May 11, 2013

Cocaine Vaccine Passes Key Testing Hurdle

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have successfully tested their novel anti-cocaine vaccine in primates, bringing them closer to launching human clinical trials.

Their study, published online by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, used a radiological technique to demonstrate that the anti-cocaine vaccine prevented the drug from reaching the brain and producing a dopamine-induced high.

"The vaccine eats up the cocaine in the blood like a little Pac-man before it can reach the brain," says the study's lead investigator, Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

"We believe this strategy is a win-win for those individuals, among the estimated 1.4 million cocaine users in the United States, who are committed to breaking their addiction to the drug," he says. "Even if a person who receives the anti-cocaine vaccine falls off the wagon, cocaine will have no effect."

Dr. Crystal says he expects to begin human testing of the anti-cocaine vaccine within a year.

Cocaine, a tiny molecule drug, works to produce feelings of pleasure because it blocks the recycling of dopamine -- the so-called "pleasure" neurotransmitter -- in two areas of the brain, the putamen in the forebrain and the caudate nucleus in the brain's center. When dopamine accumulates at the nerve endings, "you get this massive flooding of dopamine and that is the feel good part of the cocaine high," says Dr. Crystal.

The novel vaccine Dr. Crystal and his colleagues developed combines bits of the common cold virus with a particle that mimics the structure of cocaine. When the vaccine is injected into an animal, its body "sees" the cold virus and mounts an immune response against both the virus and the cocaine impersonator that is hooked to it. "The immune system learns to see cocaine as an intruder," says Dr. Crystal. "Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy, it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body."

In their first study in animals, the researchers injected billions of their viral concoction into laboratory mice, and found a strong immune response was generated against the vaccine. Also, when the scientists extracted the antibodies produced by the mice and put them in test tubes, it gobbled up cocaine. They also saw that mice that received both the vaccine and cocaine were much less hyperactive than untreated mice given cocaine.

Booster Shots to Dampen the Cocaine High

In this study, the researchers sought to precisely define how effective the anti-cocaine vaccine is in non-human primates, who are closer in biology to humans than mice.

They developed a tool to measure how much cocaine attached to the dopamine transporter, which picks up dopamine in the synapse between neurons and brings it out to be recycled. If cocaine is in the brain, it binds on to the transporter, effectively blocking the transporter from ferrying dopamine out of the synapse, keeping the neurotransmitter active to produce a drug high.

In the study, the researchers attached a short-lived isotope tracer to the dopamine transporter. The activity of the tracer could be seen using positron emission tomography (PET). The tool measured how much of the tracer attached to the dopamine receptor in the presence or absence of cocaine.

The PET studies showed no difference in the binding of the tracer to the dopamine transporter in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated animals if these two groups were not given cocaine. But when cocaine was given to the primates, there was a significant drop in activity of the tracer in non-vaccinated animals. That meant that without the vaccine, cocaine displaced the tracer in binding to the dopamine receptor. Previous research had shown in humans that at least 47 percent of the dopamine transporter had to be occupied by cocaine in order to produce a drug high. The researchers found, in vaccinated primates, that cocaine occupancy of the dopamine receptor was reduced to levels of less than 20 percent.

"This is a direct demonstration in a large animal, using nuclear medicine technology, that we can reduce the amount of cocaine that reaches the brain sufficiently so that it is below the threshold by which you get the high," says Dr. Crystal.

When the vaccine is studied in humans, the non-toxic dopamine transporter tracer can be used to help study its effectiveness as well, he adds.

Read more at Science Daily

Sifting Through Atmospheres of Far-Off Worlds

Gone are the days of being able to count the number of known planets on your fingers. Today, there are more than 800 confirmed exoplanets -- planets that orbit stars beyond our sun -- and more than 2,700 other candidates. What are these exotic planets made of? Unfortunately, you cannot stack them in a jar like marbles and take a closer look. Instead, researchers are coming up with advanced techniques for probing the planets' makeup.

One breakthrough to come in recent years is direct imaging of exoplanets. Ground-based telescopes have begun taking infrared pictures of the planets posing near their stars in family portraits. But to astronomers, a picture is worth even more than a thousand words if its light can be broken apart into a rainbow of different wavelengths.

Those wishes are coming true as researchers are beginning to install infrared cameras on ground-based telescopes equipped with spectrographs. Spectrographs are instruments that spread an object's light apart, revealing signatures of molecules. Project 1640, partly funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., recently accomplished this goal using the Palomar Observatory near San Diego.

"In just one hour, we were able to get precise composition information about four planets around one overwhelmingly bright star," said Gautam Vasisht of JPL, co-author of the new study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. "The star is a hundred thousand times as bright as the planets, so we've developed ways to remove that starlight and isolate the extremely faint light of the planets."

Along with ground-based infrared imaging, other strategies for combing through the atmospheres of giant planets are being actively pursued as well. For example, NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes monitor planets as they cross in front of their stars, and then disappear behind. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will use a comparable strategy to study the atmospheres of planets only slightly larger than Earth.

In the new study, the researchers examined HR 8799, a large star orbited by at least four known giant, red planets. Three of the planets were among the first ever directly imaged around a star, thanks to observations from the Gemini and Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in 2008. The fourth planet, the closest to the star and the hardest to see, was revealed in images taken by the Keck telescope in 2010.

That alone was a tremendous feat considering that all planet discoveries up until then had been made through indirect means, for example by looking for the wobble of a star induced by the tug of planets.

Those images weren't enough, however, to reveal any information about the planets' chemical composition. That's where spectrographs are needed -- to expose the "fingerprints" of molecules in a planet's atmosphere. Capturing a distant world's spectrum requires gathering even more planet light, and that means further blocking the glare of the star.

Project 1640 accomplished this with a collection of instruments, which the team installs on the ground-based telescopes each time they go on "observing runs." The instrument suite includes a coronagraph to mask out the starlight; an advanced adaptive optics system, which removes the blur of our moving atmosphere by making millions of tiny adjustments to two deformable telescope mirrors; an imaging spectrograph that records 30 images in a rainbow of infrared colors simultaneously; and a state-of-the-art wave front sensor that further adjusts the mirrors to compensate for scattered starlight.

"It's like taking a single picture of the Empire State Building from an airplane that reveals a bump on the sidewalk next to it that is as high as an ant," said Ben R. Oppenheimer, lead author of the new study and associate curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department at the American Museum of Natural History, N.Y., N.Y.

Their results revealed that all four planets, though nearly the same in temperature, have different compositions. Some, unexpectedly, do not have methane in them, and there may be hints of ammonia or other compounds that would also be surprising. Further theoretical modeling will help to understand the chemistry of these planets.

Meanwhile, the quest to obtain more and better spectra of exoplanets continues. Other researchers have used the Keck telescope and the Large Binocular Telescope near Tucson, Ariz., to study the emission of individual planets in the HR8799 system. In addition to the HR 8799 system, only two others have yielded images of exoplanets. The next step is to find more planets ripe for giving up their chemical secrets. Several ground-based telescopes are being prepared for the hunt, including Keck, Gemini, Palomar and Japan's Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Ideally, the researchers want to find young planets that still have enough heat left over from their formation, and thus more infrared light for the spectrographs to see. They also want to find planets located far from their stars, and out of the blinding starlight. NASA's infrared Spitzer and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) missions, and its ultraviolet Galaxy Evolution Explorer, now led by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, have helped identify candidate young stars that may host planets meeting these criteria.

"We're looking for super-Jupiter planets located faraway from their star," said Vasisht. "As our technique develops, we hope to be able to acquire molecular compositions of smaller, and slightly older, gas planets."

Still lower-mass planets, down to the size of Saturn, will be targets for imaging studies by the James Webb Space Telescope.

"Rocky Earth-like planets are too small and close to their stars for the current technology, or even for James Webb to detect. The feat of cracking the chemical compositions of true Earth analogs will come from a future space mission such as the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder," said Charles Beichman, a co-author of the P1640 result and executive director of NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech.

Though the larger, gas planets are not hospitable to life, the current studies are teaching astronomers how the smaller, rocky ones form.

Read more at Science Daily

May 10, 2013

Mosquito Survey Identifies Reservoir of Disease

A large scale, five year study of mosquitoes from different ecological regions in Kenya, including savannah grassland, semi-arid Acacia thorn bushes, and mangrove swamps, found a reservoir of viruses carried by mosquitoes (arboviruses) that are responsible for human and animal diseases. This research, published in BioMed Central's open access journal Virology Journal, highlights the need for continued surveillance in order to monitor the risk of disease outbreaks.

Over 450,000 mosquitoes from 11 sites across Kenya were screened by researchers from the United States Army Medical Research Unit,- Kenya (part of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research), Kenya Medical Research Institute, and the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. 83 different viruses were identified, including alphaviruses, flaviviruses and orthobunyaviruses.

Mosquitoes were infected with West Nile, Ndumu, Sindbis, Bunyamwera, Pongola and Usutu virus at many test sites which represented diverse ecological locations. These viruses pose a significant public health problem especially in East Africa. West Nile virus has been a source of concern, not only in East Africa but around the world with outbreaks recently in the US and across Europe. Ngari virus, which was associated with hemorrhagic fever in northern Kenya in the late 1990s was isolated from two sites in Kenya

Previously unknown viruses were also found: one with similarities to the newly discovered Chaoyang virus in China, and two more related to Quang Binh virus.

From the location of infected mosquitoes it seems that livestock as well as mosquitoes could be a reservoir of disease. Caroline Ochieng who led the study explained, "The importance of mosquitoes in the spread of arboviral diseases in East Africa cannot be over-emphasized. They have caused outbreaks afflicting both human and livestock with devastating public health and economic consequences. Implementation of mosquito and arbovirus surveillance is therefore vital as part of an early warning system and rapid response plan."

Commenting on the potential impact of this study Linfa Wang, Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal said, "This important study highlights the need for on-going surveillance in animals and insect vectors, in order to prepare for potential virus outbreaks in humans."

From Science Daily

Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Human Ancestors Hunting and Scavenging

A recent Baylor University research study has shed new light on the diet and food acquisition strategies of some the earliest human ancestors in Africa.

Beginning around two million years ago, early stone tool-making humans, known scientifically as Oldowan hominin, started to exhibit a number of physiological and ecological adaptations that required greater daily energy expenditures, including an increase in brain and body size, heavier investment in their offspring and significant home-range expansion. Demonstrating how these early humans acquired the extra energy they needed to sustain these shifts has been the subject of much debate among researchers.

A recent study led by Joseph Ferraro, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor, offers new insight in this debate with a wealth of archaeological evidence from the two million-year-old site of Kanjera South (KJS), Kenya. The study's findings were recently published in PLOS One.

"Considered in total, this study provides important early archaeological evidence for meat eating, hunting and scavenging behaviors -cornerstone adaptations that likely facilitated brain expansion in human evolution, movement of hominins out of Africa and into Eurasia, as well as important shifts in our social behavior, anatomy and physiology," Ferraro said.

Located on the shores of Lake Victoria, KJS contains "three large, well-preserved, stratified" layers of animal remains. The research team worked at the site for more than a decade, recovering thousands of animal bones and rudimentary stone tools.

According to researchers, hominins at KJS met their new energy requirements through an increased reliance on meat eating. Specifically, the archaeological record at KJS shows that hominins acquired an abundance of nutritious animal remains through a combination of both hunting and scavenging behaviors. The KJS site is the earliest known archaeological evidence of these behaviors.

"Our study helps inform the 'hunting vs. scavenging' debate in Paleolithic archaeology. The record at KJS shows that it isn't a case of either/or for Oldowan hominins two million years ago. Rather hominins at KJS were clearly doing both," Ferraro said.

The fossil evidence for hominin hunting is particularly compelling. The record shows that Oldowan hominins acquired and butchered numerous small antelope carcasses. These animals are well represented at the site by most or all of their bones from the tops of their head to the tips of their hooves, indicating to researchers that they were transported to the site as whole carcasses.

Many of the bones also show evidence of cut marks made when hominins used simple stone tools to remove animal flesh. Some bones also bear evidence that hominins used fist-sized stones to break them open to acquire bone marrow.

In addition, modern studies in the Serengeti--an environment similar to KJS two million years ago--have also shown that predators completely devour antelopes of this size within minutes of their deaths. As a result, hominins could only have acquired these valuable remains on the savanna through active hunting.

The site also contains a large number of isolated heads of wildebeest-sized antelopes. In contrast to small antelope carcasses, the heads of these somewhat larger individuals are able to be consumed several days after death and could be scavenged, as even the largest African predators like lions and hyenas were unable to break them open to access their nutrient-rich brains.

"Tool-wielding hominins at KJS, on the other hand, could access this tissue and likely did so by scavenging these heads after the initial non-human hunters had consumed the rest of the carcass," Ferraro said. "KJS hominins not only scavenged these head remains, they also transported them some distance to the archaeological site before breaking them open and consuming the brains. This is important because it provides the earliest archaeological evidence of this type of resource transport behavior in the human lineage."

Other contributing authors to the study include: Thomas W. Plummer of Queens College & NYCEP; Briana L. Pobiner of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; James S. Oliver of Illinois State Museum and Liverpool John Moores University; Laura C. Bishop of Liverpool John Moores University; David R. Braun of George Washington University; Peter W. Ditchfield of University of Oxford; John W. Seaman III , Katie M. Binetti and John W. Seaman Jr. of Baylor University; Fritz Hertel of California State University and Richard Potts of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and National Museums of Kenya.

Read more at Science Daily

Plague Helped Bring Down Roman Empire

Plague may have helped finish off the Roman Empire, researchers now reveal.

Plague is a fatal disease so infamous that it has become synonymous with any dangerous, widespread contagion. It was linked to one of the first known examples of biological warfare, when Mongols catapulted plague victims into cities.

The bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, has been linked with at least two of the most devastating pandemics in recorded history. One, the Great Plague, which lasted from the 14th to 17th centuries, included the infamous epidemic known as the Black Death, which may have killed nearly two-thirds of Europe in the mid-1300s. Another, the Modern Plague, struck around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning in China in the mid-1800s and spreading to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe and other parts of Asia.

Although past studies confirmed this germ was linked with both of these catastrophes, much controversy existed as to whether it also caused the Justinianic Plague of the sixth to eighth centuries. This pandemic, named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, killed more than 100 million people. Some historians have suggested it contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.

To help solve this mystery, scientists investigated ancient DNA from the teeth of 19 different sixth-century skeletons from a medieval graveyard in Bavaria, Germany, of people who apparently succumbed to the Justinianic Plague.

They unambiguously found the plague bacterium Y. pestis there.

"It is always very exciting when we can find out the actual cause of the pestilences of the past," said researcher Barbara Bramanti, an archaeogeneticist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

"After such a long time -- nearly 1,500 years -- one is still able to detect the agent of plague by modern molecular methods," researcher Holger Scholz, a molecular microbiologist at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, Germany, told LiveScience.

The researchers said these findings confirm that the Justinianic Plague crossed the Alps, killing people in what is now Bavaria. Analysis of the DNA suggests that much like the later two pandemics of plague, this first pandemic originated in Asia, "even if historical records say that it arrived first in Africa before spreading to the Mediterranean basin and to Europe," Bramanti told LiveScience.

After the Modern Plague spread worldwide, it became entrenched in many rural areas, and the World Health Organization still reports thousands of cases of plague each year. However, doctors can now treat it with modern antibiotics.

Read more at Discovery News

How Psychics Play the Odds and Still Lose

In the aftermath of the recent rescue of three abducted girls held captive in a Cleveland home for years, one strange twist was revealed: The mother of one of the abducted girls, Amanda Berry, had asked prominent psychic Sylvia Browne whether her missing daughter was alive or not. Browne’s response: “She’s not alive.”

Of course Berry was indeed alive, and it’s not the first time that Browne had told the families of missing children that their loved ones were dead when they were not.

But other psychics have made the opposite error, which can be just as devastating. For example in September 2012, Harsha Maddula, a Northwestern University student, went missing after leaving a party. Volunteers and police searched the area but were unable to find him. Some feared he’d been kidnapped or murdered, but Maddula’s family said their fears were calmed when relatives consulted psychics who reassured them that he would soon be recovered safely.

“He’s still alive,” the psychics told the family. “Don’t worry.” Maddula’s body was found the next day in Wilmette Harbor not far from his dormitory. He had been dead for nearly a week, a victim of accidental drowning.

Psychics frequently give desperate families of missing persons false hope or wrongly crush real hope.

How Psychics Use Psychology

Psychics use several psychological techniques to give their visions and predictions the illusion of accuracy.

1) Psychics, like police detectives, know the odds. They know that if a missing person is not found within the first 48 hours, the chances of them being successfully recovered alive drop dramatically with each passing week. There are rare exceptions, of course, such as the long-term abductions of people like Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart  and others. But saying that a child who has been missing for a year or more is probably dead is common sense, not psychic intuition.

2) Projecting confidence and authority. People tend to believe others when they appear completely confident and knowledgeable. Browne is the author of many books and has often appeared on television programs including The Montel Williams Show and Larry King Live, giving her added credibility. Even when Browne’s clients occasionally contradict her and say that her information is wrong, she usually stands her ground and insists that she is correct.

3) Psychics offer a wide variety of random, vague and contradictory information. For example when a young Tennessee woman named Holly Bobo was abducted in April 2011, extensive searches by police and volunteers police found neither Bobo nor her abductor.

Hundreds of psychics offered information and leads, including that Bobo’s abductor might have a scar on his forehead, or a rash on his elbow, or a bite mark on his hand. He might work from home as a graphic designer and long for the 1950s. His hair might be dark brown, or blonde or salt and pepper. He might be clean shaven, or he might have a mustache. He might be a Scorpio. He’s either scrawny, or of medium build, or stocky and muscular — possibly ex-military. He might own a black leather wallet, and his name might contain one or more of the following letters: B, A, J, R, W, or M. His last name might be Glenn. Bobo might be near a place associated with the number 7, maybe an address or a highway number, or possibly 7 miles from some landmark.

It’s not clear how police are supposed to use this jumble of random associations, images, numbers, letters and feelings provided by psychics. This information is so vague, general, and contradictory that it is completely useless; police need specific, accurate information. Precious time and resources were wasted following up on some of this information, and to this day neither police nor psychics have located Bobo or her abductor.

Of course if the missing person is found — usually by police, or by a jogger or hiker — some of this information, simply by random chance, may turn out to be correct. Thus psychics also play the odds by offering very vague claims, such as that a body will be found “near water.” Statistically the majority of dead bodies are found near water of some sort: a ditch, a pond, a lake, a swamp, a sewer pipe, an ocean, a river, a water tower and so on. And, of course, “near” is a relative term, and could be interpreted to mean any distance from inches to miles.

4) Psychics also rely on the public and journalists not bothering to fact-check their claims. Most high-profile psychics make exaggerated (or fabricated) claims about their successes, but a closer look reveals the truth. For example Allison DuBois — the inspiration for the TV show Medium — once claimed to have helped solve crimes for the Glendale Arizona Police Department and the Texas Rangers. However, both the police and the Texas Rangers denied having worked with DuBois.

5) Psychics exploit uncertainty. In most cases the information that psychics provide is unverifiable because the person is never found. The psychic could give police and the grieving family two completely contradictory accounts — say, for example, that a missing girl ran away and has started a happy new life in another city, or that she was killed and buried immediately after being taken — and unless the girl is found there’s no way to know whether any of it is true.

It’s also important to remember that these are vulnerable people; they’re not seeking to find a missing heirloom or whether they will meet a dark, handsome stranger. They’re asking about their missing loved ones, and have a deep personal investment in the information they receive. Even if they don’t believe in psychics, the families are desperate for answers and will turn to anyone who seems to provide guidance.

Psychic Defectives

Like gamblers — and anyone else who plays the odds — psychics are sometimes right about some of their predictions, especially when they are obvious and vague. In cases like Amanda Berry, however, it’s crystal clear that they are completely, undeniably wrong. Psychics and their defenders claim that nobody is right all the time. And indeed that’s true: everyone makes mistakes, and no one — not diagnosing doctors nor investors nor mechanics — can expect to be correct all the time.

The problem isn’t that psychics get it wrong on rare occasions; instead it’s that psychics get it right on rare occasions. Sylvia Browne been a psychic for half a century, yet she and others have consistently failed to predict important world events and tragedies that might have been prevented, from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the Boston marathon bombings. They have consistently failed to find missing and abducted persons as well as wanted criminals and terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

How could hundreds of psychics giving information over the course of nearly 10 years about three different missing children have failed to know they were alive and being held captive in a Cleveland home? How could psychics miss Jaycee Dugard, a California girl abducted when she was 11 and held captive for nearly 20 years by a couple in a suburban home?

Read more at Discovery News

May 9, 2013

Moon and Earth Have Common Water Source

Researchers used a multicollector ion microprobe to study hydrogen-deuterium ratios in lunar rock and on Earth. Their conclusion: The Moon's water did not come from comets but was already present on Earth 4.5 billion years ago, when a giant collision sent material from Earth to form the Moon.

Water inside the Moon's mantle came from primitive meteorites, new research finds, the same source thought to have supplied most of the water on Earth. The findings raise new questions about the process that formed the Moon.

The Moon is thought to have formed from a disc of debris left when a giant object hit Earth 4.5 billion years ago, very early in Earth's history. Scientists have long assumed that the heat from an impact of that size would cause hydrogen and other volatile elements to boil off into space, meaning the Moon must have started off completely dry. But recently, NASA spacecraft and new research on samples from the Apollo missions have shown that the Moon actually has water, both on its surface and beneath.

By showing that water on the Moon and on Earth came from the same source, this new study offers yet more evidence that the Moon's water has been there all along.

"The simplest explanation for what we found is that there was water on the proto-Earth at the time of the giant impact," said Alberto Saal, associate professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University and the study's lead author. "Some of that water survived the impact, and that's what we see in the Moon."

The research was co-authored by Erik Hauri of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, James Van Orman of Case Western Reserve University, and Malcolm Rutherford from Brown and published online in Science Express.

To find the origin of the Moon's water, Saal and his colleagues looked at melt inclusions found in samples brought back from the Apollo missions. Melt inclusions are tiny dots of volcanic glass trapped within crystals called olivine. The crystals prevent water escaping during an eruption and enable researchers to get an idea of what the inside of the Moon is like.

Research from 2011 led by Hauri found that the melt inclusions have plenty of water -- as much water in fact as lavas forming on Earth's ocean floor. This study aimed to find the origin of that water. To do that, Saal and his colleagues looked at the isotopic composition of the hydrogen trapped in the inclusions. "In order to understand the origin of the hydrogen, we needed a fingerprint," Saal said. "What is used as a fingerprint is the isotopic composition."

Using a Cameca NanoSIMS 50L multicollector ion microprobe at Carnegie, the researchers measured the amount of deuterium in the samples compared to the amount of regular hydrogen. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron. Water molecules originating from different places in the solar system have different amounts of deuterium. In general, things formed closer to the sun have less deuterium than things formed farther out.

Saal and his colleagues found that the deuterium/hydrogen ratio in the melt inclusions was relatively low and matched the ratio found in carbonaceous chondrites, meteorites originating in the asteroid belt near Jupiter and thought to be among the oldest objects in the solar system. That means the source of the water on the Moon is primitive meteorites, not comets as some scientists thought.

Comets, like meteorites, are known to carry water and other volatiles, but most comets formed in the far reaches of the solar system in a formation called the Oort Cloud. Because they formed so far from the sun, they tend to have high deuterium/hydrogen ratios -- much higher ratios than in the Moon's interior, where the samples in this study came from.

"The measurements themselves were very difficult," Hauri said, "but the new data provide the best evidence yet that the carbon-bearing chondrites were a common source for the volatiles in the Earth and Moon, and perhaps the entire inner solar system."

Recent research, Saal said, has found that as much as 98 percent of the water on Earth also comes from primitive meteorites, suggesting a common source for water on Earth and water on Moon. The easiest way to explain that, Saal says, is that the water was already present on the early Earth and was transferred to the Moon.

The finding is not necessarily inconsistent with the idea that the Moon was formed by a giant impact with the early Earth, but presents a problem. If the Moon is made from material that came from Earth, it makes sense that the water in both would share a common source. However, there's still the question of how that water was able to survive such a violent collision.

"The impact somehow didn't cause all the water to be lost," Saal said. "But we don't know what that process would be."

It suggests, the researchers say, that there are some important processes we don't yet understand about how planets and satellites are formed.

Read more at Science Daily

New Deep-Sea Fish Species Found in Antarctica

To catch Antarctic toothfish, you must bait your hook with Peruvian squid and cast it into the depths of the Ross Sea. This is what a team of Ukrainians did on a fishing trip near Antarctica. But sometimes, Mother Nature trips you up. Sometimes, you catch a hopbeard plunderfish.

In 2009-2010, Ukrainian mariners happened to pull up three fish that looked unfamiliar. Further analysis found that they were a previously undiscovered species, dubbed the hopbeard plunderfish and described in a study published online April 29 in the journal ZooKeys. The fish bear the scientific name Pogonophryne neyelovi.

The strange-looking denizens of the deep have brownish-splotched bodies and are shaped somewhat like tadpoles, especially when young, according to the study. They have sharp dorsal fins that extend along the top of their bodies and strange "barbels," which resemble dirty Q-tips, that extend from their chins.

The longest of the three specimens measured 14 inches (35.5 centimeters). And they really like to live in the deep — they were pulled from depths of up to 4,560 feet (1,390 meters).

The fish have large livers, which fill up to 35 percent of their abdomen. Whether or not that means these sea creatures could drink like, well, fish, is unknown.

If you're fond of the hopbeard, just wait until you meet its cousins. The genus Pogonophryne, also known as the short-barbeled plunderfish, has a total of 22 species. These fish also live in the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica. Some of them live in the Ross Sea, like the hopbeard, which is found offshore of Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf.

Currently, next to nothing is known about their behavior, diet or what they do down there in the depths.

Read more at Discovery News

Locust Plague Ravages Madagascar

For three quarters of an hour a giant swarm of locusts streams across the sky above southwest Madagascar.

Along National Route Seven, normally an artery for tourists enjoying breathtaking views of the island's vast open spaces, a 15-kilometer-long (9-mile) swarm clouds the sky.

Travelers today see little more than a natural disaster in progress -- a plague of locusts which has already destroyed half of the Indian Ocean island's crops.

Madagascar's worst locust plague in 60 years has infested about half of the island, destroying crops and raising concerns over food shortages.

"There's already little rice. Not many people have more than 10 hectares of crops, so after the locusts, there's nothing left for our women and children to eat," said local farmer Zefa Vilimana.

"The cattle have nothing left to eat either, so we're left with nothing once the locusts have been here."

In Ranohira, a village further to the south, Joseph Rakoto has lost half his rice crops since the swarms came.

"We buy pesticides against rice parasites ourselves but it doesn't work against locusts. The government doesn't give us anything," he said.

According to experts, there are currently 100 swarms across Madagascar, made up of about 500 billion ravenous locusts.

They get through around 100,000 tonnes of vegetation every single day.

"They can create a lot of damage, they eat the pastures, and then also the rice and the corn, which is about to be harvested," said Tsitohaina Andriamaroahina from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Andriamaroahina headed a joint scout mission into the plague with UN food agency FAO, ending in April.

"The facts drive me to my knees," he said, frustrated with the scale of the destruction.

Locals often eat the hoppers, which usually occur in moderate numbers in the southern and southwestern parts of the country.

When they became more numerous, the authorities declared a state of emergency in November and tried to kill them -- but the swarms were simply too big.

Then Cyclone Hurana hit Madagascar in February, and the floods created a perfect breeding ground for the locusts.

"Not enough measures were taken, and so we had a locust invasion. In one day, we counted five swarms over a distance of 20 kilometers (12 miles). It's extremely serious," Andriamaroahina added.

Around 13 million people -- over half the island's population -- face food shortages or malnutrition because of the destroyed crops, according to the FAO.

Madagascar developed a 3-year emergency plan with the agency to spray pesticides by air over the millions of hectares of contaminated land.

But it is still waiting for around $40 million (30 million euros) in aid to finance the project and donors have not yet given the green light.

"The big problem here is that we don't have money, so we can't buy pesticides and we can't buy enough fuel all at once," said Rakotovao Hasibelo, a regional official of the National Anti-Locust Centre.

"The field officers, the managers can't do their work, and while we're not working, the farmers suffer and the locusts multiply," he said.

The Agriculture Ministry points the finger at mismanagement for the lack of funds.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Discovers 'Planetary Graveyard'

The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered rocky remains of planetary material ‘polluting’ the atmospheres of two white dwarfs — a sign that these stars likely have (or had) planetary systems and that asteroids are currently being shredded by extreme tidal forces.

Although white dwarfs with polluted atmospheres have been observed before, this is the first time evidence of planetary systems have been discovered in stars belonging to a relatively young cluster of stars.

By turning their attention to the Hyades star cluster some 150 light-years from Earth, Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge and his team used Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) to detect the faint signature of carbon and silicon in the two white dwarfs — called WD 0421+162 and WD 0431+126. The ratio of these elements detected are suggestive that these “dead” stars are consuming rocky material of a similar chemical composition as Earth.

Stellar Retirement

White dwarfs form after stars like our sun have exhausted all their hydrogen fuel, puffed up as a red giant and blown apart as a planetary nebula. What’s left behind is a small white dwarf that can persist for billions more years.

Any planetary system that was once in orbit around the star will be severely disrupted during the red giant phase, but any rocky material — such as asteroids, even entire planets — can survive. But the extreme tidal stresses the newly formed white dwarf can exert will rip apart any orbiting body, grinding it to dust. The dust is then dragged into the white dwarf’s atmosphere, polluting it.

This pollution, however, is very useful to astronomers. The chemical makeup of the material the old star system contains can then be identified by their chemical “fingerprint” in the star’s spectrum.

“We have identified chemical evidence for the building blocks of rocky planets,” said Farihi in a Hubble news release. “When these stars were born, they built planets, and there’s a good chance that they currently retain some of them. The signs of rocky debris we are seeing are evidence of this — it is at least as rocky as the most primitive terrestrial bodies in our Solar System.”

Where Planets Go To Die

Of the 800+ exoplanets discovered to date, only four are known to orbit stars in star clusters. Astronomers believe the vast majority of stars evolved in clusters, but why have so few exoplanets been discovered too?

By focusing on the Hyades cluster, Farihi and co analyzed the light from two of the “retired” stars — i.e. white dwarfs that have gone through the complete stellar cycle. Finding evidence of pulverized rocky material in the stars’ atmospheres are a sure sign that, yes, stars in cluster do host planetary material. By the researchers’ reckoning, the dust originates from asteroids less than 160 kilometers across being tidally ripped apart. Where there’s asteroids, there are likely exoplanets.

Read more at Discovery News

May 8, 2013

First Biological Evidence of a Supernova

In fossil remnants of iron-loving bacteria, researchers of the Cluster of Excellence Origin and Structure of the Universe at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), found a radioactive iron isotope that they trace back to a supernova in our cosmic neighborhood. This is the first proven biological signature of a starburst on our Earth. The age determination of the deep-drill core from the Pacific Ocean showed that the supernova must have occurred about 2.2 million years ago, roughly around the time when the modern human developed.

Most of the chemical elements have their origin in core collapse supernovae. When a star ends its life in a gigantic starburst, it throws most of its mass into space. The radioactive iron isotope Fe-60 is produced almost exclusively in such supernovae. Because its half-life of 2.62 million years is short compared to the age of our solar system, no supernova iron should be present on Earth. Therefore, any discovery of Fe-60 on Earth would indicate a supernova in our cosmic neighborhood. In the year 2004, Fe-60 was discovered on Earth for the first time in a ferromanganese crust obtained from the floor of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Its geological dating puts the event around 2.2 million years ago.

So-called magnetotactic bacteria live within the sediments of Earth's oceans, close to the water-sediment interface. They make within their cells hundreds of tiny crystals of magnetite (Fe3O4), each approximately 80 nanometers in diameter. The magnetotactic bacteria obtain the iron from atmospheric dust that enters the ocean. Nuclear astrophysicist Shawn Bishop from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen conjectured, therefore, that Fe-60 should also reside within those magnetite crystals produced by magnetotactic bacteria extant at the time of the supernova interaction with our planet. These bacterially produced crystals, when found in sediments long after their host bacteria have died, are called "magnetofossils."

Shawn Bishop and his colleagues analyzed parts of a Pacific Ocean sediment core obtained from the Ocean Drilling Program, dating between about 1.7 million and 3.3 million years ago. They took sediment samples corresponding to intervals of about 100,000 years and treated them chemically to selectively dissolve the magnetofossils -- thereby extracting any Fe-60 they might contain.

Finally, using the ultra sensitive accelerator mass spectrometry system at the Maier Leibnitz Laboratory in Garching, Munich, they found a tantalizing hint of Iron-60 atoms occurring around 2.2 million years ago, which matches the expected time from the ferromanganese study. "It seems reasonable to suppose that the apparent signal of Fe-60 could be remains of magnetite chains formed by bacteria on the sea floor as a starburst showered on them from the atmosphere," Shawn Bishop says. He and his team are now preparing to analyze a second sediment drill core, containing upwards of 10 times the amount of material as the first drill core, to see if it also holds the Fe-60 signal and, if it does, to map out the shape of the signal as a function of time.

From Science Daily

Cannibal Tadpoles Key to Understanding Digestive Evolution

A carnivorous, cannibalistic tadpole may play a role in understanding the evolution and development of digestive organs, according to research from North Carolina State University. These findings may also shed light on universal rules of organ development that could lead to better diagnosis and prevention of intestinal birth defects.

NC State developmental biologist Nanette Nascone-Yoder, graduate student Stephanie Bloom and postdoc Cris Ledon-Rettig looked at Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) and Lepidobatrachus laevis (Budgett's frog) tadpoles. These frog species differ in diet and last shared a common ancestor about 110 million years ago. Like most tadpoles, Xenopus exist primarily on a diet of algae, and their long, simple digestive tracts are not able to process insects or proteins until they become adult frogs. Budgett's is an aggressive species of frog which is carnivorous -- and cannibalistic -- in the tadpole stage.

Nascone-Yoder knew that Budgett's tadpoles had evolved shorter, more complex guts to digest protein much earlier in their development. She and her team exposed Xenopus embryos to molecules that inactivated a variety of genes to see if any might coax Xenopus to develop a more carnivore-like digestive tract. Remarkably, five molecules caused Xenopus tadpoles to develop guts that were closer in appearance to those of the Budgett's tadpoles. Taking it one step further, Nascone-Yoder exposed Budgett's frog embryos to molecules with opposite effects, and got tadpole guts that were closer to those of Xenopus.

"Essentially, these molecules are allowing us to tease apart the processes that play a key role in gut development," Nascone-Yoder says. "Understanding how and why the gut develops different shapes and lengths to adapt to different diets and environments during evolution gives us insight into what types of processes can be altered in the context of human birth defects, another scenario in which the gut also changes its shape and function."

The researchers' next steps include finding out whether the changes in these gut tubes were merely cosmetic, or if they also function (digest) differently.

Read more at Science Daily

Medieval Hermit Pope Not Murdered, as Believed

Celestine V, the hermit pope who set precedent for Benedict XVI, has been given a new face and fate by researchers who have examined his skeletal remains.

The last pontiff not chosen by a conclave — and the first to declare that a pope could rightfully resign — Celestine V is regarded as one of the Catholic Church’s most enigmatic popes.

His remains, kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, Italy, did not show his real face, but a wax mask with the likeness of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the Archbishop of L’Aquila from 1941 to 1950.

Beneath the mask, a half-inch hole suggested that Celestine died from a nail driven through his head while he was imprisoned by his successor Boniface VIII.

“For centuries this hole on the skull has fueled speculations and legends,” said Luca Ventura, of the San Salvatore Hospital’s Department of Pathology in L’Aquila. “But our analysis found no trace of the murder engineered by Boniface. On the contrary, we can say beyond doubt that Celestine wasn’t alive when the lesion was made.”

According to the researcher, the morphology of the lesion clearly shows it was produced on a skeletonized skull. Most likely, the hole was made with a pointed, metallic object during one of the many reburials of Celestine’s bones.

Relying on forensic techniques and laser scanner, another team of researchers led by Sergio Tiberti, of the L’Aquila University and Giulio Sacchetti, of Rome’s University Tor Vergata, used the skull to reconstruct Celestine’s face in the form of a silver mask.

“The laser scanner virtual reconstruction produced the face of a 50 year old man,” Marino Di Prospero, an artist who had already worked on funerary masks of mummified saints, told Discovery News. “The information was useful to age a model which was made with traditional forensic techniques,”

“The result is the serene face of a nearly 90-year-old man who can still inspire emotions,” Di Prospero said. “That was quite an artistic task.”

Born in 1209 as Pietro Angelerio, also known as Pietro da Morrone, Celestine accepted the papacy in 1294 at age 85 after having lived as a hermit monk in a cave in the Abruzzi mountains.

He was chosen to succeed Nicholas IV by desperate cardinals eager to break the stalemate of an electoral conclave that had gone on for more than two years.

Weakened and manipulated by Charles II, King of Sicily and Naples, Celestine soon realized the mistake he had made. Five months after he was elected pope, he stepped down, citing “deficiencies of physical strength” and “longing for the tranquility of the former life” among the reasons for his decision.

Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who had engineered the abdication, was promptly elected his successor with the name Boniface VIII.

Celestine could not enjoy tranquility in his final months. Fearing a schism, Boniface ordered the abdicating pope to be imprisoned.

Celestine went on the run for 9 months but was eventually caught and imprisoned in the castle of Fumone, which belonged to Boniface. He died there in May 1296, 18 months after his abdication.

“We can’t establish the real cause of death,” Ventura said. ”A previous research carried test for heavy metal poisoning with negative results.”

Life at the fortess might have however worn out Celestine.

“Contemporary sources cite pneumonia and a possible hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body),” Ventura said.

Analysis on the remains revealed that Celestine was 5 foot 5 inches tall and suffered from chronic sinusitis, parodontopathy, vertebral arthritis and Schmorl’s nodes, which are herniations of the intervertebral disc likely caused by weight carried at a young age.

Canonized in 1313, following Philip IV of France’s nomination for sainthood, Celestine did not rest in peace.

His sarcophagus was first buried in the Church of St Anthony in Ferentino, a village 45 miles from Rome, reburied in the Church of St Agatha still in Ferentino and then transferred to the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila.

There he was placed in a silver coffin and moved inside a marble mausoleum. In 1529, the silver coffin was stolen. A new silver coffin made in 1646 was also stolen in 1799.

Buried in a more modest coffin, Celestine’s remains were again stolen in 1988 and found two days later.

Read more at Discovery News

Psychic Claimed Amanda Berry Was Dead

Amanda Berry, a 16-year-old girl when she went missing in 2003, was rescued from an unassuming house in Cleveland Monday night, where she and others are believed to have been abducted and held captive for up to a decade.

Tragically, a high-profile psychic told Berry's mother in 2004 that she was dead, a phenomenon all too common when it comes to missing persons — psychics seem to have all the answers though they typically turn out to be completely wrong.

For nearly two years after her disappearance Amanda Berry's mother, Louwana Miller, held out hope that her daughter would be found alive and returned to her: Maybe Amanda ran away from home and would come back some day, or was in an accident and somehow lost her memory. Miller endured the terrible limbo of not knowing, holding out hope against the odds but not wanting to believe the worst.

Berry reportedly broke through a door where she had been held captive and called for help; two other missing women, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight, were also rescued from the home. The home's owner, Ariel Castro, and his two brothers have been arrested in connection with the case.

But before the seeming miracle ending, "Plain Dealer" writer Stephan Hudak noted, "Desperate for any clue as to Amanda Berry's whereabouts, and tired of unanswered questions from authorities, Miller turned to a psychic on Montel Williams' nationally syndicated television show. The psychic said what the FBI, police and Miller hadn't. 'She's not alive, honey,' Sylvia Browne told her matter-of-factly. 'Your daughter's not the kind who wouldn't call.' With those blunt words, Browne persuaded Miller to accept a grim probability that has become more likely with each passing day."

Miller returned home devastated, and she died two years later, believing that her daughter was dead.

Self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne was horribly wrong, telling a grieving mother that her child was dead when she was not. And it's not the first time: In an eerily similar situationin 2002, Browne told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead, also on Montel Williams' show. His body, she said, would be found in a wooded area near two large boulders, adding that he had been kidnapped by a very tall, "dark-skinned man" with dreadlocks.

In fact, Hornbeck and another boy were found very much alive five years later on Jan. 16, 2007, in the home of a Caucasian, non-dreadlocked Missouri man named Michael Devlin who had kidnapped them.Every detail of Browne's psychic vision was wrong, including the most important: that Shawn was dead.

This horrific case also has many similarities to Jaycee Dugard, the girl abducted at the age of 11 in 1991 and discovered living in a virtual prison in the backyard of a couple's home in Antioch, Calif., 18 years later. She had been confined and horrifically abused, and raped, even giving birth to her captor's children. They were kept prisoners and were completely isolated, never having attended school or seen a doctor.

Read more at Discovery News

May 7, 2013

Stem Cell Researchers Move Toward Treatments for Rare Genetic Nerve Disease

UCLA researchers led by Drs. Peiyee Lee and Richard Gatti at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research have used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) to advance disease-in-a-dish modeling of a rare genetic disorder, Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T). Their discovery shows the positive effects of drugs that may lead to effective new treatments for the neurodegenerative disease. iPSC are made from patient skin cells rather than from embryos and can become any type of cells, including brain cells, in the laboratory.

The study appears online ahead of print today in the journal Nature Communications.

Patients with A-T begin life with neurological deficits that become devastating through progressive loss of function in a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which leads to severe difficulty with movement and coordination. A-T patients also suffer frequent infections due to their weakened immune systems and have increased cancer risk. A-T is caused by lost function in a gene, ATM, which normally repairs damaged DNA in the cells and preserves normal function.

Laboratory mouse models are commonly used to study A-T; however, mice with A-T do not experience the more debilitating effects that humans do. In mice with A-T, the cerebellum appears normal and they do not exhibit the obvious degeneration seen in the human brain. Therefore, it was critical to develop a human neural cell model to understand the neurodegenerative process of A-T and create a platform for testing new treatments.

Lee and colleagues used iPSC-derived neural cells developed from skin cells of A-T patients with a specific type of genetic mutation to create a disease-in-a-dish model. The researchers were able to model the characteristics of A-T in the laboratory, such as the cell's lack of ATM protein and inability to repair DNA damage. The model also allowed the researchers to identify potential new therapeutic drugs, called small molecule read-through (SMRT) compounds that increase ATM protein activity and improve the model cells' ability to repair damaged DNA.

"A-T patients with no ATM activity have severe disease but patients with some ATM activity do much better. This makes our discovery promising, because even a small increase in the ATM activity induced by the SMRT drug can potentially translate to positive effects for patients, slowing disease progression and hopefully improving their quality of life." Lee said.

These studies suggest that SMRT compounds may have positive effects on all other cell types in the body, potentially improving A-T patients' immune function and decreasing their cancer susceptibility. Additionally, the patient-specific iPSC-derived neural cells in this study combined with the SMRT compounds can be an invaluable tool for understanding the development and progression of A-T. This iPSC-neural cell A-T disease model also can be a platform to identify more potent SMRT drugs. The SMRT drugs identified using this model can potentially be applied to most other genetic diseases with the same types of mutation. This research was supported by training and research grants from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the National Institutes of Health, APRAT, A-T Ease and Scott Richards Foundation.

Read more at Science Daily

A Real Bonehead: Dome-Skulled Dino Discovered

A newly discovered dome-headed, dog-size dinosaur suggests that small dinos were more diverse than paleontologists have realized.

The dinosaur, discovered in Alberta, Canada, is named Acrotholus audeti; Acrotholus means "high dome," as the new dinosaur was a pachycephalosaur, a group known for their thick, bony skulls. The new specimen is the oldest pachycephalosaur ever found in North America, and rivals the oldest specimen in the world, scientists report today (May 7) in the journal Nature Communications.

"Acrotholus provides a wealth of new information on the evolution of bone-headed dinosaurs. Although it is one of the earliest known members of this group, its thickened skull dome is surprisingly well-developed for its geological age," study researcher David Evans, the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, said in a statement.

The dinosaur roamed in what is now Alberta about 85 million years ago. That's 5 million years before the next known pachycephalosaur specimen found in North America. Another pachycephalosaur from Mongolia is approximately the same age as the new species.

Paleontologists found fragments of the animal's skull -- more than 2 inches (10 centimeters) thick -- on the ranch of Roy Audet, whose surname gives the new species the second half of its scientific name.

Given the diversity of small animals in modern times, researchers would expect to see that ancient ecosystems had a large share of tiny dinosaurs. But dinosaurs that weighed less than about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) don't fossilize well. Any bones that weren't immediately scattered or weathered into dust were often washed away from the death site, leading to jumbled, confused fossil sites. Big beasts such as long-necked, bus-sized sauropods are easier to unearth.

Most pachycephalosaurs weighed less than 88 lbs. (40 kg), or smaller than a well-fed Labrador retriever. But compared with other dinosaurs of that size, they are likely better represented in the fossil record, because their enormously thick skulls weather time and the elements better than the craniums of more delicate dinosaur species.

Even so, Evans and his colleagues found that pachycephalosaur diversity has likely been underestimated by as much as a factor of five. That means the diversity of other small dinosaurs is even more unknown.

Read more at Discovery News

15,000-Year-Old Words?

Mother, bark and spit are just three of 23 words that researchers believe date back 15,000 years, making them the oldest known words.

The words, highlighted in a new PNAS paper, all come from seven language families of Europe and Asia. It’s believed that they were part of a linguistic super-family that evolved from a common ancestral language.

What this means is that if an Ice Age person from 15,000 years ago could hear you speak today, he or she could probably understand you, so long as you used these handful of words.

Here they are:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

You can tell that fire was a big deal back in the day. “Worm” comes as a surprise.

Mark Pagel of the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences led the research. He and his colleagues began with 200 words that linguists agree are common among all European and Asian languages. They then determined which sounded similar and had comparable meanings across the different languages.

Next, Pagel and his team determined the roots of those words, resulting in the list of 23.

“Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography,” Pagel and his team wrote.

Previously, researchers suspected that most words couldn’t survive for more than 9,000 years. The estimated shelf life is due to replacement words and turnover in languages themselves, since entire languages can go extinct over time.

The timeless nature of the 23 words instead reveals their importance to us over millennia. Things like technology may forever change, leading to new words in our vocabulary. But fire ashes, spitting, old mothers, worms and more clearly are constants for us.

Read more at Discovery News

Star Explosion the Most Powerful Ever Seen

Two NASA space telescopes have captured what appears to be the most powerful star explosion ever detected, a cosmic event so luminous that scientists dubbed it "eye-wateringly bright" despite being 3.6 billion light-years from Earth.

On April 27, NASA's Swift Space Telescope and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope spotted the highest-energy gamma-ray burst (GRB) — an explosion of a massive star in the last stage of its life — ever before seen.

NASA scientists combined the observations into a video animation of the historic gamma-ray burst to illustrate the surprising brightness of this star explosion.

"We have waited a long time for a gamma-ray burst this shockingly, eye-wateringly bright," Julie McEnery, a project scientist for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement. "The GRB lasted so long that a record number of telescopes on the ground were able to catch it while space-based observations were still ongoing."

One of the gamma-rays emitted during the eruption — seen in the constellation Leo — was three times more energetic than any other gamma-ray burst recorded by Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT), the instrument on the spacecraft responsible for detecting these kinds of explosions.

The gamma-ray burst (named GRB 130427A) was also the longest ever recorded, NASA officials said.

"The GeV emission from the burst lasted for hours, and it remained detectable by the LAT for the better part of a day, setting a new record for the longest gamma-ray emission from a GRB," NASA officials added.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest explosions yet observed in the universe.

"Astronomers think most [gamma-ray bursts] occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel and collapse under their own weight," NASA officials said in a statement. "As the core collapses into a black hole, jets of material shoot outward at nearly the speed of light."

Swift's detection of this burst was delayed. The satellite was moving between cosmic targets at the time of the eruption, but the spacecraft captured the explosion less than a minute after it began. Swift also aided astronomers in placing the gamma-ray burst closer to Earth than most other star explosions of its kind, NASA officials said.

"This GRB is in the closest 5 percent of bursts, so the big push now is to find an emerging supernova, which accompanies nearly all long GRBs at this distance," Goddard's Neil Gehrels, principal investigator for Swift, said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

May 6, 2013

Weight Gain Linked With Personality Trait Changes

People who gain weight are more likely to give in to temptations but also are more thoughtful about their actions, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

To understand how fluctuations in body weight might relate to personality changes, psychological scientist Angelina Sutin of the Florida State University College of Medicine and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) examined data from two large-scale longitudinal studies of Baltimore residents.

"We know a great deal about how personality traits contribute to weight gain," said Sutin. "What we don't know is whether significant changes in weight are associated with changes in our core personality traits. Weight can be such an emotional issue; we thought that weight gain may lead to long-term changes in psychological functioning."

The studies, NIH's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) and the Baltimore Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) study, included more than 1,900 people in total, of all ages and socioeconomic levels. Data about participants' personality traits and their body weight were collected at two time points separated by nearly a decade. In one study, a clinician measured participants' weight at the two time points; in the other study, the participants reported their weight at baseline and had it measured by a clinician at follow-up.

Sutin and colleagues found that participants who had at least a 10 percent increase in body weight showed an increase in impulsiveness -- with a greater tendency to give in to temptations -- compared to those whose weight was stable. The data don't reveal whether increased impulsiveness was a cause or an effect of gaining weight, but they do suggest an intimate relationship between a person's physiology and his or her psychology.

In a surprising twist, people who gained weight also reported an increase in deliberation, with a greater tendency to think through their decisions. Deliberation tends to increase for everyone in adulthood, but the increase was almost double for participants who gained weight compared to those whose weight stayed the same.

"If mind and body are intertwined, then if one changes the other should change too," Sutin said. "That's what our findings suggest."

Sutin and colleagues speculate that this increase in deliberation could be the result of negative feedback from family or friends -- people are likely to think twice about grabbing a second slice of cake if they feel that everyone is watching them take it.

These findings suggest that even though people who gain weight are more conscious of their decision-making, they may still have difficulty resisting temptations.

"The inability to control cravings may reinforce a vicious cycle that weakens the self-control muscle," the researchers note. "Yielding to temptation today may reduce the ability to resist cravings tomorrow. Thus, individuals who gain weight may have increased risk for additional weight gain through changes in their personality."

Co-authors are National Institute on Aging researchers Paul Costa, Wayne Chan, Yuri Milaneschi, Alan Zonderman, Luigi Ferrucci, and Antonio Terracciano, also at Florida State University College of Medicine; and William Eaton of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Read more at Science Daily

So-Called Cougars, Sugar Daddies More Myth Than Reality

Despite the popular image of the rich older man or woman supporting an attractive younger spouse, a new study shows those married to younger or older mates have on average lower earnings, lower cognitive abilities, are less educated and less attractive than couples of similar ages.

"Hugh Hefner is an outlier," said Hani Mansour, Ph.D., an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver who co-authored the study with Terra McKinnish, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder. "Our results call into question the conventional wisdom regarding differently-aged couples."

The study, published online last week in the Review of Economics and Statistics, showed that those married to older or younger spouses scored negatively in key areas like education, occupational wages, appearance and cognitive skills.

The researchers did not give a range of how much older or younger a spouse had to be to see these effects. It simply found that the greater the age difference, the higher the negative indicators.

The economists examined U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960 through 2000 looking at age at first marriage, completed education, occupational wages, and earnings. They also used the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to measure cognitive skills and the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to gauge physical attractiveness.

Their findings largely reflect the different networks that lower or higher ability individuals belong to.

Those attending four-year colleges interact more with people of about the same age. After graduation, they and their peers often enter careers with upward mobility at a time when people tend to marry.

By contrast, those who attend community colleges or work in low-skilled jobs with little chance of advancement are more likely to interact with more widely diverse age groups, increasing their chances of marrying someone significantly younger or older, the study said.

"It really depends on who your social network is," Mansour said. "People with lower earning potential are in networks that are more age diverse."

The study also found that men married to younger or older spouses made less money than those married to women of a similar age.

In the 1980 Census, for example, men married to women eight or more years younger or older earned on average $3,495 less per year than men married to women no more than a year older or younger.

At the same time, women married to differently-aged spouses made more money than their mates but that was due to working more hours, not earning higher wages.

A battery of tests conducted in high school measured verbal, math and arithmetic reasoning skills. Those married to differently-aged spouses scored lower on the tests. Men with spouses at least eight years younger scored on average 8.4 points less than those who married women of a similar age. Women had less drastic drops in their scores.

Physical attractiveness was determined by interviewers conducting the Add Health survey. They rated their subjects on a scale of one to five with one being `very unattractive' and five being `very attractive.'

"Overall, the estimates indicate that individuals married to differently-aged spouses are less attractive than those married to similarly-aged spouses, with the possible exception of men married to older women," the study said.

Mansour said the study shed light on how and why people marry who they do.

The researchers also found that despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, there is nothing new about older women searching for younger men to marry.

"We really didn't find any evidence of a new cougar phenomenon," he said. "Although their share has slightly increased over time, cougars have been among us since the 1960s."

Read more at Science Daily

Wind, Not Water, Formed Mound On Mars, New Analysis Suggests

A roughly 3.5-mile high Martian mound that scientists suspect preserves evidence of a massive lake might actually have formed as a result of the Red Planet's famously dusty atmosphere, an analysis of the mound's features suggests. If correct, the research could dilute expectations that the mound holds evidence of a large body of water, which would have important implications for understanding Mars' past habitability.

Researchers based at Princeton University and the California Institute of Technology suggest that the mound, known as Mount Sharp, most likely emerged as strong winds carried dust and sand into the 96-mile-wide crater in which the mound sits. They report in the journal Geology that air likely rises out of the massive Gale Crater when the Martian surface warms during the day, then sweeps back down its steep walls at night. Though strong along the Gale Crater walls, these "slope winds" would have died down at the crater's center where the fine dust in the air settled and accumulated to eventually form Mount Sharp, which is close in size to Alaska's Mt. McKinley.

This dynamic counters the prevailing theory that Mount Sharp formed from layers of lakebed silt -- and could mean that the mound contains less evidence of a past, Earth-like Martian climate than most scientists currently expect. Evidence that Gale Crater once contained a lake in part determined the landing site for the NASA Mars rover Curiosity. The rover touched down near Mount Sharp in August with the purpose of uncovering evidence of a habitable environment, and in December Curiosity found traces of clay, water molecules and organic compounds. Determining the origin of these elements and how they relate to Mount Sharp will be a focus for Curiosity in the coming months.

But the mound itself was likely never under water, though a body of water could have existed in the moat around the base of Mount Sharp, said study co-author Kevin Lewis, a Princeton associate research scholar in geosciences and a participating scientist on the Curiosity rover mission, Mars Science Laboratory. The quest to determine whether Mars could have at one time supported life might be better directed elsewhere, he said.

"Our work doesn't preclude the existence of lakes in Gale Crater, but suggests that the bulk of the material in Mount Sharp was deposited largely by the wind," said Lewis, who worked with first author Edwin Kite, a planetary science postdoctoral scholar at Caltech; Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology at Caltech; and Claire Newman and Mark Richardson of California-based research company Ashima Research.

Read more at Science Daily

Where Do Baby Comets Come From?

Comets are enigmatic celestial objects that have captivated mankind through history. Their long, bright tails often dazzle as they approach the sun, but they can be a destructive force, pulverizing planetary surfaces throughout the evolution of the solar system.

But where do these interplanetary interlopers come from? As it turns out, that's far from an easy question to answer.

The concept of a cloud from which long-period comets originate was first discussed in 1932 by Estonian astronomer Ernst Ă–pic and independently revisited by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort 18 years later.

Oort drew the conclusion that a distant cloud must exist because new comets are often observed and, given that the sun causes much of a comet's material to 'boil' off into space, they would either disintegrate or harden very quickly and thus prevent further outgassing.

This alone suggests comets have a finite lifetime and must have existed somewhere, waiting until some chance event throws them toward the inner solar system and their slow demise.

He also noted that due to their orbits, which seemingly change slowly over time, they should eventually hit something or be ejected from the solar system through gravitational interactions with planets. For these reasons, Oort believed there must be some large 'reservoir' where comets exist for most of their lives.

The possible origin of the cloud too is subject to conjecture but many believe it could be the remains of the protoplanetary disk out of which the planets formed.

About 4.6 billion years ago, the young hot sun was surrounded by a vast disk of material that slowly formed into the planets. Much of the remaining material is now thought to have been ejected to the outer reaches of the solar system through gravitational interactions Jupiter and Saturn.

Since the idea was formulated, we have still have yet to confirm the existence of the so-called "Oort Cloud" and so it remains purely hypothetical.

If it does exist -- and there's a lot of evidence to suggest it does -- it is thought that it would be roughly spherical in shape with an outer sphere extending from about 2,000 Astronomical Units (1 AU is the average distance between the Earth and the sun) and 50,000 AU from the sun and an inner disc known as the Hills Cloud. (This is not to be confused with the Kuiper Belt which refers to a region much closer to the sun.)

The Oort Cloud is believed to be composed of billions, possibly trillions of icy planetesimals which ultimately, become cometary nuclei if dislodged from their orbit and sent in toward the inner solar system.

So what strange force could possibly eject comets from their deep freeze in the Oort Cloud?

One of the most popular theories is that the gravity from the Milky Way itself is responsible for sending comets in our direction. Just as the moon exerts a pull on the Earth, making its oceans (and to a lesser degree the land) bulge toward the moon, so the pull of gravity from our galaxy is thought to make the Oort Cloud bulge, dislodging the comets.

Read more at Discovery News

May 5, 2013

Childhood Obesity Starts at Home

As parents, physicians and policymakers look for ways to curb childhood obesity, they may need to look no further than a child's own backyard.

A new study to be presented Saturday, May 4, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting shows that preschool children are less likely to be obese if they live in a neighborhood that is safe and within walking distance of parks and retail services.

"A child's neighborhood is a potentially modifiable risk factor for obesity that we can target in order to stop the increasing prevalence of obesity in young children," said lead author Julia B. Morinis, MD, MSc, a pediatrician at Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The study is part of a Canadian research collaboration called TARGetKids! (The Applied Research Group for Kids) that aims to determine if factors early in life are related to later health problems. Healthy children ages 0-5 years are enrolled in the ongoing study. Information is collected on their height, weight, waist circumference, nutrition, and physical and sedentary activity. Blood samples also are taken from each child.

For this study, researchers used TARGetKids data on 3,928 children in Toronto to determine if where they live was related to whether they were overweight or obese. Neighborhoods were evaluated based on car ownership, population, distance to retail locations, distance to parks and safety.

Results showed that 21 percent of the children were overweight, and 5 percent were obese, which is similar to the Canadian norms. Higher rates of overweight/obesity were found among children who live in neighborhoods that have fewer destinations within walking distance.

"How conducive a child's neighborhood is to physical activity is related to a child's body mass index (BMI) even after adjusting for factors we know are associated with obesity, including socioeconomic status, immigration, ethnicity, parental BMI, physical activity, age, gender and birth weight," Dr. Morinis said.

Read more at Science Daily

Global Highways of Invasive Marine Species Calculated

Globalisation, with its ever increasing demand for cargo transport, has inadvertently opened the flood gates for a new, silent invasion. New research has mapped the most detailed forecast to date for importing potentially harmful invasive species with the ballast water of cargo ships.

Scientists from the Universities of Bristol, UK, and Oldenburg, Germany, have examined ship traffic data and biological records to assess the risk of future invasions. Their research is published in the latest issue of Ecology Letters.

Animals and plants can hitch a ride on cargo ships, hiding as stowaways in the ballast tanks or clinging to the ship's hull. Upon arrival in a new port, alien species can then wreak havoc in formerly pristine waters. These so-called invasive species can drive native species to extinction, modify whole ecosystems and impact human economy.

Some regions, such as the San Francisco Bay or Chesapeake Bay, have even reported several new exotic species per year. The knock-on effects to fishermen, farmers, tourism and industry create billions of US dollars in damage every year. Conservationists and ship engineers are now trying to prevent the next big invasion. But without knowing when and where it may occur, their possibilities remain limited.

As part of the research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the team obtained detailed logs of nearly three million ship voyages in 2007 and 2008. Depending on the particular route travelled by each ship, the researchers estimated the probability that a species survives the journey and establishes a population in subsequent ports of call. Although this probability is tiny for any single voyage, the numbers quickly add up because modern cargo traffic volumes are enormous.

Professor Bernd Blasius from the University of Oldenburg and one of the researchers involved in the study, said: "Our model combines information such as shipping routes, ship sizes, temperatures and biogeography to come up with local forecasts of invasion probabilities."

The final tally reveals the hotspots of bioinvasion. Large Asian ports such as Singapore and Hong Kong but also US ports like New York and Long Beach are among the sites of highest invasion probability. These waterways are notoriously busy, but, traffic is not the only important factor.

The North Sea, for example, does not rank among the top endangered regions despite intense shipping. Temperatures here are lower, making it more difficult for alien species to survive. However, arrivals from the other side of the Atlantic pose a serious threat to the North Sea. Most invaders are predicted to originate from the North American east coast.

Hanno Seebens from the University of Oldenburg said: "We also compared our model results to field data. And, indeed, most of the alien species actually do originate from there."

As severe as the risk of future invasions may be, the study also contains a hopeful message. If ship engineers could prevent at least some potential invaders from getting on board, the total invasion risk could be substantially mitigated.

By successfully removing a species from 25 per cent of the ballast tanks arriving at each port (eg with filters, chemicals or radiation), the overall invasion probability decreases by 56 per cent. The reduction is so disproportionately large because the effect of ballast water treatment multiplies at successive stopovers.

Bioinvasion is, as the researchers admit, a complex process, and records of past invasions are far from comprehensive. Facing these uncertainties, they simulated various different scenarios. Interestingly, the key results are comparable for different models, predicting the same hotspots and global highways of bioinvasion. The traffic on the main shipping routes plays the greatest role for the calculation.

Read more at Science Daily