Jul 30, 2011

Superbugs may be here to stay

Multidrug-resistant bacteria may be here to stay. The common wisdom that superbugs with antibiotic resistance are outcompeted by their non-super neighbours in the absence of antibiotics has been turned on its head.

Bacterial antibiotic resistance is a major concern because it can lead to the appearance of dangerous and difficult-to-treat infections in humans. Resistance generally occurs in one of two ways: either through mutations in the bacterial DNA or, more commonly, through the acquisition of resistant genes from other organisms through horizontal gene transfer.

In both cases, previous studies had found that the superbugs lose their competitive advantage once the antibiotics are no longer present. For instance, a voluntary ban by Danish farmers on the use of antibiotic growth promoters in chicken and pigs cut antibiotic resistance in the bacteria within the animals by over 90 per cent.

This is largely because maintaining a newly acquired chunk of DNA from another organism – or coping with a new mutation that imparts antibiotic resistance – uses up so many of the cell's resources, says Francisco Dionísio at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. That means the superbug cannot compete with non-resistant bacteria once the antibiotic has been removed and the playing field has been levelled.

But now Dionísio and colleagues have found that this is not always the case. The team focused on 10 strains of Escherichia coli bacteria that had already acquired genes for antibiotic resistance from other organisms.

Super superbug

When these bacteria independently evolved one of five DNA mutations also associated with antibiotic resistance, something peculiar happened: in five of the 50 resulting strains the bacteria could outcompete typical non-resistant bacteria when both were grown in a dish, even in the absence of antibiotics.

A similar thing happened when the team began with E. coli that had first acquired resistance to antibiotics through genetic mutation and then gained further resistance by acquisition of a resistance-carrying genetic element from another organism. This time 32 per cent of the superbug strains remained more competitive than the non-resistant bacteria once the antibiotic had been removed.

This kind of process is known as positive epistasis, says Dionísio – but he adds that why two negative impacts on a microbes' fitness should work together to give a positive boost to its survival rate "remains a mystery".

"It was a real surprise to find so many cases where the multi-resistant bacteria were at an advantage," says Isabel Gordo, a member of the team based at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Oeiras, Portugal. "We suspect that this is very important in maintaining antibiotic resistance at the high levels currently seen."

Read more at New Scientist

Your Genome Structure, Not Genetic Mutations, Makes You Different

A new look at the human genome suggests that unappreciated variations in its fundamental architecture, rather than point-by-point mutations, may be responsible for most genetic difference among people.

Point-by-point mutations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, involve simple changes to DNA lettering. They’re the best-studied type of variation, the target of most genomic disease hunts, and the substance of commercially available personal genome readouts.

More complex yet less-studied are structural variations, which involve large-scale changes: wholesale duplications and reversals, or unexpected additions and omissions, of long DNA sequences.

Traditional genome sequencing techniques are too fuzzy and piecemeal to make sense of these, yet “our observations suggest that structural variations are more specific to individuals than single nucleotide polymorphisms are,” wrote researchers led by Jun Wang of the Beijing Genomics Institute in a July 24 Nature Biotechnology study.

It might seem counterintuitive that big changes have been harder to detect than small ones, but it’s a consequence of how genomes are read. Every method involves breaking long DNA sequences — the human genome contains three billion DNA pairs — into pieces, then trying to reassemble them. The methods vary according to fragment size and reassembly technique, but as a rule it’s far less expensive and time-intensive to use small fragments.

As a result, most genomic studies, including gold-standard genome-wide association surveys, involve sequences reassembled from small pieces. As with a jigsaw puzzle or a book, however, larger fragments would work better. If the pieces are too small, or the text blocks just a few letters long, it’s difficult to be certain what the final product ought to look like. It’s possible to compare two pieces, but not puzzle sections or paragraphs.

“One reason you’ve heard more about single nucleotide polymorphisms, that they’ve come to the fore even though they’re a more minor form of variation than these structural variants, is that they were easier to see,” said Yale University bioinformaticist Mark Gerstein, who was not involved in the study.

In the new study, Wang and colleagues used algorithms that assemble long, relatively intact genome sequences from small fragments, allowing them to see more structural variation than is usually possible. In a high-profile earlier study, they’d used it to sequence a giant panda genome; this time they compared structural variations across 106 people from the 1000 Genomes Project.

Read more at Wired Science

The 40-year mystery of America’s greatest skyjacking

The night before Thanksgiving, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper, wearing a suit and raincoat, walked up to the Northwest Orient desk at Portland airport in the United State’s Pacific Northwest and spent $20 on a one-way ticket to Seattle.

On the plane, he donned a pair of dark sunglasses, ordered a whiskey, lit up a cigarette and coolly handed the stewardess a note. In capital letters, it read: I HAVE A BOMB IN MY BRIEFCASE. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED.

What happened next would ensure Cooper a place in the pantheon of American folk heroes. He asked the stewardess to relay the following request to the captain: he wanted $200,000 and four parachutes, and in return, he’d allow 36 people to leave the aircraft when the plane landed in Seattle. The FBI organised the swap, and when the plane was sky-bound again, with just the pilot, co-pilot, one stewardess and Cooper on board, his instructions were to head for Mexico, maintaining an altitude under 10,000 feet. Then, somewhere over the lower Cascade mountains, 25 miles north west of Portland, Cooper released the plane’s aft stairs, stepped out, and, with one of the parachutes strapped to his back, jumped into the stormy night and was never seen or heard from again.

Forty years on from Cooper’s gutsy spectacle, I’ve come to the Pacific Northwest to find out about America’s only unsolved hijacking – one that the FBI still considers open and which it is, understandably, still very keen to solve.

Back in 1971, a reporter working for one of the wire services misheard the name of the hijacker, and ever since then he has been referred to as DB Cooper, rather than Dan. Over the past 40 years there have been more than 1,000 Cooper suspects, several deathbed confessions, a film (starring Robert Duvall), and – to my count – 17 books. The latest, Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper, is out next month. As one person told me, Cooper is the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest. He is an enigma and a huge subculture has sprung up devoted to sleuthing his story. There’s even an annual celebration held in his honour in the tiny hamlet of Ariel, Washington, nestled in the rolling hills north east of Portland, now known as “Cooper Country”. And it is in Ariel that I begin my journey.

By the time military helicopters were scrambled, on November 24 1971, to search the land north of Portland for a 6ft tall Caucasian man weighing 170 to 175 pounds, DB Cooper was long gone – presumably packing away his parachute and trudging through mud and rain to make his escape. And before officers at the Clark County Sheriff’s office had decided to put a pin in a map near Ariel, regulars at the tiny hamlet’s only bar were sinking their final beers of the evening, unaware what was happening nearby.

Dona Elliott, the Tavern’s owner, says some of the drinkers there that night spotted a man walking up the road from nearby Lake Merwin. I can testify that there’s not much around here – just farmland, rolling hills and a highway that disappears into the Cascades – and unsurprisingly, the Tavern’s patrons wondered who on Earth would be walking alone outside on such a gruesome night.

The Tavern, a small wooden building built in the Twenties that sits on the corner of a pine-fringed road, is closed on Mondays, but Dona, now 74, has opened up just for me. It has become an unofficial Cooper repository: there’s a parachute (not the real one, obviously) pinned to the ceiling, newspaper clippings on every wall and a map showing the route the plance took near the bar.

Each year at its “DB Cooper Day” celebration, which has been going since 1973, old-timers reminisce, Cooper sleuths discuss their ideas and conspiracy theorists – and there are many – attempt a few conversions.

Inside, it smells of dogs and wood fire. A huge deer head fixed to the wall stares at me as I pull up a chair. Dona sits beside me, sipping from a water bottle, and thumbing a scrapbook full of more Cooper news stories. Of the numerous books on Cooper, she says she “hasn’t read one yet that’s accurate”. In fact, to my amusement, Dona doesn’t even think Cooper landed in Ariel at all. Someone clever enough to plan such an audacious heist, she says, would have jumped near Portland airport “because they would have never looked for him there”. Despite the proprietor’s misgivings, the DB Cooper party continues each year. One regular even bore an uncanny resemblance to the artist’s sketch that the FBI released of Cooper (which some people also thought looked like Bing Crosby), but Dona assures me “they checked him out thoroughly”. I ask why the story is so big still, 40 years on, and she suddenly becomes animated. “Because the government's always screwing us over and finally somebody got ‘em back.”

Read more at The Telegraph

Jul 29, 2011

Children Play Like Scientists Work

Young children play like scientists work, according to a new research project at MIT and Stanford University.

The findings, which were published in the journal Cognition, reveal how 4- and 5-year-olds approach games methodically.

They were given a specially designed toy “that lit up and played music when the child placed certain beads on it,” says Nature. The cognitive scientists found that, when the children didn’t know which beads would activate the toy — namely they had been given what the team defined as “ambiguous evidence” — they tested each variable in turn.

Laura Schulz, a professor at MIT draws the analogy of someone trying unsuccessfully to open a door with a key: “You might change the position of the key, you might change the key, but you’re not going to change both at once,” she told Nature.

The 60 children were split into two groups — one was shown that four different beads would activate the toy, while the other group was told: “Some things [namely some of the beads] make the machine go, and some things don’t make the machine go.” This latter group was then given the beads as two pairs — one that could be separated and one that could not. What the team noted as of import was how the children handled the inseparable beads.

The toy would only take the bead pair horizontally, but despite this, the children held the bead pair vertically to test each bead separately. In the final experiment, the children were given just the inseparable beads and were shown by the team that the toy will only work when the beads were placed horizontally. Despite this, they continued to test the pair vertically as well as horizontally showing, what Schulz terms as evidence of ingenuity that shares common principles with science — they kept on testing the variables separately.

Read more at Wired Science

Trojan Asteroid Discovered Stalking Earth

Astronomers have discovered the first Trojan asteroid sharing Earth's orbit around the sun.

Trojans are asteroids locked in stable orbits by a gravitational balancing act between a planet and the sun. They have previously been discovered accompanying Neptune, Jupiter and Mars.

Scientists led by Martin Connors from Athabasca University in Canada suspected they may also be in stable positions orbiting with the Earth.

But Connors says finding an 'Earth-bound' Trojan is difficult because its location can only be seen from Earth in daylight.

"When you look out towards Jupiter you've got no real problems picking up its Trojans because they're in the night sky for us most of the time", says Connors.

"But for our own Trojans, they're kind of near to the sun, so they're the sort of thing you'll only see for an hour or so in the evening and in the morning, that's your only opportunity to look for them."

"That's why none have been found before."

Connors says the launch of NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft (WISE) in 2009 changed all that.

"WISE looked at the infrared light coming from all over the sky and was particularly good at detecting asteroids, finding about 150,000 of them, including 500 which come near the Earth."

By examining the orbits of these objects in the WISE data, Connors and colleagues identified a small asteroid called 2010 TK7 as a probable Earth Trojan. The researchers then used ground-based telescopes to confirm the sighting, calculating that it's been in a stable orbit with Earth for more than 10,000 years.

Their finding appears today in the journal Nature.

Other than its orbit, scientists know very little about this asteroid.

"Based on the amount of light it reflects we estimate it to be about 300 meters wide, about the size of a small neighborhood," says Connors.

"We know nothing (else) about it, a situation we hope will change in the future."

Connors says he has been looking for an Earth Trojan for a number of years based, out of the belief that they must exist.

"Well they do; we've got one!" he says. "The question is, are there any more?"

Scientists have suggested an Earth Trojan would be a good target for NASA's proposal to send astronauts to an asteroid.

More at Discovery News

Prehistoric Dog Domestication Derailed by Ice Age

Some dogs were domesticated by at least 33,000 years ago, but these canines did not generate descendants that survived past the Ice Age, suggests a new PLoS ONE study.

The theory, based on analysis of a 33,000-year-old animal that may have been a partly domesticated dog, explains why the remains of possible prehistoric dogs date to such early periods, and yet all modern dogs appear to be descended from ancestors that lived at the end of the Ice Age 17,000-14,000 years ago.

The ancient animal identified as being a partly domesticated dog was found in Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.

"The Razboinichya dog find demonstrates that the right wolf/human conditions suitable for getting domestication started were present at least 33,000 years ago," co-author Susan Crockford told Discovery News. "However, such conditions would have had to be present continuously -- stable -- for many wolf generations, perhaps 20 over about 40 years for the domestication process to generate a true dog."

"It appears that such stable conditions were not present until after the Ice Age, sometime after 19,000 years ago," added Crockford, a researcher at Pacific Identifications Inc. and author of the book "Rhythms of Life." "Even after the Ice Age, domestication of wolves could have got started at several different times and places, and still failed because the conditions were not continuous enough for the changes to become permanent."

The Siberian animal was unearthed some years ago, but was only recently dated to 33,000 years ago by three independent radiocarbon dating facilities. Crockford and her colleagues conclude that it was a partly domesticated dog because of its mixture of dog and wolf features.

Based on its skull and other remains, the scientists believe it was about the size and shape of a large male Samoyed dog. Its teeth were still wolf-sized, however, and "it probably behaved more like a wolf than a dog."

Its remains were excavated from a cave area containing wild animal bones. Usually fully domesticated dogs, even very early ones, received more careful burials, often being placed in graves with, or next to, their owners.

Since no other dog-like animals were found at the site, the researchers think this animal was an "incipient" dog in the early stages of domestication. The scientists hold that domestication can happen naturally, without direct human intervention, when wolves are attracted to settlements and gradually adjust to a human-dependent lifestyle.

The Ice Age, however, changed the abundance and migration patterns of the animals that the people in the Altai Mountains of Siberia hunted for food.

"As a result, the people probably had to move more often than they did before," she explained.

Without the conditions that fuel domestication, the dog or dog-like animals gradually died off, the researchers suspect. Dogs reemerged after the Ice Age, reproducing and becoming the ancestors to today's modern dogs. It is unclear when the first pre-Ice Age dogs emerged, but a dog-like skull dating to 36,500 years ago was found at Goyet Cave in Belgium. It's possible then that the first dogs appeared in parts of Europe and Asia much earlier than commonly thought.

Read more at Discovery News

Neanderthals overrun by early humans

The Homo sapiens arrived in swarms that outnumbered the Neanderthals by at least ten to one, putting the natives at a massive disadvantage in competition for food, fuel and shelter.

Modern humans would also have been likely to triumph in any conflicts between the two species because of their larger and more coordinated social groups, researchers said.

The explanation could solve the mystery of why Neanderthals were unable to compete with modern humans despite having flourished in the icy landscape of central and western Europe for the previous 300,000 years.

A study of archaeological evidence from a large concentration of Neanderthal and early modern human sites in the south-west of France showed for the first time that the earliest modern human populations must have arrived in far greater numbers than native groups.

Scientists from Cambridge University noticed a sudden increase in the number and size of occupied sites, as well as relics like tools and animal food remains, which suggested modern humans lived in much larger and more integrated social groups.

Writing in the Science journal, the researchers said humans also had more sophisticated hunting equipment, better means of storing and preserving food through the long, freezing winters, and better trade links with neighbouring communities.

Experts are divided over whether modern humans had more developed brains than Neanderthals, but it is thought they had more sophisticated forms of language.

Professor Sir Paul Mellars, who led the study, said: “It was clearly this range of new technological and behavioural innovations which allowed the modern human populations to invade and survive in much larger population numbers than those of the preceding Neanderthals across the whole of the European continent.

More at The Telegraph

Jul 28, 2011

Own your own town for $800k

Had it with life in the big city? The traffic, crowds, and high rent got you down? Then may we suggest you consider investing in the town of Scenic, South Dakota? And by "invest" we mean "buy the whole darn town for $800,000."

That's right. The small town, which admittedly has seen better days, can be yours for just a bit more than an average home in San Francisco. So, what exactly do you get for your $800k? Quite a lot, actually. You'll get a dance hall, a saloon, two jails, a train depot, two stores, and some more empty buildings.

According to ABC News, the town is for sale because the current owner, Twila Merrill, has been diagnosed with cancer. Merrill's daughter, Lee Ann Keester, remarked, "I have to take care of my mom. Family always comes first... But it's just time, everything comes with time... [My mom] would love to do it until she's 100, but her health won't permit her."

True, the town won't be mistaken for New York or even Green Acres. However, based on the pictures, it does have a certain Old West charm. One can almost picture John Wayne ambling down the street. It does look like a ghost town--and with fewer than 10 residents, it's mighty close to becoming one.

Read more at Yahoo News

Ancient Source of Earth's Biggest Eruptions Found

Researchers believe that several of the largest volcanic eruptions in Earth's history were fueled by magma from a primitive reservoir in the mantle that has remained unchanged for 4.5 billion years, a remnant of the material that formed the early Earth.

Punctuating the last 250 million years, these staggering eruptions sometimes lasted several million years and were so large that a single event could double the total amount of magma on the Earth's surface.

The most recent of the resulting formations (called flood basalts) is found on Baffin Island in Canada and West Greenland, created by eruptions 62 million years ago. Samples from here gave researchers the first indication that the ancient mantle reservoir existed.

In a report published last year, researchers found unexpected element concentrations and isotope ratios that matched what is predicted for the primitive mantle -- the homogeneous matter that surrounded the Earth's newly-formed metal core before the mantle cooled enough to separate the crust from the modern mantle.

In the new report, published Wednesday in Nature, the researchers find that world's other largest eruptions tapped this same reservoir.

"We decided to look at other flood basalts." said Matthew Jackson of Boston University who authored the new study with Richard Carlson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They started with the biggest one, the Ontong Java plateau, a Pacific Ocean, undersea plateau the size of Alaska, 20 miles thick and as big as the other flood basalts combined. They studied its isotope ratios and element concentrations, as with the previous case.

"It had a lot of the same characteristics as the Baffin Island ones that we looked at last year" he said. They looked at four others around the world, with similar results.

Taken together, "The world's largest volcanic events in the last 250 million years all seem to have compositions that are consistent with sampling an early Earth reservoir," Jackson said.

The findings make sense, he notes, because the undisturbed, never-melted primitive mantle material would have retained high concentrations of radioactive elements to provide a lot of heat, as well as relatively high levels of easily melted materials, compared to already-depleted mantle reservoirs.

"Together these are the perfect recipe for generating enormous quantities of melt," Jackson said.

Recent work by others indicates that the largest volcanic events all erupted over one of two "superplumes" in the mantle, one under Africa and one in the South Pacific. It may be that these represent the locations of primitive mantle reservoirs, Jackson noted.

Read more at Discovery News

Amateur Archeologists Invited to Decipher Papyri

Hundreds of thousands of papyrus fragments, retrieved 100 years ago from a dry rubbish dump in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, have been put online in a bid to crowdsource translations.

Written in Greek during a period when Egypt was under the control of a Greek (and later Roman) settler class, the texts include a variety of documents -- from works of literature, letters, receipts to gossip.

A fascinating window into ancient lives, the images represent a monumental task: although the scraps of parchment were discovered in 1896, scholars have so far deciphered only two per cent of the text.

Many of the papyri had not been read for over a thousand years.

"We thought it was time we called in some help," project leader Chris Lintott of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, said.

Working in collaboration with Oxford University papyrologists and Egypt Exploration Society, Lintott’s team launched the Ancient Lives website, where armchair archaeologists can help with cataloguing and translating the ancient manuscripts.

Although the phrase "it's all Greek to me" seems to fit perfectly the project, knowledge of the classic language is not necessary.

Visitors to the Ancient Lives website are shown an image of an extract and then you can click on a character in the image and then what you believe is the corresponding Greek character in a keyboard below.

As untranslated fragments appear on the website, character-recognition tools will help people match the letters to symbols. Once the letters have been transliterated, the computer verifies whether the manuscript has been translated by an academic. If not, it passes it on to the scholars for further study.

Researchers have already discovered fragments of a previously unknown "lost" gospel which describes Jesus casting out demons, new letters of the philosopher Epicurus, various dialogues of Plato, a papyrus of the philosopher and poet Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye, Euripides’ lost play Melanippe the Wise, Menander’s Misoumenos, and various plays by Aristophanes.

Read more at Discovery News

80 year old shot in the face with arrow calmly pulls it out, remains unharmed

An 80-year-old American woman who was enjoying a doughnut at her kitchen table was hit in the face by a stray arrow apparently shot by a neighbor honing his archery skills, police said on Wednesday.

The woman, great-grandmother Margaret Shofner, calmly pulled the arrow out of her jaw on Tuesday morning and put it on her table. She did not require hospitalization and wasn’t sure at first what hit her.

“I pulled (the arrow) out and laid it on the table. That’s when I realized what it was,” said Shofner, who lives in the state of Missouri and told her story to a local television network.

“Who would have thought an arrow was going to come into your house and hit you,” she added.

Full story at Reuters

Jul 27, 2011

How Early Reptiles Moved

Modern scientists would have loved the sight of early reptiles running across the Bromacker near Tambach-Dietharz (Germany) 300 million years ago. Unfortunately this journey through time is impossible. But thanks to Dr. Thomas Martens and his team from the Foundation Schloss Friedenstein Gotha, numerous skeletons and footprints of early dinosaurs have been found and conserved there during the last 40 years.

"It is the most important find spot of primitive quadruped vertebrates from the Perm in Europe," says Professor Dr. Martin S. Fischer from the University Jena (Germany). The evolutionary biologist and his team together with the Gotha scientists and other partners are now starting a research project not only to analyze the locomotion of these primeval saurians. They also want to set them back into motion -- at least in animation. The Volkswagen Foundation (VolkswagenStiftung) will support the project with about 288.000 Euro during the next two years. "Our first major palaeontologic project," as zoologist Fischer delightedly calls it.

The fossils found on the Bromacker date back to the oldest fully terrestrial vertebrates. These so-called amniotes are the first real "land-dwelling animals." This became possible through a first evolutionary step in which they laid a completely encapsulated egg in whose 'watery inside' the offspring could develop. Therefore tadpoles and gills became redundant. "The Bromacker fossils are the closest relatives of the last mutual ancestor of the amniotes that have been found so far," Dr. John A. Nyakatura, who oversees the new research project points out, stressing the evolutionary-biological importance of the finds. How did the locomotion system of those amniotes change? They are according to Nyakatura "pivotal to the genealogical tree for evolutionary biologists." The Jena expert in locomotion research says the crucial questions of the new project are: "Which functionally anatomical consequences does ‚cutting the cord' to water have for the locomotion system of the animals?"

The Jena zoologists and their partners in Gotha, Dresden (both Germany), England and the USA wanted to find out. In their research they cannot only rely on years of expertise but also on one of the fastest X-ray video systems worldwide, which is used at the Friedrich Schiller University. With the help of this system, Dr. Nyakatura and the Paleo-Biomechanist Dr. Vivian Allen who will change from London to Jena in autumn, plan to analyze the locomotion systems of diverse animals resembling the early reptiles. They will observe skinks, tiger salamanders, green iguanas and small crocodiles. In order to do so the animals will move on a treadmill in front of the X-ray video camera that can take up to 2.000 pictures per seconds. Moreover the pressure on the joints will be investigated and footprints will be generated on wet clay. At the end of these analysis a comprehensive locomotion profile of the species is to be created -- which in itself will bring science forward.

The protocol of the footprints will then be compared to the primeval footprints, in order to get an understanding of the early saurians movements. "And this in turn will allow conclusions to be drawn about the find spot and what happened there," Dr. Martens adds. This is only possible because the Gotha researchers could not only recover numerous footprints but also complete skeletons of unique quality. "The fossils are mind-blowing," Nyakatura stresses. The entire animal relics encapsulated in stone slabs are being scanned with the help of the TU Dresden in order to create three-dimensional reconstructions of the skeletons. At the end of the project animated studies of the early saurians will be generated from the scans and the locomotion protocols.

Read more at Science Daily

People from Polar Regions Have Bigger Brains

People who live in high latitude regions have bigger eyeballs and brains than other individuals, according to new research.

The increase in brain and eye size allows people to see better in places that receive less light than areas closer to the equator, according to the new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Royal Society Biology Letters.

The effect is most extreme at the poles.

"Someone living on the Arctic Circle would have an eyeball that is 20 percent larger than someone living on the equator," co-author Robin Dunbar told Discovery News.

"People living at high latitudes have greater visual acuity than those who live at the equator," added Dunbar, who is head of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

"The whole point is that they need to have better vision to compensate for the lower light levels at high latitudes, as indicated by the evidence we provide that visual acuity under ambient/natural light conditions remains constant with latitude."

For the study, Dunbar and colleague Eiluned Pearce measured the skulls of 55 individuals from 12 different populations, focusing on the dimensions for orbital volume and cranial capacity. The people lived about 200 years ago. Their skulls are now part of collections housed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the University of Cambridge's Duckworth Collection.

The researchers found significant positive relationships between absolute latitude, orbital volume and brain size. Eyeballs varied in size from around a quarter to a third of an ounce in volume.

The brains, in turn, ranged from about 40.6 ounces for Micronesians, on the low end of the size spectrum, and 50.2 ounces for Scandinavians on the high end.

Skulls from Arctic Circle residents were not included, but the researchers made the "20 percent larger" estimate based on their existing data.

The scientists are quick to point out that brain size isn’t necessarily correlated with intelligence.

"The point we’re trying to make is that the larger brains of high latitude humans doesn’t mean they're smarter, it just means they have increased the size of brain areas dedicated to vision, and this has increased brain size overall," Pearce explained.

As for the larger eyeballs, they permit smaller proportions of images to fall upon each photoreceptor field so that more details can be distinguished. The amount of light hitting Earth's surface as well as minimum day length decrease with increasing absolute latitude, so people living in such areas need the visual boost.

The effect has previously been demonstrated before in birds and other primates, but this new study is the first to show how it affects humans.

More at Discovery News

Oldest Bird Was Actually a Dinosaur

Archaeopteryx, widely regarded as being the world's oldest known bird, has just been knocked off its scientific perch, since new research concludes this feathered animal was, in fact, a dinosaur.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature, falls on the 150th anniversary of Archaeopteryx's discovery. This part avian, part reptile-looking animal was found less than two years after Darwin's groundbreaking "Origin of Species" was released. It quickly became a memorable visual symbol of evolution at work.

With Archaeopteryx likely removed from the bird family tree, a few other prehistoric species now become the world's oldest known birds.

"Epidexipteryx and Epidentrosaurus, two species we described years ago, are probably the most primitive and oldest known birds," lead author Xing Xu told Discovery News, adding that they lived about 160 million years ago at what is now Dahugou Locality in eastern Inner Mongolia.

Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology, and his team made the determination about Archaeopteryx after analyzing their latest fossil discovery -- the remains of a small, long-armed, and four-winged predatory dinosaur that weighed less than 2 pounds. It is one of the tiniest dinosaurs ever found.

Named Xiaotingia zhengi, this new small dinosaur from western Liaoning, China, lived approximately 160 million years ago.

"This dinosaur is similar to Archaeopteryx in general body plan, (with its) similarly shaped head, shoulder girdle, long and robust arms, similarly shaped pelvis, and feet with an initially developed highly extensible second toe," Xu said. "(Both dinosaurs) came from the same family, the Archaeopterygidae, and our analysis shows that Archaeopteryx is slightly more primitive."

Birds are still regarded as being dinosaurs, so it is difficult to tease apart these non-avian dinosaurs from birds since many shared similar features, such as feathers and wings.

It appears that several dinosaur lineages experimented with feathers and flight, from an evolutionary standpoint. It remains a mystery why all such animals did not survive the big K-T extinction event about 60 million years ago, but Xu suspects the small size, flying capability and warm-bloodedness of some species permitted them to survive, giving rise to the ancestors of modern birds.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 26, 2011

World’s biggest hotel left for 15 years unfinished finally opens doors – pics

The pyramid-shaped hotel, the largest structure in North Korea and one of the tallest hotels in the world, will open in 2012, 33 years after it was originally set to accept guests.

Construction on the project was stalled for 15 years until 2008, when Egyptian conglomerate Orascom committed $400 million to finishing it, Architizer reported.

The tower’s sleek and shiny facade was finally completed this year.

The hotel, which has more than 3,000 rooms, will reportedly have five revolving restaurants. It is the only hotel in the world with more than 100 stories, though the Emirates Park Towers, which opened in Dubai this year, is technically taller.

Read more pictures and full article at Business Insider

Black Hole Holds Universe’s Biggest Water Supply

Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever found in the universe. It’s 12 billion light years away, and holds at least 140 trillion times the amount of water in all the Earth’s oceans combined.

It manifests itself as a colossal mass of water vapor, hidden in the distant APM 08279+5255 quasar. Quasars are bright and violent galactic nuclei fueled by a supermassive black hole at their center.

This quasar holds a black hole that’s 20 billion times more massive than the sun, and after gobbling down dust and gas it belches out as much energy as a thousand trillion suns. The water vapor is spread around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light years.

“The environment around this quasar is unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” says Matt Bradford from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press release.

“It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times,” adds Bradford in the release. As the light from this watery quasar took 12 billion years to reach Earth, the observations come from a time when the universe was only 1.6 billion years old.

The water reservoir was discovered by astronomers, led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology, and using the Z-Spec instrument at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA) in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

Both instruments observe in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths, which lie between infrared and microwave wavelengths. Over the last two to three decades, this technique has allowed astronomers to find trace gases, including water vapor, in the earliest universe.

Astronomers are now building a new telescope that specializes in these wavelengths. The proposed 25-meter telescope is called CCAT (Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope) and would be plopped on the Cerro Chajnantor lava dome, more than 5,600 meters above sea level.

Read more at Wired Science

How We Learned to Chew

Are you reading this over a snack or your lunch? Go ahead, take a bite and notice how you use your tongue.

Expertly, you nudge your food into the right place so your teeth come down right on top of the hunk of food, and with each chew, you reposition the bolus just a little to get all the right parts chewed up.

In a new study, researchers took a look at how different animals use their tongues and jaws together. Their findings suggest that ancient animals' move to land may have led to wider ranging tongue motion, and, not surprisingly, that animals' dietary habits have dictated how tongue use has evolved.

"Chewing really is an ancestral trait," said Nicolai Konow of Brown University, in Providence, RI, who led the new study published in Integrative and Comparative Biology. Indeed, the new evidence suggests that chewing originated before the ancestors of modern land vertebrates left the sea.

But then its purposes diverged, Konow explained. "For fish, they use the tongue as an active processing unit and they use the tongue to pull the food further into the mouth and hold prey when they open the jaw." They move the tongue upward and pull it back in the nose-to-tail direction, in a relatively simple, two-dimensional motion.

"A fish is swimming around in a viscous medium," he said. "It has no appendages. Whenever the fish has caught some food, every time it opens its mouth to chew, there's a risk of the fish losing the food." This means the tongue is primarily working to keep and get the food backward and into the gullet, according to Konow.

"When you move up to land, all of a sudden we're subject to gravity, but we also evolved appendages," he said.

This created new roles for the tongue. Unlike fish, mammals can move their jaws and tongues side-to-side as well as up and down. Teeth come together precisely to mash up food, but that means the food needs to be in exactly the right place, and it is the tongue that makes that happen.

The new study found these differences among fish and mammals by implanting electrodes in the jaws and tongue muscles of a number of animals and tracking the patterns of their movement. Konow highlighted the importance of looking at the combination of jaw and tongue for getting a complete picture.

Not only did Kolow's team find differences in how fish and mammals use their tongues, but also within the collection of mammals the researchers studied, including omnivores like pigs and ungulates like llamas and goats.

Ungulates obtain their sustenance from a poor quality source, he noted. "It's very hard to extract nutrients from grass," he said. "This means that the energetics of chewing are really important, so efficiency is key. The tongue has to reposition the food precisely between the teeth."

This may explain the team's observations that ungulates' chewing was not as rhythmic as they had expected, but also more coordinated than the pigs'.

"The tongue in the herbivores has to be moved in a very labile manner to catch and reposition and intercept parts of that chunk of grass and constantly do fine tuning in terms of putting the food in the right spot," Konow said. "It doesn't matter so much for the pig. It doesn't need the tongue to be so intrinsically engaged in feeding."

Now the researchers want to understand how other animals fit into the picture.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 25, 2011

Scientists Discover Why Bones Grow on Muscle

Researchers think they've found out why some people's muscles mistakenly grow bones.

The condition, called heterotopic ossification, occurs when an area of the body is signaled to grow bone rather than other tissues. In short, the condition gives rise to bones growing in places they're not usually found -- in muscles. People may experience the phenomenon after recovering from injury or may have it from birth.

Though there's no way to prevent or know when a person will develop heterotopic ossification, scientists now have a starting point to develop drugs that could help treat the problem.

Approximately 1 person out of every 2 million people worldwide is born with a permanent type of the condition called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), which causes muscles to consistently produce bone, especially when a person is injured or sick. In more serious cases, the disease can hinder a person's mobility and even shorten his or her life.

In a study in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine found high levels of a neuropeptide called "Substance P," or SP, in both FOP patients and individuals who developed heterotopic ossification. From previous studies, it's known that SP causes inflammation and is used by the brain's neurons to help send white blood cells to injured areas of the body.

More at Discovery News

Mysterious Statue Once Featured at Machu Picchu

A mysterious stone statue, possibly the portrait of the great Inca emperor Pachacuti, once stood in Machu Picchu, according to archival research.

Likely placed against a round stone wall on one of Machu Picchu's terraces, the statue had already disappeared by the time American explorer Hiram Bingham climbed the steep jungle slope to be faced with an archaeological wonder exactly a century ago on July 24, 1911.

Bingham, who has been credited as one possible inspiration for the "Indiana Jones" character, saw "a remarkably large and well-preserved abandoned city " perched some 8,000 feet in the clouds "in a wonderfully picturesque position," he wrote in the March 26, 1914, issue of Nature.

Surrounded on three sides by the gorges of the Urubamba River (also called the Vilcanota River), and tucked between two massive mountain peaks -- the Huayna Picchu and the Machu Picchu -- the vine-covered ruins of "the lost city of the Incas" were never really lost at all.

"Machu Picchu was never lost to the locals and certainly not to the huaqueros [treasure hunters and tomb-robbers] who looted the site before Hiram Bingham was born," American explorer and researcher Paolo Greer told Discovery News.

"I really believe that Bingham was one of the best things that happened to Machu Picchu. He actually stopped the looters who had sacked the ruins for decades before he arrived," Greer said.

The stone statue was lost to such plundering, said Greer.

"According to old documents, it was last seen in Machu Picchu in the 1860s. Then, possibly around 1880, it fell victim of the local treasure hunters," he said.

Greer, who has spent much of the last two decades studying Inca ruins, made in 2008 the controversial claim that Machu Picchu was "discovered" 43 years before Bingham's arrival by an obscure German entrepreneur named Augusto Berns.

While tracking down Berns' activities through documents in the National Library of Peru, Greer found a specific reference to the mysterious statue.

"Indeed, it was Augusto Berns himself who saw the sculpture. In his private letters he wrote about a large effigy of an Inca, placed as a sign, and 'formerly used as a model for the silver molders.' He mentioned that it was knocked down by those searching underneath it for gold and silver idols," Greer said.

According to the researcher, the stone effigy likely represented Pachacuti (about 1391– 1473), regarded as the greatest of the Inca emperors. With a name meaning "Earthshaker" or "He Who Changes the World," the Genghis Khan of the Incas conquered a huge territory and is widely credited with building Machu Picchu.

The presence of a stone statue with his likeness would strengthen the hypothesis that Machu Picchu held Pachacuti's tomb.

"The stone sculpture might have simply been the mold for a lost gold effigy said to stand on top of the emperor's tomb," Greer said.

He believes that the emperor's mummy was placed in what Bingham called "The Royal Mausoleum," a cave below the Torreón or the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu, and later moved to an upper crypt.

"The room above the mausoleum features a rounded plinth on which a gold statue of the emperor once stood," Greer said.

The statue is described in the 1557 "Narrative of the Incas" by Juan de Betanzos, one of the most important sources on the Incan civilization.

According to Betanzos, Pachacuti ordered "a golden image made to resemble him be placed on top of his tomb." The gold statue was to be worshiped instead of his mummy.

Leading Peruvian historian Luis Guillermo Lumbreras agrees that Pachacuti was buried in Machu Picchu.

"The latest research tells us that Machu Picchu was a great monastery where they worshipped the [royal] mummies," Lumbreras told Peru's news agency Andina.

Unfortunately, the mummies of the Inca emperors are now lost. To stop the worshipping of the mummified remains, and to possibly steal the gold and treasures that were associated with the mummies,the Spanish seized the remains of 11 kings and several queens. Five royal mummies, including that of Pachacuti, who was "so well preseved that it seemed alive," were sent in 1560 to Lima and put on display in the Hospital of San Andrés.

Around 1638, they disappeared. Scholars have long maintained that the mummies still lie buried in the hospital's ground, yet all attempts to find them have proved unsuccessful.

Read more at Discovery News

Pioneers Get Close-Up View of Miracle Material Graphene

Physicists who won last year's Nobel Prize for isolating graphene, the world's thinnest material, said Sunday they had devised ways of studying the novel substance at the fundamental level of the electron.

In a study published in the journal Nature Physics, Russian-born physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov said they had detailed interactions between electrons on a sheet of graphene in a bid to understand why the material is so unique.

Graphene comprises just a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-shaped, hexagonal lattice.

The substance is chemically very simple but extremely strong, conducts electricity, dissipates heat and is transparent. There is a surge of interest in it to replace semiconductors in next-generation computers, touch screens and other electronic gadgets.

The Geim-Novoselov team built a test bed in which extremely high-quality sheets of graphene were suspended in a vacuum in order to get a clear view of how electrons interacted, free from the distortion of electron "scattering."

They found that the electrons moved at very high velocities -- previous research has monitored speeds 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) per second, some 30 times faster than in silicon -- and in a way that mimics photons, or particles of light.

Read more at Discovery News

Hotspot Found on Moon's Far Side

Scientists have found evidence of volcanoes on the far side of the moon.

The new discovery, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience is a rare example of volcanism on the lunar surface not associated with asteroid, meteor or comet impact events.

Until now the best known examples of volcanism were on the moon's near side in a region known as the Procellarum KREEP terrane.

A team of scientists, led by Bradley Jolliff from Washington University in St Louis, used images and other data gathered by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to assess the composition of an unusual region on the far side of the moon called the Compton-Belkovich thorium anomaly.

They focused on an area containing numerous domes, some more than six kilometers high.

The domes featured steeply sloping sides which Jolliff and colleagues interpret as, "volcanic in origin and formed from viscous lava."

"We also observe circular depressions, which we suggest result from caldera collapse or volcanic vents," the researchers write.

The LRO data indicates the rocks are rich in thorium, silica and alkali-feldspar minerals, making them different from the black basalts that make up the lunar mare on the near side.

Sarah Maddison, an associate professor of Astrophysics at Swinburne University in Melbourne said such a localized region of volcanism on the lunar far side is unusual.

"Most of the volcanism we see on the moon is impact related and on the near side, although we don't know why," said Maddison.

"But if it's caused by radioactive decay, then why is it limited to the one hot spot and why did it happen so much later than everywhere else on the moon?"

Geology lecturer Ian Graham from the University of New South Wales said the discovery is highly significant.

"It's much higher in silicon and potassium than the basaltic volcanism seen elsewhere on the moon" said Graham.

More at Discovery News

Jul 24, 2011

Kid claims “fish accidentally slipped in to my penis” whilst cleaning aquarium

Above image is of a fish in someones bladder.

“Details of the case, which was documented in The Internet Journal of Urology, have revealed that the patient claimed that the fish “slipped” into his penis while he was maintaining his aquarium.

“While he was cleaning the fish tank in his house, he was holding a fish in his hand and went to the toilet for passing urine. When he was passing urine, the fish slipped from his hand and entered his urethra and then he developed all these symptoms.”

Full story at Geekologie

Woman accidentally paid for 12 years of no work

AOL NEWS: For the last 12 years, a Virginia woman hasn’t set foot in her office and has done zero work, yet she’s been collecting an annual salary that has totaled more than $300,000. Recently, the bookkeeping mistake was discovered and her payments were discontinued, but now she’s filing for wrongful termination and unemployment benefits.

It all started more than a dozen years ago, when Jill McGlone, who had been working as an office assistant for the Norfolk Community Services Board, was suspended for “revealing confidential medical information.” Apparently, authorities forgot to suspend her pay, however, and the checks, which totalled about $26,000 per year, kept going out.

Her situation was only uncovered recently, when a new supervisor, Maureen Womack, came in to take the reigns of Norfolk CSB. She went over the budget, discovered the human resource department’s mistake, and fired McGlone with alacrity.

Full story at AOL

Wiedemann-Franz Law: Physicists Break 150-Year-Old Empirical Laws of Physics

A violation of one of the oldest empirical laws of physics has been observed by scientists at the University of Bristol. Their experiments on purple bronze, a metal with unique one-dimensional electronic properties, indicate that it breaks the Wiedemann-Franz Law. This historic discovery is described in a paper published July 20 in Nature Communications.

In 1853, two German physicists, Gustav Wiedemann and Rudolf Franz, studied the thermal conductivity (a measure of a system's ability to transfer heat) of a number of elemental metals and found that the ratio of the thermal to electrical conductivities was approximately the same for different metals at the same temperature.

The origin of this empirical observation did not become clear however until the discovery of the electron and the advent of quantum physics in the early twentieth century. Electrons have a spin and a charge. When they move through a metal they cause an electrical current because of the moving charge. In addition, the moving electrons also carry heat through the metal but now it is via both the charge and the spin. So a moving electron must carry both heat and charge: that is why the ratio does not vary from metal to metal.

For the past 150-plus years, the Wiedemann-Franz law has proved to be remarkably robust, the ratio varying at most by around 50 per cent amongst the thousands of metallic systems studied.

In 1996, American physicists C. L. Kane and Matthew Fisher made a theoretical prediction that if you confine electrons to individual atomic chains, the Wiedemann-Franz law could be strongly violated. In this one-dimensional world, the electrons split into two distinct components or excitations, one carrying spin but not charge (the spinon), the other carrying charge but not spin (the holon). When the holon encounters an impurity in the chain of atoms it has no choice but for its motion to be reflected. The spinon, on the other hand, has the ability to tunnel through the impurity and then continue along the chain. This means that heat is conducted easily along the chain but charge is not. This gives rise to a violation of the Wiedemann-Franz law that grows with decreasing temperature.

The experimental group, led by Professor Nigel Hussey of the Correlated Electron Systems Group at the University of Bristol, tested this prediction on a purple bronze material comprising atomic chains along which the electrons prefer to travel.

Remarkably, the researchers found that the material conducted heat 100,000 times better than would have been expected if it had obeyed the Wiedemann-Franz law like other metals. Not only does this remarkable capability of this compound to conduct heat have potential from a technological perspective, such unprecedented violation of the Wiedemann-Franz law provides striking evidence for this unusual separation of the spin and charge of an electron in the one-dimensional world.

Read more at Science Daily

Time Travel Impossible, Say Scientists

Hong Kong physicists say they have proved that a single photon obeys Einstein's theory that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light -- demonstrating that outside science fiction, time travel is impossible.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology research team led by Du Shengwang said they had proved that a single photon, or unit of light, "obeys the traffic law of the universe."

"Einstein claimed that the speed of light was the traffic law of the universe or in simple language, nothing can travel faster than light," the university said on its website.

"Professor Du's study demonstrates that a single photon, the fundamental quanta of light, also obeys the traffic law of the universe just like classical EM (electromagnetic) waves."

The possibility of time travel was raised 10 years ago when scientists discovered superluminal -- or faster-than-light -- propagation of optical pulses in some specific medium, the team said.

It was later found to be a visual effect, but researchers thought it might still be possible for a single photon to exceed light speed.

Du, however, believed Einstein was right and determined to end the debate by measuring the ultimate speed of a single photon, which had not been done before.

"The study, which showed that single photons also obey the speed limit c, confirms Einstein's causality; that is, an effect cannot occur before its cause," the university said.

More at Discovery News