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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 ..

The Geological Edge

Plate Tectonics on Mars?

August 12th 2012

Valles Marineris
Valles Marineris (Viking orbiter photomosaic
credit USGS/NASA Viking Project)

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet’s surface, also exists on Mars.

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth,” said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from NASA’s THEMIS spacecraft and from the HIRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images—and approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics. Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of the Earth’s seven major plates divide. “When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” said Yin, a planetary geologist. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Nearly One Phone in Five To Have Facial Recognition Capability by End of 2012

August 10th 2012

Eyeball Surveillance

By the end of 2012, almost 20% of annual smartphone shipments will include facial recognition capabilities, according to new data from ABI Research. In five years' time, shipments of smartphones and tablets with the technology will increase to 665 million annually. Currently, only Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean mobile operating systems support the technology in significant volumes. The Samsung Galaxy SIII is one of the most notable smartphones to feature this technology. Over the next two to three years, many more operating systems and mobile OEMs will incorporate the technology.

Facial recognition has been on the technology radar for some time. It was developed in the 1960s by three scientists: Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson. Historically, the major challenge for the technology in mobile devices has been incorporating an accurate enough sensor (camera) and a powerful enough processor to undertake the complex algorithms while limiting power consumption. Thanks to major technology advancements, this has changed, notes ABI Research. “Facial recognition technology has improved drastically over the last 10 years and accuracy is almost always above 90%,” says ABI Research senior analyst Josh Flood. “That said, lighting conditions and facial expressions can sometimes cause problems with the recognition. However, the improvements in camera resolution and processing power utilized by mobile devices has helped greatly.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Shredded Star Broadcasts its Own “Cry”

August 9th 2012

Swift J1544+57 (black hole)
Artist’s conception of Swift J1644+57 (credit: NASA GSFC)

Last year, astronomers discovered a quiescent black hole in a distant galaxy that erupted after shredding and consuming a passing star. Now researchers have identified a distinctive X-ray signal observed in the days following the outburst that comes from matter on the verge of falling into the black hole. This tell-tale signal, called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO), is a characteristic feature of the accretion disks that often surround the most compact objects in the universe—white dwarf stars, neutron stars and black holes. QPOs have been seen in many stellar-mass black holes, and there is tantalizing evidence for them in a few black holes that may have middleweight masses between 100 and 100,000 times the sun’s.

Until the new finding, QPOs had been detected around only one supermassive black hole—the type containing millions of solar masses and located at the centers of galaxies. That object is the Seyfert-type galaxy REJ 1034+396, which at a distance of 576 million light-years lies relatively nearby. Read more ..

The Biology Edge

How The Cell Swallows

August 9th 2012

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, have combined the power of two kinds of microscope to produce a 3-dimensional movie of how cells “swallow” nutrients and other molecules by engulfing them. The study, published in Cell, is the first to follow changes in the shape of the cell’s membrane and track proteins thought to influence those changes. It also provides ample data to investigate this essential process further.

This “swallowing,” called endocytosis, is involved in a variety of crucial tasks. It is used by brain cells relaying information to each other, for instance, and is also hijacked by many viruses, which use it to invade their host’s cells. When a cell is about to swallow some molecules, a dent appears in the cell’s membrane, and gradually expands inwards, pinching off to form a little pouch, or vesicle, that transports molecules into the cell. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

A Blue Whirlpool in The River

August 8th 2012

NGC 1187 in Eridanus via VLT
Spiral galaxy NCG 1187 in Eridanus (credit: ESO)

The galaxy NGC 1187, discovered is seen almost face-on, which gives us a good view of its spiral structure. About half a dozen prominent spiral arms can be seen, each containing large amounts of gas and dust. The bluish features in the spiral arms indicate the presence of young stars born out of clouds of interstellar gas. Looking towards the central regions, we see the bulge of the galaxy glowing yellow. This part of the galaxy is mostly made up of old stars, gas, and dust. In the case of NGC 1187, rather than a round bulge, there is a subtle central bar structure. Such bar features are thought to act as mechanisms that channel gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing star formation there.

Around the outside of the galaxy many much fainter and more distant galaxies can also be seen. Some even shine right through the disc of NGC 1187 itself. Their mostly reddish hues contrast with the pale blue star clusters of the much closer object. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Vaporizing the (Super-)Earth

August 8th 2012

Sunrise on CoRoT-71b
Artist’s conception of sunrise on CoRoT-71b (credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

In science fiction, evil overlords and hostile aliens often threaten to vaporize the Earth. At the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the officiously bureaucratic aliens called Vogons, authors of the third-worst poetry in the universe, actually follow through on the threat, destroying the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

“We scientists are not content just to talk about vaporizing the Earth,” says Bruce Fegley, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tongue firmly in cheek. “We want to understand exactly what it would be like if it happened.”

And in fact Fegley, PhD, and his colleagues Katharina Lodders, PhD, a research professor of earth and planetary sciences who is currently on assignment at the National Science Foundation, and Laura Schaefer, currently a graduate student at Harvard University, have vaporized the Earth—if only by simulation, that is mathematically and inside a computer. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Supernova Candidate Found?

August 8th 2012

Artist’s conception a white dwarf and companion
Artist’s conception a white dwarf and companion
(credit: Casey Reed/NASA/CXC)

Type Ia supernovae are violent stellar explosions. Observations of their brightness are used to determine distances in the universe and have shown scientists that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. But there is still too little known about the specifics of the processes by which these supernovae form. New research led by Carnegie’s Stella Kafka identifies a star, prior to explosion, which will possibly become a type Ia supernova. The work will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The widely accepted theory is that type Ia supernovae are thermonuclear explosions of a white dwarf star that’s part of a binary system—two stars that are physically close and orbit around a common center of mass. This white dwarf has mass gradually donated to it by its companion. When the white dwarf mass eventually reaches 1.4 times the sun, it explodes to produce a type Ia supernova. The crucial questions are: What is the nature of the donor star and how does this white dwarf increase its mass. Also, how would that process affect the properties of the explosion? Read more ..

Earth on Edge

New Instrument for Van Allen Belt Study

August 7th 2012

RBSPs deploy solar panels

NJIT Distinguished Research Professor and former Bell Labs scientist Louis J. Lanzerotti, will see his 50-year quest to better understand space weather and Earth’s Van Allen Radiation Belts rocket, once again, into space on Aug. 23, 2012. This is when NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) begin their mission to study the extremes of space weather. Lanzerotti, today one of the most respected and valued scientists behind space exploration, was the principal investigator to build one of five instruments aboard each of the two spacecraft that comprise the RBSP mission.

The mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) manages the mission and has built and will operate the two RBSP spacecraft for NASA. RBSP begins its exploration with a predawn August 23 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket. Each RBSP spacecraft weighs about 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds) and carries an identical set of five instrument suites that will enable scientists to unlock the mysteries of the radiation belts surrounding Earth. Read more ..

The Agriculture Edge

Researchers Demonstrate Control of Devastating Cassava Virus in Africa

August 7th 2012


An international research collaboration recently demonstrated progress in protecting cassava against cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), a serious virus disease, in a confined field trial in Uganda using an RNA interference technology.  The field trial was planted in November 2010 following approval by the National Biosafety Committee of Uganda.  The plants were harvested in November 2011. These results point researchers in the right direction as they develop virus-resistant cassava varieties preferred by farmers in Eastern Africa.  

In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 250 million people derive at least 25 percent of their daily calorie intake from the starchy cassava tuberous roots.  In the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi, 63 percent of households also sell cassava products to earn income for their families.  It is estimated that in the next 15 years, cassava will constitute the second most important source of income for more than 125 million people in East Africa. Read more ..

The Nano Edge

Biodegradable Transistors from Proteins

August 7th 2012

Red blood cells
Red blood cells (credit: A. Egelberg)

Blood, milk, and mucus proteins could soon replace silicon to produce transistors, which amplify electrical signals and are the basis of most modern technology. One of the most important benefits of this discovery is that these transistors will be biodegradable. A team of researchers including students Elad Mentovich and Netta Hendler of TAU’s Department of Chemistry and The Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, with supervisor Shachar Richter and in collaboration with Prof. Michael Gozin and his student Bogdan Belgorodsky, have brought together biology and chemistry to create self- assembling protein-based transistors.

Each organic protein has unique properties and when mixed together can create a complete circuit with electronic and optical capabilities with great flexibility in terms of conductivity, memory storage, and fluorescence. Blood proteins can absorb oxygen, allowing researchers to add different chemicals to adjust the properties of the semiconductor in order to create specific technological properties. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Fingering the Culprit that Polluted the Solar System

August 6th 2012

Gamma Ray Burst

For decades it has been thought that a shock wave from a supernova explosion triggered the formation of our Solar System. According to this theory, the shock wave also injected material from the exploding star into a cloud of dust and gas, and the newly polluted cloud collapsed to form the Sun and its surrounding planets. New work from Carnegie's Alan Boss and Sandra Keiser provides the first fully three-dimensional (3-D) models for how this process could have happened. Their work will be published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Traces of the supernova's pollution can be found in meteorites in the form of short-lived radioactive isotopes, or SLRIs. SLRIs—versions of elements with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons—found in primitive meteorites decay on time scales of millions of years and turn into different, so-called daughter, elements. A million years may sound like a long time, but it is actually considered short when compared to other radioactive isotopes studied by geochemists and cosmochemists, which have half-lives measured in billions of years.

The Edge of Space

NASA’s Curiosity Lands Safely on Mars after “Seven Minutes of Terror”

August 6th 2012

Curiosty MSL at work
Curiosity at work (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA, the U.S. space agency, says that its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has made a successful landing on the red planet.

There will be several weeks of testing before NASA turns Curiosity loose to roam about the Martian surface, looking for signs that the planet once might have had conditions suitable to support life. But first the scientists and engineers at the Joint Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles did a little celebrating.

NASA described Curiosity’s plunge through the Martian atmosphere as “seven minutes of terror,” but the landing, which engineers said was the most complex ever attempted, proceeded flawlessly. Moments after touchdown the craft sent a picture back to Earth, showing one of its six wheels on the planet’s surface. The first pictures from the craft were received back on Earth almost immediately after confirmation of the landing Monday at about 5:30a.m. UTC. Read more ..

The Agriculture Edge

New Technology Eliminates Plant Toxins

August 5th 2012

Corn field

Plants produce toxins to defend themselves against potential enemies, from herbivorous pests to diseases. Oilseed rape plants produce glucosinolates to serve this purpose. However, due to the content of glucosinolates, farmers can only use limited quantities of the protein-rich rapeseed for pig and chicken feed. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has developed a method to hinder unwanted toxins from entering the edible parts of the plant.

"We have developed an entirely new technology that we call 'transport engineering'. It can be used to eliminate unwanted substances from the edible parts of crops," says Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, head of the Center of Excellence for Dynamic Molecular Interactions (DynaMo) at the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Science.

The oilseed rape plant is but one example of a crop whose use will be greatly enhanced thanks to the new technology. Unlike the healthy glucosinolates found in broccoli, oilseed rape additionally produces a glucosinolate that is harmful to most animals when consumed in larger amounts. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA Plans to Launch Astronauts

August 4th 2012

Astronaut Hall of Fame

NASA has announced new agreements with U.S. companies to develop spacecraft so that astronauts once again can launch from the United States. The U.S. has not had that capability since it retired its space shuttle fleet last year. Now it looks like the launches could happen by the end of 2017.

NASA officials say U.S. reliance on Russia to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station could be over by the end of 2017. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden held a news conference Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Today we're announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies," said Bolden. "We've selected three companies to develop crew transportation capabilities as a fully integrated system and keep us on track to end the outsourcing of our human spaceflight program." Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Cloud Computing to Boost Global Memory IC market

August 3rd 2012

CG cloud

Despite suffering from significant oversupply problems, the global memory integrated circuits (IC) market will be driven on by data centers and the advent of cloud computing, expects a new report by international business analysts GBI Research. According to the company's latest report, the increased adoption of cloud computing services among various enterprises and customers is leading to the design and development of memory ICs suitable for shared servers and storage devices.

In-memory cloud computing offers large amounts of memory storage through a new storage tier, and is currently in high demand, with applications such as Apple’s iCloud leading the way. Continuing developments will increase the market of memory ICs, which will in turn help cloud computing infrastructure and data centers to deal with issues related to storage and reliability. The main challenge of such cloud computing infrastructure services is to maintain high system performance at low infrastructure costs, even when data size grows continuously. Advances in flash memory, specifically NAND flash, are of key importance as higher density types enable more applications per server. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA’s Curiosity Set for Mars Landing

August 1st 2012

Curiosity Rover at work
Mars Rover

The U.S. space agency is preparing for its newest Mars rover, Curiosity, to touch down on the Red Planet on August 6. The rover’s entry and descent will be nerve-wracking for NASA engineers, compounded by a 14-minute delay as the rover’s signals travel to Earth from Mars. If successful, Curiosity will be the sixth NASA spacecraft to land on the Red Planet.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, launched in November aboard an Atlas V rocket. It’s traveled some 560 million kilometers toward its destination.

Curiosity is a “Mars scientist’s dream machine,” said Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada ahead of its launch. “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out,” he said. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

The Brightest Stars Don’t Live Alone

August 1st 2012

Vampire star and victim
Artist’s Conception of a Vampire Star and its Victim
(credit: ESO/L. Calçada/S.E. de Mink)

The Universe is a diverse place, and many stars are quite unlike the Sun. An international team has used the VLT to study what are known as O-type stars, which have very high temperature, mass, and brightness. These stars have short and violent lives and play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as “vampire stars”, where a smaller companion star sucks matter off the surface of its larger neighbour, and gamma-ray bursts. Most stars are classified according to their spectral type, or colour. This in turn is related to the stars’ mass and surface temperature. From bluest (and hence hottest and highest mass) to reddest (and hence coolest and lowest mass), the most common classification sequence is O, B, A, F, G, K and M. Our sun is a G-type.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” says Hugues Sana (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), the lead author of the study. “They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 30,000° Celsius.” Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Locally Produced Proteins Reveal Importance

July 30th 2012

Brain Light

Several years ago, Prof. Michael Fainzilber and his group in the Biological Chemistry Department made a surprising discovery: Proteins thought to exist only near the cell nucleus could also be found in the far-off regions of the body’s longest cells—peripheral nerve cells that extend processes called axons, reaching up to a meter in length in adult humans.

These proteins, known as importins, have a well-studied role in the vicinity of the nucleus: They shuttle various molecules through the protective nuclear membrane. Fainzilber and his group showed that when a nerve cell is injured somewhere along its length, importins in the long axons hook into a sort of “railcar” mechanism, which then transports the “Help!” message from the injury site all the way to the nucleus.

These findings raised an intriguing question: How did importins get to the axons in the first place? Initial evidence suggested that one critical importin, called importin beta1, is produced locally upon injury near the site where it is needed. The problem was that years of scientific thinking on the subject indicated that proteins do not get manufactured in the axons, as investigations had turned up few of the cellular protein factories known as ribosomes there. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

California's 'Silicon Beach' Draws Tech Start-Ups

July 28th 2012


California's Silicon Valley, near San Francisco, is world famous as a haven for technology companies, including giants like Google and Facebook. Many young entrepreneurs are bypassing Silicon Valley, though, to start their companies in an area called Silicon Beach.

On the west side of Los Angeles, people from around the world come for the beach, year-round sunshine and warm weather. This also is where Gregg Spiridellis and his brother operate the online comedy and e-card company, JibJab. 

“We are two blocks from the beach. It’s 72 degrees [i.e., about 22 degrees Celsius] and sunny every single day,” said Spiridellis.

Tech companies crop up
Spiridellis moved his company 10 years ago from New York to the beach in Los Angeles, after the dot.com crash almost wiped out his company. The move gave new life to his business. “When we first moved out to L.A., there was no technology community. We did not move to Los Angeles for technology in 2002; we moved to artists for creative talent,” he said. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Judging DNA by Its Cover

July 27th 2012

Human embryonic stem cells
Human embryonic stem cells (credit: PLoS Biology)

Stem cells hold great promise for the medicine of the future, but they can also be a cause of disease. When these self-renewing, unspecialized cells fail to differentiate into diverse cell types, they can start dividing uncontrollably, leading to cancer. Several decades ago, Weizmann Institute scientists were among the first to demonstrate the link between cancer and the faulty differentiation of stem cells. Now a new Weizmann Institute-led study, published in Molecular Cell, reveals a potential molecular mechanism behind this link.

The scientists managed to uncover the details of a step in the process of DNA “repackaging” that takes place during embryonic stem cell differentiation. It turns out that for the cells to differentiate properly, certain pieces of the packaging of their DNA must be labeled by a molecular tag called ubiquitin. Such tagging is required for turning on a group of particularly long genes, which enable the stem cell to differentiate.

The researchers identified two switches: An enzyme called RNF20 enhances the tagging, whereas a second enzyme, USP44, does the opposite, shutting it down. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Chemical Makes Blind Mice See; Compound Holds Promise For Treating Humans

July 25th 2012

Mouse in Beaker

A team of University of California, Berkeley, scientists in collaboration with researchers at the University of Munich and University of Washington in Seattle has discovered a chemical that temporarily restores some vision to blind mice, and is working on an improved compound that may someday allow people with degenerative blindness to see again.

The approach could eventually help those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is the most common inherited form of blindness, as well as age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of acquired blindness in the developed world. In both diseases, the light sensitive cells in the retina — the rods and cones — die, leaving the eye without functional photoreceptors.

The chemical, called AAQ, acts by making the remaining, normally "blind" cells in the retina sensitive to light, said lead researcher Richard Kramer, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. AAQ is a photoswitch that binds to protein ion channels on the surface of retinal cells. When switched on by light, AAQ alters the flow of ions through the channels and activates these neurons much the way rods and cones are activated by light.

"This is similar to the way local anesthetics work: they embed themselves in ion channels and stick around for a long time, so that you stay numb for a long time," Kramer said. "Our molecule is different in that it's light sensitive, so you can turn it on and off and turn on or off neural activity."

Because the chemical eventually wears off, it may offer a safer alternative to other experimental approaches for restoring sight, such as gene or stem cell therapies, which permanently change the retina. It is also less invasive than implanting light-sensitive chips in the eye. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Two Solar System Puzzles Solved

July 25th 2012

North America sat image

Comets and asteroids preserve the building blocks of our Solar System and should help explain its origin. But there are unsolved puzzles. For example, how did icy comets obtain particles that formed at high temperatures, and how did these refractory particles acquire rims with different compositions? Carnegie's theoretical astrophysicist Alan Boss and cosmochemist Conel Alexander are the first to model the trajectories of such particles in the unstable disk of gas and dust that formed the Solar System. They found that these refractory particles could have been processed in the hot inner disk, and then traveled out to the frigid outer regions to end up in icy comets. Their meandering trips back and forth could help explain the different compositions of their rims. The research is published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The young Sun is thought to have experienced a series of outbursts caused by the rapid infall of disk gas onto the Sun. The leading mechanism for explaining such outbursts is a phase of disk instability. The researchers modeled the trajectories of several hundred centimeter-sized melilite mineral particles during a phase of disk instability. These particles are similar to calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (or CAIs), the refractory particles often found in well-preserved meteorites, as well as the comet Wild 2. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

How the Fluid Between Cells Affects Tumors

July 25th 2012

t cells attack cancer

There are many factors that affect tumor invasion, the process where a tumor grows beyond the tissue where it first developed. While factors like genetics, tissue type and environmental exposure affect tumor metastasis and invasion, physical forces like fluid flow remain a poorly understood component of tumor invasion. A new video article in JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, describes a novel procedure that allows researchers to study and test the microenvironment of a growing tumor. The technique is valuable because it allows scientists to assay tumor invasion attributable to extracellular fluid flow in vitro and better understand the effects of such physical changes on a tumor. The study focuses specifically on a type of extracellular fluid called interstitial fluid, which flows between cells in a tissue. This procedure is a significant first step to develop an in vitro system that better mimics what happens within a growing tumor in the patient.

“Our goal is to understand how physical forces affect how tumor cells behave. By understanding factors influencing why a tumor does or does not spread, we will have a much better understanding of which therapies will affect the tumor,” said author Dr. Adrian Shieh of Drexel University. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Building a Middleweight Black Hole

July 25th 2012

Black hole pulling gas from nearby star
Artist’s conception of black hole pulling gas from a star
(credit: NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet)

A new model shows how an elusive type of black hole can be formed in the gas surrounding their supermassive counterparts. In research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, the City University of New York, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics propose that intermediate-mass black holes—light-swallowing celestial objects with masses ranging from hundreds to many thousands of times the mass of the Sun—can grow in the gas disks around supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. The physical mechanism parallels the model astrophysicists use to describe the growth of giant planets in the gas disks surrounding stars.

“We know about small black holes, which tend to be close to us and have masses a few to 10 times that of our Sun, and we know about supermassive black holes, which are found in the centers of galaxies and have a mass that’s millions to billions of times the mass of the sun,” said coauthor Saavik Ford, who is a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics as well as a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), part of the City University of New York (CUNY), and a faculty member at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “But we have no evidence for the middle stage. Intermediate-mass black holes are much harder to find.” Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Washington's Forests Will Lose Stored Carbon by Wildfires

July 24th 2012


Forests in the Pacific Northwest store more carbon than any other region in the United States, but our warming climate may undermine their storage potential.

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington has found that, by 2040, parts of Washington State could lose as much as a third of their carbon stores, as an increasing area of the state's forests is projected to be burned by wildfire. The study is the first to use statistical models and publicly available Forest Inventory and Analysis data to estimate the effects of a warming climate on carbon storage and fluxes on Washington's forests.

"When considering the use of forests to store carbon, it will be critical to consider the increasing risk of wildfire," said Crystal Raymond, a research biologist based at the station's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the study. "Especially in the West, where climate-induced changes in fire are expected to be a key agent of change." Read more ..

The Edge of Archaeology

Feces Fossils Yield Insights into Ancients Diets

July 24th 2012


Scientists have long speculated that high diabetes rates among Native Americans may have roots in the evolutionary past. "Thrifty" genes that helped ancient hunter-gatherers store fat for survival during famine may contribute to diabetes in modern times of plenty.

But a new analysis of fossil feces from an Arizona cave suggests that the evolution of thrifty genes had little to do with famine and much more to do with the nature of the ancient feast. The research, reported in the August issue of Current Anthropology, shows that prehistoric hunter-gatherers in the Southwest lived on a diet remarkably high in fiber, low in fat, and consisting largely of foods with extremely low glycemic indices. That diet alone, the researchers say, could have been enough to fix fat-hoarding genes in place.

"What we're saying is we don't really need to look to feast or famine as a basis for thrifty genes," said Karl Reinhard, an archaeologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one the study's authors. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Dark Energy and the Fate of the Universe

July 24th 2012

NGC 1097 Spiral Galaxy
Credit: Ann Feild, NASA/STScI

Dark energy makes up about 70 percent of the current content of the Universe and thus holds the ultimate fate of our Universe. Several possible scenarios are possible depending on the properties of dark energy; one is that the Universe will end in a so-called big rip.

This interesting topic was recently explored by five researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China, the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Northeastern University, and Peking University. Their work, “Dark energy and fate of the Universe,” was published in Sci China-Phys Mech Astron.

For millennia, human beings have been pondering two ultimate questions: “Where do we come from?” and "Where are we going?” Over that time, these questions have spurred theological and philosophical debate. Thanks to the rapid development of modern cosmology in the past three decades, scientists nowadays have obtained some important clues to answer these questions. The standard “inflation plus hot big bang” framework has been developed to explain the origin of the Universe. However, to forecast the destiny of the Universe, researchers have realized that the nature of dark energy is key. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Why Sheep Flock: It’s Not for the Company

July 24th 2012

Sheep in GPS for flocking study
Sheep equipped with GPS for flocking study (credit: Andrew King et al)

Many animals spend time together in large groups not because they enjoy each other’s company, but rather because it lowers their own chances of being eaten should an uninvited guest arrive on the scene—or so the theory goes. Now, researchers who have strapped GPS-enabled backpacks to flocking sheep and a herding dog provide some of the first hard evidence that this “selfish herd theory” is true. The findings appear in the currennt issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

“We were able to track the movements of the sheep and the dog that pursued them on a second-by-second basis simultaneously,” said Andrew King of The Royal Veterinary College, University of London. “In each case, we found that the sheep exhibit a strong attraction towards the center of the flock as the dog approaches,” an effort to avoid the more dangerous fringe.

The selfish herd has long been a favorite explanation for grouping behavior, the researchers say. But tracking the concerted movements of many individual animals at once and predicting a predator’s attack is not easy to do. As a result, there had been little semblance of proof. Read more ..

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