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The Environmental Edge

Real Time Second Hand Smoke Sensor

March 19th 2013

cigarette burning

Making headway against a major public health threat, Dartmouth College researchers have invented the first ever secondhand tobacco smoke sensor that records data in real time.

The researchers expect to soon convert the prototype, which is smaller and lighter than a cellphone, into a wearable, affordable and reusable device that helps to enforce no smoking regulations and sheds light on the pervasiveness of secondhand smoke. The sensor can also detect thirdhand smoke, or nicotine off-gassing from clothing, furniture, car seats and other material.

The device uses polymer films to reliably measure ambient nicotine vapor molecules and a sensor chip to record the real-time data, pinpointing when and where the exposure occurred and even the number of cigarettes smoked. The prototype proved successful in lab tests. Clinical studies will start this summer.

Such a device could help to enforce smoking bans in rental cars, hotel rooms, apartment buildings, restaurants and other places. It also could help convince smokers that smoking in other rooms, out of windows and using air fresheners still exposes children and other nonsmokers to secondhand smoke. The device would be more accurate and less expensive than current secondhand smoke sensors, which provide only an average exposure in a limited area over several days or weeks. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Difficulty in Recognizing Faces in Autism Linked to Group of Neurons

March 18th 2013

Autistic child

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) have discovered a brain anomaly that explains why some people diagnosed with autism cannot easily recognize faces — a deficit linked to the impairments in social interactions considered to be the hallmark of the disorder.

They also say that the novel neuroimaging analysis technique they developed to arrive at this finding is likely to help link behavioral deficits to differences at the neural level in a range of neurological disorders. The scientists say that in the brains of many individuals with autism, neurons in the brain area that processes faces (the fusiform face area, or FFA) are too broadly "tuned" to finely discriminate between facial features of different people. They made this discovery using a form of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that scans output from the blueberry-sized FFA, located behind the right ear. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NSF-funded Telescopes Discover Bursts of Star Formation in the Early Universe

March 16th 2013

Ancient Stars

Distant, dust-filled galaxies were bursting with newborn stars much earlier in cosmic history than previously thought, according to newly published research. So-called "starburst galaxies" produce stars at the equivalent of a thousand new suns per year. Now, astronomers have found starbursts that were churning out stars when the universe was just a billion years old.

"I find that pretty amazing," said Joaquin Vieira, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology and leader of the study. "These aren't normal galaxies. These galaxies [reveal star formation] at an extraordinary rate, when the universe was very young. I don't think anyone expected us to find galaxies like this so early in the history of the universe."

An international team of astronomers found dozens of these galaxies with the National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded South Pole Telescope (SPT). SPT is a 10-meter dish in Antarctica that surveys the sky in millimeter-wavelength light, whose waves fall between radio waves and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum. The team then took a more detailed look using the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile's Atacama Desert, which is funded in part by NSF. ALMA is an international facility and is a partnership between North America, Europe and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. Read more ..

The Edge of Engineering

Mobile Lidar Technology Expanding Rapidly

March 15th 2013

Melting Arctic glacier by Angus Duncan

Imagine driving down a road a few times and obtaining in an hour more data about the surrounding landscape than a crew of surveyors could obtain in months.

Such is the potential of mobile LIDAR, a powerful technology that’s only a few years old and promises to change the way we see, study and record the world around us. It will be applied in transportation, hydrology, forestry, virtual tourism and construction – and almost no one knows anything about it.

That may change with a new report on the uses and current technology of mobile LIDAR, which has just been completed and presented to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. It will help more managers and experts understand, use and take advantage of this science. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Mummies Show Signs of Heart Disease

March 14th 2013

Mummy in British Museum

Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, is often described as a lifestyle disease resulting from smoking, poor diet, and a lack of exercise.

Now, a team of U.S. scientists has found new evidence that the disease has been around since long before our modern lifestyle. The researchers examined CT, or “cat” scans of 137 mummies for signs of the artery disease.

Randall Thompson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City says researchers found definite or probable evidence in about one-third of the preserved corpses. "We’ve concluded that this disease is inherent to human aging," Thompson said at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology, "and that it’s not particularly characteristic of any diet or lifestyle." The mummy of an Egyptian woman who was between 45 and 50 years old when she died, is from an unknown era and shows evidence of heart disease. Read more ..

The Edge of Evolution

Dust Mites Exhibit Evolution in Reverse

March 13th 2013

common American house mite

In evolutionary biology, there is a deeply rooted supposition that you can't go home again: Once an organism has evolved specialized traits, it can't return to the lifestyle of its ancestors.

There's even a name for this pervasive idea. Dollo's law states that evolution is unidirectional and irreversible. But this "law" is not universally accepted and is the topic of heated debate among biologists.

Now a research team led by two University of Michigan biologists has used a large-scale genetic study of the lowly house dust mite to uncover an example of reversible evolution that appears to violate Dollo's law.

The study shows that tiny free-living house dust mites, which thrive in the mattresses, sofas and carpets of even the cleanest homes, evolved from parasites, which in turn evolved from free-living organisms millions of years ago.

"All our analyses conclusively demonstrated that house dust mites have abandoned a parasitic lifestyle, secondarily becoming free-living, and then speciated in several habitats, including human habitations," according to Pavel Klimov and Barry OConnor of the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Their paper, "Is permanent parasitism reversible?—Critical evidence from early evolution of house dust mites," is scheduled to be published online March 8 in the journal Systematic Biology. Mites are arachnids related to spiders (both have eight legs) and are among the most diverse animals on Earth. House dust mites, members of the family Pyroglyphidae, are the most common cause of allergic symptoms in humans, affecting up to 1.2 billion people worldwide. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

iPhone Becomes Low Cost Microscope

March 13th 2013


The Apple iPhone can be used for lot of things – making calls, playing games and sending pictures, video and text. Scientists say it also can be converted into a low-cost microscope to detect worm-related infections in children.

Dr. Issac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, says with a few dollars and a little ingenuity, the "smart phone" is turning into an important medical diagnostic tool in places that often lack such techology, like rural Africa.

“I used an iPhone 4s and that’s simply because I just happen to own one, but any smart phone with a decent camera and a zoom-in function should work just fine," he said. "Then we bought a ball lens, which is about eight dollars. We just got it online. And then we used some double-sided tape to stick the ball lens to the lens of the camera on the iPhone.” Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Are Tropical Forests Resilient to Global Warming?

March 12th 2013

Amazon rainforest

Tropical forests are less likely to lose biomass – plants and plant material - in response to greenhouse gas emissions over the twenty-first century than may previously have been thought, suggests a study published online this week in Nature Geoscience.

In the most comprehensive assessment yet of the risk of tropical forest dieback due to climate change, the results have important implications for the future evolution of tropical rainforests including the role they play in the global climate system and carbon cycle.

To remain effective, programmes such as the United Nation's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation+ scheme require rainforest stability, in effect locking carbon within the trees. The research team comprised climate scientists and tropical ecologists from the UK, USA, Australia and Brazil and was led by Dr Chris Huntingford from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in the UK. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Polish Researchers Develop Air-breathing Biobatteries

March 11th 2013

Baby Boomer

Researchers from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw have constructed an air-breathing bio-battery.

The core element providing the new power source with relatively high voltage and long lifetime is a carefully designed cathode taking up oxygen from air and composed of an enzyme, carbon nanotubes and silicate.

People are increasingly taking advantage of devices supporting various functions of our bodies. Today they include cardiac pacemakers or hearing aids; tomorrow it will be contact lenses with automatically changing focal length or computer-controlled displays generating images directly in the eye. None of these devices will work if not coupled to an efficient and long-lasting Power Supply source. The best solution seems to be miniaturised biofuel cells consuming substances naturally occurring in human body or in its direct surrounding. Read more ..

Robotics Edge

Robotic 'Cheetah' Rivals its Natural Prototype in Efficiency

March 11th 2013

Robotic cheetah MIT

A 70-pound “cheetah” robot designed by MIT researchers may soon outpace its animal counterparts in running efficiency: In treadmill tests, the researchers have found that the robot — about the size and weight of an actual cheetah — wastes very little energy as it trots continuously for up to an hour and a half at 5 mph. The key to the robot’s streamlined stride: lightweight electric motors, set into its shoulders, that produce high torque with very little heat wasted.

The motors can be programmed to quickly adjust the robot’s leg stiffness and damping ratio — or cushioning — in response to outside forces such as a push, or a change in terrain. The researchers will present the efficiency results and design principles for their electric motor at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble Finds Birth Certificate of Oldest Known Star

March 9th 2013

Ancient Stars

A team of astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken an important step closer to finding the birth certificate of a star that's been around for a very long time.

"We have found that this is the oldest known star with a well-determined age," said Howard Bond of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

The star could be as old as 14.5 billion years (plus or minus 0.8 billion years), which at first glance would make it older than the universe's calculated age of about 13.8 billion years, an obvious dilemma. But earlier estimates from observations dating back to 2000 placed the star as old as 16 billion years. And this age range presented a potential dilemma for cosmologists. "Maybe the cosmology is wrong, stellar physics is wrong, or the star's distance is wrong," Bond said. "So we set out to refine the distance."

The new Hubble age estimates reduce the range of measurement uncertainty, so that the star's age overlaps with the universe's age — as independently determined by the rate of expansion of space, an analysis of the microwave background from the big bang, and measurements of radioactive decay. Read more ..

India on Edge

Mars Mission Marks Milestone in India's Space Program

March 7th 2013


India’s ambitious plan to send a spacecraft to Mars later this year marks a major milestone in its space program. The mission is a bid by India to catch up in the global space race and join the league of major space-faring nations.

The unmanned, Indian spacecraft will be launched around November, when the red planet is closest to earth. It will take nine months to reach Mars' orbit.

An official at the Indian Space Research Organization, Deviprasad Karnik, says the Mars Orbiter mission will be equipped with a methane sensor and look for signs of past life. "The presence of methane on the surface of Mars will give us an indication of probability of life existence either from biological or zoological source," said Karnik. Read more ..

Ancient America

Ancient Americans Ate Corn 5,000 Years ago

March 6th 2013

ancient maize Indian corn

For decades, archaeologists have struggled with understanding the emergence of a distinct South American civilization during the Late Archaic period (3000-1800 B.C.) in Peru. One of the persistent questions has been the role of agriculture and particularly corn (maize) in the evolution of complex, centralized societies. Up until now, the prevailing theory was that marine resources, not agriculture and corn, provided the economic engine behind the development of civilization in the Andean region of Peru.

Now, breakthrough research led by Field Museum curator Dr. Jonathan Haas is providing new resolution to the issue by looking at microscopic evidence found in soil, on stone tools, and in coprolites from ancient sites and dated with over 200 Carbon-14 dates. Read more ..

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

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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

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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 ..

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