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The Health Edge

Biosynthetic Compound Prevents Progression of Alzheimer's Disease in Mice

May 3rd 2012


Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers have succeeded in developing a biosynthetic polyphenol that improves cognitive function in mice with Alzheimer's disease (AD). The findings, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, provide insight in determining the feasibility of biosynthetic polyphenols as a possible therapy for AD in humans, a progressive neurodegenerative disease for which there is currently no cure.

Polyphenols, which occur naturally in grapes, fruits, and vegetables, have been shown to prevent the cognitive decline associated with AD in a mouse model, but the molecules are very complex and are extensively metabolized in the body. This is the first study to determine which specific subfraction of these molecules penetrates the animal brain, and demonstrate that a drug compound similar to polyphenols can exert similar bioactivities.

A research group led by Giulio Maria Pasinetti, MD, PhD, Saunders Family Professor and Chair in Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has been exploring the application of specific grape-derived polyphenols for the treatment of AD. Previously, this group found that certain grape-seeds extracts, comprised of a complex mixture of naturally occurring polyphenols, were capable of lessening cognitive deterioration and reducing brain neuropathology in an animal model of AD, but they did not know how to manipulate the natural extract into a pharmaceutical compound that could be used by the brain. "My team, along with many members of the scientific community, did not know how we could harness the efficacy of naturally occurring polyphenols in food for treatment of Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Pasinetti said. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Black Hole Caught Red-Handed in Stellar Homicide

May 3rd 2012

black hole flare

Astronomers have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory, and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were among the first to help identify the stellar remains. This is a single frame of computer simulation showing a star being shredded by the gravity of a massive black hole.

Some of the stellar debris falls into the black hole and some of it is ejected into space at high speeds. The areas in white are regions of highest density, with progressively redder colors corresponding to lower-density regions. The blue dot pinpoints the black hole's location. The elapsed time corresponds to the amount of time it takes for a sun-like star to be ripped apart by a black hole a million times more massive than the sun. Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These hefty monsters lie quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches. Read more ..

Chemistry Edge

Like a Canary in a Coal Mine, New Gas Sensors Detect Explosives and Cancer Too

May 3rd 2012

UMich gas sensors
University of Michigan professor Xudong Fan and gas sensor system

Portable gas sensors can allow you to search for explosives, diagnose medical conditions through a patient's breath, and decide whether it's safe to stay in a mine. These devices do all this by identifying and measuring airborne chemicals, and a new, more sensitive, smart model is under development at the University of Michigan. The smart sensor could detect chemical weapon vapors or indicators of disease better than the current design. It also consumes less power, crucial for stretching battery life down a mineshaft or in isolated clinics.

In the gold standard method of gas detection, chemicals are separated before they are measured, said Xudong "Sherman" Fan, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. "In a vapor mixture, it's very difficult to tell chemicals apart," he said.

The main advance of the sensor under development by Fan and his colleagues at U-M and the University of Missouri, Columbia, is a better approach to divvying up the chemicals. The researchers have demonstrated their concept on a table-top set-up, and they hope to produce a hand-held device in the future. Read more ..

The Weather Edge

Rapid Decline in US Earth Observation Capabilities

May 2nd 2012

Dead Zone Gulf of Mexico

A new National Research Council report says that budget shortfalls, cost-estimate growth, launch failures, and changes in mission design and scope have left U.S. earth observation systems in a more precarious position than they were five years ago. The report cautions that the nation's earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled.

"The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards," said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth's climate and life support systems will also degrade."

The report comes five years after the Research Council published "Earth Science and Applications From Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," a decadal survey that generated consensus recommendations from the earth and environmental science and applications community for a renewed program of earth observations. Read more ..

Climate Edge

The Impact of Climate Change on Plants Underestimated by Experiments

May 2nd 2012

Budding maple leaves

As the climate has warmed, many plants are starting to grow leaves and bloom flowers earlier. A new study published in the journal, Nature, suggests that most field experiments may underestimate the degree to which the timing of leafing and flowering changes with global warming.

Understanding how plants are responding to climate change will help develop more accurate indicators of spring, forecast the onset of allergy season or the chances of western wildfires, manage wildlife and invasive plants, and help inform habitat restoration plans.

In this new study, scientists evaluated the sensitivity of plants to changes in temperature using two sources: experimental plots versus historical observations from natural sites.

The experiments analyzed in this study were conducted by artificially inducing warming in small study plots, and then measuring plant responses. The historical observations entailed long-term monitoring of multiple species at natural ecological research sites without any manipulation. The date of leafing and flowering was synthesized for dozens of warming experiments and monitoring sites across the Northern Hemisphere. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Nanotechnology That May Enhance Medication Delivery and Improve MRI Performance

May 2nd 2012

MRI Machine

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have shown a new category of "green" nanoparticles comprised of a non-toxic, protein-based nanotechnology that can non-invasively cross the blood brain barrier and is capable of transporting various types of drugs. In an article Gordana Vitaliano, MD, director of the Brain Imaging NaNoTechnology Group at the McLean Hospital Imaging Center, reported that clathrin, a ubiquitous protein found in human, animal, plant, bacteria, and fungi cells, can be modified for use as a nanoparticle for in-vivo studies.

"Clathrin has never been modified for use in vivo and offers many new and interesting possibilities for delivering drugs and medical imaging agents into the brain", said Vitaliano. Clathrin is the body's primary delivery vehicle responsible for delivering many different types of molecules into cells. Vitaliano therefore believed that the protein's naturally potent transport capabilities might be put to practical medical use for drug delivery and medical imaging. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cassini Finds Phoebe Has Planet-Like Qualities

May 1st 2012

Phoebe from Cassini
Phoebe from Cassini (credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Data from NASA’s Cassini mission reveal Saturn’s moon Phoebe has more planet-like qualities than previously thought.

Scientists had their first close-up look at Phoebe when Cassini began exploring the Saturn system in 2004. Using data from multiple spacecraft instruments and a computer model of the moon’s chemistry, geophysics and geology, scientists found Phoebe was a so-called planetesimal, or remnant planetary building block. The findings appear in the April issue of the journal Icarus.

“Unlike primitive bodies such as comets, Phoebe appears to have actively evolved for a time before it stalled out,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Objects like Phoebe are thought to have condensed very quickly. Hence, they represent building blocks of planets. They give scientists clues about what conditions were like around the time of the birth of giant planets and their moons”

Cassini images suggest Phoebe originated in the far-off Kuiper Belt, the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Data show Phoebe was spherical and hot early in its history, and has denser rock-rich material concentrated near its center. Its average density is about the same as Pluto, another object in the Kuiper Belt. Phoebe likely was captured by Saturn’s gravity when it somehow got close to the giant planet. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Are We Alone in the Universe?

May 1st 2012

Allen Telescope Array
Allen Radio Telescope Array (credit: SETI.org)

Many of us believe finding some form of life beyond our own planet is inevitable, and the recent discovery of Earth-like planets—in a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface—has renewed excitement about the possibility of eventually finding extra-terrestrial life.

However, two Princeton University researchers suggest those expectations may be more based in optimism rather than scientific fact.

Princeton’s Edwin Turner and David Spiegel wanted to separate fact from expectation. So they took what science currently knows about the existence, or likelihood of extra-terrestrial life, and performed a Bayesian analysis, which evaluates just how much of what is considered to be a scientific conclusion comes from actual hard scientific fact and what comes from assumptions made by the scientist involved. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

A 100-Gigabit Highway for Science

April 30th 2012

Columbia Supercomputer NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility

Researchers take a 'test drive' on ANI testbed. Climate researchers are producing some of the fastest growing datasets in science. Five years ago, the amount of information generated for the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report was 35 terabytes—equivalent to the amount of text in 35 million books, occupying a bookshelf 248 miles (399 km) long. By 2014, when the next IPCC report is published, experts predict that 2 petabytes of data will have been generated for it—that's a 580 percent increase in data production. Because thousands of researchers around the world contribute to the generation and analysis of this data, a reliable, high-speed network is needed to transport the torrent of information.

Fortunately, the Department of Energy's (DOE) ESnet (Energy Sciences Network) has laid the foundation for such a network—not just for climate research, but for all data-intensive science. "There is a data revolution occurring in science," says Greg Bell, acting director of ESnet, which is managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Over the last decade, the amount of scientific data transferred over our network has increased at a rate of about 72 percent per year, and we see that trend potentially accelerating." Read more ..

The Edge of Science

Single Nanomaterial Yields Many Laser Colors

April 29th 2012

Laser burst

Red, green, and blue lasers have become small and cheap enough to find their way into products ranging from BluRay DVD players to fancy pens, but each color is made with different semiconductor materials and by elaborate crystal growth processes. A new prototype technology demonstrates all three of those colors coming from one material. That could open the door to making products, such as high-performance digital displays, that employ a variety of laser colors all at once.

“Today in order to create a laser display with arbitrary colors, from white to shades of pink or teal, you’d need these three separate material systems to come together in the form of three distinct lasers that in no way shape or form would have anything in common,” said Arto Nurmikko, professor of engineering at Brown University and senior author of a paper describing the innovation in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. “Now enter a class of materials called semiconductor quantum dots.” Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Atmospheric Warming Altering Ocean Salinity

April 29th 2012

Ocean scene

The warming climate is altering the saltiness of the world's oceans, and the computer models scientists have been using to measure the effects are underestimating changes to the global water cycle, a group of Australian scientists have found.

The water cycle is the worldwide phenomenon of rainwater falling to the surface, evaporating back into the air and falling again as rain. The wetter parts of the world are getting wetter and the drier parts drier. The researchers know this because the saltier parts of the ocean are getting saltier and the fresher parts, fresher. Records showed that the saltier parts of the ocean increased salinity -- or their salt content -- by 4 percent in the 50 years between 1950 and 2000. If the climate warms by an additional 2 or 3 degrees, the researchers project that the water cycle will turn over more quickly, intensifying by almost 25 percent. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Wristwatch Sized Heart Monitor in Development

April 29th 2012


Plessey is developing a heart rate monitor demonstration using its EPIC sensor technology, which is the same size as a wristwatch and does not require a chest strap or second sensor at the end of a cable. The reference design shows that simple and effective personal monitoring of electrocardiograph (ECG) signals can be as easy as taking a pulse measurement. The device straps to the wrist with a sensor electrode on the rear of the device in permanent contact with the wrist and the second electrode is on the front of the device. Touching this top electrode with a finger from the opposite hand enables the device to collect the heart signals.

"Our EPIC technology really makes heart monitoring so much simpler," explained Plessey's EPIC Programme Director, Dr Paul James. "Just two small contacts and no gels. This is ideal for the Sports and Fitness market where people want to measure more than just their heart rate when exercising for display either on the device or via a Bluetooth link to a mobile phone, tablet or PC. The data gathered is accurate enough that it can provide detailed ECG signals with the appropriate signal processing, including precise pulse rate and pulse rate variation. This opens up the possibility of estimating key aerobic performance parameters such as VO2max." Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Slow-Growing Babies More Likely in Normal-Weight Women; Less Common in Obese Pregnancies

April 28th 2012


Obesity during pregnancy puts women at higher risk of a multitude of challenges. But, according to a new study presented earlier this month at the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine annual convention, fetal growth restriction, or the poor growth of a baby while in the mother’s womb, is not one of them. In fact, study authors from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that the incidence of fetal growth restriction was lower in obese women when compared to non-obese women.

Researchers, led by senior study author and high-risk pregnancy expert Loralei Thornburg, M.D., conducted the study because a wealth of data shows that obese women are at greater risk of fetal death or stillbirth. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, doctors don’t know why. Thornburg’s team wanted to determine if fetal growth restriction – which increases the likelihood of stillbirth – might play a role. She says growth restriction may go undiagnosed in obese women because it can be difficult to get an accurate measure of mom’s belly size, which is a tool used to gauge the baby’s growth – or lack of growth.

“We wondered if the increased risk of stillbirth could be due to a high level of undiagnosed growth restriction – the idea being that if the physician doesn’t know that the baby is too small then they don’t know that mom and baby need additional monitoring, which is essential to prevent fetal death,” said Thornburg, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Medical Center whose research focuses on obesity in pregnancy.

The team, including lead study author and Maternal-Fetal Medicine Fellow Dzhamala Gilmandyar, M.D., found that growth restriction was significantly lower in obese and diabetic women; it was higher in women with preeclampsia, or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, and smokers – a finding in line with past research. Of the babies that had growth restriction, they determined how many moms were given an accurate diagnosis before birth and found that the rate was the same for obese and non-obese women, suggesting that missed diagnoses are not a major problem in obese pregnancies. Read more ..

The Edge of Food

New Avocado Rootstocks Are High-Performing and Disease-Tolerant

April 28th 2012


Avocado, a significant fruit crop grown in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world, is threatened by Phytophthora root rot (PRR), a disease that has already eliminated commercial avocado production in many areas in Latin America and crippled production in Australia and South Africa. Just in California the disease is estimated to cost avocado growers approximately $30-40 million a year in production losses.

Research on developing PRR-tolerant rootstocks to manage the disease has been a major focus of avocado research at the University of California, Riverside since the 1950s. The latest research now comes from a team that has released three rootstocks, available for commercial propagation by nurseries, that demonstrate superior tolerance to PRR. The research, scheduled to appear soon in the journal HortScience, describes the three avocado root-rot-tolerant varieties: Zentmyer, Steddom, and Uzi. Read more ..

The Race For EVs

Better Driving Range Though Energy Management

April 28th 2012

Plug-in Vehicle
Charging a Car

Up to 15 percent more kilometers per battery charge just by improving the energy management systems - this is the goal of a research project led by the Dresden Institute for Automotive Technology. The researchers expressly do not intend to modify or change the battery itself. Instead, intelligent networking of car and infrastructure as well as better management of the in-car energy sinks will be established to reach this goal. The EFA 2014/2 research consortium plans to use forward-thinking energy management to improve the driving range of the cars. The 14 project partners, among them carmaker BMW, tier ones such as Bosch, Continental Hella and Valeo as well as semiconductor companies Elmos and Infineon as well as research institutes FKFS Stuttgart and Technical University of Dresden, will achieve the goal of a better driving range by pursuing several approaches. One is more intelligence with regard to choosing the best route and improving the traffic flow. In order to establish an intelligent infrastructure, the researcher will create an interface enabling the exchange of data between electric vehicles and municipal traffic control centers. Thus, the cars can access information on the traffic situation along the route. The information obtained will be visualized by means of innovative displays at the dashboard. The availability of this kind of information helps the driver to plan time-efficient and energy-saving rides through the city. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

New Kind of Lava Flow Dicovered on Mars

April 27th 2012

Lava coils, Athabasca Valles
Lava coils at Athabasca Valles (credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

High-resolution photos of lava flows on Mars reveal coiling spiral patterns that resemble snail or nautilus shells. Such patterns have been found in a few locations on Earth, but never before on Mars. The discovery, made by Arizona State University graduate student Andrew Ryan, is announced in a paper published in Science. The new result came out of research into possible interactions of lava flows and floods of water in the Elysium volcanic province of Mars.

“I was interested in Martian outflow channels and was particularly intrigued by Athabasca Valles and Cerberus Palus, both part of Elysium,” says Ryan, who is in his first year as a graduate student in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Philip Christensen, Regents’ Professor of Geological Sciences at ASU, is second author on the paper.

“Athabasca Valles has a very interesting history,” Ryan says. “There’s an extensive literature on the area, as well as an intriguing combination of seemingly fluvial and volcanic features.” Among the features are large slabs or plates that resemble broken floes of pack ice in the Arctic Ocean on Earth. In the past, a few scientists have argued that the plates in Elysium are in fact underlain by water ice. Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Researchers Discover New Particle at CERN

April 27th 2012

CERN compact muon solenoid endcap (credit CERN CMS)

Physicists from the University of Zurich have discovered a previously unknown particle composed of three quarks using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). A new baryon could thus be detected for the first time at the LHC. The baryon—known as Xi_b^*—confirms fundamental assumptions of physics regarding the binding of quarks.

In particle physics, the baryon family refers to particles that are made up of three quarks. Quarks form a group of six particles that differ in their masses and charges. The two lightest quarks, the so-called “up” and “down” quarks, form the two atomic components: protons and neutrons. All baryons that are composed of the three lightest quarks (“up”, “down,” and “strange” quarks) are known. Only very few baryons with heavy quarks have been observed to date. They can only be generated artificially in particle accelerators as they are heavy and very unstable.

In the course of proton collisions in the LHC at CERN, physicists Claude Amsler, Vincenzo Chiochia, and Ernest Aguiló from the University of Zurich’s Physics Institute managed to detect a baryon with one light and two heavy quarks. The particle Xi_b^* comprises one “up”, one “strange” and one “bottom” quark (usb), is electrically neutral and has a spin of 3/2 (1.5). Its mass is comparable to that of a lithium atom. The new discovery means that two of the three baryons predicted in the usb composition by theory have now been observed. Read more ..

The Graphene Edge

New Graphene-based Material could Revolutionize Electronics

April 27th 2012


The most transparent, lightweight and flexible material ever for conducting electricity has been invented by a team from the University of Exeter. Called GraphExeter, the material could revolutionise the creation of wearable electronic devices, such as clothing containing computers, phones and MP3 players. GraphExeter could also be used for the creation of 'smart' mirrors or windows, with computerised interactive features. Since this material is also transparent over a wide light spectrum, it could enhance by more than 30% the efficiency of solar panels. Adapted from graphene, GraphExeter is much more flexible than indium tin oxide (ITO), the main conductive material currently used in electronics. ITO is becoming increasingly expensive and is a finite resource, expected to run out in 2017. At just one-atom-thick, graphene is the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity. It is very flexible and is one of the strongest known materials. The race has been on for scientists and engineers to adapt graphene for flexible electronics. This has been a challenge because of its sheet resistance, which limits its conductivity. Until now, no-one has been able to produce a viable alternative to ITO.

To create GraphExeter, the Exeter team sandwiched molecules of ferric chloride between two layers of graphene. Ferric chloride enhances the electrical conductivity of graphene, without affecting the material's transparency.


The Manufacturing Edge

Assembly Errors Quickly Identified

April 27th 2012

Tata Nano

If errors creep in during the assembly of components, costly post-processing is often the consequence. Automatic testing is difficult, especially where individual products are concerned. Now there is a new testing system that is flexible and economical, even for smaller production runs. Today‘s cars are increasingly custom-built. One customer might want electric windows, heated door mirrors and steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls, while another is satisfied with the minimum basic equipment. The situation with aircraft is no different: each airline is looking for different interior finishes – and lighting, ventilation, seating and monitors are different from one company to the next. Yet the customer‘s freedom is the manufacturer‘s challenge: because individual parts and mountings have to be installed in different locations along the fuselage, automated assembly is often not an economical alternative. For many assembly steps, manufacturers have to rely on manual labor instead. But if errors creep in – if, for instance, a bracket is mounted backwards or in the wrong place – correcting them can get expensive later on. The fuselage has to be reworked at great expense. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Invisible Helpers: How Probiotic Bacteria Protect Against Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

April 26th 2012


Some lactic acid bacteria can alleviate inflammation and therefore prevent intestinal disorders. Scientists have now decoded the biochemical mechanism that lies behind the protective effect of the bacteria. In experiments with mice, the researchers succeeded in demonstrating that lactocepin – an enzyme produced by certain lactic acid bacteria – selectively degrades inflammatory mediators in diseased tissue. This new evidence might lead to new approaches for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases.

Yoghurt has been valued for centuries for its health-promoting effects. These effects are thought to be mediated by the lactic acid bacteria typically contained in yoghurt. Evidence from recent scientific studies show that some bacterial strains actually have a probiotic effect and can thus prevent disease. A team of biologists and nutrition scientists working with Prof. Dirk Haller from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) has now discovered the mechanisms at work behind this protective effect.

In experiments with mice, the scientists observed that lactocepin – an enzyme produced from the lactic acid bacterium Lactobacillus paracasei – can selectively interrupt inflammatory processes. As the scientists observed, lactocepin degrades messengers from the immune system, known as chemokines, in the diseased tissue. As a part of the “normal” immune response, chemokines are needed to guide defense cells to the source of the infection. In chronic intestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the otherwise highly effective defense mechanism against infectious agents is malfunctioning. Chemokines such as “IP-10” then contribute to the tissue damage due to chronic inflammatory processes, preventing the tissue from healing. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Dawn Spacecraft Unveils Vesta

April 26th 2012

Aquila Crater, Vesta
Aquila Crater, Vesta (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Findings from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reveal new details about the giant asteroid Vesta, including its varied surface composition, sharp temperature changes and clues to its internal structure. The findings were presented in April at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria, and will help scientists better understand the early solar system and processes that dominated its formation.

Images from Dawn’s framing camera and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, taken 420 miles (680 kilometers) and 130 miles (210 kilometers) above the surface of the asteroid, show a variety of surface mineral and rock patterns. Coded false-color images help scientists better understand Vesta’s composition and enable them to identify material that was once molten below the asteroid’s surface.

Researchers also see breccias, which are rocks fused during impacts from space debris. Many of the materials seen by Dawn are composed of iron- and magnesium-rich minerals, which often are found in Earth’s volcanic rocks. Images also reveal smooth pond-like deposits, which might have formed as fine dust created during impacts settled into low regions. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cassini Sees Oddities in Saturn’s F Ring

April 26th 2012

Saturn F-ring
Mini-jets in Saturn’s F ring (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/QMUL)

Queen Mary scientists working with images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have discovered strange half-mile-sized objects punching through parts of Saturn’s F ring, leaving glittering trails behind them. These trails in the rings, which scientists are calling “mini-jets,” fill in a missing link in our understanding of the curious behaviour of the F ring. The results were presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria.

Scientists have known that relatively large objects like the potato-shaped moon Prometheus can create channels, ripples, and snowballs in the F ring. But until recently they didn’t know what happened to these snowballs after they were created.

Now Professor Carl Murray, Nick Attree, Nick Cooper, and Gareth Williams from Queen Mary’s Astronomy Unit have found evidence that some of the smaller snowballs survive, and their differing orbits mean they go on to strike through the F ring on their own. Professor Murray’s group happened to see a tiny trail in an image from 30 January 2009 and tracked it over eight hours. The long footage confirmed the small object originated in the F ring, so they went back through the Cassini image catalogue to see if the phenomenon was frequent. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

Tiny Spherules Reveal Asteroid Impact Details

April 25th 2012

Rock Showing Impact Spherules
Spherules created from asteroid impact
(credit: Bruce M. Simonson, Oberlin College)

Researchers are learning details about asteroid impacts going back to the Earth’s early history by using a new method for extracting precise information from tiny “spherules”—about one millimeter in diameter—embedded in layers of rock. The spherules were created when asteroids crashed into the Earth, vaporizing rock that expanded into space as a giant vapor plume. Small droplets of molten and vaporized rock in the plume condensed and solidified, falling back to Earth as a thin layer. The round or oblong particles were preserved in layers of rock, and now researchers have analyzed them to record precise information about asteroids impacting Earth from 3.5 billion to 35 million years ago.

“What we have done is provide the foundation for understanding how to interpret the layers in terms of the size and velocity of the asteroid that made them,” said Jay Melosh, an expert in impact cratering and a distinguished professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, physics and aerospace engineering at Purdue University.

Findings, which support a theory that the Earth endured an especially heavy period of asteroid bombardment early in its history, are detailed in a research paper appearing online in the journal Nature on April 25. The paper was written by Purdue physics graduate student Brandon Johnson and Melosh. The findings, based on geologic observations, support a theoretical study in a companion paper in Nature by researchers at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Read more ..

Medical Edge

Migraine Sufferers Get Relief with Electrical Stimulation

April 25th 2012

Invisible Brain

Chronic migraine sufferers saw significant pain relief after four weeks of electrical brain stimulation in the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movement, the motor cortex, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Harvard University and the City College of the City University of New York used a noninvasive method called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a preventative migraine therapy on 13 patients with chronic migraine, or at least 15 attacks a month. After 10 sessions, participants reported an average 37 percent decrease in pain intensity.

The effects were cumulative and kicked in after about four weeks of treatment, said Alexandre DaSilva, assistant professor at the U-M School of Dentistry and lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Headache. "This suggests that repetitive sessions are necessary to revert ingrained changes in the brain related to chronic migraine suffering," DaSilva said, adding that study participants had an average history of almost 30 years of migraine attacks.

The researchers also tracked the electric current flow through the brain to learn how the therapy affected different regions. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

The Solar Cell That Also Shines: Luminescent 'LED-Type' Design Breaks Efficiency Record

April 24th 2012

Solar Cell
High-Efficiency Solar Cell

To produce the maximum amount of energy, solar cells are designed to absorb as much light from the Sun as possible. Now researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have suggested – and demonstrated – a counterintuitive concept: solar cells should be designed to be more like LEDs, able to emit light as well as absorb it. "What we demonstrated is that the better a solar cell is at emitting photons, the higher its voltage and the greater the efficiency it can produce," says Eli Yablonovitch, principal researcher and UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering. Since 1961, scientists have known that, under ideal conditions, there is a limit to the amount of electrical energy that can be harvested from sunlight hitting a typical solar cell. This absolute limit is, theoretically, about 33.5 percent. That means that at most 33.5 percent of the energy from incoming photons will be absorbed and converted into useful electrical energy.

Yet for five decades, researchers were unable to come close to achieving this efficiency: as of 2010, the highest anyone had come was just more than 26 percent. (This is for flat-plate, "single junction" solar cells, which absorb light waves above a specific frequency. "Multi-junction" cells, which have multiple layers and absorb multiple frequencies, are able to achieve higher efficiencies.)

More recently, Yablonovitch and his colleagues were trying to understand why there has been such a large gap between the theoretical limit and the limit that researchers have been able to achieve. As they worked, a "coherent picture emerged," says Owen Miller, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a member of Yablonovitch's group. They came across a relatively simple, if perhaps counterintuitive, solution based on a mathematical connection between absorption and emission of light. "Fundamentally, it's because there's a thermodynamic link between absorption and emission," Miller says. Designing solar cells to emit light – so that photons do not become "lost" within a cell – has the natural effect of increasing the voltage produced by the solar cell. "If you have a solar cell that is a good emitter of light, it also makes it produce a higher voltage," which in turn increases the amount of electrical energy that can be harvested from the cell for each unit of sunlight, Miller says. The theory that luminescent emission and voltage go hand in hand is not new. But the idea had never been considered for the design of solar cells before now, Miller continues. Read more ..

The Graphene Edge

IBM Shows off Terahertz Graphene Photonics

April 24th 2012

Scanning Electron Microscope image of, five-layer graphene/insulator superlattice array of two-micro
5-layer graphene/insulator array

Graphene has been courted as the miracle material of the future, since different formulations have been fabricated into conductors, semiconductors and insulators. Now IBM has added photonic to the list by demonstrating a graphene/insulator superlattice that achieves a terahertz frequency notch filter and a linear polarizer, devices which could be useful in future mid- and far-infrared photonic devices, including detectors, modulators and three-dimensional metamaterials.

"In addition to its good electrical properties, graphene also has exceptional optical properties. In particular, it absorbs light from the far-infrared to to the ultra-violet," said IBM Fellow Phaedon Avouris. "The terahertz range was of particular interest to IBM, because these frequencies can penetrate paper, wood and other solid objects for security applications. Unfortunately, today there are very few ways of manipulating terahertz waves such as polarizing and filtering it, but because graphene operates well at terahertz frequencies we have concentrating on creating these types of devices." Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Leeches Are DNA Bloodhounds In The Jungle

April 23rd 2012

Leech and Slug

Copenhagen Zoo and University of Copenhagen have in collaboration developed a new and revolutionary, yet simple and cheap, method for tracking mammals in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. They collect leeches from tropical jungles, which have been sucking blood from mammals, and subsequently analyse the blood for mammal DNA. By using this method, the researchers can get an overview of the biodiversity of the mammals without having to find them.

"It is not unusual that unknown mammals appear on local markets and end up in soup pots – without scientists knowing of it. Therefore, the new method is important to obtain knowledge of what hides in the jungle - regarding both known and unknown species. I am convinced that the new method is not only useful in Southeast Asia, but can be used in many other parts of the world where such leeches exist," explains Tom Gilbert, professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, and one of the initiators of the project together with Mads Bertelsen from Copenhagen Zoo. Approximately a quarter of the world’s mammal species are threatened with extinction. However, it is difficult and expensive to monitor mammal species and populations living in impassable rainforest areas around the globe. Read more ..

Edge Of Archaeology

Forensic Science Used To Determine Who's Who In Pre-Columbian Peru

April 23rd 2012

Pre-Colubian Remains
Pre-Columbian Remains

Analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been used to establish migration and population patterns for American indigenous cultures during the time before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Genetics has used more detailed DNA analysis of individuals from Arequipa region to identify the family relationships and burial traditions of ancient Peru. The social unit (ayllu) of Native South Americans is thought to be based on kin relationships. The establishment of ayllu-based communities is also associated with funereal monuments (chullpas) which are thought to be important social sites not only because of their religious importance but because they housed the venerated ayllu's ancestors.

Ancestor worship and a belief in a common ancestor, central to the ayllu, still exists in the traditions of the Q'ero community. Researchers from University of Warsaw, in collaboration with Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, used DNA analysis to reconstruct the family trees of individuals buried in six chullpas near the Coropuna volcano is southern Peru. Despite prior looting, the unique nature of this site, 4000m up the Cora Cora mountain, allowed an extraordinary preservation of human remains and of DNA within both teeth and bone. mtDNA analysis showed that the groups were of Andean origin and indicated a 500 year continuity, up to modern Andeans, without any major impact by European colonisation. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Cataloging Appropriate Technology Tools is a Life-Saver in Poor Countries

April 23rd 2012

Caitlin Winget shows James Azazili the Hemafuse blood syringe.

In parts of the world without reliable electricity, a pedal-powered nebulizer could provide life-saving asthma treatments. Small wax-filled sleeping bags could keep premature infants warm. A salad spinner centrifuge for blood samples could help clinicians diagnose anemia.

University of Michigan researchers have cataloged more than 100 such technologies in a new wiki of medical devices designed for resource-limited settings. The Global Health Medical Device Compendium, an open-source inventory, is hosted by the popular appropriate technology wiki Appropedia. It is expected to serve as an important communication vehicle for end users, non-governmental organizations, researchers and others to help advance such technologies.

Developing nations import roughly 90 percent of their medical technologies from higher-income countries. But systems tested in controlled settings in high tech hospitals often don't work as intended in places where continuous electricity, replacement parts, clean water, and appropriate training aren't always accessible. Read more ..

Edge of Space

Finding ET May Require Giant Robotic Leap

April 22nd 2012

protoplanetary disk

Autonomous, self-replicating robots -- exobots -- are the way to explore the universe, find and identify extraterrestrial life and perhaps clean up space debris in the process, according to a Penn State engineer, who notes that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is in its 50th year.

"The basic premise is that human space exploration must be highly efficient, cost effective, and autonomous as placing humans beyond low Earth orbit is fraught with political economic, and technical difficulties," John D. Mathews, professor of electrical engineering, reported in the current issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

If aliens are out there, they have the same problems we do: they need to conserve resources, are limited by the laws of physics and they may not even be eager to meet us, according to Mathews. 

He suggests that "only by developing and deploying self-replicating robotic spacecraft -- and the incumbent communications systems -- can the human race efficiently explore even the asteroid belt, let alone the vast reaches of the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, and beyond." Mathews assumes that any extraterrestrial would need to follow a similar path to the stars, sending robots rather than living beings, which would explain why SETI has not succeeded to date. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Some Stars Capture Rogue Planets

April 22nd 2012

Star Clusters Free Floating Planets

New research suggests that billions of stars in our galaxy have captured rogue planets that once roamed interstellar space. The nomad worlds, which were kicked out of the star systems in which they formed, occasionally find a new home with a different sun. This finding could explain the existence of some planets that orbit surprisingly far from their stars, and even the existence of a double-planet system.

"Stars trade planets just like baseball teams trade players," said Hagai Perets of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The study, co-authored by Perets and Thijs Kouwenhoven of Peking University, China, will appear in the April 20th issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

To reach their conclusion, Perets and Kouwenhoven simulated young star clusters containing free-floating planets. They found that if the number of rogue planets equaled the number of stars, then 3 to 6 percent of the stars would grab a planet over time. The more massive a star, the more likely it is to snag a planet drifting by. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

New Genetic Mechanism Of Immune Deficiency Discovered

April 21st 2012

Docs and Tech
Research In Action

Researchers at National Jewish Health have discovered a novel genetic mechanism of immune deficiency. Magdalena M. Gorska, MD, PhD, and Rafeul Alam, MD, PhD, identified a mutation in Unc119 that causes immunodeficiency  known as idiopathic CD4 lymphopenia.  Unc119 is a signaling protein that activates and induces T cell proliferation. The mutation impairs Unc119 ability to activate T cells.  “A better understanding of the molecular mechanisms associated with this mutation will improve diagnosis and pave the way for development of new therapies,” said Dr. Gorska. Nearly a decade ago Drs. Alam and Gorska identified Unc119 as a novel activator of SRC-type tyrosine kinases, important regulators of cellular function.

Idiopathic CD4 lymphopenia is a rare and heterogeneous syndrome defined by low levels of CD4 T cells in the absence of HIV infection, which predisposes patients to infections and malignancies. Recent research by others had linked the syndrome to reduced activation  of the SRC-type kinase known as Lck.  The latter kinase is involved in T cell development, activation and proliferation. Read more ..

Oil Spills

Researchers Develop New Ecological Model for Deep-Water Oil Spills

April 21st 2012

Click to select Image

On the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blowout, a national panel of researchers is providing new insight into what happened in the disaster, as well as a guide for how to deal with such events in the future, and why existing tools were inadequate to predict what lay before them. The study, produced by the Gulf Oil Spill Ecotox Working Group at UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), is published in the May issue of the journal Bioscience. It is titled, "A Tale of Two Spills: Novel Science and Policy Implications of an Emerging New Oil Spill Model."

"The old model assumed that oil would simply float up to the surface and accumulate there and along the coastline," said co-author Sean Anderson, an associate professor at California State University Channel Islands. "That model works well for pipeline breaks and tanker ruptures, but it is inadequate for this novel type of deep blowout."

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was unlike any oil spill science and society had encountered. The blowout occurred at unprecedented depths and released enormous quantities of oil (an estimated 4.9 billion barrels, or 206 million gallons). Marine and wildlife habitats suffered major damage, and, according to authors, the damage continues to happen today, out of sight. Local and regional economies and livelihoods suffered as well.

According to the researchers — a renowned group of ecotoxicologists, oceanographers, and ecologists who convened under the auspices of NCEAS while the spill was still active — the response to clean up and contain the oil followed a framework that assumed the oil's behavior would mimic the more familiar shallow-water and surface spills, despite the fact that the dynamics, fate, and effect of deep-water oil on ecosystems are not understood. "As the Deepwater Horizon spill unfolded, you would hear folks saying things like, 'We all know what happens when oil and water mix; the oil floats.' That wasn't the whole story, and that assumptions and actions that were not the best possible use of our time and effort," said Anderson. Read more ..

Edge of Nature

Promiscuous Queen Bees Keep Hives Healthy

April 20th 2012

Bee and cherry blossom

By mating with nearly 100 males, queen bees on isolated islands avoid inbreeding and keep colonies healthy.

The results, published in the current issue of PLoS ONE, focused on giant honey bee colonies on Hainan Island, off the coast of China. Since these bees have long been separated from their continental cousins, it was thought that the island bees would be prime candidates for inbreeding as well as having very different genes, said Zachary Huang, Michigan State University entomologist.

“We believed that the island bees would show evidence of the founder effect, or random genetic changes in an isolated population, on a unique sex determination gene from the mainland bees,” he said. “At first we were surprised when we couldn’t document this effect. Looking at it further, I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I think of this before?’” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Scientists Find Achilles' Heel In Life-Threatening Malaria Parasites

April 20th 2012

mosquito bites knuckle

Scientists have identified a link between different strains of malaria parasites that cause severe disease, which could help develop vaccines or drugs against life-threatening cases of the infection.

Researchers have identified a key protein that is common to many potentially fatal forms of the condition, and found that antibodies that targeted this protein were effective against these severe malaria strains.

The protein has sticky properties that enable it to bind to red blood cells and form dangerous clumps that can block blood vessels. These clumps, or rosettes, can cause severe illness, including coma and brain damage. Presently, between 10 and 20 per cent of people with severe malaria die from it, and the disease – which is spread by blood-sucking mosquitoes – claims about one million lives per year.

Malaria parasites, once in the bloodstream, are able to alter the protein molecules on their surfaces to evade attack by the immune system. These surface proteins are usually poor targets for treatments or vaccines because they are highly variable between different malaria parasite strains. Now, researchers have found that the surface proteins of rosette-forming parasites share similarities that may allow them to act as a target for treatments to block progress of the disease. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Your Left Side Is Your Best Side

April 20th 2012

Invisible Brain

Your best side may be your left cheek, according to a new study by Kelsey Blackburn and James Schirillo from Wake Forest University in the US. Their work shows that images of the left side of the face are perceived and rated as more pleasant than pictures of the right side of the face, possibly due to the fact that we present a greater intensity of emotion on the left side of our face.

Others can judge human emotions in large part from facial expressions. Our highly specialized facial muscles are capable of expressing many unique emotions. Research suggests that the left side of the face is more intense and active during emotional expression. It is also noteworthy that Western artists' portraits predominantly present subjects' left profile.

Blackburn and Schirillo investigated whether there are differences in the perception of the left and right sides of the face in real-life photographs of individuals.

The authors explain: "Our results suggest that posers' left cheeks tend to exhibit a greater intensity of emotion, which observers find more aesthetically pleasing. Our findings provide support for a number of concepts – the notions of lateralized emotion and right hemispheric dominance with the right side of the brain controlling the left side of the face during emotional expression." Read more ..

The Biometric Edge

Facial Recognition Technology Offers Security at Airports and on the Battlefield

April 20th 2012

Eye biometrics

AOptix, a developer of advanced optical technologies and products, announced that Morpho, a high-technology company of the Safran group, has become an AOptix strategic partner in the area of biometric technology. With this agreement, AOptix products, including the combined face capture and iris recognition system, InSight® Duo, will be integrated into Morpho’s solutions offered to countries around the world to check the identities of persons crossing their borders on land, sea and air. Morpho provides advanced solutions for border control, detection, identity management, criminal justice, and secure biometric access.

“For years, we have respected AOptix’s commitment to innovation in enhancing iris usability in biometric identification systems. The match between our two companies is natural as we unite to offer biometric solutions for a vast array of applications,” says Bernard Didier, Senior VP, Technology & Strategy at Morpho. “Combining the knowledge and expertise of our two companies in iris and facial recognition solutions will offer tremendous benefits in security and time savings for governments, airports, airlines and the traveling public.” Read more ..

The Safety Edge

Smart Dummy Facilitates Pedestrian Detection System Design And Test

April 20th 2012

pedestrian crash test dummy

A technology collaboration between innovITS Advance (UK ITS Centre for Excellence for Transport Telematics and Technology for Sustainable Mobility) and consultancy TRL has led to the creation of an advanced form of pedestrian detection target which will help those specifying and developing automotive safety systems based on pedestrian recognition to test and certify their products in a more flexible, accurate and repeatable manner.

According to innovITS Advance business development manager Steven Warner, pedestrian detection systems are already increasingly being incorporated into new vehicles,but the automotive industry is largely lacking in dummy systems providing a realistic representation of human form and gait to the vehicle's on-board sensor systems. The new TRL-innovITS advance mobile pedestrian target is based around a robust, free standing dummy that provides a realistic human aspect and moves under remote control with a programmable range of speed and acceleration settings.

The dummy emulates the leg motion associated with a normal walking or running gait and can currently be configured for three body sizes: a 50th percentile adult male and adult female, and a 6 year old child. Each of these body options is fully detachable and designed to minimize vehicle damage should the pedestrian detection system fail to operate, and the unit moves on an extremely low profile base unit which is invisible to vehicle systems. When combined with the unique ground truth positioning system installed at innovITS advance, the new pedestrian detection target system is said to provide a fast, accurate and repeatable testing capability for this category of automotive safety system. Read more ..

Edge of Nature

Live Fast, Die Young: Plant Species in Urban Areas are Different from Rural Cousins

April 19th 2012

abandoned house weeds and bike

New study shows that plant species living in urban backyards are closer related to each other and live shorter spans of time than plant species in the countryside near Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the cities of Halle and Saale in Germany. These cities, in the United States and Europe, harbor more plant species than rural areas. However, plant species of urban areas are closer related to each other and often share similar functions.

Consequently, urban ecosystems should be more sensitive towards environmental impacts than rural ecosystems. This was the conclusion of German and U.S. scientists, based on a field study conducted in Minneapolis (Minnesota) led by Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota. The new study confirms results obtained by Dr. Sonja Knapp and colleagues at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in a study on German flora in 2008.

The recent study compared plant diversity in private yards of the Twin Cities metropolis of Minneapolis-St. Paul in the Midwest of the United States with plant diversity at the nearby Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, part of the Long-Term Ecological Research network supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Cities are growing around the world, and understanding how urbanization and urban gardening impact biodiversity and ecosystem services is increasingly important. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA Rover in Ninth Year of Mars Work

April 19th 2012

Opportunity Rover Self-portrait
Opportunity Rover Self-portrait, December 2011
(credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univversity)

More than eight years after landing on Mars for what was planned as a three-month mission, NASA’s enduring Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is working on what essentially became a new mission last summer.

Opportunity reached a multi-year driving destination, Endeavour Crater, in August 2011. At Endeavour’s rim, it has gained access to geological deposits from an earlier period of Martian history than anything it examined during its first seven years. It also has begun an investigation of the planet’s deep interior that takes advantage of staying in one place for the Martian winter.

Opportunity landed in Eagle Crater on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time, three weeks after its rover twin, Spirit, landed halfway around the planet. In backyard-size Eagle Crater, Opportunity found evidence of an ancient wet environment. The mission met all its goals within the originally planned span of three months. During most of the next four years, it explored successively larger and deeper craters, adding evidence about wet and dry periods from the same era as the Eagle Crater deposits. Read more ..

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