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The Health Edge

US Panel Recommends Ending Routine Blood Test for Prostate Cancer

May 22nd 2012

blood test

An independent panel of U.S. public health officials is recommending that physicians no longer use a blood test to screen men for prostate cancer. The Congressionally-created advisory group, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, says the widely-used test does more harm than good. Prostate cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among men in the U.S. Last year, more than 240,000 mostly older men in their 60s got the news. An estimated 33,000 died of the disease.

The prostate is a small, walnut-shaped organ that’s part of the male reproductive system, producing the fluid that carries sperm. Since the 1990s, the so-called prostate specific antigen or PSA test has been a routine part of medical care for men aged 55 and older in the U.S. and other developed countries. The PSA test measures levels of a protein in the blood that are elevated in the presence of prostate cancer. If cancer is found, it is treated aggressively, in nearly 90 percent of patients, with radiation, surgery or estrogen therapy designed to shrink the tumor. But the PSA test has a high rate of false positives. So, men who turn out to have no cancer at all, or whose tumors are so small they pose no real health threat, often get unnecessary interventions such as uncomfortable and medically risky prostate tissue biopsies. Read more ..

The Chemical Edge

Alternatives Sought for Endangered Rubber Supplies

May 20th 2012


Rubber supplies are in peril, and automobile tire producers are scrambling to seek alternative solutions.

Tom Sharkey, chairperson of the Michigan State University biochemistry and molecular biology department, believes isoprene, a gas given off by many trees, ferns and mosses, could be a viable option. Some plants use it as a mechanism to tolerate heat stress as opposed to most crops, which stay cool through evaporation.

Sharkey’s research team already has measured rates of isoprene emission from plants that are used by the Environmental Protection Agency to predict lower-atmosphere ozone levels. His team also has created models to measure how much isoprene plants release on a global scale. Given the amounts of isoprene made by plants, finding a way to produce a synthetic version for the rubber industry seemed like the next logical step, Sharkey said. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Rabies Evolves Slower in Hibernating Bats

May 19th 2012

egyptian fruit bat

The rate at which the rabies virus evolves in bats may depend heavily upon the ecological traits of its hosts, according to researchers at the University of Georgia, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Their study found that the host's geographical location was the most accurate predictor of the viral rate of evolution. Rabies viruses in tropical and sub-tropical bat species evolved nearly four times faster than viral variants in bats in temperate regions.

"Species that are widely distributed can have different behaviors in different geographical areas," said Daniel, the study's leader. "Bats in the tropics are active year-round, so more rabies virus transmission events occur per year. Viruses in hibernating bats, on the other hand, might lose up to six months' worth of opportunities for transmission."

Understanding the relationship between host ecology and viral evolution rates could shed light on the transmission dynamics of other viruses, such as influenza, that occur across regions, infect multiple host species or whose transmission dynamics are impacted by anthropogenic change. Read more ..

The Weather Edge

Pollution Teams With Thunderclouds to Warm Atmosphere

May 19th 2012

Click to select Image

Pollution is warming the atmosphere through summer thunderstorm clouds, according to a computational study published May 10 in Geophysical Research Letters. How much the warming effect of these clouds offsets the cooling that other clouds provide is not yet clear. To find out, researchers need to incorporate this new-found warming into global climate models.

Pollution strengthens thunderstorm clouds, causing their anvil-shaped tops to spread out high in the atmosphere and capture heat -- especially at night, said lead author and climate researcher Jiwen Fan of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "Global climate models don't see this effect because thunderstorm clouds simulated in those models do not include enough detail," said Fan. "The large amount of heat trapped by the pollution-enhanced clouds could potentially impact regional circulation and modify weather systems." Clouds are one of the most poorly understood components of Earth's climate system. Called deep convective clouds, thunderstorm clouds reflect a lot of the sun's energy back into space, trap heat that rises from the surface, and return evaporated water back to the surface as rain, making them an important part of the climate cycle. Read more ..

The Koreas on Edge

Japan Launches South Korean Satellite Into Orbit

May 18th 2012

Click to select Image

Japan has successfully launched a South Korean satellite. The historical accomplishment puts the Japanese in the same arena as European and Russian entities in the lucrative commercial space launch business. The roar of the H-2A launch vehicle shattered the early morning silence On the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima.  The space center was illuminated as the liquid-fueled 57-meter high two-stage rocket rose off the pad with four satellites on board. Sixteen minutes after launch, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced the first payload had successfully separated.

The Arirang-3 satellite (also known as KOMPSAT-3) was then placed into orbit. The Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) says it is functioning normally. Also deployed Friday from the H-2A rocket was a satellite with the world's largest revolving antenna. The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) is able to measure water temperature from the sea surface with an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say the Japanese satellite, nick-named “Shizuku,” will play an important role in monitoring global water circulation and climate change. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Human Suspicion Impulse Resides in Two Regions of the Brain

May 17th 2012

Baby Boomer

The baseline level of distrust is distinct and separable from our inborn lie detector. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on my parahippocampal gyrus.

Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have found that suspicion resides in two distinct regions of the brain: the amygdala, which plays a central role in processing fear and emotional memories, and the parahippocampal gyrus, which is associated with declarative memory and the recognition of scenes.

"We wondered how individuals assess the credibility of other people in simple social interactions," said Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who led the study. "We found a strong correlation between the amygdala and a baseline level of distrust, which may be based on a person's beliefs about the trustworthiness of other people in general, his or her emotional state, and the situation at hand. What surprised us, though, is that when other people's behavior aroused suspicion, the parahippocampal gyrus lit up, acting like an inborn lie detector." Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Navigating the Shopping Center

May 16th 2012


With a GPS receiver in your smart-phone, you can navigate your way over highways and streets with certainty. But once you get inside a building, it provides no further assistance. That’s why Fraunhofer researchers, together with the Bosch Corporation and other partners, have engineered a navigation system for interior spaces. Thanks to a clever combination of sensors, the module tracks the movements and position of its user in precise detail. At the Sensor+Test trade fair in Nuremberg from May 22-24, 2012, researchers will deliver a live demonstration of how this new interior-space navigation operates.

A smart-phone with GPS functionality is a delightful tool. It guides its owner safely and with certainty through the streets of an unfamiliar city. But after arriving at the destination, all too often the orientation is gone, because as soon as you enter a building, you lose contact with the GPS satellites. Then you are on your own – whether in the interminable hallways of the trade fair complex, or inside one of the branches of the local megaplex shopping mall. “Wouldn't it be helpful,” Harald von Rosenberg thought to himself, “if at such moments the smart-phone could quickly shift to an interior space navigator, and point the way through the rows of shops and stairwells?” Well, that is absolutely possible, as the project manager for “motion control systems” at the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA now demonstrates through the “MST-Smartsense” cooperation project from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research BMBF. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

“Dip Chip” Technology Tests Toxicity On-the-Go

May 15th 2012

Hikers on Garfield Peak Trail, Crater Lake
Garfield Peak Trail, Crater Lake (credit: Mark Gorzynski)

From man-made toxic chemicals such as industrial by-products to poisons that occur naturally, a water or food supply can be easily contaminated. And for every level of toxic material ingested, there is some level of bodily response, ranging from minor illness to painful certain death.

Biosensors have long been used to safeguard against exposure to toxic chemicals. Food tasters employed by the ancients acted as early versions of biosensors, determining if a meal had been poisoned. More modern examples include the use of fish, which may alter their swimming characteristics if a toxic material is introduced into to the water. But although current warning systems are more sophisticated, they require equipment and time that a soldier in the field or an adventurer in the wilderness do not have.

Now Prof. Yosi Shacham-Diamand, Vice Dean of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Engineering, along with Prof. Shimshon Belkin of the Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has married biology and engineering to produce a biosensor device called the “Dip Chip,” which detects toxicity quickly and accurately, generating low false positive and false negative readings. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Vesta Asteroid Collision Occurred More Recently than Thought

May 15th 2012

Vesta asteroid

A team of researchers led by a NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) member based at Southwest Research Institute has discovered evidence that the giant impact crater Rheasilvia on Asteroid (4) Vesta was created in a collision that occurred only about 1 billion years ago, much more recently than previously thought. This result is based on the analysis of high-resolution images obtained with the Dawn spacecraft, which entered orbit around Vesta in July 2011.

In addition to creating the crater, the impact is believed to have launched a large number of fragments into space, some of which later escaped the main belt and possibly hit the Earth. Vesta, the second-most massive body in the main asteroid belt, is believed to have formed within the first few million years after the earliest solar system solids (~4.6 billion years ago). According to models, its early evolution occurred in an environment where collisions with other asteroids were much more frequent than they are today. It was thought that one such early collision on Vesta created a swarm of fragments, which we now call an asteroid family. Although Vesta and its family are located between Mars and Jupiter, smaller pieces of these asteroids can be found in meteorite collections on Earth, including most eucrite, howardite and diogenite meteorites. Several large craters on Vesta were first inferred by Hubble Space Telescope imaging. Read more ..

The Edge of Agriculture

Futuristic Hydogel Technology Makes Desert Crops Flourish on Barren Soil

May 14th 2012

Hydrogel crops

Here’s another futuristic invention that could completely change the future of agriculture in a desertifying world. Substituting an industrially produced hydrogel for soil makes it possible to farm on sterile desert sand. Similarly to Pink LEDs Grow Future Food with 90% Less Water, this amazing sci fi technology allows the farming of the desert, with 80 percent less water than needed in traditional farming.

The hydrogel technology is the invention of Waseda University Visiting Professor Yuichi Mori, who has years of experience in developing polymeric membranes for use in medical technologies such as blood purification and oxygen enrichment. But Mori saw the greatest need was in desert farming in a future world faced with explosive population growth, but diminishing potential for traditional soil-based agriculture due to soil degradation, erosion, and drought. His hydrogel membrane–based plant cultivation technology has a unique membrane technology. The simple system is much more portable than traditional hydroponics. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

Reading the Ash from the Icelandic Volcano

May 13th 2012

Eyjafjallajökull eruption Apr 2010
Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Apr 2010 (© 2010/credit: Marco Fulle)

In May 2010, the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull reached the Iberian Peninsula and brought airports to a halt all over Europe. At the time, scientists followed its paths using satellites, laser detectors, sun photometers, and other instruments. Two years later they have now presented the results and models that will help to prevent the consequences of such natural phenomena.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland began on 20 March 2010. On 14 April, it began to emit a cloud of ash that moved towards Northern and Central Europe, resulting in the closure of airspace. Hundreds of planes and millions of passengers were grounded. After a period of calm, volcanic activity intensified once again on 3 May. This time the winds transported the aerosols (a mixture of particles and gas) towards Spain and Portugal, where some airports had to close between 6 and 12 May. This was also a busy time for scientists, who took advantage of the situation to monitor the phenomenon. Read more ..

The Prehistoric Edge

Were Dinosaurs Undergoing Long-term Decline before the Mass Extinction?

May 13th 2012

T-Rex (AMNH)

Despite years of intensive research about the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs about 65.5 million years ago, a fundamental question remains: were dinosaurs already undergoing a long-term decline before an asteroid hit at the end of the Cretaceous? A study led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History gives a multifaceted answer. The findings, published in Nature Communications, suggest that in general, large-bodied, “bulk-feeding” herbivores were declining during the last 12 million years of the Cretaceous. But carnivorous dinosaurs and mid-sized herbivores were not. In some cases, geographic location might have been a factor in the animals’ biological success.

“Few issues in the history of paleontology have fueled as much research and popular fascination as the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs,” said lead author Steve Brusatte, a Columbia University graduate student affiliated with the Museum’s Division of Paleontology. “Did sudden volcanic eruptions or an asteroid impact strike down dinosaurs during their prime? We found that it was probably much more complex than that, and maybe not the sudden catastrophe that is often portrayed.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

IBEX Finds that Expected Solar System Boundary Isn’t There

May 13th 2012

IBEX in high Earth orbit
Artist's conception of IBEX in high Earth orbit (credit: NASA GSFC)

For the last few decades, space scientists have generally accepted that the bubble of gas and magnetic fields generated by the sun—known as the heliosphere—moves through space, creating three distinct boundary layers that culminate in an outermost bow shock. This shock is similar to the sonic boom created ahead of a supersonic jet. Earth itself certainly has one of these bow shocks on the sunward side of its magnetic environment, as do most other planets and many stars. A collection of new data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), however, now indicate that the sun does not have a bow shock.

For a paper appearing in Science Express, scientists compiled data from IBEX, NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft, and computer models to show that the heliosphere just isn’t moving fast enough to create a bow shock in the tenuous and highly magnetized region in our local part of the galaxy.

“IBEX gives a global view. It shows the whole of this region,” says Eric Christian, the mission scientist for IBEX at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and who was formerly the program scientist for Voyager. “At the same time the Voyager spacecraft are actually there, in situ, measuring its environment at two locations. The combination of IBEX and Voyager gives you great science and now the new IBEX results strongly indicate that there is no bow shock.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Novel Approach to Stimulate Immune Cells

May 13th 2012


Researchers at Rutgers University have uncovered a new way to stimulate activity of immune cell opiate receptors, leading to efficient tumor cell clearance. Sarkar, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and his research team have been able to take a new pharmacological approach to activate the immune cells to prevent cancer growth through stimulation of the opiate receptors found on immune cells.

This research, funded by the National Institutes of Health-National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholosm. It describes two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors, Mu- and Delta-opioid receptors. These receptors form protein complexes as either two structurally similar receptors as a homodimer—formed by two identical molecules—or two structurally dissimilar protein complexes as a heterodimer—formed by ethanol inducement—in immune cells. The team pharmacologically fooled these two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors to form more homodimers so that opioid peptide increases the immune cells’ ability to kill tumor cells. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Groundwater Pumping Leads to Sea Level Rise, Cancels Out Effect of Dams

May 12th 2012

Stormy Seas

As people pump groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial uses, the water doesn’t just seep back into the ground — it also evaporates into the atmosphere, or runs off into rivers and canals, eventually emptying into the world’s oceans. This water adds up, and a new study calculates that by 2050, groundwater pumping will cause a global sea level rise of about 0.8 millimeters per year.

“Other than ice on land, the excessive groundwater extractions are fast becoming the most important terrestrial water contribution to sea level rise,” said Yoshihide Wada, with Utrecht University in the Netherlands and lead author of the study. In the coming decades, he noted, groundwater contributions to sea level rise are expected to become as significant as those of melting glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and the Antarctic. Between around 1970 and 1990, sea level rise caused by groundwater pumping was cancelled out as people built dams, trapping water in reservoirs so the water wouldn’t empty into the sea, Wada said. His research shows that starting in the 1990s, that changed as populations started pumping more groundwater and building fewer dams. Read more ..

The Robotic Edge

UK Opens Europe's Largest Robotics Laboratory

May 12th 2012

Click to select Image

The Bristol Robotics Lab is a partnership between UWE Bristol (University of the West of England) and the University of Bristol. It is home to 70 academics and businesses who are leading current thinking in 'nouvelle' and service robotics, intelligent autonomous systems and bio-engineering. Over £1.65 million has been spent on the new facilities which cover 2,400 sqm, with over 300 metres of specialised laboratory space and two Flying Arenas.

"This is probably the largest robotics lab in Europe," said Libor Kral, Head of Unit Cognitive Systems for Interaction Robotics at the European Commission. Robotics is a key element for Eruipe, he says. "In the current framework we have over 100 projectsa and E500m for robotics enabling technology and this is the largest no-military funding project in the world for robotics." The next set of European Framework projects will concentrate more on industrial led developments and new efforts to attract industrial partners, he said. Read more ..

Nature Edge

Michigan Builds Spawning Rock Reefs to Preserve Native Fish Species

May 11th 2012

Sturgeon - Great Lakes
Great Lakes sturgeon and spawning reef

The construction of rock reefs in Great Lakes waterways are expected to aid in the survival of fish. The rock reefs are designed to assist several native species that are considered threatened or endangered in Michigan, including lake sturgeon, mooneye, the northern madtom catfish and the river redhorse sucker. Walleye, a popular sport fish, and commercially important lake whitefish should also benefit, according to a release from the University of Michigan.

The new reefs will be constructed in the Middle Channel of the St. Clair River delta, not far from Detroit and near an existing lake sturgeon spawning site. The $1.1 million St. Clair project is a follow-up to rock reefs built on the Detroit River in 2004 and 2008.

"We've been working together on these reefs for more than 10 years now, and over the course of time we've really figured out what kinds of physical characteristics the fish are attracted to," said project leader Jennifer Read, acting director of Michigan Sea Grant, a cooperative program of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Michigan Sea Grant is a Center of Excellence at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Vesta by Dawn

May 11th 2012

Dawn observing Vesta
Artist's Conception of Dawn spacecraft observing Vesta
(credit: NASA JPL; Caltech)

When UCLA’s Christopher T. Russell looks at the images of the protoplanet Vesta produced by NASA’s Dawn mission, he talks about beauty as much as he talks about science. “Vesta looks like a little planet. It has a beautiful surface, much more varied and diverse than we expected,” said Russell, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Dawn mission’s principal investigator. “We knew Vesta’s surface had some variation in color, but we did not expect the diversity that we see or the clarity of the colors and textures, or their distinct boundaries. We didn’t find gold on Vesta, but it is still a gold mine.”

There are six new papers about Vesta, named for the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, in the May 11 edition of Science, and Russell is a co-author on all of them.

Dawn has been orbiting Vesta and collecting data on the protoplanet’s surface since July 2011. Vesta, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is currently some 321 million miles from Earth. Russell and his scientific team expected to find one large crater on Vesta, but they were surprised to find two, with the larger one—about 344 miles across—essentially on top of the smaller. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Fuel

Secrets of the First Practical Artificial Leaf

May 11th 2012

Artificial Leaf

A detailed description of development of the first practical artificial leaf—a milestone in the drive for sustainable energy that mimics the process, photosynthesis, that green plants use to convert water and sunlight into energy—appears in the ACS journal Accounts of Chemical Research. The article notes that unlike earlier devices, which used costly ingredients, the new device is made from inexpensive materials and employs low-cost engineering and manufacturing processes.

Daniel G. Nocera points out that the artificial leaf responds to the vision of a famous Italian chemist who, in 1912, predicted that scientists one day would uncover the “guarded secret of plants.” The most important of those, Nocera says, is the process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The artificial leaf has a sunlight collector sandwiched between two films that generate oxygen and hydrogen gas. When dropped into a jar of water in the sunlight, it bubbles away, releasing hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells to make electricity. These self-contained units hold promise for making fuel for electricity in remote places and the developing world, but designs demonstrated thus far rely on metals like platinum and manufacturing processes that make them cost-prohibitive. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Massive Black Holes Disrupt Star Formation Process

May 10th 2012

Massive black hole disrupting star formation
Artist's Conception: Massive black hole disrupts star formation
(credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt)

Astronomers, using the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, have shown that the number of stars that form during the early lives of galaxies may be influenced by the massive black holes at their hearts. This helps explain the link between the size of the central bulges of galaxies and the mass of their central black holes.

All large galaxies have a massive black hole at their centre, each millions of times the mass of a single star. For over a decade, scientists have been puzzled as to why the masses of the black holes are linked to the size of the round central bulges at the hearts of galaxies. The suspicion has long been that the answer lies in the early lives of the galaxies, when the stars in the bulge were forming. To study this phase, astronomers need to look at very distant galaxies, so far away that we see them as they were billions of years ago.

Although the black holes themselves cannot be seen, the material closest to them can get incredibly hot, emitting large amounts of light over a very wide range of wavelengths, from radio waves to x-rays. The light from this super-heated material can be trillions of times as bright as the Sun, with brighter emissions indicating a more massive black hole. There are also strong flows of material (winds and jets) expelled from the region around the black hole. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Resolving the Origin of the Domesticated Horse

May 10th 2012

Asian wild horse, Equus ferus przewalskii
Asian wild horse, closest living relative of original domesticated horses
(credit: Chintogtokh)

New research indicates that domestic horses originated in the steppes of modern-day Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan, mixing with local wild stocks as they spread throughout Europe and Asia. The research was published recently in PNAS.

For several decades, scientists puzzled over the origin of domesticated horses. Based on archaeological evidence, it had long been thought that horse domestication originated in the western part of the Eurasian Steppe (Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan); however, a single origin in a geographically restricted area appeared at odds with the large number of female lineages in the domestic horse gene pool, commonly thought to reflect multiple domestication events across a wide geographic area.

In order to solve the perplexing history of the domestic horse, scientists from the University of Cambridge used a genetic database of more than 300 horses sampled from across the Eurasian Steppe to run a number of different modelling scenarios.

Their research shows that the extinct wild ancestor of domestic horses, Equus ferus, expanded out of East Asia approximately 160,000 years ago. They were also able to demonstrate that Equus ferus was domesticated in the western Eurasian Steppe, and that herds were repeatedly restocked with wild horses as they spread across Eurasia. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Climate Change is Drying up the Great Southwest

May 10th 2012

Arid Desert

Jonathan Overpeck, professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Geosciences at the University of Arizona, brought a friendly smile, informative graphics and a warning about drought in the Southwest to Sandia’s Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

Addressing “Climate Change and the Aridification of the North American Southwest and Beyond,” Overpeck placed water-glass graphic images at key water-storage locations in the Southwest to show how full the reservoirs are. Many glasses are more than half-empty, he said, and computer simulations predict the situation will worsen.

Overpeck has authored more than 150 published papers in climate and environmental sciences. He was coordinating lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (fourth assessment).

In an effort to shed light on the wide spectrum of thought regarding the causes and extent of changes in Earth’s climate, Sandia National Laboratories has invited experts from a wide variety of perspectives to present their views in the Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

Overpeck recounted unprecedented heat waves that included a growing number of days above 110 degrees in Phoenix and the 840-square-mile Wallow Fire last May, the biggest wildfire ever in New Mexico and Arizona. He pointed to major floods that, by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates, have caused $53 billion in damages. He also mentioned a record tornado season and an unusually wet and destructive tropical storm. “The temperature record for March 2012 (8.6 degrees above the 20th century average for that month) was big news,” he said. Read more ..

The Way We Are

New Insights into the How of Molecular Handedness

May 9th 2012

Achiral Triangles, Chiral Superstructures
Achiral triangles that have formed chiral super-structures
(credit: Thomas G. Mason and Kun Zhao)

The overwhelming majority of proteins and other functional molecules in our bodies display a striking molecular characteristic: They can exist in two distinct forms that are mirror images of each other, like your right hand and left hand. Surprisingly, each of our bodies prefers only one of these molecular forms.

This mirror-image phenomenon—known as chirality or “handedness”—has captured the imagination of a UCLA research group led by Thomas G. Mason, a professor of chemistry and physics and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. Mason has been exploring how and why chirality arises, and his newest findings on the physical origins of the phenomenon were published May 1 in the journal Nature Communications. “Objects like our hands are chiral, while objects like regular triangles are achiral, meaning they don’t have a handedness to them,” said Mason, the senior author of the study. “Achiral objects can be easily superimposed on top of one another.”

Why many of the important functional molecules in our bodies almost always occur in just one chiral form when they could potentially exist in either is a mystery that has confounded researchers for years. “Our bodies contain important molecules like proteins that overwhelmingly have one type of chirality,” Mason said. “The other chiral form is essentially not found. I find that fascinating. We asked, ‘Could this biological preference of a particular chirality possibly have a physical origin?’” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

VISTA Views a Vast Ball of Stars

May 9th 2012

M55 in Sagittarius via VISTA
VISTA IR image of M55 in Sagitarius
(credit: ESO; J. Emerson; VISTA; Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

Globular clusters are held together in a tight spherical shape by gravity. In Messier 55, the stars certainly keep close company: approximately one hundred thousand stars are packed within a sphere with a diameter of only about 100 light years (about 25 times the distance between the Sun and the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri).

About 160 globular clusters have been spotted circling our galaxy, the Milky Way, mostly toward its bulging centre. The two latest discoveries, made using VISTA, were recently announced by ESO. The largest galaxies can have thousands of these rich collections of stars in orbit around them.

Observations of globular clusters' stars reveal that they originated around the same time—more than 10 billion years ago—and from the same cloud of gas. As this formative period was just a few billion years after the Big Bang, nearly all of the gas on hand was the simplest, lightest and most common in the cosmos: hydrogen, along with some helium and much smaller amounts of heavier chemical elements such as oxygen and nitrogen. Being made mostly from hydrogen distinguishes globular cluster residents from stars born in later eras, like our Sun, that are infused with heavier elements created in earlier generations of stars. The Sun lit up some 4.6 billion years ago, making it only about half as old as the elderly stars in most globular clusters. The chemical makeup of the cloud from which the Sun formed is reflected in the abundances of elements found throughout the Solar System—in asteroids, in the planets, and in our own bodies. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

TDRS-4 Mission Complete; Spacecraft Retired From Active Service

May 8th 2012

View of Venus

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite 4 (TDRS-4) recently completed almost 23 years of operations support and successfully completed end-of-mission de-orbit and decommissioning activities. TDRS-4's operational life span was well beyond its original 10-year design.

Launched on March 13, 1989, from onboard Space Shuttle Discovery, TDRS-4 operated in geosynchronous (GEO) altitude at more than 22,000 miles above the Atlantic Ocean region. As part of the spacecraft's end-of-mission activities, its orbit was raised above the congested geosynchronous orbit.

TDRS-4 was forced to retire after the loss of one of three Nickel-Cadmium (24 cell) batteries and the reduction in storage capacity for the two remaining batteries that power the satellite. Retirement for the satellite consisted of excess fuel depletion, disconnecting batteries, and powering down the Radio Frequency Transmitters and receivers so that the satellite is completely and permanently passive. This ensures the satellite will never interfere with other satellites from the radio frequency perspective. Read more ..

The Education Edge

Roller Coaster Offers Unique Physics Lesson

May 8th 2012

Roller Coaster

Hundreds of teenagers push past security guards and police at the Six Flags America amusement park in Maryland, and make a dash for the roller coasters.They are here for the one day a year the amusement park is closed to the general public, while the roller coasters and other thrill rides become tools in a unique learning experience. It's called Physics Day and to complete their assignments, the students are required to ride.

“My teaching philosophy for physics is that they need to see it, touch it, do it,” says teacher Sonia Faletti. “You don’t learn physics by listening. ”Faletti teaches physics at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She is here with her honors students. Today, they get to experience what they studied in class. Faletti uses amusement park videos throughout the year. Her students have done the math problems and diagrams, explaining the physics behind the rides. Today they carry instruments to help them do their own calculations.

One is called an accelerometer, which measures the force of gravity on the roller coaster. Another is a protractor to measure centripetal force on the circle rides. An instrument, worn securely in a vest, records and displays data gathered during the thrill rides.
A more sophisticated device, worn securely in a vest, records and displays graphs on a computer tablet. “You can get the ups and downs of the ride from the barometer readings,” Faletti says. “You can correlate the 'Okay, I felt heavy here. That was the dip.' Or 'I felt weightless at this point, I was going over the hill.'” Read more ..

The Way We Are

The Internet’s Archive

May 8th 2012

grateful dead at barton hall poster

May 8, 1977. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University’s barn-like Barton field house, specifically. On that particular Sunday evening, for the princely sum of $7.50—$6.50 for students—you could buy one general admission ticket (assuming you could find any for sale) to hear a performance by the Grateful Dead.

For the Dead it was just another gig on an unending tour; the Ithaca stop was sandwiched between New Haven’s Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and Buffalo’s War Memorial Coliseum. Fairly to form, the band played 20 songs that night, starting with “New Minglewood Blues” and wrapping with the classic “One More Saturday Night.” Along the way they hit a number of fan favorites like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away” and “Morning Dew.”

At the time, May 8th was just another performance by the Dead, an enduring American band that had long attracted its own rolling culture of scruffy fans, hippies, dope-smokers, and assorted others who followed the band from show to show. But for true “Deadheads,” it’s much, much more than that. For Deadhead Nation, May 8 is forever known simply as “Barton Hall.”

35 years later, the Dead’s spring 1977 tour is now the stuff of legend, with the Barton Hall show the most celebrated performance of the band’s career. “I started hearing from other Deadheads that the Barton show was famous,” Brad Krakow tells the Cornell Chronicle. One of the lucky attendees that night, Krakow characterized the Dead’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired. It is funny now when friends ask if that is ‘The’ Barton Hall when visiting. It is an icon.”

But don’t take Krakow’s word for it. Download the entire concert and decide for yourself. In fact, why not download every concert the Grateful Dead ever played to compare and contrast? Go ahead—you can do it all for free, and without any copyright worries, thanks to a website called The Internet Archive. Read more ..

Edge of Computing

New Sensing Technique Makes for Smarter SmartPhones

May 8th 2012

Touche system

Imagine having a doorknob that knows whether it should lock or unlock itself, based on how a user grips it; or a smartphone that silences itself if its user puts a finger to his or her lips; or a chair which automatically adjusts the lighting in a room by sensing whether the user is leaning forward or reclining in the chair.

These and other applications could soon be possible with a new sensing technique developed by a collaborative research team of Disney Research, Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

The Touché system uses something its developers call Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing (SFCS), a more advanced form of capacitive touch-sensing technology, which is currently used in the touchscreens of most smartphones.

But, unlike today’s touchscreens which only sense electrical signals at one frequency, Touché’s SFCS technology can monitor signals across a broad range of signals, which would make it possible for the object to not only sense the touch itself, but also to recognize a wide range of complex motions and configurations of the person touching it. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Bandwidth Caps Create Uncertainty, Risky Decisions

May 8th 2012

Hand on Mouse

Recently, many U.S. Internet service providers have fallen in line with their international counterparts in capping monthly residential broadband usage. A new study by a Georgia Tech researcher, conducted during an internship at Microsoft Research, shows such pricing models trigger uneasy user experiences that could be mitigated by better tools for monitoring data usage through their home networks.

Home users, the study found, typically manage their capped broadband access against three uncertainties—invisible balances, mysterious processes, and multiple users—and these uncertainties have predictable impacts on household Internet use and can force difficult choices on users. Given the undeniable trend in both Internet norms (such as cloud-based applications) and home-entertainment delivery toward greater broadband requirements, the study seeks to create awareness and empathy among designers and researchers about the experience of Internet use under bandwidth caps.

Marshini Chetty, a postdoctoral researcher in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, interviewed 12 households in South Africa, a country in which broadband caps were universal until February 2010. Typically, the caps set by South African ISPs are severe, with some plans only offering 1 GB of data per month. At the time of the study, the caps ranged up to 9GB of data, far lower than the 150GB-250GB caps set by U.S. providers. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

New Type of Cell With a Key Role in Treatment-Resistant Asthma

May 7th 2012

Childhood asthma

For most people with asthma, a couple of puffs from an inhaler filled with steroids makes breathing easy. But if their lungs become resistant to the calming effect of that medicine, they live in fear of severe asthma attacks that could send them to the hospital – or worse.

Now, new research from the University of Michigan Health System may help explain what's going on in the lungs of these steroid-resistant individuals. The findings could aid the development of new treatment options, and of better ways to identify people at risk of becoming steroid-resistant.

The U-M scientists have discovered a new type of cell in mice that appears to be crucial to causing asthma symptoms - even in the presence of steroid. The research, published in Nature Medicine, also showed that people with asthma have a very similar cell type in their blood at higher levels than people without the condition. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Mini-Projector for Smartphones

May 7th 2012

Mobile phone foto app

Researchers at the German research institution Fraunhofer IOF have developed an array of hundreds of microprojectors that can be used to project images from smartphones and similar small devices. The array enables the design of slim LED projection systems which nevertheless offer bright images even on curved screens.

With smartphones increasingly displacing desktop and laptop computers, they also increasingly are used for presentations. However, image details are often hard to make out – the display is simply too small. A new LED projector could help: You position the smartphone in a small cradle on a coffee table, for instance, and it projects the image onto the table top: crisp, bright and DIN A4 size. If a user wants to zoom in on a portion of the picture, they can swipe the projection with their finger the same way they would swipe a display screen – the projected image can be controlled using the same principle as the display itself.

The special thing about the LED projector: the entire image displayed is crisp and clear – even if projected at a very flat angle with the beams striking the table surface at a diagonal. Usually, this would distort the picture and make it blurry in places. The researchers who developed the projector, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena, were able to solve this problem, though: "Our projector consists of hundreds of tiny microprojectors in an array, each of which generates a complete image," explains Marcel Sieler, a scientist at IOF. "This technology, known as 'array projection,' is modeled on nature – on the compound eye found in some insects – and with it for the first time we can create very thin and bright LED projection systems with tremendous imaging properties." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Multiple Thought Channels May Help Brain Avoid Traffic Jams

May 7th 2012

traffic jam

Brain networks may avoid traffic jams at their busiest intersections by communicating on different frequencies, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the University Medical Center at Hamburg-Eppendorf and the University of Tübingen have learned.

“Many neurological and psychiatric conditions are likely to involve problems with signaling in brain networks,” says co-author Maurizio Corbetta, MD, the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology at Washington University. “Examining the temporal structure of brain activity from this perspective may be especially helpful in understanding psychiatric conditions like depression and schizophrenia, where structural markers are scarce.”

Scientists usually study brain networks — areas of the brain that regularly work together — using magnetic resonance imaging, which tracks blood flow. They assume that an increase in blood flow to part of the brain indicates increased activity in the brain cells of that region. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Robot Reveals the Inner Workings of Brain Cells

May 6th 2012

Invisible Brain

New method offers automated way to record electrical activity inside neurons in the living brain. Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way to automate a process called whole-cell patch clamping, which involves bringing a tiny hollow glass pipette in contact the nuron cell membrane, then opening up a small pore in the membrane to record the electrical activity within the cell.

Gaining access to the inner workings of a neuron in the living brain offers a wealth of useful information: its patterns of electrical activity, its shape, even a profile of which genes are turned on at a given moment. However, achieving this entry is such a painstaking task that it is considered an art form; it is so difficult to learn that only a small number of labs in the world practice it.

But that could soon change: Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way to automate the process of finding and recording information from neurons in the living brain. The researchers have shown that a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting computer algorithm can identify and record from neurons in the living mouse brain with better accuracy and speed than a human experimenter. The new automated process eliminates the need for months of training and provides long-sought information about living cells' activities. Using this technique, scientists could classify the thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and figure out how diseased cells differ from normal cells. Read more ..

The Space Edge of Space

Climatic Effects of a Solar Minimum

May 6th 2012

the sun

A grand solar minimum and the climate response recorded for the first time in the same climate archive highlights the need for a more differentiated approach to solar radiation An abrupt cooling in Europe together with an increase in humidity and particularly in windiness coincided with a sustained reduction in solar activity 2800 years ago. Scientists from the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ in collaboration with Swedish and Dutch colleagues provide evidence for a direct solar-climate linkage on centennial timescales. Using the most modern methodological approach, they analysed sediments from Lake Meerfelder Maar, a maar lake in the Eifel/Germany, to determine annual variations in climate proxies and solar activity.

The study reports the climatic change that occurred at the beginning of the pre-Roman Iron Age and demonstrates that especially the so-called Grand Minima of solar activity can affect climate conditions in western Europe through changes in regional atmospheric circulation pattern. Around 2800 years ago, one of these Grand Solar Minima, the Homeric Minimum, caused a distinct climatic change in less than a decade in Western Europe. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Thanks for the Memory: More Room for Data in 'Phase-Change' Material

May 6th 2012

IC Layout

A team led by Johns Hopkins engineers has discovered some previously unknown properties of a common memory material, paving the way for development of new forms of memory drives, movie discs and computer systems that retain data more quickly, last longer and allow far more capacity than current data storage media.

The work was reported April 16 in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research focused on an inexpensive phase-change memory alloy composed of germanium, antimony and tellurium, called GST for short. The material is already used in rewritable optical media, including CD-RW and DVD-RW discs. But by using diamond-tipped tools to apply pressure to the materials, the Johns Hopkins-led team uncovered new electrical resistance characteristics that could make GST even more useful to the computer and electronics industries. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble to Use Moon as Mirror to See Venus Transit

May 4th 2012

View of Venus

The mottled landscape showing the impact crater Tycho is among the most violent-looking places on our moon. Astronomers didn't aim NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study Tycho, however. The image was taken in preparation to observe the transit of Venus across the sun's face on June 5-6. Hubble cannot look at the sun directly, so astronomers are planning to point the telescope at the Earth's moon, using it as a mirror to capture reflected sunlight and isolate the small fraction of the light that passes through Venus's atmosphere. Imprinted on that small amount of light are the fingerprints of the planet's atmospheric makeup.

These observations will mimic a technique that is already being used to sample the atmospheres of giant planets outside our solar system passing in front of their stars. In the case of the Venus transit observations, astronomers already know the chemical makeup of Venus's atmosphere, and that it does not show signs of life on the planet. But the Venus transit will be used to test whether this technique will have a chance of detecting the very faint fingerprints of an Earth-like planet, even one that might be habitable for life, outside our solar system that similarly transits its own star. , Venus is an excellent proxy because it is similar in size and mass to our planet. Read more ..

The Edge of Environment

Ungreen Facts about e-Reading Devices

May 4th 2012


It’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad…) equals that of 100 books.

Whether the motivation is to truly improve environmental performance, or simply garner positive press, seems every business is jumping on the low carbon bandwagon. Nowhere is exempt from the pressure to green up, not even the beleaguered (and beloved) book industry.

Three years ago, a group called the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) set environmental targets for the American book business, aiming to reduce its baseline carbon footprint by 20 percent in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. The plan was hatched during the infancy of eBooks: Kindle had been around just over a year.

BIEC goals seem attainable. Technological advances slashed the volume of in-house printing. Editors move towards a paperless workflow. Publishers began to reassess traditional processes of creating, transporting, and storing books. The resultant enviro-friendly efficiencies could be replicated worldwide. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

NOAA Discovers Way to Detect Low-Level Exposure to Seafood Toxin in Marine Animals

May 4th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

NOAA scientists and their colleagues have discovered a biological marker in the blood of laboratory zebrafish and marine mammals that shows when they have been repeatedly exposed to low levels of domoic acid, which is potentially toxic at high levels.

While little is known about how low-level exposure to domoic acid affects marine animals or humans, high-level exposure through eating contaminated seafood can be toxic, and can lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, with symptoms such as seizures, short-term memory loss and, in rare cases, death. Domoic acid is produced by particular species of marine algae and accumulates in marine animals such as clams and mussels.

The findings are reported in a study published in Public Library of Science journal (PLoS ONE), a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Up until now, the absence of a marker for such chronic exposure has been a barrier to accurately assessing possible effects to humans. "This study paves the way for creating reliable blood tests for low-level domoic acid exposure, which could help scientists assess the effects of chronic exposure to both wildlife and people who eat seafood," said Kathi Lefebvre, Ph.D., a NOAA fisheries biologist and the lead author of the study. "We don't know yet if the same antibody response we found in the laboratory in zebrafish and naturally exposed California sea lions also occurs in humans. Our next step is to team up with human-health experts to answer that question." Read more ..

The Edge of Music

'Game-powered Machine Learning' opens Door to Google for Music

May 4th 2012


Can a computer be taught to automatically label every song on the Internet using sets of examples provided by unpaid music fans? University of California, San Diego engineers have found that the answer is yes, and the results are as accurate as using paid music experts to provide the examples, saving considerable time and money.  In results published in the April 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that their solution, called “game-powered machine learning,” would enable music lovers to search every song on the web well beyond popular hits, with a simple text search using key words like “funky” or “spooky electronica.”
Searching for specific multimedia content, including music, is a challenge because of the need to use text to search images, video and audio. The researchers, led by Gert Lanckriet, a professor of electrical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, hope to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it far easier to access the explosion of multimedia content online. That’s because humans working round the clock labeling songs with descriptive text could never keep up with the volume of content being uploaded to the Internet. For example, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video content per minute, according to the company. Read more ..

The Edge of Agriculture

Farming by GPS Saves Money, Environment

May 3rd 2012

wheat fields

As spring planting goes into high gear in the United States, farmers are going high-tech in order to use less fertilizer, save money and protect the environment. Satellite-based GPS navigation systems are becoming standard on modern farm equipment, helping farmers get the most from their fields.

On a weedy patch of land an hour and half from Washington, D.C., farmer Brad Eustace is tilling razor-straight lines with a GPS-guided tractor. With the computer in control, he barely has to steer. “You can do a straight line a whole lot easier,” he says. The GPS computer receives signals from earth-orbiting satellites to keep track of where his tractor is and where it has gone. Hoses deliver precise amounts of fertilizer right into the grooves that the tiller cuts. Virginia farmer Brad Eustace uses a GPS-guided tractor to til his fields. That process prepares the field for when farmer Jimmy Messick comes back days, or even weeks later, with a GPS-guided corn planter… "The seed goes right on top of this row. This tilled row," Messick says. "The corn planter will come back, and it will be putting the seeds exactly on top of these tilled strips that the machine previously has put the fertilizer in.” Placing seed and fertilizer together with centimeter precision means fewer loads of fertilizer go on the fields. “You’re able to use less," Messick says. "Of course, you’re saving money. And you get the same performance out of the crop.” Read more ..

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