In the heart of the Amazon River basin 1,500 years ago, tribes mixed soil with charcoal derived from animal bone and tree bark to boost their crop yields. Now scientists conclude that such burned, dead matter fertilizes better than compost and animal manure, helping to transform the soil into the richest earth in the world. The “biochar” also profoundly enhances soil’s natural ability to seize carbon, thereby trapping greenhouse gases. Delaware State University researchers presented their findings April 10 at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Charles Q. Choi


New procedures could turn carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power plants and other sources into polycarbonate, a type of plastic derived from petroleum and used to make DVDs and eyeglass lenses. Strategies that rely on catalysts have used CO2 to make polymer precursors to polycarbonate. Although the chemical reactions produce only water as a waste product, they require high temperatures and pressure. Hence, the processes would only pay off environmentally if clean-energy sources, such as solar or wind power, were used to fuel them.

David Biello


Fasting for 48 hours before receiving chemotherapy could limit the treatment’s toxic effects on healthy cells while leaving cancer cells vulnerable. When normal cells are starved, the cells shift into survival mode, revving up repair mechanisms and protective processes. Researchers starved mice that had been injected with malignant cells; then they gave the rodents megadoses of chemotherapy. The animals lost weight, but once treatment ended, they regained it—and their energy. The finding, which stemmed from research on aging, may pave the way for higher and more frequent chemo doses that do not harm normal cells.

Nikhil Swaminathan