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The Graphene Edge

Kitchen Blender Mixes Up 'Wonder' Material

May 25th 2014

Graphene carbon mesh

A relatively new substance called graphene is being hailed as the wonder material of the 21st century, but no one has developed a way to mass produce it. However, one Irish scientist says he may have a solution.

Graphite is another name for pure carbon, a well-known material used for - among other things - pencil lead.

But when the layers of graphite are separated into sheets only one atom thick, the material, known as graphene, behaves quite differently. At that level, the atoms form strict geometric patterns, making it not only stronger than steel but also the best conductor of heat and electricity.

Theoretically, graphene could radically change the way we manufacture batteries, computer chips and flexible screens, or approach cancer therapy. Industry experts say separating and manipulating extremely thin sheets of graphene is a huge challenge. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Tiny Muscles Help Bats Fine-Tune Flight

May 24th 2014

Bat and moth

Bats appear to use a network of hair-thin muscles in their wing skin to control the stiffness and shape of their wings as they fly, according to a new study. The finding provides new insight about the aerodynamic fine-tuning of membrane wings, both natural and man-made. A new study of bats reveals a capability within their wondrous wings that may help them fine-tune their flight.

Bats employ a network of nearly hair-thin muscles embedded in the membrane of their inherently floppy wing skin to adjust the wings’ stiffness and curvature while they fly, Brown University researchers report. Birds and insects have stiff wings, but the new evidence suggests bats have evolved this muscular means of preserving or adjusting wing shape.

“Aerodynamic performance depends upon wing shape,” said Brown biology graduate student Jorn Cheney, lead author of the newly published paper in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. “The shape of a membrane wing might initially begin flat but as soon as it starts producing lift it’s not going to remain flat because it has to deform in response to that aerodynamic load. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Blowing In The (Stellar) Wind

May 22nd 2014

Solar System Birth

When a supernova – the explosion of a giant star —was discovered last year, astrophysicists, with the help of telescopes around the globe, rushed to observe the fireworks. With its dramatic dying flares, this star – a rare type more than 10 times the mass of our sun – can tell us something about the life of these fascinating cosmic bodies, as well as helping paint the picture of how all the heavier elements in the universe are formed.

To understand the star that produced the supernova, the researchers identified the mix of elements that was thrown off right before the explosion began. Prof. Avishay Gal-Yam of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics explains that the star can be identified by the proportion of such elements as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen detected in the material ejected into space. These elements are created in the nuclear fusion that powers some stars. For example, in our own sun, hydrogen – the lightest atom – fuses to make helium and stops there; but in the massive, hot stars, fusion continues as helium atoms unite to form heavier elements, all the way up to iron. Read more ..


The Edge of Healthcare

Pulsed Electrical Fields Destroy Antibiotic-Resistent Bacteria in Burn Injuries

May 21st 2014

emergency room

Application of a technology currently used to disinfect food products may help to get around one of the most challenging problems in medicine today, the proliferation of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs. In a paper appearing in the June issue of the journal Technology and already released online, investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Engineering in Medicine describe how the use of microsecond-pulsed, high-voltage non-thermal electric fields successfully killed resistant bacteria infecting experimentally induced burns in mice, reducing bacterial levels up to 10,000-fold.

"Pulsed electrical field technology has the advantages of targeting numerous bacterial species and penetrating the full thickness of a wound," says Alexander Golberg, PhD, of the MGH Center for Engineering in Medicine (MGH-CEM), first author of the paper. "This could lead to a completely new means of burn wound disinfection without using antibiotics, which can increase bacterial resistance." Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Scientists Study Biomechanics Behind Amazing Ant Strength

May 20th 2014

leaf-cutter ants

A recent study into the biomechanics of the necks of ants – a common insect that can amazingly lift objects many times heavier than its own body – might unlock one of nature’s little mysteries and, quite possibly, open the door to advancements in robotic engineering.

A small group of engineers at The Ohio State University combined laboratory testing and computational modeling An electron microscope shows the neck region of the Allegheny mound ant.conducted at the Ohio Supercomputer Center to determine the relationship between the mechanical function, structural design and material properties of the Allegheny mound ant (Formica exsectoides). Their results were recently published in an article, “The exoskeletal structure and tensile loading behavior of an ant neck joint,” in the Journal of Biomechanics.Carlos Castro, Ph.D. Read more ..


The Robotic Edge

New Robotic Arm Can Grasp Moving Objects

May 18th 2014

Metal Mickey

An international team of engineers based in Switzerland built a robotic arm that learned to perform complex movements.

The term "robotic arm" covers a variety of mechanical devices — from robots that weld automotive chassis to emotely controlled cranes on the International Space Station. In between are artificial arms developed for humanoid robots or people who have lost limbs.

Developed at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, the device, built in cooperation with robotic manufacturer Simlab, is even capable of grabbing flying objects.

According to researcher Seungsu Kim, the arm's processor takes only milliseconds to calculate three primary parameters.

"First thing is to predict the whole trajectory," said Kim. "Second is finding the best catching posture, and third is generation of arm motion."

But what most of us know how to do instinctively, the robotic arm had to learn from scratch.

While catching a tennis racquet is easy compared to catching, say, a half-empty bottle of water with liquid sloshing in flight, unpredictably changing its trajectory, researcher Ashwini Shukla says different objects were thrown in its direction many times until the processor learned to compare and predict flight patterns.

“We teach the robot how to reach towards an object from many different directions, and from that same time we teach it the coordination it needs to have between the arm and the fingers to be able to successfully catch the object," said Shukla. The team's leader, Professor Aude Billard, is especially proud of their achievement. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

'Body Clock' Dysregulation Underlies Obesity

May 14th 2014

Obese man

A team of Texas A&M University System scientists have investigated how "body clock dysregulation" might affect obesity-related metabolic disorders.

The team was led by Dr. Chaodong Wu and Dr. David Earnest,from the Texas A&M Health Science Center. Study results were published recently on the Journal of Biological Chemistry website at http://www.jbc.org/content/early/2014/04/25/jbc.M113.539601.

"Animal sleeping and eating patterns, including those of humans, are subject to a circadian rhythmicity," Earnest said. "And previous studies have shown an association between the dysregulation of circadian or body clock rhythms and some metabolic disorders."

Wu said circadian clocks in peripheral tissues and cells drive daily rhythms and coordinate many physiological processes, including inflammation and metabolism. "And recent scientific observations suggest that disruption of circadian clock regulation plays a key role in the development of metabolic diseases, including obesity and diabetes," he noted. Read more ..


The Racde for Batteries

Thin-Film Battery for Wearable Electronics Requires No Lithium

May 13th 2014

Baby Boomer

A research team from Rice University has developed a flexible material with nanoporous nickel-fluoride electrodes layered around a solid electrolyte to deliver battery-like supercapacitor performance. 

The material combines the best qualities of a high-energy battery and a high-powered supercapacitor without the lithium found in commercial batteries.

The development by Rice chemist James Tour and his colleagues puts flexible, portable and wearable electronics in its sights with the creation of a thin film for energy storage. The research is detailed in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The electrochemical capacitor is about a hundredth of an inch thick but can be scaled up for devices either by increasing the size or adding layers, said Rice postdoctoral researcher Yang Yang, co-lead author of the paper with graduate student Gedeng Ruan. The researchers expect that standard manufacturing techniques may allow the battery to be even thinner. In tests, the students found their square-inch device held 76 percent of its capacity over 10,000 charge-discharge cycles and 1,000 bending cycles. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Melting Antarctic Ice Cap Appears Unstoppable

May 13th 2014

Click to select Image

A rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in irreversible decline, with nothing to stop the entire glacial basin from disappearing into the sea, according to researchers at UC Irvine and NASA.

The new study presents multiple lines of evidence – incorporating 40 years of observations – that six massive glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector “have passed the point of no return,” according to glaciologist Eric Rignot, a UC Irvine Earth system science professor who is also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The new study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. Read more ..


The Edge of Biology

Surprising Truth About Cell Wall Growth

May 12th 2014

yeast cell membranes

Researchers use new techniques to document how cells can conceal growth, then suddenly swell like raisins into grapes; study is a 'paradigm shift' in understanding osmotic shock that may lead to new strategies for fighting bacterial disease.

For a century biologists have thought they understood how the gooey growth that occurs inside cells caused their protective outer walls to expand. Now, using new microscopic video techniques, Stanford researchers have captured the visual evidence to prove the prevailing wisdom wrong.

"What we observed was not what we had expected," said K.C. Huang, PhD. The article, which describes a process known as "osmotic shock," was co-authored by Julie Theriot, a professor at Stanford's School of Medicine.

The researchers believe their discovery about the surprising resilience of cell wall growth may help explain why seemingly fragile bacteria such as E. coli can thrive in environments as different as puddles and stomachs. Enrique Rojas, PhD, is now in Bangladesh trying to apply this knowledge to help fight cholera. Gurol Suel, PhD, hailed the discovery as "a paradigm shift." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronomers Create a Realistic Virtual Universe

May 9th 2014

Move over, Matrix - astronomers have done you one better. They have created the first realistic virtual universe using a computer simulation called "Illustris." Illustris can recreate 13 billion years of cosmic evolution in a cube 350 million light-years on a side with unprecedented resolution.

"Until now, no single simulation was able to reproduce the universe on both large and small scales simultaneously," says lead author Mark Vogelsberger (MIT/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), who conducted the work in collaboration with researchers at several institutions, including the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany.

These results are being reported in the journal Nature.

Previous attempts to simulate the universe were hampered by lack of computing power and the complexities of the underlying physics. As a result those programs either were limited in resolution, or forced to focus on a small portion of the universe. Earlier simulations also had trouble modeling complex feedback from star formation, supernova explosions, and supermassive black holes. Read more ..


The Edge of Ecology

Shrimp Shells Could Provide Biodegradable Plastic Alternative

May 8th 2014

Ocean-Plastic

A substance found in the shells crustaceans and parts of insects could provide the world with an abundant and environmentally friendly way to replace many plastics.

It’s called chitosan, a resilient form of chitin, which researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering say is the “the second-most abundant organic material on Earth.”

Chitin is a tough polysaccharide found in the shells of crustaceans. After Wyss announced its progress making chitosan-based materials in March, they were approached by a variety of companies and entrepreneurs eager to learn about it and explore possible commercial uses, said Javier Fernandez, a lead researcher on the project. Read more ..


The Edge of Evolution

Dinosaur Descendants Shrank to Survive

May 7th 2014

T-Rex (AMNH)

Not all dinosaurs went extinct. Some are alive today in the form of birds. A new study finds that shrinking helped these birds continue to thrive and evolve. 

“If we really want to know how birds came about, then we need to study the line leading to birds, which includes this big diversity of animals like triceratops and stegosaurus and T. Rex,” said Roger Benson, associate professor of paleontology at Oxford University and lead author of the study reported PLOS Biology.

His team followed the evolution more than 400 dinosaurs, noting their size and what they weighed. 

“The largest dinosaur in our study we believed weighed 90 tons, and the smallest dinosaur was a bird called Qiliania and that weighed 15 grams," Benson said. "So you could fit Qiliania six million times inside Argentinosaurus, the largest dinosaur.” Since these species are extinct, Benson's team calculated that weight with an analysis of fossil limbs which, like pillars, would hold up the weight of the dinosaur. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Blood of Young Mice Reverses Signs of Aging in Older Ones

May 5th 2014

Mouse in Beaker

Two new studies show that young blood reverses signs of aging in old mice, but that doesn't mean scientists have finally found the elusive fountain of youth. However, the discovery could one day help people lead healthier lives.

In two papers published in Science, Harvard University researchers in Boston describe how the protein GDF11, found in higher levels in the blood of young mice, improved the brain and muscle function of older mice.

GDF11 appears to work by stimulating the development of new blood vessels. The protein is also present in humans. In one experiment, researchers increased the levels of GDF11 in aging mice by surgically connecting the circulatory systems of young mice to the old rodents. 

Blood containing higher levels of GDF11 flowed through the veins of both animals. In another experiment, they injected the protein into elderly mice. Scientists saw the greatest improvement in function in mice that shared the same blood supply.

Investigators saw the formation of new blood vessels and improved blood flow in older mice, which they say reversed signs of aging in every tissue they looked at. Researcher Lee Rubin, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard's Stem Cell Institute, and his team investigated the effect of GDF11 on brain tissue.

"So, this simple surgery, infusing an old mouse with young blood, actually produced some structural changes in the old brain, making the old brain, in essence, more like [a] young brain," he said. "And some people have used the phrase 'rejuvenating the old brain.' And similar things were observed in other tissues." Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Heat-Hardy Corals Could Help Save Dying Reefs

May 4th 2014

Coral reef and fish

A new study on heat-tolerant corals that may lead to new ways of conserving reefs in a warmer world. 

Coral reefs are home to about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean.

Reefs help protect coasts from storm damage and provide food and jobs for some one billion people. But rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidity are killing them at a rapid pace.

As much as 80 percent of the corals in the Caribbean are dead, as are nearly 75 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef on the planet.

A research team led by marine biologist Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University, compared a single coral species living in two adjacent ponds in a remote Pacific Island lagoon in Samoa. One pool reached 35 degrees Celsius, a higher temperature than most corals can withstand. The other was a few degrees cooler. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Edible Anti-Microbial Films Inhibit Dangerous Pathogens in Meat Products

May 2nd 2014

Click to select Image

Antimicrobial agents incorporated into edible films applied to foods to seal in flavor, freshness and color can improve the microbiological safety of meats, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. Using films made of pullulan -- an edible, mostly tasteless, transparent polymer produced by the fungus Aureobasidium pulluns -- researchers evaluated the effectiveness of films containing essential oils derived from rosemary, oregano and nanoparticles against foodborne pathogens associated with meat and poultry.

The results demonstrate that the bacterial pathogens were inhibited significantly by the use of the antimicrobial films, said Catherine Cutter, professor of food science. She hopes that the research will lead to the application of edible, antimicrobial films to meat and poultry, either before packaging or, more likely, as part of the packaging process. Read more ..


Edge of Molecular Biology

Resiliency of Cells in DNA Management is a Surprise

April 30th 2014

Click to select Image

New research shows that cells are more resilient in taking care of their DNA than scientists originally thought. Even when missing critical components, cells can adapt and make copies of their DNA in an alternative way.

In a study published in this week’s Cell Reports, a team of researchers at Michigan State University showed that cells can grow normally without a crucial component needed to duplicate their DNA.

“Our genetic information is stored in DNA, which has to be continuously monitored for damage and copied for growth,” said Kefei Yu, MSU Professor. “If the cell is unable to make copies of its DNA or if it overlooks mistakes in its structure, it can lead to cell death or the production of cancerous cells.”

But the study shows that cells are much more flexible in managing their DNA than we thought. When they lack the gadgets required to replicate DNA, they adapt and use other tools instead. Read more ..


The Edge of Healthcare

Scientists Decode Tsetse Fly Genome

April 26th 2014

Research and Development Chemistry

Scientists have mapped the genetic code of the tsetse fly, the insect responsible for African sleeping sickness.  They said the findings could lead to better repellents and control efforts and boost vaccine research.

The World Health Organization reports African sleeping sickness occurs in 36 sub-Saharan countries. The bite of a tsetse fly transmits parasites that could eventually reach the central nervous system causing confusion, sensory problems and poor coordination. It also disrupts the sleep cycle giving the disease its name.

The WHO said drug treatment is “complex,” but without it the disease is usually fatal. Efforts to control tsetse populations brought the number of new cases below 10,000 for the first time in 2009. In 2012, just over 7,200 new cases were reported.

Serap Aksoy is a professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health. She and her colleagues in the U.S., Africa and elsewhere began searching the tsetse fly’s DNA for its genetic code 10 years ago. The WHO provided initial funding. In all, the project cost $10 million. Read more ..


Nanotechnology Edge

Chameleon Crystals Promise Color-Changing Camouflage

April 24th 2014

The ability to control crystals with light and chemistry could lead to chameleon-style color-changing camouflage for vehicle bodies and other surfaces.

University of Michigan researchers discovered a template-free method for growing shaped crystals that allows for changeable structures that could appear as different colors and patterns.

One source of color in crystal structures is the spacing between the particles that make up the crystal. The spacing can determine which colors of light the crystal absorbs and which it reflects, resulting in the visible color. By changing the spacing and other aspects of the crystal structure, it is possible to change the color.

The researchers have found a way to control a crystal on the fly as it forms in a solution of latex paint microparticles, around 0.001 millimeters in diameter, in a kerosene-like fluid. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Laws Slow to Catch Up With 3-D Printing

April 23rd 2014

3 D Printer

As prices of 3-D printers continue to fall, experts are increasingly calling for reconsideration of copyright laws that protect the owners of patents and designs. However, they also warn that overreaching laws could stifle new ideas.

Very rapidly, 3-D printers have spread from scientific labs to industrial workshops to private homes.

The range of available machines is on display at 3D print shows, like one held last November in London - from sophisticated models that can print complex objects, such as replicas of human organs, to more affordable machines that make children’s toys or parts for home appliances.

A German firm recently displayed a prototype of a car chassis printed in one piece, while a Chinese manufacturer advertised a house created in a 3-D printer.

With the help of a computer, practically anyone can print exact copies of a variety of objects - and potentially violate the law.

“If a certain design that you want to print is covered by copyright, then if you print that you are infringing, arguably, someone's copyright," said Julie Samuels, a senior staff attorney with the U.S. civil liberties group, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But 3-D companies warn that passing more restrictive copyright protection laws could impede both citizens’ rights and technological innovation. Several decades ago, legislatures and the music industry were equally slow to adjust when suddenly anyone could copy music, first to magnetic and now electronic media.

But just as in the music industry, the founder of the website 3DPlus.me, Cydni Tetro, says she expects to see 3-D licenses very soon. “All of those companies are in very active engagements right now about how they'll deploy 3-D printed products over the next year, and we're going to see that," said Tetro. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Progress Made in Deveoping Nanoscale Electronics

April 22nd 2014

nanowire

Scientists are facing a number of barriers as they try to develop circuits that are microscopic in size, including how to reliably control the current that flows through a circuit that is the width of a single molecule.

Alexander Shestopalov, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester, has done just that, thereby taking us one step closer to nanoscale circuitry.

"Until now, scientists have been unable to reliably direct a charge from one molecule to another," said Shestopalov. "But that's exactly what we need to do when working with electronic circuits that are one or two molecules thin."

Shestopalov worked with an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) powered by a microscopically small, simple circuit in which he connected a one-molecule thin sheet of organic material between positive and negative electrodes. Recent research publications have shown that it is difficult to control the current traveling through the circuit from one electrode to the other in such a thin circuit. As Shestopalov explains in a paper published in the journal Advanced Material Interfaces, the key was adding a second, inert layer of molecules. Read more ..


The Genetic Edge

DNA Clues Suggest How Chickens Came to Be

April 21st 2014

Click to select Image

Ancient DNA adds a twist to the story of how barnyard chickens came to be, finds a study to be published April 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Analyzing DNA from the bones of chickens that lived 200-2300 years ago in Europe, researchers report that just a few hundred years ago domestic chickens may have looked far different from the chickens we know today.

The results suggest that some of the traits we associate with modern domestic chickens -- such as their yellowish skin -- only became widespread in the last 500 years, much more recently than previously thought.

"It's a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective," said co-author Greger Larson at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

The study is part of a larger field of research that aims to understand when, where and how humans turned wild plants and animals into the crops, pets and livestock we know today.

Generally, any mutations that are widespread in domestic plants and animals but absent from their wild relatives are assumed to have played a key role in the process, spreading as people and their livestock moved across the globe. But a growing number of ancient DNA studies tell a different tale. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Flipping the Switch

April 19th 2014

Fiber Optics

Harvard researchers have succeeded in creating quantum switches that can be turned on and off using a single photon, a technological achievement that could pave the way for the creation of highly secure quantum networks.

Built from single atoms, the first-of-their-kind switches could one day be networked via fiber optic cables to form the backbone of a "quantum Internet" that allows for perfectly secure communications, said Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin, who led a team consisting of graduate student Jeff Thompson and post-doctoral fellow Tobias Tiecke to construct the new system. Their research is detailed in a recently published paper in Nature.

"From a technical standpoint, it's a remarkable accomplishment," Lukin said of the new advance. "Conceptually, the idea is very simple – push the conventional light switch to its ultimate limit. What we've done here is to use a single atom as a switch that, depending on its state, can open or close the flow of photons…and it can be turned "on" and "off" using a single photon." Read more ..


A Green Future

Cork Trees Provide Green Alternative Source for Polyester

April 17th 2014

On the scale of earth-friendly materials, you'd be hard pressed to find two that are farther apart than polyester (not at all) and cork (very). In an unexpected twist, however, scientists are figuring out how to extract a natural, waterproof, antibacterial version of the first material from the latter. Their new technique, which could have applications in medical devices, appears in the ACS journal Biomacromolecules.

Cristina Silva Pereira and colleagues explain that polyesters are ubiquitous in modern life, and not just as a practical fabric for clothing. Their durability and other traits make them ideal for use in cushioning and insulating materials, in liquid crystal displays, holograms, filters, and as a high-gloss finish on guitars and pianos. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Heartbleed Challenges the Internet of Things

April 15th 2014

Trendy Kitchen

The Heartbleed security bug is a key example of the fundamental security challenge for the Internet of Things says Green Hills Software as it launches a new security group. The Heartbleed SSL hack is a prime example, its almost a daily occurrence, said Chris Smith, vice president of marketing for Europe for Green Hills Software. The challenge is, what we are going to do about it? How do we secure all these internet connected devices and do all these companies developing products understand how they will be interacting with other products and making sure they are not inadvertently building in insecurities?
Green Hills Software last week launched a programme of IoT security consultants to tackle embedded security and the Internet of Things. The IoT Security Advisors group uses security experts from all ofGreenHillsSoftwares business units to provide security services. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Massive Aquifers Under the Sea Could Sate Thirst

April 14th 2014

Ocean scene

In a new paper, hydrologists suggest at least part of the answer to the Earth's future water woes may be buried underneath the oceans. Over the past several decades, massive aquifers beneath the seabed have been found off coastlines across the globe, filled with water that ranges from fresh to about two-thirds less saline than seawater.

In a review article recently published online in the journal Nature, researchers arrived at a new estimate for total usable global offshore groundwater: 500,000 cubic kilometers -- a quantity 100 times greater than the amount of water extracted from land aquifers since 1900, the study states. Not all of this water is cheap or easy to access and turn into potable water, outside experts warn, and pumping this water may have onshore impacts. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Anthropogenic Global Warming is a Certainty

April 13th 2014

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The odds that global warming is due to natural factors are slim to none, since statistical analysis rules out natural-warming hypothesis with more than 99 percent certainty

An analysis of temperature data since 1500 all but rules out the possibility that global warming in the industrial era is just a natural fluctuation in the earth's climate, according to a new study by McGill University physics professor Shaun Lovejoy.

The study, published in the journal Climate Dynamics, represents a new approach to the question of whether global warming in the industrial era has been caused largely by man-made emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Rather than using complex computer models to estimate the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, Lovejoy examines historical data to assess the competing hypothesis: that warming over the past century is due to natural long-term variations in temperature. Read more ..


Destination Mars

NASA Says Human Landing on Mars on Track for 2030s

April 10th 2014

Curiosity uses ChemCham

The U.S. space agency’s head of human space exploration has outlined broad brush plans to put humans on Mars in the 2030s.

William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, likened the steps the agency is taking to the Mercury and Gemini programs, both of which were building blocks toward putting men on the Moon with the Apollo missions.

Wednesday, before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee, Gerstenmaier said NASA is taking steps to “that will allow us to make sustained progress toward a human presence on the surface of Mars.” "There is real hardware in manufacture for the path to Mars," Gerstenmaier told senators. Read more ..


The Race for AltFuel

The Bio-Fuel Potential of Bio-Engineered Poplar Trees

April 9th 2014

Click to select Image

What began 20 years ago as an innovation to improve paper industry processes and dairy forage digestibility may now open the door to a much more energy- and cost-efficient way to convert biomass into fuel.

The research, which appears in the current issue of Science, focuses on enhancing poplar trees so they can break down more easily, improving their viability as a biofuel. The long-term efforts and teamwork involved to find this solution can be described as a rare, top-down approach to engineering plants for digestibility, said Curtis Wilkerson, Michigan State University plant biologist and the lead author.

“By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product,” said Wilkerson, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist. “Poplars are dense, easy to store and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel.” Read more ..


Ancient Days

New Method Sheds Light on Interbreeding among Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

April 9th 2014

Technical objections to the idea that Neandertals interbred with the ancestors of Eurasians have been overcome, thanks to a genome analysis method described in the April 2014 issue of the journal GENETICS. The technique can more confidently detect the genetic signatures of interbreeding than previous approaches and will be useful for evolutionary studies of other ancient or rare DNA samples.

"Our approach can distinguish between two subtly different scenarios that could explain the genetic similarities shared by Neandertals and modern humans from Europe and Asia," said study co-author Konrad Lohse, a population geneticist at the University of Edinburgh.

The first scenario is that Neandertals occasionally interbred with modern humans after they migrated out of Africa. The alternative scenario is that the humans who left Africa evolved from the same ancestral subpopulation that had previously given rise to the Neandertals. Read more ..


Nano-Technology Edge

Nano-Tube Reinforcement Bars Strenghten Case for Graphene Materials

April 8th 2014

Click to select Image

Carbon nanotubes are reinforcing bars that make two-dimensional graphene much easier to handle in a new hybrid material grown by researchers at Rice University.

The Rice lab of chemist James Tour set nanotubes into graphene in a way that not only mimics how steel rebar is used in concrete but also preserves and even improves the electrical and mechanical qualities of both.

The technique should make large, flexible, conductive and transparent sheets of graphene much easier to manipulate, which should be of interest to electronics manufacturers, Tour said. He suggested the new hybrid could, upon stacking in a few layers, be a cost-effective replacement for expensive indium tin oxide (ITO) now used in displays and solar cells.

The research appears this month in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano. Read more ..


The Edge of Healthcare

Non-Invasive Imaging for Monitoring of Prostrate Cancer

April 6th 2014

Prostate Cancer

Your body's cells have two major interconnected energy sources: the lipid metabolism and the glucose metabolism. Most cancers feed themselves by metabolizing glucose, and thus can be seen in Positron Emission Topography (PET) scans that detect radiolabeled glucose. However, prostate cancers tend to use the lipid metabolism route and so cannot be imaged in this way effectively. A University of Colorado Cancer Center study being presented today at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2014 describes a novel method to "manipulate the lipid metabolism in the cancer cell to trick them to use more radiolabeled glucose, the basis of PET scanning," says Isabel Schlaepfer, PhD.

The current study used the clinically safe drug etomoxir to block prostate cancer cells' ability to oxidize lipids. With the lipid energy source removed, cells switched to glucose metabolism and both cells and mouse models roughly doubled their uptake of radiolabeled glucose.  Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Methane-Spewing Microbes Caused Ancient Die-Off

April 5th 2014

Click to select Image

MIT scientists say almost everything on Earth died 252 million years ago in the largest mass extinction on the planet.

While scientists have come up with a number of theories — from asteroids to volcanoes and raging coal fires — the research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the culprit was a methane-spewing microbe.

According to the team's lead researcher, Daniel Rothman, MIT Professor of Geophysics, massive volcanic eruptions and chemical changes coincided to dramatically change the climate and the chemistry of the ocean.

“When one examines old rocks that were deposited at the time, the results of those geochemical analyses indicate that there was a large influx of carbon into the Earth’s system — that is, the oceans and the atmosphere — and that carbon likely entered system as CO2," Rothman says, explaining that the change happened in the geological blink of an eye — about 60,000 years — killing 96 percent of life in the ocean and 70 percent of life on land in what's known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event — or, simply put, the Great Dying. Read more ..


The Prehistoric Edge of

Microbes Trigger Largest Mass Extinction Ever

April 4th 2014

Nyasasaurus Parringtoni

MIT scientists say almost everything on Earth died 252 million years ago in the largest mass extinction on the planet.

While scientists have come up with a number of theories — from asteroids to volcanoes and raging coal fires — the research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the culprit was a methane-spewing microbe.

According to the team's lead researcher, Daniel Rothman, MIT Professor of Geophysics, massive volcanic eruptions and chemical changes coincided to dramatically change the climate and the chemistry of the ocean.

“When one examines old rocks that were deposited at the time, the results of those geochemical analyses indicate that there was a large influx of carbon into the Earth’s system — that is, the oceans and the atmosphere — and that carbon likely entered system as CO2," Rothman says, explaining that the change happened in the geological blink of an eye — about 60,000 years — killing 96 percent of life in the ocean and 70 percent of life on land in what's known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event — or, simply put, the Great Dying. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

How Electrodes Charge and Discharge

April 3rd 2014

Battery-single-use

The electrochemical reactions inside the porous electrodes of batteries and fuel cells have been described by theorists, but never measured directly. Now, a team at MIT has figured out a way to measure the fundamental charge transfer rate — finding some significant surprises.

The study found that the Butler-Volmer (BV) equation, usually used to describe reaction rates in electrodes, is inaccurate, especially at higher voltage levels. Instead, a different approach, called Marcus-Hush-Chidsey charge-transfer theory, provides more realistic results — revealing that the limiting step of these reactions is not what had been thought.

The new findings could help engineers design better electrodes to improve batteries' rates of charging and discharging, and provide a better understanding of other electrochemical processes, such as how to control corrosion. The work is described this week in the journal Nature Communications by MIT postdoc Peng Bai and professor of chemical engineering and mathematics Martin Bazant. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Scientists Map Human, Mouse Brains

April 2nd 2014

Invisible Brain

Scientists have published two of the most detailed brain maps to date: one tracing the wiring diagram of the mouse brain and the other, an atlas of gene activity in the developing human brain.

The maps are a key tool for researchers seeking to better understand how this incredibly complex organ works, and to study what goes wrong in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism.

The publication falls on the first anniversary of a major Obama administration brain research initiative.

The human brain contains roughly 100 billion nerve cells connecting our senses, thoughts, motions, emotions, memories and automatic responses.  A good map would help explain how these circuits communicate with each other.

So far, researchers have unraveled the complete mental circuitry of exactly one organism: a tiny worm with just 302 neurons.  Other creatures’ brains have been mapped in bits and pieces. New research published in Nature puts together a complete map of the brain of a mouse. Read more ..


Edge of Astronomy

Plugging Stephen Hawkings' Black Hole Theory

March 31st 2014

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Recently physicists have been poking holes again in Stephen Hawking’s black hole theory – including Hawking himself. For decades physicists across the globe have been trying to figure out the mysteries of black holes – those fascinating monstrous entities that have such intense gravitational pull that nothing – not even light – can escape from them. Now Professor Chris Adami, Michigan State University, has jumped into the fray.

The debate about the behavior of black holes, which has been ongoing since 1975, was reignited when Hawking posted a blog on Jan. 22, 2014, stating that event horizons – the invisible boundaries of black holes – do not exist. Hawking, considered to be the foremost expert on black holes, has over the years revised his theory and continues to work on understanding these cosmic puzzles. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Scientists Build Artificial Chromosome

March 30th 2014

Chromosomes magnified

In what is being called a major step forward in genetic engineering, scientists have built a customized copy of an entire yeast chromosome.  Experts say it may lead to a better understanding of how the thousands of genes contained in these packages of genetic material work together in everything from yeast to humans.  And it may make it easier to make designer yeast, creating living factories that churn out everything from antibiotics to biofuels. 

Geneticist Jef Boeke says it started with a coffee shop conversation with a colleague.

“I mentioned casually to him that, of course we could make the yeast chromosome if we wanted to, but why on Earth would we want to do that? And he practically literally started jumping up and down with excitement when I told him that,” he said. So Boeke, the colleague, Srinivasan Chandrasegaran and a third partner, Joel Bader, spent the next year discussing how they could engineer the chromosome to make it worth the enormous investment of time and money it would take. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Vietnamese Consumers Shop for 'Safe' Vegetables on Internet

March 29th 2014

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In Vietnam, there are rising concerns about the excessive use of pesticides on crops. To ensure their vegetables are safe, some consumers are now shopping for produce online.

Billboards carry the message “don’t abuse pesticides, think of the consumer,” but a lack of government regulation has done little to combat the overuse of pesticides, and consumers are taking note.  As a result, many are turning to the Internet to be better informed.

Out shopping in Hanoi’s city center, 30-year-old mother Tran Thuy Nhat expressed concerns many people can identify with.

She said she only buys vegetables from people she knows in her village on the outskirts of the city. She is worried about chemicals in vegetables and fruit and said if she buys these from someone she does not know, they could be harmful to her baby. Not everyone is lucky enough to have access to farmers they know well. But a website dedicated to providing information about shops which sell “safe vegetables” in Hanoi aims to address this lack of trust. Read more ..


The Race for Solar

Revolutionary Solar Cells Double as Lasers

March 28th 2014

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Commercial silicon-based solar cells - such as those seen on the roofs of houses across the country - operate at about 20% efficiency for converting the Sun's rays into electrical energy. It's taken over 20 years to achieve that rate of efficiency.

A relatively new type of solar cell based on a perovskite material - named for scientist Lev Perovski, who first discovered materials with this structure in the Ural Mountains in the 19th century - was recently pioneered by an Oxford research team led by Professor Henry Snaith.

Perovskite solar cells, the source of huge excitement in the research community, already lie just a fraction behind commercial silicon, having reached a remarkable 17% efficiency after a mere two years of research - transforming prospects for cheap large-area solar energy generation. Read more ..



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