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The Edge of Nature

Tracking Fish through a Coral Reef Seascape

September 6th 2012

Coral reef and fish

Ocean scientists have long known that juvenile coral reef fishes use coastal seagrass and mangrove habitats as nurseries, later moving as adults onto coral reefs. But the fishes’ movements, and the connections between different tropical habitats, are much more complex than previously realized, according to a recent study. The findings have important implications for management and protection of coral reefs and other marine environments.

A number of studies have demonstrated a strong relationship between the presence of coastal wetlands and offshore fish abundance and fisheries yield, but it has proved difficult to develop quantitative assessment of habitat use by fish or their movement among different habitats. “The rationale for this study,”says Simon Thorrold, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), “was to determine the relative importance of different nursery habitats to reef fishes that spend their adult lives on coral reefs but may spend at least part of their juvenile residency elsewhere.” Read more ..


Edge of the Universe

Seeing the Birth of the Universe in an Atom of Hydrogen

September 6th 2012

gaseous ring on star

Windows to the past, stars can unveil the history of our universe, currently estimated to be 14 billion years old. The farther away the star, the older it is — and the oldest stars are the most difficult to detect. Current telescopes can only see galaxies about 700 million years old, and only when the galaxy is unusually large or as the result of a big event like a stellar explosion.

Now, an international team of scientists led by researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a method for detecting galaxies of stars that formed when the universe was in its infancy, during the first 180 million years of its existence. The method is able to observe stars that were previously believed too old to find, says Prof. Rennan Barkana of TAU's School of Physics and Astronomy.

Published in the journal Nature, the researchers' method uses radio telescopes to seek out radio waves emitted by hydrogen atoms, which were abundant in the early days of the universe. Emitting waves measuring about eight inches (21 centimeters) long, the atoms reflect the radiation of the stars, making their emission detectable by radio telescopes, explains Prof. Barkana. This development opens the way to learning more about the universe's oldest galaxies. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Birth of a Planet

September 4th 2012

Exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01

The Earth and the planets of our solar system are not alone in the universe. Over the past few decades, the hunt for extrasolar planets has yielded incredible discoveries, and now planetary researchers have a new tool—simulated models of how planets are born. Most planets form when a molecular cloud collapses into a young star. The leftover gas and dust form a disk around the star, and the particulates inside the disk begin to collide and coalesce over millions of years, forming larger and larger objects until a planet eventually takes shape.

Sally Dodson Robinson, astronomer, and her team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are modeling and simulating these protostellar disks. The simulations model important factors such as the turbulence and temperature of the disk, which affect how and where planets form. In a disk that is too turbulent, the particles move too fast and bounce off each other. Less turbulence means a greater chance for them to collide and stick together. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Human Impact Felt on Black Sea Long Before Industrial Era

September 4th 2012

Bblack Sea

When WHOI geologist Liviu Giosan first reconstructed the history of how the Danube River built its delta, he was presented with a puzzle.

In the delta’s early stages of development, the river deposited its sediment within a protected bay. As the delta expanded onto the Black Sea shelf in the late Holocene and was exposed to greater waves and currents, rather than seeing the decline in sediment storage that he expected, Giosan found the opposite. The delta continued to grow. In fact, it has tripled its storage rate.

If an increase in river runoff was responsible for the unusual rapid build up of sediment in the delta, says Giosan, the question is, “Was this extraordinary event in the Danube delta felt in the entire Black Sea basin? And if so, what caused it?” In answering those questions, Giosan and an international team of collaborators including environmental engineers, modelers, paleogeographers, and paleobiologists pieced together a unique history of the region that ultimately provides evidence for a transformative impact of humans on the Black Sea over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Read more ..


The Ancient Edge

Ancient Neanderthal Genome Discovery Sheds Light on Human Ancestry

September 3rd 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin

A new report describes the complete sequence of the Denisovan genome, shedding light on the relationships between these archaic humans, who were closely related to Neandertals, and modern humans.

The results will be published online by the journal Science, in the 30 August 2012 edition of ScienceExpress. Science is the flagship journal of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Fossil evidence of the Denisovans is scanty; the existence of this group only came to light in 2010 when DNA from a piece of a finger bone and two molars that were excavated at Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia was studied. Because they had only a tiny sample of material from the finger bone, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and his research team developed a treatment that unzipped the DNA so that each of its two strands can be used to generate molecules for sequencing. This method allowed the team to generate an extremely thorough genome sequence (30X), similar in quality to what researchers can obtain for the modern human genome. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Challenging Theories on the Moon's Formation

September 3rd 2012

full moon

The Moon is believed to have formed from a collision, 4.5 billion years ago, between Earth and an impactor the size of Mars, known as "Theia." Over the past decades scientists have simulated this process and reproduced many of the properties of the Earth-Moon system; however, these simulations have also given rise to a problem known as the Lunar Paradox: the Moon appears to be made up of material that would not be expected if the current collision theory is correct. A recent study published in Icarus proposes a new perspective on the theory in answer to the paradox.

If current theories are to be believed, analyses of the various simulations of the Earth-Theia collision predict that the Moon is mostly made up of material from Theia. However, studying materials from both Earth and the Moon, shows remarkable similarities. In fact, elements found on the Moon show identical isotopic properties to those found on Earth. Given it is very unlikely that both Theia and Earth had identical isotopic compositions (as all other known solar system bodies, except the Moon, appear to be different) this paradox casts doubt over the dominant theory for the Moon formation. Moreover, for some elements, like Silicon, the isotopic composition is the result of internal processes, related to the size of the parent body. Given Theia was smaller than Earth, its Silicon isotope composition should have definitely been different from that of Earth's mantle. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Austrian Programmers Build Free Bridge to Internet

September 1st 2012

Russian computer user

A group of computer programmers and hackers in Austria is creating a low-cost way of spreading Internet access across communities. "FunkFeuer" which means "network fire" in German, uses everyday technology to create a wireless network, called a "mesh," that can transmit data from person to person, without involving companies or governments.

For most users, Internet access is a utility, like phone service and electricity. Customers pay a company to access the Web through phone service or cable TV lines. But FunkFeuer's equipment on Vienna rooftops is a different.

It provides wireless network access across large areas using the same open radio spectrum as WiFi. But unlike traditional WiFi, responsible for small wireless networks in homes and offices, the FunkFeuer mesh operates over much bigger distances. Read more ..


The Edge of Sleep

How Odors and Tones Affect Sleep

September 1st 2012

Is sleep learning possible? A new Weizmann Institute study appearing August 26 in Nature Neuroscience has found that if certain odors are presented after tones during sleep, people will start sniffing when they hear the tones alone – even when no odor is present – both during sleep and, later, when awake. In other words, people can learn new information while they sleep, and this can unconsciously modify their waking behavior.

Sleep-learning experiments are notoriously difficult to conduct. For one thing, the researchers must be sure that the subjects are actually asleep and stay that way during the “lessons.” The most rigorous trials of verbal sleep learning have failed to show any new knowledge taking root. While more and more research has demonstrated the importance of sleep for learning and memory consolidation, none had managed to show actual learning of new information taking place in an adult brain during sleep. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

A Surprisingly Large Superbubble Has Appeared

August 31st 2012

A Surprisingly Bright Superbubble

A composite image now shows a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, located about 160,000 light years from Earth. Many new stars, some of them very massive, are forming in the star cluster NGC 1929, which is embedded in the nebula N44. The massive stars produce intense radiation, expel matter at high speeds, and race through their evolution to explode as supernovas. The winds and supernova shock waves carve out huge cavities called superbubbles in the surrounding gas. X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) show hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (red) outline where the dust and cooler gas are found. The optical light from the 2.2m Max-Planck-ESO telescope (yellow) in Chile shows where ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars is causing gas in the nebula to glow.

A long-running problem in high-energy astrophysics has been that some superbubbles in the LMC, including N44, give off a lot more X-rays than expected from models of their structure. A Chandra study published in 2011 showed that there are two extra sources of the bright X-ray emission: supernova shock waves striking the walls of the cavities, and hot material evaporating from the cavity walls. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Uncoiling the Cucumber's Enigma

August 31st 2012

Cucumbers-sliced

Captivated by a strange coiling behavior in the grasping tendrils of the cucumber plant, researchers at Harvard University have characterized a new type of spring that is soft when pulled gently and stiff when pulled strongly. Instead of unwinding to a flat ribbon under stress, as an untwisted coil normally would, the cucumber's tendrils actually coil further. Understanding this counterintuitive behavior required a combination of head scratching, physical modeling, mathematical modeling, and cell biology—not to mention a large quantity of silicone. The result, published in the August 31 issue of Science, describes the mechanism by which coiling occurs in the cucumber plant and suggests a new type of bio-inspired twistless spring.

Led by principal investigator L. Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Physics at Harvard, and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, the researchers were motivated by simple curiosity about the natural world. Read more ..


The Nano Edge

New 2-D Molecule Could Yield Ultra-miniature Devices

August 31st 2012

taiwanese semiconductor plant

Researchers from the MIT have succeeded in making a variety of electronic components from molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), a 2D molecule that could yield ultra-miniature devices. A report on the production of complex electronic circuits from the new material was published online this month in the journal Nano Letters; the paper is authored by Han Wang and Lili Yu, graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); Tomás Palacios, the Emmanuel E. Landsman Associate Professor of EECS; and others at MIT and elsewhere.

Palacios says he thinks graphene and MoS2 are just the beginning of a new realm of research on two-dimensional materials. "It's the most exciting time for electronics in the last 20 or 30 years," he says. "It's opening up the door to a completely new domain of electronic materials and devices." Read more ..


The Edge of Earth

Quake Map Prediction Methodology?

August 30th 2012

Port-au-Prince, Haiti earthquake damage

Some high profile researchers in the earth sciences are questioning several long-standing assumptions about predicting earthquakes. They contend it is time for a major reassessment on the methods used to forecast where and when killer earthquakes will strike.

Three recent major earthquakes: in Sichuan, China in 2008, in the Caribbean  nation of Haiti in 2010 and in northeastern Japan last year - have led to what some scientists acknowledge is an embarrassing failure. They did not foresee such intense tremors would cause widespread destruction and casualties in those specific locations.

Even in Japan, with state-of-the-art seismological and tsunami research and sophisticated hazard mapping, the size of the March 11 quake and the resulting tsunami were vastly underestimated. Earth sciences professor Seth Stein at Northwestern University in Chicago says that was a sobering day for his field. Read more ..


The Automotive Edge

Networked Cars Opening New Opportunities to Automotive Value Chain

August 29th 2012

Traffic Jam

The integration of information technologies into cars poses huge challenges to the automotive industry, a new study from industry consultancy Roland Berger finds. Like any challenge, this process however also offers new opportunities.

Already in the mean term, more or less all new vehicles will drive along with an always-con connection to the internet. The consultants from Roland Berger believe, that the connectivity trend for vehicles has just begun. In the years ahead, it will evolve into a core trend across the entire automotive industry.

Enablers of the connectivity trend are, according to the study, the availability of mobile broadband connections, in particular LTE, as well as cloud computing. On the non-technical side, governmental regulations such as the European eCall will foster automobile connectivity. Plus, the generation of digital natives increasingly wish to be connected, even during the time when they use the car as driver or passenger. "Probably the most powerful driver of in-car networking, however, is the fact that the data itself today has an intrinsic value," notes Wolfgang Bernhart, Partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, who spearheaded the study in collaboration with Thomas Schlick, also Partner at the Munich-based strategy consultancy. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Cold European Winters and Solar Activity May Be Linked

August 28th 2012

Solar Flare

Scientists have long suspected that the Sun's 11-year cycle influences climate of certain regions on Earth. Yet records of average, seasonal temperatures do not date back far enough to confirm any patterns. Now, armed with a unique proxy, an international team of researchers show that unusually cold winters in Central Europe are related to low solar activity – when sunspot numbers are minimal. The freezing of Germany's largest river, the Rhine, is the key.

Although the Earth's surface overall continues to warm, the new analysis has revealed a correlation between periods of low activity of the Sun and of some cooling – on a limited, regional scale in Central Europe, along the Rhine.

"The advantage with studying the Rhine is because it's a very simple measurement," said Frank Sirocko lead author of a paper on the study and professor of Sedimentology and Paleoclimatology at the Institute of Geosciences of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. "Freezing is special in that it's like an on-off mode. Either there is ice or there is no ice." Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

One Third Less Life Forms on Planet Earth

August 28th 2012

Hippo and baby

Previous estimates about the total mass of all life on our planet have to be reduced by about one third. This is the result of a study by a German-US science team published in the current online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). According to previous estimates about one thousand billion tons of carbon are stored in living organisms, of which 30% in single-cell microbes in the ocean floor and 55 % reside in land plants. The science team around Dr. Jens Kallmeyer of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and University of Potsdam has now revised this number: Instead of 300 billion tons of carbon there are only about 4 billion tons stored in subseafloor microbes. This reduces the total amount of carbon stored in living organisms by about one third.

Previous estimates were based on drill cores that were taken close to shore or in very nutrient-rich areas. "About half of the world's ocean is extremely nutrient-poor. For the last 10 years it was already suspected that subseafloor biomass was overestimated" explains Dr. Jens Kallmeyer the motivation behind his study. "Unfortunately there were no data to prove it". Therefore Kallmeyer and his colleagues from the University of Potsdam and the University of Rhode Island, USA, collected sediment cores from areas that were far away from any coasts and islands. The six-year work showed that there were up to one hundred thousand times less cells in sediments from open-ocean areas, which are dubbed "deserts of the sea" due to their extreme nutrient depletion, than in coastal sediments. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Mof Protein Enables Stem Cells to Become any Type of Cell in Human Body

August 26th 2012

stem cells

How do stem cells preserve their ability to become any type of cell in the body? And how do they “decide” to give up that magical state and start specializing?

If researchers could answer these questions, our ability to harness stem cells to treat disease could explode. Now, a University of Michigan Medical School team has published a key discovery that could help that goal become reality.

In the current issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell, researcher Yali Dou, Ph.D., and her team show the crucial role of a protein called Mof in preserving the ‘stem-ness’ of stem cells, and priming them to become specialized cells in mice. Their results show that Mof plays a key role in the “epigenetics” of stem cells -- that is, helping stem cells read and use their DNA. One of the key questions in stem cell research is what keeps stem cells in a kind of eternal youth, and then allows them to start “growing up” to be a specific type of tissue. Dou, an associate professor of pathology and biological chemistry, has studied Mof for several years, puzzling over the intricacies of its role in stem cell biology. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Tap Water is not as Safe as We Think

August 26th 2012

tap water

Most of the bacteria that remain in drinking water when it gets to the tap can be traced to filters used in the water treatment process, rather than to the aquifers or rivers where it originated, University of Michigan researchers discovered.

Their study—a unique, broad-based look at Ann Arbor's water supply from source to tap—could open the door to more sustainable water treatment processes that use fewer chemicals and, as a result, produce lower levels of byproducts that may pose health risks. Eventually, the work could enable engineers to control the types of microbes in drinking water to improve human health like "live and active cultures" in yogurt, the researchers say.

The research, led by Lutgarde Raskin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is published online in Environmental Science & Technology and will appear in a forthcoming print edition. Over six months, the researchers sampled water at 20 points along its path from groundwater and Barton Pond sources to residents' faucets and several more places in the water treatment plant. They harvested bacteria from each sample and sequenced their DNA. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

First Evidence of Planet’s Destruction by Its Star

August 25th 2012

Red giant engulfs one of its planets
Artist’s conception of a red giant star engulfing one of its planets
(credit: NASA)

The first evidence of a planet’s destruction by its aging star has been discovered by an international team of astronomers. The evidence indicates that the missing planet was devoured as the star began expanding into a red giant—the stellar equivalent of advanced age for stars without enough mass to go supernova.

“A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five-billion years from now,” said Alex Wolszczan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, University, who is one of the members of the research team. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system. The astronomers also discovered a massive planet in a surprisingly elliptical orbit around the same red-giant star, named BD+48 740, which is older than the Sun with a radius about eleven times bigger. Wolszczan and the team’s other members, Monika Adamow, Grzegorz Nowak, and Andrzej Niedzielski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland; and Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, detected evidence of the missing planet’s destruction while they were using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to study the aging star and to search for planets around it. The evidence includes the star’s peculiar chemical composition plus the highly unusual elliptical orbit of its surviving planet. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Supernovae of the Same Brightness—Cut from Vastly Fifferent Cosmic Cloth

August 25th 2012

Artist’s conception of the PTF 11kx system
(credit: Romano Corradi/Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias)

Type 1a supernovae—exploding stars—are ideal for measuring cosmic distance because they are bright enough to spot across the Universe and have relatively the same luminosity everywhere. Although astronomers have many theories about the kinds of star systems involved in these explosions (or progenitor systems), no one has ever directly observed one—until now.

In the August 24 issue of Science, the multi-institutional Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) team presents the first-ever direct observations of a Type 1a supernova progenitor system. Astronomers have collected evidence indicating that the progenitor system of a Type 1a supernova, called PTF 11kx, contains a red giant star. They also show that the system previously underwent at least one much smaller nova eruption before it ended its life in a destructive supernova. The system is located 600 million light years away in the constellation Lynx.

By comparison, indirect observations of another Type 1a supernova progenitor system (called SN 2011fe, conducted by the PTF team last year) showed no evidence of a red giant star. Taken together, these observations unequivocally show that just because Type 1a supernovae look the same, that doesn’t mean they are all born the same way. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Magnetic Turbulence Trumps Collisions to Heat Solar Wind

August 25th 2012

Click to select Image
Solar Flares

New research led by University of Warwick physicist Dr Kareem Osman has provided significant insight into how the solar wind heats up when it should not. The solar wind rushes outwards from the raging inferno that is our Sun, but from then on the wind should only get cooler as it expands beyond our solar system since there are no particle collisions to dissipate energy. However, the solar wind is surprisingly hotter than it should be, which has puzzled scientists for decades. Two new research papers led by Dr Osman may have solved that puzzle.

Turbulence pervades the universe, being found in stars, stellar winds, accretion disks, galaxies, and even the material between galaxies. It also plays a critical role in the evolution of many laboratory plasmas, causing diminished confinement times in fusion devices. Therefore, understanding plasma turbulence is essential to the interpretation of a large body of laboratory, space, and astrophysical observations. The solar wind and near-Earth environment provide an excellent laboratory for the study of turbulence, and are the only in-situ accessible astrophysical plasmas. Read more ..


India on Edge

India Defends Itself Against Charges of Internet Censorship

August 25th 2012

Computer User India

In India, the government is defending itself against charges of Internet censorship after asking companies such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites. India's efforts to regulate online content and pressure social media companies have attracted criticism.
 
Following threats to take action against Twitter, Indian officials say the micro-blogging site has agreed to talk to the government. But the government’s face-off with Twitter is far from over.

The government wants Twitter to remove 28 pages containing what it calls “objectionable content,” but officials say Twitter has cited technical difficulties in complying with the request. The government asked social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites and pages recently after doctored online images fueled rumors of revenge attacks by Muslims on migrants from the north east, prompting them to flee cities. Communication and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal refutes charges that the government is trying to censor social media. But he says its misuse has to be prevented.
Read more ..

The Edfe of Space

WiggleZ confirms the Big Picture of the Universe

August 24th 2012

GiggleZ View of Universe
GiggleZ View of the Universe

We know that stars group together to form galaxies, galaxies clump to make clusters and clusters gather to create structures known as superclusters. At what scale though, if at all, does this Russian doll-like structure stop? Scientists have been debating this very question for decades because clustering on large scales would be in conflict with our 'standard model' of cosmology. The current model is based on Einstein's equations assuming everything is smooth on the largest scales. If matter were instead clumpy on very large scales, then the entire model would need to be rethought.

Cosmologists agree that on 'small' scales (tens of millions of light years), matter in the Universe is highly clustered. So the 'standard model' can only hold true if the Universe transitions to an even distribution of matter (homogeneity) on larger scales, irrespective of the viewing direction. However, some scientists have recently argued that the entire Universe never becomes homogenous, and that it is clustered on all scales, much like one of Mandelbrot's famous 'fractals' (a snowflake is a good example of a fractal). If the Universe has properties similar to a fractal, our description of space and time is wrong, and our understanding of things like Dark Energy is deeply flawed. 

Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Penny-Sized Rocket Thruster May Soon Power The Smallest Satellites In Space

August 24th 2012

IBEX in high Earth orbit

A penny-sized rocket thruster may soon power the smallest satellites in space. The device, designed by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, bears little resemblance to today’s bulky satellite engines, which are laden with valves, pipes and heavy propellant tanks. Instead, Lozano’s design is a flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward. “They’re so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle,” Lozano says. He adds that a small satellite outfitted with several microthrusters could “not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll.” Lozano and his group in MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory and Microsystems Technology Laboratory presented their new thruster array at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ recent Joint Propulsion Conference.

Cleaning up CubeSat clutter
Today, more than two dozen small satellites, called CubeSats, orbit Earth. Each is slightly bigger than a Rubik’s cube, and weighs less than three pounds. Their diminutive size classifies them as “nanosatellites,” in contrast with traditional Earth-monitoring behemoths. These petite satellites are cheap to assemble, and can be launched into space relatively easily: Since they weigh very little, a rocket can carry several CubeSats as secondary payload without needing extra fuel. Read more ..


The Edge of Chemistry

Northwestern Scientists Create Chemical Brain

August 23rd 2012

Eyeball Surveillance

Northwestern University scientists have connected 250 years of organic chemical knowledge into one giant computer network -- a chemical Google on steroids. This "immortal chemist" will never retire and take away its knowledge but instead will continue to learn, grow and share.

A decade in the making, the software optimizes syntheses of drug molecules and other important compounds, combines long (and expensive) syntheses of compounds into shorter and more economical routes and identifies suspicious chemical recipes that could lead to chemical weapons.

"I realized that if we could link all the known chemical compounds and reactions between them into one giant network, we could create not only a new repository of chemical methods but an entirely new knowledge platform where each chemical reaction ever performed and each compound ever made would give rise to a collective 'chemical brain,'" said Bartosz A. Grzybowski, who led the work. "The brain then could be searched and analyzed with algorithms akin to those used in Google or telecom networks." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Intense Bursts of Star Formation Drive Fierce Galactic Winds

August 23rd 2012

Starburst

Fierce galactic winds powered by an intense burst of star formation may blow gas right out of massive galaxies, shutting down their ability to make new stars.

Sifting through images and data from three telescopes, a team of astronomers found 29 objects with outflowing winds measuring up to 2,500 kilometers per second, an order of magnitude faster than most observed galactic winds.

"They're nearly blowing themselves apart," said Aleksandar Diamond-Stanic, a fellow at the University of California's Southern California Center for Galaxy Evolution, who led the study. "Most galactic winds are more like fountains; the outflowing gas will fall back onto the galaxies. With the high-velocity winds we've observed the outflowing gas will escape the galaxy and never return." The galaxies they observed are a few billion light years away with outflowing winds of 500 to 2,500 kilometers per second. Initially they thought the winds might be coming from quasars, but a closer look revealed these winds emanate from entire galaxies. Young, bright and compact, these massive galaxies are in the midst of or just completing a period of star formation as intense as anyone has ever observed. Read more ..


The Race for Microbial Fuel

Teaching a Microbe to Make Fuel

August 22nd 2012

Test Tubes

A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They've tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel — specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline.

Christopher Brigham, a research scientist in MIT's biology department who has been working to develop this bioengineered bacterium, is currently trying to get the organism to use a stream of carbon dioxide as its source of carbon, so that it could be used to make fuel out of emissions. Brigham is co-author of a paper on this research published this month in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.

Brigham explains that in its natural state, when the microbe's source of essential nutrients (such as nitrate or phosphate) is restricted, "it will go into carbon-storage mode," essentially storing away food for later use when it senses that resources are limited. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Warming Causes More Extreme Shifts of the Southern Hemisphere's Largest Rain Band

August 21st 2012

Rain

Warming causes more extreme shifts of the Southern Hemisphere's largest rain band

South Pacific countries will experience more extreme floods and droughts, in response to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a paper out today in the journal Nature.

The changes will result from the South Pacific rain band responding to greenhouse warming. The South Pacific rain band is largest and most persistent of the Southern Hemisphere spanning the Pacific from south of the Equator, south-eastward to French Polynesia. Occasionally, the rain band moves northwards towards the Equator by 1000 kilometres, inducing extreme climate events.

The international study, led by CSIRO oceanographer Dr Wenju Cai, focuses on how the frequency of such movement may change in the future. The study finds the frequency will almost double in the next 100 years, with a corresponding intensification of the rain band. Read more ..


Ancient Humans

Earliest Modern Human Fossil found in Southeast Asia

August 21st 2012

Lao skull

An ancient skull recovered from a cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos is the oldest modern human fossil found in Southeast Asia, researchers report. The discovery pushes back the clock on modern human migration through the region by as much as 20,000 years and indicates that ancient wanderers out of Africa left the coast and inhabited diverse habitats much earlier than previously appreciated.

The team described its finding in a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists, who found the skull in 2009, were likely the first to dig for ancient bones in Laos since the early 1900s, when a team found skulls and skeletons of several modern humans in another cave in the Annamite Mountains. Those fossils were about 16,000 years old, much younger than the newly found skull, which dates to between 46,000 and 63,000 years old.

"It's a particularly old modern human fossil and it's also a particularly old modern human for that region," said University of Illinois anthropologist Laura Shackelford, who led the study with anthropologist Fabrice Demeter, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. "There are other modern human fossils in China or in Island Southeast Asia that may be around the same age but they either are not well dated or they do not show definitively modern human features. This skull is very well dated and shows very conclusive modern human features," she said. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Greenland Ice Sheet Melting Shatters Record

August 20th 2012

NASA ICESCAPE Arctic melt pools

Melting over the Greenland ice sheet shattered the seasonal record on August 8 – a full four weeks before the close of the melting season, reports Marco Tedesco, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at The City College of New York.

The melting season in Greenland usually lasts from June – when the first puddles of meltwater appear – to early-September, when temperatures cool. This year, cumulative melting in the first week in August had already exceeded the record of 2010, taken over a full season, according to Professor Tedesco's ongoing analysis. "With more yet to come in August, this year's overall melting will fall way above the old records. That's a goliath year – the greatest melt since satellite recording began in 1979," said Professor Tedesco. This spells a change for the face of southern Greenland, he added, with the ice sheet thinning at its edges and lakes on top of glaciers proliferating. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Where is Curiosity Going?

August 19th 2012

By now it's old news that NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity is resting safely on the surface of Red Planet after a daredevil landing that had the nation holding its breath. Now, mission scientists are anxious to start moving. With such a sweet set of wheels at their disposal and the "open road" before them, just where will they go first?

"We won't have to travel far for excitement," says project scientist John Grotzinger. "We landed in the best possible place within the landing ellipse -- the bottom of an alluvial fan." An alluvial fan is a pattern of sedimentary rocks, dirt, and sand deposited by flowing water – in this case, perhaps an ancient Martian river. Since life as we know it requires liquid water, this is an excellent first place to search for clues of a Mars that was once hospitable to life.

"The alluvial fan indicates that water flowed across the surface, so we'll head downhill to where water might have collected. We'll be looking for minerals like salts that might tell us where water has been. It's kind of like a scavenger hunt with minerals as clues." Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Earthworms are Heavy Metal Consumers

August 18th 2012

earthworm lunch

Earthworms could be used to extract toxic heavy metals, including cadmium and lead, from solid waste from domestic refuse collection and waste from vegetable and flower markets, according to researchers writing in the International Journal of Environment and Waste Management.

Swati Pattnaik and M. Vikram Reddy of the Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, at Pondicherry University, in Puducherry, India, explain how three species of earthworm, Eudrilus eugeniae, Eisenia fetida and Perionyx excavates can be used to assist in the composting of urban waste and to extract heavy metals, cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, zinc, prior to subsequent processing.

With rapid increases in urban populations particularly in the developing world, there is a growing problem of how to manage organic waste and to find alternatives to landfill disposal particularly for domestic food waste and that from vegetable markets. According to the research team, it is an unfortunate fact of life that much of this waste is currently dumped on the outskirts of many towns and cities and is causing serious pollution, disease risk and general ecological harm. It also represents a considerable wasted resource, whereas the organic matter might be exploited usefully in growing food crops. Read more ..


The Healthcare Edge

Gut Bacteria Increase Pre-Diabetes Risk

August 17th 2012

Certain bacteria in the human gut seem to be associated with pre-diabetes, a condition marked by a constellation of risk factors that often precedes the on-set of full-blown type 2 diabetes in humans. The finding is part of an effort to discover the role of trillions of bacteria or microbiota that live in our bodies.

According to Brandi Cantarel, the number of bacteria living happily inside us outnumbers human cells by an astounding 10-1.  Cantarel is a researcher at the Institute for Genome Science at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “With all that extra stuff, let’s say genetic material in our bodies that doesn’t come from us, it comes from other sources, we think it has to be doing something," said Cantarel. "Right?”

According to Cantarel, scientists believe there are over 7,000 strains of more than 1,000 different species of bacteria that live in the digestive tract, most of them in the gut or small intestine, which play a role in human health. Many of the trillions of microbes are helpful; without them, for example, we couldn’t digest food properly. But experts say bacteria that are out of balance could be harmful. Researchers have identified 26 microbes that researchers say may be negatively associated with pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Speech Recognition On Cell Phones Grow to 68 Percent through 2017

August 16th 2012

Smart phone running voice recogniton

As mobile speech recognition technologies continue to improve in their efficacy, the vendors of the speech technology platforms are making concerted efforts to enable the long tail of mobile application developers with speech recognition capabilities.

ABI Research notes the efforts of companies such as Nuance, AT&T, and iSpeech for exposing their APIs and developer programs as the foremost strategy in reaching the long tail of mobile applications. “Reaching a varied group of developers working on different OS and hardware platforms makes cloud based solutions the optimum approach to enabling the masses,” says mobile devices, content and applications senior analyst Michael Morgan. “It is the approach of using network based solutions that will drive the rapid increase in cloud based revenues.”

Historically, mobile speech recognition was delivered to consumers through relationships between device OEMs and platform vendors. The other route to the consumer came through virtual assistant applications that were often developed by the platform vendors. Read more ..


The Race for Smart Grids

Researchers Print Wireless Power Antennas for Less Than A Penny

August 16th 2012

RFID antenna

Researchers in Korea have developed a low cost technique to print antennas that can be used to deliver power wirelessly.

The rectenna design couples with an AC field to provide a DC output to power devices such as sensors. The design, by researchers at the Printed Electronics Engineering programme of Sunchon National University and the Paru Printed Electronics Research Institute in Sunchon, can even harvest the energy radiated by mobile phones to power devices. This could allow sensor networks such as RFID tags, price tags, smart logos, signage, and sensors could be fully interconnected and driven by DC power of less than 0.3 W.

“What is great about this technique is that we can also print the digital information onto the rectenna, meaning that everything you need for wireless communication is in one place,” said Gyoujin Cho, co-author of the study. “Our advantage over current technology is lower cost, since we can produce a roll-to-roll printing process with high throughput in an environmentally friendly manner. Furthermore, we can integrate many extra functions without huge extra cost in the printing process.” Read more ..


The Edge of Weather

Weather Forcasting's High-Tech Revolution

August 15th 2012

Irene hits NYC 08/29

In an age of increasingly uncertain weather, a new Israeli meteorological innovation may become the most powerful way of predicting the weather yet. Shipping companies, aviation specialists, sailors, farmers, wind turbine owners – — even the Boy Scouts – know that better weather prediction leads to a better ability to avoid risks to infrastructure, products and lives.

This is especially true when faced with today’s increasingly unpredictable weather. Professionals with a lot at stake can’t rely on a weatherman’s forecast, which can change like the wind. Meteo-Logic, a new cutting-edge meteorological innovation from Israel, can deliver real-time updates on the weather in what some experts believe is the most powerful way of predicting the weather yet. “Generally there are two or three concepts you need to look at in order to accurately predict the weather,” said Igal Zivoni, founder and CEO of Meteo-Logic. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Fatal Fungus is Spread by Global Trade in Tasty Bullfrogs

August 15th 2012

American bullfrog devours Brazilian frog
American bullfrog devours native frog in Brazil. Credit: Julia Toledo

The global trade in bullfrogs, which are farmed as a food source in South America and elsewhere, is spreading a deadly fungus that is contributing to the decline of amphibians worldwide, according to a University of Michigan biologist and his colleagues. Amphibian populations are declining worldwide at an alarming rate, and the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus is believed to be a contributing factor. The fungus infects the skin of frogs, toads and salamanders.

University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Timothy James and his colleagues examine the role of bullfrog farming in spreading the chytrid fungus between the forests and frog farms of Brazil and then to the United States and Japan. The researchers collected and analyzed bullfrogs sold at Asian food shops in seven U.S. cities and found that 41 percent of the frogs were infected with chytrid fungus, which is harmless to humans. Frogs in these shops are imported live primarily from farms in Taiwan, Brazil and Ecuador and sold as food for their legs. James and his colleagues also analyzed bullfrogs from frog farms in Brazil and several native frog species from Brazil's Atlantic Forest, one of the most amphibian-rich regions in the world. Their DNA sequencing studies identified the various strains of the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd for short, present in the frogs. Read more ..


Edge on Biology

How Geckos Cope with Wet Feet

August 14th 2012

Tokay gecko

Geckos are remarkable little creatures, clinging to almost any dry surface, and Alyssa Stark, from the University of Akron, USA, explains that they appear to be equally happy scampering through tropical rainforest canopies as they are in urban settings. “A lot of work is done on geckos that looks at the very small adhesive structures on their toes to really understand how the system works at the most basic level,” says Stark. She adds that the animals grip surfaces with microscopic hairs on the soles of their feet that make close enough contact to be attracted to the surface by the minute van der Waals forces between atoms. However, she and her colleagues Timothy Sullivan and Peter Niewiarowski were curious about how the lizards cope on surfaces in their natural habitat.

Explaining that previous studies had focused on the reptiles clinging to artificial dry surfaces, Stark says “We know they are in tropical environments that probably have a lot of rain and it’s not like the geckos fall out of the trees when it’s wet.” Yet, the animals do seem to have trouble getting a grip on smooth wet surfaces, sliding down wet vertical glass after a several steps even though minute patches of the animals’ adhesive structures do not slip under humid conditions on moist glass. The team decided to find out how Tokay geckos with wet feet cope on wet and dry surfaces, and publish their discovery that geckos struggle to remain attached as their feet get wetter in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Stormy Sun Could Damage World’s Power Grids

August 13th 2012
Solar eruption with coronal mass ejection (credit: NASA)
 

Stormy weather on the sun could soon wreak havoc on Earth, knocking the world’s power grids off line while damaging communication equipment, satellites, spacecraft and GPS systems, possibly leaving us unable to communicate or transact normal business.

Mike Hapgood, a scientist who specializes in space weather at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England, told Reuters governments around the world are taking threats posed by these solar storms so seriously that they’re putting them on their national risk registers, which are normally used for disaster planning, along with events like tsunamis and volcanic eruption. “These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic,” Hapgood said.

The sun, just like Earth, has its own weather systems. And, just like on Earth, the sun can have bouts of really stormy conditions from time to time. Read more ..


Health Edge

Stress and Depression Shrink the Brain

August 13th 2012

Invisible Brain

Major depression or chronic stress can cause the loss of brain volume, a condition that contributes to both emotional and cognitive impairment. Now a team of researchers led by Yale scientists has discovered one reason why this occurs — a single genetic switch that triggers loss of brain connections in humans and depression in animal models.

The findings, reported in the Aug. 12 issue of the journal Nature Medicine, show that the genetic switch known as a transcription factor represses the expression of several genes that are necessary for the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells, which in turn could contribute to loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex.

"We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans," said senior author Ronald Duman, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry and professor of neurobiology and of pharmacology. "We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated."

The research team analyzed tissue of depressed and non-depressed patients donated from a brain bank and looked for different patterns of gene activation. The brains of patients who had been depressed exhibited lower levels of expression in genes that are required for the function and structure of brain synapses. Lead author and postdoctoral researcher H.J. Kang discovered that at least five of these genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1. When the transcription factor was activated, rodents exhibited depressive-like symptoms, suggesting GATA1 plays a role not only in the loss of connections between neurons but also in symptoms of depression. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Why Do Organisms Build Tissue Structures They Seemingly Never Use?

August 12th 2012

Frog life stages

Why, after millions of years of evolution, do organisms build structures that seem to serve no purpose?

A study conducted at Michigan State University and published in the current issue of The American Naturalist investigates the evolutionary reasons why organisms go through developmental stages that appear unnecessary.

“Many animals build tissues and structures they don’t appear to use, and then they disappear,” said Jeff Clune, lead author and former doctoral student at MSU’s BEACON Center of Evolution in Action. “It’s comparable to building a roller coaster, razing it and building a skyscraper on the same ground. Why not just skip ahead to building the skyscraper?”

Why humans and other organisms retain seemingly unnecessary stages in their development has been debated between biologists since 1866. This study explains that organisms jump through these extra hoops to avoid disrupting a developmental process that works. Clune’s team called this concept the “developmental disruption force.” But Clune says it also could be described as “if the shoe fits, don’t change a thing.”

“In a developing embryo, each new structure is built in a delicate environment that consists of everything that has already developed,” said Clune, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. “Mutations that alter that environment, such as by eliminating a structure, can thus disrupt later stages of development. Even if a structure is not actually used, it may set the stage for other functional tissues to grow properly.”

Going back to the roller coaster metaphor, even though the roller coaster gets torn down, the organism needs the parts from that teardown to build the skyscraper, he added.

“An engineer would simply skip the roller coaster step, but evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer,” Clune said. “It uses whatever parts that are lying around, even if the process that generates those parts is inefficient.”

An interesting consequence is that newly evolved traits tend to get added at the end of development, because there is less risk of disrupting anything important. That, in turn, means that there is a similarity between the order things evolve and the order they develop. Read more ..



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