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Improved refrigeration could save nearly half of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year globally

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Improved refrigeration could save nearly half of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year globally


About a third of the food produced globally each year goes to waste, while approximately 800 million people suffer from hunger, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

A new University of Michigan study concludes that nearly half of the food waste, about 620 million metric tons, could be eliminated by fully refrigerated food supply chains worldwide.

At the same time, fully refrigerated supply chains, or “cold chains,” could cut food waste-related emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases by 41% globally, according to the study published online May 28 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters.

Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia have the greatest potential for reductions in both food losses and related emissions through increased cold-chain implementation, according to the study.

South and Southeast Asia could see a 45% reduction in food losses and a 54% decrease in associated emissions under an optimized refrigeration scenario. Sub-Saharan Africa has tremendous opportunities for both food loss (47%) and emissions (66%) reductions under optimized refrigeration conditions, the study shows.

And in many situations, developing more localized, less industrialized “farm-to-table” food supply chains may yield food savings comparable to optimized cold chains, according to the study.

“I was surprised to find the scale of our opportunity for reducing food loss and waste globally,” said study lead author Aaron Friedman-Heiman, a master’s student at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability and Ross School of Business. “Approximately half of the roughly 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste annually can be solved through food supply-chain optimization.”

The other author is Shelie Miller, a professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability and at the College of Engineering.

Food losses produce an estimated 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The new U-M study focuses on food losses in the post-harvest to retail stages of the food supply chain and does not address on-farm or at-home losses.

The study accounts for the greenhouse gases emitted during food production. It does not include emissions tied to refrigeration or other supply-chain operations and does not include emissions from food waste in landfills.

The study, funded in part by Carrier Global Corp., found that:

  • The greatest opportunity to improve food losses in less industrialized economies is the supply chain between the farm and the consumer. But in North America, Europe and other more industrialized regions, most food loss happens at the household level, so cold chain improvements would not have a major impact on total food losses.
  • Reinforcing previous research, the U-M study highlights the importance of meat-related food losses. While the amount of fruit and vegetable losses is much higher, by weight, throughout the world, the climate-related emissions associated with meat losses are consistently greater than those associated with any other food type — due mainly to the high greenhouse gas intensity of meat production.
  • Unlike previous studies of this topic, the U-M researchers compared the benefits of globalized, technologically advanced food-supply chains with those of localized “farm-to-table” food systems. “Hyper-localized food systems resulted in lower food losses than optimized global, refrigerated supply chains,” Friedman-Heiman said. “The results help quantify the value of maintaining and supporting local food chains.”

For the study, the researchers built a food-loss estimation tool to assess how improved access to the cold chain could impact food loss and its associated greenhouse gas emissions for seven food types in seven regions. They used data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and other sources.

By modeling food losses at each stage of the supply chain, the study highlights where the cold chain can be optimized to reduce food losses and emissions. The researchers analyzed the effects of moving from the current state of inconsistent and variable-quality cold chains throughout the world to an optimized system, defined as one with high-quality refrigeration across all stages.

The study estimates that poor cold-chain infrastructure could be responsible for up to 620 million metric tons of global food loss annually, resulting in emissions of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, the equivalent of 28% of U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers say their adaptable, easy-to-use tool will be of use to anyone involved in the food supply chain, including farmers, grocery retailers, government officials and nongovernmental organizations.

“Although cold chain infrastructure is rapidly increasing worldwide, an optimized cold chain will likely develop at different rates and in different ways across the globe,” Miller said. “This analysis demonstrates that while increased refrigeration should lead to improvements in both food loss and greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss, there are important tradeoffs associated with cold chain improvements by food type and region.”

She said Investment decisions will need to be prioritized to maximize the desired outcomes and impacts. For example, if an NGO’s top priority is ending hunger, then cold-chain upgrades that provide the greatest overall food-loss reductions may best meet that objective.

But organizations that prioritize climate action may choose to focus on reducing meat losses specifically, rather than total food losses.

The study found that meat accounts for more than 50% of food loss-related greenhouse gas emissions, despite accounting for less than 10% of global food losses by weight. Optimized refrigeration of meat could result in the elimination of more than 43% of emissions associated with meat loss, according to the study.

The researchers emphasize that the actual amount of greenhouse gas emissions savings will depend on the efficiency of cold-chain technologies and the carbon intensity of local electrical grids, since climate emissions associated with refrigeration can be significant.

The U-M study was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and by Carrier Global Corp., a global leader in intelligent climate and energy solutions.



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Prying open the AI black box

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Prying open the AI black box


Artificial intelligence continues to squirm its way into many aspects of our lives. But what about biology, the study of life itself? AI can sift through hundreds of thousands of genome data points to identify potential new therapeutic targets. While these genomic insights may appear helpful, scientists aren’t sure how today’s AI models come to their conclusions in the first place. Now, a new system named SQUID arrives on the scene armed to pry open AI’s black box of murky internal logic.

SQUID, short for Surrogate Quantitative Interpretability for Deepnets, is a computational tool created by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) scientists. It’s designed to help interpret how AI models analyze the genome. Compared with other analysis tools, SQUID is more consistent, reduces background noise, and can lead to more accurate predictions about the effects of genetic mutations.

How does it work so much better? The key, CSHL Assistant Professor Peter Koo says, lies in SQUID’s specialized training.

“The tools that people use to try to understand these models have been largely coming from other fields like computer vision or natural language processing. While they can be useful, they’re not optimal for genomics. What we did with SQUID was leverage decades of quantitative genetics knowledge to help us understand what these deep neural networks are learning,” explains Koo.

SQUID works by first generating a library of over 100,000 variant DNA sequences. It then analyzes the library of mutations and their effects using a program called MAVE-NN (Multiplex Assays of Variant Effects Neural Network). This tool allows scientists to perform thousands of virtual experiments simultaneously. In effect, they can “fish out” the algorithms behind a given AI’s most accurate predictions. Their computational “catch” could set the stage for experiments that are more grounded in reality.

“In silico [virtual] experiments are no replacement for actual laboratory experiments. Nevertheless, they can be very informative. They can help scientists form hypotheses for how a particular region of the genome works or how a mutation might have a clinically relevant effect,” explains CSHL Associate Professor Justin Kinney, a co-author of the study.

There are tons of AI models in the sea. More enter the waters each day. Koo, Kinney, and colleagues hope that SQUID will help scientists grab hold of those that best meet their specialized needs.

Though mapped, the human genome remains an incredibly challenging terrain. SQUID could help biologists navigate the field more effectively, bringing them closer to their findings’ true medical implications.



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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard

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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard


Four and a half billion years ago, our solar system was a cloud of gas and dust swirling around the sun, until gas began to condense and accrete along with dust to form asteroids and planets. What did this cosmic nursery, known as a protoplanetary disk, look like, and how was it structured? Astronomers can use telescopes to “see” protoplanetary disks far away from our much more mature solar system, but it is impossible to observe what ours might have looked like in its infancy — only an alien billions of light years away would be able to see it as it once was.

Fortunately, space has dropped a few clues — fragments of objects that formed early in solar system history and plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, called meteorites. The composition of meteorites tells stories of the solar system’s birth, but these stories often raise more questions than answers.

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of planetary scientists from UCLA and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory reports that refractory metals, which condense at high temperatures, such as iridium and platinum, were more abundant in meteorites formed in the outer disk, which was cold and far away from the sun. These metals should have formed close to the sun, where the temperature was much higher. Was there a pathway that moved these metals from the inner disk to the outer?

Most meteorites formed within the first few million years of solar system history. Some meteorites, called chondrites, are unmelted conglomerations of grains and dust left over from planet formation. Other meteorites experienced enough heat to melt while their parent asteroids were forming. When these asteroids melted, the silicate part and the metallic part separated due to their difference in density, similar to how water and oil don’t mix.

Today, most asteroids are located in a thick belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that Jupiter’s gravity disrupted the course of these asteroids, causing many of them to smash into each other and break apart. When pieces of these asteroids fall to Earth and are recovered, they are called meteorites.

Iron meteorites are from the metallic cores of the earliest asteroids, older than any other rocks or celestial objects in our solar system. The irons contain molybdenum isotopes that point toward many different locations across the protoplanetary disk in which these meteorites formed. That allows scientists to learn what the chemical composition of the disk was like in its infancy.

Previous research using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile has found many disks around other stars that resemble concentric rings, like a dartboard. The rings of these planetary disks, such as HL Tau, are separated by physical gaps, so this kind of disk could not provide a route to transport these refractory metals from the inner disk to the outer.

The new paper holds that our solar disk likely didn’t have a ring structure at the very beginning. Instead, our planetary disk looked more like a doughnut, and asteroids with metal grains rich in iridium and platinum metals migrated to the outer disk as it rapidly expanded.

But that confronted the researchers with another puzzle. After the disk expansion, gravity should have pulled these metals back into the sun. But that did not happen.

“Once Jupiter formed, it very likely opened a physical gap that trapped the iridium and platinum metals in the outer disk and prevented them from falling into the sun,” said first author Bidong Zhang, a UCLA planetary scientist. “These metals were later incorporated into asteroids that formed in the outer disk. This explains why meteorites formed in the outer disk — carbonaceous chondrites and carbonaceous-type iron meteorites — have much higher iridium and platinum contents than their inner-disk peers.”

Zhang and his collaborators previously used iron meteorites to reconstruct how water was distributed in the protoplanetary disk.

“Iron meteorites are hidden gems. The more we learn about iron meteorites, the more they unravel the mystery of our solar system’s birth,” Zhang said.



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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star

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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star


Supermassive black holes pose unanswered questions for astronomers around the world, not least “How do they grow so big?” Now, an international team of astronomers, including researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, has discovered a powerful rotating, magnetic wind that they believe is helping a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole to grow. The swirling wind, revealed with the help of the ALMA telescope in nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, suggests that similar processes are involved both in black hole growth and the birth of stars.

Most galaxies, including our own Milky Way have a supermassive black hole at their centre. How these mind-bogglingly massive objects grow to weigh as much as millions or billions of stars is a long-standing question for astronomers.

In search of clues to this mystery, a team of scientists led by Mark Gorski (Northwestern University and Chalmers) and Susanne Aalto (Chalmers) chose to study the relatively nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, only 120 million light years distant. It’s a very active galaxy, forming stars ten times as fast as in our own galaxy.

“Since this galaxy is very luminous in the infrared, telescopes can resolve striking details in its centre. We wanted to measure light from molecules carried by winds from the galaxy’s core, hoping to trace how the winds are launched by a growing, or soon to be growing, supermassive black hole. By using ALMA, we were able to study light from behind thick layers of dust and gas,” says Susanne Aalto, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Chalmers University of Technology.

To zero in on dense gas from as close as possible to the central black hole, the scientists studied light from molecules of hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Thanks to ALMA’s ability to image fine details and trace movements in the gas — using the Doppler effect — they discovered patterns that suggest the presence of a magnetised, rotating wind.

While other winds and jets in the centre of galaxies push material away from the supermassive black hole, the newly discovered wind adds another process, that can instead feed the black hole and help it grow.

“We can see how the winds form a spiralling structure, billowing out from the galaxy’s centre. When we measured the rotation, mass, and velocity of the material flowing outwards, we were surprised to find that we could rule out many explanations for the power of the wind, star formation for example. Instead, the flow outwards may be powered by the inflow of gas and seems to be held together by magnetic fields,” says Susanne Aalto.

The scientists think that the rotating magnetic wind helps the black hole to grow.

Material travels around the black hole before it can fall in — like water around a drain. Matter that approaches the black hole collects in a chaotic, spinning disk. There, magnetic fields develop and get stronger. The magnetic fields help lift matter away from the galaxy, creating the spiralling wind. Losing matter to this wind also slows the spinning disk — that means that matter can flow more easily into the black hole, turning a trickle into a stream.

For Mark Gorski, the way this happens is strikingly reminiscent of a much smaller-scale environment in space: the swirls of gas and dust that lead up to the birth of new stars and planets.

“It is well-established that stars in the first stages of their evolution grow with the help of rotating winds — accelerated by magnetic fields, just like the wind in this galaxy. Our observations show that supermassive black holes and tiny stars can grow by similar processes, but on very different scales,” says Mark Gorski.

Could this discovery be a clue to solving the mystery of how supermassive black holes grow? In the future, Mark Gorski, Susanne Aalto and their colleagues want to study other galaxies which may harbour hidden spiralling outflows in their centres.

“Far from all questions about this process are answered. In our observations we see clear evidence of a rotating wind that helps regulate the growth of the galaxy’s central black hole. Now that we know what to look for, the next step is to find out how common a phenomenon this is. And if this is a stage which all galaxies with supermassive black holes go through, what happens to them next?,” asks Mark Gorski.



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