Aug 20, 2010

Tool Use by Early Humans Started Much Earlier

Fossilized bones scarred by hack marks reveal that our human ancestors were using stone tools and eating meat from large mammals nearly a million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study that pushes back both of these human activities to roughly 3.4 million years ago.

The first known human ancestor tool wielder and meat lover was Australopithecus afarensis, according to the study, published in the latest issue of Nature. This species, whose most famous representative is the skeleton "Lucy," was slender, toothy and small-brained.

"By pushing the date for tool use and meat eating in our lineage back by around 1 million years, our finds show that tool use and meat eating was not unique to (the genus) Homo, a widely accepted notion in our field," co-author Zeresenay Alemseged told Discovery News.

"Also, by showing that A. afarensis was involved in these activities, we showed that you do not need a large brain to do this," added Alemseged, director of the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.

"This is a kind of find that will force us to revise our human evolution and anthropology textbooks."

Read more at Discovery News

World's oldest mechanical clock 'to be wound by hand for last time'

The mechanism on the Clock, at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, will be set manually for the last time next week, following the retirement of the last member of a family who has maintained it for almost a century.

Experts say the clock, which tracks the sun across the sky and records the stages of the moon, is a marvel of medieval craftsmanship.

Over the past 90 years the clock, the world's oldest continually-working mechanical timepiece, has been wound by five different generations of the Fisher family.

Since 1987, Paul Fisher has been undertaking the exhausting task of spending an hour, three times a week, turning the three 250kg weights about 800 times.

But on Thursday the horologist, 63, announced his retirement as the official “Keeper of the Great Clock of Wells”.

“I'm a bit sad that all these years of history are coming to an end but winding the clock by hand is just so time consuming,” said Mr Fisher, who is also retiring from the family jewellery business.

"I feel very proud and privileged to have wound this magnificent clock and that my family has been involved in such a historic task.”

While he will keep a “watchful eye” on it, his decision will mean that from Monday it will instead be powered by an automatic electric motor.

Mr Fisher’s family took over responsibility in 1919 after his grandfather, Leo Fisher, returned from First World War service.

Read more at The Telegraph

‘Immortal’ Trees Can’t Escape Aging

“With immortality comes immobility.

Because some quaking aspen trees can reproduce by copying themselves, some people have wondered whether they might live forever, at least theoretically. But even if that’s possible, they’re still not immune from the ravages of time.

As aspen clones grow older, a slow buildup of genetic mutations impairs their pollen production. After a few tens of thousands of years, they won’t produce any pollen at all.

When that happens, trees will still be able to sprout clones from their root tips, but they won’t be able to make seeds. They’ll be stuck in place, vulnerable to disease or disaster.

“There’s a slow and steady loss of fertility with age,” said San Diego State geneticist Dilara Ally. “Because we were able to calculate the rate at which male fertility was lost, we could estimate how long it would take fertility in the oldest clone to dwindle away entirely.”

From the time they’re seedlings, quaking aspens like those studied by Ally reproduce clonally, sprouting new trees from specialized root tips. As they mature, they also start to self-fertilize, producing clonal seeds. In both cases, the resulting tree is a copy of the original.

Individual trees have a lifespan of about 200 years, but clones — scientists consider the collective as as single entity — can sprawl for acres, all descended from one original tree, and apparently able to reproduce indefinitely.”

Read more at Wired

Study reveals how old age is linked to the breakdown of brain function

It’s unavoidable: breakdowns in brain connections slow down our physical response times as we age, a new study suggests.

This slower reactivity is associated with an age-related breakdown in the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that acts as a dam during one-sided motor activities to prevent unwanted connectivity, or cross-talk, between the two halves of the brain, said Rachael Seidler, associate professor in the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology and Department of Psychology, and lead study author.

At other times the corpus callosum acts at a bridge and cross-talk is helpful, such as in certain cognitive functions or two-sided motor skills.

The U-M study is the first known to show that this cross-talk happens even while older adults are at rest, said Seidler, who also has appointments in the Institute of Gerontology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program. This resting cross-talk suggests that it is not helpful or compensatory for the two halves of the brain to communicate during one-sided motor movements because the opposite side of the brain controls the part of the body that is moving. So, when both sides of the brain talk simultaneously while one side of the body tries to move, confusion and slower responses result, Seidler said.

Read more at Science Daily

Aug 19, 2010

Fossil Reveals 48-Million-Year History of Zombie Ants

“A 48-million-year-old fossilised leaf has revealed the oldest known evidence of a macabre part of nature — parasites taking control of their hosts to turn them into zombies. The discovery has been made by a research team led by Dr David P Hughes, from the University of Exeter, who studies parasites that can take over the minds of their hosts.

All manner of animals are susceptible to the often deadly body invasion, but scientists have been trying to track down when and where such parasites evolved.
Dr Hughes, from the University’s School of Biosciences, said: “There are various techniques, called a molecular clock approach, which we can use to estimate where and when they developed and fossils are an important source of information to calibrate such clocks. “This leaf shows clear signs of one well documented form of zombie-parasite, a fungus which infects ants and then manipulates their behaviour.”

The fungus, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, causes ants to leave their colonies and head for a leaf which provides the ideal conditions for the host to reproduce.
When it gets there the ant goes into a ‘death grip’- biting down very hard on the major vein of a leaf. This means that when the ant dies, its body stays put so the fungus has time to grow and release its spores to infect other ants.”

Read more at Science Daily

We can see where life started

“That age-old question, “where did life on Earth start?” now has a new answer.

If the life between the mica sheets hypothesis is correct, life would have originated between sheets of mica that were layered like the pages in a book.

The so-called “life between the sheets” mica hypothesis was developed by Helen Hansma of the University of California.

According to the theory, structured compartments that commonly form between layers of mica – a common mineral that cleaves into smooth sheets – may have sheltered molecules that were the progenitors to cells.

Provided with the right physical and chemical environment in the structured compartments to survive and evolve, the molecules eventually reorganized into cells, while still sheltered between mica sheets.

Mica chunks embedded in rocks could have provided the right physical and chemical environment for pre-life molecules and developing cells because mica compartments could have held, protected and sheltered molecules, and thereby promoted their survival.

Also, mica could have provided enough isolation for molecules to evolve without being disturbed and still allow molecules to migrate towards one another and eventually bond together to form large organic molecules.

And mica compartments may have provided something akin to a template for the production of a life form composed of compartments, which are now known as cells.

Mica sheets are held together by potassium. If high levels of potassium were donated by mica sheets to developing cells, the high levels of potassium found in mica sheets could account for the high levels of potassium currently found in human cells.”

Read more at Sunday Mercury

Aug 18, 2010

The magic of mathematics: amaze your friends

Maths isn’t always deadly serious. To prove it, here’s a card trick to amaze your friends in the pub. It was invented by Arthur Benjamin, a mathematician and magician at Harvey Mudd College in California.

Take a pack of cards and deals the top 16 face down in four rows of four. Turn four of these cards face up. Call for a volunteer from the audience, who will repeatedly ‘fold up’ the square of cards, like folding a sheet of stamps along the perforations, until it ends up as a single pile of 16 cards.

The audience will decide where the folds occur. For instance, the first fold can be along any of the three horizontal lines between the cards, or the three vertical lines.

When the cards have been folded into one pile, the volunteer spreads them out on the table. Either 12 cards are face down and 4 face up, or 4 cards are face down and 12 face up. In the first case, the face-up cards miraculously turn out to be the four aces. In the second case, the volunteer takes the four face-down cards, and turnsthem over to reveal... the four aces.


To prepare the pack, the magician arranges the four aces in positions 1, 6, 11, and 16 from the top down. After dealing out the four rows of cards, the aces lie along the diagonal from top left to bottom right. But they’re face down, so the audience doesn’t see that. He also has to turn over the right four cards, to make the squarelook like this:

The trick then works automatically, no matter which sequence of folds the audience chooses. Magic again!

Why does the trick work?

Imagine turning the cards along the diagonal the other way up. Then the square has a pattern like a chessboard, and the aces run along the diagonal:

However you fold the square, the cards that end up in a given position will all face the same way: either all up or all down. For instance, suppose you fold along the central vertical line, and think of the top row. The third card (up) turns over (down) and is placed on top of the second card --- also down. And the fourth card (down)turns over (up), and is placed on top of the first card --- also up.

Now you have a rectangle, made from cards or small piles of cards, and it has the same chessboard pattern of ups and downs. So the same thing happens for the next fold, and the next... By the time you reach a single pile, all of the cards in the pile face the same way.

However, when you started, the cards on the diagonal were the wrong way up compared to the chessboard pattern. After folding, they will again be the wrong way up. So instead of a pile of 16 cards all facing the same way, you will have a pile with 12 cards facing one way, and the four aces facing the other.

Mathematically, the chessboard pattern has ‘colour symmetry’. The fold lines act like mirrors, and the mirror-image of each card sits on top of a card that faces the other way. This idea is used to study how the atoms in crystals are arranged. The cunning bit is to turn the maths into an effective card trick.

Taken from The telegraph

Muscles Remember Past Glory

Pumping up is easier for people who have been buff before, and now scientists think they know why — muscles retain a memory of their former fitness even as they wither from lack of use.

That memory is stored as DNA-containing nuclei, which proliferate when a muscle is exercised. Contrary to previous thinking, those nuclei aren’t lost when muscles atrophy, researchers report online August 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The extra nuclei form a type of muscle memory that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when retrained.

The findings suggest that exercise early in life could help fend off frailness in the elderly, and also raise questions about how long doping athletes should be banned from competition, says study leader Kristian Gundersen, a physiologist at the University of Oslo in Norway.

Muscle cells are huge, Gundersen says. And because the cells are so big, more than one nucleus is needed to supply the DNA templates for making large amounts of the proteins that give muscle its strength. Previous research has demonstrated that with exercise, muscle cells get even bigger by merging with stem cells called satellite cells, which are nestled between muscle fiber cells. Researchers had previously thought that when muscles atrophy, the extra nuclei are killed by a cell death program called apoptosis.

Read more at Wired

Aug 17, 2010

Drug firms hiding negative research are unfit to experiment on people

“This week the drug company AstraZeneca paid out £125m to settle a class action. More than 17,500 patients claim the company withheld information showing that schizophrenia drug quetiapine (tradename Seroquel) can cause diabetes. So why do companies pay out money before cases get to court?

An interesting feature of litigation is that various documents enter the public domain. This is how we know about the tobacco industry’s evil plans to target children, the fake academic journal that Elsevier created for Merck’s marketing department, and so on.

One of the most revealing documents ever to come out of a drug company emerged from an earlier quetiapine case: an email from John Tumas, publications manager at AstraZeneca. In it, he helpfully admits that they do everything I say drug companies do.

“Please allow me to join the fray,” Tumas begins, in response to a colleague. “There has been a precedent set regarding ‘cherry picking’ of data.” Cherry picking is where you report only flattering data, and ignore or bury data you don’t like. The ears of lawyers prick up at any use of the word “bury” in relation to drug company data, as it implies something deliberate, and luckily John uses this word himself. The precedent, he explains, is “the recent … presentations of cognitive function data from trial 15 (one of the buried trials)”.

In trial 15, commissioned by AstraZeneca, patients with schizophrenia who were in remission were randomly assigned to receive either AstraZeneca’s quetiapine, or a cheap, old-fashioned drug called haloperidol. After a year, the patients on Seroquel were doing worse: they had more relapses and worse ratings on various symptom scales. These negative findings were left unpublished: to use Tumas’s word, they were “buried”.

But in among all these important negative findings, on a few measures of “cognitive functioning” – an attention task, a verbal memory test – Seroquel did better. This finding alone was published in a research paper in 2002. AstraZeneca kept quiet about the fact that patients on Seroquel had worse outcomes for schizophrenia. The research paper went on to become a highly influential piece of work, cited by more than 100 academic research papers. Many researchers can only dream of publishing such a well cited piece of work.

Trial 15 also found that patients on Seroquel gained, on average, 5kg in weight over a year. This put them at increased risk of diabetes, which is what AstraZeneca is now paying to settle on (and in any case, a 5kg weight gain is a serious side-effect in itself).”

Read more at The Guardian

Aug 16, 2010

Amusing Mirror Prank

“Replace the mirror in a bathroom with a window pane, place a set of identical twins in identical rooms opposite each other and proceed to prank everyone who walks in. Theyve all become a vampires!”

EMBED-Hilarious Prank - Watch more free videos

Via Break

New gel could speed wound healing

“For three years, Connie McPherson had debilitating leg ulcers that were so painful she sometimes couldn’t sleep. Despite repeated surgery, antibiotics, steroids and other treatments, nothing helped. Then last year, she took part in a trial for a new gel aimed at chronic wounds. “It was the answer to my prayers,” said McPherson, 58, a real estate agent in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Within weeks, McPherson said the ulcer treated was completely healed. “I tried everything possible and this is the only thing that worked.”

The gel used to treat McPherson was developed by a team led by David Becker, a professor of cell and developmental biology at University College London. The gel, named Nexagon, works by interrupting how cells communicate and prevents the production of a protein that blocks healing. That allows cells to move faster to the wound to begin healing it. Though it has only been tested on about 100 people so far, experts say if it proves successful, the gel could have a major impact on treating chronic wounds, like leg or diabetes ulcers, and even common scrapes or injuries from accidents.

In most chronic wounds, Becker said there is an abnormal amount of a protein involved in inflammation. To reduce its amount, Becker and colleagues made Nexagon from bits of DNA that can block the protein’s production. “As that protein is turned off, cells move in to close the wound,” Becker said. The gel is clear and has the consistency of toothpaste.”

Read more at MSNBC

Broken Wand, JC Wagner dead

I am very sad to report the passing of legendary restaurant and bar magician JC Wagner. From the Facebook page of one of his friends and contemporaries, "JC Wagner just passed away. 7:11 Pacific. Private burial at sea. Memorial to be planned by Magi. He was at peace until the very end and amidst family. Good bye old friend. You will be missed." His website was just updated as well to list his current location as: From his own website listing his current location: "Puttin a Card under St Peter's glass & even HE didn't catch it!" What a great epitaph!

Read more at The Magic Newswire

Aug 15, 2010

Happy people are ‘more creative’

Outgoing people in a good mood are significantly more creative than people who keep themselves to themselves, according to a new study. University of Portsmouth psychologist Lorenzo Stafford discovered that extrovert people in a good mood are the most creative thinkers because they have more of the “happiness chemical” dopamine. Introverts are no more creative whether they are in a good or neutral mood, the study found.

Dr Stafford said his results showed personality and mood play a vital role in creativity. Extroverts are likely to be more successful because a higher than average level of the chemical floods the brain at even higher doses when a person is in a good mood, according to Dr Stafford. “The more outgoing a person is, the more active their dopamine system is and a positive mood increases dopamine activity even further in many parts of the brain,” he explained. “It’s effectively a combination of these two things I would suggest leads to greater activity in certain areas of the brain controlling mental ability. “This is interesting in itself because it demonstrates that it is the combination of the extrovert personality-type in a positive mood which encourages more creative performance, and not simply positive mood alone.”

Dopamine occurs naturally in the brain and affects a range of behaviour including mood, sleep, reward, learning and movement.

Read more at Sunday Mercury