Jun 25, 2011

Former cop says his lies wrongly sent hundreds to prison

A former undercover police officer has confessed his lies in court more than 30 years ago may have sent 150 people wrongfully to prison.

Police said they had started a criminal investigation into the activities of Patrick O’Brien after he wrote to Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias and former Police Commissioner Howard Broad, saying he was racked with guilt after carrying a “dreadful secret” for more than 30 years.

Mr O’Brien, an undercover officer during drugs operations in the 1970s, was the star witness in court trials but he later confessed he lied on oath every time he testified, the New Zealand Herald reported today.

His confession was made in November 2007 and police hired Wellington lawyer Bruce Squire, QC, to investigate.

He interviewed Mr O’Brien in July 2009 and reviewed court files, and a copy of his completed inquiry was now with police.

Mr O’Brien told the newspaper he would co-operate fully with the inquiry and plead guilty to any charges.

In his confession, he said he could not guess the number of people who were sent to prison because of his lies because he stopped counting arrests at 150, half-way through his three-year undercover stint.

He lied to the courts and juries to get convictions in every case, he said. As well, he was often high on drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, heroin and LSD – but never during trials.

Full story over at Stuff.nz

Polly-math Parrots, smarter than you think

Parrots are even less bird-brained than previously thought, suggests a new study in the journal Biology Letters. In a series of tests, researchers have learned that some African grey parrots can use logical reasoning to uncover hidden food.

Sandra Mikolasch and her colleagues at the University of Vienna in Austria trained seven  African grey parrots to find treats stashed under cups. While the birds watched, Mikolasch placed food under one cup and left an adjacent cup empty—the parrots had to choose the correct cup to get their snacks.

After training the birds, Mikolasch hid a seed and a walnut under two separate cups in front of the on-looking parrots. In plain view, she removed one of the treats and allowed the birds to choose cups again. Three of the parrots were able to correctly pick the cup with food at least 70 percent of the time. If the birds were purely guessing, they would have chosen the correct cup roughly half of the time.

Mikolasch repeated the experiment with one alteration: she masked her movements behind an opaque screen. She removed one of the treats and showed it to the birds, then had the birds choose cups. By noting which snack was removed, one of the parrots, Awisa, was able to deduce which cup still had food in 23 of the 30 trials (about 77 percent). The other parrots chose more randomly. Mikolasch suspects that Awisa was successful because she’s the parrot equivalent of a “whiz kid.”

Full story with examples at Discover

BBC Newsnight: Theta healing, the new crackpot faith healing movement

There’s a new movement in what’s known as Theta Healing, it’s a form of faith healing and it’s here in the UK. It’s practitioners claim to be able to regrow parts of the body and even cure AIDS. Newsnight tries to uncover the truth.

Rare Billy the Kid Photo to go on Auction

A photograph of a smirking Billy the Kid, taken outside a New Mexico saloon near to where the famed outlaw was shot dead, could fetch up to $1 million at an auction on Saturday.

The two-by-three-inch tintype is the only known adult portrait of the Wild West gunslinger who variously went by William Bonney, Henry Antrim, Henry McCarty or just "the Kid."

It has also been one of the most commonly reproduced images of the outlaw since it appeared in Sheriff Pat Garrett's book on how he tracked down and killed the Kid in 1881.

"This is it -- the only one," said Brian Lebel, auctioneer for the 22nd annual Old West Show and Auction to be held in Denver, Colorado.

"We'll have over 500 (people) in the audience. We have eight telephone lines and we have three different Internet hookups, so people can bid live online with real-time bidding (and) with a camera, so you can see the auctioneer."

The unidentified photographer originally made four identical tintypes, but the other three have been lost.

The one remaining tintype is owned by brothers Stephen and Art Upham of California and Arizona, who last displayed it publicly in a museum in Lincoln, New Mexico, in the mid-1980s.

It has been sealed in a nitrogen-filled envelope and kept in a safety deposit box since then, Lebel said.

Billy the Kid's jawline appears asymmetrical in the photograph, possibly because he made a face or moved his head during the long exposure time.

The image is smeared across the hips -- apparently from the gunslinger stuffing the tintype into his pocket before it dried.

For years, Billy the Kid was thought to be left-handed because the tintype shows him wearing a holster on his left side, inspiring the 1958 film, "The Left-Handed Gun."

In fact, the holster was on his right side, and only appears to be on the left because tintype photography creates a mirror image of the subject.

Read more at Discovery News

55-Foot Beached Chinese 'Sea Monster' Identified

According to multiple media reports, a 55-foot-long marine animal recently washed up dead on a beach at Guangdong, China. You can see its decaying body in the above image. Now the question is: What's this species that beach goers are calling a "sea monster?"

Live Science showed the photo to three marine biology experts: Scott Baker of Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute, Bill Perrin, senior scientist for marine mammals at the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Bob Brownell, senior scientist for international protected resources with NOAA's Fisheries Service.

All three said they think it's a whale. As to the exact species, they're not certain, but Live Science quoted Baker as saying, "it's a balaenopterid."

He added, "Judging from the reported size of 55 ft., maybe a fin whale. From the photo, however, it does not really look to be 55 ft., and so might be a smaller balaenopterid, like one of the Bryde's whales."

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 24, 2011

Dying Star Betelgeuse Spews Fiery Nebula

What you are seeing here is the dying throes of a titanic star.

Betelgeuse, some 640 light-years from Earth in the constellation Orion, may look pretty healthy when you see it shining in the night sky (it is one of the brightest stars out there) but as this infrared image from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) shows, Betelgeuse is falling apart... literally.

It's been known for some time that Betelgeuse is belching huge clouds of stellar plasma into space -- this is a symptom of the star's age and size. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star a fraction of the age of our sun, but because it is so massive (18 times the mass of the sun) it lives fast and dies young.

The 10 million year-old star has run out of hydrogen in its core -- and is now fusing helium into carbon and oxygen -- causing Betelgeuse to "puff up" to gargantuan proportions. If Betelgeuse was our sun, it would fill the entire inner solar system with its surface reaching the orbit of Jupiter! Earth would be toast.

The interior of the star is a violent bubbling mess, with huge plumes of searing hot plasma warping the shape of the star. Observations have previously shown Betelgeuse to be "lumpy," rather than a neat, spherical star. There are also some indications that the star is also shrinking, potentially revealing it is close (in cosmic timescales) to collapsing and exploding as a supernova -- but never fear, Betelgeuse poses no threat to life on Earth.

In the final stages of a red supergiant star's life, huge quantities of material are blown into space. As this ESO image shows, Betelgeuse is creating a vast, previously unseen, dusty cool nebula, extending 60 billion kilometers from its surface.

In the center of the image, the small red disk is Betelgeuse and the surrounding cloud (inside the black disk) is previous observations of plasma being belched into space. The colorful cloud surrounding the black disk comprises the new ESO observations taken by the ESO's Very Large Array (VLA).

Read more at Discovery News

Study suggests that urbanite brains are more susceptible to stress

Between the crowds and the noise and the pressure, city life often seems to set one’s brain on edge. Turns out that could literally be true.

A study of German college students suggests that urbanite brains are more susceptible to stress, particularly social stress, than those of country dwellers. The findings don’t indicate which aspects of city life had changed the students’ brains, but provide a framework for future investigations.

“Whether people are exposed to noise, live near a park, have a big group of friends or not — you can do those experiments, and tease apart which parts of urban living are associated with these changes,” said Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist at German’s Central Institute of Mental Health.

Meyer-Lindenberg’s findings, published June 23 in Nature, are a neurological investigation into the underpinnings of a disturbing social trend: As a rule, city life seems to generate mental illness.

Compared to their rural counterparts, city dwellers have higher levels of anxiety and mood disorders. The schizophrenia risk of people raised in cities is almost double. Literature on the effect is so thorough that researchers say it’s not just correlation, as might be expected if anxious people preferred to live in cities. Neither is it a result of heredity. It’s a cause-and-effect relationship between environment and mind.

What those causes are is unknown, but many researchers have speculated that urban social environments are partly responsible. After all, cities are hyper-social places, in which residents must be constantly on guard, and have mathematically more opportunity to experience stressful interaction. Too much stress may ultimately alter the brain, leaving it ill-equipped to handle further stress and prone to mental illness.

Read more at Wired

Jun 23, 2011

Big Dinos Stayed Cool

Sauropod dinosaurs, the enormous plant-eating dinos with long tails and necks, had body temperatures ranging from 96.3 to 100.8 degrees Fahrenheit -- making them as warm as most mammals -- including people.

Because body temperature usually rises the larger an animal gets, the findings, published in the latest issue of Science, suggest huge sauropods had mechanisms for cooling themselves off.

"What we can say is that sauropods did not have body temperatures that were as cold as modern crocodiles and alligators," lead author Robert Eagle, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, told Discovery News.

Eagle pointed out that many models had predicted that sauropods would have high body temperatures of over 104 degrees.

"This suggests that sauropods may have had cooling mechanisms to prevent very high body temperatures being reached due to their gigantic size," he said.

So-called "gigantotherms" maintain warm temperatures due to sheer size. Plant-eating dinosaurs may have then been cold-blooded, in the sense that they could have depended on their environment for heat, as opposed to generating it internally, as warm-blooded species do.

"If you're an animal that you can approximate as a sphere of meat the size of a room, you can't be cold unless you're dead," explained co-author John Eiler, a Caltech geochemist.

Eiler, Eagle and their colleagues made the determinations after studying 11 teeth belonging to Brachiosaurus brancai and Camarasaurus dinosaurs.

The scientists measured concentrations of the rare isotopes carbon-13 and oxygen-18 in bioapatite, a mineral found in teeth and bone. How often these isotopes bond with each other depends on temperature, so the lower the temperature, the more carbon-13 and oxygen-18 clumps exist. Measuring these clumps revealed the temperature of the environment in which the mineral formed inside the dinosaur.

This geochemical "thermometer" shows Brachiosaurus had a temperature of about 100.8 degrees, while Camarasaurus had a temperature of approximately 96.3 degrees.

Eagle said that Jurassic temperatures were probably "significantly hotter than today," so even if sauropods were cold-blooded they likely were not very restricted, in terms of habitat range, due to climate. In fact, they probably spent a lot of time trying to cool down their hefty bodies.

The researchers suspect the long necks and tails of these animals might have dispelled some heat. Lower metabolic rates might have helped to reduce internal warmth.

Read more at Discovery News

Lab yeast make evolutionary leap to multicellularity

IN JUST a few weeks single-celled yeast have evolved into a multicellular organism, complete with division of labour between cells. This suggests that the evolutionary leap to multicellularity may be a surprisingly small hurdle.

Multicellularity has evolved at least 20 times since life began, but the last time was about 200 million years ago, leaving few clues to the precise sequence of events. To understand the process better, William Ratcliff and colleagues at the University of Minnesota in St Paul set out to evolve multicellularity in a common unicellular lab organism, brewer's yeast.

Their approach was simple: they grew the yeast in a liquid and once each day gently centrifuged each culture, inoculating the next batch with the yeast that settled out on the bottom of each tube. Just as large sand particles settle faster than tiny silt, groups of cells settle faster than single ones, so the team effectively selected for yeast that clumped together.

Sure enough, within 60 days - about 350 generations - every one of their 10 culture lines had evolved a clumped, "snowflake" form. Crucially, the snowflakes formed not from unrelated cells banding together but from cells that remained connected to one another after division, so that all the cells in a snowflake were genetically identical relatives. This relatedness provides the conditions necessary for individual cells to cooperate for the good of the whole snowflake.

"The key step in the evolution of multicellularity is a shift in the level of selection from unicells to groups. Once that occurs, you can consider the clumps to be primitive multicellular organisms," says Ratcliff.

In some ways, the snowflakes do behave as if they are multicellular. They grow bigger by cell division and when the snowflakes reach a certain size a portion breaks off to form a daughter cell. This "life cycle" is much like the juvenile and adult stages of many multicellular organisms.

After a few hundred further generations of selection, the snowflakes also began to show a rudimentary division of labour. As the snowflakes reach their "adult" size, some cells undergo programmed cell death, providing weak points where daughters can break off. This lets the snowflakes make more offspring while leaving the parent large enough to sink quickly to the base of the tube, ensuring its survival. Snowflake lineages exposed to different evolutionary pressures evolved different levels of cell death. Since it is rarely to the advantage of an individual cell to die, this is a clear case of cooperation for the good of the larger organism. This is a key sign that the snowflakes are evolving as a unit, Ratcliff reported last week at a meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution in Norman, Oklahoma.

Other researchers familiar with the work were generally enthusiastic. "It really seemed to me to have the elements of the unfolding in real time of a major transition," says Ben Kerr, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The fact that it happened so quickly was really exciting."

Sceptics, however, point out that many yeast strains naturally form colonies, and that their ancestors were multicellular tens or hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result, they may have retained some evolved mechanisms for cell adhesion and programmed cell death, effectively stacking the deck in favour of Ratcliff's experiment.

"I bet that yeast, having once been multicellular, never lost it completely," says Neil Blackstone, an evolutionary biologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "I don't think if you took something that had never been multicellular you would get it so quickly."

Read more at New Scientist

Jun 22, 2011

Tyrannosaurus Rex 'hunted in packs'

Tyrannosaurids, including the Tyrannosaurus Rex, have traditionally been portrayed by experts as formidable but solitary and dull-witted creatures because their skeletons were found alone.

But new research based on finds in the Gobi Desert suggests that the species was not only equipped with the build and speed for pack hunting, but also the brain capacity to work together as a team, experts claim.

Dr Philip Currie, of the University of Alberta, said that evidence from 90 skeletons of Tarbosaurus Bataar – a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex – suggested strongly that about half a dozen of the dinosaurs were part of a social group that died together.

He said Tyrannosaurids' hunting technique may have involved juveniles chasing and catching prey, with fully grown adults taking over and delivering the fatal bites.

This is because younger Tyrannosaurids' skeletons show they would have been faster and more agile than adults, which were slower but much heavier and more powerful.

The close similarities between the Tyrannosaurid family – as well as evidence from a quarry site in South Dakota, USA where three Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons were found in close proximity – mean that Tyrannosauruses would likely have been capable of the same behaviour as their cousins, Dr Currie said.

He added: "We now have a lot of sites worldwide which show these Tyrannosaurids were grouping animals which at certain times did get together into gangs, either to hunt or move from one region to another.

Read more and see the video at The Telegraph

Upstart Movie Service Strikes Back at Hollywood

Zediva — a new online movie service that gets around the need for studio licensing deals by renting users a physical disk and DVD player from afar — struck back at the Hollywood studios asking a court to immediately shut the company down. Zediva argued that the studios are just trying to “put a new and innovative competitor out of business before a final determination on the merits is reached.”

Zediva’s service is both simple and legally fascinating. The company buys new release DVDs, puts them in DVD players in a server room, and rents the device and movie to its customers for $1.99. The playback streams across the net to a user’s computer. Unlike, Netflix, Apple or iTunes, Zediva does not make a digital copy of the movie — and has no licensing deals with the studios. (By contrast, Netflix is constantly negotiating deals for streaming rights, and to land them, has agreed to not even rent DVDs by mail from some studios until a month after they go on sale to the public.)

Instead, Zediva says it operates much like real-world rental stores, which are allowed to rent movies without permission thanks to the “first-sale” doctrine of copyright law, which gives a buyer a set of rights to the item they purchased — including re-selling it or renting it out.

A few weeks after the company’s big public launch on March 16, Hollywood studios filed suit against the Sunnyvale, California-based start-up, alleging that the company was violating their rights as copyright holders to have exclusive control over “public performances” of their movies. The studios, including Fox, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount and Universal, are asking a federal court in California to issue an immediate injunction to shut down Zediva until the suit is finished, saying their businesses would be irreparably damaged if Zediva was allowed to continue operating.

Zediva, represented by respected copyright attorney Mark Lemley, told the court on June 17 in a court filing (.pdf) that the studios failed the tests necessary to get that order.

The company argues that the studios have long, and unsuccessfully, tried to make renting videos illegal.

    The Studios lost. It is not illegal to rent movies to others without the copyright holder’s permission. Blockbuster is free to rent the same movie to many different customers in its stores. Netflix is free to mail DVDs to its rental customers. They must buy the DVDs from the Studios, but once they do, the Studios have been paid, and they have no right to demand a share of the rental fee.

    Only if a company goes beyond renting the disc they purchased, and actually broadcasts its one lawful copy to the public at large (by showing it on television, for instance), does the copyright owner have the right to be paid a second time.

    That is the law, but the Studios would prefer it otherwise. They have built a business model based on “windowing” the release of their films in a particular sequence, and complain that Zediva’s business model is at odds with their own. Perhaps. But a business model, no matter how large and powerful the business, cannot substitute for or alter the law. And when that business model demands that the business be paid twice for a product it sells once, it must yield to the law.

And as for the injunction?

Zediva argues that the studios claim that they would be irreparably harmed if Zediva continued operation is false, since it’s not hard to put a price on a video rental. Apple pays the studios about $2.80 for every $3.99 rental through iTunes. So if indeed a court found Zediva guilty of infringement, the studios would only need to multiply the number of Zediva rentals times $2.80 to come up with a monetary damages figure.

Secondly, Zediva argues that one of the conditions for getting an injunction is that there needs to be a sense of urgency — something it says the studios haven’t shown. For instance, the suit filed against Zediva came weeks after its public launch, and months after Zediva was open to users in a beta.

And the studios knew about the beta as early as November 2010, the company argues, citing a number of IP addresses belonging to the studios from its 2010 server logs.

In fact, Zediva claims that “an IP address belonging to Disney watched a movie using the Zediva service on November 30, 2010.” Furthermore, the company says that someone using the e-mail address of Lawrence Jacobs, the general counsel for News Corporation, the parent company of Twentieth Century Fox, signed up for an account on December 10.

“When companies face urgent problems necessitating immediate relief to avoid irreparable harm, they do not sit silent for months before even broaching the issue,” Zediva’s filing says. “The Studios’ delay confirms that their claim does not justify drastic, preliminary relief, but instead can be adjudicated in an orderly fashion…”

Zediva argues that it’s service is legal. They argue that recent court decisions that have gone against the studios (such as the legality of a cloud-based DVR in the Cablevision case) support their reading of copyright law.

Read more at Wired

Earliest American Art: Mammoth on Mammoth

The first known depiction of an animal from the Americas is an image of a mammoth engraved on a mammoth bone, suggests a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science. 

Researchers believe the object, found in Florida, dates to at least 13,000 years ago when most large Pleistocene animals went extinct in the eastern United States. The artifact may even be up to 20,000 years old.

"The engraving was done by a group of people that we would refer to as Paleoindian or Paleoamericans," co-author Jeff Speakman, head of technical studies at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, told Discovery News. The word "Paleoamerican" does not necessarily point to a cultural group, he added, but instead is a "general term that refers to the earliest inhabitants of the Americas."

The animal engraving has made headlines since fossil hunter James Kennedy first collected it from a location in North Vero Beach sometime in 2006 or 2007. In February of 2009, Kennedy discovered the engraving while cleaning the incised bone.

To determine the piece's authenticity, Speakman and his colleagues recently put it through a barrage of scientific tests. Scanning electron microscopy, forensic analysis, high powered X-rays and other tests all suggest the mammoth engraving is not a forgery.

Compared to the rough crosshatched, checkered lines associated with Paleoindian art from early sites such as Gault in Texas, this animal image from Florida looks quite sophisticated. Speakman, however, points out that 120,000-year-old decorative ornaments have been found in Africa and the Near East. Venus figurines date to at least 35,000 years ago, and paint materials in the human archaeological record could date to more than 300,000 years ago.

Twenty thousand years ago is therefore a drop in the proverbial art bucket from a global perspective, but it is extremely old for the Americas. The researchers indicate the object may strengthen the controversial theory that people associated with the Solutrean culture of Europe migrated to North America via the North Atlantic Ice Sheet.

In other words, some of America's first inhabitants could have been Europeans that settled in what is now Florida and at other locations.

"The hypothesis rests upon similarities between Solutrean and Clovis tool technologies that have no known counterparts in Eastern Asia, Siberia, or Beringia -- areas that early people are known to have migrated through," Speakman explained.

Two of the strongest arguments against this "Solutrean hypothesis" have been a lack of art and other archaeological finds from the proposed period in North America. The mammoth engraving could address the art issue. As to the second argument, Speakman said that over the past decade, "numerous archaeological sites in the eastern U.S. have been identified" dating to 20,000 plus years ago, possibly even pre-dating the Clovis culture.

Read more at Discovery News

55 foot long unidentifiable monster washes up on the Chinese shore

A 55 feet long fish has been found in the seashore of Guangdong, China. According to a local newspaper, the big fish weighs at least 10,000 pounds. Hwang, a 66-years-old fisherman living in the near area, said he has never seen anything like this in his whole life and that the fish was tied with ropes when it was first found.

Many people have flocked to see this strange specimen since its discovery, although its rotting corpse already emits a foul smell. The people living in the area think the fish was caught by some fisherman but was abandoned due to its heavy weight, hence the ropes.

Due to the serious decay of the fish’s body, it is almost impossible to identify the species, according to the local newspaper.

Via LBtimes

Jun 21, 2011

Humans Could Have Geomagnetic Sight

The ability to see Earth’s magnetic field, thought to be restricted to sea turtles and swallows and other long-distance animal navigators, may also reside in human eyes.

Tests of cryptochrome 2, a key protein component of geomagnetic perception, found that its human version restored geomagnetic orientation in cryptochrome-deficient fruit flies.

Flies are a long, long way from people, but that the protein worked at all is impressive. There’s also a whole lot of it in our eyes.

“Could humans have this cryptochrome heavily expressed in the retina as a light-sensitive magnetoreceptor?” said University of Massachusetts neuroscientist Steven Reppert, lead author of a June 21 Nature Communications cryptochrome study. “We don’t know if the molecule will do this in the human retina, but this suggests the possibility.”

Reppert, whose laboratory specializes in the biological mechanisms underlying long-distance butterfly migration, showed three years ago that cryptochrome allowed fruit flies to geomagnetically orient themselves using light.

Before then, cryptochrome’s navigational role was a matter of inference and proposition. Since then, researchers have described how cryptochrome seems to be a quantum compass that detects infinitesimally subtle, geomagnetically-induced variations in the spin of electrons struck by photons. From those variations, animals seem able to determine their orientation in relation to Earth’s magnetic field.

Many gaps still remain in cryptochrome theory, but it’s generally thought that the cryptochrome system may be active across the animal kingdom, from fish to reptiles to birds. Humans, however, were thought to be an exception. Our own cryptochrome is considered a piece of circadian machinery, part of our molecular clock rather than any optical compass.

The new study, however, suggests that cryptochrome may be more than a clock. Seeking to test how a vertebrate cryptochrome would work in fruit flies, Reppert decided to use the human version. His team engineered flies to be cryptochrome-deficient: They struggled to orient within a magnetically-charged maze. When the researchers spliced human cryptochrome into the flies, they again found their bearings.

“This is a very exciting paper,” said Klaus Schulten, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign biophysicist and cryptochrome research pioneer who was not involved in the new study. According to Schulten, the findings add even more support for the general role of cryptochrome in vertebrates, and of course raise questions about cryptochrome’s role in people.

“We can’t show that it will do the same in humans, but it sure restored geomagnetic sight in the flies,” said Reppert.

Whether humans can sense geomagnetism is somewhat controversial. In the 1980s, research by British zoologist Robin Baker suggested that humans have a magnetic sense, but the findings proved difficult to replicate. More recently, however, work by German researchers hints at geomagnetic effects on vision.

Whether any of this is linked to high levels of cryptochrome in human eyes — and, if so, whether that quantum compass system still works for us — is completely speculative, but it’s speculation that Reppert welcomes. “It’s perfectly reasonable to think that humans have a magnetosensing response,” he said. “Maybe we’ve been looking at it in a way that’s not been fruitful in the past.”

Read more at Wired

Mutations Cause Ultra Muscular Humans, Animals, Fish

Genetic mutations that cause mammals -- including humans -- to develop super ripped muscles, are now resulting in exceedingly buff fish, according to a paper in the latest issue of Animal Genetics.

The mutations can result in a doubling, or even tripling of muscle mass in affected species. So far, at least two children have been documented as having such changes to their genes. One is a young, and very beefy, German boy.

"At birth, the boy appeared to be extraordinarily muscular, with protruding muscles in his thighs and upper arms," lead author Anneleen Stinckens, paraphrasing a report by pediatric neurologist Markus Schuelke, told Discovery News. "Before he was five years old, he could hold 7-pound weights with arms extended, something many adults cannot do. He has muscles twice the size of other kids his age and half their body fat."

Yet another boy, Liam Hoekstra, was diagnosed with a clinically similar condition. Stinckens said that, based on reports, Hoekstra was able to do pull-ups, inverted sit-ups, Olympic-style iron crosses and more just months after birth. He has even punched "holes into walls during tantrums," according to accounts, and once accidentally gave his mother a black eye.

Stinckens and her colleagues studied data on the phenomenon in known affected species that, in addition to humans, include cattle, mice, sheep and dogs. She explained that a certain protein, called the myostatin (MSTN) protein, has a negative effect on muscle growth. Mutations related to this protein can cause it to completely fail, or to exist in very low levels.

"Since the MSTN gene can no longer exhibit its proper function or the levels of MSTN are very low, the negative control that was exercised by the MSTN protein disappears and muscles can grow much larger than they are supposed to," Stinckens explained.

It's unclear at present if there are any drawbacks related to a myostatin protein deficiency.

"Scientists fear that maybe the hearts of the boys will not be able to cope when they are growing, however, this has to be studied in due time," Stinckens shared, adding that double-muscled cattle can have "calving difficulties and a large, muscular tongue."

Since age-related muscle wasting, inherited disorders like muscular dystrophy, and certain diseases affecting muscles are prevalent, medical experts hope future research may lead to better treatments and cures for problems affecting muscles. As a result, according to Stinckens and her team, scientists have induced myostatin-related changes in three types of fish so far: rainbow trout, medaka fish and zebrafish.

Perhaps the most successful of the three experiments was the work on rainbow trout. They became "extremely muscular," Stinckens said, acquiring what other researchers called "six pack" double muscles. The zebrafish also changed, becoming 45 percent heavier than their normal counterparts.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 20, 2011

Why the media screws up science

ICANN Approves Corporate Web Address Suffixes

The Internet's global coordinator voted Monday to allow the creation of website addresses ending in company names, enabling big firms to replace ".com" with their own brand.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) voted overwhelmingly in favor of the radical proposal at a meeting in Singapore despite fears that opening up new website suffixes could cause some confusion.

"This is the biggest change to domain names since the creation of '.com' 26 years ago," said Theo Hnarakis, chief executive of Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services, a California-based company that provides online branding advice.

Under the changes, businesses will no longer be restricted to the list of generic top level domains (gTLDs) that include .com, .net and .org when they apply to register a website address.

Industry observers say global giants such as Apple, Toyota and BMW, to cite examples from various regions, could be in the vanguard of launching websites with their own domain names ending in ".apple", ."toyota" and ".bmw".

Hnarakis told AFP the companies that will benefit most are "big brands with a clear marketing and customer education strategy to exploit the name for competitive advantage.

"Brands need to act now if they want to apply for one of these new domain names as it is not as simple as registering a .com address. It is a complex task that needs thought and investment," he added.

The ICANN board voted 13-1 in favor of the change, with two abstentions, a spokesman said.

Board member Sebastien Bachollet, who was in favor of the change, said "some people feel that the new gTLDs will cause confusion."

"I trust we have the tools to ensure the phase of stress will be brief," he added.

ICANN, a non-profit body managing the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol addresses that form the technical backbone of the Web, is holding a global meeting in Singapore this week to discuss a range of matters.

Read more at Discovery News

How the Brain Recognizes Its Body

The mystery of how the brain develops the sense of ownership that recognizes our body belongs to us is a step closer to being solved.

Australian researchers have shown that along with the sense of touch and vision, signalling receptors in the muscles and joints also play a critical role. The finding, published recently in the Journal of Physiology, will help in designing treatments for disorders of body ownership that can occur with conditions such as stroke and epilepsy.

Lead author Lee Walsh, of Neuroscience Research Australia, explained we instinctively know our body parts "belong" to us. However, how the brain develops that map of what belongs to it is still in part unknown.

"How do I know my hand is mine and not yours and that the telephone is not a part of my body," he said.

Previous research shows people can be deluded into claiming ownership of an artificial hand. This is done by simultaneously stroking the subject's hidden hand and a visible artificial rubber hand.

"Once the illusion of ownership of the hand is established, subjects have physiological responses to threats made against the rubber hand," Walsh and his colleagues wrote in the paper.

In this study the team was interested to see if other sensory channels could also be important in developing body ownership.

"We can use vision to see parts of the body, but we can also see other bodies, so vision alone cannot differentiate foreign body parts from those we own," Walsh said. "Muscle receptors can only signal things that are happening to the body so would seem to be an ideal candidate to signal ownership."

To test this theory, the team induced an illusion of ownership over a plastic index finger. The finger was used because it is feasible to block the sense of touch with local anaesthetic. The team found the sense of ownership still occurred when participants' fingers were anaesthetized. Walsh said the results show visual-tactile cues are not critical in establishing body ownership. Instead muscle-related signals coupled with vision are sufficient for the brain to recognize ownership.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 19, 2011

Astronomers find stars that blast out huge quantities of “water bullets”

Seven hundred and fifty light-years from Earth, a young, sunlike star has been found with jets that blast epic quantities of water into interstellar space, shooting out droplets that move faster than a speeding bullet.

The discovery suggests that protostars may be seeding the universe with water. These stellar embryos shoot jets of material from their north and south poles as their growth is fed by infalling dust that circles the bodies in vast disks.

“If we picture these jets as giant hoses and the water droplets as bullets, the amount shooting out equals a hundred million times the water flowing through the Amazon River every second,” said Lars Kristensen, a postdoctoral astronomer at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“We are talking about velocities reaching 200,000 kilometers [124,000 miles] per hour, which is about 80 times faster than bullets flying out of a machine gun,” said Kristensen, lead author of the new study detailing the discovery, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Full article at National Geographic

Feeling flush: businessman flushes hundreds of pounds down lavatory after being told notes were fake

He got rid of the cash after a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland on the Isle of Lewis refused to accept them.

Other banks took similar precautions and refused to accept notes after being warned of a suspected counterfeiting operation in the Western Isles.

Stornoway Police launched an investigation but analysis by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) confirmed that the money that was being refused on was in fact real.

The local businessman who took the drastic action of flushing away his money, said: "This is a right mess and it was caused by the RBS and Bank of Scotland.

"This is all about their failure to properly train their local staff on how to spot fake notes. I tore up the pounds20 notes returned to me by the bank as fakes and I put them down the toilet to stop them getting back into circulation.”

The islander, who asked not to be named, added: "I thought that was my public duty. How do I prove that and who is going to compensate me?"

The warning of a possible counterfeit scam, after a local pub and Indian restaurant were allegedly conned, prompted local shops to invest in ultraviolet scanners in a bid to identify the allegedly high quality forgeries.

Retailers have also criticised the banks since learning that there was no problem with the notes in circulation on the island. Ann Robinson, who runs a flower shop, bought a UV scanner after the Bank of Scotland returned some of her notes.

She said: "If they are not fakes, we have been holding customers back needlessly to check all their notes. We have spent money on scanners for no reason, because we were given the wrong advice."

Insp Robbie MacDonald, of Northern Constabulary, said that all the notes that had been set aside by banks and tested by Soca had turned out to be genuine.

Read more at The Telegraph

Pigs could grow human organs in stem cell breakthrough

Scientists have found they can create chimeric animals that have organs belonging to another species by injecting stem cells into the embryo of another species.

The researchers injected stem cells from rats into the embryos of mice that had been genetically altered so they could not produce their own organs, creating mice that had rat organs.

The researchers say the technique could allow pigs to grow human organs from patient's stem cells for use as transplants.

By using a patient's own stem cells it could help to reduce the risk of the transplanted organ being rejected while also providing a plentiful supply of donor organs.

Current organ shortages mean that patients must endure long waiting lists for transplants.

Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, director of the centre for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Tokyo in Japan and who led the research, said: "Our ultimate goal is to generate human organs from induced pluripotent stem cells.

"The technique, called blastocyst complementation, provides us with a novel approach for organ supply. We have successfully tried it between mice and rats. We are now rather confident in generating functional human organs using this approach."

Professor Nakauchi, who presented the study at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics, used a type of adult stem cell known as induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be taken from a sample of tissue such as the skin and encouraged to grow into any type of cell found in the body.

Together with his colleagues, he injected these cells taken from rats into the embryos, or blastocysts as they can be called, of mice that were unable to grow their on pancreas, the organ that produces important hormones including insulin.

When the mice matured to adulthood, they showed no signs of diabetes and had developed a pancreas that was almost entirely formed from the injected rat stem cells.

The scientists claim the rat stem cells grew in the niche left by the absent mouse pancreas and so almost any organ could be produced in this way.

If replicated using human stem cells, the technique could produce a way of treating diabetic patients by providing a way of replacing their pancreas.

The project has echoes of the bestselling book and film Never Let Me Go where clones are used to provide organ donations for the wealthy. In reality researchers are not allowed to create human embryos that lack the ability to grow organs and so they hope to do the same using pigs.

Professor Nakauchi said they hoped to further test the technique by growing other organs and were also seeking permission to use human stem cells.

They have, however, already managed to produce pigs that were able to generate human blood by injecting blood stem cells from humans into pig foetuses.

He said: "For ethical reasons we cannot make an organ deficient human embryo and use it for blastocyst complementation.

"So to make use of this system to generate human organs, we must use this technique using blastocysts of livestock animals such as pigs instead.

"Blastocyst complementation across species had never been tested before, but we have now shown that it can work."

Read more at The Telegraph