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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 ..

The Edge of Medicine

Limited HIV Therapy Beneficial for Infants Immediately After Diagnosis

August 24th 2013

Nigerian baby with cap

Researchers have found that giving antiviral therapy for a limited time to HIV-infected babies soon after diagnosis prevents damage to their immune systems and delays the need for long-term drug therapy.

The South African study, which enrolled 377 HIV-positive infants between six and 12 weeks of age, divided the babies into three groups. Beginning at age seven weeks, one group received antiviral drugs, or ART, and stopped close to their first birthday. The second group of infants receiving ART stopped around the age of two.

Both groups were compared to a third group of young children who were not treated with ART until they began showing symptoms of HIV infection, such as a failure to develop, or when the levels of their immune system CD4 cells became too low.

Mark Cotton, a pediatrician at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town and a study co-author, said in a Skype interview that infants given the shorter, intermediate course of ART - until age one - did not need to restart therapy for about eight months. Those who were on the longer treatment course until age 2 did not need to resume ART for almost a year-and-a-half after temporarily discontinuing therapy. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

A Portable Device for Common Kidney Tests

August 23rd 2013

Docs and Tech

A lightweight and field-portable device invented at UCLA that conducts kidney tests and transmits data through a smartphone attachment may significantly reduce the need for frequent office visits by people with diabetes and others with chronic kidney ailments.

The smartphone-based device was developed in the research lab of Aydogan Ozcan. Weighing about one-third of a pound, the gadget can determine levels of albumin in the patient's urine and transmit the results within seconds. Albumin is a protein in blood that is a sign of danger when found in urine.

Ozcan's lab also developed the opto-mechanical phone attachment, disposable test tubes, Android app and software to transmit the data. The research was published this month by the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip.

"Albumin testing is frequently done to assess kidney damage, especially for diabetes patients," Ozcan said. "This device provides an extremely convenient platform for chronic patients at home or in remote locations where cell phones work." Read more ..

The Environment on Edge

Statistical Tool Predicts Arsenic Risk in Chinese Wells

August 22nd 2013

Child drinking water

About 140 million people around the world drink water contaminated with unsafe-levels of arsenic. The element is found naturally in rocks and soil, but exposure to it presents a major public health problem, especially in regions where untreated groundwater is the only reliable source of drinking water. Scientists have deployed a new statistical tool that can help predict the greatest risk of contamination.

Luis Rodriguez-Lado led the team that designed the method.  The soil scientist from University of Santiago de Compostela says the model was tested in China, where in 1994 the Chinese government declared arsenic poisoning an endemic disease.

Officials responded with an initiative to test all wells in the country.  Rodriguez-Lado says the effort is so massive that it could take decades to complete.  He says his model can help speed that up, while it complements traditional testing methods.

“Our model provides a quick overview of the areas potentially at risk," he said. "So it can be used to optimize the screening efforts at full scale and prioritize the analysis of the areas potentially at high risk, saving money and time." That model, described in the journal Science, identifies Chinese arsenic hot spots based on factors thought to be predictors of high levels of the chemical element, like soil moisture, salinity and topography.  Read more ..

The Digital Edge

ZMap Can Scan the Entire Internet in Just Forty-Five Minutes

August 21st 2013

Computers multiple

Three computer science researchers at the University of Michigan have released ZMap, a new open-source tool that can perform a scan of the entire public IPv4 address space on the Internet in less than 45 minutes. For researchers probing the entire public address space, existing tools have required painstaking and time-consuming configuration, as well as either months of data collection or the use of large clusters of computers. ZMap changes that by running on a single computer and producing results over 1000 times faster.

The researchers, Zakir Durumeric, Eric Wustrow, and Prof. J. Alex Halderman, have hopes that ZMap will spark network-based inquiry, enabling a multitude of studies where previously just a few carefully-crafted investigations could be made. Only a handful of Internet-wide scans have been reported in the research literature, but the ZMap team performed more than 200 scans themselves over the course of the last year while developing and experimenting with their new tool. Read more ..

The Robotic Edge

Robot With Human-Like Hands Could Tackle Dangerous Situations

August 20th 2013

Robots (Star Wars)

Robo Sally is a remotely controlled humanoid robot that may one day help law enforcement officials and emergency technicians defuse bombs, patrol large spaces and do guard duty. It was designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory [APL], outside Washington, D.C.

The robot is a versatile moving platform with a humanoid attachment that looks like a modern day centaur. It can turn in tight spaces, climb over small obstacles, closely examine objects and even manipulate them with human-like hands.

But Robo Sally was not initially designed for sentry duties. Mike McLoughlin, the principal investigator for APL's Prosthetics Program, said, "The purpose of that program is to develop prosthetic arms that have all the capability of your natural arms, and you do all the complex motions that we can do with the natural arm - with the robot. We had this idea if we did this for prosthetics for humans, we could also put these on robotic platforms and enable the robots to go out into dangerous situations.”

It was a complex task. McLoughlin said the device not only had to have many small motors to mimic the flexibility of the human hand, it needed human-like strength. The thumb was especially difficult because it allows the hand to grasp objects. And everything had to fit into a space about the size of a hand. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

Doctors Prevent Blindness With 'Revolutionary' Phone App

August 19th 2013


Since January hundreds of Kenyans have undergone eye tests, not in a clinic with a doctor, but on their own doorstep, using a smart-phone application.  The app uses a camera to scan the lens of the eye for cataracts, and its developers say it could save millions of people from blindness.

Dr. Andrew Bastawrous from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine developed the new application along with a small team. He is currently in Nakuru, Kenya, where he is testing the technology, and told VOA that it appears to be working.

“They are absolutely loving it.  They are all asking to have a go and have their vision tested.  So it is certainly very user friendly,” said Bastawrous. So far about 2,000 Kenyans have been given eye tests.  The developers estimate about 10 percent of those had cataracts and needed treatment.

Stewart Jordan is an independent application designer who helped develop the app called PEEK, or Portable Eye Examination Kit.  He says the kit includes a clip-on camera, which works with the app to check glasses prescription, diagnose cataracts or examine the back of the eye for diseases, from glaucoma to diabetes. In just a few seconds, he said, you can take a clear image of the back of the eye.  Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cosmic Turbulences Result in Star and Black Hole Formation

August 18th 2013

Massive black hole disrupting star formation

Just how stars and black holes in the Universe are able to form from rotating matter is one of the big questions of astrophysics. What we do know is that magnetic fields figure prominently into the picture. However, our current understanding is that they only work if matter is electrically well conductive -- but in rotating discs this isn't always the case. Now, a new publication by Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf physicists in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters shows how magnetic fields can also cause turbulences within "dead zones," thus making an important contribution to our current understanding of just how compact objects form in the cosmos.

When Johannes Kepler first proposed his laws of planetary motion in the early days of the 17th century, he could not have foreseen the central role cosmic magnetic fields would play in planetary system formation. Today, we know that in the absence of magnetic fields, mass would not be able to concentrate in compact bodies like stars and black holes. One prominent example is our solar system, which formed 4.6 billion years ago through the collapse of a gigantic cloud of gas, whose gravitational pull concentrated particles in its center, culminating in the formation of a large disc. "These accretion discs are extremely stable from a hydrodynamic perspective as according to Kepler's laws of planetary motion angular momentum increases from the center towards the periphery," explains HZDR's own Dr. Frank Stefani. "In order to explain the growth rates of stars and black holes, there has to exist a mechanism, which acts to destabilize the rotating disc and which at the same time ensures mass is transported towards the center and angular momentum towards the periphery." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Mars Society Calls for Students Worldwide to Compete

August 17th 2013

Red Planet

The U.S.-based Mars Society called on university students around the world to help advance plans for a manned mission to the planet during the 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention in the U.S. state of Colorado.

It has been about six months since the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, founded by space tourist and multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, proposed launching a manned mission toward Mars in five years. The plan calls for one man and one woman to fly within 160 kilometers of Mars and return to Earth.   

While the crew is slated to be American, the process of getting to Mars is an international endeavor. The president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, announced a competition that calls on teams of students around the world to design a two-person Mars flyby mission that could be launched in 2018. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Fungicide for Plants May Hurt Honeybees

August 16th 2013

European honeybee and flower

A widely used chemical used to fight plant disease is hurting honeybees in an unexpected way, according to new research, and may be contributing to the widespread loss of honeybees that pollinate many fruits, vegetables, nuts and other crops.

Die out
Honeybee hives in the United States and elsewhere are dying and researchers are trying to understand why.

“The number of colonies that die every winter has been one in three," said Dennis VanEngelsdorp at the University of Maryland. "So on average 30 percent of the colonies have died every winter over the last six winters. And that’s an astronomical number.”

VanEngelsdorp's research team examined the pollen that honeybees carried to their hives, and found that it was contaminated with high doses of 35 different pesticides. They also found that eating certain fungicides made bees more susceptible to infection by Nosema, a deadly microbe. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble Explores the Orgins of Modern Galaxies

August 15th 2013

Gravitational Arc from Distant Galaxy Cluster

The Hubble Sequence classifies galaxies according to their morphology and star-forming activity, organising them into a cosmic zoo of spiral, elliptical, and irregular shapes with whirling arms, fuzzy haloes and bright central bulges. Two main types of galaxy are identified in this sequence: elliptical and spiral, with a third type, lenticular, settling somewhere between the two.

This accurately describes what we see in the region of space around us, but how does galaxy morphology change as we look further back in time, to when the Universe was very young?

"This is a key question: when and over what timescale did the Hubble Sequence form?" says BoMee Lee of the University of Massachusetts, USA, lead author of a new paper exploring the sequence. "To do this you need to peer at distant galaxies and compare them to their closer relatives, to see if they too can be described in the same way." The astronomers used Hubble to look 11 billion years back in time to when the Universe was very young, exploring the anatomy of distant galaxies. Read more ..

The Edge of Transportation

Hyperloop Proposed as Fifth Mode of Transport

August 14th 2013

Univ Michigan concept vehicle

Inventor Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and PayPal, is proposing what he’s calling a fifth mode of transportation after planes, trains, cars and boats.

In a release posted today on the Tesla Motors website, Elon calls the Hyperloop idea a “safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainable self-powering and resistant to earthquakes” mode of transport compared to the high-speed rail link that has been approved to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The solar-powered Hyperloop as conceived, would be a tube structure that would shoot pods filled with passengers through the tubes at speeds approaching 1,000 kilometers per hour. He wrote that the system could be “some enlarged version of the old pneumatic tubes used to send mail and packages within and between buildings. You could, in principle, use very powerful fans to push air at high speed through a tube and propel people sized pods all the way from LA [Los Angeles] to San Francisco.“ Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

New Discoveries in the Transmission of Viruses Between Animals and Humans

August 12th 2013

Research and Development Chemistry

Outbreaks such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) have afflicted people around the world, yet many people think these trends are on the decline. Quite the opposite is true.

The efforts to combat this epidemic are being spearheaded by a team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists. Led by Monica Borucki of LLNL's Biosciences and Biotechnology Division, the Lab researchers have made promising new discoveries that provide insight into the emergence of inter-species transmittable viruses.

They discovered that the genetic diversity of a viral population within a host animal could allow a virus to adapt to certain conditions, which could help it reach a human host. This discovery advances the scientific understanding of how new viruses produced from animal reservoirs can infect people. An animal reservoir is an animal species that harbors an infectious agent, which then goes on to potentially infect humans or other species. Borucki's team is investigating viruses related to SARS and MERS, but not the actual viruses themselves. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Capture Signitures with Tiny LEDs Created with Piezo-Phototronic Effect

August 11th 2013


Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology want to put your signature up in lights – tiny lights, that is. Using thousands of nanometer-scale wires, the researchers have developed a sensor device that converts mechanical pressure – from a signature or a fingerprint – directly into light signals that can be captured and processed optically.

The sensor device could provide an artificial sense of touch, offering sensitivity comparable to that of the human skin. Beyond collecting signatures and fingerprints, the technique could also be used in biological imaging and micro-electromechanical (MEMS) systems. Ultimately, it could provide a new approach for human-machine interfaces.

"You can write with your pen and the sensor will optically detect what you write at high resolution and with a very fast response rate," said Zhong Lin Wang, Regents' professor and Hightower Chair in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech. "This is a new principle for imaging force that uses parallel detection and avoids many of the complications of existing pressure sensors." Read more ..

The Tecnology Edge

Puri Water Bottle Makes Potable Drinking Water at Sea

August 10th 2013

Ocean scene

During my travels throughout the Middle East and North Africa, I dreamed of having a magical bottle that could purify water without the need for any gross tasting tablets, and here it is: Puri.

Submitted to the 2013 IDEA Design Awards, this water bottle designed by designed by Younsun Kim, Kangkyung Lee, Byungsoo Kim and Minji Kim can literally separate salt from sea water in order to produce safe drinking water – even when stranded in the middle of the ocean.

While most desalination technology is complicated or takes up more space than a small water bottle can hold, the design team behind Puri devised a new system that is so system we wonder why nobody came up with it before. But isn’t that the case with all great inventions? Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Is Europa Inhabitable?

August 8th 2013


Europa, the ice-covered moon of the planet Jupiter, may be able to support life. NASA has commissioned a team of expert scientists to consider the science goals for a landed spacecraft mission to the surface of Europa, and to investigate the composition and geology of its icy shell and the potential for life within its interior ocean. The NASA-appointed Science Definition Team outlines the main priorities of a future lander mission to Europa to study its potential habitability in an article in Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on the Astrobiology website.

The article "Science Potential from a Europa Lander" presents the three main objectives of a future mission designed to land a robotic spacecraft on the surface of Europa and to investigate its potential to support life. NASA's Science Definition Team has clearly identified three main priorities: investigate the composition and chemistry of Europa's ocean; characterize the thickness, uniformity, and dynamics of its icy shell; and study the moon's human-scale surface geology. In addition, the NASA-appointed team describes the types of studies and payload of instruments recommended to achieve these objectives. Read more ..

The Weapons Edge

Flying Robots Compete

August 7th 2013

Flying Robot

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to make a three-pound flying robot that takes off autonomously, enters a building through a window, avoids security lasers, navigates hallways, reads signs, enters the correct room, finds a specific flash drive, removes it from an inbox on a desk, replaces it with a decoy, and exits the building -- all in less than 10 minutes.

It seems like a scene from Mission Impossible, but those are the requirements for this year's International Aerial Robotics Competition. Indeed, the mission is almost impossible. "We came in first place last year as the only robot that both entered and exited the building, but we were not able to retrieve the flash drive," Johnathan Bendes, a University of Michigan computer science student leading one of the competing teams, told us. "This year, we have a retractable magnet that we hope will be able to retrieve the flash drive." Read more ..

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