Aug 19, 2018

Hubble paints picture of the evolving universe

Astronomers have just assembled one of the most comprehensive portraits yet of the universe's evolutionary history, based on a broad spectrum of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and other space and ground-based telescopes. In particular, Hubble's ultraviolet vision opens a new window on the evolving universe, tracking the birth of stars over the last 11 billion years back to the cosmos' busiest star-forming period, about 3 billion years after the big bang. This photo encompasses a sea of approximately 15,000 galaxies -- 12,000 of which are star-forming -- widely distributed in time and space. This mosaic is 14 times the area of the Hubble Ultra Violet Ultra Deep Field released in 2014.
Astronomers using the ultraviolet vision of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have captured one of the largest panoramic views of the fire and fury of star birth in the distant universe. The field features approximately 15,000 galaxies, about 12,000 of which are forming stars. Hubble's ultraviolet vision opens a new window on the evolving universe, tracking the birth of stars over the last 11 billion years back to the cosmos' busiest star-forming period, which happened about 3 billion years after the big bang.

Ultraviolet light has been the missing piece to the cosmic puzzle. Now, combined with infrared and visible-light data from Hubble and other space and ground-based telescopes, astronomers have assembled one of the most comprehensive portraits yet of the universe's evolutionary history.

The image straddles the gap between the very distant galaxies, which can only be viewed in infrared light, and closer galaxies, which can be seen across a broad spectrum. The light from distant star-forming regions in remote galaxies started out as ultraviolet. However, the expansion of the universe has shifted the light into infrared wavelengths. By comparing images of star formation in the distant and nearby universe, astronomers glean a better understanding of how nearby galaxies grew from small clumps of hot, young stars long ago.

Because Earth's atmosphere filters most ultraviolet light, Hubble can provide some of the most sensitive space-based ultraviolet observations possible.

The program, called the Hubble Deep UV (HDUV) Legacy Survey, extends and builds on the previous Hubble multi-wavelength data in the CANDELS-Deep (Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey) fields within the central part of the GOODS (The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) fields. This mosaic is 14 times the area of the Hubble Ultra Violet Ultra Deep Field released in 2014.

This image is a portion of the GOODS-North field, which is located in the northern constellation Ursa Major.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope.

Read more at Science Daily

99-million-year-old beetle trapped in amber served as pollinator to evergreen cycads

This image shows a dorsal view of the mid-Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination.
Flowering plants are well known for their special relationship to the insects and other animals that serve as their pollinators. But, before the rise of angiosperms, another group of unusual evergreen gymnosperms, known as cycads, may have been the first insect-pollinated plants. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on August 16 have uncovered the earliest definitive fossil evidence of that intimate relationship between cycads and insects.

The discovery came in the form of an ancient boganiid beetle preserved in Burmese amber for an estimated 99 million years along with grains of cycad pollen. The beetle also shows special adaptations, including mandibular patches, for the transport of cycad pollen.

"Boganiid beetles have been ancient pollinators for cycads since the Age of Cycads and Dinosaurs," says Chenyang Cai, now a research fellow at the University of Bristol. "Our find indicates a probable ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads at least in the Early Jurassic, long before angiosperm dominance and the radiation of flowering-plant pollinators, such as bees, later in the Cretaceous."

When Cai's supervisor Diying Huang at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, first showed him the beetle trapped in amber, he was immediately intrigued. He recognized that its large mandibles with bristly cavities might suggest the beetle was a pollinator of cycads.

After cutting, trimming, and polishing the specimen to get a better look under a microscope, Cai's excitement only grew. The beetle carried several clumps of tiny pollen grains. Cai consulted Liqin Li, an expert in ancient pollen at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who confirmed that the pollen grains belonged to a cycad.

The researchers also conducted an extensive phylogenetic analysis to explore the beetle's family tree. Their analysis indicates the fossilized beetle belonged to a sister group to the extant Australian Paracucujus, which pollinate the relic cycad Macrozamia riedlei. The finding, along with the current disjunct distribution of related beetle-herbivore and cycad-host pairs in South Africa and Australia, support an ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads, the researchers say.

Read more at Science Daily

Aug 18, 2018

Ants, acorns and climate change

The Case Western Reserve biologists 'explore(d) the potential for parallel (and non-parallel) evolution of thermal tolerance across three cities using acorn ants as a model system' as these particular ants are 'highly sensitive to temperature, including in their development rate, running speed and thermal tolerance,' according to their paper.
The relatively swift adaptability of tiny, acorn-dwelling ants to warmer environments could help scientists predict how other species might evolve in the crucible of global climate change.

That's a big-picture conclusion from research into the some of the world's smallest creatures, according to evolutionary biologists at Case Western Reserve University.

More specifically, the scientists are comparing the adaptability of a certain species of ant raised in the "heat-island" microclimate of three U.S. cities to those in nearby cooler rural areas.

"What we're finding is the potential for ants -- and other animals, perhaps -- to evolve in response to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change," said lead researcher Sarah Diamond, who first began peering into acorns to study the ants in 2015. The research so far has shown that the ants adapt to a hotter world in only about 20 generations, or about 100 years.

This comparatively lightning-fast evolutionary response is adding to scientists' understanding of evolutionary processes, in general, but also in understanding the effects of urbanization, said Diamond, the George B. Mayer Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies at the university.

"While we usually think of evolution as happening over thousands of years or more, we're finding that it is happening more rapidly in these cases," she said, "and that presents a unique opportunity to test the predictability and parallelism of evolutionary change."

The most recent study by Diamond and Ryan Martin, an assistant professor of biology at Case Western Reserve, was published in July in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a broad-scope biology journal.

Earlier research by the Case Western Reserve researchers was featured in a New York Times report and elsewhere and focused primarily on how "city ants and country ants" adapted in Cleveland and a nearby rural area.

The outcome of that earlier study was that ants from the city were more tolerant of heat than rural ants living in colonies about five degrees Fahrenheit cooler -- an adaptation that would have arisen only over the last century as the city became urbanized and warmer due to the heat island effect.

Different cities, mixed results

The new paper describes how the research was extended to two more cities, Cincinnati, Ohio and Knoxville, Tennessee, to test whether the ants would respond in "parallel" to urban heat islands.

The scientists added the two new sites to test whether the outcomes would be consistent, or whether each area is distinctive, and because "cities function as easily replicated warming experiments across the globe" due to the urban heat island effect, Diamond said.

The measurements: Urban ants were again more tolerant to heat but lost some of their tolerance to cold compared to their rural neighbors. The researchers also found that urban ant populations produced more "sexual reproductives" -- offspring who could, in turn, reproduce -- under warmer laboratory rearing temperatures that mimicked their city habitats; rural populations produced fewer.

This new result suggests that the urban ants are indeed adapting to city life: "Their increased tolerance for warm temperatures is helping them live in cities," Martin said.

In Cleveland and Knoxville, they did, but "Cincinnati is misbehaving," Diamond said with a laugh, noting that the city ants there did not show the same degree of adaptability.

Read more at Science Daily

Water-worlds are common: Exoplanets may contain vast amounts of water

Exoplanets similar to Earth.
Scientists have shown that water is likely to be a major component of those exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) which are between two to four times the size of Earth. It will have implications for the search of life in our Galaxy. The work is presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Boston.

The 1992 discovery of exoplanets orbiting other stars has sparked interest in understanding the composition of these planets to determine, among other goals, whether they are suitable for the development of life. Now a new evaluation of data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission indicates that many of the known planets may contain as much as 50% water. This is much more than the Earth's 0.02% (by weight) water content.

"It was a huge surprise to realize that there must be so many water-worlds," said lead researcher Dr Li Zeng (Harvard University),

Scientists have found that many of the 4000 confirmed or candidate exoplanets discovered so far fall into two size categories: those with the planetary radius averaging around 1.5 that of the Earth, and those averaging around 2.5 times the radius of the Earth.

Now a group of International scientists, after analyzing the exoplanets with mass measurements and recent radius measurements from the Gaia satellite, have developed a model of their internal structure.

"We have looked at how mass relates to radius, and developed a model which might explain the relationship," said Li Zeng. The model indicates that those exoplanets which have a radius of around x1.5 Earth radius tend to be rocky planets (of typically x5 the mass of the Earth), while those with a radius of x2.5 Earth radius (with a mass around x10 that of the Earth) are probably water worlds."

"This is water, but not as commonly found here on Earth," said Li Zeng. "Their surface temperature is expected to be in the 200 to 500 degree Celsius range. Their surface may be shrouded in a water-vapor-dominated atmosphere, with a liquid water layer underneath. Moving deeper, one would expect to find this water transforms into high-pressure ices before we reaching the solid rocky core. The beauty of the model is that it explains just how composition relates to the known facts about these planets."

Li Zeng continued, "Our data indicate that about 35% of all known exoplanets which are bigger than Earth should be water-rich. These water worlds likely formed in similar ways to the giant planet cores (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) which we find in our own solar system. The newly-launched TESS mission will find many more of them, with the help of ground-based spectroscopic follow-up. The next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will hopefully characterize the atmosphere of some of them. This is an exciting time for those interested in these remote worlds."

Read more at Science Daily

Aug 17, 2018

Under pressure, hydrogen offers a reflection of giant planet interiors

Jovian cloudscape, courtesy of NASA's Juno spacecraft.
Lab-based mimicry allowed an international team of physicists including Carnegie's Alexander Goncharov to probe hydrogen under the conditions found in the interiors of giant planets -- where experts believe it gets squeezed until it becomes a liquid metal, capable of conducting electricity. Their work is published in Science.

Hydrogen is the most-abundant element in the universe and the simplest -- comprised of only one proton and one electron in each atom. But that simplicity is deceptive, because there is still so much to learn about it, including its behavior under conditions not found on Earth.

For example, although hydrogen on the surface of giant planets, like our Solar System's Jupiter and Saturn, is a gas, just like it is on our own planet, deep inside these giant planetary interiors, scientists believe it becomes a metallic liquid.

"This transformation has been a longstanding focus of attention in physics and planetary science," said lead author Peter Celliers of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The research team -- which also included scientists from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, University of Edinburgh, University of Rochester, University of California Berkeley, and George Washington University -- focused on this gas-to-metallic-liquid transition in molecular hydrogen's heavier isotope deuterium. (Isotopes are atoms of the same element that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons.)

They studied how deuterium's ability to absorb or reflect light changed under up to nearly six million times normal atmospheric pressure (600 gigapascals) and at temperatures less than 1,700 degrees Celsius (about 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit). Reflectivity can indicate that a material is metallic.

They found that under about 1.5 million times normal atmospheric pressure (150 gigapascals) the deuterium switched from transparent to opaque -- absorbing the light instead of allowing it to pass through. But a transition to metal-like reflectivity started at nearly 2 million times normal atmospheric pressure (200 gigapascals).

Read more at Science Daily

Astronomers identify some of the oldest galaxies in the universe

The distribution of satellite galaxies orbiting a computer-simulated galaxy, as predicted by the Lambda-cold-dark-matter cosmological model. The blue circles surround the brighter satellites, the white circles the ultrafaint satellites (so faint that they are not readily visible in the image). The ultrafaint satellites are amongst the most ancient galaxies in the Universe; they began to form when the Universe was only about 100 million years old (compared to its current age of 13.8 billion years). The image has been generated from simulations from the Auriga project carried out by researchers at the Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University, UK, the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, Germany, and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Germany.
Astronomers from the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, have found evidence that the faintest satellite galaxies orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy are amongst the very first galaxies that formed in our Universe.

Scientists working on this research have described the finding as "hugely exciting" explaining that that finding some of the Universe's earliest galaxies orbiting the Milky Way is "equivalent to finding the remains of the first humans that inhabited the Earth."

The research group's findings suggest that galaxies including Segue-1, Bootes I, Tucana II and Ursa Major I are in fact some of the first galaxies ever formed, thought to be over 13 billion years old.

When the Universe was about 380,000 years old, the very first atoms formed. These were hydrogen atoms, the simplest element in the periodic table. These atoms collected into clouds and began to cool gradually and settle into the small clumps or "halos" of dark matter that emerged from the Big Bang.

This cooling phase, known as the "Cosmic dark ages," lasted about 100 million years. Eventually, the gas that had cooled inside the halos became unstable and began to form stars -- these objects are the very first galaxies ever to have formed.

With the formation of the first galaxies, the Universe burst into light, bringing the cosmic dark ages to an end.

Dr Sownak Bose, at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, working with Dr Alis Deason and Professor Carlos Frenk at Durham University's ICC, identified two populations of satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.

The first was a very faint population consisting of the galaxies that formed during the "cosmic dark ages." The second was a slightly brighter population consisting of galaxies that formed hundreds of millions of years later, once the hydrogen that had been ionized by the intense ultraviolet radiation emitted by the first stars was able to cool into more massive dark matter halos.

Remarkably, the team found that a model of galaxy formation that they had developed previously agreed perfectly with the data, allowing them to infer the formation times of the satellite galaxies.

Their findings are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of Durham University's Institute for Computational Cosmology, said: "Finding some of the very first galaxies that formed in our Universe orbiting in the Milky Way's own backyard is the astronomical equivalent of finding the remains of the first humans that inhabited the Earth. It is hugely exciting.

"Our finding supports the current model for the evolution of our Universe, the 'Lambda-cold-dark-matter model' in which the elementary particles that make up the dark matter drive cosmic evolution."

The intense ultraviolet radiation emitted by the first galaxies destroyed the remaining hydrogen atoms by ionizing them (knocking out their electrons), making it difficult for this gas to cool and form new stars.

The process of galaxy formation ground to a halt and no new galaxies were able to form for the next billion years or so.

Eventually, the halos of dark matter became so massive that even ionized gas was able to cool. Galaxy formation resumed, culminating in the formation of spectacular bright galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Dr Sownak Bose, who was a PhD student at the ICC when this work began and is now a research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: "A nice aspect of this work is that it highlights the complementarity between the predictions of a theoretical model and real data.

"A decade ago, the faintest galaxies in the vicinity of the Milky Way would have gone under the radar. With the increasing sensitivity of present and future galaxy censuses, a whole new trove of the tiniest galaxies has come into the light, allowing us to test theoretical models in new regimes."

Dr Alis Deason, who is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the ICC, Durham University, said: "This is a wonderful example of how observations of the tiniest dwarf galaxies residing in our own Milky Way can be used to learn about the early Universe."

Read more at Science Daily

Structurally 'inside-out' planetary nebula discovered

Planetary nebula HuBi 1 (left) and another planetary nebula Abell39 (right, 6800 light years away from our solar system). Abell39 is an archetypal, textbook case of a spherical nebula surrounding a bright central star (a white dwarf), its nebula composes of hydrogen-rich ionized gas. HuBi 1, its central star has undergone a "born-again" event ejecting metal-rich material into the old, hydrogen-rich nebula, has a double-shell structure - a hydrogen-rich outer shell and a nitrogen-rich inner shell.
The Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) in Spain, the Laboratory for Space Research (LSR) of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and an International team comprising scientists from Argentina, Mexico and Germany have discovered the unusual evolution of the central star of a planetary nebula in our Milky Way. This extraordinary discovery sheds light on the future evolution, and more importantly, the ultimate fate of the Sun.

The discovery of a structurally 'inside-out' planetary nebula -- the ionized material that surrounds a white dwarf -- was just reported online in Nature Astronomy. This is also the eighth research paper produced by HKU LSR with its international collaborators in the Nature journals since 2017.

The research team believes this inverted ionization structure of the nebula is resulted from the central star undergoing a 'born-again' event, ejecting material from its surface and creating a shock that excites the nebular material.

Planetary nebulae are ionized clouds of gas formed by the hydrogen-rich envelopes of low- and intermediate-mass stars ejected at late evolutionary stages. As these stars age, they typically strip their outer layers, forming a 'wind'. As the star transitions from its red giant phase to become a white dwarf, it becomes hotter, and starts ionizing the material in the surrounding wind. This causes the gaseous material closer to the star to become highly ionized, while the gas material further out is less so.

Studying the planetary nebula HuBi 1 (17,000 light years away and nearly 5 billion years ahead of our solar system in evolution), however, Dr Martín Guerrero et al. found the reverse: HuBi 1's inner regions are less ionized, while the outer regions more so. Analysing the central star, with the participation of top theoretical astrophysicists, the authors found that it is surprisingly cool and metal-rich, and is evolved from a low-mass progenitor star which has a mass 1.1 times of the Sun.

The authors suggest that the inner nebula was excited by the passage of a shockwave caused by the star ejecting matter unusually late in its evolution. The stellar material cooled to form circumstellar dust, obscuring the star; this well explains why the central star's optical brightness has diminished rapidly over the past 50 years. In the absence of ionizing photons from the central star, the outer nebula has begun recombining -- becoming neutral. The authors conclude that, as HuBi 1 was roughly the same mass as the Sun, this finding provides a glimpse of a potential future for our solar system.

Dr Xuan Fang, co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at the HKU LSR and Department of Physics, said the extraordinary discovery resolves a long-lasting question regarding the evolutionary path of metal-rich central stars of planetary nebulae. Dr Fang has been observing the evolution of HuBi 1 early since 2014 using the Spanish flagship telescope Nordic Optical Telescope and was among the first astrophysicists to discover its inverted ionization structure.

He said: "After noting HuBi 1's inverted ionization structure and the unusual nature of its central star, we looked closer to find the reasons in collaboration with top theoretical astrophysicists in the world. We then came to realize that we had caught HuBi 1 at the exact moment when its central star underwent a brief 'born-again' process to become a hydrogen-poor [WC] and metal-rich star, which is very rare in white dwarf stars evolution."

Dr Fang, however, said the discovery would not alter the fate of the Earth. He remarked: "Our findings suggest that the Sun may also experience a 'born-again' process while it is dying out in about 5 billion years from now; but way before that event, our earth will be engulfed by the Sun when it turns into a superhot red giant and nothing living will survive."

Read more at Science Daily

'Abrupt thaw' of permafrost beneath lakes could significantly affect climate change models

Methane bubbles are trapped in the ice on a pond near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Methane released by thawing permafrost from some Arctic lakes could significantly accelerate climate change, according to a new University of Alaska Fairbanks-led study.

The study, which was published Aug. 15 in the journal Nature Communications, focuses on the carbon released by thawing permafrost beneath thermokarst lakes. Such lakes develop when warming soil melts ground ice, causing the surface to collapse and form pools of water. Those pools accelerate permafrost thaw beneath the expanding lakes, providing food for microbes that produce the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

Lead author Katey Walter Anthony and her colleagues studied hundreds of thermokarst lakes in Alaska and Siberia during a 12-year period, measuring their growth and how much methane was bubbling to their surface. By combining field work results with remote-sensing data of lake changes during the past two years, they determined the "abrupt thaw" beneath such lakes is likely to release large amounts of permafrost carbon into the atmosphere this century. The lake activity could potentially double the release from terrestrial landscapes by the 2050s.

The effort, conducted by a team of U.S. and German researchers, is part of a 10-year NASA-funded project to better understand climate change effects on the Arctic. Additional support by the National Science Foundation allowed scientists from UAF and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys to collect data on permafrost location, thaw and associated greenhouse gas release from lakes in Interior Alaska's Goldstream Valley.

The researchers found the release of greenhouse gases beneath thermokarst lakes is relatively rapid, with deep thawing taking place over the course of decades. Permafrost in terrestrial environments generally experiences shallow seasonal thawing over longer time spans. The release of that surface permafrost soil carbon is often offset by an increased growth in vegetation.

"Thermokarst lakes provide a completely different scenario. When the lakes form, they flash-thaw these permafrost areas," said Walter Anthony, an associate professor with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center. "Instead of centimeters of thaw, which is common for terrestrial environments, we've seen 15 meters of thaw beneath newly formed lakes in Goldstream Valley within the past 60 years."

Emissions from thermokarst lakes aren't currently factored into global climate models because their small size makes individual lakes difficult to include. However, the study's authors show that these lakes are hotspots of permafrost carbon release. They argue that not including them in global climate models overlooks their feedback effect, which occurs when the release of greenhouse gases from permafrost increases warming. That feedback is significant because methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.

Existing models currently attribute about 20 percent of the permafrost carbon feedback this century to methane, with the rest due to carbon dioxide from terrestrial soils. By including thermokarst lakes, methane becomes the dominant driver, responsible for 70 to 80 percent of permafrost carbon-caused warming this century. Adding thermokarst methane to the models makes the feedback's effect similar to that of land-use change, which is the second-largest source of human-made warming.

Unlike shallow, gradual thawing of terrestrial permafrost, the abrupt thaw beneath thermokarst lakes is irreversible this century. Even climate models that project only moderate warming this century will have to factor in their emissions, according to the study.

Read more at Science Daily

Aug 15, 2018

Early opaque universe linked to galaxy scarcity

Computer simulation of a region of the universe wherein a low-density "void" (dark blue region at top center) is surrounded by denser structures containing numerous galaxies (orange/white). The research done by Becker and his team suggests that early in cosmic history, these void regions would have been the murkiest places in the universe even though they contained the least amount of dark matter and gas.
A team of astronomers led by George Becker at the University of California, Riverside, has made a surprising discovery: 12.5 billion years ago, the most opaque place in the universe contained relatively little matter.

It has long been known that the universe is filled with a web-like network of dark matter and gas. This "cosmic web" accounts for most of the matter in the universe, whereas galaxies like our own Milky Way make up only a small fraction. Today, the gas between galaxies is almost totally transparent because it is kept ionized -- electrons detached from their atoms -- by an energetic bath of ultraviolet radiation.

Over a decade ago, astronomers noticed that in the very distant past -- roughly 12.5 billion years ago, or about 1 billion years after the Big Bang -- the gas in deep space was not only highly opaque to ultraviolet light, but its transparency varied widely from place to place, obscuring much of the light emitted by distant galaxies.

Then a few years ago, a team led by Becker, then at the University of Cambridge, found that these differences in opacity were so large that either the amount of gas itself, or more likely the radiation in which it is immersed, must vary substantially from place to place.

"Today, we live in a fairly homogeneous universe," said Becker, an expert on the intergalactic medium, which includes dark matter and the gas that permeates the space between galaxies. "If you look in any direction you find, on average, roughly the same number of galaxies and similar properties for the gas between galaxies, the so-called intergalactic gas. At that early time, however, the gas in deep space looked very different from one region of the universe to another."

To find out what created these differences, the team of University of California astronomers from the Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles campuses turned to one of the largest telescopes in the world: the Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Using its powerful camera, the team looked for galaxies in a vast region, roughly 300 million light years in size, where they knew the intergalactic gas was extremely opaque.

For the cosmic web more opacity normally means more gas, and hence more galaxies. But the team found the opposite: this region contained far fewer galaxies than average. Because the gas in deep space is kept transparent by the ultraviolet light from galaxies, fewer galaxies nearby might make it murkier.

"Normally it doesn't matter how many galaxies are nearby; the ultraviolet light that keeps the gas in deep space transparent often comes from galaxies that are extremely far away. That's true for most of cosmic history, anyway," said Becker, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "At this very early time, it looks like the UV light can't travel very far, and so a patch of the universe with few galaxies in it will look much darker than one with plenty of galaxies around."

This discovery, reported in the August 2018 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, may eventually shed light on another phase in cosmic history. In the first billion years after the Big Bang, ultraviolet light from the first galaxies filled the universe and permanently transformed the gas in deep space. Astronomers believe that this occurred earlier in regions with more galaxies, meaning the large fluctuations in intergalactic radiation inferred by Becker and his team may be a relic of this patchy process, and could offer clues to how and when it occurred.

Read more at Science Daily

Congenital blindness reversed in mice

An artist's rendering incorporates the images of the Müller glia-derived rod photoreceptors. These photoreceptors were structurally no different from real photoreceptors and they became integrated within the circuitry of the visual pathway, from the retina to the brain.
Researchers funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) have reversed congenital blindness in mice by changing supportive cells in the retina called Müller glia into rod photoreceptors. The findings advance efforts toward regenerative therapies for blinding diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. A report of the findings appears online today in Nature. NEI is part of the National Institutes of Health.

"This is the first report of scientists reprogramming Müller glia to become functional rod photoreceptors in the mammalian retina," said Thomas N. Greenwell, Ph.D., NEI program director for retinal neuroscience. "Rods allow us to see in low light, but they may also help preserve cone photoreceptors, which are important for color vision and high visual acuity. Cones tend to die in later-stage eye diseases. If rods can be regenerated from inside the eye, this might be a strategy for treating diseases of the eye that affect photoreceptors."

Photoreceptors are light-sensitive cells in the retina in the back of the eye that signal the brain when activated. In mammals, including mice and humans, photoreceptors fail to regenerate on their own. Like most neurons, once mature they don't divide.

Scientists have long studied the regenerative potential of Müller glia because in other species, such as zebrafish, they divide in response to injury and can turn into photoreceptors and other retinal neurons. The zebrafish can thus regain vision after severe retinal injury. In the lab, however, scientists can coax mammalian Müller glia to behave more like they do in the fish. But it requires injuring the tissue.

"From a practical standpoint, if you're trying to regenerate the retina to restore a person's vision, it is counterproductive to injure it first to activate the Müller glia," said Bo Chen, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the Ocular Stem Cell Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.

"We wanted to see if we could program Müller glia to become rod photoreceptors in a living mouse without having to injure its retina," said Chen, the study's lead investigator.

In the first phase of a two-stage reprogramming process Chen's team spurred Müller glia in normal mice to divide by injecting their eyes with a gene to turn on a protein called beta-catenin. Weeks later, they injected the mice's eyes with factors that encouraged the newly divided cells to develop into rod photoreceptors.

The researchers used microscopy to visually track the newly formed cells. They found that the newly formed rod photoreceptors looked structurally no different from real photoreceptors. In addition, synaptic structures that allow the rods to communicate with other types of neurons within the retina had also formed. To determine whether the Müller glia-derived rod photoreceptors were functional, they tested the treatment in mice with congenital blindness, which meant that they were born without functional rod photoreceptors.

In the treated mice that were born blind, Müller glia-derived rods developed just as effectively as they had in normal mice. Functionally, they confirmed that the newly formed rods were communicating with other types of retinal neurons across synapses. Furthermore, light responses recorded from retinal ganglion cells -- neurons that carry signals from photoreceptors to the brain -- and measurements of brain activity confirmed that the newly-formed rods were in fact integrating in the visual pathway circuitry, from the retina to the primary visual cortex in the brain.

Read more at Science Daily