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Edge on Biofuel

A Wide Range of Plants Offer Cellulosic Biofuel Potential

August 16th 2010

Energy / Environment - Biofuel field

When it comes to selecting the right plant source for future cellulosic biofuel production, the solution won't be one-size-fits-all, and it certainly doesn't have to involve food and feed crops.

Researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute produced a report that suggests that a diversity of plant species, adaptable to the climate and soil conditions of specific regions of the world, can be used to develop agroecosystems for fuel production that are compatible with contemporary environmental goals.

EBI Director Chris Somerville of the University of California, Berkeley, and Deputy Director Steve Long of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were co-authors with EBI bioenergy analysts. EBI is a collaboration of UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the funding sponsor BP.

Their article, "Feedstocks for Lignocellulosic Biofuels," discusses the sustainability of current and future crops that may be used to produce advanced biofuels with emerging technologies that use non-edible parts of plants. Such crops include perennial grasses like Miscanthus grown in the rain-fed areas of the U.S. Midwest, East and South; sugarcane in Brazil and other tropical regions, including the southeastern U.S.; Agave in semiarid regions such as Mexico and the U.S. Southwest; and woody biomass from various sources. Read more ..


Edge on Security

Reading the Minds of Potential Terrorists

August 9th 2010

Health/Medicine - Invisible Brain

Imagine technology that allows you to get inside the mind of a terrorist to know how, when and where the next attack will occur.

That's not nearly as far-fetched as it seems, according to a new Northwestern University study.

Say, for purposes of illustration, that the chatter about an imminent terrorist attack is mounting, and specifics about the plan emerge, about weapons that will be used, the date of such a dreaded event and its location.

If the new test used by the Northwestern researchers had been used in such a real-world situation with the same type of outcome that occurred in the lab, the study suggests, culpability extracted from the chatter could be confirmed.

In other words, if the test conducted in the Northwestern lab ultimately is employed for such real-world scenarios, the research suggests, law enforcement officials ultimately may be able to confirm details about an attack - date, location, weapon -- that emerges from terrorist chatter. Read more ..


Edge of Space

Wet Era on Early Mars Was Global

August 2nd 2010

Energy / Environment - Crater

Conditions favourable to life may once have existed all over Mars. Detailed studies of minerals found inside craters show that liquid water was widespread, not only in the southern highlands, but also beneath the northern plains.
 
ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered hydrated silicate minerals in the northern lowlands of Mars, a clear indication that water once flowed there. 

The spacecraft have previously discovered thousands of small outcrops in the southern hemisphere where rock minerals have been altered by water. Many of these exist in the form of hydrated clay minerals known as phyllosilicates, and indicate that the planet’s southern hemisphere was once much warmer and wetter than it is today. Read more ..


The Ancient Edge

The Ultimate Cold Case: Anthropologist 'bones up' on Site of Ancient Invasion

July 26th 2010

Science - Sandra Garvie lok

The body was found in a small, graffiti-stained tunnel. Robbery was likely not the motive, as his possessions and cash were found with him.

The University of Alberta's Sandra Garvie-Lok can't tell exactly how the victim on her table died, but she has a good idea. Given the visible previous cranial trauma on the body, the events that took place around the time of the murder and the location where his remains were found, she is willing to bet that this John Doe was murdered. Yet, no suspect will ever be tried or convicted for the crime. And she's OK with that.

That's because Garvie-Lok is an anthropologist, and her "victim" died almost 1,500 years ago in the ancient Greek city of Nemea during the Slavic invasion of Greece. Garvie-Lok, whose findings on her deceased subject were recently published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, suggests the victim was likely an eyewitness to Slavic invasion of Nemea. The deceased possibly used the tunnel entrance as an escape from the invaders, where he died/was killed.

"The Slavs and Avars (another group of eastern European peoples) were pretty brutal," said Garvie-Lok, a professor in the department of anthropology. "If he was hiding in that unpleasant place, he was probably in a lot of danger. So, he hid out, but he didn't make it."

A specialist in osteology—a field of anthropology that studies bones—Garvie-Lok was called in to the site to try to determine how the subject died. However, aside from the damage to the skull, which Garvie-Lok says are not related to the fatal injury that caused his death, there are no markings on the bones that would give her a definitive idea of the circumstances of the victim's final hours or days. Read more ..


Edge of the Universe

Galactic Archaeologists Find Origin of Milky Way's Ancient Stars

July 19th 2010

Environment Topics - Ancient Stars

Many of the Milky Way's ancient stars are remnants of other smaller galaxies torn apart by violent galactic collisions around five billion years ago, according to researchers at Durham University.

Scientists at Durham's Institute for Computational Cosmology and their collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, in Germany, and Groningen University, in Holland, ran huge computer simulations to recreate the beginnings of our galaxy.

The simulations revealed that the ancient stars, found in a stellar halo of debris surrounding the Milky Way, had been ripped from smaller galaxies by the gravity generated by colliding galaxies.

The research, funded in the UK by the STFC, appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Lead author Andrew Cooper, from Durham University's Institute for Computational Cosmology, said: "Effectively we became galactic archaeologists, hunting out the likely sites where ancient stars could be scattered around the galaxy.

"Our simulations show how different relics in the galaxy today, like these ancient stars, are related to events in the distant past. Read more ..


The Ancient Edge

Separation between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens Might have Occurred 500,000 Years Earlier

July 12th 2010

Science - Homo-Sapien

The separation of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens might have occurred at least one million years ago, more than 500,000 years earlier than previously believed after DNA-based analyses. A doctoral thesis conducted at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana) -associated with the University of Granada-, analyzed the teeth of almost all species of hominids that have existed during the past 4 million years. Quantitative methods were employed and they managed to identify Neanderthal features in ancient European populations.

The main purpose of this research –whose author is Aida Gómez Robles- was to reconstruct the history of evolution of Human species using the information provided by the teeth, which are the most numerous and best preserved remains of the fossil record. To this purpose, a large sample of dental fossils from different sites in Africa, Asia and Europe was analyzed. The morphological differences of each dental class was assessed and the ability of each tooth to identify the species to which its owner belonged was analyzed. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Zapping Titan-like Atmosphere with UV Rays Creates Life Precursors

July 5th 2010

Science - Titan

The first experimental evidence showing how atmospheric nitrogen can be incorporated into organic macromolecules is being reported by a University of Arizona team.

The finding indicates what organic molecules might be found on Titan, the moon of Saturn that scientists think is a model for the chemistry of pre-life Earth.

Earth and Titan are the only known planetary-sized bodies that have thick, predominantly nitrogen atmospheres, said Hiroshi Imanaka, who conducted the research while a member of UA's chemistry and biochemistry department. Read more ..


Volcanic Eruptions

Volcanic Eruptions in North America Were More Explosive in Ancient Past

June 28th 2010

Environment Topics - Volcano

Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions in North America were more explosive and may have significantly affected the environment and the global climate. So scientists report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers found the remains--deposited in layers of rocks--of eruptions of volcanoes located on North America's northern high plains that spewed massive amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere 40 million years ago. The scientists conducted their research at Scotts Bluff National Monument, Neb., and in surrounding areas.

"Combining measurements of the sulfate in ancient volcanic ash beds with a detailed atmospheric chemistry model, we found that the long-ago chemistry of volcanic sulfate gases is distinct from that of more modern times," says Huiming Bao, a geologist at Louisiana State University and lead author of the paper.

"This is the first example showing that the history of massive volcanic sulfate emissions, and their associated atmospheric conditions in the geologic past, may be retrieved from rock records." Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Drastic Recent Ocean Changes Will Have Dire Impact On People

June 21st 2010

Environment Topics - Ocean

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world's oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.

Scientists have now concluded that the growing atmospheric concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

The findings of a report entitled The impact of climate change on the world's marine ecosystems emerged from a synthesis of recent research on the world's oceans, carried out by two of the world's leading marine scientists, one from The University of Queensland in Australia, and one from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the USA. Read more ..


Edge of Outer Space

Discovery of 'Survivor' Black Holes reveals further mystery

June 14th 2010

Science - Chandra

New evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton strengthens the case that two mid-sized black holes exist close to the center of a nearby starburst galaxy. These "survivor" black holes avoided falling into the center of the galaxy and could be examples of the seeds required for the growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies, including the one in the Milky Way.

For several decades, scientists have had strong evidence for two distinct classes of black hole: the stellar-mass variety with masses about ten times that of the Sun, and the supermassive ones, located at the center of galaxies, that range from hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses.

But a mystery has remained: what about black holes that are in between?

Evidence for these objects has remained controversial, and until now there were no strong claims of more than one such black hole in a single galaxy. Recently, a team of researchers has found signatures in X-ray data of two mid-sized black holes in the starburst galaxy M82 located 12 million light years from Earth.

"This is the first time that good evidence for two mid-sized black holes has been found in one galaxy," said Hua Feng of the Tsinghua University in China, who led two papers describing the results. "Their location near the center of the galaxy might provide clues about the origin of the Universe's largest black holes – supermassive black holes found in the centers of most galaxies." Read more ..


Edge on Architecture

Chemists Reveal Ancient Chinese Secret to Super-Strong Buildings

June 7th 2010

Food - Rice bowl

Scientists have discovered the secret behind an ancient Chinese super-strong mortar made from sticky rice, the delicious "sweet rice" that is a modern mainstay in Asian dishes. They also concluded that the mortar --a paste used to bind and fill gaps between bricks, stone blocks and other construction materials remains the best available material for restoring ancient buildings.

According to the American Chemical Society, Bingjian Zhang, Ph.D., and colleagues found that construction workers in ancient China developed sticky rice mortar about 1,500 years ago by mixing sticky rice soup with the standard mortar ingredient. That ingredient is slaked lime, limestone that has been calcined, or heated to a high temperature, and then exposed to water. Sticky rice mortar probably was the world's first composite mortar, made with both organic and inorganic materials. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Small Mammals -- and Rest of Food Chain – At Risk from Global Warming

May 31st 2010

Animals - Prairie Dog

The balance of biodiversity within North American small-mammal communities is so out of whack from the last episode of global warming about 12,000 years ago that the current climate change could push them past a tipping point, with repercussions up and down the food chain, say Stanford biologists. The evidence lies in fossils spanning the last 20,000 years that the researchers excavated from a cave in Northern California.

What they found is that although the small mammals in the area suffered no extinctions as a result of the warming that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, populations of most species nonetheless experienced a significant loss of numbers while one highly adaptable species – the deer mouse – thrived on the disruptions to the environment triggered by the changing climate.
"If we only focus on extinction, we are not getting the whole story," said Jessica Blois, lead author of a paper detailing the study to be published online by Nature on May 23. "There was a 30 percent decline in biodiversity due to other types of changes in the small-mammal community."
Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Water Ice Found on Asteroid Surfaces

May 24th 2010

Science - Themis main belt (NASA)

Asteroids may not be the dark, dry, lifeless chunks of rock scientists have long thought.

Josh Emery, research assistant professor with the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has found evidence of water ice and organic material on the asteroid 24 Themis. This evidence supports the idea that asteroids could be responsible for bringing water and organic material to Earth.

Using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, Emery and Andrew Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Md., examined the surface of 24 Themis, a 200-kilometer wide asteroid that sits halfway between Mars and Jupiter. By measuring the spectrum of infrared sunlight reflected by the object, the researchers found the spectrum consistent with frozen water and determined that 24 Themis is coated with a thin film of ice. They also detected organic material.

"The organics we detected appear to be complex, long-chained molecules. Raining down on a barren Earth in meteorites, these could have given a big kick-start to the development of life," Emery said. Read more ..


Edge of Science

Airport Screening Technology May Unlock Mummy Secrets

May 17th 2010

Science - Mummy in British Museum

Back in 2005, when Frank Ruhli was trying to figure out how ancient Egypt's famous boy pharaoh, King Tut, died, he used CT scans of Tut's mummified remains. Now, says the renowned mummy expert, the new technology to screen some airline passengers for explosives can provide even more information.

"By applying this technology on top of another technology, it may help you to look differently at the specimen," he explains, adding that the Terahertz imaging - also known as "full body scan" technology - does not use any sort of radiation, which could destroy DNA remnants of the mummies.

"And finally, by using this Terahertz imaging, you eventually may be able to look at the substances within the mummy, for example, the embalming liquid used in the Egyptian way of embalming. There you can actually do sort of substance analysis which you can't really do by conventional x-ray." Read more ..


The Edge of Oil

Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-up

May 10th 2010

Environment Topics - Deepwater Horizon spill response

With millions of gallons crude oil being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the focus now is on shutting down the leak. However, in the cleanup efforts to come, “extreme caution” must be exercised so as not to make a bad situation even worse, says a leading bioremediation expert with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

“The concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own,” says Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist in Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division who has studied such notorious oil-spill sites as the Exxon Valdez spill into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Read more ..


The Geologic Edge

Rise of the Mighty Andes was Gradual

May 3rd 2010

Latin American Topics - Aconcagua
Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina

Trailing like a serpent’s spine along the western coast of South America, the Andes are the world’s longest continental mountain range and the highest range outside Asia, with an average elevation of 13,000 feet.

The question of how quickly the mountains attained such heights has been a contentious one in geological circles, with some researchers claiming the central Andes rose abruptly to nearly their current height and others maintaining the uplift was a more gradual process.

New research by University of Michigan paleoclimatologist Christopher Poulsen and colleagues suggests that the quick-rise view is based on misinterpreted evidence. What some geologists interpret as signs of an abrupt rise are actually indications of ancient climate change, the researchers say. The confusion results when ratios of oxygen’s two main isotopes, oxygen-18 and oxygen-16, are used to estimate past elevation, said Poulsen, an associate professor with appointments in the UM departments of Geological Sciences and Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences. Read more ..


On the Edge of the Universe

NASA Satellite Maps Gamma Rays from Centaurus Galaxy

April 26th 2010

Science - Gamma Ray constellation

If our eyes could see radio waves, the nearby galaxy Centaurus A (Cen A) would be one of the biggest and brightest objects in the sky, nearly 20 times the apparent size of a full moon. What we can't see when looking at the galaxy in visible light is that it lies nestled between a pair of giant radio-emitting gas plumes ejected by its supersized black hole. Each plume is nearly a million light-years long.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope maps gamma rays, radiation that typically packs 100 billion times the energy of radio waves. Nevertheless, and to the surprise of many astrophysicists, Cen A's plumes show up clearly in the satellite's first 10 months of data. The study appears in the most recent edition of Science Express.

"This is something we've never seen before in gamma rays," said Teddy Cheung, a Fermi team member at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. "Not only do we see the extended radio lobes, but their gamma-ray output is more than ten times greater than their radio output." If gamma-ray telescopes had matured before their radio counterparts, astronomers would have instead classified Cen A as a "gamma-ray galaxy."

Also known as NGC 5128, Cen A is located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus and is one of the first celestial radio sources identified with a galaxy. "A hallmark of radio galaxies is the presence of huge, double-lobed radio-emitting structures around otherwise normal-looking elliptical galaxies," said Jürgen Knödlseder, a Fermi collaborator at the Center for the Study of Space Radiation in Toulouse, France. "Cen A is a textbook example."
Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Melting of Ancient Ice Sheet Identified as Trigger of Big Freeze

April 19th 2010

Energy / Environment - Antarctic Ice flow

The main cause of the rapid cooling period commonly known as The Big Freeze arising from the so-called Younger Dryas impact event- said to have occurred nearly 13,000 years ago - has been identified thanks to the help of an academic at the University of Sheffield.

A new paper has identified a mega-flood path across North America which channelled melt-water from a giant ice sheet into the oceans and triggering the Younger Dryas cold snap.

The research team, which included Dr. Mark Bateman from the University of Sheffield's Department of Geography, discovered that a mega-flood, caused by the melting of the Laurentide ice sheet, which covered much of North America, was routed up into Canada and into the Arctic Ocean.

This resulted in huge amounts of fresh water mixing with the salt water of the Arctic Ocean. As a result, more sea-ice was created which flowed into the North Atlantic, causing the northward continuation of the Gulf Stream to shut down.

Without the heat being brought across the Atlantic by the Gulf Stream, temperatures in Europe plunged from similar to what they are today, back to glacial temperatures with average winter temperatures of -25 degrees C. This cooling event has become known as the Younger Dryas period with cold conditions lasting about 1400 years. The cold of the Younger Dryas affected many places across the continent, including Yorkshire in the Vale of York and North Lincolnshire of the UK which became arctic deserts with sand dunes and no vegetation.

Before now, scientists have speculated that the mega-flood was the main cause of the abrupt cooling period, but the path of the flood waters has long been debated and no convincing evidence had been found establishing a route from the ice-sheet to the North Atlantic. Read more ..


Edge of Medicine

Distilled Plant Oils could be Effective Against Drug-Resistant Infections

April 12th 2010

Energy / Environment - Thyme
Thyme

Researchers say oils distilled from plants are highly effective against drug-resistant bacterial infections and could prove to be an inexpensive way to combat super-bugs found in hospital settings.

For hundreds of years, different cultures have used so-called essential oils from plants to treat a variety of illnesses from arthritis to skin infections and sore throats.

Now, researchers at the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands in Greece have found that plant oils are a powerful weapon against multi-drug-resistant staphylococcus aureas or MRSA, a bacterium that causes hospital-acquired infections and is dangerous because it frequently does not respond to a range of antibiotics.

Effemia Eriotou is a professor at the Institute in charge of the research project involving plant oils to treat multi-drug-resistant staphylococcus aureas. "We didn't know that essential oils were going to have that a great anti-microbial activity.  And it's really amazing that they are killing all these bacteria and yeasts as well," Eriotou said.

In laboratory experiments, the research group tested a variety of essential oils from eight plants, including thyme, basil, peppermint and cinnamon. Eriotou says they all had some anti-bacterial activity, but essential oil from thyme - a spice frequently used in Mediterranean cooking - killed almost all of the bacterium in a petri dish within an hour. Almost as effective was cinnamon oil. Read more ..


Nature's Edge

Creeping Crinoids of the Caribbean

April 5th 2010

Animals - Crinoid

Nature abounds with examples of evolutionary arms races. Certain marine snails, for example, evolved thick shells and spines to avoid be eaten, but crabs and fish foiled the snails by developing shell-crushing claws and jaws. Common as such interactions may be, it's often difficult to trace their origins back in evolutionary time.

Now, a study by University of Michigan paleontologist Tomasz Baumiller and colleagues finds that sea urchins have been preying on marine animals known as crinoids for more than 200 million years and suggests that such interactions drove one type of crinoid—the sea lily—to develop the ability to escape by creeping along the ocean floor. The work, which builds on previous research on present-day sea lilies and urchins, is scheduled to be published online by the National Academy of Sciences.

With their long stalks and feathery arms, sea lilies look a lot like their garden-variety namesakes. Perhaps because of that resemblance, scientists long had thought that sea lilies stayed rooted instead of moving around like their stalkless relatives, the feather stars. But in the 1980s, Baumiller and collaborator Charles Messing of Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla., observed sea lilies shedding the ends of their stalks to release themselves from their anchor points and using their feathery arms to crawl away, dragging their stalks behind them. Read more ..


The Edge of Pollution

California Smog Ignites Millions in Medical Costs

March 29th 2010

Energy / Environment - California smog

California's dirty air caused more than $193 million in hospital-based medical care from 2005 to 2007 as people sought help for problems such as asthma and pneumonia that are triggered by elevated pollution levels, according to a new study entitled “The Impact of Air Quality on Hospital Spending.”

Researchers estimate that exposure to excessive levels of ozone and particulate pollution caused nearly 30,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions over the study period. Public insurance programs were responsible for most of the costs, with Medicare and Medi- Cal covering more than two-thirds of the expenses, according to the report.

“California's failure to meet air pollution standards causes a large amount of expensive hospital care,” said John Romley, lead author of the study and an economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “The result is that insurance programs—both those run by the government and private payers—face higher costs because of California's dirty air.” Read more ..


Edge on the Environment

Gases that Replaced Chloroflourocarbon Refrigerants May Worsen Acid Rain

March 22nd 2010

Environment Topics - acid rain-damaged gargoyle
Gargoyle damaged by acid rain

Chemicals that helped solve a global environmental crisis in the 1990s—the hole in Earth's protective ozone layer — may be making another problem — acid rain—worse, scientists are reporting.

Their study on the chemicals that replaced the ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once used in aerosol spray cans, air conditioners, refrigerators, and other products, appears in ACS's Journal of Physical Chemistry. Jeffrey Gaffney, Carrie J. Christiansen, Shakeel S. Dalal, Alexander M. Mebel, and Joseph S. Francisco point out that hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) emerged as CFC replacements because they do not damage the ozone layer. However, studies later suggested the need for a replacement for the replacements, showing that HCFCs act like super greenhouse gases, 4,500 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The new study adds to those concerns, raising the possibility that HCFCs may break down in the atmosphere to form oxalic acid, one of the culprits in acid rain. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Methane Releases from Arctic Shelf May Trigger Drastic Climate Changes

March 15th 2010

Environment Topics - Siberian Glacier

A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov.

The research results show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans," said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap." Read more ..


Animal Edge

A Plague on the Prairies: An Underestimated Danger

March 8th 2010

Animals - Prairie Dog

The effects of plague on wildlife may have been underestimated in the past, according to new research. Plague, a flea-borne bacterial disease introduced to North America in the late 1800s, spreads rapidly across a landscape, causing devastating effects to wildlife and posing risks to people. Conservation and recovery efforts for imperiled species such as the black-footed ferret and Utah prairie dog are greatly hampered by the effects of plague. Eruptions of the fatal disease have wiped out prairie dog colonies, as well as dependent ferret populations, in many locations over the years.

The new findings demonstrates that plague continues to affect the black-footed ferret, one of the most critically endangered mammals in North America, as well as several species of prairie dogs, including the federally threatened Utah prairie dog—even when the disease does not erupt  into epidemic form. Read more ..


Edge on Science

New Artificial Foot Recycles Walking Energy For Amputees

March 1st 2010

Science - Artificial foot

An artificial foot that recycles energy otherwise wasted in between steps could make it easier for amputees to walk, its developers say. University of Michigan researchers developed an artificial foot that recycles energy otherwise wasted in between steps. The device could make it easier for amputees to walk. "For amputees, what they experience when they're trying to walk normally is what I would experience if I were carrying an extra 30 pounds," said Art Kuo, professor in the University of Michigan departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. Read more ..


Genetic Edge

Genetic Breakthrough Traces Human Ancestry in the Americas to Siberia

February 22nd 2010

Archaeology Topics - Ancient American

Professor Eske Willerslev and his PhD student Morten Rasmussen, from Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics, The Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, led the international team of scientists responsible for the findings. Willerslev and his team grabbed international attention last year when they reconstructed the complete mitochondrial genomes of a woolly mammoth and an ancient human.

However, the current discovery is the first time scientists have been able to reconstruct the 80 percent of the nuclear genome that is possible to retrieve from fossil remains. From the genomic sequences, the team has managed to construct a picture of a male individual who lived in Greenland 4,000 years ago and belonged to the first culture to settle in the New World Arctic. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Why Do Galaxies Spiral?

February 15th 2010

Science - Galaxies

The Hubble telescope shows that the beautiful spirals galaxies of the modern Universe were the ugly ducklings of six billion years ago. If confirmed, the finding highlights the importance to many galaxies of collisions and mergers in the recent past. It also provides clues for the unique status of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have created a census of galaxy types and shapes from a time before Earth and the Sun existed, up to the present day. The results show that, contrary to contemporary thought, more than half of the present-day spiral galaxies had peculiar shapes as recently as 6 billion years ago.

The study of the shapes and formation of galaxies, known as morphology, is a critical and much-debated topic in astronomy. An important tool for this is the ‘Hubble sequence’ or the ‘Hubble tuning-fork diagram’, a classification scheme invented in 1926 by the same Edwin Hubble in whose honor the space telescope is named. Hubble’s scheme divides regular galaxies into three broad classes — ellipticals, lenticulars and spirals — based on their visual appearance. A fourth class contains galaxies with an irregular appearance.  Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

Revolutionary Behavior Recognition System Available for Airports

February 8th 2010

Social Topics - Baby Boomer

At the airport, how can you tell the good guys from the bad guys? The sad truth, as recent terror incidents have shown, is that there seems to be no foolproof way. Now a new detection system designed by an Israeli start up could improve the chances - eliminating some of the problems inherent in the most popular detection systems, and increasing the odds of nabbing a potential terrorist.

According to CEO Ehud Givon, WeCu raises detection to a whole new level. The company's device - which was six years in the making - flashes stimuli, such as photos, a symbol, or a code word, relating to the information authorities are most interested in (whether it's terrorism, drug smuggling or other crimes), to passengers as they pass through terminal checkpoints.
Hidden biometric sensors then detect the subjects' physical reactions and subtle behavioral changes remotely or during random contact.

Based on their reactions, the authorities determine whether further investigation or questioning is warranted. The rationale is that when a person is exposed to stimuli relating to behaviors that he or she is engaged in or familiar with, the reactions to the images will be heightened. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

New Sensor Could Help to Treat and Combat Diabetes

February 1st 2010

Science - Diabetes

A tiny new sensor could provide fresh, inexpensive diagnosis and treatment methods for people suffering from a variety of diseases.

University of Florida engineers have designed and tested versions of the sensor for applications ranging from monitoring diabetics’ glucose levels via their breath to detecting possible indicators of breast cancer in saliva. They say early results are promising — particularly considering that the sensor can be mass produced inexpensively with technology already widely used for making chips in cell phones and other devices.

“This uses known manufacturing technology that is already out there,” said Fan Ren, a professor of chemical engineering and one of a team of engineers collaborating on the project.

The team has published 15 peer-reviewed papers on different versions of the sensor, most recently in this month’s edition of IEEE Sensors Journal. In that paper, members report integrating the sensor in a wireless system that can detect glucose in exhaled breath, then relay the findings to health care workers. That makes the sensor one of several non-invasive devices in development to replace the finger prick kits widely used by diabetics.

Tests with the sensor contradict long-held assumptions that glucose levels in the breath are too small for accurate assessment, Ren said. That’s because the sensor uses a semiconductor that amplifies the minute signals to readable levels, he said.

The team has published 15 peer-reviewed papers on different versions of the sensor, most recently in this month’s edition of IEEE Sensors Journal. In that paper, members report integrating the sensor in a wireless system that can detect glucose in exhaled breath, then relay the findings to health care workers. That makes the sensor one of several non-invasive devices in development to replace the finger prick kits widely used by diabetics. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Report Examines Options for Detecting and Countering Near-Earth objects

January 25th 2010

Science - Asteroid

A new report from the National Research Council lays out options NASA could follow to detect more near-Earth objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard if they cross Earth's orbit. The report says the $4 million the U.S. spends annually to search for NEOs is insufficient to meet a congressionally mandated requirement to detect NEOs that could threaten Earth.

Congress mandated in 2005 that NASA discover 90 percent of NEOs whose diameter is 140 meters or greater by 2020, and asked the National Research Council in 2008 to form a committee to determine the optimum approach to doing so. In an interim report released last year, the committee concluded that it was impossible for NASA to meet that goal, since Congress has not appropriated new funds for the survey nor has the administration asked for them. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Wilder Weather Exerts Stronger Influences on Biodiversity

January 18th 2010

Energy / Environment - Pollution Made in China

An increase in the variability of local conditions could do more to harm biodiversity than slower shifts in climate, a new study has found.

Climate scientists predict more frequent storms, droughts, floods and heat waves as the Earth warms. Although extreme weather would seem to challenge ecosystems, the effect of fluctuating conditions on biodiversity actually could go either way. Species able to tolerate only a narrow range of temperatures, for example, may be eliminated, but instability in the environment can also prevent dominant species from squeezing out competitors.

"Imagine species that have different optimal temperatures for growth. In a fluctuating world, neither can get the upper hand and the two coexist," said Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist at the University of California, San Diego who led the project. Ecologists have observed similar positive effects on populations of organisms as different as herbacious plants, desert rodents, and microscopic animals called zooplankton. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Bering Strait influenced Ice Age Climate Patterns Worldwide

January 11th 2010

Environment Topics - Bering Sea ice
Bering Strait Ice

In a vivid example of how a small geographic feature can have far-reaching impacts on climate, new research shows that water levels in the Bering Strait helped drive global climate patterns during ice age episodes dating back more than 100,000 years.

The international study, led by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), found that the repeated opening and closing of the narrow strait due to fluctuating sea levels affected currents that transported heat and salinity in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As a result, summer temperatures in parts of North America and Greenland oscillated between warmer and colder phases, causing ice sheets to alternate between expansion and retreat and affecting sea levels worldwide.

While the findings do not directly bear on current global warming, they highlight the complexity of Earth's climate system and the fact that seemingly insignificant changes can lead to dramatic tipping points for climate patterns, especially in and around the Arctic.

"The global climate is sensitive to impacts that may seem minor," says NCAR scientist Aixue Hu, the lead author. "Even small processes, if they are in the right location, can amplify changes in climate around the world."

Hu and his colleagues set out to solve a key mystery of the last glacial period: Why, starting about 116,000 years ago, did northern ice sheets repeatedly advance and retreat for about the next 70,000 years? The enormous ice sheets held so much water that sea levels rose and dropped by as much as about 100 feet (30 meters) during these intervals. Read more ..


The Edge of the Universe

Looking Back 12 Billion Years to the Earliest Galaxies

January 4th 2010

Science - Herschel Space Observatory
Herschel Space Observatory

An instrument package developed in part by the University of Colorado at Boulder for the $2.2 billion orbiting Herschel Space Observatory launched in May by the European Space Agency has provided one of the most detailed views yet of space up to 12 billion years back in time.

The December images have revealed thousands of newly discovered galaxies in their early stages of formation, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Jason Glenn, a co-investigator on the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, or SPIRE instrument, riding aboard Herschel. The new images are being analyzed as part of the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey, or HerMES, which involves more than 100 astronomers from six countries.

Equipped with three cameras including SPIRE, the Herschel Space Observatory was launched in May 2009 from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. The spacecraft -- about one and one-half times the diameter of the Hubble Space Telescope -- is orbiting nearly 1 million miles from Earth. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Glacial Melting Dries Up Oceanic Food Chain

December 28th 2009

Environment Topics - Melting Glaciers

A study recently completed in the gulf coast of Alaska by federal and university researchers has found that as glacial ice disappears, the production and export of high- quality food from glacial watersheds to marine ecosystems may disappear too. This trend could have serious consequences for marine food webs.

The research, which was conducted on 11 coastal watersheds in the Gulf of Alaska, has documented an interesting paradox with important implications for coastal ecosystems. "Glacial watersheds comprise 30 percent of the Tongass National Forest and supply about 35 to 40 percent of the stream discharge," says Rick Edwards, a coauthor on the study. "These watersheds export dissolved organic matter that is remarkably biologically active in contrast to that found in other rivers. Generally, scientists expect that organic matter decreases in its quality as a food source as it ages, becoming less and less active over time." Read more ..


Human Interaction

The Hormone of Love and Hate

December 21st 2009

Social Topics - Couple

According to a new study by an Israeli researcher the 'love' hormone oxytocin, that controls behaviors such as trust and empathy, also affects negative behaviors like jealousy and gloating.
It has been known for some time that the oxytocin hormone has an impact on positive feelings. The hormone is released in the body naturally during childbirth and sex. But the study by Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa also shows that this hormone has an impact on antisocial behaviors.

"Subsequent to these findings, we assume that the hormone is an overall trigger for social sentiments: When the person's association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments," says Shamay-Tsoory.

According to a new study by an Israeli researcher the 'love' hormone oxytocin, that controls behaviors such as trust and empathy, also affects negative behaviors like jealousy and gloating.

It has been known for some time that the oxytocin hormone has an impact on positive feelings. The hormone is released in the body naturally during childbirth and sex. But the study by Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa also shows that this hormone has an impact on antisocial behaviors. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Nation's Forests and Soils Can Store 50 Years of U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions

December 14th 2009

Environment Topics - Amazon rainforest

The first phase of a groundbreaking national assessment estimates that U.S. forests and soils could remove additional quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere as a means to mitigate climate change.

The lower 48 states in the U.S. hypothetically have the potential to store an additional 3-7 billion metric tons of carbon in forests, if agricultural lands were to be used for planting forests. This potential is equivalent to 2 to 4 years of America’s current CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“Carbon pollution is putting our world—and our way of life—in peril,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a keynote speech at the global conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark. “By restoring ecosystems and protecting certain areas from development, the U.S. can store more carbon in ways that enhance our stewardship of land and natural resources while reducing our contribution to global warming.”
Read more ..


The Nano Edge

Nanowires Key to Future Transistors and Electronics

December 7th 2009

Technology - Nanowires
Nanowire

A new generation of ultrasmall transistors and more powerful computer chips using tiny structures called semiconducting nanowires are closer to reality after a key discovery by researchers at IBM, Purdue University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The researchers have learned how to create nanowires with layers of different materials that are sharply defined at the atomic level, which is a critical requirement for making efficient transistors out of the structures.

"Having sharply defined layers of materials enables you to improve and control the flow of electrons and to switch this flow on and off," said Eric Stach, an associate professor of materials engineering at Purdue.

Electronic devices are often made of "heterostructures," meaning they contain sharply defined layers of different semiconducting materials, such as silicon and germanium. Until now, however, researchers have been unable to produce nanowires with sharply defined silicon and germanium layers. Instead, this transition from one layer to the next has been too gradual for the devices to perform optimally as transistors.

The new findings point to a method for creating nanowire transistors.
Read more ..


The Plant World

When Camouflage Is A Plant's Best Protection

November 30th 2009

Science - Camouflage Plant

It is well known that some animal species use camouflage to hide from predators. Individuals that are able to blend in to their surroundings and avoid being eaten are able to survive longer, reproduce, and thus increase their fitness (pass along their genes to the next generation) compared to those who stand out more. This may seem like a good strategy, and fairly common in the animal kingdom, but who ever heard of a plant doing the same thing?

In plants, the use of coloration or pigmentation as a vital component of acquiring food (e.g., photosynthesis) or as a means of attracting pollinators (e.g., flowers) has been well studied. However, variation in pigmentation as a means of escaping predation has received little attention. Now Matthew Klooster from Harvard University and colleagues have empirically investigated whether the dried bracts on a rare woodland plant, Monotropsis odorata, might serve a similar purpose as the stripes on a tiger or the grey coloration of the wings of the peppered moth, namely to hide.

"Monotropsis odorata is a fascinating plant species, as it relies exclusively upon mycorrhizal fungus, that associates with its roots, for all of the resources it needs to live," notes Klooster. "Because this plant no longer requires photosynthetic pigmentation (i.e., green coloration) to produce its own energy, it is free to adopt a broader range of possibilities in coloration, much like fungi or animals." Read more ..


The Race for Hydrogen

New Molecular Hydrogen Storage Method can Boost Energy Programs

November 23rd 2009

Energy Topics - nickel-hydride battery

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution have found for the first time that high pressure can be used to make a unique hydrogen-storage material. The discovery paves the way for an entirely new way to approach the hydrogen-storage problem. The researchers found that the normally unreactive, noble gas xenon combines with molecular hydrogen (H2) under pressure to form a previously unknown solid with unusual bonding chemistry. The experiments are the first time these elements have been combined to form a stable compound. The discovery debuts a new family of materials, which could boost new hydrogen technologies.

Xenon has some intriguing properties, including its use as an anesthesia, its ability to preserve biological tissues, and its employment in lighting. Xenon is a noble gas, which means that it does not typically react with other elements. Read more ..


Edge of Archaeology

Alexander the Great Comes Alive at International Archaeological Dig in Israel

November 16th 2009

Archaeology Topics - Tel Dor
Tel Dor dig site

The archaeological season in Israel has produced startling discoveries that sheds light on religious practices during the 6th century AD in Israel, as well as the influence of Hellenistic culture from the 4th century BC when Alexander the Great passed through the region. The University of Haifa and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in cooperation with academic institutions and foundations of the United States, Poland, and Israel, carried off a significant finish to the archaeological season.

A rare and surprising archaeological discovery at Tel Dor: A gemstone engraved with the portrait of Alexander the Great was uncovered during excavations by an archaeological team directed by Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of the University of Haifa and Dr. Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Despite its miniature dimensions – the stone is less than a centimeter high and its width is less than half a centimeter – the engraver was able to depict the bust of Alexander on the gem without omitting any of the ruler's characteristics" notes Dr. Gilboa, Chair of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Read more ..



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