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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 ..


Edge of Medicine

UCSB Researchers Discover Particularly Dangerous Salmonella

April 19th 2012

salmonella

 UC Santa Barbara researchers have discovered Salmonella bacteria that are up to 100 times more capable of causing disease. Their findings may help prevent food poisoning outbreaks that continue to plague public health and the food industry.

These "hypervirulent" bugs can override vaccines and pose a risk to food safety –– and mitigation efforts are currently under way.Previous strategies to find the more dangerous bugs were unsuccessful since they behave like a "Trojan Horse" –– exposing their weapons only when causing disease –– but looking much like their less-virulent cousins in the environment.

Now that scientists know what to look for, they are developing methods to discriminate them from their less-virulent cousins. The researchers have been successful in forcing the bacteria to reveal their weapons in the laboratory –– the first step in combating them. Salmonella, found virtually everywhere, is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Personalized Medicine For Lung Cancer

April 18th 2012

Small Cell Lung Cancer
Small Cell Lung Cancer

"A major goal of lung cancer treatment is to tailor the treatment to the individual," says Dr Fiona Blackhall from The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, UK. Methods ranging from convenient blood-based molecular tests, detailed genetic analysis of tumors and functional imaging techniques have been applied in patient populations receiving a range of treatments. These findings provide impetus to continue developing a personalized medicine approach to lung cancer with the overall aim of selecting the most effective treatment for the individual."

Proteins provide clues to outcomes

An international group of researchers report promising results with a test that may identify patients likely to benefit from first-line therapy with a particular drug combination. Dr Oliver Gautschi from the Swiss Group for Clinical Cancer Research (SAKK), and collaborators from The Netherlands and the US company developing the test, conducted a retrospective analysis of two phase-II trials with a serum proteomic classifier called VeriStrat. Their aim was to evaluate the prognostic value of the test in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer receiving first-line treatment with bevacizumab and erlotinib. VeriStrat uses mass spectrometry to measure proteins in pre-treatment blood and assigns a result that correlates with outcome from treatment with a class of drugs known as EGFR inhibitors, which includes erlotinib and gefitinib. The test was initially developed and validated in patients who had already been treated with chemotherapy, and who then received an EGFR inhibitor in second line, Dr Gautschi explains. "We conducted this project to see if the test is also prognostic in untreated patients who received an EGFR inhibitor in the first line. Until now, this has not been clear." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Hubble’s Panoramic View of a Turbulent Stellar Nursery

April 18th 2012

30 doradus stellar nursery
30 Doradus (credit: ESA, Hubble, STScI, NASA, et al.)

Several million young stars are vying for attention in a new NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of a raucous stellar breeding ground in 30 Doradus, a star-forming complex located in the heart of the Tarantula nebula.

The new image comprises one of the largest mosaics ever assembled from Hubble photos and includes observations taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore released the image in celebration of Hubble’s 22nd anniversary.

“Hubble is the world’s premiere science instrument for making celestial observations, which allow us to unravel the mysteries of the universe,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington and three-time Hubble repair astronaut. “In recognition of Hubble’s 22nd birthday, the new image of the 30 Doradus region, the birth place for new stars, is more than a fitting anniversary image.”

30 Doradus is the brightest star-forming region in our galactic neighborhood and home to the most massive stars ever seen. The nebula is 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. No known star-forming region discovered to date in our galaxy is as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus. Read more ..


Biosensor Edge

Ultra-Sensitive Electrical Biosensor Unlocks Potential For Instant Diagnostic Devices

April 18th 2012

Banerjee Biosensors-4-2012

A new quantum mechanical-based biosensor designed by a team at University of California, Santa Barbara offers tremendous potential for detecting biomolecules at ultra-low concentrations, from instant point-of-care disease diagnostics, to detection of trace substances for forensics and security. Kaustav Banerjee, director of the Nanoelectronics Research Lab and professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, and PhD student Deblina Sarkar have proposed a methodology for beating the fundamental limits of a conventional Field-Effect-Transistor (FET) by designing a Tunnel-FET (T-FET) sensor that is faster and four orders of magnitude more sensitive.
Read more ..

The Edge of Life

A Toxic Menu

April 17th 2012

worm
The worm Olavius algarvensis.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen and Greifswald University, together with colleagues from Freiburg, Italy and the USA, have revealed that a small marine worm, faced with a scarce food supply in the sandy sediments it lives in off the coast of Elba, must deal with a highly poisionous menu: this worm lives on carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide.

The worm, Olavius algarvensis, can thrive on these poisons thanks to millions of symbiotic bacteria that live under its skin. They use the energy from carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide to produce food for the worm. The symbionts do this just like plants by fixing carbon dioxide into carbohydrates but instead of using light energy from the sun, the symbionts use the energy from chemical compounds like carbon monoxide. “They do this so effectively, that the worm has lost its entire digestive system, including its mouth and gut, during the course of evolution, and feeds only through its symbionts”, explains Nicole Dubilier, Head of the Symbiosis Group at the Bremen-based Max Planck Institute. Read more ..


Race For Clean Water

Sunlight Plus Lime Juice Makes Drinking Water Safer

April 17th 2012

glass water

Looking for an inexpensive and effective way to quickly improve the quality of your drinking water? According to a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, sunlight and a twist of lime might do the trick. Researchers found that adding lime juice to water that is treated with a solar disinfection method removed detectable levels of harmful bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) significantly faster than solar disinfection alone. The results are featured in the April 2012 issue of American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

"For many countries, access to clean drinking water is still a major concern. Previous studies estimate that globally, half of all hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from a water-related illness," said Kellogg Schwab, PhD, MS, senior author of the study, director of the Johns Hopkins University Global Water Program and a professor with the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. "The preliminary results of this study show solar disinfection of water combined with citrus could be effective at greatly reducing E. coli levels in just 30 minutes, a treatment time on par with boiling and other household water treatment methods. In addition, the 30 milliliters of juice per 2 liters of water amounts to about one-half Persian lime per bottle, a quantity that will likely not be prohibitively expensive or create an unpleasant flavor."

In low-income regions, solar disinfection of water is one of several household water treatment methods to effectively reduce the incidence of diarrheal illness. One method of using sunlight to disinfect water that is recommended by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is known as SODIS (Solar water Disinfection). The SODIS method requires filling 1 or 2 liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET plastic) bottles with water and then exposing them to sunlight for at least 6 hours. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

New Genetically Engineered Mice Aid Understanding Of Incurable Neuromuscular Disease

April 17th 2012

House Mouse

A team of scientists from the University of Missouri created a genetically modified mouse that mimics key features of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited neuromuscular disease affecting approximately 150,000 people in the United States. Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT, is a group of progressive disorders that affects the peripheral nervous system, the part of the nervous system that connects the brain and spinal cord to targets such as muscles. The disease largely affects the distal nerves, those running to the feet and hands, and can progress to include the legs and arms. “Wasting and weakening of the muscles occurs because the distal nerves are either dying or not functioning properly,” said Michael Garcia, study leader and associate professor of biological sciences. “The condition can be very debilitating depending on the muscles affected and the degree to which they are affected.” No cure exists for CMT, but Garcia hopes that insights gleaned from the new mouse model may aid the development of therapeutic interventions. “By learning about the basics of disease initiation and progression, perhaps we can soon test therapeutics designed to stop or reverse the pathology,” he said.
Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Knee Injuries In Women Linked To Motion, Nervous System Differences

April 17th 2012

Olympic Runners

Women are more prone to knee injuries than men, and the findings of a new study suggest this may involve more than just differences in muscular and skeletal structure – it shows that males and females also differ in the way they transmit the nerve impulses that control muscle force. Scientists at Oregon State University found that men control nerve impulses similar to individuals trained for explosive muscle usage – like those of a sprinter – while the nerve impulses of women are more similar to those of an endurance-trained athlete, like a distance runner. In particular, the research may help to explain why women tend to suffer ruptures more often than men in the anterior cruciate ligament of their knees during non-contact activities. These ACL injuries are fairly common, can be debilitating, and even when repaired can lead to osteoarthritis later in life.
More study of these differences in nervous system processing may lead to improved types of training that individuals could use to help address this issue, scientists said. “It’s clear that women move differently than men, but it’s not as obvious why that is,” said Sam Johnson, a clinical assistant professor in the OSU School of Biological and Population Health Sciences. “There are some muscular and skeletal differences between men and women, but that doesn’t explain differences in injury rates as much as you might think,” Johnson said. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

New X-Ray Technique Reveals Structure Of Printable Electronics

April 17th 2012

IC Layout

An innovative X-ray technique has given North Carolina State University researchers and their collaborators new insight into how organic polymers can be used in printable electronics such as transistors and solar cells. Their discoveries may lead to cheaper, more efficient printable electronic devices. Printable electronics are created by spraying or printing inks containing conductive organic molecules onto a surface. The process is fast and much less expensive than current production techniques for items like solar cells or computer and television displays. Additionally, it holds potential for amazing new applications: picture a wearable interactive display that needs no batteries.

In the solar industry, the ability to print solar cells on giant roll-to-roll printing presses – like printing a newspaper – could make the technology much more affordable and mass marketable. NC State physicists Dr. Harald Ade and Dr. Brian Collins, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Chabinyc at the University of California Santa Barbara, wanted to know why some processing steps resulted in better and more efficient devices than others. "Manufacturers know that some materials work better than others in these devices, but it's essentially still a process of trial and error," Ade says. Read more ..


The Molecular Edge

3-D RNA Modeling Opens Scientific Doors

April 17th 2012

DNA Structure

A team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demonstrates a simple, cost-effective technique for three-dimensional RNA structure prediction that will help scientists understand the structures, and ultimately the functions, of the RNA molecules that dictate almost every aspect of human cell behavior. When cell behavior goes wrong, diseases – including cancer and metabolic disorders – can be the result. Over the past five decades, scientists have described more than 80,000 protein structures, most of which are now publicly available and provide important information to medical researchers searching for targets for drug therapy.

However, a similar effort to catalogue RNA structures has mapped only a few hundred RNA molecules. As a result, the potential of RNA molecules has just barely been developed as targets for new therapeutics. "To effectively target these molecules, researchers often need a three-dimensional picture of what they look like," says Nikolay Dokholyan, PhD.

"With Dr. Kevin Weeks' lab, we have developed a way to create a three-dimensional map of complex RNAs that are not amenable to study through other methods. It builds on information from a routine laboratory experiment, used in the past to evaluate RNA models from a qualitative standpoint. Our team has created a sophisticated quantitative model that uses this simple information to predict structures for large, complex RNA molecules, which have previously been beyond the reach of modeling techniques," he adds. Read more ..


Energy vs Environment

Nanosponges Absorb Oil Again and Again

April 17th 2012

Gulf oil spill

Researchers at Rice University and Penn State University have discovered that adding a dash of boron to carbon while creating nanotubes turns them into solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have an astounding ability to absorb oil spilled in water. That’s one of a range of potential innovations for the material created in a single step. The team found for the first time that boron puts kinks and elbows into the nanotubes as they grow and promotes the formation of covalent bonds, which give the sponges their robust qualities.

The researchers, who collaborated with peers in labs around the nation and in Spain, Belgium and Japan, revealed their discovery in Nature’s Scientific Reports. Lead a uthor Daniel Hashim, a graduate student in the Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, said the blocks are both superhydrophobic (they hate water, and float really well) and oleophilic (they love oil). The nanosponges, which are more than 99 percent air, also conduct electricity and can easily be manipulated with magnets. To demonstrate, Hashim dropped the sponge into a dish of water with used motor oil floating on top. The sponge soaked it up. He then put a match to the material, burned off the oil and returned the sponge to the water to absorb more. The robust sponge can be used repeatedly and stands up to abuse; he said a sample remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab. The sponge can also store the oil for later retrieval, he said. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Closely Linked Groups Have Significant Differences in Skull Shape

April 17th 2012

Human Skull

In order to accurately identify skulls as male or female, forensic anthropologists need to have a good understanding of how the characteristics of male and female skulls differ between populations. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that these differences can be significant, even between populations that are geographically close to one another.

The researchers looked at the skulls of 27 women and 28 men who died in Lisbon, Portugal, between 1880 and 1975. They also evaluated the skulls of 40 women and 39 men who died between 1895 and 1903 in the rural area of Coimbra, just over 120 miles north of Lisbon.

The researchers found significant variation between female skulls from Lisbon and those from Coimbra. “The differences were in the shape of the skull, not the size,” says Dr. Ann Ross, professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the study. “This indicates that the variation is due to genetic differences, rather than differences of diet or nutrition.” The researchers found little difference between the male skulls.

Specifically, the researchers found that the female skulls from Lisbon exhibited greater intraorbital distance than the skulls of Coimbra females. In other words, the women from Lisbon had broader noses and eyes that were spaced further apart.

This difference in craniofacial characteristics may stem from an influx of immigrants into Lisbon, which is a port city, Ross says. However, it may also be a result of preferential mate selection—meaning Lisbon men were finding mates abroad, or were more attracted to women with those facial features. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA's Swift Monitors Outbound Comet Garradd

April 17th 2012

comet garradd
Commet Garradd, outbound (credit: NASA; Swift; D. Bodewits (UMD);
S. Immler (GSFC); and DSS/STScI/AURA)

An outbound comet that provided a nice show for skywatchers late last year is the target of an ongoing investigation by NASA’s Swift satellite. Formally designated C/2009 P1 (Garradd), the unusually dust-rich comet provides a novel opportunity to characterize how cometary activity changes at ever greater distance from the sun.

A comet is a clump of frozen gases mixed with dust. These “dirty snowballs” cast off gas and dust whenever they venture near the sun. What powers this activity is frozen water transforming from solid ice to gas, a process called sublimation. Jets powered by ice sublimation release dust, which reflects sunlight and brightens the comet. Typically, a comet’s water content remains frozen until it comes within about three times Earth’s distance to the sun, or 3 astronomical units (AU), so astronomers regard this as the solar system’s “snow line.”

“Comet Garradd was producing lots of dust and gas well before it reached the snow line, which tells us that the activity was powered by something other than water ice,” said Dennis Bodewits, an assistant research scientist at UMCP and the study’s lead investigator. “We plan to use Swift’s unique capabilities to monitor Garradd as it moves beyond the snow line, where few comets are studied.” Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Decoding Worm Lingo

April 16th 2012

assorted nematodes
Assorted nematodes (credit: CalTech)

All animals seem to have ways of exchanging information—monkeys vocalize complex messages, ants create scent trails to food, and fireflies light up their abdomens to attract mates. Yet, despite the fact that nematodes, or roundworms, are among the most abundant animals on the planet, little is known about the way they network. Now, research led by California Institute of Technology (Caltech) biologists has shown that a wide range of nematodes communicate using a recently discovered class of chemical cues: small-molecule pheromones.

A paper outlining their studies—which were a collaborative effort with the laboratory of Frank C. Schroeder, assistant scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) of Cornell University—was published online April 12 in Current Biology. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Naturally Drug-Resistant Cave Bacteria Possible Key To New Antibiotics

April 15th 2012

Lechuguilla Cave Pearlsian Gulf

New research findings suggest the key to finding a whole new variety of antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections may lie with the resident bacteria in one of the most isolated caves in the world.

The U.S. scientists who conducted the study say bacteria collected from Lechuguilla Cave in the state of New Mexico appear to possess an innate resistance to antibiotics, despite never having been exposed to any human sources.  Some of the bacteria had a pre-existing defense against as many as 14 different antibiotics.  In all, the scientists say the cave-dwelling organisms showed a naturally-developed resistance to virtually every antibiotic currently used to treat bacterial infections. 

While this may sound like bad news, the researchers explain that finding isolated, drug-resistant bacteria actually is a good thing.  They say it suggests there are many types of previously unknown, naturally-occurring antibiotics in the environment that can be developed for doctors to use against currently untreatable infections. 

First discovered 70 years ago, antibiotics are only effective against disease caused by bacterial infection. However, decades of widespread overuse, especially in agriculture industries, and via over-prescription by doctors, has made increasing types of disease-causing bacteria - so-called superbugs - immune to antibiotics. There is increasing concern among scientists and medical experts that current antibiotic treatments could become completely ineffective against bacterial infections, which would be catastrophic for millions of people around the world suffering from diseases such as malaria. Read more ..


The Edge Of Nature

Reptiles, Amphibians In US Succumbing To Deadly Ranavirus

April 15th 2012

Loggerhead turtle

Since the mid 1990s, a type of virus known as a ranavirus has been taking a devastating toll on reptiles and amphibians -- especially turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders -- in more than 20 states across the U.S.  Hundreds of thousands of these animals have died from the lethal virus and the disease continues to spread. Scientists are stepping up their efforts to better understand and combat the pathogen.          Tracking the virus                         A few years ago, Scott Farnsworth, a graduate student at Towson University in Maryland, was sent to a wooded park in Maryland to relocate box turtles safely away from a new highway.  Farnsworth and his team tagged 100 turtles with radio transmitters. But then the reptiles started turning up dead.

And not just turtles. They began seeing massive die-offs of toads, young frogs called tadpoles and salamanders. Lab analyses showed the culprit was the ranavirus, a class of viruses that mostly infect cold blooded animals.
“It’s pretty quick. We can go from seeing no outer signs," he explained. "To having complete mortality for all of the ones in the pond within a few days.” While amphibians die within hours of infection, box turtles can survive as long as a month. A lab test showed the animal died struggling to breathe. Ranavirus often infects amphibians during their egg and juvenile stages, leaving them unable to swim. But it affects only adult turtles. “It could send them on a glide path towards extinction,” said Farnsworth. Farnsworth carefully checks for signs of life at a pond where all the animals died last year. Read more ..


The Edge of Technology

Scientists Complete First-Ever Emperor Penguin Count From Space

April 14th 2012

Click to select Image

There are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than was previously thought, according to a new study released today by an international team of researchers using high-resolution satellite mapping technology. This first-ever count of an entire species from space provides an important benchmark for monitoring the impact of environmental change on the population of this iconic bird.

Scientists from the University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center co-authored the research with partners from the British Antarctic Survey. The research is published today in the journal PLoS ONE. In the journal, the scientists describe how they used Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite images to estimate the number of penguins at each colony around the coastline of Antarctica. Using a technique known as pan-sharpening to increase the resolution of the satellite imagery, the science teams were able to differentiate between birds, ice, shadow and penguin poo (guano).

They then used ground counts and aerial photography to calibrate the analysis. These birds breed in areas that are very difficult to study because they are remote and often inaccessible with temperatures as low as -58°F (-50°C). Lead author and geographer Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which is funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, said the research findings are groundbreaking.

"We are delighted to be able to locate and identify such a large number of emperor penguins," Fretwell said. "We counted 595,000 birds, which is almost double the previous estimates of 270,000 to 350,000 birds. This is the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space." On the ice, emperor penguins with their black and white plumage stand out against the snow and colonies are clearly visible on satellite imagery. This allowed the team to analyze 44 emperor penguin colonies around the coast of Antarctica, with seven previously unknown. Read more ..


The Computer Edge

Surfing the Mini-Internet to Increase Computational Power of Chips

April 14th 2012

Mini Internet by Christine Daniloff

Computer chips have stopped getting faster. In order to keep increasing chips’ computational power at the rate to which we’ve grown accustomed, chipmakers are instead giving them additional “cores,” or processing units.

Today, a typical chip might have six or eight cores, all communicating with each other over a single bundle of wires, called a bus. With a bus, however, only one pair of cores can talk at a time, which would be a serious limitation in chips with hundreds or even thousands of cores, which many electrical engineers envision as the future of computing.

Li-Shiuan Peh, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, wants cores to communicate the same way computers hooked to the Internet do: by bundling the information they transmit into “packets.” Each core would have its own router, which could send a packet down any of several paths, depending on the condition of the network as a whole.

At the Design Automation Conference in June, Peh and her colleagues will present a paper she describes as “summarizing 10 years of research” on such “networks on chip.” Not only do the researchers establish theoretical limits on the efficiency of packet-switched on-chip communication networks, but they also present measurements performed on a test chip in which they came very close to reaching several of those limits. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

New Isotope Measurement Could Alter History Of Early Solar System

April 14th 2012

galactic magnetic

The early days of our solar system might look quite different than previously thought, according to research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory published in Science. The study used more sensitive instruments to find a different half-life for samarium, one of the isotopes used to chart the evolution of the solar system.“It shrinks the chronology of early events in the solar system, like the formation of planets, into a shorter time span,” said Argonne physicist Michael Paul. “It also means some of the oldest rocks on Earth would have formed even earlier — as early as 120 million years after the solar system formed, in one case of Greenland rocks.”According to current theory, everything in our solar system formed from star dust several billion years ago. Some of this dust was formed in giant supernovae explosions which supplied most of our heavy elements. One of these is the isotope samarium-146.Samarium-146, or Sm-146, is unstable and occasionally emits a particle, which changes the atom into a different element. Using the same technique as radiocarbon dating, scientists can calculate how long it’s been since the Sm-146 was created.

Because Sm-146 decays extremely slowly—on the order of millions of years—many models use it to help determine the age of the solar system.The number of years it takes for an isotope to decrease by half is called its half-life. Since Sm-146 emits particles so rarely, it takes a sophisticated instrument to measure this half-life.The Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System, or ATLAS, is a DOE national user facility for the study of nuclear structure and astrophysics, and is just such an instrument. “It’s easy for the ATLAS, used as a mass spectrometer, to pick out one Sm-146 atom in tens of billions of atoms,” said physicist Richard Pardo, who manages the facility and participated in the study. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Auroras over Uranus Glimpsed from Earth

April 13th 2012

Uranus's Auroras
Uranus’s Auroras (credit: Laurent Lamy)

For the first time, scientists have captured images of auroras above the giant ice planet Uranus, finding further evidence of just how peculiar a world that distant planet is. Detected by means of carefully scheduled observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the newly witnessed Uranian light show consisted of short-lived, faint, glowing dots—a world of difference from the colorful curtains of light that often ring Earth’s poles.

In the new observations, which are the first to glimpse the Uranian aurora with an Earth-based telescope, the researchers detected the luminous spots twice on the day side of Uranus—the side that’s visible from Hubble. Previously, the distant aurora had only been measured using instruments on a passing spacecraft. Unlike auroras on Earth, which can turn the sky greens and purples for hours, the newly detected auroras on Uranus appeared to only last a couple minutes.

In general, auroras are a feature of the magnetosphere, the area surrounding a planet that is controlled by its magnetic field and shaped by the solar wind, a steady flow of charged particles emanating from the sun. Auroras are produced in the atmosphere as charged solar wind particles accelerate in the magnetosphere and are guided by the magnetic field close to the magnetic poles—that’s why the Earthly auroras are found around high latitudes. Read more ..


Technology Edge

Microprocessors From Pencil Lead

April 12th 2012

lead pencil

Graphite, more commonly known as pencil lead, could become the next big thing in the quest for smaller and less power-hungry electronics.

Resembling chicken wire on a nano scale, graphene – single sheets of graphite – is only one atom thick, making it the world's thinnest material. Two million graphene sheets stacked up would not be as thick as a credit card.

The tricky part physicists have yet to figure out how to control the flow of electrons through the material, a necessary prerequisite for putting it to work in any type of electronic circuit. Graphene behaves very different than silicon, the material currently used in semiconductors.

Last year, a research team led by University of Arizona physicists cleared the first hurdle by identifying boron nitride, a structurally identical but non-conducting material, as a suitable mounting surface for single-atom sheets of graphene. The team also showed that in addition to providing mechanical support, boron nitride improves the electronic properties of graphene by smoothening out fluctuations in the electronic charges. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Building a ’Time Machine’ to Study the Early Universe

April 12th 2012

Colliding galaxies first image from MOSFIRE
Image from MOSFIRE showing colliding galaxies
(credit: Ian S. McLean/W.M. Keck Observatory)

A new scientific instrument, a “time machine” of sorts, built by UCLA astronomers and colleagues, will allow scientists to study the earliest galaxies in the universe for the first time The five-ton instrument, the most advanced and sophisticated of its kind in the world, goes by the name MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) and has been installed in the Keck I Telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. MOSFIRE gathers light in infrared wavelengths—invisible to the human eye—allowing it to penetrate cosmic dust and see distant objects whose light has been redshifted to the infrared by the expansion of the universe.

“The instrument was designed to study the most distant, faintest galaxies,” said UCLA physics and astronomy professor Ian S. McLean, project leader on MOSFIRE and director of UCLA’s Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics. “When we look at the most distant galaxies, we see them not as they are now but as they were when the light left them that is just now arriving here. Some of the galaxies that we are studying were formed some 10 billion years ago—only a few billion years after the Big Bang. We are looking back in time to the era of the formation of some of the very first galaxies, which are small and very faint. That is an era that we need to study if we are going to understand the large-scale structure of the universe.” Read more ..


The Metal's Edge

Earth Holds Its Copper Depoits

April 12th 2012

Continental Crust

Earth is clingy when it comes to copper. A new Rice University study recently published in the journal Science finds that nature conspires at scales both large and small -- from the realms of tectonic plates down to molecular bonds -- to keep most of Earth's copper buried dozens of miles below ground. "Everything throughout history shows us that Earth does not want to give up its copper to the continental crust," said Rice geochemist Cin-Ty Lee, the lead author of the study. "Both the building blocks for continents and the continental crust itself, dating back as much as 3 billion years, are highly depleted in copper."

Finding copper is more than an academic exercise. With global demand for electronics growing rapidly, some studies have estimated the world's demand for copper could exceed supply in as little as six years. The new study could help, because it suggests where undiscovered caches of copper might lie.

But the copper clues were just a happy accident. "We didn't go into this looking for copper," Lee said. "We were originally interested in how continents form and more specifically in the oxidation state of volcanoes." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronomers Discover Sandstorms in Space

April 12th 2012

gaseous ring on star

Writing in Nature, the team of researchers used new techniques which allowed them to look into the atmospheres of distant, dying stars.

The team, lead by Barnaby Norris from the University of Sydney in Australia, includes scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Paris-Diderot, Oxford and Macquarie University, New South Wales. They used the Very Large Telescope in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory.

At the resolution used by the scientists, one could, from the UK, distinguish the two headlights on a car in Australia. This extreme resolution made it possible to resolve the red giant stars, and to see winds of gas and dust coming off the star.

Stars like the Sun end their lives with a 'superwind', 100 million times stronger than the solar wind. This wind occurs over a period of 10,000 years, and removes as much as half the mass of the star. At the end, only a dying and fading remnant of the star will be left. The Sun will begin to throw out these gases in around five billion years. Read more ..


Nature on Edge

How A Common Crop Pesticide Harms Bees

April 11th 2012

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Buff-tailed bumblebee (credit: David Goulson)

A pair of new studies reveals the multiple ways that a widely used insecticide harms both bumblebees and honeybees. The reports, one by a U.K. team and one by a French team, appear online in Science magazine.

Bumblebees and honeybees are important pollinators of flowering plants, including many major fruit and vegetable crops. Each year, for example, honeybee hives are trucked in to help pollinate almond, apple, blueberry, and other crops. In recent years, honeybee populations have declined rapidly, in part due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Bumblebee populations have been suffering as well, according to Dave Goulson of the University of Stirling in Stirling, U.K., who is a co-author of one of the studies.

“Some bumblebee species have declined hugely. For example in North America, several bumblebee species which used to be common have more or less disappeared from the entire continent. In the U.K., three species have gone extinct,” Goulson said. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

The Difficulties of Modelling Sand: Part Fluid, Part Solid

April 10th 2012

hourglass sand

Sand in an hourglass might seem simple and straightforward, but such granular materials are actually tricky to model. From far away, flowing sand resembles a liquid, streaming down the center of an hourglass like water from a faucet. But up close, one can make out individual grains that slide against each other, forming a mound at the base that holds its shape, much like a solid.

Sand's curious behavior — part fluid, part solid — has made it difficult for researchers to predict how it and other granular materials flow under various conditions. A precise model for granular flow would be particularly useful in optimizing processes such as pharmaceutical manufacturing and grain production, where tiny pills and grains pour through industrial chutes and silos in mass quantities. When they aren't well-controlled, such large-scale flows can cause blockages that are costly and sometimes dangerous to clear.

Now Ken Kamrin of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering has come up with a model that predicts the flow of granular materials under a variety of conditions. The model improves on existing models by taking into account one important factor: how the size of a grain affects the entire flow. Kamrin used the new model to predict sand flow in several configurations — including a chute and a circular trough — and found that the model's predictions were a near-perfect match with actual results. A paper detailing the new model will appear in the journal Physical Review Letters. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Satellite Observes Rapid Ice Shelf Disintegration In Antarctic

April 10th 2012

Glacier calving

As ESA’s Envisat satellite marks ten years in orbit, it continues to observe the rapid retreat of one of Antarctica’s ice shelves due to climate warming. One of the satellite’s first observations following its launch on 1 March 2002 was of break-up of a main section of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica – when 3200 sq km of ice disintegrated within a few days due to mechanical instabilities of the ice masses triggered by climate warming.

Now, with ten years of observations using its Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR), Envisat has mapped an additional loss in Larsen B’s area of 1790 sq km over the past decade. The Larsen Ice Shelf is a series of three shelves – A (the smallest), B and C (the largest) – that extend from north to south along the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Larsen A disintegrated in January 1995. Larsen C so far has been stable in area, but satellite observations have shown thinning and an increasing duration of melt events in summer. “Ice shelves are sensitive to atmospheric warming and to changes in ocean currents and temperatures,” said Prof. Helmut Rott from the University of Innsbruck. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Solar Observatories Spot Something New—On the Sun

April 10th 2012

STEREO solar observing satellites
STEREO-A and STEREO-B, solar observatory satellites
(Artist’s conception; credit: NASA)

One day in the fall of 2011, Neil Sheeley, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., did what he always does—look through the daily images of the sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). But on this day he saw something he’d never noticed before: a pattern of cells with bright centers and dark boundaries occurring in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. These cells looked somewhat like a cell pattern that occurs on the sun’s surface—similar to the bubbles that rise to the top of boiling water—but it was a surprise to find this pattern higher up in the corona, which is normally dominated by bright loops and dark coronal holes.

Sheeley discussed the images with his Naval Research Laboratory colleague Harry Warren, and together they set out to learn more about the cells. Their search included observations from a fleet of NASA spacecraft called the Heliophysics System Observatory that provided separate viewpoints from different places around the sun. They describe the properties of these previously unreported solar features, dubbed “coronal cells,” in a paper published online in The Astrophysical Journal on March 20, 2012.

The coronal cells occur in areas between coronal holes—colder and less dense areas of the corona seen as dark regions in images—and “filament channels” which mark the boundaries between sections of upward-pointing magnetic fields and downward-pointing ones. Read more ..


Edge of Entomology

Honeybees May Self-Medicate to Address Harmful Fungal Infections

April 9th 2012

Bee and pollen

Honey bees have been found to apparently “self-medicate” when their colony is infected with a harmful fungus, bringing in increased amounts of antifungal plant resins to ward off the pathogen. In recent years, beekeepers have battled mysterious infectious diseases that have destroyed thousands of hives.

“The colony is willing to expend the energy and effort of its worker bees to collect these resins,” says Dr. Michael Simone-Finstrom, a postdoctoral research scholar in NC State’s Department of Entomology and lead author of a paper describing the research. “So, clearly this behavior has evolved because the benefit to the colony exceeds the cost.”

When faced with pathogenic fungi, bees line their hives with more propolis - the waxy, yellow substance seen here.
Wild honey bees normally line their hives with propolis, a mixture of plant resins and wax that has antifungal and antibacterial properties. Domesticated honey bees also use propolis, to fill in cracks in their hives.

However, researchers found that, when faced with a fungal threat, bees bring in significantly more propolis—45 percent more, on average. The bees also physically removed infected larvae that had been parasitized by the fungus and were being used to create fungal spores. Read more ..



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