What lies beneath? Unlocking the secrets of the elixir of life

Recent studies by eminent scientist, Professor Marcia Barbosa, have revealed how water and its atypical behaviour can significantly improve our understanding of life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Recent confirmation of its presence on Ceres, a dwarf plant in Earth’s solar system, has also put the scientific world in a frenzy as it could potentially unlock mysteries related to the origins of life - both alien and human. Such is the power of water.

Water is the most essential substance to human life, next to oxygen. Every living thing needs it to survive. More than 70 percent of our bodies and of the surface of our planet are made up of water. We drink it, wash with it, swim in it. From agriculture, to medicine, to hydropower, we put this liquid to use a thousand different ways. Yet, the properties of this mysterious substance have baffled scientists for generations.

Hidden depths

On the surface, water is simple enough to understand. A molecule of water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, and yet it acts outside all known physical laws of nature. Its behaviour is extremely atypical of most liquids – water acts differently in low and hot temperatures, for example. This unusual behaviour is what scientists refer to as water’s anomalies and it has often been stated that life depends on the irregular behaviour of this otherwise commonplace liquid.

The need to get to the bottom of this enigmatic substance cannot be underestimated. Marcia Barbosa, Professor and Director of the Physics Institute, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre in Brazil, explains, “The power of water is truly awe-inspiring and we still have a long way to go to unlocking all of its secrets,” she says. “Further understanding water’s anomalies could have unlimited rewards. Many characteristics of water – the motion of its molecules, its reaction to changes in temperature and pressure – make it different from other liquids in vast and important ways. Understanding exactly how water acts and why is key to advancing knowledge in nearly every field of science. It impacts many different areas, such as medicine, biology and geological processes,” she notes.

In fact, Professor Barbosa’s research has already contributed tremendously to unlocking the secrets of water. Her work provides valuable insight into this precious liquid and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of a host of natural phenomena, ranging from earthquakes to human proteins. In terms of biological systems, Professor Barbosa’s work has been instrumental in unlocking secrets related to the complex process of protein folding. “Although the specific sequences of amino acids that comprise proteins are dictated by our genes, proteins fold into elaborate three-dimensional structures only because they live in a watery environment,” she says. “Take away the water and a protein will not fold correctly. When proteins do not fold into their proper shape within cells, disease may result – protein misfolding is implicated in a range of diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer and type 2 diabetes.”

Among an extremely wide range of other potential applications, the work carried out by Professor Barbosa and her team could also help solve what she considers the world’s most pressing problem: energy. “The increasing numbers of people with access to industrial products and technologies will lead to vastly greater energy consumption. New resources for energy and new ways to obtain traditional forms of energy are urgent,” she says. In particular, the study of water anomalies could lead to advances in the production of biofuels, particularly from crops.

Eminent scientists like Professor Barbosa impact the daily lives of people in incredible ways – with the majority of the public oblivious to the impact their work has. They toil diligently behind the scenes unlocking incredible secrets that help improve the quality of life, as we know it.

While Professor Barbosa focuses on water from an ‘Earthly’ perspective, there are others, such as Dr Michael Küppers, of the European Space Astronomy Centre’s lab in Villanueva de la Canada, Spain, who analyse the impact water has in space. Sensationally, a recent new study carried out by Dr Küppers, and his team, has shown that understanding water anomalies in space, for example, can unlock secrets to life on other planets, as well as on Earth.

To Infinity and Beyond


The January 2014 study published in Nature, confirms previous suspicions that small planet, Ceres, contains abundant water, which could provide vital new clues to astrobiological (alien life) in the solar

system. Ceres' atmosphere is significantly different than Earth’s, and understanding water’s behaviour and presence on the planet could lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

Dr Küppers and his colleagues directly identified water molecules escaping from two regions of Ceres - the first of the smaller class of planets to be discovered and the closest to Earth. Dr Küppers said infrared images picked up chemical signatures of water vapour around Ceres. The water evaporation could come from ice near the surface, or volcanoes erupting, “volatiles such as water instead of molten rocks,” he said. The announcement marks the first sighting of water vapour on Ceres and instantly elevates it into the ranks of the most intriguing objects in the solar system. Such is the power and presence of water. "Ceres is an icy object with the potential of a subsurface ocean," explains Dr Küppers. This is a significant find and one that is being studied closely.

A Liquid Like No Other

The urgency to better understanding the elixir of life cannot be underestimated. Understanding water’s anomalies and advancing science and technology to ensure efficient, safe and innovative water management is key to ensuring life as we know it continues to exist for generations to come. It goes beyond turning on a tap, taking a bath, switching on the lights – water is literally a matter of life and is the key to unlocking our past, present and future.

More about Professor Marcia Barbosa:

For Women in Science

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