Academic World News

Tobacco hawkmoths always find the right odor

A research team at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology has discovered how tobacco hawkmoths are able to detect odors that are important to them against a complex olfactory background. By looking at the specific activity patterns that the odors triggered in the moths' brains the researcher showed that the sense of smell enables moths not only to perceive the intense floral odors of nectar sources, but also to find the rather unobtrusive smell of their host plants on which the larvae thrive. What is especially amazing is that tobacco hawkmoths can reliably detect the odors of their host plants despite the multitude of background odors emitted by many other plants in the vicinity.

A Center for Visual Computing and Artificial Intelligence

The Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken (Germany) and Google have agreed on a strategic partnership to establish the Saarbrücken Research Center for Visual Computing, Interaction and Artificial Intelligence (VIA) at the MPI for Informatics. The center will conduct basic research in frontier areas of computer graphics, computer vision, and human machine interaction, at the intersection of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The VIA center will be headed by Christian Theobalt, scientific director at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics.

An alarm system against hardware attacks

Radio waves could protect computers, as well as card readers, from attacks on their hardware. As a team from the Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy in Bochum and the Ruhr University in Bochum has shown, the signal from one antenna in a device generates a characteristic electromagnetic pattern that is received by a second antenna. If an attacker manipulates the device with a wire, for example, the radio wave pattern changes and blows the whistle on the manipulation like an alarm system.

Neanderthals of the North

A multidisciplinary research team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics and other partner institutions investigated whether Neanderthals were well adapted to life in the cold or preferred more temperate environmental conditions. Based on investigations in Lichtenberg in the Wendland region (Lower Saxony, Germany), the researchers showed that during the last Ice Age, Neanderthals visited their northernmost settlement areas even during cold phases – albeit preferably in the summer months.

Spread of black rats was linked to human historical events

New ancient DNA analysis has shed light on how the black rat, blamed for spreading Black Death, dispersed across Europe – revealing that the rodent colonised the continent on two occasions in the Roman and Medieval periods. The study, led by the University of York along with the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History (Jena) and Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig), is the first ancient genetic study of the species, also known as the ship rat.

Sweet spots in the sea

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology now report that seagrasses release large amounts of sugar, largely in the form of sucrose, into their soils – worldwide more than one million tons of sucrose, enough for 32 billion cans of coke. Such high concentrations of sugar are surprising. Normally, microorganisms quickly consume any free sugars in their environment. The scientists found that seagrasses excrete phenolic compounds, and these deter most microorganisms from degrading the sucrose. This ensures that the sucrose remains buried underneath the meadows and cannot be converted into CO2 and returned to the ocean and atmosphere.

Asteroid treasure in the Hubble archive

With a sophisticated combination of human and artificial intelligence, astronomers uncovered 1701 new asteroid trails in archival data of the Hubble Space Telescope spanning the past 20 years. While about one third could be identified and attributed to known objects, more than 1000 trails probably correspond to previously unknown asteroids. These unidentified asteroids are faint and likely smaller than asteroids detected in ground-based surveys. They could give the astronomers valuable clues about conditions in the early solar system, when the planets were formed.

First Rays of Sunlight for Sunrise III

Approximately a month before it begins its research flight in the stratosphere, the balloon-borne solar observatory Sunrise III has looked at the Sun for the first time from its launch site at the Arctic Circle. In June, Sunrise III will take off from Esrange Space Center, the Swedish Space Agency's (SSC) balloon and rocket base in Kiruna (Sweden), and will climb to an altitude of about 35 kilometers. During its flight of several days, it will then take unique measurements of the Sun. In this way, processes in the chromosphere, the highly dynamic layer between the visible surface and the outer atmosphere of the Sun, will become visible more precisely than ever before

MAGIC telescopes observe stellar explosion

The MAGIC telescopes have observed the nova RS Ophiuchi shining brightly in gamma rays at extremely high energy. The Gamma rays emanate from protons that are accelerated to very high energies in the shock front following the explosion. This suggests that novae are also a source of the ubiquitous cosmic radiation in the universe which consists mainly of protons rich in energy, which race through space at almost the speed of light. The work was published in Nature Astronomy.

Flying into a clean and safe future

In the race to avoid runaway climate change, two renewable energy technologies are being pushed as the solution to powering human societies: wind and solar. But for many years, wind turbines have been on a collision course with wildlife conservation. Birds and other flying animals risk death by impact with the rotor blades of turbines, raising questions about the feasibility of wind as a cornerstone of a global clean energy policy. Now, a pair of animal tracking studies from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of East Anglia, UK, has provided detailed GPS data on flight behavior of birds that are susceptible to collision with energy infrastructure

Origins of the Avars elucidated with ancient DNA

Less known than Attila’s Huns, the Avars were their more successful successors. They ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe for almost 250 years. We know that they came from Central Asia in the sixth century CE, but ancient authors and modern historians debated their provenance. Now, a multidisciplinary research team of geneticists, archaeologists and historians, including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, obtained and studied the first ancient genomes from the most important Avar elite sites discovered in contemporary Hungary.

The dark matter of the brain

They are part of the brain of almost every animal species, yet they remain usually invisible even under the electron microscope. "Electrical synapses are like the dark matter of the brain," says Alexander Borst, director at the MPI for Biological Intelligence, in foundation (i.f). Now a team from his department has taken a closer look at this rarely explored brain component: In the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila, they were able to show that electrical synapses occur in almost all brain areas and can influence the function and stability of individual nerve cells.