Research roundup

Insights & Outcomes: A deep dive into oceans and proteins

This month’s Yale science rundown goes deep — into ancient oceans, proteins within human cells, and the Earth’s mantle.

(Illustration by Eri Griffin)

This month, Insights & Outcomes is going deep — into ancient oceans, proteins within human cells, and the Earth’s mantle.

As always, you can find more science and medicine research news on YaleNews’ Science & Technology and Health & Medicine pages.

Finding the on/off switch in a protein sensor

Human cells are equipped with a corrective program that can be quickly activated when their protein-making machinery misfires and produces misshapen proteins. However, when the program does not shut down in a timely manner it can lead to the death of cells and health problems such as diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.

New findings by Yale researchers identify how the sensor that controls this crucial on-off switch works. Led by Malaiyalam Mariappan, associate professor of cell biology, the researchers found that when protein folding errors are detected, a protein complex called IRE1 is activated; once the errors are corrected, IRE1 turns off. The researchers discovered a part of this protein complex is responsible for shutting down the program and that when it malfunctions can trigger cell death.

Targeting this part of the IRE1 complex could lead to new drug treatments for Type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and even infections such as the virus that causes COVID-19, the researchers report in the journal Cell Reports.

Charting carbon’s deep-Earth travels

Scientists are learning more about the geological conveyor belt that hauls carbon deep into the Earth’s mantle — namely, the process of subduction, which occurs when tectonic plates meet and one plate slides under another and sinks steeply over a period of millions of years.

In a new study in Nature Communications, researchers found that much of the carbon exits the conveyor belt earlier than previously thought — at depths of about 50 to 60 kilometers. Because carbon at these depths is likely to be returned to the atmosphere via volcanoes, the Earth’s mantle may expel more carbon than it takes in via subduction over a period of millions to billions of years, the researchers say.

The deep-Earth CO2 fluxes calculated in the paper can influence the global carbon cycle on million-to-billion-year timescales,” said Jay Ague, the Henry Barnard Davis Memorial Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who co-authored the study with former Yale Ph.D. student Emily Stewart, who is now at the California Institute of Technology.

These emissions, however, are dwarfed by the amounts of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by human activities, Ague said.

Kudos for Yale chemistry

The trade magazine Chemical & Engineering News gave a shout-out to chemistry professor Patrick Holland and his colleagues for discovering a way to combine atmospheric nitrogen with benzene to make aniline derivatives — precursors to materials used to make an assortment of synthetic products. The item appeared in C&EN’s “Year in Chemistry” story for 2020. Holland and his co-authors published a study about the discovery early last year in the journal Nature.

Making waves in habitability

A fundamental question in Earth science centers on habitability: What conditions allowed life to develop on the planet? Many scientists define habitability as the conditions that allow water to exist on the planetary surface for billions of years. A new study in the journal Progress in Earth and Planetary Science suggests that something else is necessary for habitability — water circulation.

The authors of the study, including Yale professors Shun Karato and Jeffrey Park of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, extended a model proposed in 2003 by Karato and Yale’s David Bercovici. They showed that global water circulation has an important control over the stability of ocean mass and suggested there is a self-regulating mechanism at work across the planet’s mantle transition zone, a depth of about 400 to 700 kilometers. The new model predicts there are plumes of water-rich material within that zone that carry a large amount of deeper water to the earth’s surface, particularly in continents surrounded by old oceans.

This paper provides a key new idea to explain why oceans on Earth have maintained their nearly constant volume, despite known, vigorous interactions with Earth’s interior,” Karato said.

Research redux

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