Research roundup

Insights & Outcomes: Revelations from deep beneath the Himalayas

Yale researchers glean new insights from far beneath the Himalayan mountains and from the bottom of the ocean.

Yale researchers discovered a structure, known as an ultra-low velocity zone, deep beneath the Himalayas. Understanding the structure’s role in geological processes can help explain the evolution of surface features. (©

This month, with spring in the air, Insights & Outcomes reports on new discoveries beneath the Himalayas and on the ocean floor and congratulates a revered Yale scientist and an early career physicist on their latest honors.

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

A deep dive beneath the Himalayas

Yale researchers are delving deep beneath the Himalayas to investigate dynamic geological processes near the boundary of Earth’s core and mantle.

For a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience, graduate student Jonathan Wolf and seismologist Maureen Long used seismic waves to study the structure just above the boundary between Earth’s rocky mantle and metallic core, 1,800 miles beneath Earth’s surface.

The researchers discovered a structure known as an ultra-low velocity zone (ULVZ) — a type of formation whose origin, composition, and role in mantle dynamics are poorly understood by scientists.

Understanding patterns and drivers of mantle dynamics is ultimately important because the whole Earth system is connected,” Wolf said. “Processes in the deep mantle also, directly or indirectly, influence what is happening to tectonic plates on top of the mantle and how current surface features have evolved.”

The researchers found that the ULVZ beneath the Himalayas may have been formed by subducted material that had sunk from the surface down to the core-mantle boundary.

A big outstanding puzzle has been whether ULVZs are stationary features or whether they interact with the convective, flowing mantle, so our study speaks to that,” said Long, who is the Bruce D. Alexander ’65 Professor in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “We also provide direct evidence for subducted slabs playing a role in driving flow at the base of the mantle.”

Daniel Frost of the University of South Carolina was a co-author of the new study.

An underwater electron exchange

In order to “breathe” in an environment without oxygen, bacteria at the bottom of the ocean depend upon a single family of proteins to transfer excess electrons produced by the “burning” of nutrients to nanowires projecting from their surface, Yale researchers have found.

This family of proteins in essence acts as connecting plugs that enable nanowires to create a natural electrical grid on the ocean floor, which in turn allows many types of microbes to survive and support life, said Nikhil Malvankar, associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry in FAS and senior author of the new study. Malvankar is a member of the Microbial Sciences Institute at West Campus.

For several years Malvankar’s lab has studied the components of this microbial electrical grid, but it had remained unclear how bacteria are able to transmit excess electrons produced by metabolic activity into these nanowires, which helps them connect with neighbors. In the new study, the researchers found that many types of oceanic bacteria depend upon a family of periplasmic cytochrome proteins to enable the rapid transfer of electrons to the nanowires.

Understanding the details of this molecular electric exchange is not only important for potential development of new energy sources and new electrical equipment, but also because of its environmental implications. Oceanic microbes absorb about 80% of the methane emitted from ocean sediments before it can reach the ocean floors worldwide. Methane emitted from ocean floors is a major contributor to global warming, Malvankar said. However, microbes on earth’s surface account for 50% of methane emission into the atmosphere. Understanding the different metabolic processes involved in the two environments might help mitigate emissions, he said.

The research was reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Horwich wins ‘Frontiers of Knowledge’ award

Arthur Horwich, Sterling Professor of Genetics and professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, is a recipient of a prestigious Frontiers of Knowledge Award for his seminal work identifying molecular processes behind the folding of proteins.

Protein folding is a key mechanism that enables proteins to carry out their biological functions, or to trigger a response — to either repair of destroy — when folding goes awry. Horwich’s research has shed light not only on cell dynamics in physiology, but also on potential pathways to new therapies for cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Horwich is one of four winners in the Frontiers of Knowledge biology and biomedicine category. His fellow honorees, Ulrich Hartl, Kazutoshi Mori, and Peter Walter, have also contributed groundbreaking research in protein folding.

It had been thought previously that proteins folded on their own. But the research of Horwich and others showed that proteins required the aid of additional biological machinery — known as “chaperones.”

Horwich and Hartl identified the first cellular pathway that regulates protein folding, by describing the “chaperone” role played by the protein Hsp60.

The implications are that there are folding assistants inside cells that bind misfolded proteins, and in so doing, can prevent them from being toxic to the cell or preventing them from lacking any normal function,” Horwich said.

The honor is awarded by the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) Foundation. The BBVA’s Frontiers of Knowledge awards, established in 2008, presents honors in eight categories: physics and chemistry, mathematics, biology and biomedicine, technology, environmental sciences, economics, social sciences, and the humanities and music. Each category is funded with 400,000 euros.

Strong showing in the ‘strong’ force

Ian Moult, an assistant professor of physics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a member of Yale’s Wright Laboratory, has won the Wu-Ki Tung Award for Early-Career Research on Quantum Chromodynamics.

Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the study of the “strong” nuclear force — the strong interaction between quarks and gluons that enables the formation of neutrons and protons within atoms. The strong nuclear force is one of the four fundamental forces (along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the “weak” nuclear force).

Moult, who joined the Yale faculty in 2021, was honored “for pioneering work on QCD energy correlators, including their all-orders factorization, multi-loop structure, phenomenological applications, and connections to conformal field theory.”

A common theme of Moult’s research is the use of Effective Field Theories, which allow calculations relevant for complicated, real-world experiments to be reduced to simpler, universal problems in quantum field theory.

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