Apr 9, 2011

New engine sends shock waves through auto industry

MSNBC: Despite shifting into higher gear within the consumer’s green conscience, hybrid vehicles are still tethered to the gas pump via a fuel-thirsty 100-year-old invention: the internal combustion engine.

However, researchers at Michigan State University have built a prototype gasoline engine that requires no transmission, crankshaft, pistons, valves, fuel compression, cooling systems or fluids. Their so-called Wave Disk Generator could greatly improve the efficiency of gas-electric hybrid automobiles and potentially decrease auto emissions up to 90 percent when compared with conventional combustion engines.

The engine has a rotor that’s equipped with wave-like channels that trap and mix oxygen and fuel as the rotor spins. These central inlets are blocked off, building pressure within the chamber, causing a shock wave that ignites the compressed air and fuel to transmit energy.

Full Story at MSNBC

Tim Minchin’s Storm the Animated Movie

Official animated movie of Tim Minchin’s 9-minute beat poem Storm. Written and performed by Tim Minchin. Directed and animated by DC Turner. Produced by Tracy King. www.stormmovie.net

Apr 8, 2011

Shark Teeth Found Stuck in Ancient Ammonite Shell

A shelled fossil discovered in an amateur’s collection may harbor the first direct evidence of prehistoric sharks eating ammonites some 150 million years ago.

The palm-sized ammonite, an extinct marine animal and distant relative of the modern nautilus, was fossilized with three shark teeth stuck in its shell, plus holes from the bite. Shark bite marks have been found in other fossils, such as crocodile poop, but with tough-shelled ammonites, paleontologists couldn’t pinpoint sharks and rule out other fishes or marine reptiles.

It’s not often one knows with extreme certainty what 150-million-year-old predators actually ate.

“For the first time we have a direct link between the predator and prey. We can even give a name to the predator, which is a hybodont shark called Planohybodus,” said paleontologist Romain Vullo of Universit√© de Rennes and author of the study published March 31 in Naturwissenschaften.

Hybodont sharks, also named hump-toothed sharks, grew to nearly 7 feet long and roamed ancient oceans for about 200 million years before vanishing with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Ammonites floated in the oceans at the same time, growing anywhere from a couple of inches to 10 feet wide. Soft tissue inside their shells was an attractive food source to many creatures.

Some species of hybodont sharks had flat teeth able to crush ammonites and other shelled creatures, but most species were thought to dine exclusively on fish.

“Before this discovery, we thought Planohybodus ate only fish because of its sharp teeth. They seemed better-suited for that kind of predation,” Vullo said. “This specimen shows it probably had a much larger range of prey, including ammonites.”

After reading reports of shark-like bite marks in ammonite fossils, Vullo remembered seeing the fossil in an acquaintance’s collection and asked to study it. He was able to match the teeth — one still embedded, two removed by the collector — to Planohybodus.

Vullo thinks such sharp teeth maimed ammonites by poking holes in their shells’ air chambers, which the creatures used for stabilization and steering. Once an ammonite lost control, a shark could conveniently crush it.

Read more at Wired Science

How the Civil War Changed Modern Medicine

The American Civil War often gets credit for ending slavery and reshaping the federal government in this country. But the War Between the States has another, often overlooked legacy: It may have started a new era in modern medicine.

As soldiers fell in unprecedented numbers from both injuries and disease, anesthesia became a specialty. The fields of plastic and reconstructive surgery exploded. And doctors developed new ways to treat a surge in nerve injuries and chronic pain, marking the beginning of contemporary neurology.

At the same time, a visionary surgeon named Jonathan Letterman forever altered the flow of medical treatment from battlefield to hospital, said George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

Now, 150 years later, Letterman's basic principles continue to affect medical care in a wide range of situations, from bombings in Afghanistan to heart attacks in American grocery stores.

"Civil War medicine was every bit as barbaric as it's made out to be, and surgeons weren't washing their hands," Wunderlich said. "But it was a million times more modern than almost anyone thinks. And there are a lot of lessons we can still learn from today."

Medically, the United States was woefully prepared when the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, said Michael Rhode, an archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Nearly 80 years had passed since the end of the American Revolution, the country's last major war. And the new conflict was happening on a much bigger scale.

Scientists, meanwhile, had yet to come up with the theory that germs cause diseases. Doctors didn't know that they should wash their hands before amputating limbs. As soldiers from small towns came together in large groups, they became newly exposed to pathogens that their bodies had never encountered before. But there were no antibiotics and no antiseptics.

As a result, for every Civil War soldier that died of an injury or gunshot wound, more than two died from dysentery, diarrhea or other infectious diseases.

"They had no idea what was causing it," Rhode said. "The theory was something called miasmas, or bad airs. But no, it's not a miasma when a guy is wiping his surgical knives on a bootstrap with horse dung on it."

Medicine has come a long way since then. Injuries that resulted in amputations 150 years ago now lead to X-rays, the setting of bones, and a four- to six-week recovery period before returning to battle.

Over the course of the war, doctors learned some lessons that forever changed the way medical care happens, both on the battlefield and beyond.

There was, for example, a growing sense that cleanliness reduced fatalities. Doctors who treated soldiers made leaps in understanding about neurology and other fields, and specialists continued their lines of research even after the war ended.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 7, 2011

Atheism’s aesthetic of enchantment

THE GUARDIAN: “Two centuries on, it is timely to recall Shelley’s argument for the non-existence of God.

As an Oxford undergraduate in the early 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley developed an argument for the non-existence of God. He entitled it The Necessity of Atheism, and 2011 is the bicentenary of his being expelled from the university for printing it.

The argument itself is simple. If you have seen or heard God, then you must believe in God. If you haven’t, then the only possible reasons to believe in God are reasonable argument or the testimony of others. The main argument given for believing in a deity – that the universe must have had a first cause – is not persuasive because there is no reason to believe either that the universe must have had a first cause or that this cause, if it existed, was a deity. The testimony of others – a third-rate source of knowledge in any case – is invariably contrary to reason. This is not least because it reports God as commanding belief, which would be irrational of God, given that belief is involuntary and not an act of will. So there is no reason to believe in God.

It is not a particularly shocking argument these days, but remembering this Shelley anniversary is important for other reasons.

Atheists today are too often castigated as materialistic calculators whose lack of spirituality sucks their universe empty of all beauty. Remembering Shelley’s atheism gives us an opportunity to counter this stereotype and to reflect on the aesthetic of enchantment with which a non-theistic world-view can be associated. The works of Shelley join the novels, poems, songs, sculptures, paintings, architecture and plays of generations of godless artists in exposing the straw man of the desiccated rationalist for what it is, and showcasing a humanist vision of life.

More timely is a remembrance of the social and political consequences of Shelley’s argument. In The Necessity of Atheism he reminds us of the mistake that people make when they think that “belief is an act of volition, in consequence of which it may be regulated by the mind” and the way that “continuing this mistake they have attached a degree of criminality to disbelief of which in its nature it is incapable”. We cannot pillory someone for their disbelief – it is not an area in which choice operates.

Today in Britain, non-religious people are not thrown out of universities because they don’t believe in God, but in other parts of the world many suffer this fate – and worse. There are still places where it is illegal to declare yourself as non-religious on your identity papers or official records.”

Read more at The Guardian

Apr 6, 2011

Prehistoric Human Brain Found Pickled in Bog

A human skull dated to about 2,684 years ago with an "exceptionally preserved" human brain still inside of it was recently discovered in a waterlogged U.K. pit, according to a new Journal of Archaeological Science study.

The brain is the oldest known intact human brain from Europe and Asia, according to the authors, who also believe it's one of the best-preserved ancient brains in the world.

"The early Iron Age skull belonged to a man, probably in his thirties," lead author Sonia O'Connor told Discovery News. "Cause of death is rarely possible to determine in archaeological remains, but in this case, damage to the neck vertebrae is consistent with a hanging."

"The head was then carefully severed from the neck using a small blade, such as a knife," added O'Connor, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Bradford. "This was used to cut through the throat and between the vertebrae and has left a cluster of fine cut marks on the bone."

The brain-containing skull was found at Heslington, Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom. O'Connor and her team suspect the site served a ceremonial function that persisted from the Bronze Age through the early Roman period. Many pits at the site were marked with single stakes. The remains of the man were without a body, but the scientists also found the headless body of a red deer that had been deposited into a channel.

Laser imaging, chemical analysis and other examinations revealed that the brain naturally preserved over the millennia. The scientists found no evidence for bacterial or fungal activity, and described the tissue as being "odorless…with a resilient, tofu-like texture."

The condition of the brain is remarkable for its age.

"In the air, even in the chill of a hospital mortuary, brain tissue very quickly decays to liquid before muscle and other soft tissues show much evidence of decay," O'Connor said.

She and her colleagues suggest that a fortuitous series of events -- for the brain and science, not the victim -- led to the organ's preservation. Shortly after the man was killed, his head must have been placed, or fallen into, the waterlogged pit that was free of oxygen. While other soft human body parts may not preserve well under such conditions, the wet environment appears to be perfect for keeping brains "fresh," "due to the very different chemistry of brain tissue," O'Connor said.

The researchers don't think the violent way the man was killed aided his brain's preservation. While severing his head separated it from the rest of his body, including the bacteria-filled gut, the decapitation "would also have produced a gaping wound that would have been open to immediate infection from micro-organisms involved in putrefaction." The quick burial in conditions not suited for microbial activity likely prevented that from happening.

In addition to describing this unusually well preserved brain, the journal paper provides the first in-depth study of other prehistoric human brains and soft human tissues discovered by scientists. They include the body of the 5,000-year-old Tyrolean "Ice Man," the Inca mummies of the high Andes, the tanned bog bodies from across Northern and Western Europe, good condition bodies sealed in lead coffins -- such as the St. Bees man, and crypt burials at places like Spitalfields Church, London, where bodies with surviving brain tissue were found.

Read more at Discovery News

Swedish couple have honeymoon from hell

Stefan and Erika Svanström left Stockholm, Sweden, on December 6 and were immediately stranded in Munich, Germany, due to one of Europe's worst snowstorms.

Travelling with their baby daughter, they flew on to Cairns in Australia which was then struck by one of the most ferocious cyclones in the nation's history.

From there, the couple, in their 20s, were forced to shelter for 24 hours on the cement floor of a shopping centre with 2500 others.

"Trees were being knocked over and big branches were scattered across the streets," Mr Svanstrom told Sweden's Expressen newspaper. "We escaped by the skin of our teeth."

They then headed south to Brisbane but the city was experiencing massive flooding, so they crossed the country to Perth where they narrowly escaped raging bush fires.

The couple then flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, arriving just after a massive magnitude 6.3 earthquake devastated the city on February 22.

Mrs Svanstrom said: "When we got there the whole town was a war zone.

"We could not visit the city since it was completely blocked off, so instead we travelled around before going to Japan."

But days after the Svanstroms arrived, Tokyo was rocked by Japan's largest earthquake since records began.

"The trembling was horrible and we saw roof tiles fly off the buildings," Mr Svantrom said. "It was like the buildings were swaying back and forth."

The family returned to Stockholm on March 29 after a much calmer visit to their last destination China.

But Mr Svanstrom – who also survived the devastating Boxing Day tsunami that hit southeast Asia in 2004 – said the marriage was still going strong.

He added: "I know marriages have to endure some trials, but I think we have been through most of them.

Read more at The Telegraph

Scientists grow 'embryonic eye' in test tube

Researchers were amazed when stem cells in a test tube spontaneously organised themselves into a complex structure that resembles the developing embryonic eye.

The surprising development could lead eventually to whole retinas being cultured and then transplanted, restoring sight in the blind and visually impaired.

The team from the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan, first cultivated embryonic stem cells in a test tube and then added proteins to trigger them into developing.

They hoped that they would form a recognisable organ but were still stunned when over 10 days they clustered together and began to grow the "optical cup" of a retina.

Tests showed that the cells were functioning normally and were capable of communicating with each other.

The research was done on mouse eyes, but there is no reason why a similar technique would not work on humans, said the experts.

They hope that within 10 years to be able to start clinical trials on retina implants.

"This is an absolutely stunning achievement," said Professor Robin Ali, an ophthalmologist at University College London.

"It is a landmark not just for the retina but for regenerative medicine as a whole."

More than a million people in Britain suffer from vision problems caused by a damaged or malfunctioning retinas.

The retina is the "business end" of the eye, where nerve cells convert light into electrical and chemical signals that are sent to the brain down the optic nerve.

If it is not working then the eye is useless.

Professor Yoshiki Sasai, lead author said: "What we've been able to do in this study is resolve a nearly century-old problem in embryology, by showing that retinal precursors have the inherent ability to give rise to the complex structure of the optic cup."

Read more at The Telegraph

Apr 5, 2011

Modified Marijuana Chemical Blocks Pain Without Buzz

Marijuana contains a complex mix of chemicals, some with medicinal effects, others with an effect that, well, have led it to be classified as a controlled substance. The cannabinoid THC, the primary active ingredient, seems to do both. It’s responsible for many of the psychoactive qualities of marijuana, but is also a potent analgesic, blocking a variety of pain. A study that was released over the weekend, however, indicates that some of its painkilling effects are mediated via a receptor that wasn’t previously known to interact with the cannabinoids. In the process of characterizing this new receptor, the authors find a chemical that blocks pain, but has no apparent psychoactive effects.

The study was prompted by a rather odd finding. THC, as a prototypical cannabinoid, binds the (wait for it…) cannabinoid receptor in order to trigger most of its effects. But it’s possible to breed mice that lack genes for one of the cannabinoid receptors, and these mice still respond to THC doses with a reduction in pain, at least based on one assay. (The “tail flick response” test, in which the tails of the mice are hit with some focused heat, and the time it takes them to respond by moving their tails.)

A few reports had suggested that the receptors for glycine, a small amino acid that also acts as a neurotransmitter, might be involved in the response to cannabinoids. The authors provide some pretty definitive looking evidence that this is the case. Neurons that express the glycine receptor were give small bursts of glycine to trigger activity. As more THC was added to the cells, the response to the glycine increased in magnitude.

Using structural information, the researchers identified a critical spot on the surface of the glycine receptor that interacted with THC, and showed that the interaction was mediated by a hydrogen bond between the receptor and THC. That led them to create a set of modified THCs that lacked potential hydrogen-bonding sites. One of these (5-desoxy-THC) could still bind the glycine receptor, but had reduced affinity for its other targets, the cannabinoid receptors.

This difference in affinity let the authors test the role of the two different types of receptors. The 5-desoxy-THC continued to have an analgesic effect—meaning it blocked the pain response that triggers tail flicks—but it didn’t trigger the locomotion issues commonly associated with THC’s psychoactive effects. So, it appears that the authors have created a chemical that provides the painkilling of THC without some of the other effects of that chemical.

It turned out to be a bit more complicated than that, though. Other aspects of pain apparently do require the cannabinoid receptors, since the 5-desoxy-THC had no effect on how long mice would remain on top of a metal plate as it heated up. The hot plate response to pain appears to involve processing in the brain, while the tail flick is a reflex that’s handled entirely by the spinal cord, so the authors ascribe the difference in response to that.

Read more at Wired Science

Salamander Has Algae Living Inside Its Cells

In a symbiotic union more complete than any previously found in vertebrates, the common spotted salamander lives with algae inside its cells.

Such a degree of cross-species fusion was long thought to exist only among invertebrates, whose immune systems are not primed to destroy invaders. But algae live inside the salamanders from before birth, possibly passed down from parent to offspring.

“A large number of algae cells go inside the embryo. That was something we didn’t expect,” said Ryan Kerney, a Dalhousie University biologist.

That spotted salamanders and algae live in symbiosis was first noted in the 19th century, and in the 20th century researchers worked out the relationship’s mutual benefits. Salamander eggs provide a nitrogen-rich environment for algae to grow; algae oxygenate the embryos, which develop deformities without them.

But algae were believed to float outside the embryo itself, in the egg’s nutrient broth. It fell to Kerney to notice that algae’s distinctive green glow didn’t just emanate from eggs, but from inside embryos.

Those results were announced at a conference last summer, and are expanded in greater detail Apr. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new paper adds confirmations from electron microscopy and fluorescent markers that attach to algae, flashing inside embryos and proving that Kerney’s group saw what it suspected.

Algae invade spotted salamander embryos early in their development, when individuals are just beginning to take shape inside their eggs, as the brain folds up and tissue layers-to-be first organize themselves. As an embryo develops, algae suffuses its body, but most becomes concentrated along its gut and alimentary canal.

That suggests a possible role for algae in nutrient processing, though it’s an unresolved question, one of many. Another is how algae actually enter the embryo’s cells. Some unknown signal seems to trigger an algae bloom beside the embryo, but the precise moment and mechanism of invasion is a mystery.

Also unknown is whether algae drift in from water in pools where spotted salamanders lay their eggs, or are passed down from parents, though Kerney suspects both are involved

Still more questions surround whether other salamander-algae symbioses are so complete, whether different species of algae are involved, and whether such symbioses might be found in other amphibians.

“There are so many questions that remain,” said Kerney, and all in a species that’s been studied in great detail for decades, in the lab and the wild.

Spotted salamanders are found in eastern North America and spend most of their lives underground. (Kerney stresses that, contrary to some media reports on the symbiosis, spotted salamanders are not photosynthetic.) They’re relatively easy to find in spring, when after the first warm rains they crawl outside to find vernal pools and reproduce. Kerney often sees them while walking in the woods, and even in the wheel ruts of ATV tracks.

Read more at WiredScience

Pakistani brothers ‘dug up corpse and made it into curry’

GUARDIAN: Police in Pakistan have arrested two men for allegedly digging up a newly buried corpse and eating its flesh in a curry.

The two brothers are said to have cut the legs from the body of a 24-year-old woman and cooked the flesh in a steel pot. Some of the gruesome dish had already been eaten when police raided the brothers’ home in a remote part of Punjab province.

A senior police officer, Malik Abdul Rehman, told the Guardian the brothers had been eating corpses for at least a year, but some local media reports alleged that they had been human flesh eaters for a decade.

Rehman said that the brothers, Muhammad Arif, 40, and Farman Ali, 37, seemed to have taken up cannibalism as an act of “revenge” after their mother died and their wives left them.

“It became an addiction for them,” Rehman claimed. They boiled the flesh first, then cooked it in a curry, he said.

Full article at the Guardian

Apr 4, 2011

Mayfly Captured in Flight 300 Million Years Ago

Some 312 million years ago, a mayfly landed at the muddy edge of a puddle and then flew away. The mud of the tropical floodplain happened to be the perfect consistency to retain a detailed impression of the mayfly's body -- including details of its body segments and marks made by its claws.

The next flood covered the impression with silt, preserving it as it hardened into rock over subsequent millennia.

The mayfly fossil is now the oldest known full body impression of a flying insect, displacing the previous record-holder from 280-285 million years ago.

The fossil was discovered in 2008 when Tufts University undergraduate Richard Knecht was lost in a swamp in some woods behind a Massachusetts strip mall, searching for a rock formation believed to harbor fossils, according to a 1929 graduate thesis.

As he emerged from the swamp he came to a rock outcrop of the type he was looking for. "I grabbed a loose piece on the outer edge of it and it was already naturally split as rocks tend to do as they weather,'" said Knecht, who now works at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

"I opened it like a book and there were both halves (cast and mold) of the specimen.

Insects are soft-bodied animals and tend to break apart or curl in strange ways after death, so good quality fossils showing the bodies of insects are hard to come by. Wings are the most common parts paleontologists find. This makes these types of impressions especially important.

"Most fossil insects, when you look at them, you don't really have a lot of surface detail," said Conrad Labandeira, curator of paleoentomology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who was not a part of the study.

"This is a very valuable type of preservation," he continued. "You can actually see some of the movements of the appendages. This gives you some idea of the scope of movement of the legs… That gives you some information that we don't normally get from body fossils."

Evidence suggests the fossil represents the progenitor of modern mayflies, and pushes back the date for the emergence of this group of insects.

The specimen would have shared its then-tropical surroundings with other flying and non-flying insects, amphibians, proto-reptiles, and ancient plants including some resembling today's horsetails, said Jacob Benner of Tufts University, another team member along with Michael Engel of the University of Kansas.

Read more at Discovery News

‘Koran Burn Preacher’ To Protest At US Mosque

YAHOO NEWS: “A militant preacher in Florida whose Koran burning triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan has vowed to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in America.

The planned demonstration could further inflame tensions over the Koran burning, which led to two days of protests in Afghanistan that included the killings of UN staff and stoked anti-Western sentiment across the Muslim world.

“Our aim is to make an awareness of the radical element of Islam,” pastor Terry Jones said at the church he leads in the college town of Gainesville, Florida.

“Obviously it is terrible any time people are murdered or killed – I think that on the other hand, it shows the radical element of Islam.”

Jones, a former hotel manager turned pastor who claims the Koran incites violence, said he will go ahead with a protest on April 22 in front of the US’ largest mosque, in Dearborn, Michigan.

US President Barack Obama denounced the act of burning a Koran but did not mention Jones by name.

“The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry,” Mr Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

“However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”

Government officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan have called for US authorities to arrest Jones, however his public criticism of Islam and desecration of the Koran are allowed under US laws protecting free speech.

Jones provoked an international outcry last year over his plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with Mr Obama saying it would cause “profound damage” to the US.

He backed down after pleas from the US government and other world officials, but then presided over a March 20 mock trial of the Koran that included a torching of the book.

Internet footage later reverberated across the Muslim world and sparked the latest wave of violence.”

Via Yahoo News

Apr 3, 2011

World’s first practical ‘artificial leaf’ unveiled

(ANI): Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have finally developed the world’s first practical artificial leaf that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight at an economical cost, thereby achieving one of the milestones in the drive for sustainable energy.

They have described an advanced solar cell the size of a poker card that mimics the process, called photosynthesis, that green plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy.

“A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. We believe we have done it,” said Daniel Nocera, who led the research team.

The new discovery shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries.

‘Our goal is to make each home its own power station. One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology,” said Nocera.

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, said Nocera.

Yahoo News

Researchers Discover How Brain’s Memory Center Repairs Damage from Head Injury

Neuroscience News: Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have described for the first time how the brain’s memory center repairs itself following severe trauma – a process that may explain why it is harder to bounce back after multiple head injuries.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, reports significant learning and memory problems in mice who were unable to create new nerve cells in the brain’s memory area, the hippocampus, following brain trauma. The study’s senior author, Dr. Steven G. Kernie, associate professor of pediatrics and developmental biology at UT Southwestern, said the hippocampus contains a well of neural stem cells that become neurons in response to injury; those stem cells must grow into functioning nerve cells to mend the damage.

“Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has received a lot of attention recently because of the recognition that both military personnel and football players suffer from debilitating brain injuries,” Dr. Kernie said, adding that memory and learning problems are common after repeated severe head injuries.

“We have discovered that neural stem cells in the brain’s memory area become activated by injury and remodel the area with newly generated nerve cells,” Dr. Kernie said. “We also found that the activation of these stem cells is required for recovery.”

Full article at Neuroscience news