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Astronomers find second Earth just 4.25 light-years away

Now, astronomers will begin the search for signs of life on Proxima b.
By Brooks Hays   |   Aug. 24, 2016 at 1:56 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Aug. 24 (UPI) -- An Earth-like exoplanet orbits our closest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, 4.25 light-years away. Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced the news at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Scientist say the alien world, dubbed Proxima b, has a surface temperature suitable for liquid water, meaning the exoplanet is habitable and could host life.

Astronomers first noticed the suggestion of an alien world at Proxima Centauri in 2013, but the red dwarf star is so faint -- and constantly outshined by the stellar duo Alpha Centauri AB -- that confirming the presence of an exoplanet proved extremely difficult.

To find definitive evidence of Proxima b, scientists at ESO initiated the Pale Red Dot project. As part of the research effort, astronomers pointed several powerful telescopes at the red dwarf with the hope of catching the star's wobble, the push and pull caused by the orbit of Proxima b.

Two years later and astronomers have the evidence they need to confirm the exoplanet's presence.

A new paper on the exoplanet is set to published this week in the journal Nature.

Though Proxima b orbits in just 11 days, its temperature is relatively moderate thanks to the modest size of its host star. However, the exoplanet's intimate position likely leaves it more vulnerable to solar flares, storms and other radiation events. Researchers also believe Proxima b is without seasons.

So far, scientists know relatively little about Proxima b. But as more and more astronomers turn their attention to a possible neighboring Earth, researchers are hopeful new insights aren't far off.

"Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us," ESO astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escudé said in a news release. "Many people's stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next."

© 2016 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

Plants are adapting to rising CO2 rates

"Plants from the spring sites had differences in the expression of hundreds of genes," researcher Gail Taylor said.
By Brooks Hays   |   Aug. 24, 2016 at 1:14 PM

SOUTHAMPTON, England, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- New analysis of molecular signatures suggests plants are adapting the higher rates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Previous research has suggested rising CO2 levels would encourage accelerated plant growth in the short term, and indeed, greening has been documented across much of the globe.

But as Gail Taylor, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southampton, recently pointed out: "[Few studies have] given us any insight into the long-term impacts of rising CO2 over multiple generations, and none have been undertaken on the molecular signature underpinning such adaptation."

Taylor is the lead author of a new study on the longer-term effects of CO2 rates on plant physiology, published this week in the journal Global Change Biology.

Part of the reason so little research has addressed the topic is that few living plants have been exposed to heightened CO2 rates for a prolonged period of time.

Some have, however, and Taylor and her colleagues set out to study them.

Plant communities growing near CO2 springs -- vents, often near volcanic systems, leaking high concentrations of carbon dioxide -- have been exposed to the greenhouse gas for many generations. Taylor and her fellow researchers compared the molecular signatures of plantago lanceolata plants living near a spring in Bossoleto, Italy, to plants living elsewhere.

Scientists identified markedly different patterns of gene expression in the plants living near a CO2 spring. When two specimens of the plant species were subjected to the same environment, the plant from the spring grow larger and featured higher rates of photosynthesis.

"Plants from the spring sites had differences in the expression of hundreds of genes," Taylor said.

Prior to their experiments, the scientists predicted that the plant's stomatal pores -- small leaf holes that control the uptake of CO2 and the evaporation of water -- would shrink in number over time. Study results suggest plants exposed to CO2 developed more pores.

"We don't understand the full consequences of this developmental change but it shows that plants will adapt in unpredictable ways to future CO2 over multiple generations," Taylor concluded. "This question is pressing -- we need to know how food crops may evolve over future generations in response to the changing climate, whether planetary greening is likely to continue and the impacts of this for global nature conservation."

© 2016 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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