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2019’s most memorable research stories

December 17, 2019

One of the best things about being on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus is the opportunity to learn from its passionate scientists and students. Covering the research stories of the institution keeps us busy, but it also provides the opportunity to have some fun (but don’t tell the bosses!). While we believe that every story we do is important, here are some of the ones that taught us the most in 2019.

—Chris Barncard, Eric Hamilton and Kelly April Tyrrell, Research Communications

Earth’s last magnetic field reversal took far longer than once thought

Some scientists think we’re living through the beginning of the next reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, which would affect our heavily electronic world in bizarre ways. Thankfully, new research from geoscientist Brad Singer found evidence that the last time Earth’s field reversed, it took about 22,000 years to complete. That’s several times longer than researchers previously thought and means that humanity would likely have generations to adapt to the next lengthy period of magnetic instability.

Genes behind lager yeast’s cold- and sugar-loving success revealed

Lager beer is cold, crisp, dry — and worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Genetics professor Chris Todd Hittinger and his lab recently discovered that lager yeast tolerates the cold because it inherited the power-generating portion of the cell from its cold-loving ancestor. And they figured out how this hybrid could have evolved the ability to digest all the sugars in wort to ferment a dry, crisp beer. Together, these two traits helped lager yeast — and beer — take over the world.

Memorial Union steam whistle sets rhythm of summer evenings — and saves lives

To Terrace-goers, the steam whistle on Helen C. White Hall might just seem like a quaint way to herald another sunset. But to university and public boaters alike, its true mission is clear: keeping everyone on Lake Mendota safe enough to head out another day. UWPD Lake Rescue and Safety and the Hoofer Sailing Club collaborate to train sailors, monitor lake conditions and blow the whistle when approaching storms threaten boaters, ultimately saving lives. Thanks, whistle.

Reddit competes to visualize Madison’s prized Lake Mendota ice data

For 166 years, university and state scientists have carefully tracked Lake Mendota’s annual freeze and thaw. That trove of data was just what Reddit was looking for. The DataIsBeautiful subreddit competed to find the best way to visualize this long, icy record. As each graphic, animation and chart revealed, Lake Mendota has lost about a month’s worth of ice since record-keeping started as the result of a warming climate. That adds up to big changes for Madison’s ice fishers and cross-country skiers — and to the watery world beneath their feet.

Ancient poop helps show climate change contributed to fall of Cahokia

Nearly 1,000 years ago, the ancient city of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, was the most sophisticated prehistoric settlement north of Mexico. But then, the Mississippi River began to flood, and Cahokia’s population rapidly declined. Researchers at UW–Madison and California State University, Long Beach found evidence using remnants of human poop and layers of sediment deposited in a nearby lake to suggest climate change contributed to Cahokia’s fall. “Cultures can be very resilient in the face of climate change but resilience doesn’t necessarily mean there is no change,” says UW–Madison anthropology professor Sissel Schroeder.

Fear of more dangerous second Zika, dengue infections unfounded in monkeys

Zika virus, already connected to heartbreaking consequences for newborns in recent epidemics in the Americas, was cause for additional concern among public health officials because it is so closely related to dengue virus — which is dangerous enough in an initial infection, but can be even more life-threatening during a second infection. This year, UW–Madison’s Zika virus researchers allayed some fears that the viruses would make each other more dangerous by showing that, in monkeys, an earlier infection with one of the viral cousins does not make a later infection with the other more virulent.

Study confirms horseshoe crabs are really relatives of spiders, scorpions

When is a crab not actually crab? When it’s a horseshoe crab. These hard-shelled, blue-blooded creatures belong, it turns out, to the spiders and the scorpions. UW–Madison evolutionary biologists Prashant Sharma and Jesús Ballesteros subjected the genomes of horseshoes crabs, which have existed on Earth for 450 million years, to intense computational scrutiny and found they should live on the arachnid family tree. They are part of a lineage that makes them among the most successful animals on the planet.

Tiny capsules packed with gene-editing tools offer alternative to viral delivery of gene therapy

Gene therapy — using chemical tools to edit a patient’s genetic code for inherited diseases, some cancers, and even stubborn viral infections — is most often delivered using engineered viruses, but those viruses are hard to steer to specific cells within the body and can cause trouble by exciting the immune system. UW–Madison biomedical engineers have created an alternative to viral delivery, loading tiny synthetic capsules with gene-editing tools and coating the shell with molecules that help them zero in on their therapeutic targets.

With fire, warming and drought, Yellowstone forests could be grassland by mid-century

Yellowstone National Park may be at a tipping point. Its forests are adapted for periodic fires, but large wildfires that once blazed the landscape every 100-to-300 years are now sweeping through much more frequently as the climate warms and drought conditions increase. UW–Madison ecologist Monica Turner has studied the forests of Yellowstone for three decades and her work suggests forests may not be able to regenerate quickly enough. By the middle of this century, some of them may become grassland.

Lessons of conventional imaging let scientists see around corners

By playing the angles, UW–Madison researchers are developing cameras that can see around corners. Led by Andreas Velten, a professor of biostatistics and medical informatics, the scientists can bounce thousands of pulses of laser light off a wall or other surface into an unseen space and collect the scattered photons that ricochet back to their sensors. Using math to reconstruct the path of the returning light, they can piece together a picture of the hidden space as seen from the perspective of their reflecting surface.