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The Prehistoric Edge

High Altitude Europeans Utilized Alpine Environments 8,000 Years Ago

October 6th 2013

Click to select Image

An international team of archaeologists led by experts from the University of York has uncovered evidence of human activity in the high slopes of the French Alps dating back over 8000 years. The 14-year study in the Parc National des Écrins in the southern Alps is one of the most detailed archaeological investigations carried out at high altitudes. It reveals a story of human occupation and activity in one of the world’s most challenging environments from the Mesolithic to the Post-Medieval period.

The work included the excavation of a series of stone animal enclosures and human dwellings considered some of most complex high altitude Bronze Age structures found anywhere in the Alps. The research, published in Quaternary International, was led by Dr Kevin Walsh, landscape archaeologist at the University of York in partnership with Florence Mocci of the Centre Camille Julian, CNRS, Aix-en-Provence. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

New Research Could Lead to Particle Accelerator on a Chip

October 4th 2013


Scientists from Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory say they’ve developed an innovation that could lead to particle accelerators the size of a computer chip, a development that could have far-reaching implications for science and medicine.

When many think about a particle accelerator device, they may think of units such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. The LHC is enormous - a tunnel 27 kilometers in circumference sitting 175 meters underground. Writing in Nature, the researchers said they used a laser rather than microwaves to accelerate electrons in a nanostructured glass chip smaller than a grain of rice. The scientists said they were able speed up those electrons at a rate 10 times higher than its possible using current conventional technology. Read more ..

The Healthy Edge

Micro-Fluidic Chip May Improve Cancer Diagnosis through Liquid Biopsy

October 3rd 2013

A microfluidic chip developed at the University of Michigan is among the best at capturing elusive circulating tumor cells from blood—and it can support the cells' growth for further analysis. The device, believed to be the first to pair these functions, uses the advanced electronics material graphene oxide. In clinics, such a device could one day help doctors diagnose cancers, give more accurate prognoses and test treatment options on cultured cells without subjecting patients to traditional biopsies.

"If we can get these technologies to work, it will advance new cancer drugs and revolutionize the treatment of cancer patients," said Max Wicha, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Oncology and director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-author of a paper on the new device, published online this week in Nature Nanotechnology. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Leukemia Cells Addicted To A Healthy Gene

October 2nd 2013

Test Tubes

What keeps leukemia cells alive almost forever, able to continue dividing endlessly and aggressively? New research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that, in about a quarter of all leukemias, the cancer cells rely on an internal “balance of terror” to keep going. When one version of a certain gene is mutated, it becomes a cancer-promoting gene—an oncogene. But the new findings show that the second, normal version of the gene, which functions alongside the mutation, is what keeps the cells both cancerous and alive, able to continue forging their destructive pathway in the body. This research appeared recently in Cell Reports.

That gene, RUNX1, is crucial for the development and maintenance of the blood circulatory system. It encodes a transcription factor—a protein that regulates the expression of many other genes. In the blood system, this transcription factor directs the differentiation of certain adult stem cells found in the bone marrow into the various mature blood cells. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Connecting Campuses Building-to-Building: Exploring Fiber Optics

October 1st 2013

Fiber Optics

As recently as the early 1990s most computers lacked network connections of any kind. Dialup modems were painfully slow, the Internet hadn’t caught on yet, and unless you were employed by a university or the military you probably had no use for Email.

The office and industrial networks that did exist tended to be relatively small, and 10Mbps connections over coaxial cable were fast enough and reliable enough for the applications of the day.
Fast forward to the present. Both the size and complexity of local networks have grown exponentially.  We’re not just connecting a handful of PCs in a single building anymore; quite often we’re connecting hundreds of network nodes located in a variety of different buildings.

Network equipment was primarily designed for small LANs (Local Area Networks), and as a result, copper cabling was -- and still is -- widely deployed. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy to use, and when combined with switches and routers it lets network designers create fairly complex local area networks and connect those networks to the outside world via the Internet. When a network is located in a controlled environment, and the network isn’t large, copper cabling is quite reliable. Read more ..

The Edge of Outer Space

Curiosity Rover Discovers Water on Mars

September 30th 2013

Click to select Image

The first scoop of Martian soil analyzed by Curiosity Rover’s built-in laboratory has revealed a high amount of water in the soil, according to NASA. “One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Curiosity researcher Laurie Leshin, of the Renesslaer Polytechnic Institute. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

Researchers made their findings using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit, which includes three sophisticated instruments: a gas chromotograph, mass spectrometer, and tunable laser spectrometer. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Dutch Designer Seeks A Smarter Smartphone That Will Last Forever

September 30th 2013

Smart phone running voice recogniton

The world's hottest new smartphone isn't even close to being on the market. In fact, it's not even being manufactured yet. But hundreds of thousands of consumers already say they want one.

With little more than a website and a YouTube video, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens is seeking to upend the smartphone market with something called Phonebloks.

The idea is simple: enable consumers to replace individual components of their phone -- the screen, speakers, battery, storage, camera etc. -- while retaining the device's basic frame. It's essentially a phone you assemble like Lego.

Hakkens argues in a Phonebloks promotional YouTube video, which has gone viral with more than 15 million views, that thinking about a smartphone as a series of replaceable components or modules would reduce electronic waste and lower costs. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cygnus Spacecraft Brings Cargo to ISS Astronauts

September 29th 2013

Orion and International Space Station

A privately-owned spacecraft named Cygnus successfully docked with the International Space Station on Sunday, becoming the second such craft to do so.  The docking came a week later than planned, in part due to a software issue and traffic at the orbiting station.

The unmanned Cygnus spacecraft was drifting near the International Space Station, as planned, when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency used the space station's robotic Canada-arm to grab the cargo capsule. Astronauts then used the Canada-arm to connect the capsule to the orbiting lab.  And with that, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences became the second U.S. company to show it can resupply the ISS.

It's a feat that had only been accomplished by a handful of governments until just last year, when the California-based company SpaceX made history by docking its Dragon spacecraft.  Orbital now joins SpaceX as a private provider of cargo resupply services. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

Life-Saving App for Smartphones and Tablets

September 28th 2013

Smart phone

A new application, or app, has been developed for smartphones and portable computer tablets that may soon save lives in developing countries.  Besides being highly portable, the technology is cheap and easy to use. 

Of the six billion mobile phone users in the world, experts say about two-thirds live in developing countries where millions of children die each year due to lack of oxygen from pneumonia.  The lung infection is highly treatable with antibiotics, but often caregivers are not aware of the critical nature of the child's condition.

So, Dr. Mark Ansermino of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues developed a small, inexpensive device that can be attached to the earphone jack of a smartphone or mobile tablet that measures pulse oximetry.  Assessing the level of oxygen in the blood is sometimes called the fifth vital sign - along with pulse, temperature, breathing rate and blood pressure measurements.

The app, called the Phone Oximeter, gets its data from a clip attached to a fingertip or earlobe. Ansermino, a pediatric anesthesiologist, explains the device shines light of different wavelengths through the skin, taking advantage of a unique characteristic of blood. Read more ..

The Edge of the Universe

Scientists Compile 'Census Of The Galaxies' Using Power Of The Crowd

September 27th 2013

M55 in Sagittarius via VISTA

Cutting-edge instruments allow us to peer deep into time and space. But back on Earth, there are still just 24 hours in a day. That's the conundrum researchers have increasingly faced in recent years, as the quantity of images returned by telescopes has outpaced attempts at organizing them.

Now, an international group of scientists is tackling that problem by harnessing people power, plus the Internet, to help them take on the enormity of the universe. The result is "Galaxy Zoo," a project determined to catalog the skies. It has just completed its second groundbreaking phase.

"Galaxies tend to come in two main morphologies, or shapes: ellipticals or spirals," Lucy Fortson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota and one of the project's leaders said. "The complexity of those shapes makes it very difficult for machine algorithms or computers to be able to tell the difference. The best machine algorithm that we have to tell the difference between these shapes is actually the human brain. There was a graduate student from Oxford [who was working on this] and his supervisor, and they sat in a pub and thought, 'You know, if we just put this up on the web, do you think people would come and classify the galaxies?'" Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Nanoparticles Used to Deliver Vaccines to Lungs

September 25th 2013

Premature Baby

Many viruses and bacteria infect humans through mucosal surfaces, such as those in the lungs, gastrointestinal tract and reproductive tract. To help fight these pathogens, scientists are working on vaccines that can establish a front line of defense at mucosal surfaces.

Vaccines can be delivered to the lungs via an aerosol spray, but the lungs often clear away the vaccine before it can provoke an immune response. To overcome that, MIT engineers have developed a new type of nanoparticle that protects the vaccine long enough to generate a strong immune response -- not only in the lungs, but also in mucosal surfaces far from the vaccination site, such as the gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts.

Such vaccines could help protect against influenza and other respiratory viruses, or prevent sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, herpes simplex virus and human papilloma virus, says Darrell Irvine, an MIT professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering and the leader of the research team. He is also exploring use of the particles to deliver cancer vaccines. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Stem Cell Reprogramming Made Easier

September 24th 2013

Human embryonic stem cells
credit: PLoS Bio

Embryonic stem cells have the enormous potential to treat and cure many medical problems. That is why the discovery that induced embryonic-like stem cells can be created from skin cells was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 2012. But the process of creating such cells has remained frustratingly slow and inefficient, and the resulting stem cells are not yet ready for medical use.

Research in the lab of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr. Yaqub Hanna, which appears September 18 in Nature, dramatically changes that: He and his group have identified the “brake” that holds back the production of stem cells, and found that releasing this brake can both synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from around one percent or less today to 100 percent. These findings may help facilitate the production of stem cells for medical use, as well as advancing our understanding of the mysterious process by which adult cells can revert back into their original, embryonic state. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Direct Measurement of Spinal Cord Myelin in Multiple Sclerosis

September 23rd 2013

MRI Machine

Researchers have made an exciting breakthrough – developing a first-of-its-kind imaging tool to examine myelin damage in multiple sclerosis (MS). An extremely difficult disease to diagnose, the tool will help physicians diagnose patients earlier, monitor the disease’s progression, and evaluate therapy efficacy.

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientists have developed a novel molecular probe detectable by positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. The new molecular marker, MeDAS, offers the first non-invasive visualization of myelin integrity of the entire spinal cord at the same time

“While MS originates in the immune system, the damage occurs to the myelin structure of the central nervous system. Our discovery brings new hope to clinicians who may be able to make an accurate diagnosis and prognosis in as little as a few hours compared to months or even years,” said Yanming Wang, PhD.  “Because of its shape and size, it is particularly difficult to directly detect myelin damage in the spinal cord; this is the first time we have been able to image its function at the molecular level.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Unusual Ring of Radiation in Space

September 22nd 2013

Solar System Birth

Since the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts in 1958, space scientists have believed these belts encircling the Earth consist of two doughnut-shaped rings of highly charged particles — an inner ring of high-energy electrons and energetic positive ions and an outer ring of high-energy electrons.

In February of this year, a team of scientists reported the surprising discovery of a previously unknown third radiation ring — a narrow one that briefly appeared between the inner and outer rings in September 2012 and persisted for a month.

In new research, UCLA space scientists have successfully modeled and explained the unprecedented behavior of this third ring, showing that the extremely energetic particles that made up this ring, known as ultra-relativistic electrons, are driven by very different physics than typically observed Van Allen radiation belt particles. The region the belts occupy — ranging from about 1,000 to 50,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface — is filled with electrons so energetic they move close to the speed of light. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Your Brain Digitally Remastered for Clarity of Thought

September 20th 2013

Baby Boomer

The sweep of a needle across the grooves of a worn vinyl record carries distinct sounds: hisses, scratches, even the echo of skips. For many years, though, those yearning to hear Frank Sinatra sing "Fly Me to the Moon" have been able to listen to his light baritone with technical clarity, courtesy of the increased signal-to-noise ratio of digital remasterings.

Now, with advances in neurofeedback techniques, the signal-to-noise ratio of the brain activity underlying our thoughts can be remastered as well, according to a recent discovery  by a research team led by Stephen LaConte, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

LaConte and his colleagues specialize in real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, a relatively new technology that can convert thought into action by transferring noninvasive measurements of human brain activity into control signals that drive physical devices and computer displays in real time. Crucially, for the ultimate goal of treating disorders of the brain, this rudimentary form of mind reading enables neurofeedback. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Motor Control Development Continues Longer Than Previously Believed

September 18th 2013

Special Ed Teacher

The development of fine motor control—the ability to use your fingertips to manipulate objects—takes longer than previously believed, and isn't entirely the result of brain development, according to a pair of complementary studies.

The research opens up the potential to use therapy to continue improving the motor control skills of children suffering from neurodevelopmental disorders such as cerebral palsy, a blanket term for central motor disorders that affects about 764,000 children and adults nationwide

"These findings show that it's not only possible but critical to continue or begin physical therapy in adolescence," said Francisco Valero-Cuevas. "We find we likely do not have a narrow window of opportunity in early childhood to improve manipulation skills, as previously believed, but rather developmental plasticity lasts much longer and provides opportunity throughout adolescence" he said. "This complements similarly exciting findings showing brain plasticity in adulthood and old age."  Read more ..

Space The Edge of Life

Comet Crashes Kick-start Life Across Solar System

September 17th 2013

Comet Garradd credit: NASA/Swift

Comets and other celestial travelers carry ingredients that can help kick-start life on planets, according to a team of British and American scientists.

The scientists from Imperial College London, The University of Kent and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory say they’ve discovered  a cosmic factory for producing amino acids, which are considered to be the building blocks of life.

According to the researchers, those potential life-producing amino acids are formed when an icy comet smashes into a planet or a rocky meteorite collides with an ice covered planet. The new findings provide additional clues as to how life began on Earth some 3.8 to 4.5 billion years ago, when our planet was frequently being blasted with comets and meteorites.

"This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid,” said co-author Mark Price from the University of Kent. “This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.” Read more ..

The Digital Edge

US Doctors Aid Syrians With 'Virtual Surgery'

September 16th 2013

Syria fighting injured baby

A field hospital near Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday by shelling, killing the six medical personnel inside, and patients. The Syrian American Medical Society says that hospital was the third that has been destroyed in the town in two years - in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. A group of surgeons in the United States - through the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations and the Syrian American Medical Society - is assisting with the increasing medical needs - without ever entering a Syrian operating room.

A secret Skype surgery session was made available for this exclusive report. We should warn you, this story contains some graphic images that may offend sensitive viewers.

This patient will never know that his destiny lies in the expertise of a man 9,400 kilometers away. The 19-year-old took a bullet to the leg. “He hasn't been able to walk since,” said a doctor.

Assisting from States
Neither the surgeon nor a visiting British doctor in Syria has expertise in peripheral nerve damage. So in the midst of war, they are consulting via Skype with Dr. Abdalmajid Katranji, a hand surgeon - in the Midwestern U.S. state of Michigan. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Unprecedented Rate And Scale Of Ocean Acidification Found In The Arctic

September 15th 2013

Stormy Seas

Acidification of the Arctic Ocean is occurring faster than projected according to new findings published in the journal PLoS One. The increase in rate is being blamed on rapidly melting sea ice, a process that may have important consequences for health of the Arctic ecosystem.

Ocean acidification is the process by which pH levels of seawater decrease due to greater amounts of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere. Currently oceans absorb about one-fourth of the greenhouse gas. Lower pH levels make water more acidic and lab studies have shown that more acidic water decrease calcification rates in many calcifying organisms, reducing their ability to build shells or skeletons. These changes, in species ranging from corals to shrimp, have the potential to impact species up and down the food web. Read more ..

The Race for LEDs

Toward a Truly White Organic LED

September 14th 2013

LED bulb

By inserting platinum atoms into an organic semiconductor, University of Utah physicists were able to "tune" the plastic-like polymer to emit light of different colors – a step toward more efficient, less expensive and truly white organic LEDs for light bulbs of the future.

"These new, platinum-rich polymers hold promise for white organic light-emitting diodes and new kinds of more efficient solar cells," says University of Utah physicist Z. Valy Vardeny, who led a study of the polymers published online Friday, Sept. 13 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Certain existing white light bulbs use LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, and some phone displays use organic LEDs, or OLEDs. Neither are truly white LEDs, but instead use LEDs made of different materials that each emit a different color, then combine or convert those colors to create white light, Vardeny says.

In the new study, Vardeny and colleagues report how they inserted platinum metal atoms at different intervals along a chain-like organic polymer, and thus were able to adjust or tune the colors emitted. That is a step toward a truly white OLED generated by multiple colors from a single polymer. Read more ..

The Edge of Farming

Michigan State University Uses Drones to Aid Farmers

September 13th 2013

Click to select Image

Farmers can now get a birds-eye view ­of their fields – in full HD – thanks to Michigan State University landing its first drone. MSU researchers are using its first unmanned aerial vehicle to help farmers maximize yields by improving nitrogen and water management and reducing environmental impact such as nitrate leaching or nitrous oxide emissions. For this initiative, MSU’s UAV measures how crops react to stress, such as drought, nutrients deficiency or pests.

The drone flies over the field documenting the field’s status ­– down to centimeters. The portrait gives farmers details on the current health of their crops. Armed with this knowledge, farmers can quickly pinpoint problem areas and address them with a precise rifle, as opposed to, a shotgun approach, said Bruno Basso, MSU ecosystem scientist. Read more ..

The Edge of the Universe

Dark Energy Attracts New Theories

September 12th 2013

Black Holes

An article in Nature explores new developments in the search for dark energy. It states: "The Wall Street mantra “greed is good” could soon be adopted by cosmologists to explain the origins of dark energy, the mysterious entity that is speeding up the expansion of the Universe. At a cosmology meeting last week in Cambridge, UK, attendants debated a controversial class of theories in which gravity is carried by a hypothetical ‘graviton’ particle that has a small, but still non-vanishing, mass. Such a particle would tend to gobble up vast amounts of energy from the fabric of space, enabling the Universe to expand at an accelerated, although not destructive, pace. Since astronomers discovered in the late 1990s that the Universe's expansion is accelerating, researchers have struggled to explain not only the nature of the hypothetical entity — dubbed dark energy — that's causing the acceleration but also why the acceleration is so weak." Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Wireless Power System Remotely Charges Multiple Consumer Devices

E-book readers

After over 6 years of development in stealth mode, Ossia which was founded in 2008, made its the first public announcement of a new wireless power technology dubbed Cota. The company received $3.2 million in funding and is currently raising a new round of venture capital. On stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt event held in San Francisco, Ossia CEO, Hatem Zeine showcased how the technology could remotely power consumer devices by automatically delivering targeted energy to multiple devices from as far away as 10m, without requiring line of sight. Operating in the WiFi frequency range and with a similar reach within the home, Cota could redefine power distribution, enabling users to charge or power a wide range of devices well beyond smartphones, to include remote controls, cameras, video game controllers, flashlights, smoke detectors and other battery-based applications. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

New System Allows Cloud Customers to Detect Program-Tampering

September 11th 2013

cloud computing

For small and midsize organizations, the outsourcing of demanding computational tasks to the cloud — huge banks of computers accessible over the Internet — can be much more cost-effective than buying their own hardware. But it also poses a security risk: A malicious hacker could rent space on a cloud server and use it to launch programs that hijack legitimate applications, interfering with their execution.

In August, at the International Cryptology Conference, researchers from MIT and Israel's Technion and Tel Aviv University presented a new system that can quickly verify that a program running on the cloud is executing properly. That amounts to a guarantee that no malicious code is interfering with the program's execution.

The same system also protects the data used by applications running in the cloud, cryptographically ensuring that the user won't learn anything other than the immediate results of the requested computation. If, for instance, hospitals were pooling medical data in a huge database hosted on the cloud, researchers could look for patterns in the data without compromising patient privacy. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Mouse Groups Reveal Complex Relationships

September 10th 2013

Mouse in Beaker

A common belief is that our modern, stimulation-filled environment encourages individualistic behavior (or antisocial behavior, depending on one’s point of view), while simpler surroundings give rise to a more developed community life. New research at the Weizmann Institute of Science shows that this assumption – at least for mice – is based in reality: Mice that have been raised in a stimulus-rich environment have less complexity in their social interactions than those growing up in more Spartan conditions. The findings were based on two innovative developments: The first is an automated system that continuously tracks groups of mice living in semi-natural conditions, and the second is a mathematical framework for analyzing data, which enabled the scientists to characterize, in detail, the nature of the mice’s collective behavior.

The research, which recently appeared in the scientific journal eLife, was a collaborative study between two very different groups in the Institute’s Department of Neurobiology. Prof. Alon Chen is an experimentalist whose work deals with molecules in the nervous system that affect behavior, while Dr. Elad Schneidman is a theoretician who works on the nature of collective behavior in large groups of neurons and other biological systems. The experimental system created by the team – including Drs. Yair Shemesh, Oren Forkosh, and Yehezkel Sztainberg, and Tamar Shlapobersky – was a large “arena” containing points of interest: sleeping nests, stations for food and games, and more. The research team tracked the mice over four consecutive nights, recording everything under ultraviolet (UV) lighting so as not to disturb the mice’s normal nocturnal routines. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Gut Bacteria Might Contribute to Obesity

September 8th 2013

Obese man

New scientific evidence suggests what or how much we eat isn’t the only factor affecting our weight. The microbes living in our intestines matter, too.

The results of this new study raise the possibility that probiotic bacteria may someday be added to diet and exercise to help fight obesity.

In the study, cited in Science, researchers started with mice raised in sterile environments with no bacteria in their guts and gave them gut microbe samples taken from human twins, both identical and fraternal. The twins’ genes were similar, but one of each pair was obese, the other was not.

Mice that received gut bacteria from the obese twin gained more weight than those inoculated with the thin twin microbes, and their metabolisms showed signs of trouble like those seen in obese humans. “That was a surprise,” said Ronald Evans, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute. Evans was not involved in this research, but wrote a commentary on two related studies published last week in Nature. Read more ..

Computer Edge

Improvements Coming for Hospital IT Network and Medical Device Security

September 7th 2013

computer keyboard woman hands

The hospital IT networks and medical devices that doctors rely on to treat patients are susceptible to their own maladies—computer viruses and other malware. Whether a bug accidentally finds its way into a system, or an attacker intentionally injects one, researchers believe such breaches are happening more often with the growth of technology such as cloud computing.

Two engineering researchers from the University of Michigan are part of a national team that will work to improve the cybersecurity of the nation's health systems. Associate Professor Kevin Fu and Research Associate Professor Michael Bailey, both in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, are involved in the five-year Trustworthy Health and Wellness project that has received $10 million from the National Science Foundation. The project is one of three major cybersecurity awards totaling nearly $20 million announced by NSF. Read more ..

Environment on Edge

Industrial Soot Brought the End of Europe's Little Ice Age of the 1860s

September 5th 2013

Coal soot shrank the Alpine glaciers in mid-19th-century Europe, according to new findings that show how black carbon alone—even without warmer temperatures—can affect ice and snow cover.

The research, which involved a University of Michigan atmospheric scientist, provides insights into when the so-called Little Ice Age ended and why European glaciers began to retreat decades before global temperatures rose.

The Little Ice Age was a relatively recent few-hundred-year period of long, severe winters across much of the planet. Glaciers encroached on mountain villages and rivers and harbors froze over. Shorter, unpredictable growing seasons led to scattered famines. Scientists have interpreted temperature records to show that it ended sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. But European glacier records tell a different story. Read more ..

Archaeological Edge

New Evidence May Show Location of King Solomon's Mines of Ancient Israel

September 5th 2013

Click to select Image

An archaeological excavation led by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University may prove that copper mines in Israel thought to have been exploited by the ancient Egyptians in the 13th century BCE actually originated three centuries later, during the reign of the biblical King Solomon. Materials unearthed at the new site in the Timna Valley in Israel's Aravah Desert was subjected to radiocarbon dating and effectively overturned the archaeological consensus of the last several decades. Research, and materials found in the area, suggest the mines were operated by the Edomites, a semi-nomadic tribal confederation that according to the Bible warred constantly with Israel.

"The mines are definitely from the period of King Solomon," said Dr. Ben-Yosef. "They may help us understand the local society, which would have been invisible to us otherwise." Timna Valley was an ancient copper production district with thousands of mines and dozens of smelting sites. In February 2013, Dr. Ben-Yosef led researchers and students to excavate a previously untouched site in the valley, known as the Slaves' Hill. The area contains is a massive smelting camp where there are remains of hundreds of furnaces and layers of copper slag, the waste created during the smelting process. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Electronics Advance Moves Closer to a World Beyond Silicon

September 4th 2013

computer board

 Researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University have made a significant advance in the function of metal-insulator-metal, or MIM diodes, a technology premised on the assumption that the speed of electrons moving through silicon is simply too slow.

For the extraordinary speed envisioned in some future electronics applications, these innovative diodes solve problems that would not be possible with silicon-based materials as a limiting factor.

The new diodes consist of a “sandwich” of two metals, with two insulators in between, to form “MIIM” devices. This allows an electron not so much to move through materials as to tunnel through insulators and appear almost instantaneously on the other side. It’s a fundamentally different approach to electronics.

The newest findings, published in Applied Physics Letters, have shown that the addition of a second insulator can enable “step tunneling,” a situation in which an electron may tunnel through only one of the insulators instead of both. This in turn allows precise control of diode asymmetry, non-linearity, and rectification at lower voltages. Read more ..

The Evolutionary Edge

Scientists Question Certain Assumptions about Evolution

September 3rd 2013

Click to select Image

Charles Darwin referred to the origin of species as "that mystery of mysteries," and even today, more than 150 years later, evolutionary biologists cannot fully explain how new animals and plants arise. For decades, nearly all research in the field has been based on the assumption that the main cause of the emergence of new species, a process called speciation, is the formation of barriers to reproduction between populations.

Those barriers can be geographic—such as a new mountain, river or glacier that physically separates two populations of animals or plants—or they can be genetic differences that prevent incompatible individuals from producing fertile offspring. A textbook example of the latter is the mule; horses and donkeys can mate, but their offspring are sterile.

But now a University of Michigan biologist and a colleague are questioning the long-held assumption that genetic reproductive barriers, also known as reproductive isolation, are a driving force behind speciation. Their study was published online publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read more ..

Healthy Edge

Milk is Strengthening Economy and Health in Malawi

Click to select Image

Milk has a reputation for strengthening bones. In Malawi, the growing dairy industry is strengthening the livelihoods of small dairy farmers and the health of the country’s inhabitants. In an effort to double the capacity of Malawi’s dairy value chain, Michigan State University researchers led by Dr. Puliyur MohanKumar, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are applying successful outcomes from a similar MSU partnership project that helped transform India’s dairy industry. India, now the world’s top milk producer, shares similar environmental and cultural traits with Malawi.

With colleagues from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi and Tamil Nadu University in India, the MSU team is working with dairy farmers to improve all aspects of the dairy chain—from cow nutrition, reproduction, and genetics to milk production, processing, and marketing. A new breed of dairy cow has been introduced, and technologies, education, and training are empowering farmers in Malawi to take ownership of the industry. Read more ..

Healthy Edge

Brain Inflammation Linked to Parkinson's Disease

September 2nd 2013

Reversing inflammation in the fluid surrounding the brain’s cortex may provide a solution to the complex riddle of Parkinson’s, according to researchers who have found a link between pro-inflammatory biomarkers and the severity of symptoms such as fatigue, depression and anxiety in patients with the chronic disease.

Lena Brundin of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine was part of a research team that measured inflammatory markers found in cerebrospinal fluid samples of Parkinson’s patients and members of a control group.

“The degree of neuroinflammation was significantly associated with more severe depression, fatigue, and cognitive impairment even after controlling for factors such as age, gender and disease duration,” said Brundin, an associate professor in the college and a researcher with the Van Andel Institute.

“By investigating associations between inflammatory markers and non-motor symptoms we hope to gain further insight into this area, which in turn could lead to new treatment options.”

The results of the study were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Inflammation in the brain long has been suspected to be involved in the development of Parkinson’s disease, specifically in non-motor symptoms such as depression, fatigue and cognitive impairment. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Disabling Protein Cripples Cancer Cells

September 2nd 2013

Cat Scan

Scientists have successfully crippled aggressive cancer cells by disabling a single protein known as an ether lipid, part of a family of fatty molecules that includes cholesterol. Researchers hope to develop drugs that can be used alongside chemotherapy to treat some malignant cancers.

Ether lipids are highly elevated in aggressive cancer cells, and by disabling the enzyme responsible for their production researchers have been able to disable malignant cancer cells.

Ether lipids are normally found in cell membranes. So it makes sense that their levels are high in aggressive tumors, because tumors need the nourishing fatty molecule to divide and grow at an accelerated rate. 

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley, led by Daniel Nomura, converted skin cells into aggressive tumor cells in culture and then disabled an enzyme, called AGPS, that’s critical to the formation of ether lipids. They also injected mice with both cancerous skin cells and aggressive breast cancer cells, and the rodents quickly developed tumors.  Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Learning How The Brain Takes Out Its Trash May Help Decode Neurological Diseases

September 1st 2013

Baby Boomer

Imagine that garbage haulers don't exist. Slowly, the trash accumulates in our offices, our homes, it clogs the streets and damages our cars, causes illness and renders normal life impossible.

Garbage in the brain, in the form of dead cells, must also be removed before it accumulates, because it can cause both rare and common neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's. Now, University of Michigan researchers are a leap closer to decoding the critical process of how the brain clears dead cells, said Haoxing Xu, associate professor in the U-M Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

A new U-M study identified two critical components of this cell clearing process: an essential calcium channel protein, TRPML1, that helps the so-called garbage collecting cells, called microphages or microglia, to clear out the dead cells; and alipid molecule, which helps activate TRPML1 and the process that allows the microphages to remove these dead cells. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Feather Forensics Prevent Aviation Accidents

August 31st 2013


Minutes after U.S. Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia Airport in 2009, pilot Chesley Sullenberger radioed the control tower:  "This is cactus 15-49, hit birds, lost thrust in both engines returning back towards La Guardia.”

Sullenberger had few options and made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The passengers and crew were evacuated safely. The plane had hit a flock of Canada geese.

“The Canada goose is a beautiful bird. I love birds, but there is a place for birds and there’s a place not for birds and you do not want birds around the airfield, especially large-bodied birds,” said Carla Dove, director of the Bird Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

It was Dove who identified the birds that brought down Flight 1549.  As director of the Bird Identification Lab, she manages a reference collection of 620,000 bird specimens housed in floor to ceiling cabinets on the sixth floor of the museum. “[The collection] is about 150 years old," Dove said. "We probably have about 85 percent of the diversity of birds of the world represented here. So there are 10,000 species. We have about 8,500 in our collection.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

More Than 150,000 Earthlings Line Up For One-Way Ticket To Mars

August 30th 2013

Mars Rover

Five months ago, the MarsOne foundation began its search for the four people it says will become the first human settlers on Mars. Now, with one day remaining before the deadline, more than 150,000 people from around the world have applied.

Many have even posted online video applications, making passionate -- and sometimes playful -- arguments for why they're the best choice. "I would like to go to Mars because I'm a Martian myself," says Filipp, a 44-year-old Russian with a tattooed chest, who poignantly dabs at his eyes with a tissue as he talks about his professed home planet. "You'll need a local dude to help you out."

Others, like 28-year-old Morteza, speak wistfully of freedoms unavailable here on Earth. "As an Iranian engineer, I guess I can have a better, more influential life on Mars while I'm boycotted from doing anything on Earth," he says. Viktoria, 20, a Belarusian science buff with a penchant for chess and fencing, says the chance to go to Mars is a privilege -- "a chance to better understand human psychology, the body, and its limits. An opportunity to learn about a new world, and teach its wonders to others." Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Combating Concussions

August 28th 2013

MRI Machine

In the United States there are millions of sports related concussions each year, but many go undiagnosed because for some athletes, the fear of being benched trumps the fear of permanent brain damage, and there is no objective test available to accurately diagnose concussions on the sidelines. Researchers at San Diego State University have set out to change that.

A team led by Daniel Goble, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor at SDSU, have developed software and an inexpensive balance board that can measure balance with 99 percent accuracy on the field and in the clinic. They are testing the device on SDSU's rugby team, with the hope of soon making it available worldwide to athletes of all ages and levels. Balance tests are a primary method used to detect concussion. The current means of scoring these tests relies on the skill of athletic trainers to visually determine whether or not a concussion has occurred. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

'Super-Giant' Telescope Mirrors Cast In Arizona

August 27th 2013

giant telescope

Scientists working at the University of Arizona’s Seward Observatory Mirror Lab have begun casting the third of seven mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) now under construction in Chile.

The GMT, when complete, will be one of the next class of super-giant earth-based telescopes that scientists say promise to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe.

According to those associated with the project, the GMT will have a resolution 10 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Like the first two mirrors that have already been made for the giant telescope, the third mirror it is being cast inside a special rotating furnace located in a lab beneath the University of Arizona football field. The Seward Observatory Mirror Lab is said to be the only facility in the world where mirrors of the size to be used in the GMT can be made.

To prepare the mirror for casting, twenty tons of E6 borosilicate glass chunks were carefully placed into a special mold set inside of the furnace. The Lab’s furnace was started up on August 19, at 1400 UTC, with a rotating speed of 4.9 revolutions per minute.  It reached a high temperature of 1,165 C at 1649 UTC on Saturday. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Ocean Fish Acquire More Mercury at Depth

August 25th 2013

Tuna haul

Mercury—a common industrial toxin—is carried through the atmosphere before settling on the ocean and entering the marine food web.

Now, exciting new research from the University of Michigan and the University of Hawai'i at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) combines biogeochemistry and direct marine ecology observations to show how the global mercury cycle is colliding with ocean fish—and the human seafood supply—at different depths in the water.

Mercury accumulation in the ocean fish we eat tends to take place at deeper depths, scientists found, in part because of photochemical reactions that break down organic mercury in well-lit surface waters. More of this accessible organic mercury is also being generated in deeper waters. Read more ..

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