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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 ..


The Race for LEDs

Digital LED Driver Technology Eliminates Harmful Flicker

March 24th 2012

LED

With LEDs gaining traction in replacing incandescent bulbs, a downside of LED-based concepts is gaining visibility as well: There are concerns that the flicker associated with LED lamps might cause health problems - even epileptic seizures can be triggered by this phenomenon.

IEEE experiments suggest US-based LED driver company iWatt claims that its technology avoids these problems. Two factors cause LED lamps to flicker. One is the mains grid frequency that can introduce low frequency flicker to the LEDs which, in contrast to incandescent bulbs, do switch on and off at the rhythm of the grid frequency - much in contrast to conventional incandescent bulbs which are simply to inert to react on the grid frequency. The other factor that transforms LED lamps into nervously flickering lights are dimmers - available dimming circuits frequently are optimized for incandescent bulbs; they cannot cope with quickly reacting light sources such as LED lamps. Both factors added can cause significant flicker - and while it is a known fact that many LED lamps perform poorly when used with an electronic dimmer. However, this flicker is not just annoying but it can cause health problems.
Read more ..


Science of The Earth

Discovery Sheds New Light on Wandering Continents

March 23rd 2012

wandering continents

A layer of partially molten rock about 22 to 75 miles underground can't be the only mechanism that allows continents to gradually shift their position over millions of years, according to a NASA-sponsored researcher. The result gives insight into what allows plate tectonics – the movement of the Earth's crustal plates – to occur.

"This melt-rich layer is actually quite spotty under the Pacific Ocean basin and surrounding areas, as revealed by my analysis of seismometer data," says Dr. Nicholas Schmerr, a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow. "Since it only exists in certain places, it can't be the only reason why rigid crustal plates carrying the continents can slide over softer rock below." Schmerr, who is stationed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is author of a paper on this research appearing in Science on March 23.

The slow slide of Earth's continents results from plate tectonics. Our planet is more than four billion years old, and over this time, the forces of plate tectonics have carried continents many thousands of miles, forging mountain ranges when they collided and valleys that sometimes filled with oceans when they were torn apart. This continental drift could also have changed the climate by redirecting currents in the ocean and atmosphere. Read more ..


Edge of Astronomy

Mountaintop Blasting to Mine The Sky With The Giant Magellan Telescope

March 23rd 2012

giant telescope

Astronomers have begun to blast 3 million cubic feet of rock from a mountaintop in the Chilean Andes to make room for what will be the world's largest telescope when completed near the end of the decade. The telescope will be located at the Carnegie Institution's Las Campanas Observatory—one of the world's premier astronomical sites, known for its pristine conditions and clear, dark skies. Over the next few months, more than 70 controlled blasts will break up the rock while leaving a solid bedrock foundation for the telescope and its precision scientific instruments.

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will have unprecedented capabilities, allowing it to peer back to the dawn of time, witnessing the birth of the first stars, galaxies and black holes, while also exploring planetary systems similar to our own around nearby stars in the Milky Way. The GMT will help astronomers probe the nature of dark matter and dark energy, mysterious forms of matter and energy that allow galaxies to form while the expansion of the universe accelerates.

At a ceremony on the mountaintop March 23, Dr. Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories and chair of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) said, "Today marks a historic step toward constructing an astronomical telescope larger than any in existence today. Years of testing have shown that Las Campanas is one of the premier observatory sites in the world and the Carnegie Institution is proud to host the GMT." The Giant Magellan Telescope is being built by a consortium of U.S., South Korean and Australian institutions with funding from both private and public sources. To date 40% of the telescope's ultimate $700M price tag has been committed and active fundraising is underway to secure the remaining funds. Read more ..


The Nanotech Edge

Researchers Seek Ways to Make Emerging Tech Safer for Environment

March 21st 2012

Nanotube

The percentage of electronic waste occupying our landfills has grown at an alarming rate over the last decade, giving rise to concerns about the toxicity of components used in consumer electronics.

Researchers at the University of Florida are looking for ways to minimize environmental hazards associated with a material likely to play an increasingly important role in the manufacture of these goods in the future. The results of their most recent studies are published in the March 2012 issue of Nanotoxicology.

Carbon nanotubes are already being used in touch screens and to make smaller, more efficient transistors. And if current research to develop them for use in lithium ion batteries is successful, carbon nanotubes could become important technology for powering everything from smartphones to hybrid vehicles. But for all of the promise developers see in this emerging technology, there is also some concern.

“Depending on how the nanotubes are used, they can be toxic—exhibiting properties similar to asbestos in laboratory mice,” said Jean-Claude Bonzongo, associate professor of environmental engineering at UF’s College of Engineering. He is involved in a research collaboration with Kirk Ziegler, a UF associate professor of chemical engineering, to minimize this important material’s potential for harm.

In particular, the UF team is investigating toxicity associated with aqueous solutions of carbon nanotubes that would be used in certain manufacturing processes. Read more ..


The Edge of Archaeology

Spotting Ancient Sites—From Space

March 21st 2012

Angkor radar map
Radar image of Ankgor from orbit (credit: NASA/JPL)

A Harvard archaeologist has dramatically simplified the process of finding early human settlements by using computers to scour satellite images for the tell-tale clues of human habitation, and in the process uncovered thousands of new sites that might reveal clues to the earliest complex human societies.

As described in a paper published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, worked with Bjoern Menze, a research affiliate in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to develop a system that identified settlements based on a series of factors—including soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick settlements.

Armed with that profile, Ur used a computer to examine satellite images of a 23,000 square-kilometer area of north-eastern Syria, and turned up approximately 9,000 possible settlements, an increase of “at least an order of magnitude” over what had previously been identified.

“I could do this on the ground,” Ur said, of the results of the computer-aided survey. “But it would probably take me the rest of my life to survey an area this size. With these computer science techniques, however, we can immediately come up with an enormous map which is methodologically very interesting, but which also shows the staggering amount of human occupation over the last 7,000 or 8,000 years. Read more ..


The Race for Oil Drilling

Polycrystalline Diamond Drill Bits Open Up Options For Geothermal Energy

March 20th 2012

oil drilling

Nearly two-thirds of the oil we use comes from wells drilled using polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) bits, originally developed nearly 30 years ago to lower the cost of geothermal drilling. Sandia and the U.S. Navy recently brought the technology fullcircle, showing how geothermal drillers might use the original PDC technology, incorporating decades of subsequent improvements by the oil and gas industry.

Sandia and the Navy’s Geothermal Program Office (USN GPO) conducted the Phase One demonstration tests as part of a geothermal resources evaluation at the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range in Imperial Valley, Calif.

Sandia has a long history in geothermal research and drill bit technology development. Three decades ago, Sandia played a large role in developing PDCs for geothermal drilling. That work focused on resolving issues with materials, devising laboratory tests and developing data and design codes that now form the basis of the bit industry. Recently, Sandia received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding to improve PDC bits, potentially increasing access to geothermal resources in the continental U.S. by enabling the drilling of deeper, hotter geothermal resources in hard, basement rock formations. Read more ..


The Race for Graphene

Graphene Supercapacitor Holding Promise For Portable Electronics

March 20th 2012

graphene

Electrochemical capacitors (ECs), also known as supercapacitors or ultracapacitors, differ from regular capacitors that you would find in your TV or computer in that they store sustantially higher amounts of charges. They have garnered attention as energy storage devices as they charge and discharge faster than batteries, yet they are still limited by low energy densities, only a fraction of the energy density of batteries.

An EC that combines the power performance of capacitors with the high energy density of batteries would represent a significant advance in energy storage technology. This requires new electrodes that not only maintain high conductivity but also provide higher and more accessible surface area than conventional ECs that use activated carbon electrodes. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Researchers Highlight Progress in TB Vaccines

March 20th 2012

tuberculosis for realz
Tuberculosis bacteria (credit: NIH)

In the past decade, scientists have made significant progress building the critical knowledge and infrastructure needed to identify and develop novel tuberculosis (TB) vaccine candidates and move the most promising ones into human clinical trials. The results of those trials, coupled with advances from other TB studies, have paved the way for the next 10 years of research on TB vaccines, a critical component of TB control efforts, note scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. Their editorial, co-authored by NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., and Christine Sizemore, Ph.D., appears in the journal Tuberculosis to coincide with the publication of Tuberculosis Vaccines: A Strategic Blueprint for the Next Decade.

The new Blueprint on TB vaccines updates the original, which was published in 2000 as the result of an NIH-sponsored workshop.

Since that time, TB researchers have assembled a significant pipeline of vaccine candidates and assessed them in clinical trials. However, to transform the field and help make licensure of new vaccines a reality, the co-authors stress, scientists must investigate remaining fundamental questions, including:

  • Why does infection with the TB bacterium cause active disease in some people but not others?
  • Why does the current licensed TB vaccine, Bacille Calmette-Guérin, protect children more effectively than adults?
  • What immune responses must effective vaccines elicit to successfully protect against TB?

NIAID, part of the team that helped to develop both iterations of the Blueprint, supports scientists working worldwide in contributing important data to these and other areas of inquiry. Read more ..


Weather on Edge

Infrared NASA Satellite Data Indicates Severe Weather for South Central US this Week

March 20th 2012

NASA

Infrared and microwave satellite imagery from NASA have been providing forecasters at the National Weather Service valuable data on weather system that has potential to bring severe weather to the south central U.S. over the next several days. A large upper-level storm system is approaching central Oklahoma and moving east, into eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, bringing the threat of heavy rain, gusty winds, and tornadoes. Severe thunderstorm warnings were posted early on March 19 in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Oklahoma also has a flash flood warning centered on Oklahoma City. Texas had a tornado warning near Midland earlier in the day.

The National Weather Service issued warnings today, March 19, 2012 for eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas which stated "Dangerous/potentially life-threatening flooding is expected." Forecasters at the National Weather Service expect 4 to 8 inch rainfall totals through Wednesday, March 21, and possibly moderate and major river flooding. Edward Olsen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. creates imagery using data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument that flies onboard NASA's Aqua satellite. Olsen created imagery from a satellite overpass during the morning hours today, March 19. He said, "The infrared and microwave images show the early phase of the convection blow-up." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA Unveils Atlas, Catalog of Entire Infrared Sky

March 20th 2012

Galaxies

A new atlas and catalog of the entire infrared sky were unveiled recently by NASA. The atlas and catalog – which show more than a half-billion stars, galaxies and other objects – were composed from data captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. With the entire release of the sky catalog, the WISE mission has now met its fundamental objective, according to NASA The new atlas is made up with more than 18,000 images taken by the WISE mission. An accompanying catalog lists the infrared properties of more than 560 individual objects, which can be found in the images. Most of the objects listed are stars and galaxies, many of which have never been seen before. "Today, WISE delivers the fruit of 14 years of effort to the astronomical community,” said Edward Wright, WISE principal investigator at UCLA.

The WISE spacecraft launched Dec. 14, 2009. In 2010, it mapped the entire sky using equipment that was much more sensitive than that used on previous missions. Over the course of its mission, WISE collected more than 2.7 million images of everything from asteroids to distant galaxies. The mission team has also been processing more than 15 terabytes of data transmitted back to Earth by the WISE spacecraft. About a year ago, in a preliminary release, NASA offered its first bundle of WISE data to astronomers. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

The Viking Journey of Mice and Men

March 19th 2012

House Mouse

House mice (Mus musculus) happily live wherever there are humans. When populations of humans migrate the mice often travel with them. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology has used evolutionary techniques on modern day and ancestral mouse mitochondrial DNA to show that the timeline of mouse colonization matches that of Viking invasion. During the Viking age (late 8th to mid 10th century) Vikings from Norway established colonies across Scotland, the Scottish islands, Ireland, and Isle of Man. They also explored the north Atlantic, settling in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Newfoundland and Greenland. While they intentionally took with them domestic animals such as horses, sheep, goats and chickens they also inadvertently carried pest species, including mice. A multinational team of researchers from the UK, USA, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden used techniques designed to characterize genetic similarity, and hence the relatedness of one population, or one individual, with another, to determine a mouse colonization timeline. Modern samples of mouse DNA were collected and compared to ancient samples dating mostly from the 10th to the 12th century. Read more ..

Edge of Medicine

Cancer Cells Alert Neighbors to Tumor-killing Virus

March 18th 2012

Glioblastoma
Glioblastoma (credit: A. Hellerhoff)

Brain-tumor cells that are infected with a cancer-killing virus release a protein “alarm bell” that warns other tumor cells of the impending infection and enables them to mount a defense against the virus, according to a study led by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center–Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC–James).

The infected tumor cells release a protein called CCN1 into the narrow space between cells where it initiates an antiviral response. The response limits the spread of the oncolytic virus through the tumor, reducing its ability to kill cancer cells and limiting the efficacy of the therapy.

The study suggests that cells in general might use this mechanism to help control viral infections, and that blocking the response might improve oncolytic viral therapy for glioblastoma and perhaps future gene therapy treatments. Oncolytic viruses replicate in tumor cells and kill them. They have shown promise for the treatment of glioblastoma, the most common and deadly form of brain cancer. Patients with glioblastoma survive only about 15 months after diagnosis on average, so there is great need for new treatments.

"We found that, in the extracellular matrix, this protein orchestrates a striking cellular antiviral response that reduces viral replication and limits its cytolytic efficacy," says researcher and principal investigator Balveen Kaur, associate professor of Neurological Surgery at the OSUCCC–James. Read more ..


The Electronic Edge

Diamond Brightens the Performance of Electronic Devices

March 18th 2012

Warwick golden electrode

While diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, they’re also well-loved by scientists working to enhance the performance of electronic devices.

Two new studies performed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have revealed a new pathway for materials scientists to use previously unexplored properties of nanocrystalline-diamond thin films. While the properties of diamond thin films are relatively well-understood, the new discovery could dramatically improve the performance of certain types of integrated circuits by reducing their "thermal budget."

For decades, engineers have sought to build more efficient electronic devices by reducing the size of their components. In the process of doing so, however, researchers have reached a "thermal bottleneck," said Argonne nanoscientist Anirudha Sumant. Read more ..


Race for Biofuel

A Fragrant New Biofuel

March 18th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

A class of chemical compounds best known today for fragrance and flavor may one day provide the clean, green and renewable fuel with which truck and auto drivers fill their tanks. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to generate significant quantities of methyl ketone compounds from glucose. In subsequent tests, these methyl ketones yielded high cetane numbers – a diesel fuel rating comparable to the octane number for gasoline – making them strong candidates for the production of advanced biofuels.

“Our findings add to the list of naturally occurring chemical compounds that could serve as biofuels, which means more flexibility and options for the biofuels industry,” says Harry Beller, a JBEI microbiologist who led this study. “We’re especially encouraged by our finding that it is possible to increase the methyl ketone titer production of E. coli more than 4,000-fold with a relatively small number of genetic modifications.” Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Graphics War Heating Up in Mobile

March 18th 2012

iPhone4

Mobile systems are driving toward better graphics, better voice quality and quad-core processors, according to veteran market watcher.

Graphics seems to be key area of investment, as mobile systems become the game platform of choice,” said Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group (Mountain View, California) “I think we will see more game play on smartphones and less on dedicated devices like the Nintendo 3DS and Sony Playstation Vita—even tablets are taking away from game consoles,” he said.

Nvidia is trying to get console game titles ported to its Tegra3 chip as Apple courts developers to port games to the new iPad that packs twice the graphics capabilities of its previous model. Separately, Qualcomm recently launched its Snapdragon S4 Pro, mainly focused on enhanced graphics, he noted. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Increase in Arctic Shipping Poses Risk to Marine Mammals

March 18th 2012

marine mammals

A rapid increase in shipping in the formerly ice-choked waterways of the Arctic poses a significant increase in risk to the region's marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them for food security and cultural identity, according to an Alaska Native groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society who convened at a recent workshop.

The workshop, which ran from March 12-14, examined the potential impacts to the region's wildlife and highlighted priorities for future management of shipping in the region. The meeting included participants from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Ice Seal Committee, Indigenous People's Council for Marine Mammals, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Other participants included the University of Alaska, government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Arctic Research Commission, and the Marine Mammal Commission, and regional Alaska Native groups such as Kawerak Inc., North Slope Borough, Northwest Alaska Borough, and Association of Village Council Presidents.

At issue is the effect of climate change on Arctic waters, which over the last few decades have become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels transiting either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Whichever route is being used, the only gateway to the Pacific is through the Bering Strait - an important migratory pathway for marine mammals. In spring and fall for example, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through this narrow strait. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Using Virtual Worlds to 'Soft Control' Peoples' Movements in the Real One

March 18th 2012

Smart phone

Eighty-eight percent of Americans now own a cell phone, forming a massive network that offers scientists a wealth of information and an infinite number of new applications. With the help of these phone users — and their devices’ cameras, audio recorders, and other features — researchers envision endless possibilities for gathering huge amounts of data, from services that collect user data to monitor noise pollution and air quality to applications that build maps from people’s cell phone snapshots. Today, user data provides some opportunities; for example, researchers can use Flickr photos to compile 3-D virtual representations of various landmarks. But even opportunities like these have limits, as researchers are limited to using only photos that people choose to take and share. This creates a significant imbalance: Some geographic areas and landmarks have thousands of Flickr photos, while others have none.

“Take the Lincoln Memorial, for example,” said Fabian Bustamante, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering. “Flickr has thousands of photos of the front of the Lincoln Memorial. But who takes a picture of the back? Very few people.” This has led researchers to ask the questions: How can we get mobile users to break out of their patterns, visit less frequented areas, and collect the data we need? Researchers can’t force mobile users to behave in a certain way, but researchers at Northwestern University have found that they may be able to nudge them in the right direction by using incentives that are already part of their regular mobile routine. “We can rely on good luck to get the data that we need," Bustamante said, "or we can ‘soft control’ users with gaming or social network incentives to drive them where we want them." Read more ..


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