Apr 13, 2013

Compact Multipurpose Scooter for Crowded Megacities

TUM CREATE has unveiled an all-new multipurpose scooter prototype, codenamed VOI, at the 3rd Taiwan International Electric Vehicle Show (EV Taiwan). VOI gets its name from the Vietnamese word for elephant -- a symbol of a safe and intelligent mean of transport. It is a two-wheel concept vehicle jointly developed by students from Technische Universität Muenchen (TUM) and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and was built in Singapore.

The design brief for the VOI was to develop a two-wheel transporter that is as agile and affordable as a scooter and, at the same time, as safe and comfortable as a car. With its compact size and maneuverability, the two-wheel electric scooter is designed as a transporter for densely populated megacities and offers a comprehensive solution to metropolises where congested traffic is a major problem.

Positioning the rider behind allows for a compact design and the use of an enclosed passenger cabin that shields occupants from the elements. The enclosure also offers added rigidity and stiffness to the vehicle chassis, which provides additional passenger protection.

With the VOI, business people are able to commute quickly, comfortably and safely through the gridlocks to rush from one meeting to another. It can also address the 'First/Last Mile Problem', where it complements an existing metro railway and public transport system, to offer commuters intermediate transportation between the stations to their destinations.

Furthermore, the VOI is not just limited to transporting passengers. Its modular front pod can be swapped for a cargo box or even a mobile kitchen -- making it a multipurpose vehicle. It is not only a more efficient mode of transport; it also reduces pollution within a metropolis with zero tailpipe emissions. Thanks to its lightweight design, the VOI is capable of reaching a nominal range of 80 km and has a maximum speed of 45 km/h.

Read more at Science Daily

Secrets of Bacterial Slime Revealed

Newcastle University scientists have revealed the mechanism that causes a slime to form, making bacteria hard to shift and resistant to antibiotics.

When under threat, some bacteria can shield themselves in a slimy protective layer, known as a biofilm. It is made up of communities of bacteria held together to protect themselves from attack.

Biofilms cause dental plaque and sinusitis; in healthcare, biofilms can lead to life threatening and difficult to treat infections, particularly on medical implants such as catheters, heart valves, artificial hips and even breast implants. They also they coat the outside of ships and boats polluting the water.

Publishing in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the team reveal how a molecular switch regulates biofilm formation. This new understanding could help identify a new target for antibiotics and prevent other biofilms from forming.

In order to thwart them from causing disease and biopollution, a Newcastle University team have been studying at the molecular level how bacteria form biofilms in the first instance.

They reveal how the master regulator of biofilm formation, a protein called SinR, acts in the model bacterium, Bacillus subtilis.

Richard Lewis, Professor of Structural Biology in the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences who led the research said: "SinR is a bit like a rocker switch, a domestic light switch for instance. In the "down" position, when SinR is bound to DNA, the proteins required to make a biofilm are turned off and the bacteria are free to move. In the "up" position, SinR is no longer bound to DNA and instead interacts with other proteins, and the biofilms genes are turned on."

SinR is a DNA-binding protein that acts to inhibit the expression of proteins required for the synthesis of the molecular glue that holds the biofilm together. The ability of SinR to bind to DNA is carefully controlled by a network of interactions with three other proteins. By the application of X-ray crystallography, the team have determined precisely how SinR interacts with very specific feature of its DNA target.

Read more at Science Daily

Apr 12, 2013

Are Human Genes Patentable?

On April 15, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a case that could answer the question, "Under what conditions, if any, are isolated human genes patentable?" Kevin Emerson Collins, JD, patent law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, believes that layered uncertainties make this case an unusually difficult case in which to predict the outcome.

During the early 1990s, Myriad Genetics made important scientific discoveries related to mutations in the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, which are biomarkers for increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Based on this work, Myriad sought, and obtained, patent protection for "isolated" DNA molecules that embody these sequences.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Myriad will determine whether Myriad's gene patents are valid or, alternatively, whether they were improperly issued from the beginning.

"The legal controversy centers on patent law's 'products of nature' doctrine -- a doctrine that prevents the patenting of newly made products that do not display a 'marked difference' from naturally occurring products," Collins says.

"A perfectly circular section cut out of a leaf of a newly discovered plant may be technically new at the time that it is first made -- and it may be socially useful if the leaf contains chemicals that are natural wound healers, but it's likely an unpatentable product of nature because there is no marked difference between the newly created product and the naturally occurring product.

"Importantly, the Myriad gene patents only encompass DNA molecules in an 'isolated' state, separate from the remainder of the chromosome in which they exist in a human body, and they thus describe molecules that were technically new when Myriad first made them."

The question before the Court is whether the structural and functional differences between naturally occurring DNA molecules and DNA molecules in an isolated state is sufficiently significant to constitute a "marked difference" and to sanction the patenting of the isolated DNAs.

Behind the legal controversy is an economic controversy that may (or may not) influence the Supreme Court's pronouncement on the products of nature doctrine. "The social costs of the exclusive rights to inventions granted by patents are normally justified by the incentives that patents provide for self-interested entities to invest in research and development and generate the socially valuable inventions," Collins says.

However, under some circumstances, there are legitimate concerns that the incentive-based benefits of patents may not outweigh these costs.

"One function of the products of nature doctrine is to ensure that the basic tools of scientific and technological work are not constrained by claims of patent rights and remain free for all to use as inputs into future research," says Collins.

"To the extent that isolated genes are essential technological and scientific building blocks, the costs of Myriad's gene patents in the form of slower innovation in the future may be so great that they will outweigh the benefits of the patent-induced incentives that speed up the creation of the isolated genes themselves."

The verdict

Collins says it is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will decide this case because of three compounded uncertainties.

First, the Supreme Court has to date not offered a clear legal framework for identifying products of nature, so it is unclear how high a hurdle the markedly different standard will prove to be.

Second, it is unclear how strongly the Court's legal determination will be influenced by the underlying economic concerns about the privatization of the building blocks of technological progress.

Read more at Science Daily

Alternative Way to Explain Life's Complexity Proposed

Evolution skeptics argue that some biological structures, like the brain or the eye, are simply too complex for natural selection to explain. Biologists have proposed various ways that so-called 'irreducibly complex' structures could emerge incrementally over time, bit by bit. But a new study proposes an alternative route.

Instead of starting from simpler precursors and becoming more intricate, say authors Dan McShea and Wim Hordijk, some structures could have evolved from complex beginnings that gradually grew simpler -- an idea they dub "complexity by subtraction." Computer models and trends in skull evolution back them up, the researchers show in a study published this week in the journal Evolutionary Biology.

Some biological structures are too dizzyingly complex to have emerged stepwise by adding one part and then the next over time, intelligent design advocates say. Consider the human eye, or the cascade that causes blood to clot, or the flagellum, the tiny appendage that enables some bacteria to get around. Such all-or-none structures, the argument goes, need all their parts in order to function. Alter or take away any one piece, and the whole system stops working. In other words, what good is two thirds of an eye, or half of a flagellum?

For the majority of scientists, the standard response is to point to simpler versions of supposedly 'irreducibly complex' structures that exist in nature today, such as cup eyes in flatworms. Others show how such structures could have evolved incrementally over millions of years from simpler precursors. A simple eye-like structure -- say, a patch of light-sensitive cells on the surface of the skin -- could evolve into a camera-like eye like what we humans and many other animals have today, biologists say.

"Even a very simple eye with a small number of parts would work a little. It would be able to detect shadows, or where light is coming from," said co-author Dan McShea of Duke University.

In a new study, McShea and co-author Wim Hordijk propose an alternative route. Instead of emerging by gradually and incrementally adding new genes, cells, tissues or organs over time, what if some so-called 'irreducibly complex' structures came to be by gradually losing parts, becoming simpler and more streamlined? Think of naturally occurring rock arches, which start as cliffs or piles of stone and form when bits of stone are weathered away. They call the principle 'complexity by subtraction.'

"Instead of building up bit by bit from simple to complex, you start complex and then winnow out the unnecessary parts, refining them and making them more efficient as you go," McShea said.

A computer model used by co-author Wim Hordijk supports the idea. In the model, complex structures are represented by an array of cells, some white and some black, like the squares of a checkerboard. In this class of models known as cellular automata, the cells can change between black and white according to a set of rules.

Using a computer program that mimics the process of inheritance, mutation, recombination, and reproduction, the cells were then asked to perform a certain task. The better they were at accomplishing the task, the more likely they were to get passed on to the next generation, and over time a new generation of rules replaced the old ones. In the beginning, the patterns of black and white cells that emerged were quite complex. But after several more generations, some rules 'evolved' to generate simpler black and white cell patterns, and became more efficient at performing the task, Hordijk said.

We see similar trends in nature too, the authors say. Summarizing the results of previous paleontological studies, they show that vertebrate skulls started out complex, but have grown simpler and more streamlined. "For example, the skulls of fossil fish consist of a large number of differently-shaped bones that cover the skull like a jigsaw puzzle," McShea said. "We see a reduction in the number of skull bone types in the evolutionary transitions from fish to amphibian to reptile to mammal." In some cases skull bones were lost; in other cases adjacent bones were fused. Human skulls, for example, have fewer bones than fish skulls.

Read more at Science Daily

10 Unbelievable Dinos That Really Existed

Dome-Headed Dinos

Dinosaurs by their nature seem bizarre, larger than life -- mysterious. And the history of dinos is constantly rewritten. Here we present to you 10 dinos that are furrier, freakier and more colorful than we previously thought possible.

Dome-Headed Dinos

Head-butting pachycephalosaurs, with noggins shaped like built-in football helmets, have long puzzled paleontologists.

"The head-slapping behavior of crocodiles and the face-pecking observed in a variety of birds suggest that 'using your head' is not unique to pachycephalosaurs," says Joseph Peterson, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Domes likely evolved in response to such behavior."

Four-Winged Dino

Scientists now think that some dinos that flew didn't have two wings. They had four.

"The first birds descended from four-winged dinosaurs," says renowned dinosaur and early avian hunter Xing Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. One such dinosaur might have been Microraptor, a non-avian dino that had feathers on both its arms and legs.


OK, full disclosure: This dino doesn't exist yet. But even conceptually it's bizarre enough to be included in this list. It's a dino -- and it's a chicken. It's a Dinochicken.

Paleontologist Jack Horner and his colleagues have been genetically engineering chickens to reactivate ancestral traits, such as long tails, which are more associated with non-avian dinosaurs.

"Birds are dinosaurs," Horner told Discovery News. "So technically we're making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur."

Read more at Discovery News

Stone Mystery in Sea of Galilee

A giant "monumental" stone structure discovered beneath the waters of the Sea of Galilee in Israel has archaeologists puzzled as to its purpose and even how long ago it was built.

The mysterious structure is cone shaped, made of "unhewn basalt cobbles and boulders," and weighs an estimated 60,000 tons the researchers said. That makes it heavier than most modern-day warships.

Rising nearly 32 feet (10 meters) high, it has a diameter of about 230 feet (70 meters). To put that in perspective, the outer stone circle of Stonehenge has a diameter just half that with its tallest stones not reaching that height.

It appears to be a giant cairn, rocks piled on top of each other. Structures like this are known from elsewhere in the world and are sometimes used to mark burials. Researchers do not know if the newly discovered structure was used for this purpose.

The structure was first detected in the summer of 2003 during a sonar survey of the southwest portion of the sea. Divers have since been down to investigate, they write in the latest issue of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

"Close inspection by scuba diving revealed that the structure is made of basalt boulders up to 1 m (3.2 feet) long with no apparent construction pattern," the researchers write in their journal article. "The boulders have natural faces with no signs of cutting or chiselling. Similarly, we did not find any sign of arrangement or walls that delineate this structure."

They say it is definitely human-made and probably was built on land, only later to be covered by the Sea of Galilee as the water level rose. "The shape and composition of the submerged structure does not resemble any natural feature. We therefore conclude that it is man-made and might be termed a cairn," the researchers write.

More than 4,000 years old?

Underwater archaeological excavation is needed so scientists can find associated artifacts and determine the structure's date and purpose, the researchers said.

Researcher Yitzhak Paz, of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Ben-Gurion University, believes it could date back more than 4,000 years. "The more logical possibility is that it belongs to the third millennium B.C., because there are other megalithic phenomena [from that time] that are found close by," Paz told LiveScience in an interview, noting that those sites are associated with fortified settlements.

The researchers list several examples of megalithic structures found close to the Sea of Galilee that are more than 4,000 years-old. One example is the monumental site of Khirbet Beteiha, located some 19 miles (30 kilometers) north-east of the submerged stone structure, the researchers write. It "comprises three concentric stone circles, the largest of which is 56 m (184 feet) in diameter."

An ancient city

If the third-millennium B.C. date idea proves correct it would put the structure about a mile to the north of a city that researchers call "Bet Yerah" or "Khirbet Kerak."

During the third millennium B.C. the city was one of the biggest sites in the region, Paz said. "It's the most powerful and fortified town in this region and, as a matter of fact, in the whole of Israel."

Archaeologist Raphael Greenberg describes it in a chapter of the book "Daily Life, Materiality, and Complexity in Early Urban Communities of the Southern Levant" (Eisenbrauns, 2011) as being a heavily fortified 74-acre (30 hectares) site with up to 5,000 inhabitants.

With paved streets and towering defenses its people were clearly well organized. "They also indicate the existence of some kind of municipal authority able to maintain public structures ..." Greenberg writes.

The research team says that, like the leaders of Bet Yerah, whoever built the newly discovered Sea of Galilee structure needed sophisticated organization and planning skills to construct it. The "effort invested in such an enterprise is indicative of a complex, well-organized society, with planning skills and economic ability," they write in their journal paper.

Paz added that "in order to build such a structure a lot of working hours were required" in an organized community effort.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 11, 2013

Fossilized Teeth Provide New Insight Into Human Ancestor: Species Identified in 2010 Is One of Closest Relatives to Humans

A dental study of fossilized remains found in South Africa in 2008 provides new support that this species is one of the closest relatives to early humans.

The teeth of this species -- called Australopithecus sediba -- indicate that it is also a close relative to the previously identified Australopithecus africanus. Both of these species are clearly more closely related to humans than other australopiths from east Africa, according to the new research.

The study, published in the journal Science, revealed that both africanus and sediba shared about the same number of dental traits with the first undeniably human species.

"Our study provides further evidence that sediba is indeed a very close relative of early humans, but we can't definitively determine its position relative to africanus, said Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, co-author of the study and professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University.

The research was led by Joel D. Irish, professor of natural sciences at Liverpool John Moores University.

The sediba fossils were found in South Africa in 2008 and first described in a series of articles published in Science in 2010. That study was led by Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, who is also a co-author of this new study.

In this study, Irish, Guatelli-Steinberg and their colleagues extended that work by examining the teeth from sediba and comparing them to eight other African hominin species, which include modern humans from Africa, and extinct species of Homo, Australopithecus, and Paranthropus. In all, the researchers examined more than 340 fossils and 4,571 recent specimens. They also examined teeth from 44 gorillas for comparison.

The focus was on 22 separate traits of tooth crowns and roots that can give clues as to the relationship between the different species studied.

For example, they measured how much one of the incisors was shovel-shaped. Depending on the species in this study, the incisor may have no depression in the back of the tooth, a faint shovel shape, or a trace of that shape.

Researchers use standardized measurements from the Arizona State University Dental Anthropology System to compare the teeth on these 22 traits.

The researchers found that on 15 of these traits, sediba and africanus scored the same. Sediba shared 13 traits with Homo erectus, an early human species, which was comparable to how africanus scored.

Sediba and africanus shared five dental traits that weren't found in earlier australopiths, further showing their close relationship. Both also share five traits with early humans -- Homo habilis/rudolfenis and Homo erectus -- which weren't shared with earlier ancestors, demonstrating the close relationship between these two australopiths and the first humans.

Teeth are an excellent way to study relationships between different species, Guatelli-Steinberg said. They are well preserved in the fossil record, and researchers can compare large samples, at least for many ancient species.

In addition, most of the dental traits the researchers used in this analysis don't have a selective advantage that could help one species survive over another. That means if researchers see a similar trait in two species, they can be more confident that they shared a common ancestor and that the trait didn't evolve independently.

In many ways, these new dental data support the earlier research on sediba, which included analysis of the inside of the skull, hand, spine, pelvis, foot and ankle, Guatelli-Steinberg said.

"All of the research so far shows that sediba had a mosaic of primitive traits and newer traits that suggest it was a bridge between earlier australopiths and the first humans," she said.

Guatelli-Steinberg said their dental analysis showed that both africanus and sediba are more closely related to humans than the famous "Lucy" skeleton fossil found in East Africa in 1974. This fossil represented a species, Australopithecus afarensis, that was at one time was thought to be the closest relative of humans.

Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Sediba lived 1.977 million years ago, while africanus lived between 3.03 and 2.04 million years ago.

Read more at Science Daily

Secret Population of Orangutans Found

A population of 200 of the world's rarest orangutans was found tucked away in the forests of the island of Borneo, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

All subspecies of Bornean orangutans are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But scientists estimate just 3,000 to 4,500 individuals are left in the subspecies known as Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, making them the most severely threatened.

Two-thousand of those live in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Batang Ai National Park and Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, researchers say. The previously unknown population was found by conservationists near the Batang park, in an area covering about 54 square miles (140 square kilometers).

Local communities apparently had been aware of the apes, but no major research projects had been undertaken in the area until February, when conservations with WCS and other groups surveyed the region. They found a total of 995 orangutan nests, including fresh nests that indicated the rare population was recently using the area.

Previously, researchers studying fresh nests left by wild orangutans in Indonesia found they are incredibly complex, made in the crooks of large branches. The orangutans bend and interweave living branches about an inch (3 centimeters) wide to form the nest.

"They are just bent. They can actually stay living and later on you can go back to them and see they are like an archeological artifact of all these strangely bent items," said Roland Ennos of the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, when the study was published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's very similar to weaving a basket, they have to break the branches, weave them together and form a nice, strong, rigid structure."

Read more at Discovery News

Think the Planet Isn't Warming? Check the Ocean

A recent article in The Economist stated that “over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.” The Economist went to great lengths to point out that “the mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures … does not mean global warming is a delusion.” But the piece was predictably lauded by climate skeptics as “further evidence” of the case against climate change.

Except that … it wasn’t.

As The Economist piece itself pointed out, this wasn’t an argument that “global warming has ‘stopped.‘” The past two decades have been the hottest in recorded history; of the nine hottest years on record, eight have come since 2000. The question, though, is why the year-on-year/decade-on-decade increase appears to have been somewhat less in the past 10 to 15 years, given the ongoing increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

To which there are several answers.

First, the smaller the temporal time scale, the more the short-term fluctuations, forcings and feedbacks — from aerosol emissions to La Niña events — can distort the bigger picture. Over a longer scale, the evidence is increasing that the rate of warming is probably unprecedented in over 11,000 years.

Second, The Economist article, and the skeptic narrative that has absorbed it, focuses on what is known as “climate sensitivity,” which is how much surface warming the planet will experience in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations relative to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. (Those pre-industrial levels were approximately 280 ppm; a doubling therefore would be roughly 560 ppm. Present levels are closing in on 397 ppm.)

But, as climate blogger Joe Romm points out, climate sensitivity is but one factor in determining how much the planet will warm in the future; another hugely important one is the extent to which CO2 concentrations will actually increase, and present trends suggest they will blow past 560 ppm and wind up closer to 1,000 ppm. Additionally, while climate sensitivity estimates are greatly influenced by short-term feedbacks such as sea ice extent and water vapor, they do not factor in “slow” feedbacks, such as the release of methane as a result of tundra melt. Nor do they consider the non-linearity of such feedbacks – i.e. the fact that they may become significant relatively suddenly.

Third, the data referred to by The Economist suggest that climate sensitivity may be at the very low end of projected estimates of between 2 degrees Celsius and 4.5 degrees Celsius. If that indeed does prove to be the case, then that’s obviously good news. But, as Zeke Hausfather pointed out in a post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media: “A world with a relatively low climate sensitivity — say in the range of 2 °C — but with high emissions and with atmospheric concentrations three to four times those of pre-industrial levels is still probably a far different planet than the one we humans have become accustomed to. And it’s likely not one we would find nearly so hospitable.”

Finally, and most importantly, there is plenty of reason to suspect that climate sensitivity isn’t lower than expected; because, critically, discussions of climate sensitivity tend to focus on surface warming of the planet; but several recent studies have shown that in fact an increasing amount of warming is taking place beneath the surface, in the ocean depths.

Ninety percent of warming goes into heating, not the land or the atmosphere, but the ocean; two recent papers, in 2012 and earlier this year, showed that approximately 30 percent of recent ocean warming has been taken up by waters below depths of 700 meters (about 2,300 feet), where few measurements had previously taken place. That was reinforced by a European study, published earlier this week, which, according to Reuters, found “that the oceans took up more warmth from the air around 2000. That would help explain the slowdown in surface warming but would also suggest that the pause may be only temporary and brief … Lead author Virginie Guemas of the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences in Barcelona said the hidden heat may return to the atmosphere in the next decade, stoking warming again.”

Read more at Discovery News

Half-Human, Half-Ape Ancestor Reconstructed

Two million years ago in South Africa, part-human and part-ape-like individuals existed -- and now we know what they looked like and how they behaved: They had a primitive, pigeon-toed gait, human-like front teeth, ate mostly veggies and spent a lot of time swinging in the trees.

The species, Australopithecus sediba, is a striking example of human evolution, conclude six papers published in the journal Science. Taken together, the papers describe how Au. sediba looked, walked, chewed and moved.

"Sediba shows a strange mix of primitive australopithecine traits and derived Homo traits -- face and anterior dentition like Homo, shape of the cranium like Homo, other parts of the face and size of the cranium like an australopithecine, arms like an australopithecine, pelvis and lower limbs like Homo and feet and ankles like an australopithecine," project leader Lee Berger told Discovery News.

"It does look like a good 'transitional' fossil, doesn't it?" added Berger, who is a researcher in the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. He named the species, which was found at a site called Malapa, near Johannesburg.

The tooth study found that Au. sediba was closely related to Au. africanus, which lived until about 2.1 million years ago. These species, in turn, shared numerous dental similarities with Homo erectus, an early human species.

"All of the research so far shows that sediba had a mosaic of primitive traits and newer traits that suggest it was a bridge between earlier australopiths and the first humans," said Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, co-author of one of the studies and a professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.

Prior research determined what Au. sediba ate.

Peter Schmid of the University of Zurich, who also analyzed this species' remains, shared that the early probable ancestor was not a carnivore.

"Microscopic elements of plants were found in the tartar of the teeth of Au. sediba," Schmid told Discovery News. "It was largely a vegetarian and shows a rather human-like chewing apparatus."

In terms of how it walked, Schmid and the other researchers explained that Au. sediba had a small heel resembling that of a chimp. It walked rather awkwardly -- with an inward rotation of the knee and hip, with its feet slightly twisted. The scientists conclude that this pigeon-toed way of walking on two limbs might have been an evolutionary compromise between walking upright and tree climbing.

Such a detailed understanding of these movements is possible because remains for a female Au. sediba preserve her heel, ankle, knee, hip and lower back. In contrast, the famous "Lucy" skeleton, representative of the species Au. afarensis, only preserves a hip and ankle.

Yet another new study analyzed Au. sediba's upper limbs. They were "primitive," meaning more like those of an ape, suggesting that these individuals still spent some time swinging and climbing in trees.

This again makes Au. sediba a good candidate as a transitional species, because it appears to have spent most of its time on the ground, but it hadn't entirely left the trees yet.

"The terrestrial adaptation was much more evolved, but there are indications that it had still a large part of climbing in its locomotor spectrum," Schmid explained.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 10, 2013

Early Dinosaur Embryos Found in China

A site in China contains 190-million-year old organic remains from non-avian dinosaurs and dinosaur embryos, and some of the world’s oldest known eggshells, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Nature, reveals for the first time how dinosaur embryos grew, developed and moved around within their eggs. The organic remains -- collagen discovered in bone -- also fuel hopes that many mysteries about dinosaurs may be resolved in the not-too-distant future.

“Our hope is that we may be able to recover collagen from these tissues in the future and do additional analyses,” project leader Robert Reisz told Discovery News. “This would take the study of early dinosaurs to another level.”

“Finding remnants of complex proteins in a 190-million-year-old fossil provides great promise for finding it in other extinct animals, if our targeted method is used,” added Reisz, a University of Mississauga paleontologist.

Reisz and his team recovered all of the remains at the world’s oldest known dinosaur embryo bone-bed, located near the city of Lufeng in Yunnan, China. The study focused on upper hind limb bones from 20 embryonic individuals of the giant herbivorous long-necked dinosaur Lufengosaurus, which was common to the area during the Jurassic period.

The bones showed very rapid growth, doubling in length within the eggs. This indicates that Lufengosaurus had a very short incubation period. The bones were also reshaped, even as they were in the shell, contracting and pulling on the hard bone tissue.

“This suggests that dinosaurs, like modern birds, moved around inside their eggs,” Reisz said. “It represents the first evidence of such movement in a dinosaur.”

Lufengosaurus, like many sauropods and their ancient relatives, grew to enormous sizes and spent their days feasting on large amounts of plant material. Given the new research, it is possible that all such dinosaurs started their growth spurts early, even before emerging into the world, but further analysis is required. No embryos have been found for iconic carnivorous dinosaurs, like T. rex.

While the discovered collagen is not technically “alive,” it was derived from what once were the dinosaur’s living tissues.

As for retrieving DNA, Reisz said, “You never know about what we may be able to find in the fossil record. We are continually breaking new ground.”

“However, resurrecting a dinosaur is out of the question,” he added, reminding that living birds are dinosaurs. Bringing a Jurassic animal into the present could therefore be a disaster, probably worse than what some movies have fictionally predicted. At the very least, such an animal -- if it wound up in the wild -- could wreck havoc on the existing ecosystem.

Paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn told Discovery News that he agrees with the conclusions of the new paper, and said the tissue results “are great, because no other dinosaur embryo this old has ever been studied histologically.” (Histology is the study of microscopic tissue structures.)

David Evans, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Department of Natural History, echoed Sander’s view.

“The early life history of most dinosaurs is poorly documented, and the fossil record of dinosaur embryos is particularly scant in the Triassic and Jurassic periods,” Evans said.

Read more at Discovery News

Ötzis Smile Needed A Dentist Badly

Ötzi the Iceman suffered from a large number of oral pathologies, according to a new dental examination of the 5,300-year-old mummy.

Carried at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, the research confirmed a preliminary study presented two years ago at the seventh world congress on mummy studies in San Diego, Calif.: The ice man had very bad teeth.

“He had everything: dental trauma, paradontal disease, abrasion and caries,” study co-author Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.

Since his discovery in 1991 in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps — hence the name — the mummy has been extensively investigated.

Scientists discovered that Ötzi had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant, had a genetic predisposition for an increased risk for coronary heart disease, and probably had Lyme disease.

It’s certain he died a violent death: In 2007, CT scans showed that an arrowhead had lacerated the left subclavian artery, leading to fast, deadly bleeding.

Although the mummy is one of the most heavily investigated human corpses of all time, researchers had so far paid little attention to possible dental issues.

“His teeth have been neglected for the last 20 years,” Rühli said.

Only the remarkable diastema, or natural gap, between his two upper incisors, and the radiologically easily visible lack of all four-third molars had been reported.

To find out more, Rühli and dentist colleague Roger Seiler re-evaluated the mummy’s latest CT scans from 2005. They detailed their research in the current issue of the European Journal of Oral Sciences.

The three-dimensional computer tomography reconstructions provided the researchers with crucial glimpses on the evolution of dental pathologies. They showed that all 28 teeth had a severe degree of abrasion, while two teeth suffered from large decayed lesions.

Thee molars of the upper jaw featured loss of alveolar bone as a sign of advanced periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and bones that support the teeth), which would have caused painful and recurrent abscesses.

Rühli and Seiler also found evidence of “mechanical trauma” or physical hit, on one upper front tooth.

As a result, the tooth probably remained loose.

“This trauma was at least several weeks old and was certainly not related to the Iceman’s violent cause of death,” the researchers wrote.

Although the Iceman did not lose a tooth until the his death at age 40, Rühli believes that within 10 years he would have most certainly have lost some of his teeth.

According to the researchers, the Iceman’s dental issues were based on environmental and possibly on genetic basis.

Certainly, the diet played a key role. Eating more and more starchy foods such as bread and cereal porridge — consumed commonly in the Neolithic period because of the rise of agriculture — would have contributed to the tooth decay.

Read more at Discovery News

Dark Lightning Zaps Airline Passengers

You’ve probably never seen it, but it’s possible you’ve been exposed to it if you’ve ever flown through a thunderstorm. Dark lightning, flashes of gamma rays that occur at altitudes in which commercial aircraft fly, doesn’t produce much light, but it does produce radiation.

New research presented Wednesday at a meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna pinpoints the amount of radiation that dark lightning produces -- and how much pilots and passengers might be getting exposed to.

“The good news is that the doses are not super scary -- it could be worse,” said lead research Joseph Dwyer, a physics professor at Florida Institute of Technology. “It’s similar to going to the doctor’s office and getting a CT scan.”

The existence of dark lightning itself was discovered on a NASA spacecraft in 1994. In the electrical fields of a thunderstorm, electrons zoom close to the speed of light, colliding with atoms to emit the gamma rays.

In 2010, Dwyer and colleagues determined that dark lightning occurred at altitudes where airplanes commonly fly. That prompted the current work, which involved a physics-based model that can show exactly how the discharge happens.

The preliminary work showed how much radiation was being emitted, but the size of the space it was produced in was unclear. With the current model, Dwyer’s team was able to pinpoint the exposure dose that someone on an airplane would likely receive.

“This work is very important because it gets you into the zone where you start to understand how often and how likely they are to happen,” said University of California Santa Cruz physics professor David Smith, who has worked with Dwyer but was not involved in the modeling work.

The next step, Smith said, is to start determining how often the flashes occur. Because the bursts are so brief -- about 10-100 of microseconds -- they are usually undetected, although it’s possible you could see a diffuse, purple light, Dwyer said.

“Unless you have gamma ray detectors on board, no one would think anything of it,” Smith said.

The National Science Foundation is currently working on an armored plane that could fly through thunderstorms, Smith said. If an instrument were placed on board, researchers may begin to get a better idea of the frequency of the flashes. Currently, the bursts are thought to occur much less frequently than the lightning we see, but that could mean anywhere from 1/100th to 1/1000th as often, Smith said.

Read more at Discovery News

Fish Fossil Shows Why Humans Have Two Arms, Legs

An unusual prehistoric fish with fins near its butt has helped to solve the mystery over why most animals, including humans, have paired limbs.

The fish, Euphanerops, is possibly the first creature on the planet to have evolved paired appendages, which in this case were fins. The 370-million-year-old species is described in the latest issue of Biology Letters.

"Fins are the world's first limb-like appendages," lead author Robert Sansom told Discovery News. "Paired limbs would subsequently develop from paired fins in the transition from sea to land, but the first evolution of paired appendages was a big, important step in the evolution and development of vertebrates," which are animals with a backbone or spinal column.

Sansom, a researcher at both the University of Leicester and the University of Manchester, and colleagues Sarah Gabbott and M.A. Purnell analyzed 36 Euphanerops specimens unearthed in Quebec, Canada. This was a jawless fish that lived long before dinosaurs first emerged.

Many living fish have a single anal fin, located at the center back of the fish’s underside near its rear end. The fin is thought to help maintain control of body position.

Euphanerops, however, evolved two such fins. Some subsequent fish did not evolve the paired appendages, so fish with all sorts of fin combinations existed for a while.

"What this research leads us to believe is that, at this early stage (in evolutionary history), vertebrates were trying out lots of different body plans, some familiar, some less familiar, and only some that survived," Sansom explained.

The change happened at a radical point in fish history when some of them were starting to evolve jaws and teeth. (There is currently a big chicken and egg-type debate among fish experts as to which evolved first: teeth or jaws.) These attributes likely emerged for reasons similar to fish gaining fins -- improved hunting and escape skills.

As Sansom shared, "The evolution of paired appendages and more sophisticated fins will probably be for improved locomotion, potentially related to an arms race between tracking down prey and avoiding predators."

He continued, "Paired fins allow for more sophisticated control of movement."

This movement, which at first just happened underwater, later helped some species make the transition from water to land.

Heather King of the University of Chicago and colleagues studied living lungfish to see how that transition might have happened.

"Lungfish are very closely related to the animals that were able to evolve and come out of the water and onto land, but that was so long ago that almost everything except the lungfish has gone extinct," she explained.

King and her team found that lungfish could, as their name suggests, blow up with air like a balloon, giving their body buoyancy. Their scrawny back paired appendages can then either sort of hop or actually walk by alternating the movement of these limbs.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 9, 2013

System Provides Clear Brain Scans of Awake, Unrestrained Mice

Setting a mouse free to roam might alarm most people, but not so for nuclear imaging researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Maryland who have developed a new imaging system for mouse brain studies.

Scientists use dynamic imaging of mice to follow changes in brain chemistry caused by the progression of disease or the application of a drug as an effective research tool for developing better ways to diagnose disease and formulate better treatments. In most nuclear imaging studies, laboratory mice are typically drugged or bound in place so that their brains can be studied. However, the results of such research can be tainted by subjecting the mice to such chemical or physical restraints, complicating studies of Alzheimer's, dementia and Parkinson's disease.

But for their nuclear medicine imaging studies, the researchers from Jefferson Lab, Oak Ridge, Johns Hopkins and Maryland used a new system they developed to acquire functional images of the brains of conscious, unrestrained and un-anesthetized mice. The so-called AwakeSPECT system was then used to document for the first time the effects of anesthesia on the action of a dopamine transporter imaging compound in the mouse brain. Such dopamine transporter imaging compounds are used for Alzheimer's, dementia and Parkinson's disease studies.

SPECT is Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography. In this technique, a radionuclide is injected, where it collects in specific areas of the brain by function. The radionuclide emits gamma rays (single photons) that are collected by a detector in separate scans from many different angles. The scans are combined in an algorithm to produce a three-dimensional image.

"The AwakeSPECT system does regular SPECT imaging of mice. SPECT is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that's used in humans for various types of diagnostic studies. It's also used in animal studies to facilitate the development and understanding of disease physiology," says Jefferson Lab's Drew Weisenberger, who led the multi-institutional collaboration and directed the SPECT system development effort.

Weisenberger says the AwakeSPECT system uses two Jefferson Lab custom-built gamma cameras to image the radionuclide, as well as a system that processes the data to produce the three-dimensional images. An infrared camera system developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory tracks movement of the mouse. Finally, a commercially available CT system provides additional anatomical information.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School, led by Martin Pomper, conducted the first mouse imaging studies with the new system. To prepare a mouse for imaging with AwakeSPECT, it is first tagged with three markers that are glued to its head for the infrared system to track. Once the radionuclide is injected, the mouse can then be imaged as it rests in a homey, burrow-like, clear tube. The beauty of the system is that it doesn't require that the mouse (or potentially people, at a later stage) remain motionless. Two patents have been awarded to Jefferson Lab for the innovative technology associated with this system.

"We developed this system that, while acquiring SPECT images, uses infrared cameras that track the location and pose of the head. We use that information to then computationally remove motion artifacts from our SPECT imaging," he says.

In this recent study published online in The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, the researchers showed that AwakeSPECT can obtain detailed, functional images of the brain of a conscious mouse, as the mouse moves around freely in an enclosure.

Researchers also imaged the action of a drug often used to image dopamine transport in the brain, 123I-ioflupane, in awake and anesthetized mice. They found that the drug was absorbed less than half as well in awake mice, showing that the use of anesthetic could potentially confound drug uptake studies.

"We've shown the technology works. Now, you just have to make it a tool that more people will readily use" Weisenberger says.

Read more at Science Daily

Retired Star Found With Planets and Debris Disc

The European Space Agency's Herschel space observatory has provided the first images of a dust belt -- produced by colliding comets or asteroids -- orbiting a subgiant star known to host a planetary system.

The team of scientists who made the discovery publishes their results in the Oxford University Press journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

After billions of years steadily burning hydrogen in their cores, stars like our Sun exhaust this central fuel reserve and start burning it in shells around the core. They swell to become subgiant stars, before later becoming red giants.

At least during the subgiant phase, planets, asteroids and comet belts around these 'retired' stars are expected to survive, but observations are needed to measure their properties. One approach is to search for discs of dust around the stars, generated by collisions between populations of asteroids or comets.

Thanks to the sensitive far-infrared detection capabilities of the Herschel space observatory, astronomers have been able to resolve bright emission around the star Kappa Coronae Borealis (κ CrB, or Kappa Cor Bor), indicating the presence of a dusty debris disc. This star is a little heavier than our own Sun at 1.5 solar masses, is around 2.5 billion years old and lies at a distance of roughly 100 light years.

From ground-based observations, it is known to host one giant planet roughly twice the mass of Jupiter orbiting at a distance equivalent to the Asteroid Belt in our own Solar System. A second planet is suspected, but its mass is not well constrained.

Herschel's detection provides rare insight into the life of planetary systems orbiting subgiant stars, and enables a detailed study of the architecture of its planet and disc system.

"This is the first 'retired' star that we have found with a debris disc and one or more planets," says Amy Bonsor of the Institute de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, and lead author of the study.

'The disc has survived the star's entire lifetime without being destroyed. That's very different to our own Solar System, where most of the debris was cleared away in a phase called the Late Heavy Bombardment era, around 600 million years after the Sun formed."

Dr Bonsor's team used models to propose three possible configurations for the disc and planets that fit Herschel's observations of Kappa Cor Bor.

The first model has just one continuous dust belt extending from 20 AU to 220 AU (where 1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, is the distance between Earth and Sun). By comparison, the icy debris disc in our Solar System -- known as the Kuiper Belt -- spans a narrower range of distances, 30-50 AU from the Sun. In this model, one of the planets orbits at a distance of greater than 7 AU from the star, and its gravitational influence may sculpt the inner edge of the disc.

A variation on this model has the disc being stirred by the gravitational influence of both companions, mixing it up such that the rate of dust production in the disc peaks at around 70-80 AU from the star.

In another interesting scenario, the dust disc is divided into two narrow belts, centred on 40 AU and 165 AU, respectively. Here, the outermost companion may orbit between the two belts between a distance of about 7 AU and 70 AU, opening the possibility of it being rather more massive than a planet, possibly a substellar brown dwarf. "It is a mysterious and intriguing system: is there a planet or even two planets sculpting one wide disc, or does the star have a brown dwarf companion that has split the disc in two?" says Dr Bonsor.

Read more at Science Daily

Environmental Change Triggers Rapid Evolution

Environmental change can drive hard-wired evolutionary changes in animal species in a matter of generations. A University of Leeds-led study, published in the journal Ecology Letters, overturns the common assumption that evolution only occurs gradually over hundreds or thousands of years.

Instead, researchers found significant genetically transmitted changes in laboratory populations of soil mites in just 15 generations, leading to a doubling of the age at which the mites reached adulthood and large changes in population size. The results have important implications in areas such as disease and pest control, conservation and fisheries management because they demonstrate that evolution can be a game-changer even in the short-term.

Professor Tim Benton, of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "This demonstrates that short-term ecological change and evolution are completely intertwined and cannot reasonably be considered separate. We found that populations evolve rapidly in response to environmental change and population management. This can have major consequences such as reducing harvesting yields or saving a population heading for extinction."

Although previous research has implied a link between short-term changes in animal species' physical characteristics and evolution, the Leeds-led study is the first to prove a causal relationship between rapid genetic evolution and animal population dynamics in a controlled experimental setting.

The researchers worked with soil mites that were collected from the wild and then raised in 18 glass tubes. Forty percent of adult mites were removed every week from six of the glass tubes. A similar proportion of juveniles were removed each week in a further six tubes, while no "harvesting" was conducted in the remaining third of the tubes.

Lead author Dr Tom Cameron, a postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at Leeds at the time of the research and now based in Umeå University, Sweden, said: "We saw significant evolutionary changes relatively quickly. The age of maturity of the mites in the tubes doubled over about 15 generations, because they were competing in a different way than they would in the wild. Removing the adults caused them to remain as juveniles even longer because the genetics were responding to the high chance that they were going to die as soon as they matured. When they did eventually mature, they were so enormous they could lay all of their eggs very quickly."

The initial change in the mites' environment -- from the wild into the laboratory -- had a disastrous effect on the population, putting the mites on an extinction trajectory. However, in every population, including those subjected to the removal of adults or juveniles, the trajectory switched after only five generations of evolution and the population sizes began to increase.

The researchers found that the laboratory environment was selecting for those mites that grew more slowly. Under the competitive conditions in the tubes, the slow growing mites were more fertile when they matured, meaning they could have more babies.

Dr Cameron said: "The genetic evolution that resulted in an investment in egg production at the expense of individual growth rates led to population growth, rescuing the populations from extinction. This is evolutionary rescue in action and suggests that rapid evolution can help populations respond to rapid environmental change."

Short-term ecological responses to the environment -- for instance, a reduction in the size of adults because of a lack of food -- and hard-wired evolutionary changes were separated by placing mites from different treatments into a similar environment for several generations and seeing whether differences persisted.

Professor Benton said: "The traditional idea would be that if you put animals in a new environment they stay basically the same but the way they grow changes because of variables like the amount of food. However, our study proves that the evolutionary effect -- the change in the underlying biology in response to the environment -- can happen at the same time as the ecological response. Ecology and evolution are intertwined," he said.

Unpicking evolutionary change from ecological responses is particularly important in areas such as the management of fisheries, where human decisions can result in major changes to an entire population's environment and life histories. The size at which cod in the North Sea mature is about half that of 50 years ago and this change has been linked to a collapse in the cod population because adult fish today are less fertile than their ancestors.

"The big debate has been over whether this is an evolutionary response to the way they are fished or whether this is, for instance, just the amount of food in the sea having a short-term ecological effect. Our study underlined that evolution can happen on a short timescale and even small 1 to 2 per cent evolutionary changes in the underlying biology caused by your harvesting strategy can have major consequences on population growth and yields. You can't just try to bring the environment back to what it was before and expect everything to return to normal," Professor Benton said.

Read more at Science Daily

Monkey Lip-Smacking Resembles Human Speech

The lip-smacking vocalizations gelada monkeys make are surprisingly similar to human speech, a new study finds.

Many nonhuman primates demonstrate lip-smacking behavior, but geladas are the only ones known to make undulating sounds, known as "wobbles," at the same time. (The wobbling sounds a little like a human hum would sound if the volume were being turned on and off rapidly.) The findings show that lip-smacking could have been an important step in the evolution of human speech, researchers say.

"Our finding provides support for the lip-smacking origins of speech because it shows that this evolutionary pathway is at least plausible," Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of the study published today (April 8) in the journal Current Biology,said in a statement. "It demonstrates that nonhuman primates can vocalize while lip-smacking to produce speechlike sounds."

Lip-smacking -- rapidly opening and closing the mouth and lips -- shares some of the features of human speech, such as rapid fluctuations in pitch and volume.

Bergman first noticed the similarity while studying geladas in the remote mountains of Ethiopia. He would often hear vocalizations that sounded like human voices, but the vocalizations were actually coming from the geladas, he said. He had never come across other primates who made these sounds. But then he read a study on macaques from 2012 revealing how facial movements during lip-smacking were very speech-like, hinting that lip-smacking might be an initial step toward human speech.

To investigate this scenario himself, Bergman analyzed recordings of the geladas' wobbles. He found that the rhythm of these wobbles closely resembled that of human speech. Specifically, the wobble resulted from a male making a "moan" (something geladas produce by vocalizing while inhaling and exhaling) and lip-smacking. The lip-smacking movements corresponded to the mouth movements made during human speech.

An example of a call involving complex facial movements is the "girney" vocalization in macaques. These are thought to be produced by lip movements and teeth chattering, but evidence suggests the movements and sound don't occur at the same time. By contrast, the gelada lip-smacking and vocalizing seem to happen concurrently.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 8, 2013

Did This Meteorite Come From Mercury?

The solar system can be a violent place. Asteroids frequently crash into each other at speeds of several kilometers per second. Occasionally, those space rocks slam into the surfaces of planets and moons, blasting fragments from the surface of those planets into space.

We’ve found meteorites on Earth before from Mars, and the moon. Could this green piece of stone have come from Mercury? If so, it would be the only time we’ve ever discovered a piece of the tiny world on our planet. To be honest, no one’s entirely sure. Even after analyzing its mineral content, it’s hard to draw a conclusion.

35 pieces of this space rock were collected last year in the Moroccan desert, and sold on to dealers and eventually meteorite collectors. This in itself is not unusual, but when Stefan Ralew from Berlin purchased one of these stones, he realized there was something quite strange about it.

When any serious meteorite collector finds a peculiar specimen, they will often contact Tony Irving at the University of Washington, and this is precisely what Ralew did after acquiring his rather odd piece of space rock.

Irving realized that this meteorite was a particularly interesting variety of space rock. Known as an achondrite (as opposed to the more common chondritic meteorites, and the much more common iron meteorites), meteorites like this one have a dramatic history. Achondrites account for around one in twenty stony meteorites, and they show a variety of internal composition, meaning that they were smashed from the surface of a much larger object, at least 200 kilometers in diameter. This means that achondrites originally formed as part of an asteroid, or a planet, large enough to differentiate internally to form a distinct core and crust. Roughly half of all achondrites discovered are from the asteroid 4-Vesta. But this was not one of them.

The curious little rock then made it’s way to Randy Korotev, a colleague to whom Irving sends achondrites such as the lunar meteorites that Korotev specializes in. But this only seems to have deepened the mystery. “It has very odd chemistry for a meteorite,” Korotev remarked, joking that “if somebody had walked in with this chemical analysis and nothing else I would have told him that it wasn’t a meteorite, just based on the chemistry.”

Meteorite scientists take a detailed look at the chemical composition of meteorites to try and determine where they came from. In particular they look at isotopes of elements such as oxygen, iron, and manganese, which act as fingerprints to be used in finding their origins.

Giving it a catalog designation of Northwest Africa 7325 (NWA 7325), Korotev realized that the chemistry in this stone was very unusual — and its composition was remarkably similar to the data that NASA’s MESSENGER probe is currently sending back from Mercury, our solar system’s innermost planet.

Almost no other meteorites ever found have a chemistry quite like that of NWA 7325. It’s rich in magnesium and low in iron, with oxygen isotope ratios virtually never normally seen. He also found that it was full of chromium-containing silicate compounds, explaining its striking green color. The glass in some bottles also contains chromium for exactly that reason.

But not everything added up. Analyzing NWA 7325, Korotev found a lot more of an aluminum-containing mineral called plagioclase that MESSENGER is seeing on Mercury’s surface. A few other chemical ratios in the rock don’t match Mercury either. While that could possibly be explained by a very large impact smashing into Mercury and excavating NWA 7325 from deep under Mercury’s surface, there was one other problem. This rock looks too old.

NWA 7325 appears to have crystallized (solidified from molten material) around 4.5 billion years ago, which would make it nearly as old as our planet. The data are only preliminary, but if it is indeed this old, it would mean an origin on Mercury was quite unlikely. Assuming Mercurian rocks started to crystallize at the same time as the moon did, this would mean that NWA 7325 is a couple of hundred million years too old to have originated on Mercury.

So there’s evidence both for and against this being a Mercurian stone, and with no examples of any 4.5 billion year old lunar rocks, we have no way of knowing if it could really have left Mercury that long ago. Its origin is still a mystery.

If NWA 7325 really was blasted off the surface of Mercury billions of years ago, it’s in remarkably good condition. The question of how it survived as long as it has is a difficult one to answer. Korotev has a few more ideas of tests to run in order to find the stone’s true origin. One test that he has yet to perform is to examine it for cosmogenic nucleides — elements created in the surface of meteorites as the sun’s solar wind bombards them. This test can give a good estimate for how long the solar wind has been pummeling any piece of space rock, and because Mercury is so close to the sun, high levels of those cosmogenic nucleides would be fairly good evidence for Mercury to be the birthplace of NWA 7325.

Read more at Discovery News

New Evidence Dinosaurs Were Strong Swimmers

A University of Alberta researcher has identified some of the strongest evidence ever found that dinosaurs could paddle long distances.

Working together with an international research team, U of A graduate student Scott Persons examined unusual claw marks left on a river bottom in China that is known to have been a major travel-way for dinosaurs.

Alongside easily identified fossilized footprints of many Cretaceous era animals including giant long neck dinosaur's researchers found a series of claw marks that Persons says indicates a coordinated, left-right, left-right progression.

"What we have are scratches left by the tips of a two-legged dinosaur's feet," said Persons. "The dinosaur's claw marks show it was swimming along in this river and just its tippy toes were touching bottom."

The claw marks cover a distance of 15 meters which the researchers say is evidence of a dinosaur's ability to swim with coordinated leg movements. The tracks were made by carnivorous theropod dinosaur that is estimated to have stood roughly 1 meter at the hip.

Fossilized rippling and evidence of mud cracks indicate that over 100 million years ago the river, in what is now China's Szechuan Province, went through dry and wet cycles. The river bed, which Persons describes as a "dinosaur super-highway" has yielded plenty of full foot prints of other theropods and gigantic four-legged sauropods.

With just claw scratches on the river bottom to go with, Persons says the exact identity of the paddling dinosaur can't be determined, but he suspects it could have been an early tyrannosaur or a Sinocalliopteryx. Both species of predators were known to have been in that area of China.

Read more at Science Daily

Judas Revealed in Better Light by Ancient Text

A long-lost gospel that casts Judas as a co-conspirator of Jesus, rather than a betrayer, was ruled most likely authentic in 2006. Now, scientists reveal they couldn't have made the call without a series of far more mundane documents, including Ancient Egyptian marriage licenses and property contracts.

The Gospel of Judas is a fragmented Coptic (Egyptian)-language text that portrays Judas in a far more sympathetic light than did the gospels that made it into the Bible. In this version of the story, Judas turns Jesus over to the authorities for execution upon Jesus' request, as part of a plan to release his spirit from his body. In the accepted biblical version of the tale, Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

As part of a 2006 National Geographic Society (the Society) investigation of the document, microscopist Joseph Barabe of McCrone Associates in Illinois and a team of researchers analyzed the ink on the tattered gospel to find out if it was real or forged. Some of the chemicals in the ink raised red flags — until Barabe and his colleagues found, at the Louvre Museum, a study of Egyptian documents from the third century A.D., the same time period of the Gospal of Judas.

"What the French study told us is that ink technology was undergoing a transition," Barabe told LiveScience. The Gospel of Judas' odd ink suddenly fit into place.

CSI: Ancient Egypt

Barabe and his colleagues specialize in thorough investigations of old — or supposedly old — documents and artwork. The chemical composition of inks used can reveal the difference between something authentically ancient and a forgery. In 2009, Barabe helped expose a gospel called the "Archaic Mark," which some claimed was a 14th-century manuscript, as a modern forgery. He's also worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to detect forged paintings.

A call from National Geographic, however, was a "big deal," Barabe said. "It was both thrilling and an honor," he added.

The Society wanted to find out if the Gospel of Judas, discovered in the 1970s, really dated back to early days of Christianity or whether it was, like Archaic Mark, a fake. Barabe brought together a team of scientists with a variety of specialties, and they ran the Gospel through an intensive analysis of microscopy and spectroscopy.

At first, their findings offered little hope that the Gospel of Judas was real. The document was written in two inks -- black and brown -- mixed together. The black was an ink called "lamp black," which was consistent with the inks used in Egyptian writings from ancient times and into the third century, Barabe said.

But the brown ink was more mysterious. It was an iron-rich ink called iron gall, but it lacked the sulfur usually found in inks of this sort. The pressure was on to explain the difference.

"One thing that made this a little bit more dramatic than we would have liked is, we did the sampling in the third week of January of 2006, and the press conference was already scheduled for the third week in April of that same year," Barabe said. "So we had three months to turn this critter around with a conclusion, and it really put an enormous amount of pressure on us, because we were faced with what was essentially a three-month rush project."

Authenticating the gospel

Some facets of the document did suggest authenticity. The most promising of these characteristics, Barabe said, was that the ink wasn't piled up in the warped papyrus, suggesting the document was written before the warping happened. Had someone tried to write on a pre-warped papyrus, the ink would have gathered in crevices and dips -- a sure sign someone had intentionally tried to make new papyrus look old. Instead, the Gospel seems to have been written on flat papyrus and aged naturally. National Geographic also commissioned other analyses of the Gospel, including radiocarbon dating, script analysis and linguistic style.

Barabe hit the books, looking for other studies on early Egyptian inks. The study of Egyptian marriage certificates and land documents from the Louvre proved to be the clincher.

That study found that contracts in Egypt in the mid-third century were written in lamp black ink, in the traditional Egyptian style. But they were officially registered in the traditional Greek style, using brown iron gall ink.

The Louvre study findings suggested to the teamthat the presence of both inks was consistent with an early date for the Gospel of Judas, Barabe said.

What's more, the Louvre study found that the metal-based inks from this time period contained little sulfur, just like the ink on the Gospel of Judas.

The discovery gave the researchers the confidence to declare the document consistent with a date of approximately A.D. 280. (Barabe and his colleagues caution that this finding doesn't prove beyond doubt that the document is authentic, but rather that there are no red flags proving it's a forgery.)

Read more at Discovery News
Or at Science Daily

Old Star Wears Sunblock

The Universe is a vast and wondrous place. So it shouldn’t be surprising that you’ll find all kinds of substances in all kinds of places, even the main ingredient in sunblock around a very old star.

VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa) is a variable star that is massive, on the scale of a thousand times the radius of the sun. This red, fluffy hypergiant is probably near the end of its life and eventually explode as a supernova. At such a stage in its evolution, it is losing material in the form of a stellar wind which creates the nebulosity around it as seen in the picture above.

Such environments are important for creating molecules and dust that will become part of the next generation of stars, seeded from the remnants of VY CMa after it explodes. In this stellar “circle of life,” the things that planets (and people) are made of are formed, so this process is of great interest to astronomers.

Using the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, astronomers from the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie detected molecules of titanium oxide (TiO) and titanium dioxide (TiO2) around VY CMa. This marks the first time that TiO2 has ever been seen in space and the first time that TiO has been seen with a radio telescope. TiO2 is well known for making white pigment — and is used in sunblock.

Molecules such as these require a few things to form. First of all, it needs to be a slightly cooler environment than what you would find in stars. In fact, TiO absorption is a main feature of the visual spectra in cooler stars, or those with spectral class M. (So if you ever find yourself having to classify stellar spectra in your astronomy classes, that’s a dead giveaway!)

Molecules in the gas phase can also build larger and larger molecules and, eventually, dust grains that play an important role in star and planet formation. TiO2 can then act as a catalyst for making larger and larger molecules in the environment around stars. We know from decades of radio observations that interstellar space is full of molecules, even simple amino acids that may have later formed the basis for life.

In addition, molecules are excellent tracers of the physical conditions of the gas clouds in which they reside. Molecules are detected through their spectral lines, that is, the emission in certain wavelengths or “colors” that they give off as they change their energy state. In this particular discovery, the molecules were changing their rotational state, or how they spin. From what we know of these molecules and their physical behaviors, the astronomers were actually able to determine how much TiO and TiO2 is in the environment.

Such interstellar chemistry is a rich area for exploration. No test tubes or flasks are needed, but radio telescopes that measure millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths such as the SMA. Its successor, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, will be much more sensitive and have excellent spectral capabilities that will allow astronomers to detect molecules in space that they haven’t even begun to guess at.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 7, 2013

Schoolboy Finds 300 Million Year Old Fossil

An Oxford schoolboy has discovered what appears to be an extremely rare fossil of footprints from more than 300 million years ago.

Ten-year-old Bruno Debattista, who attends Windmill Primary School in Oxford, brought a piece of shale rock containing what he thought might be a fossilised imprint to the after-school club at Oxford University's Museum of Natural History.

Oxford University Natural History Museum experts were astonished to find that it appeared to contain the trackways left by a horseshoe crab crawling up the muddy slopes of an ancient shore around 320 million years ago.

Chris Jarvis, education officer at the Museum and organiser of the Natural History After-School Club, said: 'Footprints of this age are incredibly rare and extremely hard to spot, so we were amazed when Bruno produced them at our After-School Club.

'Still more impressive is the fact that Bruno had a hunch they might be some kind of footprints, even though the specimen had some of our world expert geologists arguing about it over their microscopes!''

Bruno's fossil has been confirmed by the Museum as likely showing footprints of a pair of mating horseshoe crabs laid down during the Carboniferous period, some 308-327 million years ago. At this time, the sea was slowly being sealed off as Earth's landmasses crunched together to form Pangaea. Bruno and his family have decided to donate the fossil specimen to the Museum's collection.

The Natural History After-School Club is run by the Museum's education department and encourages Year 6 children to develop their interest in the natural world, in the hope that some might become the next generation of geologists and zoologists.

The club's weekly sessions look at rocks, fossils, insects and other animal life, and members are encouraged to make observations and collect specimens to be shared each week.

Bruno was specially selected for the Club by his teachers, after showing a particular interest in nature. He collected the fossil while on holiday in Cornwall last summer.

'Unfortunately, the excitement and motivation that many children instinctively feel for studying nature is often lost during their teenage years as it is seen as "uncool" or a bit "weird," and science can become text-book oriented and exam-driven during secondary school,' Chris Jarvis said.

Read more at Science Daily

New Light Shed On Ancient Egyptian Port and Ship Graveyard

New research into Thonis-Heracleion, a sunken port-city that served as the gateway to Egypt in the first millennium BC, will be discussed at an international conference at the University of Oxford (15-17 March).

This obligatory port of entry, known as 'Thonis' by the Egyptians and 'Heracleion' by the Greeks, was where seagoing ships probably unloaded their cargoes to have them assessed by temple officials and taxes extracted before transferring them to Egyptian ships that went upriver. Before the foundation of Alexandria, it was one of the biggest commercial hubs in the Mediterranean because of its geographical position at the mouth of the Nile. The conference will also explore the wider maritime trading economy during the Late Period (664 BC until 332 BC).

The first traces of Thonis-Heracleion were found 6.5 kilometres off today's coastline by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) under the direction of Franck Goddio in 2000. The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford is collaborating on the project with IEASM in cooperation with Egypt's Ministry of State for Antiquities.

In the ports of the city, divers and researchers are currently examining 64 Egyptian ships, dating between the eighth and second centuries BC, many of which appear to have been deliberately sunk. The project researchers say the ships were found beautifully preserved, lying in the mud of the sea-bed. With 700 examples of different types of ancient anchor, the researchers believe this represents the largest nautical collection from the ancient world.

'The survey has revealed an enormous submerged landscape with the remains of at least two major ancient settlements within a part of the Nile delta that was crisscrossed with natural and artificial waterways,' said Dr Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Dr Robinson, who is overseeing the excavation of one of the submerged ships known as Ship 43, will discuss his first findings about the Egyptians' unique shipbuilding style. He will also shed new light on why the boats appear to have been deliberately sunk.

'One of the key questions is why several ship graveyards were created close to the port. Ship 43 appears to be part of a large cluster of at least ten other vessels in a large ship graveyard about a mile from the mouth of the River Nile,' explained Dr Robinson. 'This might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port-city. Seductive as this interpretation is, however, we must also consider whether these boats were sunk simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.'

The port and its harbour basins also contain a collection of customs decrees, trading weights, and evidence of coin production. The material culture, for example, coin weights, will also be discussed at the conference, placing this into the wider narrative of how maritime trade worked in the ancient world.

Elsbeth van der Wilt, working on the project from the University of Oxford, said: 'Thonis-Heracleion played an important role in the network of long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, since the city would have been the first stop for foreign merchants at the Egyptian border. Excavations in the harbour basins yielded an interesting group of lead weights, likely to have been used by both temple officials and merchants in the payment of taxes and the purchasing of goods. Amongst these are an important group of Athenian weights. They are a significant archaeological find because it is the first time that weights like these have been identified during excavations in Egypt.'

Sanda Heinz from the University of Oxford will share her findings on over 300 statuettes and amulets from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods, including Egyptian and Greek subjects. The majority depict Egyptian deities such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. She said: 'The statuettes and amulets were all found underwater, and are generally in excellent condition. The statuettes allow us to examine their belief system and at the same time have wider economic implications. These figures were mass-produced at a scale hitherto unmatched in previous periods. Our findings suggest they were made primarily for Egyptians; however, there is evidence to show that some foreigners also bought them and dedicated them in temples abroad.'

Read more at Science Daily