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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


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

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


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.

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


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


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


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


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 (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


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 ..

The Edge of Health

Environmental Factors in Tiny Tim's Near Fatal Illness

March 17th 2012

Christmas Carol

Le Bonheur Professor Russell Chesney, M.D. believes he knows what was ailing Tiny Tim, the iconic character from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Based on detailed descriptions of both the symptoms and living conditions of 18th century London, Dr. Chesney hypothesizes that Tiny Tim suffered from a combination of rickets and tuberculosis (TB). His findings were published in the March 5 edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Dr. Chesney noted during the time the novel was written, 60 percent of children in London had rickets and nearly 50 percent displayed signs of TB. He says this is due to crowded living conditions, poor diets, filth and low exposure to sunlight. The coal-burning city of London in addition to particles from a Indonesian volcanic eruption contributed to blackened skies for many years. Both rickets and TB can be improved and indeed cured through increased exposure to Vitamin D, which can be obtained through exposure to sunlight and a balanced diet. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Belfast Summit Important in Preventing Cyber World War

March 16th 2012

Shadowy Computer User

One of the world's leading Internet security experts, Eugene Kaspersky, has described the World Cyber Security Technology Research Summit at Queen's University Belfast as key in preventing a Cyber World War. Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of the largest antivirus company in Europe, Kaspersky Lab, will be giving a keynote address at the second annual Cyber Security Technology Research Summit on Friday 16 March. The cyber security guru is joining some of the world's leading cyber security experts and government policy makers from around the world for a two-day meeting of minds to combat future threats to global cyber security. The annual Summit, held at the Centre for Secure Information Technology (CSIT), Queen's University - the UK's lead university centre for cyber security research, made headlines across the world when it was launched last year, and has attracted even more leading international experts in cyber security to this year's Summit in Belfast. Speaking ahead of the event, Eugene Kaspersky said: "For almost a decade I've been doing my best to attract the attention of governments and officials around the world to the imminent threat of cyber-war and cyber-terrorism and the need to prevent it - but with limited effect. Read more ..

The Edge of Psychology

Recent Generations Focus More on Fame, Money than Giving Back

March 15th 2012

Helping hands

The times are changing, and not necessarily for the better when it comes to giving back to society, according to 40 years of research on 9 million young adults. Since the baby boomer generation, there has been a significant decline among young Americans in political participation, concern for others and interest in saving the environment, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association. "Popular views of the millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, as more caring, community-oriented and politically engaged than previous generations are largely incorrect, particularly when compared to baby boomers and Generation X at the same age," said the study's lead author, Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book, "Generation Me." "These data show that recent generations are less likely to embrace community mindedness and are focusing more on money, image and fame." The study was published online this month in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings did show that millennials were more likely than baby boomers or Generation Xers to volunteer during high school and to say that they intend to participate in community service in college. However, the authors contend that this trend is most likely related to schools' requiring community service for graduation, which has been cited in numerous studies. The desire to save the environment, an area considered to be of particular concern to millennials, showed some of the largest declines, with three times as many millennials as baby boomers at the same age saying they made no personal effort to help the environment. Fifty-one percent of millennials said they made an effort to cut down on electricity use to save energy, compared to 68 percent of boomers in the 1970s. Read more ..

The Edge of Evolution

Previously-Unknown Stone Age People Discovered

March 15th 2012

skull archaeological

An international team of scientists has discovered a previously-unknown Stone Age people. The fossils of human remains, found in south-west China, reportedly offer a rare glimpse of a fairly recent stage of human evolution. An artist's reconstruction of fossils from two caves in southwest China have revealed a previously unknown Stone Age people. The remains of what the scientists call “red-deer” – because they hunted and cooked extinct red deer – were first found in 1979 near the village of Longlin, China. Skeletal remains of three more of these people were found a decade later, in 1989, at Maludong, or Red Deer Cave, near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. Scientists date the remains to between 11,400 and 14,500 years ago, when farming culture in China first developed. It’s likely these people also shared their early Asian environment with a more modern-looking people. The fossils are described as the remains of people who had a highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

Looking for Interplanetary Defense Work?

March 14th 2012

asteroid 2011 ag5
Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/NEOPO

It was a shock to read on Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy last week that an asteroid 450 feet across, lurking just now on the other side of the sun, stands a (remote) chance of smacking us—or someone else on Earth—in about 29 years. Scientists presently judge the probability to be around 1 in 625, which sounds substantially more threatening than the usual estimate of a one in 5,000 chance that a major asteroid will hit Earth in the next century.

The asteroid that created Arizona’s Barringer Meteor Crater was about 150 feet across, and hit at about 28,600 mph. The crater is 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.

More will be known next year, after new calculations, and everything hinges on the asteroid—named 2011 AG5—passing through what astronomers are calling a space “keyhole” that could bend its orbit toward Earth sometime in 2023. So there will be some time to prepare. But frankly, there’s an opportunity for some defense industry contracts right now, and it’s not hard to pick out a front-runner.

With uncanny foresight, some scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory prepared a video that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of last month extolling how their newest Cray supercomputer can model the impact of an “energy source” on an asteroid. Robert P. Weaver, identified only as an R&D scientist at the New Mexico lab, narrates how the shock wave from a one-megaton-sized explosion—he never mentions the “n” word, for the nuclear weapons at the heart of the lab’s work—would blast a much larger asteroid into smaller bits of rock.


Health on Edge

Body Clocks May Hold Key to Treatment of Bipolar Disorder

March 14th 2012

sleeping person

Scientists have gained insight into why lithium salts are effective at treating bipolar disorder in what could lead to more targeted therapies with fewer side-effects.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by alternating states of elevated mood, or mania, and depression. It affects between 1 percent and 3 percent of the general population. The extreme “mood swings” in bipolar disorder have been strongly associated with disruptions in circadian rhythms—the 24-hourly rhythms controlled by our body clocks that govern our day and night activity.

For the last 60 years, lithium salt (lithium chloride) has been the mainstay treatment for bipolar disorder, but little research has been carried out to find out whether and how lithium impacts on the brain and peripheral body clockwork.

“Our study has shown a new and potent effect of lithium in increasing the amplitude, or strength, of the clock rhythms, revealing a novel link between the classic mood-stabiliser, bipolar disorder, and body clocks,” said lead researcher Dr Qing-Jun Meng, in the University of University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences. Read more ..

Edge of Space

Why Do We See the Man in the Moon?

March 13th 2012

full moon
credit: Lick Observatory

There’s something poetic about gazing up at the night sky, seeing the familiar face of the “Man in the Moon” who faithfully accompanies us through life. The Moon rotates synchronously, i.e., it takes the same amount of time to spin around its own axis as it does to revolve around Earth. This is what causes the Moon to “lock eyes” with Earth, resulting in one of its hemispheres constantly facing us. But is there a reason why this particular half of the Moon locked with Earth, or is it pure coincidence that it doesn’t “turn its back” on us?

Through careful analysis and simulations, Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Center for Planetary Science, Prof. Peter Goldreich of the California Institute of Technology, and Prof. Re’em Sari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have shown that it is not coincidence, but the Moon’s geophysical properties that determine its orientation. Their findings were recently published in Icarus.

The near side of the Moon is low-lying and covered by craters filled with dense, dark, volcanic material, the pattern of which creates the “Man in the Moon” image. In contrast, the far side is predominately made up of higher mountainous regions. “Intuitively, we might actually have expected the far side to be facing us as the high mountains, as opposed to the low craters, would have brought the Moon closer to Earth, putting the system in a lower energy state,” says Prof. Aharonson. Nature usually prefers lower energy states, so why isn’t this the case? Read more ..

The Edge of Health

More Trans Fat Consumption Linked to Greater Aggression

March 13th 2012

Clenched Fists

Might the "Twinkie defense" have a scientific foundation after all? Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have shown – by each of a range of measures, in men and women of all ages, in Caucasians and minorities – that consumption of dietary trans fatty acids (dTFAs) is associated with irritability and aggression. The study of nearly 1,000 men and women provides the first evidence linking dTFAs with adverse behaviors that impacted others, ranging from impatience to overt aggression.

The research, led by Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, associate professor in the UC San Diego Department of Medicine, has been published online by PLoS ONE.Dietary trans fatty acids are primarily products of hydrogenation, which makes unsaturated oils solid at room temperature. They are present at high levels in margarines, shortenings and prepared foods. Adverse health effects of dTFAs have been identified in lipid levels, metabolic function, insulin resistance, oxidation, inflammation, and cardiac health. The UC San Diego team used baseline dietary information and behavioral assessments of 945 adult men and women to analyze the relationship between dTFAs and aggression or irritability. The survey measured such factors as a life history of aggression, conflict tactics and self-rated impatience and irritability, as well as an "overt aggression" scale that tallies recent aggressive behaviors. Analyses were adjusted for sex, age, education, and use of alcohol or tobacco products.   Read more ..

The Learning Edge

Proteopedia Turns New York City Students into Scientists

March 13th 2012

The students in Allison Granberry’s class at Hostos-Lincoln Academy, a South Bronx public school serving children in grades 6 to 12, are as excited about proteins and other biological macromolecules as most kids their age are about playing basketball or updating their social status.

The passion of these newly minted scientists is due to the enthusiasm of Ms. Granberry, as well as Prof. Joel L. Sussman of the Department of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In a Rockefeller University after–school outreach program called SMART (Students Modeling A Research Topic) Team—a nationwide project conceived by Dr. Timothy Herman, Director of the Center for Biomolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering—Ms. Granberry and her students work with Prof. Sussman’s website Proteopedia.

Developed in 2007 by Prof. Sussman, together with Dr. Jaime Prilusky and Eran Hodis at the Israel Structural Proteomics Center at the Weizmann Institute, Proteopedia is a web resource and encyclopedia where protein and nucleic acid structures are presented in an intuitive manner, with interactive 3D images appearing alongside explanatory text about the structure.

Proteopedia allows registered users—1,500 to date—to easily add their own structural annotations. The site’s users include scientists browsing the 3D images; researchers presenting their newly solved structures; and educators from high school to graduate school teaching structural biology by assigning site–related projects. In 2010, Proteopedia was selected by thousands of online readers and a panel of judges as the “Best Website” winner of The Scientist magazine’s inaugural Labby Awards, which were created to honor “the best Web–based multimedia by labs.” Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Personal Cloud Replaces PCs as the Center of Our Digital Lives

March 13th 2012

CG cloud

The reign of the personal computer as the sole corporate access device is coming to a close, and by 2014, the personal cloud will replace the personal computer at the center of users' digital lives, according to research from Gartner.

Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.

"Major trends in client computing have shifted the market away from a focus on personal computers to a broader device perspective that includes smartphones, tablets and other consumer devices," said Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner. "Emerging cloud services will become the glue that connects the web of devices that users choose to access during the different aspects of their daily life." Read more ..

The Animal Edge

Orientation of Desert Ants: Every Cue Counts

March 11th 2012

red bull ant
credit: QuartI

Desert ants have adapted to a life in a barren environment which only provides very few landmarks for orientation. Apart from visual cues and odors the ants use the polarized sunlight as a compass and count their steps in order to return safely to their home after searching for food. In experiments with ants of the genus Cataglyphis in their natural habitats in Tunisia and Turkey, behavioral scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, have now discovered that ants can also use magnetic and vibrational landmarks in order to find their way back to their nest—a small hole in the desert ground. In addition, carbon dioxide produced by their nestmates' breathing also helps homing ants to pinpoint their nest entrance. Hence, the ants' navigational skills prove enormously adaptable to their inhospitable environment.  Read more ..

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