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The Race for Alt Energy

New Material Harvests Energy from Water Vapor

January 9th 2013

Polymer Film

MIT engineers have created a new polymer film that can generate electricity by drawing on a ubiquitous source: water vapor.

The new material changes its shape after absorbing tiny amounts of evaporated water, allowing it to repeatedly curl up and down. Harnessing this continuous motion could drive robotic limbs or generate enough electricity to power micro- and nanoelectronic devices, such as environmental sensors.

"With a sensor powered by a battery, you have to replace it periodically. If you have this device, you can harvest energy from the environment so you don't have to replace it very often," says Mingming Ma, a postdoc at MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. "We are very excited about this new material, and we expect as we achieve higher efficiency in converting mechanical energy into electricity, this material will find even broader applications," says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. Those potential applications include large-scale, water-vapor-powered generators, or smaller generators to power wearable electronics. Read more ..

The Race for Waste to Energy

Thermo-Electric Material Shows Promise for Capturing Energy from Waste Heat

January 8th 2013

Click to select Image

Researchers in the Center for Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion at Michigan State University —an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy—are developing a thermoelectric material based on natural mineral tetrahedrites. Their work was recently published in Advanced Energy Materials. The researchers, led by Donald Morelli, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, developed the material based on natural minerals known as tetrahedrites.

“What we’ve managed to do is synthesize some compounds that have the same composition as natural minerals,” said Morelli, who also directs MSU’s Center for Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion. “The mineral family that they mimic is one of the most abundant minerals of this type on Earth – tetrahedrites. “By modifying its composition in a very small way, we produced highly efficient thermoelectric materials.” Read more ..

Edge of Science

Key Substance Essential to Blood-Clotting Discovered

January 8th 2013

In 2006, the lab of Dr. David Ginsburg at the Life Sciences Institute put a call out for siblings attending the University of Michigan to donate blood for a study of blood-clotting disorders. The samples were collected over three years and have now enabled the researchers to identify the specific parts of the genome responsible for levels of a key substance for blood clotting. The findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Von Willebrand disease is the most common hereditary blood-clotting disorder—it's more common, but usually milder, than hemophilia. The disease is caused by lower-than-normal levels of von Willebrand factor, a substance that circulates in blood and serves as the "glue" to help blood platelets stick where they're needed to stop bleeding. Read more ..

Edge of Health

Low-Level Electric Shocks Release Opiate-Like Relief for Pain Sufferers

January 8th 2013

Boy in pain

Researchers used electricity on certain regions in the brain of a patient with chronic, severe facial pain to release an opiate-like substance that's considered one of the body's most powerful painkillers.

The findings expand on previous work done at the University of Michigan, Harvard University and the City University of New York where researchers delivered electricity through sensors on the skulls of chronic migraine patients, and found a decrease in the intensity and pain of their headache attacks. However, the researchers then couldn't completely explain how or why. The current findings help explain what happens in the brain that decreases pain during the brief sessions of electricity, says Alexandre DaSilva, the senior researcher in the study from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Other study authors include DaSilva's PhD student, Marcos DosSantos, and also Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta from the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute.

In their current study, DaSilva and colleagues intravenously administered a radiotracer that reached important brain areas in a patient with trigeminal neuropathic pain (TNP), a type of chronic, severe facial pain. They applied the electrodes and electrically stimulated the skull right above the motor cortex of the patient for 20 minutes during a PET scan (positron emission tomography). The stimulation is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Change a Top Global Risk

January 8th 2013

Glacier calving

Climate change ranked among the top global risks in the annual World Economic Forum survey of more than 1,000 experts released Tuesday. The group, most associated with its yearly conference in Davos, Switzerland, said leaving environmental issues unaddressed compounded with global economic stress could handcuff policymakers.

“A sudden and massive collapse on one front is certain to doom the other’s chance of developing an effective, long-term solution,” the report said of the interplay between the global environment and economy.

That diagnosis underscores several tension points in the United States, where GOP lawmakers are pressing for increased domestic energy production despite concerns from green groups about environmental impacts. Industry groups and Republican lawmakers are trying to push President Obama to expand fossil fuel drilling, saying increased exploration would engender an economic recovery. They also have fought several administration emissions rules, calling them economically burdensome. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Sophisticated Irrigation Technology Discovered at Ancient Petra

January 7th 2013

Petra irrigation Syria

A team of international archaeologists including Christian Cloke of the University of Cincinnati is providing new insights into successful and extensive water management and agricultural production in and around the ancient desert city of Petra, located in present-day Jordan. Ongoing investigations, of which Cloke is a part, are led by Professor Susan Alcock of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP).

Using a variety of tools and techniques, including high-resolution satellite imagery and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of soils, Cloke, a doctoral student in the Department of Classics at UC, and Cecelia Feldman, classics lecturer at UMass-Amherst, have suggested that extensive terrace farming and dam construction in the region north of the city began around the first century, some 2,000 years ago, not during the Iron Age (c. 1200-300 BC) as had been previously hypothesized. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Satellite’s Space Trip Ends After 30 Years

January 6th 2013

RBSPs deploy solar panels

The longest operating Earth-observing satellite is about to be decommissioned by the US Geological Survey. The USGS has begun the task of lowering Landsat-5 from its operational orbit. The first series of maneuvers in that effort is likely to take place within the next month. Landsat-5 was the fifth of seven satellites launched as part of the Landsat program, which has been acquiring satellite imagery of Earth since 1972.

Launched from California on March 1, 1984, Landsat-5 has circled Earth more than 150,000 times. According to the USGS, which helps manage the mission, the satellite has been an extraordinary success, providing valuable contributions to the global record of land change. Its original mission was only supposed to last three years, but Landsat-5 continued to deliver imagery and data for more than 25 more years beyond that. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Milky Way Could Contain 100 Billion Planets

January 6th 2013

protoplanetary disk

It seems like hardly a week goes by without another planet being discovered in some far off stellar system, but a new study, released by the California Institute of Technology, indicates there will likely be many, many more such discoveries.
The Caltech team made this conclusion based on analyzing the planets orbiting the Kepler-32 star, which contains five planets and which the scientists say is representative of the vast majority of stars in our galaxy. Kepler-32 is classified as an M dwarf, and scientists say three out of every four stars in the galaxy are M dwarfs, also known as red dwarfs. "There's at least 100 billion planets in the galaxy—just our galaxy," says John Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech and coauthor of the study, which was recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. "That's mind-boggling."

The Edge of Space

Supersonic Outflows Contain a Million Times the Energy of an Exploding Star

January 5th 2013

galactic magnetic

The outflows were detected by astronomers from Australia, the USA, Italy and The Netherlands. They report their finding in today’s issue of Nature. “These outflows contain an extraordinary amount of energy — about a million times the energy of an exploding star,” said the research team’s leader, CSIRO’s Dr Ettore Carretti.

But the outflows pose no danger to Earth or the Solar System. The speed of the outflow is supersonic, about 1000 kilometers a second. “That’s fast, even for astronomers,” Dr Carretti said.

“They are not coming in our direction, but go up and down from the Galactic Plane. We are 30,000 light-years away from the Galactic Center, in the Plane. They are no danger to us.” From top to bottom the outflows extend 50,000 light-years (five hundred thousand million million kilometers) out of the Galactic Plane. That’s equal to half the diameter of our Galaxy (which is 100,000 light-years — a million million million kilometers — across). Seen from Earth, the outflows stretch about two-thirds across the sky from horizon to horizon.

The outflows correspond to a “haze” of microwave emission previously spotted by the WMAP and Planck space telescopes and regions of gamma-ray emission detected with NASA’s Fermi space telescope in 2010, which were dubbed the “Fermi Bubbles”. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Robotic Vaporizers Fight Hospital-Borne Infections

January 4th 2013


It's a growing problem for hospitals around the world: strains of deadly, drug-resistant bacteria contaminating operating and recovery rooms. To combat this serious threat to patient health, two dozen U.S. hospitals are now using robotic, hydrogen-peroxide vaporizers to sanitize rooms where infected patients have stayed. A new study finds that use of the vaporizers' germ-killing mist has significantly lowered the number of hospital-borne infections.

Hospitals can be a haven for many types of dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The microbes can survive on hard surfaces long after an infected patient has been discharged. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Galactic Geysers Duelled by Star Stuff

January 3rd 2013

Artist’s conception a white dwarf and companion

Enormous outflows of charged particles from the centre of our Galaxy, stretching more than halfway across the sky and moving at supersonic speeds, have been detected and mapped with CSIRO’s 64-m Parkes radio telescope.

Corresponding to the “Fermi Bubbles” found in 2010, the recent observations of the phenomenon were made by a team of astronomers from Australia, the USA, Italy and The Netherlands, with the findings reported in today’s issue of Nature.

“There is an incredible amount of energy in the outflows,” said co-author Professor Lister-Staveley-Smith from The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). “The source of the energy has been somewhat of a mystery, but we know there is a lot there, about a million times as much energy as a supernova explosion (a dying star).”  Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Growing Human Organs in Labs is Coming Soon

January 2nd 2013

Research and Development Chemistry

In the 1970s and 1980s, tissue engineers began working on growing replacement organs for transplantation into patients. While scientists are still targeting that goal, much of the tissue engineering research at MIT is also focused on creating tissue that can be used in the lab to model human disease and test potential new drugs.

This kind of disease modeling could have a great impact in the near term, says MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia, who is developing liver tissue to study hepatitis C and malaria infection.

Like other human tissues, liver is difficult to grow outside the human body because cells tend to lose their function when they lose contact with neighboring cells. “The challenge is to grow the cells outside the body while maintaining their function after being removed from their usual microenvironment,” says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

How To Regulate Geo-Engineering Efforts To Fight Climate Change

January 2nd 2013


With policymakers and political leaders increasingly unable to combat global climate change, more scientists are considering the use of manual manipulation of the environment to slow warming’s damage to the planet.

But a University of Iowa law professor believes the legal ramifications of this kind of geo-engineering need to be thought through in advance and a global governance structure put in place soon to oversee these efforts.

“Geo-engineering is a global concern that will have climate and weather impacts in all countries, and it is virtually inevitable that some group of people will be harmed in the process,” says Jon Carlson, professor of law at the UI College of Law. “The international community must act now to take charge of this activity to ensure that it is studied and deployed with full attention to the rights and interests of everyone on the planet.”


The Edge of Health

New Spectroscopic Diagnosis Distinguishes Benign from Cancerous Breast Tumors

January 1st 2013

Click to select Image

Tiny calcium deposits can be a telltale sign of breast cancer. However, in the majority of cases these microcalcifications signal a benign condition. A new diagnostic procedure developed at MIT and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) could help doctors more accurately distinguish between cancerous and noncancerous cases.

When microcalcifications are spotted through mammography, doctors perform a follow-up biopsy to remove the suspicious tissue and test it for cancer. In 15 to 25 percent of cases, however, they are unable to retrieve the tissue that contains the calcium deposits, leading to an inconclusive diagnosis. The patient then has to undergo a much more invasive surgical procedure. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Fat Influences Decisions Taken By Brain Cells For Production And Survival

January 1st 2013

Baby Boomer

Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have identified two molecules that play an important role in the survival and production of nerve cells in the brain, including nerve cells that produce dopamine. The discovery, which is published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, may be significant in the long term for the treatment of several diseases, such as Parkinson's disease. The same scientists have previously shown that receptors known as "liver X receptors" or LXR, are necessary for the production of different types of nerve cells, or neurons, in the developing ventral midbrain. One these types, the midbrain dopamine-producing neurons play an important role in a number of diseases, such as Parkinson's disease.

What was not known, however, was which molecules stimulate LXR in the midbrain, such that the production of new nerve cells could be initiated. The scientists have used mass spectrometry and systematic experiments on zebrafish and mice to identify two molecules that bind to LXR and activate it. These two molecules are named cholic acid and 24,25-EC, and are bile acid and a derivate of cholesterol, respectively. Read more ..

The Edge of Autism

Neuroscientists Find Excessive Protein Synthesis Linked To Autistic-Like Behaviors

December 31st 2012

Autistic child

Autistic-like behaviors can be partially remedied by normalizing excessive levels of protein synthesis in the brain, a team of researchers has found in a study of laboratory mice. The findings, which appear in the latest issue of Nature, provide a pathway to the creation of pharmaceuticals aimed at treating autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that are associated with diminished social interaction skills, impaired communication ability, and repetitive behaviors.

"The creation of a drug to address ASD will be difficult, but these findings offer a potential route to get there," said Eric Klann, a professor at NYU's Center for Neural Science and the study's senior author. "We have not only confirmed a common link for several such disorders, but also have raised the exciting possibility that the behavioral afflictions of those individuals with ASD can be addressed." Read more ..

Ancient Times

Starvation Ended the Reign of Californian Sabretooth Cats

December 31st 2012

Sabretooth cats, PLos One

When prey is scarce, large carnivores may gnaw prey to the bone, wearing their teeth down in the process. A new analysis of the teeth of saber-toothed cats and American lions reveals that they did not resort to this behavior just before extinction, suggesting that lack of prey was probably not the main reason these large cats became extinct. The results, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University and colleagues, compares tooth wear patterns from the fossil cats that roamed California 12,000 to 30,000 years ago.

The saber-toothed cat and American lion were among the largest terrestrial carnivores that lived during their time, and went extinct along with other large animals approximately 12,000 years ago. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Why Some Grasses Evolved A More Efficient Photosynthesis And Others Didn't

December 30th 2012

New Mexico irrigation

Even on the evolutionary time scale of tens of millions of years there is such a thing as being in the right shape at the right time. An anatomical difference in the ability to seize the moment, according to a study led by Brown University biologists, explains why more species in one broad group, or clade, of grasses evolved a more efficient means of photosynthesis than species in another clade did.

Their findings appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biologists refer to the grasses that have evolved this better means of making their food in warm, sunny and dry conditions with the designation "C4." Grasses without that trait are labeled "C3."

What scientists had already known is that while all of the grasses in the BEP and PACMAD clades have the basic metabolic infrastructure to become C4 grasses, the species that have actually done so are entirely in the PACMAD clade. A four-nation group of scientists wondered why that disparity exists. Read more ..

The Edge of Science

Significant Scientific Breakthroughs of 2012 include Higgs Boson Particle

December 29th 2012

Planet-forming disk Artist's conception

The observation of an elusive sub-atomic particle, known as the Higgs boson, has been heralded by the journal Science as the most important scientific discovery of 2012. This particle, which was first hypothesized more than 40 years ago, holds the key to explaining how other elementary particles (those that aren't made up of smaller particles), such as electrons and quarks, get their mass.

In addition to recognizing the detection of this particle as the 2012 Breakthrough of the Year, Science and its international nonprofit publisher, AAAS, have identified nine other groundbreaking scientific achievements from the past year and compiled them into a top 10 list that will appear in the 21 December issue.

Researchers unveiled evidence of the Higgs boson on 4 July, fitting into place the last missing piece of a puzzle that physicists call the standard model of particle physics. This theory explains how particles interact via electromagnetic forces, weak nuclear forces and strong nuclear forces in order to make up matter in the universe. However, until this year, researchers could not explain how the elementary particles involved got their mass. Read more ..

Ancient America

Ancient Smokers Preferred Imported Pipes

December 29th 2012

ancient American pipe

In the early 1900s, an archaeologist, William Mills, dug up a treasure-trove of carved stone pipes that had been buried almost 2,000 years earlier. Mills was the first to dig the Native American site, called Tremper Mound, in southern Ohio. And when he inspected the pipes, he made a reasonable – but untested – assumption. The pipes looked as if they had been carved from local stone, and so he said they were. That assumption, first published in 1916, has been repeated in scientific publications to this day. But according to a new analysis, Mills was wrong.

Illinois State Archaeological Survey director Thomas Emerson and his colleagues discovered that pipestone pipes buried roughly 2,100 years ago in a mound site in southeast Ohio came from stone gathered in northern Illinois. In a new study, the first to actually test the stone pipes and pipestone from quarries across the upper Midwest, researchers conclude that those who buried the pipes in Tremper Mound got most of their pipestone – and perhaps even the finished, carved pipes – from Illinois. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Revolutionary New Air Cleaner for Pollution Wracked Europe

December 29th 2012

Smog and Pollution2

Industries across Europe are threatened with shutdown as European Union emission rules for Volatile Organic Compounds are tightened. Now an air cleaning invention from the has proven its ability to remove these compounds. And in the process they have helped a business in Danish town Aarhus improve relations to angry neighbors. Inventor, Copenhagen chemist Matthew Johnson, presented evidence for the air cleaning invention at the rcent conference "First International Education Forum on Environment and Energy Science" held in Hawaii.

In deepest secrecy the inventor Matthew Johnson from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen has been collaborating with an investor, INFUSER, in mounting and testing a revolutionary air cleaning device at the industrial plant, "Jysk Miljoerens" in Danish town Aarhus. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Private Enterprise Poised to Take Customers to the Moon and Back

December 28th 2012


The last time a human went to the moon was 40 years ago this month. Now, a private U.S. company called Golden Spike is trying to reignite interest by creating a transport system to the moon that any nation can use. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke to Golden Spike's business manager, Max Vozoff, to learn more.

RFE/RL: Your company, Golden Spike, announced earlier this month that it hopes to build a rocket system that will be able to fly two-person crews to the moon and back for a price of $1.5 billion per flight by 2020. You hope to interest nations around the world in renting your service to send their own astronauts to the moon. But which nations and to do what?

Max Vozoff: There are half-a-dozen nations that are sending robotic spacecraft to the moon in this decade alone, with orbiters and landers, and the price tags on all of those missions are right in the ballpark of what we are proposing in order to send two people to the moon. Read more ..

The Efge of Space

Space Turbulence Detected

December 27th 2012

Red Giant engulfs one of its planets

Imagine riding in an airplane as the plane is jolted back and forth by gusts of wind that you can’t prove exist but are there nonetheless. Similar turbulence exists in space, and a research team led by the University of Iowa reports to have directly measured it for the first time in the laboratory.

“Turbulence is not restricted to environments here on Earth, but also arises pervasively throughout the solar system and beyond, driving chaotic motions in the ionized gas, or plasma, that fills the universe,” says Gregory Howes, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the UI and lead author of the paper to be published Dec. 17 in the online edition of Physical Review Letters, the journal of the American Physical Society. “It is thought to play a key role in heating the atmosphere of the sun, the solar corona, to temperatures of a million degrees Celsius, nearly a thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun." Read more ..

Technology Edge

New Video Technology Makes Visible the Invisible

December 27th 2012

enhanced video technology

At this summer's Siggraph — the premier computer-graphics conference — researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) will present new software that amplifies variations in successive frames of video that are imperceptible to the naked eye.

So, for instance, the software makes it possible to actually "see" someone's pulse, as the skin reddens and pales with the flow of blood, and it can exaggerate tiny motions, making visible the vibrations of individual guitar strings or the breathing of a swaddled infant in a neonatal intensive care unit. Read more ..

The Automotive Edge

Easily Readable Dashboards Make Driving Safer

December 27th 2012

driving dashboard simulator

Typeface aficionados perceive major differences among fonts that look broadly similar to the rest of us. Now an MIT study suggests that when it comes to the typefaces used on auto dashboards, such differences might not be just an aesthetic matter, but a vital safety matter.

In recent tests, researchers with MIT’s AgeLab have found that dashboard displays using the more open and differentiated lettering found in the “humanist” family of typefaces are easier for people to read quickly than displays using the more uniform and tightly spaced letters of the “square grotesque” style. Male drivers, in particular, can process messages in humanist lettering about 10 percent faster, on average. That might not sound like a lot, but under highway conditions automobiles will cover about 50 feet in the time it takes drivers to process the less user-friendly messages. In some circumstances, that could be the difference between an accident and a near miss on the road. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Building Blood Vessels with Stem Cells

December 26th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

owing new blood vessels in the lab is a tough challenge, but a Johns Hopkins engineering team has solved a major stumbling block: how to prod stem cells to become two different types of tissue that are needed to build tiny networks of veins and arteries.

The team’s solution is detailed in an article appearing in the January 2013 print edition of the journal Cardiovascular Research. The article also was published recently in the journal’s online edition. The work is important because networks of new blood vessels, assembled in the lab for transplanting into patients, could be a boon to people whose circulatory systems have been damaged by heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

“That’s our long-term goal—to give doctors a new tool to treat patients who have problems in the pipelines that carry blood through their bodies,” said Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who led the research team. “Finding out how to steer these stem cells into becoming critical building blocks to make these blood vessel networks is an important step.” Read more ..

The Edge fo Space

How Aging Stars Manage to Still Look Young

December 25th 2012

First stars form after Big Bang

The aging of star clusters is linked more with their lifestyle than with how old they actually are, according to a new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope study coauthored by Steinn Sigurdsson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. "Our observations of star clusters have shown us that, although they all formed over ten billion years ago, some of them are still young at heart," Sigurdsson said. "We now can see how fast the clusters are racing toward their final collapse. It is as if each cluster has its own internal clock, some of which are ticking slower than others." Sigurdsson is a Penn State theorist working in collaboration with the European Research Council's Cosmic-Lab project.

Globular clusters are spherical collections of stars, tightly bound to each other by their mutual gravity. The roughly 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way contain many of our galaxy's oldest stars. These 12-to-13 billion-year-old relics of the early universe are nearly as old as the Big Bang. "Although these clusters all formed billions of years ago, we wondered whether some clusters might be aging faster or slower than others," said Francesco Ferraro of the University of Bologna in Italy, the leader of the team that made the discovery. Read more ..

The Edge of Recycling

Making Bricks from Paper Waste

December 24th 2012

Paper Stack

Researchers at the University of Jaen (Spain) have mixed waste from the paper industry with ceramic material used in the construction industry. The result is a brick that has low thermal conductivity meaning it acts as a good insulator. However, its mechanical resistance still requires improvement.

"The use of paper industry waste could bring about economic and environmental benefits as it means that material considered as waste can be reused as raw material." – This is one of the conclusions of the study developed by researchers at the Upper Polytechnic School of Linares (University of Jaen), which has been published in the 'Fuel Processing Technology' journal.

The scientists collected cellulous waste from a paper factory (recycled waste in this case) along with sludge from the purification of its waste water. In their laboratory they then mixed this material with clay used in construction and passed the mixture through a pressure and extrusion machine to obtain bricks. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Amazonian Rainforest Shows Resilience to Global Warming

December 23rd 2012

Click to select Image

A new genetic analysis has revealed that many Amazon tree species are likely to survive human-caused climate warming in the coming century, contrary to previous findings that temperature increases would cause them to die out. However, the authors of the new study warn that extreme drought and forest fires will impact Amazonia as temperatures rise, and the over-exploitation of the region's resources continues to be a major threat to its future. Conservation policy for the Amazon should remain focused on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions and preventing deforestation, they said.

The study by University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Christopher Dick and his colleagues demonstrates the surprising age of some Amazonian tree species – more than 8 million years – and thereby shows that they have survived previous periods as warm as many of the global warming scenarios forecast for the year 2100. The new study is at odds with earlier papers, based on ecological niche-modeling scenarios, which predicted tree species extinctions in response to relatively small increases in global average air temperatures. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Invisible Scalpel from Sound Converted from Light with Carbon-Nano Technology

December 23rd 2012


A carbon-nanotube-coated lens that converts light to sound can focus high-pressure sound waves to finer points than ever before. The University of Michigan engineering researchers who developed the new therapeutic ultrasound approach say it could lead to an invisible knife for noninvasive surgery.

Today's ultrasound technology enables far more than glimpses into the womb. Doctors routinely use focused sound waves to blast apart kidney stones and prostate tumors, for example. The tools work primarily by focusing sound waves tightly enough to generate heat, says Jay Guo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, mechanical engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering. Guo is a co-author of a paper on the new technique published in the current issue of Nature's journal Scientific Reports. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Looking for Gold? Follow the Ants

December 23rd 2012

Ant slaves rebel

Ant and termite nests show evidence of gold hidden deep underground in new research conducted by CSIRO. Research published in science journals PLoS ONE and Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis, found that at a test site in the West Australian goldfields termite mounds contained high concentrations of gold. This gold indicates there is a larger deposit underneath.

"We're using insects to help find new gold and other mineral deposits. These resources are becoming increasingly hard to find because much of the Australian landscape is covered by a layer of eroded material that masks what's going on deeper underground," Dr Aaron Stewart, CSIRO entomologist said.

"The insects bring up small particles that contain gold from the deposit's fingerprint, or halo, and effectively stockpile it in their mounds," Dr Stewart said.

Termites and ants burrow into this layer of material where a fingerprint of the underlying gold deposit is found, and bring traces of this fingerprint to the surface. "Our recent research has shown that small ant and termite mounds that may not look like much on the surface, are just as valuable in finding gold as the large African mounds are that stand several metres tall." Read more ..

The Genetic Edge

Most Crucial Genetic Mutations Occured within past 5,000 to 10,000 Years

December 22nd 2012

Eyeball Surveillance

A study dating the age of more than 1 million single-letter variations in the human DNA code reveals that most of these mutations are of recent origin, evolutionarily speaking. These kinds of mutations change one nucleotide – an A, C, T or G – in the DNA sequence. Over 86 percent of the harmful protein-coding mutations of this type arose in humans just during the past 5,000 to 10,000 years.

Some of the remaining mutations of this nature may have no effect on people, and a few might be beneficial, according to the project researchers. While each specific mutation is rare, the findings suggest that the human population acquired an abundance of these single-nucleotide genetic variants in a relatively short time.

"The spectrum of human diversity that exists today is vastly different than what it was only 200 to 400 generations ago," said Dr. Joshua Akey, associate professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is one of several leaders of a multi-institutional effort among evolutionary geneticists to date the first appearance of a multitude of single nucleotide variants in the human population. Read more ..

The Prehistoric Edge

The Ups and Downs of Biodiversity after Mass Extinctions

December 21st 2012

Amazon jungle dreamy

The climate after the largest mass extinction so far 252 million years ago was cool, later very warm and then cool again. Thanks to the cooler temperatures, the diversity of marine fauna ballooned, as paleontologists from the University of Zurich have reconstructed. The warmer climate, coupled with a high CO2 level in the atmosphere, initially gave rise to new, short-lived species. In the longer term, however, this climate change had an adverse effect on biodiversi-ty and caused species to become extinct.

Until now, it was always assumed that it took flora and fauna a long time to recover from the vast mass extinction at the end of the Permian geological period 252 million years ago. According to the scientific consensus, complex ecological communities only began to reappear in the Middle Triassic, so 247 million years ago. Now, how-ever, a Swiss team headed by paleontologist Hugo Bucher from the University of Zurich reveals that marine animal groups such as ammonoids and conodonts (micro-fossils) already peaked three or four million years earlier, namely still during the Ear-ly Triassic. Read more ..

Edge of Space

An Exploding Star Goes Missing

December 20th 2012

cluster of pink stars

A new study published by University of Chicago researchers challenges the notion that the force of an exploding star forced the formation of the solar system. In this study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, authors Haolan Tang and Nicolas Dauphas found the radioactive isotope iron 60 — the telltale sign of an exploding star—low in abundance and well mixed in solar system material. As cosmochemists, they look for remnants of stellar explosions in meteorites to help determine the conditions under which the solar system formed.

Some remnants are radioactive isotopes: unstable, energetic atoms that decay over time. Scientists in the past decade have found high amounts of the radioactive isotope iron 60 in early solar system materials. "If you have iron 60 in high abundance in the solar system, that's a 'smoking gun'—evidence for the presence of a supernova," said Dauphas, professor in geophysical sciences. Read more ..

The Environment Edge

Mapping the Great Lakes Reveals Environmental Challenges

December 19th 2012

Ocean scene

A comprehensive map three years in the making is telling the story of humans' impact on the Great Lakes, identifying how "environmental stressors" stretching from Minnesota to Ontario are shaping the future of an ecosystem that contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water. In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group led by researchers at the University of Michigan reports on an expansive and detailed effort to map and cross-compare environmental stresses and the ecological services provided by the five lakes.

Their efforts have produced the most comprehensive map to date of Great Lakes' stressors, and also the first map to explicitly account for all major types of stressors on the lakes in a quantitative way. "Despite clear societal dependence on the Great Lakes, their condition continues to be degraded by numerous environmental stressors," said David Allan, the project's lead researcher and a professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Commercial Space Travel Makes a Giant Leap for Mankind

December 19th 2012

Space X launch 2012

With NASA's retired shuttles mothballed in museums, 2012 saw a new kind of spacecraft blaze its own path toward the International Space Station. In May, the Dragon space capsule — developed, owned and operated by California-based SpaceX — was launched from atop a Falcon-9 rocket, becoming the first private craft to dock with the ISS.

A feat achieved by only a few governments, the docking, says SpaceX chief Elon Musk, signaled more than a mere technological breakthrough. "This was a crucial step," Musk said of the unmanned mission that was completed in conjunction with NASA. "It makes the things in the future, and the ultimate path toward humanity becoming a multi-planet species, much, much more likely." Designed to carry cargo or crew, the Dragon capsule is slated for a manned test within three years. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

When You Cut Down a Tree in the Woods, do the Animals Hear it?

December 18th 2012

Autumn leaves forest

A new tool developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its partners is being used by scientists and land managers to model how noise travels through landscapes and affects species and ecosystems— a major factor in land and wildlife management decisions such as where to locate new roads or recreational trails.

The tool, SPreAD-GIS, uses spatial data layers to predict how sound spreads from a source through the surrounding landscape and how it is affected by such factors as vegetation, terrain, weather conditions, and background sound levels. By determining how sound propagates, potential impacts to wildlife can be forecasted. Such impacts can include reducing habitat quality, altering the geographic distribution of species, disrupting animal communication, and causing stress. Read more ..

The Edge of Anthropology

Study of Modern Primates' Interbreeding Gives Clues to Ancient Humans

December 17th 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin

Did different species of early humans interbreed and produce offspring of mixed ancestry?

Recent genetic studies suggest that Neanderthals may have bred with anatomically modern humans tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, contributing to the modern human gene pool. But the findings are not universally accepted, and the fossil record has not helped to clarify the role of interbreeding, which is also known as hybridization.

Now a University of Michigan-led study of interbreeding between two species of modern-day howler monkeys in Mexico is shedding light on why it's so difficult to confirm instances of hybridization among primates—including early humans—by relying on fossil remains. The study, published online Dec. 7 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is based on analyses of genetic and morphological data collected from live-captured monkeys over the past decade. Morphology is the branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Bleak Future for Mammals as Climate Change Advances

December 16th 2012

Asian wild horse, Equus ferus przewalskii

Mammals could be at a greater risk of extinction due to predicted increases in extreme weather conditions, states a paper published today by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Scientists have mapped out land mammal populations, and overlapped this with information of where droughts and cyclones are most likely to occur. This allowed them to identify species at high risk of exposure to extreme weather. The paper, published this week in the journal Conservation Letters, describes the results of assessing almost six thousand species of land mammals in this way.

Lead author of the paper, ZSL's Eric Ameca y Juárez says: "Approximately a third of the species assessed have at least a quarter of their range exposed to cyclones, droughts or a combination of both. If these species are found to be highly susceptible to these conditions, it will lead to a substantial increase in the number of mammals classified as threatened by the IUCN under the category 'climate change and severe weather'."

In particular, primates - already among the most endangered mammals in the world - are highlighted as being especially at risk. Over 90 per cent of black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Yucatan spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi yucatanensis) known habitats have been damaged by cyclones in the past, and studies have documented ways they are able to adapt to the detrimental effects of these natural disasters. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cassini Sees Nile-Like River on Saturn’s Moon Titan

December 14th 2012

River delta on Titan from Cassini
River delta on Titan (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI)

The international Cassini space probe, which has been observing Saturn and its moons since 2004, has sent detailed new images of a remarkable, Nile-like river valley on Saturn’s moon Titan. The river stretches more than 400 kilometers from its ‘headwaters’ and flows into a large sea.

It is the first time astronomers have seen a river system this large and in such high resolution anywhere beyond Earth. Scientists believe the Titan river is filled with liquid because it appears in the high-resolution radar image to be dark along its entire length, indicating a smooth surface.

The river meanders at several points. But Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University in the United States, believes the overall straightness of the river valley suggests it follows at least one major fault line, as do several other large rivers seen running into the same Titan sea.

“Such faults—fractures in Titan’s bedrock—may not imply plate tectonics, like on Earth,” said Radebaugh, &ldqo;but [they] still lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves.”

Titan is the only other world astronomers know of that has stable liquid on its surface. But instead of the water that drives Earth's hydrocycle, Titan’s rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans are filled with liquid hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane. Cassini first confirmed the presence of liquid ethane in a lake called Ontario Lacus, in Titan’s southern hemisphere, during its 2008 flyby of the Saturnian moon.

“Titan is the only place we’ve found besides Earth that has a liquid in continuous movement on its surface,” said Steve Wall, the radar deputy team lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This picture gives us a snapshot of a world in motion. Rain falls, and rivers move that rain to lakes and seas, where evaporation starts the cycle all over again. On Earth, the liquid is water; on Titan, it’s methane; but on both it affects most everything that happens.” Read more ..

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