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September 2013 story tips

FORENSICS Mass grave detection . . .

Families of thousands of victims of social violence may gain closure, and killers may receive appropriate punishment, because of a suite of technologies able to locate clandestine graves. While investigators can find some graves, perhaps hundreds of thousands remain undiscovered. Researchers at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are developing a method to discover graves using sensors, onboard satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. [Contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226;]

BIOENERGY Super microbe . . .

A newly discovered microbe may offer a cost-effective solution that makes biofuel production more efficient. Researchers have found an anaerobic bacterium called Caldicellulosiruptor bescii that can degrade lignin, the hardy substance in plant cell walls that prevents the conversion of biomass into biofuel. Studies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have identified the compounds released when the microbe degrades lignin and other components of cell walls, a process that leaves cellulose vulnerable to enzymatic degradation. This microorganism could eliminate expensive chemical pretreatments that are used before biomass can be converted to biofuel. The paper is published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science. [Written by Jennifer Brouner; contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226;]

CLIMATE Mapping where trees survive, thrive . . .

Climate change spurs heat waves, droughts, fires and infestations that threaten trees. Researchers at the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and collaborators on a Forest Service-funded project are mapping the effect of projected climate change on tree populations. "We can plan ahead for forest-resources management in a changing climate," said CCSI's Jitendra Kumar. "Based on our fitness mapping of about 200 tree species, most are expected to see reduction in their suitable habitat under warming climates, but a handful will gain suitable habitat." [Contact: Dawn Levy, (865) 241-4630);]

HELIUM Selective sieving membrane . . .

A membrane technology developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory could help secure the nation's helium supply by enabling the extraction of helium from new, low-grade sources. A steady supply of helium is critical for high-tech applications in MRI machines, fiber optic manufacturing, semiconductor fabrication and more. The sieving membrane technology can efficiently separate helium from nitrogen-rich hydrocarbon streams that are currently untapped by natural gas producers. The increased selectivity and robust nature of the ORNL membrane allow for the cost-effective recovery of helium even where gas concentrations are very low. ORNL and Helios-NRG, a small business in New York, are collaborating to field-test the membrane technology as part of a hybrid system. [Written by Morgan McCorkle; contact:]

MEDICAL Improving drug design . . .

Scientists are using supercomputers to reveal the structure of proteins whose aggregation is involved in the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's disease. Pavan GhattyVenkataKrishna, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory postdoctoral student, led a study that explains how amyloid beta, a small protein, aggregates and folds, and also explains exactly which amino acid residues can interact with drugs. Before ORNL's study, researchers had proposed several possible structures for the amyloid beta protein, but knowing the physiologically relevant structure, as described in this study, could help scientists develop drugs that can treat patients suffering from neurological diseases. [Written by Jennifer Brouner; contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226;]


Contact: Ron Walli
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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