

How to 3D Print with Harmless Light

Current 3D printing methods rely on UV light, but a University of Texas at Austin chemist has developed a way to print out solid objects from a liquid resin with fine resolution using instead visible light. The innovation in technique isn't only more energy efficient, it could allow for printing more kinds of materials, possibly even including materials that contain biological cells.

Certain Groups in Texas are Less Like to Vaccinate Children

Texans who are college-educated, live in suburban or urban areas, have higher median incomes and are ethnically white are less likely to vaccinate their children, according to analysis by researchers in two departments, Integrative Biology and Statistics and Data Sciences.

New Approach Makes Web Browsers More Secure

A powerful new approach to securing web browsers, developed in part by researchers in the Department of Computer Science, is getting its first real-world application in the Firefox browser. The approach shifts some of the browser code into "secure sandboxes" that prevent malicious code from taking over the user's computer.

Supporting Seniors Smartly

Researchers in the Human Development and Family Sciences department found that for adults who live alone, connections with other people make a big difference. In fact, this year such connections were vital to their emotional wellbeing, though some forms of getting in touch were more likely to be linked to negative emotions, especially loneliness.

The College Welcomed New Faculty in 2020
Marder Receives University’s Civitatis Award

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Tuesday, 26 January 2021

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