Oct 29, 2011

5ft bird sprints through town after escaping from farm

The rhea bird - which is similar to an ostrich - ran almost three miles from a farm on the outskirts of Blackburn, Lancashire.

The South-American rhea was seen running around the Cherry Tree area of the town at around 8.15am on Thursday.

Adam Mazur, 13, was doing his paper round when the bird crossed his path.

He said: "It was right in front of me running really fast with its wings up. It just went across the road and ran down Feniscliffe Drive. I went home and told my mum I'd seen a giant bird but she wouldn't believe me."

The bird's escape was finally stopped when it entered the garden of Tom Ansbro, 82, of Feniscliffe Drive. He said: "I couldn't believe my eyes.

It circled a couple of times and then stopped in our back garden."

Police then contacted Heath Kershaw, of Wellybobs Farm Park, Darwen, to deal with the situation.

He and colleague Karen Rostron managed to wrestle the bird into a trailer and calmed it by placing a hood over its head.

Farmer Michael Greenwood, who keeps around 50 of the flightless birds at Moorland Farm, Billinge End Road, Pleasington, said he was delighted to be 'rhea-united' with the bird.

Read more at The Telegraph

RSA animated lectures: how to open your mind

YouTube makes stars of video-makers all the time, but rarely have clips been as intellectually challenging yet enjoyable to watch as the 14 films in the RSA Animate series. One of these is based on a lecture with the faintly daunting title Changing Education Paradigms, by the author and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. It has been watched by 5.7 million people.

RSA Animate grew from a free lecture series hosted by UK charity the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In the style of TED, the American non-profit group that holds talks on new thoughts and innovations, the RSA’s lecture series aims to air exciting ideas from respected speakers on subjects from climate change to the credit crunch.

“The series was fine, but I thought it could be much more ambitious and cutting edge,” says Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit. It was a junior member of staff who had the intuitive leap of combining the lectures with the work of an artist, Andrew Park, from the animation company Cognitive Media.

The result is a series of 12-minute videos in which we see Park’s speeded-up hand moving across a white background, drawing cartoons that illustrate the lecturer’s words, which we hear simultaneously. Park also writes out parts of the lecture in bold capitals. The images and text expand as the lecture progresses, so when the camera zooms out at the end, we see the talk illustrated in its entirety as a huge artwork.

The unpacking of difficult talks into an easy visual format has resulted in a surge of curiosity. The latest RSA Animate, released last week, The Divided Brain, was based on a lecture by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, in which he summarises his 750-page The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Tens of thousands have already viewed it.

“This is profound thinking, but the video is full of things which make you smile,” Taylor says. “Andrew has a remarkable ability to combine brilliant animation with humour and lightness of touch. The drawings almost have a 'Carry On’ element. They are full of a very British, irreverent, slightly scatological sense of humour.”

Read more at The Telegraph

Oct 28, 2011

Psychic challenged to prove her powers

Sally Morgan, the clairvoyant who styles herself "Britain's best-loved psychic", has been invited by sceptics to take part in a specially-designed test to demonstrate her abilities, the Guardian reported.

The Halloween challenge, set to take part in Liverpool next Monday could qualify as the first step towards claiming a million-dollar prize offered by an educational foundation for any psychic who can prove their "gift" is real.

Morgan has written three books and is filming her latest series for Sky Living. Her website offers psychic readings over premium rate phone lines, the newspaper said.

The challenge, if Morgan attends, will be hosted by the Mersyside Skeptics Society, with a test devised by Professor Chris French, head of a pscychology research unit at Goldsmiths College London.

In the 20-minute experiment, she will be shown pictures of ten dead women and asked to match them to a list of their first names.

It comes after Mrs Morgan was accused of using off-stage helpers during her shows, claims she described as "completely and utterly balderdash".

Read more at The Telegraph

Insects Are Scared to Death of Fish

The mere presence of a predator causes enough stress to kill a dragonfly, even when the predator cannot actually get at its prey to eat it, say biologists at the University of Toronto.

"How prey respond to the fear of being eaten is an important topic in ecology, and we've learned a great deal about how these responses affect predator and prey interactions," says Professor Locke Rowe, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and co-principal investigator of a study conducted at U of T's Koffler Scientific Reserve.

"As we learn more about how animals respond to stressful conditions -- whether it's the presence of predators or stresses from other natural or human-caused disruptions -- we increasingly find that stress brings a greater risk of death, presumably from things such as infections that normally wouldn't kill them," says Rowe.

Shannon McCauley, a post-doctoral fellow, and EEB professors Marie-Josée Fortin and Rowe raised juvenile dragonfly larvae (Leucorrhinia intacta) in aquariums or tanks along with their predators. The two groups were separated so that while the dragonflies could see and smell their predators, the predators could not actually eat them.

"What we found was unexpected -- more of the dragonflies died when predators shared their habitat," says Rowe. Larvae exposed to predatory fish or aquatic insects had survival rates 2.5 to 4.3 times less than those not exposed.

In a second experiment, 11 per cent of larvae exposed to fish died as they attempted to metamorphose into their adult stage, compared to only two per cent of those growing in a fish-free environment. "We allowed the juvenile dragonflies to go through metamorphosis to become adult dragonflies, and found those that had grown up around predators were more likely to fail to complete metamorphosis successfully, more often dying in the process," says Rowe.

The scientists suggest that their findings could apply to all organisms facing any amount of stress, and that the experiment could be used as a model for future studies on the lethal effects of stress.

Read more at Science Daily

Speed-of-light experiment to be repeated

Researchers at Cern, the world's largest laboratory in Switzerland, announced last month that tiny neutrinos had been observed travelling marginally faster than light.

But the results met with widespread scepticism within the scientific community, not least because Einstein's theory of special relativity – one of the cornerstones of modern physics – makes such a feat impossible.

The results from the Opera experiment appeared to show that the particles had travelled 732km through the Earth from Cern to the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy marginally faster than light would have done.

According to Einstein nothing should be able to travel faster than light, and evidence that neutrinos were capable of doing so would have a fundamental impact on our understanding of the universe and of time.

The findings were so unlikely and of such critical importance that the researchers chose not to claim a "discovery", instead inviting scientists across the world to scrutinise their data for errors.

Now the team will rerun their experiment with some alterations which they hope will rule out many of the supposed flaws in their findings.

Some critics have argued that the timing measurements – which represent an average figure for a beam of particles rather than direct measurements – may have been misread.

Dr Sergio Bertolucci, director of research at Cern, said using shorter pulses would resolve this problem.

He told the BBC: "In the last few days we have started to send a different time structure of the beam to Gran Sasso.

"For every neutrino event at Gran Sasso, you can connect it unambiguously with the batch of protons at Cern."

Prof Matt Strassler of Rutgers University, who identified possible flaws in the original experiment, said the new test would help clarify the data.

Read more at The Telegraph

The Crisis That Hit Physics 100 Years Ago

One hundred years ago, the greatest scientific minds of Europe met to address a perilous state of affairs. During the previous 20 years, curious scientists had uncovered new phenomena — including X-rays, the photoelectric effect, nuclear radiation and electrons — that were rocking the foundations of physics.

While researchers in the 19th century had thought they would soon describe all known physical processes using the equations of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell, the new and unexpected observations were destroying this rosy outlook. Leading physicists, such as Max Planck and Walther Nernst, believed circumstances were dire enough to warrant an international symposium that could attempt to resolve the situation.

It was the start of the quantum revolution.

Reverberations from this meeting are still felt to this day. Though physics may still sometimes seem to be in crisis, with researchers yet to find the Higgs boson and lacking a complete understanding of dark matter and dark energy, what we do know about these mysteries is only possible thanks to the foundations laid down at the first Solvay Council.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, 1911, 18 luminaries came together as part of the invite-only conference in Brussels, Belgium known as the Solvay Council. Funded and organized by the wealthy chemist Ernest Solvay, the guest list is an impressive collection of top scientists from the time.

Along with Max Planck, often called the father of quantum mechanics, there was Ernest Rutherford, discoverer of the proton, and Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes, discoverer of superconductivity as well as the chemist Marie Curie and mathematician Henri Poincaire. The youngest member of this group was a 32-year-old Albert Einstein.

As scientists sometimes tend to do, the assembled members spent their time arguing about their field.

“The congress in Brussels resembled the lamentations on the ruins of Jerusalem,” Einstein later wrote to his friend, the engineer Michele Besso. “Nothing positive came out of it.”

The “temple” whose destruction many of the researchers were lamenting was the theories of classical physics, which had dominated scientific thinking in the previous century. Classical mechanics had managed to describe the movement of the planets, the behavior of electricity and magnetism and the relationship between solid, liquids and gases. But newly observed phenomena were pointing to problems. Light, for instance, had been heretofore described as a wave yet some experiments were suggesting this was an inadequate model.

Einstein himself was firmly in favor of the new tide, the way of quantum mechanics. Based on a theory of Planck’s, he advocated for the then-radical idea that light could behave as both a wave and a particle (or quantum). While we now know such a position to be true, observations at the time were not strong enough to wholeheartedly support this conclusion. It would not be until the 1920s that particles of light would be called photons.

Proceedings from the Solvay Council show how different physicists’ worldview was from our modern understanding. The gathered members “probably all agree that the so-called quantum theory is, indeed, a helpful tool but that it is not a theory in the usual sense of the word, at any rate not a theory that could be developed in a coherent form at the present time,” wrote Einstein.

At the time, theories describing light quanta and particle-wave duality had no rigorous experimental justification. Many of the scientists at the conference likely still believed in the now-outdated concept of a luminiferous ether, which supposedly was the medium through which light waves traveled, just as water waves travel through the ocean.

Einstein took issue with the conservatism of his fellow conference goers. Planck, he wrote, “stuck stubbornly to some undoubtedly wrong preconceptions,” while Poincare “was simply negative in general, and, all his acumen notwithstanding, he showed little grasp of the situation.”

Despite its goals, the 1911 meeting accomplished little. At its conclusion, Ernest Solvay addressed the scientists, saying, “In spite of the beautiful results achieved at this congress, you have not solved the real problems that remain at the forefront.” It would take at least two decades before experimental evidence and scientific debates firmly established quantum mechanics as a true theory.

Read more at Wired Science

Oct 27, 2011

Mummy Had History’s Second-Oldest Prostate Cancer Case

Some 2,250 years ago in Egypt, a man known today only as M1 struggled with a long, painful, progressive illness. A dull pain throbbed in his lower back, then spread to other parts of his body, making most movements a misery. When M1 finally succumbed to the mysterious ailment between the ages of 51 and 60, his family paid for him to be mummified so that he could be reborn and relish the pleasures of the afterworld.

Now an international research team has diagnosed what ailed M1: the oldest known case of prostate cancer in ancient Egypt and the second oldest case in the world. (The earliest diagnosis of prostate cancer came from the 2,700-year-old skeleton of a Scythian king in Russia.) Moreover, the new study now in press in the International Journal of Paleopathology suggests that earlier investigators may have underestimated the prevalence of cancer in ancient populations because high-resolution computerized tomography (CT) scanners capable of finding tumors measuring just 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter only became available in 2005. “I think earlier researchers probably missed a lot without this technology,” says team leader Carlos Prates, a radiologist in private practice at Imagens Médicas Integradas in Lisbon.

Prostate cancer begins in the walnut-sized prostate gland, an integral part of the male reproductive system. The gland produces a milky fluid that is part of semen and it sits underneath a man’s bladder. In aggressive cases of the disease, prostate cancer cells can metastasize, or spread, entering the bloodstream and invading the bones. After performing high-resolution scans on three Egyptian mummies in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Lisbon, Prates and colleagues detected many small, round, dense tumors in M1’s pelvis and lumbar spine, as well as in his upper arm and leg bones. These are the areas most commonly affected by metastatic prostate cancer. “We could not find any evidence to challenge this diagnosis,” Prates says.

“I would agree that it’s a case of metastatic prostate cancer,” says Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at the Academic Hospital Munich-Bogenhausen in Germany, who was not involved in the research project. “This is a very well-done study.”

Researchers have long struggled to detect evidence of cancer in the skeletons and mummified flesh of the ancient dead. But recorded cases of cancer in ancient populations are rare. Indeed, one study published in 1998 in the Journal of Paleopathology calculated that just 176 cases of skeletal malignancies had been reported among tens of thousands of ancient humans examined. The low number of cases prompted a theory that cancer only began flourishing in the modern industrial age, when carcinogens became more widespread in food and in the environment and when people began living longer, giving tumors more time to grow and proliferate.

But ancient populations, says Albert Zink, a biological anthropologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, were no strangers to carcinogens. Soot from wood-burning chimneys and fireplaces, for example, contains substances known to cause cancer in humans. And the bitumen that ancient boat builders heated to seal and waterproof ships has been linked to lung cancer as well as tumors in the respiratory and digestive tracts. “I think cancer was quite prevalent in the past,” Zink says, “more prevalent than we have been able to see.”

But that situation may be changing, Prates says, as physical anthropologists gain access to the new generation of high-resolution CT scanners. The equipment that Prates and his colleagues used to study M1, for example, has a pixel resolution of 0.33 millimeters, allowing radiologists to visualize even fleck-sized lesions.

Read more at Wired Science

Dinosaurs migrated 200 miles in herds, scientists find

Herds of Camarasaurus, a long-necked herbivore known as a sauropod, travelled almost 200 miles from the plains to the mountains in a bid to find food and water.

The journey would have taken place on a seasonal basis as the 20-tonne, 23-metre long beasts trekked together across vast distances.

The discovery was made by Henry Fricke, head of the geology department at Colorado College, whose work was published in the journal Nature.

His research proves scientists' long-held suspicion that dinosaurs migrated during the dry season, much like modern herbivores including wildebeest and caribou.

"I think it would have been rather slow going, with animals eating as they walked, maybe only going a few kilometres at most as they headed uphill before turning around and heading downhill again," he told The Times.

"Perhaps at this pace juveniles could keep up and could be protected from predators by staying near their huge parents."

By testing isotopes found in the dinosaurs' tooth enamel, Dr Fricke found that Camarasaurus lived in both the plains, where their fossils were found, and the mountains around 200 miles away.

The 145-year-old fossils, which were found in western America, reveal that the herd had been drinking water from high-altitude regions as well as the low-lying desert.

Dr Fricke said their journey from the lowlands to the uplands would have been both noisy and smelly.

"I imagine a lot of noise - rustling of trees as leaves are eaten, and lots of farting: sauropods didn't chew - they did all of their digesting in their gut," he added.

The research team, based in Colorado Springs, plans to test the theory by studying Camarasaurus populations from less arid environments.

They will also carry out tests on fossilised teeth from predatory dinosaurs with the same isotope components, to see if they followed their migrating prey.

Read more at The Telegraph

Dead Sea Scroll Objects On Display

A three-ton stone from Jerusalem's Western Wall, hundreds of biblical era artifacts, and a collection of 20 Dead Sea Scrolls will make their debut tomorrow in New York's Discovery Times Square Exposition.

The largest collection of biblical artifacts ever displayed outside Israel, the exhibition "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times," aims to take visitors on a "fascinating archaeological journey through the Holy Land."

The show's centerpiece is 20 Dead Sea Scrolls, containing sections from the biblical books of Genesis, Psalms, Exodus, Isaiah, and others. The scrolls include four pieces which have never been available for public viewing.

Considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century, the parchment and papyrus scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves around the ruins of the ancient settlement of Qumran on the Dead Sea.

A highly fragmented collection of documents in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic writing, the scrolls, which date between the third century BCE and the first century CE, include the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence, apocryphal manuscripts, prayers, biblical commentary, and religious laws.

"In order to truly understand the profound effect this material has had on our understanding of the development of Judaism and Christianity, it is necessary to journey back in time, not just to the period in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were written and copied, but also back to the time when the texts of the Bible were first composed," Risa Levitt Kohn, professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University and one of the exhibition's curators, told Discovery News.

"We try to accomplish this by immersing the visitor in the past with a huge array of objects from the biblical through the Byzantine period in Israel," Levitt Kohn said.

More than 500 artifacts are on display, along with a scale recreation of a section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, complete with an authentic three-ton stone from the Wall in Israel.

The artifacts include include remains of religious articles, weapons of war, stone carvings, textiles and beautiful mosaics along with everyday household items such as jewelry and ceramics.

Also on display, numerous objects from both the biblical and second Temple periods that have only been recently excavated and are yet to be published.

Read more at Discovery News

Asteroid Fails to Make It Big

Asteroids visited by spacecraft have all turned out to be piles of rubble or chunks broken off of larger bodies, but that's not the case with 21 Lutetia, a 75-mile long, 47-mile wide body circling in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.

Europe's comet-bound Rosetta probe flew by Lutetia last year and gave scientists a big surprise. With its dense body and an interior that seems to have survived intact, the large asteroid appears more like a protoplanet -- a leftover building block from the formation of the solar system.

"It could represent the missing link between smaller asteroids and dwarf-planets, like Ceres or Vesta, or planets," astronomer Fabrizio Capaccioni, with the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, Italy, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

For a protoplanet to survive, it needs to be big enough to withstand the heavy impacts of the solar system's early days. Lutetia is about the smallest that could have made it through intact, computer models show. But scientists don't know if it formed where it is found today, or migrated there after being gravitationally slingshot by a larger planet.

"The present day asteroid belt as a whole is a relic and fossil remnant of the original asteroid belt, which, as for the rest of the solar system, was much richer in the number of asteroid in the early phases of development of the solar system," Capaccioni said.

As the planet embryos began to grow, they started to gravitationally interact with bodies in the asteroid belt. Jupiter, in particular, acted as a giant vacuum cleaner to clear out material from the asteroid belt, Capaccioni added.

Protoplanets that remained in the asteroid belt continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate.

Scientists suspect 21 Lutetia is not a special case.

"It's just (by far) the largest visited at that time," astronomer Holger Sierks, with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in German, told Discovery News.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 26, 2011

Source Found for Immune System Effects On Learning, Memory

Immune system cells of the brain, which scavenge pathogens and damaged neurons, are also key players in memory and learning, according to new research by Duke neuroscientists.

Earlier studies by Staci Bilbo, an assistant professor in psychology & neuroscience, had shown that laboratory rats experiencing an infection at an early age have an aggressive immune response to subsequent infections, which also harms their learning and memory.

In a study published in the Oct. 26 Journal of Neuroscience, Bilbo's team identifies the source of the learning difficulties and traces it back to the immune system itself.

The researchers found that specialized immune system cells in the brain called microglia release a signaling molecule called Interleukin-1, or IL-1, in response to an infection. IL-1 is also crucial to normal learning and memory in the hippocampus region of the brain. But too much IL-1 can impair learning and memory in laboratory animals.

"These same molecules go up in response to any brain infection. I don't really understand why you would build a brain that way, except that there are clearly benefits in other aspects of immunity, outside the brain," Bilbo said.

In a series of experiments she has been conducting for nearly a decade, very young rats are exposed to infection and then challenged again later with a second infection consisting of only harmless, dead bacteria. The "second hit" has been shown to affect learning and memory while these rats mount a highly effective immune response.

"The microglia remember that infection and respond differently," she said. "The infection itself wasn't doing permanent damage. It was changing the immune system somehow."

The second infection doesn't even have to be directly involved with the brain. A bacterial lesion on a limb produces enough of a signal to make the glia in the brain pump out extra IL-1. "These rats handle peripheral infection really well, but at a cost to the brain," Bilbo said.

To find out what had changed in the brains of the infected rats, the team used techniques borrowed from immunology to sort out one specific cell type from brain tissue rapidly enough that they could see what the cells had been doing.

The work adds to an emerging picture of glial cells acting in the brain much the same way immune system macrophages operate elsewhere in the body -- gobbling up other cells and tearing them apart. The glia also perform a pruning function to streamline the brain's neural architecture as it matures. But some brain disorders appear to be a case of dysfunctional pruning, Bilbo said.

To test how the immune response affected memory, Bilbo's team placed all the rats in a novel environment and exposed them to a sound and a mild shock through their feet. A normal rat remembers the environment after one trial, freezing in place immediately when they enter the familiar setting a second time.

But rats exposed to infection, who tend to overproduce IL-1, stroll through the previously painful experience as if they've never seen it before, Bilbo said.

Even without experiencing the second immune challenge, the rats infected as youngsters also seem to show cognitive declines earlier than their normal control counterparts. "This is intriguingly similar to what you see in Alzheimer's. It's really kind of scary," Bilbo said.

"These findings could help us understand why some humans are more vulnerable than others to cognitive impairments from chronic infections, aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease," said Raz Yirmiya, a professor of psychobiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was not involved in the research. "This might also lead to new approaches toward diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic procedures for these conditions."

Read more at Science Daily

Autistic Brains Develop More Slowly Than Healthy Brains, Researchers Say

Researchers at UCLA have found a possible explanation for why autistic children act and think differently than their peers. For the first time, they've shown that the connections between brain regions that are important for language and social skills grow much more slowly in boys with autism than in non-autistic children.

Reporting in the current online edition of the journal Human Brain Mapping, senior authorJennifer G. Levitt, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA; first author Xua Hua, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher; and colleagues found aberrant growth rates in areas of the brain implicated in the social impairment, communication deficits and repetitive behaviors that characterize autism.

Autism is thought to affect one in 110 children in the U.S., and many experts believe the numbers are growing. Despite its prevalence, little is known about the disorder, and no cure has been discovered.

Normally, as children grow into teenagers, the brain undergoes major changes. This highly dynamic process depends on the creation of new connections, called white matter, and the elimination, or "pruning," of unused brain cells, called gray matter. As a result, our brains work out the ideal and most efficient ways to understand and respond to the world around us.

Although most children with autism are diagnosed before they are 3 years old, this new study suggests that delays in brain development continue into adolescence.

"Because the brain of a child with autism develops more slowly during this critical period of life, these children may have an especially difficult time struggling to establish personal identity, develop social interactions and refine emotional skills," Hua said. "This new knowledge may help to explain some of the symptoms of autism and could improve future treatment options."

The researchers used a type of brain-imaging scan called a T1-weighted MRI, which can map structural changes during brain development. To study how the brains of boys with autism changed over time, they scanned 13 boys diagnosed with autism and a control group of seven non-autistic boys on two separate occasions. The boys ranged in age from 6 to 14 at the time of the first scan; on average, they were scanned again approximately three years later.

By scanning the boys twice, the scientists were able to create a detailed picture of how the brain changes during this critical period of development.

Besides seeing that the white-matter connections between those brain regions that are important for language and social skills were growing much slower in the boys with autism, they found a second anomaly: In two areas of the brain -- the putamen, which is involved in learning, and the anterior cingulate, which helps regulate both cognitive and emotional processing -- unused cells were not properly pruned away.

"Together, this creates unusual brain circuits, with cells that are overly connected to their close neighbors and under-connected to important cells further away, making it difficult for the brain to process information in a normal way," Hua said.

"The brain regions where growth rates were found to be the most altered were associated with the problems autistic children most often struggle with -- social impairment, communication deficits and repetitive behavior," she added.

Future studies using alternative neuroscience techniques should attempt to identify the source of this white-matter impairment, the researchers said.

Read more at Science Daily

Why Spiders Will Always Find You

Spiders abound this Halloween season, but for those who wish to slip past unnoticed by a real spider -- good luck. New research has found that spiders are second only to cockroaches when it comes to detecting vibrations.

Hungry spiders can detect the quietest movements and air flow shifts. Stimulus forces in the .01 near-undetectable range are enough for spider stimulation, according to a new published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

In fact, a spider's entire body is built to detect almost anything and anyone that might cross its path.

"The spider has more than 3000 strain sensors embedded in its exoskeleton at many different locations, but most of them are on the legs and the compound organs, like the vibration receptors, are near leg joints," co-author Friedrich Barth, one of the world's leading experts on spiders, told Discovery News.

Both he and lead author Clemens Schaber are neurobiologists at the University of Vienna. Along with colleague Stanislav Gorb of the University of Kiel, they used a process called white light interferometry to perform the first ever quantitative examination of the sophisticated micromechanics of spiders. This process combines light waves in an optical instrument, allowing for very precise measurements of the tiniest things, such as force on a spider strain sensor.

The spider's sensors consist of minute slits of the lyriform organs that receive information on local movements. The scientists determined that each slit's sensitivity was at the nanoscale level, gradually decreasing with decreasing slit length.

Schaber and his team focused their investigations on adult females of the large Central American wandering spider, Cupiennius salei, taken from their Vienna breeding stock. Given its size and impressive hunting talents, it's a favorite species for spider studies, and has been analyzed before.

This particular spider "does not build webs to catch prey, but is a nocturnal sit-and-wait predator," Schaber told Discovery News. "Our spider receives vibrations through the leaves of plants. Both on the plant and in the web, spiders (in general) will attack the stimulus source if the vibration amplitude induced is within a certain range and if it contains a biologically meaningful range of frequencies."

"If both parameters are far from being prey-like, a spider will not respond or escape," he continued.

Spiders may therefore detect the presence of a human or other animal, but unless the invader's movements mimic those of typical prey, the spider will probably not attack. With such a sensitive ability to detect vibrations, spiders would forever be wasting their time on useless hunts, were it not for their ability to fine-tune the incoming sensory information.

Biologist George Uetz of the University of Cincinnati and colleague Shira Gordon also recently studied spiders and found that when certain spiders are in the mood to mate, they drum unique sexy vibrations, preferably on leaf litter, to attract partners. Wolf spiders have a particularly showy display involving leg taps and body bounces.

Read more at Discovery News

The Annihilation Was Not Just In the Seas

About 252 million years ago, Earth experienced its most devastating extinction in the history of life on our planet. And while scientists have long known that more than 80 percent of ocean-dwelling species disappeared, they have long debated what happened on land.

Now, researchers are reporting that land-dwelling species were equally decimated during the extinction, which ended an era called the Permian period. After the massive wave of devastation swept through, just a few "disaster" species remained, including a handful of large four-legged creatures, a new study found.

Recovery, the study also found, was slow. Animals that survived the near-apocalypse remained on the edge of collapse for the next eight million years, before the food supply stabilized again.

As we enter what appears to be the Earth’s sixth major extinction event, the new findings emphasize the value of having a wide range of creatures around, and more warnings of the danger of letting too many species disappear.

"When you talk about diversity loss and recovery, it's not something that rebounds in ten years. It takes millions of years," said Jessica Whiteside, a paleobiologist at Brown University. "This is basically a warning call about the loss of biodiversity. It's something that takes a substantial amount of time to rebound from."

In a study published last year in the journal Geology, Whiteside found that it took as many as 10 million years for marine species to recover from the Permian-Triassic extinction. To find out what was happening on land during the same period, she and colleague Randall Irmis analyzed close to 8,600 fossils from South Africa and Russia.

When they counted types and numbers of creatures that existed before and after the extinction, they found that nearly 78 percent of terrestrial species disappeared as the Permian period ended. Among the few creatures that remained, they reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was a German-Shepard sized mammal-like animal called Lystrosaurus and a lizard-like creature called Procolophon.

The species that remained faced major challenges. For eight million years after the extinction event was over, researchers found that there was instability in the ratio of carbon atoms on Earth. That suggests that predator-prey relationships were totally out of whack.

In a healthy ecosystem, the food web looks like a pyramid, with lots of creatures on the bottom rungs being eaten by successively fewer species as you work your way up to the top predators. But after the Permian period ended, there were often just one or two species filling niches that were once occupied by 20 or 30 kinds of animals.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 25, 2011

Tasmanian Devils Might Survive Cancer Scourge

After years of unrelentingly dire news, biologists have found a possible hope for Tasmanian devils, which are threatened with extinction by a contagious, highly virulent form of cancer.

A small group in Tasmania’s northwestern tip appears to have survived the scourge largely intact. It’s the first population to do so, and represents the first real sign — however tentative — that the beloved marsupials may survive.

“This is the best news in a long time,” said disease ecologist Hamish McCallum of Australia’s Griffith University. “It’s not necessarily the answer, but it’s a positive sign.”

McCallum is, along with his co-authors on an Oct. 6 Conservation Biology paper describing the surviving devils, a front-line fighter against devil facial tumor disease, which was first spotted in 1996 when an amateur photographer saw a devil disfigured by huge, boil-like tumors.

By 2001, roughly 15 percent of Tasmania’s devils, which live nowhere else, were similarly afflicted, and researchers soon learned that the tumors were cancerous, contagious and deadly. They grew uncontrollably and fast around devils’ faces, preventing them from eating. They spread at the worst possible time, during mating.

The disease marched across the island; where it hit, up to nine in 10 Tasmanian devils were killed in the first onslaught. They were declared endangered. Scientists said extinction, except for a few individuals kept on species-level life support in zoos, was possible within 25 years.

Researchers didn’t know what to do, or even if anything could be done. But they didn’t give up; they set about gathering information, basic facts that meant little at the time but might someday come in handy. One such project was a genetic characterization of Tasmanian devil population structures.

In Tasmania’s far northwestern tip, in a 10-square-mile patch of remote mountain forest area called West Pencil Pine, biologist Menna Jones found hints of a genetically distinctive group. More research showed the West Pencil Pines devils had unique immune systems. This was no guarantee of immunity to the cancer, but it was reason to monitor them and hope.

According to McCallum, there are two likely explanations. Devil facial tumor disease might have evolved into a different, less-virulent local form in West Pencil Pine. This would be good news, but not the best news, since the other, highly deadly strains could still arrive later. But maybe, just maybe, the West Pencil Pines devils are uniquely immune.

“The best outcome would be that some devils in this population are resistant,” said McCallum. “We might be able to spread the resistant genotypes,” repopulating Tasmania with devils bred from the West Pencil Pine survivors.

Read more at Wired Science

Finally! Mysterious Cipher Code Cracked

An international team of computer scientists has cracked a manuscript detailing rituals of an 18th-century German secret society.

The text, known as the Copiale Cipher, is a 105-page book that was written in a combination of elaborate symbols and Roman letters. Previous attempts to decode it had failed, and it was clear that the cipher being used was more sophisticated than most. It is located in the former East Germany and was signed by a “Philipp” in 1866.

Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, collaborated with two colleagues, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University. They found that the text was in a sophisticated substitution cipher, which means that the letters one would expect were replaced with symbols.

Such ciphers are common in children’s games –- you might remember the “pigpen cipher” or shifting letters (making an "A" into a "C," a "B" into a "D" and so on) form grade school. The Copiale manuscript was a step above that. Knight and his team originally thought –- as had many others –- that the visible Roman letters in the text were the coded message. But when they tried replacing those letters with others all they got was nonsense.

That meant the symbols had to be what they were looking for, or some of them. They tried the same thing on the unknown symbols. Again, they got nonsense, but the nonsense seemed to point to German as the original language.

Knight and his team assumed they were starting with German, as the book is from Germany and “Philipp” is a German spelling. They then looked at the frequency of different symbols and where they occurred together. This technique is centuries old, and depends on the fact that different languages have combinations of letters that are allowed (or not). For example, in English, “q” is followed by a “u” in all but a few very rare words (and those are all foreign borrowings). That gave the a few letters, which in turn allowed them to pick out more. Eventually they were able to transcribe the whole text.

They have only translated the first 16 pages, but what the Copiale cipher revealed was a set of rules and initiation rites for a secret society. Such societies were more common in the 18th and 19th centuries, both as political and social organizations. (Yale’s Skull and Bones society was one of these).

The technique used on the Copiale manuscript, however, has more serious uses than plumbing the secrets of a secret society that has long disbanded. Knight notes that many of his algorithms can be used in machine translation (and often are) and that can be applied to other unknown texts and languages.

Read more at Discovery News

NASA Solves 2,000-year Supernova Mystery

New infrared observations from NASA telescopes have revealed how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances.

The US space agency said Monday its Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) had solved a mystery dating from 2,000 years ago when Chinese astronomers witnessed what turned out to be an exploding star.

The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise.

"This supernova remnant got really big, really fast," said Brian Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University and lead author of a new study detailing the telescope's findings online in the Astrophysical Journal.

"It's two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we've been able to finally pinpoint the cause," he added.

In 185 A.D., Chinese astronomers noted a "guest star" that mysteriously appeared in the sky and stayed for about eight months. By the 1960s, scientists had determined that the mysterious object was the first documented supernova.

Later, they pinpointed the object, known as RCW 86, as a supernova remnant located about 8,000 light-years away but remained puzzled at how the star's spherical remains were larger than expected.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 24, 2011

Solving the Mysteries of Short-Legged Neandertals

While most studies have concluded that a cold climate led to the short lower legs typical of Neandertals, researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that lower leg lengths shorter than the typical modern human's let them move more efficiently over the mountainous terrain where they lived. The findings reveal a broader trend relating shorter lower leg length to mountainous environments that may help explain the limb proportions of many different animals.

Their research was published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and will appear in print in the November issue.

"Studies looking at limb length have always concluded that a shorter limb, including in Neandertals, leads to less efficiency of movement, because they had to take more steps to go a given distance," says lead author Ryan Higgins, graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Center of Functional Anatomy and Evolution. "But the other studies only looked at flat land. Our study suggests that the Neandertals' steps were not less efficient than modern humans in the sloped, mountainous environment where they lived."

Neandertals, who lived from 40,000 to 200,000 years ago in Europe and Western Asia, mostly during very cold periods, had a smaller stature and shorter lower leg lengths than modern humans. Because mammals in cold areas tend to be more compact, with a smaller surface area, scientists have normally concluded that it was the region's temperature that led to their truncated limbs compared to those of modern humans, who lived in a warmer environment overall.

However, Higgins' group adds a twist to this story. Using a mathematical model relating leg proportions to angle of ascent on hills, he has calculated that Neandertals on a sloped terrain would have held an advantage while moving compared to their long-legged cousins, the modern humans. Because the area Neandertals inhabited was more mountainous than where modern humans tended to live, the researchers say that this assessment paints a more accurate picture of the Neandertals' efficiency of movement as compared to humans. "Their short lower leg lengths actually made the Neandertals more adept at walking on hills," explains Higgins.

But the group didn't stop there. "In our field, if you want to prove an adaptation to the environment, like mountains leading to shorter leg lengths, you can't just look at one species; you have to look at many species in the same situation, and see the same pattern happening over and over again," says Higgins. "We needed to look at other animals with similar leg construction that existed in both flat and mountainous areas, as Neandertals and humans did, to see if animals tended to have shorter lower leg length in the mountains."

The researchers decided to study different types of bovids--a group of mammals including gazelles, antelopes, goats and sheep--since these animals live in warm and cold environments on both flat and hilly terrain. The group took data from the literature on bovid leg bones and found that they fit the pattern: mountainous bovids, such as sheep and mountain goats, overall had shorter lower leg bones than their relatives on flat land, such as antelopes and gazelles, even when they lived in the same climates.

Investigating closely related bovids brought this trend into even sharper relief. Most gazelles live on flat land, and the one mountainous gazelle species examined had relatively shorter lower legs, despite sharing the same climate. Also, among caprids (goats and sheep), which mostly live on mountains, the one flat land member of the group exhibited relatively longer lower legs than all the others.

"Biologists have Bergman's and Allen's Rules, which predict reduced surface area to body size and shorter limbs in colder environments," says Higgins. "Our evidence suggests that we can also predict certain limb configurations based on topography. We believe adding the topic of terrain to ongoing discussions about limb proportions will allows us to better refine our understanding of how living species adapt to their environments. This improved understanding will help us better interpret the characteristics of many fossil species, not just Neandertals."

Read more at Science Daily

Orangutan Culture Develops Like Human Culture

A team of anthropologists have shown that orangutans may have the ability to learn socially and pass these lessons down through generations — evidence that culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots.

In humans, certain behavioral innovations tend to be passed down from generation to generation through social learning. Many consider the existence of culture in humans to be one of the key factors that differentiates us from other animals.

Around a decade ago, biologists observing great apes noticed geographical variations in behavior that suggested that they were passing certain innovations down through generations, just as humans do. To this day, there is much debate about whether geographical variations in behavior is driven culturally or through genetic and environmental factors.

Researchers from the University of Zurich have now studied whether the geographic variation of behavioral patterns in nine orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo can be explained by cultural transmission. They have concluded that it can.

The team analyzed more than 100,000 hours of behavioral data and created genetic profiles of more than 150 wild orangutans. They measured the ecological differences between the habitats of the different populations using satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques.

Co-author of the study, published in Current Biology, Carel van Schaik said: “The novelty of our study is that, thanks to the unprecedented size of our dataset, we were the first to gauge the influence genetics and environmental factors have on the different behavioral patterns among the orangutan populations.”

Environmental influences and, to a lesser degree, genetic factors did play an important role in defining differences in social structure and behavioral ecology between the populations. However, these factors did not explain the behavioral patterns.

Read more at Wired Science

Strange Life Found in Deepest Ocean

Scientists plumbing the depths of the Mariana Trench -- the deepest part of the ocean on the planet -- have identified gigantic amoebas lurking miles and miles beneath the waters.

The creatures are called xenophyophores, and scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego spotted them in the cold, crushing depths 6.6 miles beneath the white caps.

"They are fascinating giants that are highly adapted to extreme conditions but at the same time are very fragile and poorly studied," said Lisa Levin, a deep-sea biologist and director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.

Scripps scientists said xenophyophores are among the largest individual cells in existence, often growing longer than four inches. Recent studies indicate that by trapping particles from the water, xenophyophores can concentrate high levels of lead, uranium and mercury and are thus likely highly resistant to large doses of heavy metals. They also are well suited to a life of darkness, low temperature and high pressure in the deep sea.

"The identification of these gigantic cells in one of the deepest marine environments on the planet opens up a whole new habitat for further study of biodiversity ... and extreme environment adaptation," Levin said.

To reach the bottom of the ocean requires special equipment. Levin worked with Eric Berkenpas and Graham Wilhelm -- Remote Imaging engineers from the National Geographic Society -- to build and launch "dropcams."

Read more at Discovery News

Skeptics Catching Up on Climate Science

There really wasn't any doubt.

Evidence that Earth is warming is based on three sets of temperature readings. One set is maintained by NASA, one by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and one by a collaborative effort between Britain's Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, a dataset generally referred to as HadCRU. All of them have painted essentially the same picture: a global temperature increase over land of slightly under 1 degree C (1.8 F) over the past century.

But, as we know, not everybody has been willing to accept that evidence. One of those who has been most visibly (or audibly) vocal in his skepticism has been UC Berkeley professor Richard Muller. Muller has claimed erroneously that the famous 'hockey stick' graph showing temperature increases derives from a mathematical error (the graph has in fact been endorsed in a review by the National Academy of Sciences). He also fabricated criticisms by others of Al Gore, misrepresenting Gore's statements in the process. And he helped perpetuate some of the inaccuracies and misstatements that helped flame 'Climategate'.

So the announcement earlier this year that Muller would be co-chair of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study, which would use statistical analysis “to resolve current criticism of the [global] temperature analyses, and to prepare an open record that will allow rapid response to further criticism or suggestions,” was greeted with some cynicism, particularly given that the study was being heavily underwritten by the Koch Brothers, serial funders of climate deniers.

But evidence is evidence, and facts are facts, and the BEST team's first four papers, submitted for peer review but meanwhile published online, have concluded that ... well, global land temperatures have increased by about 1 degree Celsius. In fact, the BEST study yielded a temperature increase just two percent less than NOAA's estimate.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Muller wrote that:

    When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections. Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate. [Emphasis added]

(Of course, anyone who has actually followed climate science, rather than skeptic blogs about climate science, will have found the sentences in bold far less surprising than Muller and his team apparently did.)

As for whether this might cool the debate: well, probably not. The study monitors temperature increases, and does not address the cause of those increases. As Kevin Drum noted in Mother Jones: "So in one sense, its impact is limited since the smarter skeptics have already abandoned the idea that warming is a hoax and now focus their fire solely on the contention that it's man-made. (And the even smarter ones have given up on that, too, and now merely argue that it's economically pointless to try to stop it.)"

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 23, 2011

Complexities of DNA Repair Discovered

An international team of scientists led by UC Davis researchers has discovered that DNA repair in cancer cells is not a one-way street as previously believed. Their findings show instead that recombination, an important DNA repair process, has a self-correcting mechanism that allows DNA to make a virtual u-turn and start over.

The study's findings, which appear in the Oct. 23 online issue of the journal Nature, not only contribute new understanding to the field of basic cancer biology, but also have important implications for potentially improving the efficacy of cancer treatments.

"What we discovered is that the DNA repair pathway called recombination is able to reverse itself," said Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, UC Davis professor of microbiology and of molecular and cellular biology and co-leader of Molecular Oncology at UC Davis Cancer Center. "That makes it a very robust process, allowing cancer cells to deal with DNA damage in many different ways. This repair mechanism may have something to do with why some cancer cells become resistant to radiation and chemotherapy treatments that work by inducing DNA damage."

Heyer likens this self-correcting ability of the DNA repair system to driving in a modern city where u-turns and two-way streets make it easy to rectify a wrong turn. "How much harder would it be to re-trace your path if you were in a medieval Italian city with only one-way streets," he said.

In the current study, Heyer and his colleagues used yeast as a model system to elucidate the mechanisms of DNA repair. They expect their findings, like most that come out of work on yeast, will be confirmed in humans. "Whether in yeast or humans, the pathways that repair DNA are the same," Heyer said.

The research team used electron microscopy to observe repair proteins in action on strands of DNA. They saw a presynaptic filament called Rad51 regulating the balance between one enzyme (Rad55-Rad57) that favors recombination repair and another (Srs2) that inhibits recombination repair. By controlling the balance between the two enzymes, Rad51 can initiate genetic repair -- or the u-turn -- as needed.

"It is a tug-of-war that has important implications for the cell because, if recombination occurs at the wrong time in the wrong place, the cell may die as a consequence." The ability of the repair system to abort ill-fated repair attempts, gives the cell a second shot, improving cellular survival after its DNA is damaged. This is exactly what is dreaded in cancer treatment.

"There are a lot of hints in the scientific literature suggesting that DNA repair contributes to resistance to treatments that are based on inducing DNA damage such as radiation or certain types of chemotherapy," Heyer said. "The ability of cancer cells to withstand DNA damage directly affects treatment outcome, and understanding the fundamental mechanisms of the DNA repair systems will enable new approaches to overcome treatment resistance."

Heyer said the team's next step is to look at the enzyme system in humans and see whether they find the same principles at work. This work has received funding and has already begun. One application of this work will be to target the self-correcting mechanism in cancer cells as a way of sensitizing them to radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments.

"If we can confirm that these types of mechanisms exist in human cells, then we will have an approach for making cancer cells more sensitive to DNA damage-inducing treatments."

Read more at Science Daily

Viking Buried With Axe, Sword and Spear Found With Fully Intact Viking Boat Burial in UK

The UK mainland's first fully intact Viking boat burial site has been discovered by archaeologists working in the Scottish Highlands. The 5m-long grave contained the remains of a high status Viking, who was buried with an axe, a sword with a beautifully decorated hilt, a spear, shield boss and bronze ring-pin.

The Viking had been buried in a ship, whose 200 or so metal rivets were also found by the team.

The 1,000-year-old find, on the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, was made by the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project (ATP) which is a team led by experts from the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, CFA Archaeology Ltd and Archaeology Scotland

Funded this season by The University of Manchester, Newcastle University and The Leverhulme Trust, the project brings together students and academics at what may be one of Britain's most significant Viking sites.

Other finds included a knife, what could be the tip of a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, a ring pin from Ireland and Viking pottery.

Dozens of pieces of iron yet to be identified by the team were also found at the site, which has now been fully excavated.

Co-Director of the project and archaeology Teaching Fellow Dr Hannah Cobb, from The University of Manchester, has over the past six years been excavating artefacts in the Ardnamurchan Peninsula underpinning 6,000 years of its history.

Dr Cobb said: "This is a very exciting find. Though we have excavated many important artefacts over the years, I think it's fair to say that this year the archaeology has really exceeded our expectations.

"A Viking boat burial is an incredible discovery, but in addition to that, the artefacts and preservation make this one of the most important Norse graves ever excavated in Britain.

"Viking Specialist Dr Colleen Batey from The University of Glasgow, has said the boat is likely to be from the tenth century AD.

The team believe the site is also the first intact pagan Norse grave of its kind to have been excavated in mainland Scotland for 30 years and the first ever on the West Coast Mainland.

But the site has yielded other riches over the years, including an Iron Age fort from between 2500 to 1500 years ago this year.

Dr Oliver Harris, project co-director from the University of Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: "This project examines social change on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula from the first farmers 6000 years ago to the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

"In previous seasons our work has examined evidence of changing beliefs and life styles in the area through a study of burial practices in the Neolithic and Bronze age periods 6000 -- 4500 years ago and 4500 to 2800 years ago respectively.

Read more at Science Daily

Titan's Hazy History and the Potential for Life

Saturn's moon Titan is the only moon in our solar system known to possess an atmosphere of any significance.

Ten times thicker than Earth's, Titan's atmosphere extends nearly 370 miles (600 km) above its frigid surface. It's a literal chemical factory, where nitrogen and methane are zapped by the sun's ultraviolet rays and transformed into organic molecules, some of which descend to the moon's surface while others rise up above the clouds, creating a bluish high-level haze of hydrocarbons.

Titan's atmosphere forms an opaque orange shroud that covers it and hides many of its surface features from view, keeping much of its details a mystery until the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft in 2004.

Cassini's instruments were able to pierce Titan's cloud cover to reveal a world much more Earth-like than moon-like, with weather and rain feeding rivers, streams and lakes all across its surface. In fact Titan is the only place in the solar system where we have discovered liquid on the surface!

The only difference -- and it's a big difference -- is that, 800 million miles away from the warmth of the sun, the liquid on Titan is not water but methane. With temperatures of nearly -300 degrees Fahrenheit water has long since frozen as solid as rock on Titan's surface while methane rains down from the clouds... falling slowly in large drops, methane fills streams and rivers that eventually flow into vast shallow lakes.

Dry stream beds are coated with rounded pebbles and stones, hinting at flash methane floods that must repeatedly flow over them, eroding them and the entire landscape around them.

Were it not for the cold temperatures, a time-traveling space explorer could draw many similarities between the Titan of today and the ancient Earth... which is precisely what makes Titan so fascinating to planetary scientists and astrobiologists. If life could evolve on a once-inhospitable Earth, is it possible that it could have also evolved on Titan?

Time -- and lots more research -- will undoubtedly tell, but Titan is definitely on the short list of places scientists are looking for extraterrestrial life.

Of course, the million-dollar question now is how and why does Titan, a moon slightly larger than our own located hundreds of millions of miles away, even have an atmosphere that's so similar to one presumably found on early Earth?

The answer may lie in asteroids.

Much of the water on Earth may have come from ancient asteroid collisions, according to research by Josep M. Trigo-Rodriguez of the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, Spain, and Javier Martin-Torres at the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain.

Even though Earth and Titan formed in very different regions of the solar system, where different raw materials were available, they ended up with some of the same elements on their surface and in their atmospheres. These were most likely delivered by asteroids, the pair surmise, as well as by comets to a smaller extent.

During a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, between 4.1 and 3.8 million years ago, water-rich asteroids and comets inundated the inner solar system from the icy outer regions, delivering the water -- and thus oxygen -- to the then-oxygen-poor planet we now call Earth. Other important elements were deposited as well, like carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. These and other volatile elements became the foundations of our oceans, our atmosphere, and eventually the building blocks of life itself.

Titan, located in the already ice-rich reaches of the solar system, was likewise struck by water-bearing comets and asteroids. Outgassing and accretion by collision helped develop a similar atmosphere on both worlds, the difference being that while Earth's atmosphere eventually evolved into the one that oxygen-breathing animals like insects, dinosaurs, birds and eventually humans could breathe (with the help of mild climates and the existence of liquid water) Titan's chilly temperatures make liquid water impossible, replacing its Earthly role with methane and hydrocarbons.

Read more at Discovery News