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Biology Edge

Toxic Oceans May Have Delayed Spread of Complex Life Millions of Years ago

March 6th 2013

A new model suggests that inhospitable hydrodgen-sulphide rich waters could have delayed the spread of complex life forms in ancient oceans.

A new model suggests that inhospitable hydrodgen-sulphide rich waters could have delayed the spread of complex life forms in ancient oceans. The research, published online this week in the journal Nature Communications, considers the composition of the oceans 550-700 million years ago and shows that oxygen-poor toxic conditions, which may have delayed the establishment of complex life, were controlled by the biological availability of nitrogen. Read more ..

Biology Edge

Three-Billion Year Old Anti-Biotic Resistant Traits Revived

March 6th 2013

Scientists are reporting "laboratory resurrections" of several 2-3-billion-year-old proteins that are ancient ancestors of the enzymes that enable today's antibiotic-resistant bacteria to shrug off huge doses of penicillins, cephalosporins and other modern drugs. The achievement, reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, opens the door to a scientific "replay" of the evolution of antibiotic resistance with an eye to finding new ways to cope with the problem.

Jose M. Sanchez-Ruiz, Eric A. Gaucher, Valeria A. Risso and colleagues explain that antibiotic resistance existed long before Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1928. Genes that contain instructions for making the proteins responsible for antibiotic resistance have been found in 30,000-year-old permafrost sediment and other ancient sites. Their research focused on the so-called beta-lactamases, enzymes responsible for resistance to the family of antibiotics that includes penicillin, which scientists believe originated billions of years ago Read more ..

The Edge of Transpotation

Giant Airship Could Move Huge Amounts of Cargo

March 5th 2013


A huge helium-filled airship with military and commercial uses has been unveiled near Los Angeles.  It is still experimental, but a full-sized working model should be finished in a few years.

The prototype unveiled in this immense World War II  hangar near Los Angeles is just half the size of the final working model.  But the prototype is massive, at 75-meters-long.  It is wide, flattened on the top, and covered with silver-colored Mylar, a tough kind of polyester.

The craft was built with $35 million in funding from the Pentagon and the U.S. space agency, NASA.  The final version will double the length and provide eight times the cargo space, carrying up to 60 metric tons, all without ground support, says Shenny Yao of the company Aeros. “No airports, no round crew," said Yao. "You do not need anything.” Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Getting Around the Uncertainty Principle

March 3rd 2013

Test Tubes

Researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Ottawa have applied a recently developed technique to directly measure for the first time the polarization states of light. Their work both overcomes some important challenges of Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle and also is applicable to qubits, the building blocks of quantum information theory.

The direct measurement technique was first developed in 2011 by scientists at the National Research Council, Canada, to measure the wavefunction – a way of determining the state of a quantum system.

Such direct measurements of the wavefunction had long seemed impossible because of a key tenet of the uncertainty principle – the idea that certain properties of a quantum system could be known only poorly if certain other related properties were known with precision. The ability to make these measurements directly challenges the idea that full understanding of a quantum system could never come from direct observation. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Trackable Drug-Filled Nanoparticles

March 2nd 2013

Physician and stethoscope

Tiny particles filled with a drug could be a new tool for treating cancer in the future. A new study published by Swedish scientists in Particle & Particle Systems Characterization shows how such nanoparticles can be combined to secure the effective delivery of cancer drugs to tumour cells – and how they can be given properties to make them visible in MR scanners and thus rendered trackable.

The team, which consisted of scientists from Karolinska Institutet (KI) and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, and from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, developed so-called 'theranostic nanoparticles' by combining therapy and diagnostics in one and the same nano material.

"For this study, we produced theranostic nanoparticles able to make pinpoint deliveries of drug payloads to breast cancer cells," says Professor Eva Malmström of the School of Chemical Science and Engineering at KTH. "They are also detectable in an MR scanner and can therefore be used diagnostically. The building blocks that we use are biodegradable and show no signs of toxicity." Read more ..

The Evironmental Edge

Turning Trash into Cash . . . and Saving Energy

March 1st 2013

Milk Jug-Filiment 3D printers

Suppose you could replace “Made in China” with “Made in my garage.” Suppose also that every time you polished off a jug of two percent, you would be stocking up on raw material to make anything from a cell phone case and golf tees to a toy castle and a garlic press.

And, you could give yourself a gold medal for being a bona fide, recycling, polar-bear-saving rock star. Michigan Technological University’s Joshua Pearce is working on it. His main tool is open-source 3D printing, which he uses to save thousands of dollars by making everything from his lab equipment to his safety razor.

Using free software downloaded from sites like Thingiverse, which now holds over 54,000 open-source designs, 3D printers make all manner of objects by laying down thin layers of plastic in a specific pattern. While high-end printers can cost many thousands of dollars, simpler open-source units run between $250 and $500—and can be used to make parts for other 3D printers, driving the cost down ever further. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Swine Cells Could Power Artificial Liver

February 27th 2013

Research and Development Chemistry

Chronic or acute, liver failure can be deadly. Toxins take over, the skin turns yellow and higher brain function slows.

"There is no effective therapy at the moment to deal with the toxins that build up in your body," said Neil Talbot, a Research Animal Scientist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service. "Their only option now is to transplant a liver."

Talbot thinks a line of special liver cells could change that. In an interview with the American Society of Animal Science, he discussed how a line of pig liver cells called PICM-19 could perform many of the same functions as a human liver.

In 1991, Talbot created PICM-19 from the cells of an 8-day-old pig embryo. The cell line is significant because it is "immortal," meaning the cells can divide an infinite number of times. Many immortal cells lines continue dividing because they are derived from cancer cells; however, PICM-19 cells are derived from epiblast cells, the embryonic stem cells that form in the early stages of embryo development. Read more ..

The Neural Edge

Blue Print for an Artificial Brain

February 26th 2013

neurons brain

Scientists have long been dreaming about building a computer that would work like a brain. This is because a brain is far more energy-saving than a computer, it can learn by itself, and it doesn’t need any programming. Privatdozent [senior lecturer] Dr. Andy Thomas from Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Physics is experimenting with memristors – electronic microcomponents that imitate natural nerves. Thomas and his colleagues proved that they could do this a year ago. They constructed a memristor that is capable of learning. Andy Thomas is now using his memristors as key components in a blueprint for an artificial brain. He will be presenting his results at the beginning of March in the print edition of the prestigious Journal of Physics published by the Institute of Physics in London.

A nanocomponent that is capable of learning: The Bielefeld memristor built into a chip here is 600 times thinner than a human hair. Memristors are made of fine nanolayers and can be used to connect electric circuits. For several years now, the memristor has been considered to be the electronic equivalent of the synapse. Synapses are, so to speak, the bridges across which nerve cells (neurons) contact each other. Their connections increase in strength the more often they are used. Usually, one nerve cell is connected to other nerve cells across thousands of synapses.

Like synapses, memristors learn from earlier impulses. In their case, these are electrical impulses that (as yet) do not come from nerve cells but from the electric circuits to which they are connected. The amount of current a memristor allows to pass depends on how strong the current was that flowed through it in the past and how long it was exposed to it. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

More Polar Snow--Less Elsewhere

February 25th 2013


A new cli­mate model pre­dicts an increase in snow­fall for the Earth’s polar regions and high­est alti­tudes, but an over­all drop in snow­fall for the globe, as car­bon diox­ide lev­els rise over the next century. The decline in snow­fall could spell trou­ble for regions such as the west­ern United States that rely on snowmelt as a source of fresh water.

The pro­jec­tions are the result of a new cli­mate model devel­oped at the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) Geo­phys­i­cal Fluid Dynam­ics Lab­o­ra­tory (GFDL) and ana­lyzed by sci­en­tists at GFDL and Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity. The study was pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Climate.

The model indi­cates that the major­ity of the planet would expe­ri­ence less snow­fall as a result of warm­ing due to a dou­bling of atmos­pheric car­bon diox­ide. Obser­va­tions show that atmos­pheric car­bon diox­ide has already increased by 40 per­cent from val­ues in the mid-19th cen­tury, and, given pro­jected trends, could exceed twice those val­ues later this cen­tury. Read more ..

The Edge of Robotics

Cockroaches Teach Lessons in Stability for Robots

February 25th 2013

cockroach cucaracha

Running cockroaches start to recover from being shoved sideways before their dawdling nervous system kicks in to tell their legs what to do, researchers have found. These new insights on how biological systems stabilize could one day help engineers design steadier robots and improve doctors' understanding of human gait abnormalities. In experiments, the roaches were able to maintain their footing mechanically—using their momentum and the spring-like architecture of their legs, rather than neurologically, relying on impulses sent from their central nervous system to their muscles.

"The response time we observed is more than three times longer than you'd expect," said Shai Revzen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, as well as ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of Michigan. Revzen is the lead author of a paper on the findings published online in Biological Cybernetics.

"What we see is that the animals' nervous system is working at a substantial delay," he said. "It could potentially act a lot sooner, within about a thirtieth of a second, but instead, it kicks in after about a step and a half or two steps—about a tenth of a second. For some reason, the nervous system is waiting and seeing how it shapes out." Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Brain Researchers Uncover Secrets of Memory

February 23rd 2013

Brain Elctrodes

Much research on the human brain is focused on understanding how people form memories, store them and retrieve them. Now, a study by scientists at the University of California-Davis and the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston is providing new insight into the process. Researchers at the two schools found that separate areas of the brain coordinate much like little radio stations - to form memories involving time and space.

In Memorial-Hermann hospital at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston, Neurosurgeon Nitin Tandon visits 26-year-old epilepsy patient Tyler. Dr. Tandon has placed platinum electrodes on the surface of Tyler's brain so that he can monitor electrical signals when Tyler is having a seizure. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Scientists Explore Stem Cells to Treat Diabetic Blindness

February 22nd 2013


Millions of diabetics around the world are threatened with vision loss, a secondary effect of their disease, but researchers are exploring whether stem cells can be used to treat or prevent this diabetic complication.

Juvenile and adult-onset diabetes result when the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels goes awry. When the condition becomes chronic, it can lead to cardiovascular disease, damage the kidneys and affect blood flow to the limbs, sometimes requiring amputations.

The disease also affects the eyes, according to Alan Stitt of Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. Chronically high blood sugar levels can cause a condition called diabetic retinopathy, in which the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina, the light sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, become blocked or leak. “They then can actually no longer carry the oxygen and the nutrients that the retina requires," Stitt says. "And the retina becomes increasingly dysfunctional as a result of these blood vessels not functioning properly.” If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can lead to partial or total blindness. Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Force is the Key to Granular State-Shifting

February 21st 2013

hourglass sand

Ever wonder why sand can both run through an hourglass like a liquid and be solid enough to support buildings? It’s because granular materials – like sand or dirt – can change their behavior, or state. Researchers from North Carolina State University have found that the forces individual grains exert on one another are what most affect that transition.

Physicists have explored the changing behavior of granular materials by comparing it to what happens in thermodynamic systems. In a thermodynamic system, you can change the state of a material – like water – from a liquid to a gas by adding energy (heat) to the system. One of the most fundamental and important observations about temperature, however, is that it has the ability to equilibrate: a hot cup of tea eventually cools to match the temperature of the room.

Physicists thought they could use thermodynamics’ underlying ideas to explain the changes in granular materials, but didn’t know whether granular materials had properties which might equilibrate in a similar way. In other words, instead of temperature being the change agent in a granular system, it might be a property related to the amount of free space, or the forces on the particles. But no one had really tested which of the two might exhibit this property of equilibration.

NC State physicist Karen Daniels and former graduate student James Puckett devised a way to do just that. Puckett used two different types of plastic “granules” with different properties that floated atop a layer of air on a small table. Puckett and Daniels wanted to see what would bring the two types of particles into equilibrium with one another. In order to make their measurements, they used a plastic material that indicated a change in force by a change in brightness. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

The Nose That Can Smell Cancer Goes Commercial

February 20th 2013

Baby Boomer

Israeli professor’s revolutionary disease-detection device is on the road to changing how early, and how easily, lung cancer is diagnosed. An Israeli invention that can detect lung cancer from exhaled breath will be commercialized in a joint venture between the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Alpha Szenszor, a Boston-based manufacturer of carbon nanotube sensing equipment. 

Technion Prof. Hossam Haick has been working on what he calls “Na-Nose” (the “na” is for “nanotechnology”) since 2007, and the device has been proven in numerous international clinical trials to differentiate between different types and classifications of cancer with up to 95 percent accuracy.

Patients breathe into a tube; the Na-Nose analyzes the more than 1,000 different gases that are contained in the breath to identify those that may indicate that something’s wrong. It works by binding gases to specific nano-materials, a technique formally known as volatile organic compound (VOC) detection. Read more ..

The Genetic Edge

Mutation for Thick Hair Emerged 30 Thousand Years Ago

February 19th 2013

Thick Hair Man

The first animal model of recent human evolution reveals that a single mutation produced several traits common in East Asian peoples, from thicker hair to denser sweat glands, an international team of researchers report.

The team, led by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, Fudan University and University College London, also modeled the spread of the gene mutation across Asia and North America, concluding that it most likely arose about 30,000 years ago in what is today central China.

Featured in the Cell, Professor Mark Thomas of the UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, commented, "There are three parts to this study." Thomas was one of the authors of the paper.  Read more ..

Edge of Space

There is Water but No Cheese on the Moon

February 19th 2013

Moon rock Apollo 15
'Genesis Rock': unbrecciated anorthosite from the Apollo 15 moon mission.

Traces of water have been detected within the crystalline structure of mineral samples from the lunar highland upper crust obtained during the Apollo missions, according to a University of Michigan researcher and his colleagues.

The lunar highlands are thought to represent the original crust, crystallized from a magma ocean on a mostly molten early moon. The new findings indicate that the early moon was wet and that water there was not substantially lost during the moon's formation. The results seem to contradict the predominant lunar formation theory — that the moon was formed from debris generated during a giant impact between Earth and another planetary body, approximately the size of Mars, according to U-M's Youxue Zhang and his colleagues.

"Because these are some of the oldest rocks from the moon, the water is inferred to have been in the moon when it formed," Zhang said. "That is somewhat difficult to explain with the current popular moon-formation model, in which the moon formed by collecting the hot ejecta as the result of a super-giant impact of a martian-size body with the proto-Earth. Read more ..

Ancient Days

China's Endangered Terracotta Warriors

February 19th 2013

Chinese terracotta warriors

The preservation of immovable historic relics displayed in large open spaces like China's world-renowned Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses requires air curtains and other modifications to recreate the primitive environment from which archaeologists excavated the relics.

That's the conclusion of a study of environmental control measures for archaeology museums in the People's Republic of China. Their study appears in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology.

ZhaoLin Gu and colleagues point out that environmental factors have deteriorated many of the more than 1,500 unearthed relics in China's Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses, for instance, and in other museums involving large open spaces. Read more ..

The Edge of Farming

Modern Farming Methods Endanger Tasty Central American Coffee Crop

February 18th 2013

Coffee rust
Coffee tree mildly infected by coffee rust. Credit: John Vandermeer

A shift away from traditional coffee-growing techniques may be increasing the severity of an outbreak of 'coffee rust' fungus that has swept through plantations in Central America and Mexico, according to a University of Michigan ecologist who studies the disease. The current outbreak of coffee rust is the worst seen in Central America and Mexico since the fungal disease arrived in the region more than 40 years ago. Guatemala recently joined Honduras and Costa Rica in declaring national emergencies over the disease.

The Guatemalan president said the outbreak could cut coffee production by 40 percent in his country for the 2013-2014 growing season. Because Central America supplies 14 percent of the world's coffee, the outbreak could drive up the price of a cup of coffee. University of Michigan ecologist John Vandermeer has operated research plots at an organic coffee plantation in southern Chiapas, Mexico, for about 15 years. Vandermeer and colleague Ivette Perfecto of the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment study the complex web of interactions between resident organisms there, including various insects, fungi, birds and bats. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Clues to the Mysterious Origin of Cosmic Rays

February 17th 2013


In the year 1006 a new star was seen in the southern skies and widely recorded around the world. It was many times brighter than the planet Venus and may even have rivaled the brightness of the Moon. It was so bright at maximum that it cast shadows and it was visible during the day. More recently astronomers have identified the site of this supernova and named it SN 1006. They have also found a glowing and expanding ring of material in the southern constellation of Lupus (The Wolf) that constitutes the remains of the vast explosion.

It has long been suspected that such supernova remnants may also be where some cosmic rays — very high energy particles originating outside the Solar System and travelling at close to the speed of light — are formed. But until now the details of how this might happen have been a long-standing mystery. Read more ..

Inside Washington

Russian Meteor Strikes Squarely on Washington Lobbyists

February 16th 2013

Meteor Russia

Might lobbyists one day save the world from killer space rocks?

Don't count on it. But a few cosmos-minded special interests have spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent years prodding the federal government to better track potentially deadly near-earth asteroids, U.S. Senate records indicate. Such activity — easily dismissed as the stuff of space nerds and doomsayers — could now accelerate, as a meteor explosion today over central Russia injured hundreds of people and has already reopened debate about government's role in predicting or averting an even greater calamity.

In 2008, the California Space Authority sent a lobbyist to Washington, D.C., in part to promote passage of HR 4917, a bill sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., that would "establish an Office of Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Object Preparedness" and "prepare the United States for readiness to avoid and to mitigate collisions with potentially hazardous near-Earth objects in collaboration with other agencies through the identification of situation-and-decision-analysis factors and the selection of procedures and systems." Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Anti-Biotic Resistant Genes in Farm Animals Raise Concerns for Human Health

February 16th 2013

Click to select Image

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, contributes to the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs. This effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases in animals and humans. A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China – the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics – and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.

On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples, said James Tiedje, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and of plant, soil and microbial sciences, and one of the co-authors. “Our research took place in China, but it reflects what’s happening in many places around the world,” said Tiedje, part of the research team led by Yong-Guan Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The World Organization for Animal Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been advocating for improved regulation of veterinary antibiotic use because those genes don’t stay local.” Read more ..

The Race for Smart Grid

Quantum Cryptography Put to Work for Electric Grid Security

February 15th 2013

Cryptographic Code Generator

Recently a Los Alamos National Laboratory quantum cryptography (QC) team successfully completed the first-ever demonstration of securing control data for electric grids using quantum cryptography.

The demonstration was performed in the electric grid test bed that is part of the Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIPG) project at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) that was set up under the Department of Energy’s Cyber Security for Energy Delivery Systems program in the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Novel methods for controlling the electric grid are needed to accommodate new energy sources such as renewables whose availability can fluctuate on short time scales. This requires transmission of data to and from control centers; but for grid-control use, data must be both trustworthy and delivered without delays. The simultaneous requirements of strong authentication and low latency are difficult to meet with standard cryptographic techniques. New technologies that further strengthen existing cybersecurity protections are needed. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

New Thinking About Cell Phone Safety

February 14th 2013

SAR Test Result Sample

The verdict is still not in, yet there are no shortages of claims on every side debating the possibility that radiation that emanates from handheld mobile phones cause cellular damage.

There is no evidence that demonstrates cancer rates have gone up since the advent of the cell phone. Some researchers and medical professionals are comfortable resting on their laurels, dismissing the possibility of cancer and waving off any problems with cell phone use. Yet, others are not so quick to jump at offering a stamp of approval, claiming that cancer is not the only ailment we should be looking out for.

At a symposium convened at the City University of New York Graduate Center in New York City on Monday, February 11th to announce what is deemed as a breakthrough in science and research, Doctor Nancy Mueller of the Institute of Neurological Care in Englewood New Jersey suggested that the damage that cell phones may cause is yet unknown, and that ailments such as seizures, memory loss, and perhaps even nervous system disorders may be heightened by long-term exposure. She said that especially in children, where the brain is in its development stages, we should do what we can do to protect them and limit their exposure to cell phone emissions. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

U.S. Report Urges Deeper Look into Breast Cancer's Environmental Links

February 13th 2013


A new federal advisory panel report makes a forceful case for more research into environmental causes of breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 227,000 women, killed 40,000 and cost more than $17 billion to treat in the United States last year.

Compiled by the congressionally mandated Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee, the report notes that most cases of breast cancer “occur in people with no family history,” suggesting that “environmental factors — broadly defined — must play a major role in the etiology of the disease.”

Yet only a fraction of federal research funding has gone toward examining links between breast cancer and ubiquitous chemicals such as the plastic hardening agent bisphenol A; the herbicide atrazine; and dioxin, a byproduct of plastics manufacturing and burning, says the report, prepared for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and released today. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

An Old Drug Shows the Way to Treat Diabetes and Obesity

February 12th 2013

Click to select Image

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute have found that amlexanox, an off-patent drug currently prescribed for the treatment of asthma and other uses, also reverses obesity, diabetes and fatty liver in mice.

The findings from the lab of Alan Saltiel, the Mary Sue Coleman director of the Life Sciences Institute, and appear online at the journal Nature Medicine.

"One of the reasons that diets are so ineffective in producing weight loss for some people is that their bodies adjust to the reduced calories by also reducing their metabolism, so that they are 'defending' their body weight," Saltiel said. "Amlexanox seems to tweak the metabolic response to excessive calorie storage in mice." Different formulations of amlexanox are currently prescribed to treat asthma in Japan and canker sores in the United States. Saltiel is teaming up with clinical-trial specialists at U-M to test whether amlexanox will be useful for treating obesity and diabetes in humans. He is also working with medicinal chemists at U-M to develop a new compound based on the drug that optimizes its formula. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Global Warming Releases Carbon-Laden Gas from Arctic Permafrost

February 12th 2013


Ancient carbon trapped in Arctic permafrost is extremely sensitive to sunlight and, if exposed to the surface when long-frozen soils melt and collapse, can release climate-warming carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere much faster than previously thought. Former University of Michigan graduate student Katy Keller with a hand on eroded and melting permafrost near Toolik Lake, Alaska. The gully erosion seen here is a type of thermokarst failure, formed when ice-rich, permanently frozen soils are warmed and thawed.

University of Michigan ecologist and aquatic biogeochemist George Kling and his colleagues studied places in Arctic Alaska where permafrost is melting and is causing the overlying land surface to collapse, forming erosional holes and landslides and exposing long-buried soils to sunlight.

They found that sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon into carbon dioxide gas by at least 40 percent compared to carbon that remains in the dark. The team, led by Rose Cory of the University of North Carolina, reported its findings in an article to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Until now, we didn't really know how reactive this ancient permafrost carbon would be — whether it would be converted into heat-trapping gases quickly or not," said Kling, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. EEB graduate student Jason Dobkowski is a co-author of the paper. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

New Genes for Short-Sightedness Identified

February 10th 2013


An international team of scientists led by King's College London has discovered 24 new genes that cause refractive errors and myopia (short-sightedness).

Myopia is a major cause of blindness and visual impairment worldwide, and currently there is no cure. These findings, published today in the journal Nature Genetics, reveal genetic causes of the trait, which could lead to finding better treatments or ways of preventing the condition in the future.

Thirty per cent of Western populations and up to 80 per cent of Asian people suffer from myopia. During visual development in childhood and adolescence the eye grows in length, but in myopes it grows too long, and light entering the eye is then focused in front of the retina rather than on it. This results in a blurred image. This refractive error can be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or surgery. However, the eye remains longer, the retina is thinner, and this may lead to retinal detachment, glaucoma or macular degeneration, especially with higher degrees of myopia. Myopia is highly heritable, although up to now, little was known about the genetic background. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA: Asteroid to Pass Very Near Earth

February 9th 2013

Phoebe from Cassini

Astronomers around the world are preparing for a record-breaking asteroid flyby February 15. Measuring 45 meters in diameter and weighing an estimated 130,000 metric tons, Asteroid 2012 DA14 is considered small by scientists who track the solar system's rocky debris, but it will zip past our planet so closely that it will be even nearer to us than our orbiting weather and communications satellites.

It is the closest-ever-predicted approach for an object this size. Experts emphasize there is no reason for concern. "There's no danger to the planet at all," Lindley Johnson of NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program in Washington told VOA. "We know the orbit quite well now."

Johnson said Asteroid 2012 DA14 will come as close as 27,700 kilometers - about one-tenth the distance between the Earth and the Moon. "Close flybys of asteroids happen quite frequently," explained Johnson, who said more than 20 asteroids have come between the Earth and the Moon in the past year. "But they're usually very small-sized objects - maybe only a few meters in size."  Read more ..

Electronic Edge

Improved 'Peacock' Technology Locks in Color for High-Res Displays

February 8th 2013

peacock display

In a peacock’s iridescent tail, precisely arranged hairline grooves reflect light of certain wavelengths, resulting in brilliant color that looks different depending on the movement of the animal or the observer. Imitating this system – minus the rainbow effect – has been a leading approach to developing advanced color reflective displays. University of Michigan researchers have taken a step toward that goal. Iridescence, or sheen that shifts color depending on your viewing angle, is pretty in peacock feathers. But it's been a nuisance for engineers trying to mimic the birds' unique color mechanism to make high-resolution, reflective, color display screens.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan have found a way to lock in so-called structural color, which is made with texture rather than chemicals. A paper on the work is published online in the current edition of the Nature journal Scientific Reports. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Forcasting a Supernova Explosion

February 6th 2013

Chandra super nova

Type II supernovae are formed when massive stars collapse, initiating giant explosions. It is thought that stars emit a burst of mass as a precursor to the supernova explosion. If this process were better understood, it could be used to predict and study supernova events in their earliest stages. New observations from a team of astronomers including Carnegie's Mansi Kasliwal show a remarkable mass-loss event about a month before the explosion of a type IIn supernova. Their work is published on February 7 in Nature.

Several models for the supernova-creation process predict pre-explosion outbursts, but it has been difficult for scientists to directly observe this process. Observations of emission lines radiating out form type IIn supernovae are thought to represent interactions between the mass ejected during and prior to the star's explosion

The Palomar Transient Factory team, led by Eran Ofek of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, observed an energetic outburst from a supernova called SN2010mc that radiated at least 6x1040th joules of energy and released about 2x1028th kilograms (one hundredth of a solar mass). This mass-loss was observed 40 days before the supernova exploded. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

A Spellchecker on Speed

February 6th 2013


Want going out in Friday?’ Make sure you’ve typed it right with high flying new Israeli software. Ginger understands language context enough to make sure you write what you intend to.

Speakers of English as a second language are painfully aware of the intricacies and nuances of their adopted tongue. “Want going out in Friday?” might make perfect sense to the non-native speaker but is utterly incorrect. Technology can help: Spellcheckers do a passable job at the basics and Microsoft Word understands how to match tense and suggest active versus passive construction.

But how about this text message: “Hey dude, let’s go grab a bear tonight.” The sender presumably intended to kick back with a few beers. However, “bear” is a perfectly fine word to a spellchecker.

Enter Ginger Proofreader from Israel’s Ginger Software, a new web and mobile product that understands language context well enough to make sure you’ve written what you intended to. Ginger works its magic through a deep connection to linguistics, semantics and the “wisdom of the crowds.” Read more ..

Electronic Edge

Green Method Creates Silicon Crystals just like Sugar Water makes Rock Candy

February 5th 2013

Silicon crystals from liquid metal

A new way of making crystalline silicon, developed by University of Michigan researchers, could make this crucial ingredient of computers and solar cells much cheaper and greener.

Silicon dioxide, or sand, makes up about 40 percent of the earth's crust, but the industrial method for converting sand into crystalline silicon is expensive and has a major environmental impact due to the extreme processing conditions.

"The crystalline silicon in modern electronics is currently made through a series of energy-intensive chemical reactions with temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit that produces a lot of carbon dioxide," said Stephen Maldonado, professor of chemistry and applied physics. Read more ..

Ancient Times

Neaderthals of Spain Didn't Co-Exist with Modern Homo sapiens

February 5th 2013

Neanderthal child mannequin

The theory that the last Neanderthals – Homo neanderthalensis– persisted in southern Iberia at the same time that modern humans –Homo sapiens sapiens– advanced in the northern part of the peninsula, has been widely accepted by the scientific community during the last twenty years. An international study, in which researchers of the Spanish National Distance Education University (UNED) participate, questions this hypothesis.

"It is improbable that the last Neanderthals of central and southern Iberia would have persisted until such a late date, approximately 30,000 years ago, as we thought before the new dates appeared," assured Jesús F. Jordá, researcher of the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the UNED and co-author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Future Smart Devices Will Extend Our Senses

February 3rd 2013

Smart phone

Imagine shopping for clothes online and being able to run your hand across the screen on your computer or smartphone to feel the fabrics. That kind of simulation technology could be available within the next five years. “We’re talking about reinventing the way computers operate and you interact with them as humans,” says IBM Vice President Bernie Meyerson.

Extending our sense of touch is one of five innovatons IBM believes will change the world in the next five years, according to the company's annual "Five in Five" list. Smart machines will also soon be able to listen to the environment and highlight the sounds we care about most. For instance, an advanced speech recognition system will tell new parents why their baby is crying.

“Your child is hungry, versus ill, versus lonely," Meyerson says. "This kind of thing is not possible today, but with a sophisticated enough system, it’s actually possible.”

In the near future, personal computers will be able to do more than recognize images and visual data. Their built-in cameras will be able to analyze features such as colors, and understand the meaning of visual media, such as knowing how to sort family photos. Read more ..

Ancient America

Comet Impact Did Not Kill off Ancient American Clovis Culture

February 2nd 2013

comet strike earth edge

Rebutting a speculative hypothesis that comet explosions changed Earth's climate sufficiently to end the Clovis culture in North America about 13,000 years ago, Sandia lead author Mark Boslough and researchers from 14 academic institutions assert that other explanations must be found for the apparent disappearance.

"There's no plausible mechanism to get airbursts over an entire continent," said Boslough, a physicist. "For this and other reasons, we conclude that the impact hypothesis is, unfortunately, bogus." In a December 2012 American Geophysical Union monograph, the researchers point out that no appropriately sized impact craters from that time period have been discovered, nor have any unambiguously "shocked" materials been found. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

Bioelectric Signals Can Be Used To Detect Early Cancer

February 2nd 2013

Tumor in Tadpole Embryo

Biologists at Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences have discovered a bioelectric signal that can identify cells that are likely to develop into tumors. The researchers also found that they could lower the incidence of cancerous cells by manipulating the electrical charge across cells' membranes.

"The news here is that we've established a bioelectric basis for the early detection of cancer," says Brook Chernet. Michael Levin,director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, notes, "We've shown that electric events tell the cells what to do. The voltage changes are not merely a sign of cancer. They control and direct whether the cancer occurs or not." Read more ..

Edge of Entomology

Cracking a Mystery of the Ravenous Gypsy Moth

February 1st 2013

gypsy moth caterpillar

Working beneath the towering oaks and maples on the University of Michigan's central campus Diag, undergraduate researchers and their faculty adviser helped explain an observation that had puzzled insect ecologists who study voracious leaf-munching gypsy moth caterpillars. The caterpillars, which defoliate and sometimes kill stands of trees in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, are especially fond of oaks, but sugar maple trees appear to be relatively resistant to the European pest.

Biologists wondered whether the caterpillars shun sugar maples in part because their leaves are less nutritious than the leaves of other trees. To find out, U-M biochemist Ray Barbehenn and several of his undergraduate research assistants compared the protein quality of red oak and sugar maple leaves from trees on the Diag. Read more ..

Ancient America

DNA Evidence Offers Clues to Pre-Aztec Culture of Mexico

January 31st 2013

Aztec calendar

For centuries, the fate of the original Otomí inhabitants of Xaltocan, the capital of a pre-Aztec Mexican city-state, has remained unknown. Researchers have long wondered whether they assimilated with the Aztecs or abandoned the town altogether.

According to new anthropological research from The University of Texas at Austin, Wichita State University and Washington State University, the answers may lie in DNA. Following this line of evidence, the researchers theorize that some original Otomies, possibly elite rulers, may have fled the town. Their exodus may have led to the reorganization of the original residents within Xaltocan, or to the influx of new residents, who may have intermarried with the Otomí population. Read more ..

Ancient Times

Newly Discovered Fossil Evidence challenges Bird Evolution Theory

January 29th 2013

Eosinopteryx dinosaur  - Royal Belgian Ins of Natural Sci.
Eosinopteryx (Credit: Royal Belgian Ins. of Natural Science)

The discovery of a new bird-like dinosaur from the Jurassic period challenges widely accepted theories on the origin of flight. Co-authored by Dr Gareth Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Southampton, the paper describes a new feathered dinosaur about 30 cm in length which pre-dates bird-like dinosaurs that birds were long thought to have evolved from.

Over many years, it has become accepted among palaeontologists that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs called theropods from the Early Cretaceous period of Earth’s history, around 120-130 million years ago. Recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs from the older Middle-Late Jurassic period have reinforced this theory. Read more ..

Microbiology Edge

Tricking Iron-Eating Bacteria into Breathing Electrons Instead

January 29th 2013

rust iron oxide wikipedia

Scientists have developed a way to grow iron-oxidizing bacteria using electricity instead of iron, an advance that will allow them to better study the organisms and could one day be used to turn electricity into fuel. The study will be published on January 29 in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

The method, called electrochemical cultivation, supplies these bacteria with a steady supply of electrons that the bacteria use to respire, or "breathe". It opens the possibility that one day electricity generated from renewable sources like wind or solar could be funneled to iron oxidizing bacteria that combine it with carbon dioxide to create biofuels, capturing the energy as a useful, storable substance.

"It's a new way to cultivate a microorganism that's been very difficult to study. But the fact that these organisms can synthesize everything they need using only electricity makes us very interested in their abilities," says Daniel Bond of the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, who co-authored the paper with Zarath Summers and Jeffrey Gralnick. Read more ..

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