Oct 30, 2010

Miniature human livers grown in laboratory

The research raises the prospect of growing livers that can be transplanted into patients or used to test the safety of experimental drugs.
The US scientists created the walnut sized organs by sowing seeds of human cells onto scaffolds derived from animal livers.

The original cells were then replaced with immature human liver cells before being fed nutrients and oxygen in a bioreactor.

The researchers said that after a week in the laboratory bioreactor, the livers seemed to be growing and functioning like a normal human organ.

Dr Pedro Baptista, from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said: "Our hope is that once these organs are transplanted, they will maintain and gain function as they continue to develop."

The new research was presented on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston.

The scientists explained how they first stripped the cells away from ferret livers using a mild detergent, leaving only the collagen support structure.

This scaffold, which provided shape and structure for the new livers, were then "seeded" with human liver cells that were introduced using the blood vessel network that remains intact after the decellularisation process.

It could take five or more years for the technology to find its way from the laboratory into hospitals.
The next step, explained the researchers, is to see if the organs will continue to function after they have been transplanted into animals. Only then will it be possible even to consider their use in humans.

Project director Professor Shay Soker, from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, said: "We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we're at an early stage.

"There are many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients.

"Not only must we learn how to grow billions of liver cells at one time in order to engineer livers large enough for patients, but we must determine whether these organs are safe to use in patients."

Read more at The Telegraph

Zimbabwe's blind cricket commentator

When the ball hits the bat, the radio announcer exclaims that it's sailing far. Dean Du Plessis' acute sense of hearing and his eavesdropping on other commentators helps him overcome the fact that he is blind, producing a delivery so polished that most listeners are unaware that he can't see.
Mr Du Plessis hears the power and direction of the hit. He listens to the speed and spin of the ball, along with the players' exertions and their cries of elation or frustration. He senses the excitement – or otherwise – of the play on the cricket field and collates the scores with a computer-like memory.

In the media area at Harare's Country Club sports field, other journalists see the ball soar skyward after a sharp crack on the bat.

"That's a big one. It's gone for six," said the 33-year-old Mr Du Plessis, his opaque eyes gazing into the distance.

It has, flying way out of the field.

Team members and spectators murmur applause as the often sedate game of cricket goes on. In a fast-moving sport like football, Mr De Plessis' feat would likely be impossible. He asks a friend to confirm the score on the board and feeds the latest to state radio.

Read more at The Telegraph

Oct 29, 2010

Everest Summit Wired Up With Internet

Climbers at the top of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, will now be able to make video calls and surf the Internet on their mobile phones, a Nepalese telecom group claims.

Ncell, a subsidiary of Swedish phone giant TeliaSonera, says it has set up a high-speed third-generation (3G) phone base station at an altitude of 5,200 meters (17,000 feet) near Gorakshep village in the Everest region.
"Today we made the (world's) highest video call from Mount Everest base camp successfully," Ncell Nepal chief Pasi Koistinen told reporters in Kathmandu on Thursday.

"The coverage of the network will reach up to the peak of the Everest," he added.

Climbers who reached Everest's 8,848-meter peak previously depended on expensive and erratic satellite phone coverage and a voice-only network set up by China Mobile in 2007 on the Chinese side of the mountain.

The installation will also help tens of thousands of tourists and trekkers who visit the Everest region every year.

"This is a great milestone for mobile communications as the 3G high speed Internet will bring faster, more affordable telecommunication services from the world?s tallest mountain," said Lars Nyberg, chief executive of TeliaSonera, which owns 80 percent of Ncell.

The 3G services will be fast enough to make video calls and use the Internet, said the company, which also claims the world's lowest 3G base at 1,400 meters (4,595 feet) below sea level in a mine in Europe.

A total of eight base stations, four of which will run on solar power, have been installed in the Everest region with the lowest at 2,870 meters (9,400 feet) at Lukla, where the airport for the area is situated.

Company engineers braved low temperatures and winds to set up the infrastructure.

Mountaineers hailed the launch as ambitious and helpful.

Read more at Discovery News

Halloween: A (Cartoon) History

Ever wonder where Halloween comes from? Was it created in the 1950s by marketing companies to sell candy and costumes, or does it have a much older and darker past? Get the answer below.

The Freakiest Places in the Solar System

Stinkiest Place
The Jovian moon Io is fascinating from a planetary science perspective--it's the most volcanically active place in our solar system, and its surface is pockmarked with volcanic craters. But it wouldn't be much fun to visit. Baker and Ratcliff write that "Jupiter's moon Io smells like a jumbo rotten egg." The stink is due to hydrogen sulfide on Io's surface and in its upper atmosphere, and the moon owes its distinctive yellow and red coloration to sulfur compounds.

Volcanic eruptions are quite common on Io, and they constantly refresh the atmosphere's supply of sulfur gas. The moon is highly active because it travels around Jupiter in a slightly elliptical orbit. As the moon repeatedly dances closer to and farther from the giant planet, Jupiter's gravity produces tidal flexing in the moon's interior that heats its mantle and causes violent explosions. In 2007 NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by Io and observed a volcanic eruption with sulfur plumes that stretched 180 miles above the surface. The largest volcanic eruptions on Earth reach about 12 miles high.

Read more and see the gallery at Discover

Humans Crafted Complex Tools Earlier Than Thought

Prehistoric people in southern Africa developed a highly skilled way of shaping stones into sharp-edged tools long before Europeans did, suggested a study released Thursday.

A technique known as pressure-flaking, which scientists previously thought was invented in Europe some 20,000 years ago, involves using an animal bone or some other object to exert pressure near the edge of a stone piece and precisely carve out a small flake.

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder examined stone tools dating from the Middle Stone Age, some 75,000 years ago, from Blombos Cave in what is now South Africa.

The team found that the tools had been made by pressure flaking, whereby a toolmaker would typically first strike a stone with hammer-like tools to give the piece its initial shape, and then refine the blade's edges and shape its tip.

The technique provides a better means of controlling the sharpness, thickness and overall shape of two-sided tools like spearheads and stone knives, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and a co-author of the study published in the journal Science.

"Using the pressure flaking technique required strong hands and allowed toolmakers to exert a high degree of control on the final shape and thinness that cannot be achieved by percussion," Villa said. "This control helped to produce narrower and sharper tool tips."

To arrive at their conclusion that prehistoric Africans could have been the first to use pressure flaking to make tools, the researchers compared stone points, believed to be spearheads, made of silcrete -- quartz grains cemented by silica -- from Blombos Cave, and compared them to points that they made themselves by heating and pressure-flaking silcrete collected at the same site.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 28, 2010

Cyborg monkeys can control robotic arms – we’re next

For DARPA, the secretive military research agency, it’s not enough for a prosthetic limb to simply resemble a normal one, or for a patient to be able to move it through some remote control. DARPA-backed engineers are attempting to build a system in which peripheral nerves would be reattached to artificial limbs, which could send signals to a brain sensor that could reply.

This would be a vast improvement over prosthetics that require conscious directives, and could turn a prosthetic into something that responds the way an ordinary limb would.

According to the team behind the system at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, tests on monkeys have shown that the primates have remarkable success controlling a prosthesis through a cortical chip implanted in their brains, and researchers have undertaken some human tests. What remains to be seen, though, is how much dexterity people can get through this process.

Read more at Discover

Amazon jungle reveals new species at a rate of 1 every 3 days

Spectacular species previously unknown to the outside world are being discovered in the Amazon rainforest at a rate of one every three days, environment group WWF said in a report published Tuesday.

An anaconda as long as a limousine, a giant catfish that eats monkeys, a blue fanged spider and poisoned dart frogs are among the 1,220 animals and plants to have been found from 1999 to 2009, according to the study.
“It serves as a reminder of how much we still have to learn about this unique region, and what we could lose if we don’t change the way we think about development,” Ruiz said.

One of the most amazing discoveries was a four-metre (13-foot) anaconda in the flood plains of Bolivia’s Pando province in 2002.

At least 500 spiders were also discovered, including one that was completely brown except for a pair of almost fluorescent blue fangs. Thirty-nine new mammals were also found, including a pink river dolphin, seven types of monkey and two porcupines.

Among the 637 new plant species discovered were sunflowers, ivy, lilies, a variety of pineapple and a custard apple. The Amazon is home to at least 40,000 plant species, and the WWF described the scale of diversity in some areas as “mind boggling”.

The WWF said the protection efforts, in which foreign governments and organisations provide some of the finance to help run the projects, should serve as a model for the world in how to save rainforests.

Click here to see gallery and read more – Yahoo

Oct 27, 2010

Mind control over computers becomes a reality

The device has enabled people to move a cursor around a screen and also fade and brighten images using just their brain.
The instructions are enough to play a simple computer game and could eventually allow brain damaged individuals to communicate with the outside world.

The team at the University of California and California Institute of Technology recruited 12 epilepsy patients who because of their illness had sensors embedded into their brain to monitor nerve activity.

They then set about training the volunteers to "exert conscious control" on individual nerve endings or neurons within the brain so that they could be switched on and off using just their thoughts.

By picking up these "thoughts" using the sensors they could be converted into commands for a computer screen.

Professor Christof Koch, of the California Institute of Technology, said that the study showed "individuals can rapidly, consciously, and voluntarily control neurons deep inside their head."

The team, that included Moran Cerf, a PHD student, looked at the medial temporal lobe—a region on the left hand side of the brain that plays a major role in human memory and emotion.

Prior to recording the activity, the volunteers were interviewed to find their interests and 100 images created around them.

These were then tested to find the four that showed the strongest correlation response in the brain.
These could then be used to control the movement of a cursor or to fade in and out different images.

Read more at The Telegraph

Asian Neanderthals, Humans Mated

Early modern humans mated with Neanderthals and possibly other archaic hominid species from Asia at least 100,000 years ago, according to a new study that describes human remains from that period in South China.

The remains are the oldest modern human fossils in East Asia and predate, by over 60,000 years, the oldest previously known modern human remains in the region.

The fossils -- a chin and related teeth -- belonged to a modern human that also featured more robust Neanderthal-type characteristics, indicates the study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-author Erik Trinkaus, who is one of the world's leading experts on Neanderthals, told Discovery News that the new findings mean "there was mating between these 'archaic' and 'modern' groups across Asia, and not just in Europe and the remainder of Africa."

"Of more interest than who had sex with whom is the fact that modern humans had spread across southern Eurasia by 100,000 years ago, and yet archaic humans remained across the more northern areas, and even displaced the modern humans in Southwest Asia for an additional 50,000-70,000 years," added Trinkaus, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. "It argues for very little adaptive advantage on the part of these modern humans."

Read more at Discovery News

Monkey Fossils Suggest Primates Came Out of Asia, Not Africa

The discovery of four ancient, lemur-like creatures in what is now Libya suggests the human family tree’s taproot is in the Middle East, not Africa.

The conventional narrative of primate development places the origins of anthropoids — monkeys and apes, including humans — in Africa. Some paleontologists, however, think Asia is the more likely cradle for that ur-primate, or what Christopher Beard has called the “Dawn Monkey.”

Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is among the co-authors of the paper describing the new primates, published October 28 in Nature. The four species’ fossils, representing three distinct taxonomic families, are 40 million years old. Nothing similar was known to have lived in Africa at that time.

The diversity and timing of the new anthropoids raises two scenarios. Anthropoids might simply have emerged in Africa much earlier than thought, and gone undiscovered by modern paleontologists. Or they could have crossed over from Asia, where evidence suggests that anthropoids lived 55 million years ago, flourishing and diversifying in the wide-open ecological niches of an anthropoid-free Africa.

That humans may trace their evolutionary lineage to creatures like the newly-discovered anthropoids, which likely weighed between four ounces and one pound and could sit in the palm of your hand, is an intriguing possibility. But other paleontologists warn that more investigation is required.
Read more at Wired

Oct 26, 2010

Why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates

“You don’t have to look very far for examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that vaccines cause autism, that all life was created a few thousand years ago, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

That might be depressing, but it’s not unexpected. In a new study, David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even

Gal and Rucker were inspired by a classic psychological book called When Prophecy Fails. In it, Leon Festinger and colleagues infiltrated an American cult whose leader, Dorothy Martin, convinced her followers that flying saucers would rescue them from an apocalyptic flood. Many believed her, giving up their livelihoods, possessions and loved ones in anticipation of their alien saviours. When the fated moment came and nothing happened, the group decided that their dedication had spared the Earth from destruction. In a reversal of their earlier distaste for publicity, they started to actively proselytise for their beliefs. Far from shattering their faith, the absent UFOs had turned them into zealous evangelists.

The case study inspired Festinger’s theory of “cognitive dissonance”, which describes the discomfort that people feel when they try to cope with conflicting ideas. Festinger reasoned that people will go to great lengths to reduce this conflict. Altering one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence is one solution but for Martin’s followers, this was too difficult. Their alternative was to try and muster social support for their ideas. If other people also believed, their internal conflicts would lessen.”

Read more at Discover

Silence of the dissenters: How south-east Asia keeps web users in line

“Governments across south-east Asia are following China’s authoritarian censorship of the digital world to keep political dissent in check, the Guardian can reveal.

Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have all moved or are moving towards monitoring internet use, blocking international sites regarded as critical and ruthlessly silencing web dissidents.

• In Vietnam, the Communist party wants to be your “friend” on the state-run version of Facebook, provided you are willing to share all personal details.

• In Burma, political unrest can be silenced by cutting off the country from the internet.

• In Thailand, website moderators can face decades in jail for a posted comment they did not even write, if the government deems it injurious to the monarchy.

While much is made of China’s authoritarian attitude towards internet access, a majority of south-east Asian governments have similar controls and, rather than relaxing restrictions on internet use, many are moving towards tighter regulation.

The Guardian has spoken to five leading bloggers across the region about the present restrictions they face and future fears.”

Read more at The Guardian

Moon Not Only Has Water, but Lots of It

“There is a lot more water on the moon than previously believed, according to an analysis of NASA data being published Friday, a finding that may bolster the case for a manned base on the lunar surface.

The discovery grew out of an audacious experiment last year, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration slammed a spent-fuel rocket into a lunar crater at 5,600 miles an hour, and then used a pair of orbiting satellites to analyze the debris thrown off by the impact. They discovered that the crater contained water in the form of ice, plus a host of other resources, including hydrogen, ammonia, methane, mercury, sodium and silver.

NASA announced its groundbreaking discovery of lunar water last November. Now, a more detailed analysis of the data—the subject of six research papers being published in the journal Science—concludes that there is a lot more water on the moon than anyone expected, about twice the concentrations seen in the Sahara Desert.

“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.

The presence of water doesn’t make it more likely that there ever was life on the moon, as the location studied is among the coldest in the solar system. But the large quantity boosts the case for a manned lunar base from which to launch other interplanetary adventures. Water is crucial because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key ingredients for rocket fuel. Oxygen can also be extracted from water to make breathable air.

Finding a water source on the moon has long been a dream, because it could save on the expense of transporting it from earth. A bottle of water on the moon would run about $50,000, according to NASA, because that is what it costs, per pound, to launch anything to earth’s nearest neighbor.”

Read more at The Wall Street Journal

Oct 25, 2010

100-million-year-old mistake provides snapshot of evolution

“Research by University of Leeds plant scientists has uncovered a snapshot of evolution in progress, by tracing how a gene mutation over 100 million years ago led flowers to make male and female parts in different ways.

The findings – published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition – provide a perfect example of how diversity stems from such genetic ‘mistakes’. The research also opens the door to further investigation into how plants make flowers – the origins of the seeds and fruits that we eat.

In a number of plants, the gene involved in making male and female organs has duplicated to create two, very similar, copies. In rockcress (Arabidopsis), one copy still makes male and female parts, but the other copy has taken on a completely new role: it makes seed pods shatter open. In snapdragons (Antirrhinum), both genes are still linked to sex organs, but one copy makes mainly female parts, while still retaining a small role in male organs – but the other copy can only make male.

“Snapdragons are on the cusp of splitting the job of making male and female organs between these two genes, a key moment in the evolutionary process,” says lead researcher Professor of Plant Development, Brendan Davies, from Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences. “More genes with different roles gives an organism added complexity and opens the door to diversification and the creation of new species.”

By tracing back through the evolutionary ‘tree’ for flowering plants, the researchers calculate the gene duplication took place around 120 million years ago. But the mutation which separates how snapdragons and rock cress use this extra gene happened around 20 million years later.”"

Read more at Physorg

New industrial application for revolutionary forensic metal fingerprinting technique

“Groundbreaking research into fingerprint detection developed at the University of Leicester now has an industrial application, thanks to a new invention by the scientist who developed the technique.

Dr John Bond’s method of identifying fingerprints on brass bullet-casings, even after they have been wiped clean, was based on the minuscule amounts of corrosion which can be caused by sweat. First announced in 2008, this breakthrough was cited as one of the technologies ‘most likely to change the world’ by a panel of experts for BBC Focus magazine and was included in Time magazine’s list of ’50 best inventions of the year’.

Now, working with scientists in the University of Leicester Department of Chemistry, Dr Bond has applied the same technique to industry by developing a simple, handheld device which can measure corrosion on machine parts. Corrosion leads to wear and tear and needs to be carefully monitored so that worn parts are replaced at the appropriate time so this invention should prove a boon to the manufacturing sector.

“This is a new, quick, cheap and easy way of measuring the extent of corrosion on copper and copper based alloys, such as brass,” explains Dr Bond, who is an Honorary Research Fellow in the University’s Forensic Research Centre and Scientific Support Manager at Northamptonshire Police.

“It works by exploiting the discovery we made during the fingerprint research – that the corrosion on brass forms something called a ‘Schottky barrier’ – and we use this to see how much the metal has corroded.
“Such measurements can already be made but this is quick, cheap and easy and can be performed ‘in the field’ as it works off a nine-volt battery.”"

Read more at Lab Spaces

Time Dilation – a short introduction

Take your brain for a run with this one.

Via Science & Reason.

Oct 24, 2010

Political correctness ends 'Vice Squad' name

What would Gene Hunt say?
Scotland Yard's famous Vice Squad, which deals with prostitution and other aspects of London's underworld, has changed its title to the rather less dynamic "Serious Crime Directorate 9: Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Command", or SCD9 for short.

The explanation is one that would draw a robust response from DCI Hunt, the old-school detective from BBC One's Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

Metropolitan Police sources said the switch had been ordered in part because the word "vice" was thought to have negative "connotations".

It reflects a growing trend by law enforcement agencies to treat prostitutes as victims rather than as offenders.
Over the decades the Vice Squad have led some of Met's most celebrated cases. Its detectives had dealings with Ronnie and Reggie Kray when the gangster twins moved into running nightclubs in the 1960s.

The Profumo affair, which threatened to topple Harold Macmillan's Conservative government, also involved officers from Vice.

After Christine Keeler, the London call girl, was exposed as having had affairs with both John Profumo, the war secretary, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet attache, her friend Stephen Ward was charged by police with living off immoral earnings.

It was the Vice Squad that led the prosecution of Cynthia Payne, the "Luncheon Voucher Madam", whose south London brothel catering for older men was raided in 1978.

She was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, and her life inspired the 1987 feature film Personal Services, starring Julie Walters.

Alan Moss, a police historian and former Met chief superintendent, said: "The jargon of modern policing, with all the numbers and letters, is confusing for the public and probably for people in the police as well.
"I think the names of different squads should bear the name of what they do, and the crime they are trying to combat."

Read more at The Telegraph