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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 ..


The Edge of Space

Organics Probably Formed Easily in Early Solar System

April 8th 2012

another protoplanetary disk
credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Complex organic compounds, including many important to life on Earth, were readily produced under conditions that likely prevailed in the primordial solar system. Scientists at the University of Chicago and NASA Ames Research Center came to this conclusion after linking computer simulations to laboratory experiments.

Fred Ciesla, assistant professor in geophysical sciences at UChicago, simulated the dynamics of the solar nebula, the cloud of gas and dust from which the sun and the planets formed. Although every dust particle within the nebula behaved differently, they all experienced the conditions needed for organics to form over a simulated million-year period. “Whenever you make a new planetary system, these kinds of things should go on,” said Scott Sandford, a space science researcher at NASA Ames. “This potential to make organics and then dump them on the surfaces of any planet you make is probably a universal process.”

Although organic compounds are commonly found in meteorites and cometary samples, their origins presented a mystery. Now Ciesla and Sandford describe how the compounds possibly evolved in the March 29 edition of Science Express. How important a role these compounds may have played in giving rise to the origin of life remains poorly understood, however. Read more ..


Technology on Edge

Introducing the Invisible Keyboard

April 7th 2012

droid 4

It’s easy to see who chose typing class in school when watching grownups in the boardroom. Those who didn’t learn how to type properly stumble over laptop keyboards with two fingers or thumbs. Today’s smart phones have made most of us just as awkward whether we learned QWERTY or not. Our fingers feel like big fat sausages as we aim for the tiny letters. Could there be another way?

An Israeli company called SnapKeys has introduced an invisible keyboard that is based on letter shapes rather than frequency of letter use, frees up screen space and lets a smart phone user communicate better.

Unlike the latest laser-based keyboards or hand-movement controlled keyboards, the SnapKeys system is a whole new way of using the alphabet to type. “We are not providing a keyboard,” says Dan Saban, the general manager of SnapKeys. “We are providing a user experience for reading and writing text on the mobile platform. We want to remove the keyboard from the screen to manipulate the content. We want to take the keyboard away so people can edit texts and feel they have a free mobile experience.” Read more ..


The Edge of Space

New Isotope Measurement Could Change Understanding of Early Solar System

April 5th 2012

protoplanetary disk
Protoplanetary disk (credit: NASA)

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 Argonne National Laboratory. 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. Read more ..


Physics on Edge

‘Faster-than-Light’ Project Team Leads Quit

April 5th 2012

OPERA at CERN
OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) at CERN
(credit: OPERA Project)

Two leaders of the OPERA project—which claimed to show subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light—have quit, according to Nature.

If proven correct, the OPERA research would disprove Einstein’s special theory of relativity. However, last month a rival experimental group, called ICARUS, cast doubt on the findings after repeating the experiment and finding the subatomic particles, called neutrinos, traveled at the same speed as—not faster than—light.

It was last September that scientists working on the OPERA project at CERN announced they’d found neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light, contradicting Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which holds that nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

The scientists fired a beam of neutrinos—elementary particles which don’t hold an electrical charge and pass through ordinary matter with virtually no interaction—from a particle accelerator to a lab about 730 kilometers away in Italy. The Geneva-based scientists said the neutrinos they’d sent to the lab in Italy got there 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light—300,006 kilometers per second. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Singing Out Loud: Sparrows Change Their Tune to Be Heard in Noisy Cities

April 4th 2012

Tree Sparrow

Sparrows in San Francisco’s Presidio district changed their tune to soar above the increasing cacophony of car horns and engine rumbles, details new Mason research in the April edition of “Animal Behaviour.”

“It shows a strong link between the change in song and the change in noise,” says David Luther, term assistant professor in Mason’s undergraduate biology program. “It’s also the first study that I know of to track the songs over time and the responses of birds to historical and current songs.”

The study, “Birdsongs Keep Pace with City Life: Changes in Song Over Time in an Urban Songbird Affects Communication,” compares birdsongs from as far back as 1969 to today’s tweets. Plus, the researchers detail how San Francisco’s streets have grown noisier based on studies from 1974 and 2008. Luther wrote the study with Elizabeth Derryberry, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University and a research assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. “We’ve created this artificial world, although one could say it’s the real world now, with all this noise — traffic, leaf blowers, air conditioners,” Luther says. “A lot of birds are living in these areas, and what, if anything, is this doing to their songs?”

Turns out, quite a bit. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Advanced Handwriting Recognition in the Drivers Seats

April 3rd 2012

Pen Writing

Automotive supplier TRW has unveiled a capacitive touchpad sensor incorporating advanced handwriting recognition software to help drivers and passengers coordinate and operate a variety of functions within the car. The touchpad improves the human machine interface (HMI) and offers advanced recognition functionality and smaller packaging and greater design freedom within the driver cabin, TRW claims.  According to the company, handwriting as an additional element in automotive human-machine interaction is user-friendly and brings more comfort to the process of controlling car functions, in particular in the infotainment segment. In addition, handwriting on a touchpad is less distracting to the driver than punching the same data into a keyboard. “The increase in mobile connectivity has inspired us to create a single point of contact between the driver and applications used in the vehicle", said  Frank Koch, advanced engineering manager for TRW's Body Control Systems. "This will not only enhance user-friendliness but also help improve safety. TRW research has shown that the use of in-vehicle handwriting recognition operation reduces driving deviations by 78 percent compared with the alphanumeric keyboard method.” Read more ..


The Edge of Space

The Sounds Of Mars And Venus Are Revealed

April 2nd 2012

View of Venus

In a world first, the sounds of Mars and Venus are revealed as part of a planetarium show in Hampshire this Easter. Despite many years of space exploration, we have no evidence of the sound of other planets. While most planetary probes have focused on imaging with cameras and radar and a couple have carried microphones, none of them successfully listened to the sound of another world. Now, a team from the University of Southampton, led by Professor Tim Leighton, has the answer. Using the tools and techniques of physics and mathematics, they created the natural sounds of other worlds, from lightning on Venus to whirlwinds on Mars and ice volcanoes on Saturn’s moon, Titan. In addition to these natural sounds, they have modelled the effects of different atmospheres, pressures and temperatures on the human voice on Mars, Venus and Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). They have developed unique software to transform the sound of a voice on earth to one that’s literally ‘out of this world’.

Professor Leighton, of the University's Institute for Sound and Vibration Research, says: “We are confident of our calculations; we have been rigorous in our use of physics taking into account atmospheres, pressure and fluid dynamics. Read more ..

Robotic Edge

Oscillating Gel Substance Gives Robots Skin with Feeling

April 1st 2012

robotic skin gel

Sooner than later, robots may have the ability to “feel.” In a paper published online March 26 in Advanced Functional Materials, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated that a nonoscillating gel can be resuscitated in a fashion similar to a medical cardiopulmonary resuscitation. These findings pave the way for the development of a wide range of new applications that sense mechanical stimuli and respond chemically—a natural phenomenon few materials have been able to mimic.

A team of researchers at Pitt made predictions regarding the behavior of Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel, a material that was first fabricated in the late 1990s and shown to pulsate in the absence of any external stimuli. In fact, under certain conditions, the gel sitting in a petri dish resembles a beating heart.

Along with her colleagues, Anna Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, predicted that BZ gel not previously oscillating could be re-excited by mechanical pressure. The prediction was actualized by MIT researchers, who proved that chemical oscillations can be triggered by mechanically compressing the BZ gel beyond a critical stress. A video from the MIT group showing this unique behavior can be accessed hereRead more ..


The Edge of Health

Key Enzyme Protecting Nerves From Degeneration Identified

April 1st 2012

walking-cane

A new animal model of nerve injury has brought to light a critical role of an enzyme called Nmnat in nerve fiber maintenance and neuroprotection. Understanding biological pathways involved in maintaining healthy nerves and clearing away damaged ones may offer scientists targets for drugs to mitigate neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's and Parkinson's, as well as aid in situations of acute nerve damage, such as spinal cord injury.

University of Pennsylvanian biologists developed the model in the adult fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

"We are using the basic power of the fly to learn about how neurons are damaged in acute injury situations," said Nancy Bonini, senior author of the research and a professor in the Department of Biology at Penn. "Our work indicates that Nmnat may be key."

When a nerve suffers an acute injury -- as might be caused by a penetrating wound, for example, or a broken bone that damages nearby tissues -- the long projection of the nerve cell, called the axon, can become injured and degenerate. The process by which it disintegrates is known as Wallerian or Wallerian-like degeneration and is an active, orderly process. Though this function of eliminating damaged nerve cells is crucial, biologists do not have a clear understanding of all of the molecular signaling pathways that govern the process.

Bonini's lab has previously focused on chronic neurodegenerative diseases but made this foray into acute nerve injury to determine if mechanistic overlaps exist between acute axon injury and chronic neurodegeneration. They first searched for an appropriate nerve tract to target and identified the wing of adult flies as a prime option. Read more ..


Space on Edge

The Growing Problem of Space Junk

March 31st 2012

orbital space junk
Generated image of known space junk (credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

When a hunk of space junk came hurtling close to the International Space Station last week, the crew took shelter in their Soyuz return vehicle as a precaution.

Although the object—piece of an old Russian Cosmos communications satellite—bypassed them, the danger posed by the growing collection of orbital debris is quite real. A good-sized area of Earth's orbital environment has become a virtual junkyard. Debris has been accumulating since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950s. Today, the amount of space debris is estimated to be in the tens of millions, ranging from spent rocket stages, old and non-functioning satellites, to tiny particles of rubble, the result of collisions or simple erosion of spacecraft that have been up in space, some of them for decades.

The incident last week isn’t the first time astronauts have been threatened by space junk; the ISS had two other close calls last year. Usually the space station performs what NASA calls a “debris avoidance maneuver”—simply moving itself slightly out of harm’s way. The ISS might be having more space junk encounters since changing position in the last year, moving into an area with a slightly higher density of orbital debris. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Israeli Drug Could Save Stroke Victims

March 31st 2012

Invisible Brain

Could a new Israeli treatment help save millions of people from death and severe disability after a stroke? The six-person team of the recently funded company Thrombotech believes they have a fighting chance. Their new drug amplifies the effects of one of the only existing stroke medications on the market, while preventing dangerous side effects.

There is a critical window of time needed to get to the hospital if one is having a stroke. If it is an ischemic stroke—i.e., an artery to the brain is blocked—doctors must get the blood flowing to the brain quickly. The only currently approved treatment for this today is an enzyme called tPA. If given within three hours, tPA dissolves the blood clots blocking the flow of blood to the brain. However, it can be used in just 10 percent of cases and can cause life-threatening side effects such as hemorrhaging.

Yet except for tPA, there isn’t much in a doctor’s arsenal for fighting the serious effects of strokes, which are the leading cause of disability in the world and the third leading cause of death in the United States after cancer and heart disease. This is precisely the need that Ness Ziona-based Thrombotech is targeting. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Treating Cancer as a Chronic Disease

March 30th 2012

Head/neck cancer cell
Cancer cell

New research from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute and the Rambam Medical Center may lead to the development of new methods for controlling the growth of cancer, and perhaps lead to treatments that will transform cancer from a lethal disease to a chronic, manageable one, similar to AIDS.

By placing cancer cells in and near a growth developed from a population of human stem cells, scientists have demonstrated that the cancer cells grow and proliferate more robustly when exposed to human cells than they do in a typical petri dish or mouse model. The cancer cell population is also more diverse than had previously been understood.  The research was published in the current advanced online issue of the journal Stem Cells. Maty Tzukerman, Rambam senior research scientist and the project leader and senior co-author on the report, says that this model will facilitate targeted drug discovery aimed at blocking the cancer cell self-renewal process.

Previous studies have determined that some tumor cells appear to be differentiated, while others retain the self-renewal property that makes cancer so deadly. According to Technion Professor Karl Skorecki, director of Medical Research and Development at Rambam Health Care Campus and senior co-author on the report, this new research attempts to understand how cancer grows, and to find ways to halt the runaway replication. 

In order to mimic the human cancer environment as closely as possible, the research team developed a teratoma - a tumor made of a heterogenous mix of cells and tissues - by enabling the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells into a variety of normally occurring human cell lines on a carrier mouse. The human cellular teratoma constitutes a new platform of healthy human cells for monitoring the behavior and proliferation of human cancer cells. Read more ..


Edge on Biology

Fast-Evolving Genes Provide Constantly Refined Venoms for Sea Snails

March 30th 2012

conus snail

When tropical marine cone snails sink their harpoon-like teeth into their prey, they inject paralyzing venoms made from a potent mix of more than 100 different neurotoxins.

Biologists have known for more than a decade that the genes which provide the recipes for cone snail toxins are among the fastest-evolving genes in the animal kingdom, enabling these predatory gastropods to constantly refine their venoms to more precisely target the neuromuscular systems of their prey. But scientists had been unable to explain the molecular mechanisms behind the impressive diversity and the speedy evolution of cone-snail toxins, which are known as conotoxins. Now, two University of Michigan evolutionary biologists report that their reconstruction of the evolutionary history of these genes has revealed rapid and continuous gene duplication over the last 11 million years that is coupled with the accelerated rates of conotoxin evolution. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Milky Way Holds Billions of Rocky Planets in Red Dwarf Stars’ Habitable Zones

March 29th 2012

Artist's Conception: Sunrise on Gliese 667Cc
Artist's Conception of Sunrise on Gliese 667Cc (credit: L. Calçada, ESO)

This first direct estimate of the number of “light” planets around red dwarf stars has just been announced by an international team using observations with the HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6 metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. A recent announcement showing that planets are ubiquitous in our galaxy used a different method that was not sensitive to this important class of exoplanets.

The HARPS team has been searching for exoplanets orbiting the most common kind of star in the Milky Way—red dwarf, or class M dwarf stars. These stars are faint and cool compared to the Sun, but very common and long-lived, and therefore account for 80 percent of all the stars in the Milky Way.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40 percent of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfils, leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common—there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way—this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.” Read more ..


The Edge of Food

Science Celebrates Cocoa and Chocolate's Potential Health Benefits

March 28th 2012

Chocolate Dessert

If eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka could leap from the pages of Roald Dahl's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and walk these streets, he might make a bee-line for a festival of cocoa and chocolate on the menu today at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

As the world's largest scientific society, ACS is hosting a celebration of scientific discoveries about the food that could lay claim to being the world's favorite treat, comfort food and indulgence. The ACS symposium, titled "Cocoa: Science and Technology," features 18 reports from international experts on the key ingredient in chocolate — cocoa — and the emerging health benefits and other aspects of the food that has delighted people for almost 2,000 years. "Chocolate is one of the foods with the greatest appeal to the general population," said Sunil Kochhar, Ph.D., one of the symposium participants. "The luscious aroma, taste and textures of chocolate have delighted the senses of people in many parts of the world for centuries and make it a well-known comfort food."

Kochhar, who is with the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, is noted for landmark research that is helping to establish chocolate's potential health benefits. He described one study, for instance, published in the Journal of Proteome Research, one of ACS's 41 peer-reviewed scientific journals, detailing the biochemical basis for chocolate's reputation as a comfort food. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

West Antarctic Ice Shelves Tearing Apart At The Seams

March 27th 2012

Antarctic Ice flow

A new study examining nearly 40 years of satellite imagery has revealed that the floating ice shelves of a critical portion of West Antarctica are steadily losing their grip on adjacent bay walls, potentially amplifying an already accelerating loss of ice to the sea.

The most extensive record yet of the evolution of the floating ice shelves in the eastern Amundsen Sea Embayment in West Antarctica shows that their margins, where they grip onto rocky bay walls or slower ice masses, are fracturing and retreating inland. As that grip continues to loosen, these already-thinning ice shelves will be even less able to hold back grounded ice upstream, according to glaciologists at The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).

Reporting in the Journal of Glaciology, the UTIG team found that the extent of ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea Embayment changed substantially between the beginning of the Landsat satellite record in 1972 and late 2011. These changes were especially rapid during the past decade. The affected ice shelves include the floating extensions of the rapidly thinning Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronomers Rethink Size of Black Holes

March 26th 2012

Click to select Image

Astronomers have put forward a new theory about why black holes become so hugely massive – claiming some of them have no “table manners,” and tip their “food” directly into their mouths, eating more than one course simultaneously.

Researchers from the UK and Australia investigated how some black holes grow so fast that they are billions of times heavier than the sun. The team from the University of Leicester (UK) and Monash University in Australia sought to establish how black holes got so big so fast.

Professor Andrew King from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, said: “Almost every galaxy has an enormously massive black hole in its centre. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has one about four million times heavier than the sun. But some galaxies have black holes a thousand times heavier still. We know they grew very quickly after the Big Bang. … These hugely massive black holes were already full-grown when the universe was very young, less than a tenth of its present age.” Read more ..


The Future's Edge

Man-Made Microbes to Create the Next Generation of Fuel and Medicine

March 26th 2012

Mouse in Beaker

Just as aspiring authors often read hundreds of books before starting their own, scientists are using decades of knowledge garnered from sequencing or "reading" the genetic codes of thousands of living things to now start writing new volumes in the library of life. J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., one of the most renowned of those scientists, described the construction of the first synthetic cell and many new applications of this work today at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, which is underway this week.

In a plenary talk titled, "From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code," Venter described a fundamental shift in his field of genomics, and its promise for producing synthetic life that could help provide 21st century society with new fuels, medicines, food and nutritional products, supplies of clean water and other resources. Venter, a pioneer in the field, led the team at Celera Genomics that went head-to-head with the government-and-foundation-funded Human Genome Project in the race to decode the human genome. This quest, in which the 23,000 human genes were deciphered, ended with the teams declaring a tie and publishing simultaneous publications in 2001.

"Genomics is a rapidly evolving field and my teams have been leading the way from reading the genetic code — deciphering the sequences of genes in microbes, humans, plants and other organisms — to writing code and constructing synthetic cells for a variety of uses. We can now construct fully synthetic bacterial cells that have the potential to more efficiently and economically produce vaccines, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, food and other products."

The work Venter described at the ACS session falls within an ambitious new field known as synthetic biology, which draws heavily on chemistry, metabolic engineering, genomics and other traditional scientific disciplines. Synthetic biology emerged from genetic engineering, the now-routine practice of inserting one or two new genes into a crop plant or bacterium. Read more ..


The Race for Hydrogen

Nuclear Can Fuel the Hydrogen Economy

March 26th 2012

Davis Bessee nuke plant Ohio

The long-sought technology for enabling the fabled "hydrogen economy" — an era based on hydrogen fuel that replaces gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels, easing concerns about foreign oil and air pollution — has been available for decades and could begin commercial production of hydrogen in this decade, a scientist reported here today.

Speaking at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, Ibrahim Khamis, Ph.D., described how heat from existing nuclear plants could be used in the more economical production of hydrogen, with future plants custom-built for hydrogen production. He is with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria.

"There is rapidly growing interest around the world in hydrogen production using nuclear power plants as heat sources," Khamis said. "Hydrogen production using nuclear energy could reduce dependence on oil for fueling motor vehicles and the use of coal for generating electricity. In doing so, hydrogen could have a beneficial impact on global warming, since burning hydrogen releases only water vapor and no carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. There is a dramatic reduction in pollution." Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Biomarkers for Autism Discovered

March 25th 2012

Autism

An important step towards developing a rapid, inexpensive diagnostic method for autism has been take by Uppsala University, among other universities. Through advanced mass spectrometry the researchers managed to capture promising biomarkers from a tiny blood sample. The study has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Translational Psychiatry.

There are no acknowledged biomarkers for autism today. Researchers at Berzelii Centre and the Science for Life Laboratory in Uppsala who, in collaboration with colleagues at Linnaeus University in Sweden and the Faculty of Medicine in Tehran, Iran, have discovered some promising biomarkers.

Many diseases are caused by protein alterations inside and outside the body’s cells. By studying protein patterns in tissue and body fluids, these alterations can be mapped to provide important information about underlying causes of disease. Sometimes protein patterns can also be used as biomarkers to enable diagnosis or as a prognosticating tool to monitor the development of a disease. In the current study disruptions of the nervous system were in focus when the scientists studied protein patterns in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Read more ..


The Nano Edge

Swarming and Transporting

March 25th 2012

autonous transporters

The orange-colored vehicle begins moving with a quiet whirr. Soon afterwards the next shuttles begin to move, and before long there are dozens of mini-transporters rolling around in the hall. As if by magic, they head for the high-rack storage shelves or spin around their own axis. But the Multishuttle Moves® – is the name given to these driverless transport vehicles – are not performing some robots‘ ballet. They are moving around in the service of science. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, Germany, researchers are working to harness swarm intelligence as a means of improving the flow of materials and goods in the warehouse environment. In a research hall 1000 square meters in size, the scientists have replicated a small-scale distribution warehouse with storage shelves for 600 small-part carriers and eight picking stations. The heart of the testing facility is a swarm of 50 autonomous vehicles. “In the future, transport systems should be able to perform all of these tasks autonomously, from removal from storage at the shelf to delivery to a picking station. This will provide an alternative to conventional materials-handling solutions,“ explains Prof. Dr. Michael ten Hompel, executive director at IML. Read more ..


The Nanotech Edge

Diatom Biosensor Could Shine Light on Future Nanomaterials

March 25th 2012

Thalassiosira pseudonana (diatom)
Thalassiosira pseudonana

A glow coming from the glassy shells of microscopic marine algae called diatoms could someday help us detect chemicals and other substances in water samples. And the fact that this diatom can glow in response to an external substance could also help researchers develop a variety of new, diatom-inspired nanomaterials that could in turn solve problems in sensing, catalysis and environmental remediation.

Fluorescence is the key characteristic of a new biosensor developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The biosensor, described in a paper published this week in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, includes fluorescent proteins embedded in diatoms’ shells that alter their glow when they are exposed to a particular substance.

“Like tiny glass sculptures, the diverse silica shells of diatoms have long intrigued scientists,” said lead author and molecular biologist Kate Marshall, who works out of PNNL’s Marine Sciences Laboratory. “And the way our biosensor works could make diatoms even more attractive to scientists because it could pave the way for the development of novel, synthetic silica materials.”

Diatoms are perhaps best known as the tiny algae that make up the bulk of phytoplankton, the plant base of the marine food chain that feeds the ocean’s creatures. But materials scientists are fascinated by diatoms for another reason: the intricate, highly-ordered patterns that make up their microscopic shells, which are mostly made of silica. Researchers are looking at these minuscule glass cages to solve problems in a number of areas, including sensing, catalysis, and environmental remediation. Read more ..


The Future's Edge

Designing Human-like Robots

March 24th 2012

Robonauts
NASA/GM's Robonaut2 (credit: NASA)

When we talk with someone, words aren’t the only thing that impact our listener.  Other subtle factors—such as tone of voice, body language and eye contact—also have powerful communicative potential.

Bilge Mutlu, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, understands and appreciates the power of nonverbal communication.

The professor calls himself a human-computer interaction specialist.  His work involves taking characteristics of human behavior and replicating them in robots or animatronic characters.

Mutlu is leading a team that’s developing and creating various computer algorithms based on how people communicate without words.  These algorithms are then used to program devices, like robots, to look and act more human-like, helping to bridge the gap between man and machine.

A person’s gaze is one of the facets of nonverbal communication Mutlu has found to be especially interesting. “It turns out that gaze tells us all sorts of things about attention, about mental states, about roles in conversations,” he says.

For example, if you focus your gaze on a specific individual while talking to a group of people, it communicates that what’s being said is especially relevant to that individual. Research also shows when you finish saying something in a conversation and your gaze is directed to one particular person, that person is likely to take the next turn speaking in the discussion. These nonverbal cues tell people where our attention is focused and what we mean when we direct a question or comment in a conversation. Read more ..



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