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The Edge of Space

A Ghostly Green Bubble

April 13th 2013

Dumbbell Nebula

Stars the size of the Sun end their lives as tiny and faint white dwarf stars. But as they make the final transition into retirement their atmospheres are blown away into space. For a few tens of thousands of years they are surrounded by the spectacular and colourful glowing clouds of ionised gas known as planetary nebulae.

This new image from the VLT shows the planetary nebula IC 1295, which lies in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield). It has the unusual feature of being surrounded by multiple shells that make it resemble a micro-organism seen under a microscope, with many layers corresponding to the membranes of a cell.

These bubbles are made out of gas that used to be the star's atmosphere. This gas has been expelled by unstable fusion reactions in the star's core that generated sudden releases of energy, like huge thermonuclear belches. The gas is bathed in strong ultraviolet radiation from the aging star, which makes the gas glow. Different chemical elements glow with different colours and the ghostly green shade that is prominent in IC 1295 comes from ionised oxygen. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

US Plans to Capture Asteroid

April 11th 2013

Phoebe from Cassini

Asteroids were a topic of discussion in the U.S. capital Wednesday as NASA's chief unveiled the space agency's proposed budget for 2014 and lawmakers discussed space threats at a hearing on Capitol Hill. The proposed fiscal year 2014 budget for the U.S. space agency remains largely steady at $17.7 billion.  

NASA chief Charlie Bolden says the space agency remains on track to meet President Barack Obama's challenge to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.  Bolden highlighted a new, related mission in a teleconference Wednesday afternoon.

"NASA is using game-changing technologies advanced by the administration to develop a first-ever mission to identify, capture and retrieve an asteroid.  This mission raises the bar for human exploration and discovery, helps us protect our home planet and brings us closer to a human mission to an asteroid," Bolden said. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Redesigned Material Could Lead to Lighter, Faster Electronics

April 10th 2013


The same material that formed the first primitive transistors more than 60 years ago can be modified in a new way to advance future electronics, according to a new study.

Chemists at The Ohio State University have developed the technology for making a one-atom-thick sheet of germanium, and found that it conducts electrons more than ten times faster than silicon and five times faster than conventional germanium.

The material’s structure is closely related to that of graphene—a much-touted two-dimensional material comprised of single layers of carbon atoms. As such, graphene shows unique properties compared to its more common multilayered counterpart, graphite.  Graphene has yet to be used commercially, but experts have suggested that it could one day form faster computer chips, and maybe even function as a superconductor, so many labs are working to develop it. Read more ..

Edge of Space

What Remains of Martian Atmosphere is Dynamic

April 9th 2013

Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere, but what's left remains active, according to recent findings from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity that involve a University of Michigan researcher.

Rover team members reported diverse findings today at the European Geosciences Union 2013 General Assembly, in Vienna, Austria. Evidence has strengthened this month that Mars lost much of its original atmosphere by a process of gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere.

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.


Edge of Space

Discovery of 'Green Pea Galaxies' Confirms Reionization Theories

April 9th 2013

Green pea galaxies space

The rare Green Pea galaxies discovered by the general public in 2007 could help confirm astronomers' understanding of reionization, a pivotal stage in the evolution of the early universe, say University of Michigan researchers.

Reionization occurred a few hundred million years after the Big Bang as the first stars were turning on and forming the first galaxies. During this period, the space between the galaxies changed from an opaque, neutral fog to a transparent charged plasma, as it is today. Plasma is gas that's electrically charged.

As for how this happened, the prevailing theory holds that massive stars in the early galaxies produced an abundance of high-energy ultraviolet light that escaped into intergalactic space. There, the UV light interacted with the neutral hydrogen gas it met, blasting electrons off the hydrogen atoms and leaving behind a plasma of negatively charged electrons and positively charged hydrogen ions. Read more ..

Edge of Medicine

Building Human Blood Vessels Advances Manufacture of Replacement Organs

April 8th 2013

One of the major obstacles to growing new organs—replacement hearts, lungs and kidneys—is the difficulty researchers face in building blood vessels that keep the tissues alive, but new findings from the University of Michigan could help overcome this roadblock.

"It's not just enough to make a piece of tissue that functions like your desired target," said Andrew Putnam, U-M associate professor of biomedical engineering. "If you don't nourish it with blood by vascularizing it, it's only going to be as big as the head of a pen. "But we need a heart that's this big," he added, holding up his fist.

Engineered blood vessels built with lung fibroblasts as supporting structure cells were leaky, as this image depicts. Red represents the tracer dye the researchers injected into the bloodstream of mice. The tracer dye does is not contained in vessels. The researchers captured this image 14 days after the experiment began.  Read more ..

The Prehistoric Edge

Power Behind Primordial Soup Discovered

April 7th 2013


Researchers at the University of Leeds may have solved a key puzzle about how objects from space could have kindled life on Earth.

While it is generally accepted that some important ingredients for life came from meteorites bombarding the early Earth, scientists have not been able to explain how that inanimate rock transformed into the building blocks of life.

This new study shows how a chemical, similar to one now found in all living cells and vital for generating the energy that makes something alive, could have been created when meteorites containing phosphorus minerals landed in hot, acidic pools of liquids around volcanoes, which were likely to have been common across the early Earth.

"The mystery of how living organisms sprung out of lifeless rock has long puzzled scientists, but we think that the unusual phosphorus chemicals we found could be a precursor to the batteries that now power all life on Earth. But the fact that it developed simply, in conditions similar to the early Earth, suggests this could be the missing link between geology and biology," said Dr Terry Kee, from the University's School of Chemistry, who led the research. Read more ..

Ancient Days

New Clues in the Search for the Mysterious 'Maya Blue' Formula

April 3rd 2013

Mayan mural at Bonampak

The recipe and process for preparing Maya Blue, a highly-resistant pigment used for centuries in Mesoamerica, were lost. We know that the ingredients are a plant dye, indigo, and a type of clay known as palygorskite, but scientists do not know how they were 'cooked' and combined together. Now, a team of chemists from the University of Valencia and the Polythecnic University of Valencia  (Spain) have come up with a new hypothesis about how it was prepared.

Palace walls, sculptures, codices and pieces of pottery produced by the ancient Maya incorporate the enigmatic Maya Blue. This pigment, which was also used by other Mesoamerican cultures, is characterised by its intense blue colour but, above all, by the fact that it is highly resistant to chemical and biological deterioration. Indeed, it was used centuries ago and when it is analysed now it appears virtually unchangeable. Read more ..

The Healthy Edge

Risk of Prostate Cancer Higher in Men with Inherited Genetic Condition

April 3rd 2013

Click to select Image

Men with an inherited genetic condition called Lynch syndrome face a higher lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer and appear to develop the disease at an earlier age, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Lynch syndrome is an inherited condition linked to a higher risk of several types of cancer. People with Lynch syndrome have up to 80 percent lifetime risk of colorectal cancer and are also more likely to develop endometrial, gastric, ovarian, urinary tract, pancreatic and brain tumors. Overall, about 1 in 440 people are carriers for the genetic mutation, making it one of the most common inherited cancer conditions.

The findings in prostate cancer have implications for screening younger men who may be at higher risk of the disease. Recent guideline recommendations advise against prostate cancer screening in men younger than 75 who do not have any symptoms. Read more ..

Edge of Cellular Biology

Adult Stem Cells Grow Human Bone

April 3rd 2013

Preparations are underway for the first known human trial to use embryonic-like stem cells collected from adult cells to grow bone.

The cells technology, called VSEL stem cells, or very small embryonic-like stem cells, are derived from adults—not fetuses. This eliminates ethical arguments and potential side effects associated with using actual embryonic stem cells derived from a fetus, say researchers at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and New York-based NeoStem Inc.

The research partners hypothesize that the VSEL stem cells, which mimic properties of embryonic stem cells, can provide a minimally invasive way to speed painful bone regeneration for dental patients and others with bone trauma.

U-M's role in the study involves design, patient care and data analysis, while NeoStem provides the cells and patented technology to purify the special stem cells. Study leaders include Russell Taichman, U-M professor of dentistry; Laurie McCauley, professor and newly named dean of the U-M Dental School; and Denis Rodgerson, director of grants and academic liaisons for NeoStem. Read more ..

The Race for Energy

A Shift in Thinking on Regional Energy Use in Northern States

April 3rd 2013

Much has been made of the increasing energy demands of the warmest regions of the U.S., but cooling down actually requires less energy than heating up, says a University of Michigan researcher. "The traditional discussion of climatology and energy demand concentrates on the energy demands for cooling in hot climates," said Michael Sivak, research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute. "However, the focus should be paid to the opposite end of the scale, as well. In the U.S., living in Buffalo, Chicago and Milwaukee is more energy-demanding, and thus less sustainable from this point of view, than living in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Tampa."

In a new study comparing climate control in Miami (the warmest large metropolitan area in the U.S.) and Minneapolis (the coldest), Sivak found that heating the Twin Cities area is about three-and-a-half times more energy-demanding than cooling Florida's largest urban area. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

New Forests Store Substantial Carbon to Offset Climate Change

April 2nd 2013

Click to select Image

Surface appearances can be so misleading: In most forests, the amount of carbon held in soils is substantially greater than the amount contained in the trees themselves. If you're a land manager trying to assess the potential of forests to offset carbon emissions and climate change by soaking up atmospheric carbon and storing it, what's going on beneath the surface is critical. But while scientists can precisely measure and predict the amount of above-ground carbon accumulating in a forest, the details of soil-carbon accounting have been a bit fuzzy.

Two University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues helped to plug that knowledge gap by analyzing changes in soil carbon that occurred when trees became established on different types of nonforested soils across the United States. In a paper published online in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, they looked at lands previously used for surface mining and other industrial processes, former agricultural lands and native grasslands where forests have encroached. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

A Greener Arctic is Upon Us

April 2nd 2013


New research predicts that rising temperatures will lead to a massive “greening,” or increase in plant cover, in the Arctic. In a paper published on March 31 in Nature Climate Change, scientists reveal new models projecting that wooded areas in the Arctic could increase by as much as 50 percent over the next few decades. The researchers also show that this dramatic greening will accelerate climate warming at a rate greater than previously expected.

“Such widespread redistribution of Arctic vegetation would have impacts that reverberate through the global ecosystem,” said Richard Pearson, lead author on the paper and a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Plant growth in arctic ecosystems has increased over the past few decades, a trend that is coincident with increases in temperatures, which are rising at about twice the global rate. Read more ..

The Edge of the Universe

Planck's Child Universe

April 1st 2013

30 doradus stellar nursery

"We are very excited, we are finally seeing the concrete results of so many years of hard work". This is how the scientists of the Planck project have commented the first data resulting from the observations carried out by Planck. The mission of the ESA satellite is to observe the past of our Universe, going back in time and reaching the very first instant right after the Big Bang. The image that the Planck scientists convey today is that of a 'child' Universe, dating back to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when its temperature was similar to that of the most external layer of a star today.

The Planck satellite, the result of the collaboration of several European aerospace agencies including the Italian one (ASI), was launched in May 2009. From that moment onwards it has been endlessly observing the Universe's fossil radiation. In Trieste scientists have analyzed data delivered by the LFI (Low Frequency Instrument), the instrument that detects the radiation within the 30 to 70 GHz interval. The Trieste team, which comprises SISSA and INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico, with the collaboration of Università di Trieste, has contributed to the drafting of about thirty papers that were published today, 21 march 2013, in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. Read more ..

The Earth on Edge

Evidence Ancient Asteroid Caused Global Firestorm

March 31st 2013

Phoebe from Cassini

A new look at conditions after a Manhattan-sized asteroid slammed into a region of Mexico in the dinosaur days indicates the event could have triggered a global firestorm that would have burned every twig, bush and tree on Earth and led to the extinction of 80 percent of all Earth's species, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

Led by Douglas Robertson of  CIRES, the team used models that show the collision would have vaporized huge amounts of rock that were then blown high above Earth's atmosphere. The re-entering ejected material would have heated the upper atmosphere enough to glow red for several hours at roughly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit -- about the temperature of an oven broiler element -- killing every living thing not sheltered underground or underwater.

The CU-led team developed an alternate explanation for the fact that there is little charcoal found at the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, boundary some 66 million years ago when the asteroid struck Earth and the cataclysmic fires are believed to have occurred. The CU researchers found that similar studies had corrected their data for changing sedimentation rates. When the charcoal data were corrected for the same changing sedimentation rates they show an excess of charcoal, not a deficiency, Robertson said. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

A Low-Power 60 GHz Radio Frequency Chip for Mobile Devices

March 30th 2013

Computer chips

As the capacity of handheld devices increases to accommodate a greater number of functions, these devices have more memory, larger display screens, and the ability to play higher definition video files. If the users of mobile devices, including smartphones, tablet PCs, and notebooks, want to share or transfer data on one device with that of another device, a great deal of time and effort are needed.

As a possible method for the speedy transmission of large data, researchers are studying the adoption of gigabits per second (Gbps) wireless communications operating over the 60 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band. Some commercial approaches have been introduced for full-HD video streaming from a fixed source to a display by using the 60 GHz band. But mobile applications have not been developed yet because the 60 GHz radio frequency (RF) circuit consumes hundreds of milliwatts (mW) of DC power. Read more ..

Edge of the Universe

Does the Higgs Boson Spell Doom for the Universe

March 29th 2013

protoplanetary disk

An article in the Scientific American speculates that what we now know about the so-called "God Particle" may spell doom for the universe as we know it.

The article states: "Physicists recently confirmed that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, had indeed found a Higgs boson last July, marking a culmination of one of the longest and most expensive searches in science. The finding also means that our universe could be doomed to fall apart. "If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it is bad news," says Joseph Lykken, a theorist who works at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. "It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable."

The Higgs boson helps explain why particles have the mass they do. The Higgs particle that the LHC has found possesses a mass of approximately 126 giga-electron volts (GeV)—roughly the combined mass of 126 protons (hydrogen nuclei). (One GeV equals a billion electron volts.)" Read more ..

The Healthcare Edge

Mobile App Helps Alzheimer’s Caregivers

March 27th 2013


Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be stressful.  Patients with the degenerative brain condition have a host of medical needs that can require the services of numerous health care professionals.  Even for the most organized caregiver, keeping track of all that medical information can be a challenge.  Now a new piece of mobile software provides a helping hand. 

Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, is generally a condition of old age.  Since people are living longer all over the world, the number of Alzheimer’s parents and grandparents in their 70s, 80s and 90s is expected to triple in some countries by the middle of the century.

Increasingly, family members are being called upon to assist in the care of loved ones with Alzheimer's, a complex and difficult task that many people find themselves unprepared for.  That is why the Hebrew Home, a privately-run geriatric care organization in Riverdale, New York, developed a new iPhone and iPad application called Balance. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Paint-On Plastic Electronics Show Promise

March 26th 2013

Click to select Image

Semiconducting polymers are an unruly bunch, but University of Michigan engineers have developed a new method for getting them in line that could pave the way for cheaper, greener, "paint-on" plastic electronics. "This is for the first time a thin-layer, conducting, highly aligned film for high-performance, paintable, directly writeable plastic electronics," said Jinsang Kim, U-M professor of materials science and engineering, who led the research published in Nature Materials.

Semiconductors are the key ingredient for computer processors, solar cells and LED displays, but they are expensive. Inorganic semiconductors like silicon require high temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and costly vacuum systems for processing into electronics, but organic and plastic semiconductors can be prepared on a basic lab bench.

The trouble is that charge carriers, like electrons, can't move through plastics nearly as easily as they can move through inorganic semiconductors, Kim said. Part of the reason for this is because each semiconducting polymer molecule is like a short wire, and these wires are randomly arranged. Read more ..

The Healthy Edge

Common Test Over-Estimates Mercury Exposure in Dental Fillings

March 26th 2013

teeth tooth filling

A common test used to determine mercury exposure from dental amalgam fillings may significantly overestimate the amount of the toxic metal released from fillings, according to University of Michigan researchers.

Scientists agree that dental amalgam fillings slowly release mercury vapor into the mouth. But both the amount of mercury released and the question of whether this exposure presents a significant health risk remain controversial.

Public health studies often make the assumption that mercury in urine (which is composed mostly of inorganic mercury) can be used to estimate exposure to mercury vapor from amalgam fillings. These same studies often use mercury in hair (which is composed mostly of organic mercury) to estimate exposure to organic mercury from a person's diet. Read more ..

The Edge of the Universe

Planck Challenges our Understanding of the Universe

March 25th 2013

Ancient Stars

Europe’s Planck satellite - a flagship mission for the UK Space Agency - has compiled the most detailed map ever created of the cosmic microwave background (the relic radiation from the Big Bang). The new map refines our understanding of the Universe’s composition and evolution, and unveils new features that could challenge the foundations of our current understanding of its evolution.

The image is based on the initial 15.5 months of data from Planck and is the mission’s first all-sky picture of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when it was just 380 000 years old. This cosmic microwave background (CMB) shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities at very early times, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today. Overall, the information extracted from Planck’s new map provides an excellent confirmation of the standard model of cosmology at an unprecedented accuracy, setting a new benchmark for our knowledge of the contents of the Universe. Read more ..

The Edge of Life

A Cell on a Chip Reveals Protein Behavior

March 24th 2013

Test Tubes

For years, scientists around the world have dreamed of building a complete, functional, artificial cell.

Though this vision is still a distant blur on the horizon, many are making progress on various fronts. Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv and his research team in the Weizmann Institute’s Materials and Interfaces Department recently took a significant step in this direction when they created a two-dimensional, cell-like system on a glass chip. This system, composed of some of the basic biological molecules found in cells – DNA, RNA, proteins – carried out one of the central functions of a living cell: gene expression, the process by which the information stored in the genes is translated into proteins. More than that, it enabled the scientists, led by research student Yael Heyman, to obtain “snapshots” of this process in nanoscale resolution. The system, consisting of glass chips that are only eight nanometers thick, is based on an earlier one designed in Bar-Ziv’s lab by Dr. Shirley Daube and former student Dr. Amnon Buxboim. Read more ..

The Geologic Edge

Huge and Widespread Volcanic Eruptions Triggered the End-Triassic-Extinction

March 23rd 2013

Palisades on Hudson, Alpine NJ

More than 200 million years ago, a massive extinction decimated 76 percent of marine and terrestrial species, marking the end of the Triassic period and the onset of the Jurassic. This devastating event cleared the way for dinosaurs to dominate Earth for the next 135 million years, taking over ecological niches formerly occupied by other marine and terrestrial species. It’s not entirely clear what caused the end-Triassic extinction, although most scientists agree on a likely scenario: Over a relatively short period of time, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane. This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere may have created intense global warming and acidification of the oceans that ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species. Read more ..

The Animal Edge

Predators, People, and Livestock Can Get Along

March 23rd 2013

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In the southern Rift Valley of Kenya, the Maasai people, their livestock and a range of carnivores – from hyenas to lions and bat-eared foxes – are coexisting fairly happily, according to a visiting scholar at Michigan State University.

“I wouldn’t call the results surprising,” said Meredith Evans Wagner, a visiting scholar from the University of Florida in MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and part of the research team. “Other research has shown that people and carnivores can coexist, but there is a large body of thought that believes carnivores need their own protected space to survive.”

The paper, published in Biological Conservation, echoed results of a recent study by Jianguo “Jack” Liu, director of MSU’s CSIS, and Neil Carter, MSU doctoral student, that found that tigers and people share the same space in Chitwan National Park in Nepal, albeit at different times. Read more ..

Obama and Israel

Israel's High-Tech Pipeline to America

March 22nd 2013

Eyeball Surveillance

Why did President Obama visit Israel this week, on the first foreign trip of his second term? The U.S. and Israel share democratic values, of course, and there were pressing issues to discuss publicly and privately, including peace with the Palestinians, the civil war in Syria, and Iran's march to nuclear-weapons capability. But there is an additional consideration that is too rarely emphasized: Israel is helping the U.S. meet the economic, environmental and non-military security challenges of the future.

Cyber security -- which the Pentagon now says could pose a strategic threat to U.S. infrastructure -- is a case in point. Israeli systems secure a significant and growing proportion of U.S. telecommunications, financial transactions, utility and other essential computer-dependent operations. Last year, Cisco paid $5 billion to acquire the Israeli-founded firm NDS, one of the top providers of encryption technology for television and video. Read more ..

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 ..

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