May 25, 2013

New Analysis Yields Improvements in a Classic 3-D Imaging Technique

Research conducted at Curtin University in Perth has enabled significant increases in image quality in a widely used 3D printing technique that is more than 100 years old.

Anaglyph printing -- think of the red-and-blue 3D glasses used to transform 2D images to 3D images in comics, magazines, books, and newspapers -- came into being when the continuous-tone printed anaglyph was invented by French physicist Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1891.

The technique works by combining the left and right images of a stereoscopic image pair into the red and blue color channels of the output anaglyph image. With the red/blue 3D glasses, the left eye sees only the red channel of the anaglyph image, and the right sees only the blue. If the anaglyph 3D image has been constructed correctly, the viewer sees a pleasing 3D image on the printed page.

The project team, led by Curtin research engineer Andrew Woods, targeted crosstalk problems which are visible as ghost-like shadows. Their paper published recently in the SPIE journal Optical Engineering details seven recommendations for overcoming crosstalk.

"The largest reduction in crosstalk is likely be achieved by using inks which have a better spectral purity than current process inks used in color printers," Woods said. "We found that an 80% reduction in crosstalk was potentially achievable just by changing the cyan ink."

The anaglyph technique is easy to implement and the anaglyph 3D glasses are relatively cheap, so the technique is used very widely, Woods said.

However, printed anaglyph images often suffer from a number of image quality limitations. When the 3D image is viewed through the colored glasses, there is often a significant amount of crosstalk (or ghosting), an undesirable property of some 3D techniques whereby the left eye sees some of the image intended for only the right eye, and vice-versa. Crosstalk is usually visible as ghost-like shadows throughout the image. If crosstalk levels are too high, the quality of the 3D experience can be significantly reduced.

"The printed anaglyph is 121 years old, but this appears to be the first time that a detailed technical simulation of crosstalk in printed anaglyphs has been developed," Woods said. "We started by measuring the spectral characteristics of various printing inks, 3D glasses, light sources, and papers. From there we developed a simulation which models the viewing of an anaglyph 3D image, and subsequently performed an experiment to validate the accuracy of the model. We hope this work will help provide a 21st-century improvement to the 19th-century invention."

In addition to changing the cyan ink, recommendations include using high-quality anaglyph glasses, an optimized light source, and improved image processing algorithms.

The full paper is available via open access in the SPIE Digital Library: "Characterizing and reducing crosstalk in printed anaglyph stereoscopic 3D images."

Read more at Science Daily

Understanding the Past and Predicting the Future by Looking Across Space and Time

Studying complex systems like ecosystems can get messy, especially when trying to predict how they interact with other big unknowns like climate change.

In a new paper published this week (May 20) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere validate a fundamental assumption at the very heart of a popular way to predict relationships between complex variables.

To model how climate changes may impact biodiversity, researchers like Jessica Blois and John W. (Jack) Williams routinely use an approach called "space-for-time substitution." The idea behind this method is to use the information in current geographic distributions of species to build a model that can predict climate-driven ecological changes in the past or future. But does it really work?

"It's a necessary assumption, but it's generally untested," says lead study author Blois, a former postdoctoral fellow with Williams at UW-Madison. She is now an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced. "Yet we're using this every day when we make predictions about biodiversity going into the future with climate change."

Their results should give other ecologists -- and potentially others such as economists who use similar models -- more confidence in their methods.

"At these spatial and temporal scales, the space-for-time assumption does work well," says Williams, professor of geography and director of the Center for Climatic Research at the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "Our fossil data did support the idea that you can use spatial relationships as a source of information for making these predictions for the future."

Their research focus is paleoecology, the study of ancient ecosystems. By looking at fossilized pollen trapped in cores of sediment from the bottoms of lakes, the scientists reconstructed information about the plant communities present at locations across eastern North America during the past 21,000 years.

If climate has influenced communities the same way across space and through time, Blois explains, then a model based on the spatial data should make the same predictions as a model based on their temporal data. And in fact, they did.

The space-for-time model explained about 72 percent of the variation seen in their time data, and the remainder is likely due to other biological and environmental factors that the simplified model does not include, Blois says.

Though the testing does not capture all the ways space-for-time substitutions are used in other predictive fields, she says that the results are very encouraging for questions spanning large geographic and time scales -- scales at which collecting good temporal data can be very challenging.

Read more at Science Daily

May 24, 2013

Expedition to Study Ancient Continental Breakup West of Spain

An international team of scientists has embarked on a shipboard expedition to study how Earth's crust was pulled apart in an area beneath the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain. The team includes geophysicists from University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science (SOES) based at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK.

From the research vessels RV Poseidon and RV Marcus G. Langseth the team will use sound waves to create a three-dimensional picture of the rocks in the Deep Galicia Basin, located to the west of northern Spain. The new datasets will improve understanding of how continents stretch and break apart, creating new ocean basins in between.

About 250 million years ago, Spain and Newfoundland in Canada were connected as part of a larger continent. Then around 220-200 million years ago, the continental crust in between began to spread apart, exposing the mantle beneath and eventually forming new oceanic crust by volcanic activity.

Professor Tim Minshull, Head of SOES, who is leading the Southampton team aboard the German vessel RV Poseidon, says: "We first conceived this project almost nine years ago, so after many years of preparation it is exciting to finally be doing the experiment."The team will drop 78 seismic detectors onto the seabed in cooperation with colleagues from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, NOCS' German counterpart, led by Dr Dirk Klaeschen.

Led by Professor Dale Sawyer of Rice University, scientists aboard RV Marcus G. Langseth will then image Earth's crust in three dimensions over a 64 x 22 kilometre region of the ocean floor.

Seismologists use sound waves to image structures below the sea floor in much the same way that ultrasound techniques image organs in the human body. The sophisticated seismic instruments aboard the US vessel RV Marcus G. Langseth will allow seismologists to build up a picture of the faults and continental blocks up to 15 kilometres below the sea floor. Pressure guns towed behind the ship produce sound waves that penetrate the rocks and bounce off fault planes and boundaries. The reflected sound waves are then recorded by the detectors on the sea floor as well as instruments called hydrophones that are towed behind the ship.

The scientists are particularly interested in a strongly reflective fault surface -- known as the "S reflector" -- as well as the structures above and below it. This fault is thought to have formed when the crust was pulled apart. It is the boundary between the overlying crustal blocks and the underlying mantle rocks that have been penetrated by seawater. The scientists will also use the seismic images to work out how and in what order the different blocks moved as the crust was stretched.

Read more at Science Daily

King Richard III Buried in Hasty Grave

The body of King Richard III was buried in great haste, a new study finds — perhaps because the medieval monarch's corpse had been out for three days in the summer sun.

The new research is the first academic paper published on the discovery of Richard III, which was publically announced in February 2013. A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester found the body beneath a parking lot in Leicester that was once the site of a medieval church. The full study will be available online on Friday evening (May 24).

The archaeological analysis contains details only alluded to in the initial announcement of the findings. In particular, the archaeologists found that Richard III's grave was dug poorly and probably hastily, a sharp contrast to the neat rectangular graves otherwise found in the church where the king was laid to rest.

Richard III's journey to Leicester

Richard III ruled England from 1483 to 1485, when he was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field, the definitive fight in the War of the Roses.

Historical records reveal that after the battle, Richard's body was stripped and brought to Leicester, where it remained on public display for three days until burial on August 25, 1485. The church where the body was interred, a Franciscan friary called Grey Friars, was eventually demolished around 1538. A former mayor of Leicester built a mansion on the site, but by the 1700s, the land had been subdivided and sold off, the location of the church lost.

With it went all memory of where one of England's most famous kings was buried. Richard III was immortalized by a Shakespeare play of the same name and made out to be a villain by the Tudor dynasty that followed his rule. Today, however, there are societies of Richard III enthusiasts called Richardians who defend the dead king's honor. One of these Richardians, a screenwriter named Philippa Langley, spearheaded the excavation that discovered Richard III's body.

Digging for Richard

The new paper, published in the journal Antiquity, outlines how archaeologists dug three trenches in a city government parking lot, hoping to hit church buildings they knew had once stood in the area. They soon found evidence of the friary they were looking for: first, a chapter house with stone benches and diamond-pattern floor tiles. This chapter house would have been used for daily monastery meetings.

South of the chapter houses, the excavation revealed a well-worn cloister walk, or covered walkway. Finally, the researchers found the church building itself. The church was about 34 feet (10.4 meters) wide. It had been demolished, but the floors (and the graves in the floor) were left intact. Among the rubble were decorated tiles and copper alloy letters that likely once marked the graves.

Brick dust suggested the outer church walls may have been covered with a brick façade, which would have created a striking red-and-white look with the church's limestone-framed windows, the researchers wrote.

A hasty grave

Most of the graves in the Grey Friars church floor are neat and orderly, with squared-off rectangle sides. Richard III's is an exception. The grave is irregularly shaped, with sloping sides. It was also too small for the 5-foot-8-inch (1.7 m) skeleton interred within: Richard's torso is twisted and his head propped up rather than laid flat. The body was also crammed against the north wall of the grave, perhaps because someone stood against the south wall to guide the body into its resting place. Whoever it was did not spend time afterward rearranging the body into a more symmetrical position.

"The haste may partially be explained by the fact that Richard’s damaged body had already been on public display for several days in the height of summer, and was thus in poor condition," the researchers wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Pope Francis Accepts Atheists: Not the First

Being an atheist is fine, as long as you do good, Pope Francis said Wednesday, rocking the minds of less tolerant Catholics.

In his homily at the morning Mass in Rome, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics urged the faithfuls to broaden their horizon, following a principle Jesus taught his disciples. Citing the Gospel of Mark, he described how upset the disciples were at the news that someone outside their group was doing good.

“They complained: If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good,” Francis said.

“This was wrong,” he added, according to a report from Vatican Radio.

Labeling the disciples as “a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good,” Francis remarked the importance of the “doing good” commandment. The principle, he said, unites all humanity, beyond religions and ideologies, creating a “culture of encounter” which is at the basis of peace.

Narrow and self centered attitudes should be banned, as everyone doing good, including atheists, can be redeemed by Jesus, Francis said.

“Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” the pope said, referring to a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: “But I don’t believe. I’m an atheist.”

Francis’s reaching out to atheists is not a completely new move. A dialogue with non believers was sought in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. In his debut encyclical Ecclesiam Suams, Paul conceded that some atheists were undoubtedly inspired by “great-hearted dreams of justice and progress.”

Adding to a number of unconventional speeches and gestures, Pope Francis’ words have sounded almost revolutionary as they are in striking contrast with the radical views of his predecessor Benedict XVI, who often described atheism as a terrible threat, harshingly attacking what he called “aggressive secularism.”

In a much criticized speech during his first papal visit to Britain in 2010, Benedict even appeared to tie atheism with the crimes of the Nazi, by stating that the “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society” had resulted in the Holocaust.

According to Christian News, reports state that a number of atheists are favorable toward the charismatic pope, mainly because of his humanitarian goals.

“I might not believe in God, but I believe that Catholics and atheists can work together just as all of humanity can work together towards equality and justice when we put the needs of modern people first and the arcane doctrine second,” author Luis Ruuska wrote in a Huffington Post article entitled “Why This Atheist Has a New Hope in Pope Francis.”

Read more at Discovery News

Stem Cell Study Researcher Admits Mistakes

A blockbuster study in which US researchers reported that they had turned human skin cells into embryonic stem cells contained errors, its lead author has acknowledged.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov nevertheless adamantly stood by the conclusions of the study published last week in journal Cell, which reported that human stem cell lines for the first time had been created via cloning.

The journal Nature contacted Mitalipov after an anonymous online critic on PubPeer spotted four separate problems in the paper.

In an interview with Nature, Mitalipov confirmed that three errors were made in the rush to publish -- but denied the fourth issue raised was an error and said the overall conclusions were unaffected.

"The results are real, the cell lines are real, everything is real," said Mitalipov, a reproductive biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University in Beaverton.

"I personally made the cells," he said. "I saw them grow into colonies."

He blamed the errors on his rush to publish the research, which he hoped to present next month at the International Society for Stem Cell Research meeting. "Maybe it was rushed," he said. "It was my mistake."

Mitalipov said his research team will be issuing an erratum correcting the flaws, and hopes that other scientists will try to duplicate his findings, which will lend it even more credibility.

"The first thing we want to do is have people confirm our results," Mitalipov said. "We are not hiding these cell lines."

The scientific community was divided as to how seriously to view the errors.

Robin Lovell Badge, who heads the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London, warned against a rush to condemn.

"I expect the errors above were also due to the rush to publish. The authors should be given a chance to answer and correct mistakes," he told Nature.

Others said they were surprised that Cell accepted the paper in just days -- a time they deemed insufficient for proper peer review.

"The four-day review process was obviously inadequate," said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the stem cell program at the University of California, San Francisco.

"It's a degree of sloppiness that you wouldn't expect in a paper that was going to have this high profile," Kriegstein told the British journal.

"One worries if there is more than meets the eye and whether there are other issues with the work that are not as apparent," he said.

The cloning method written about in the article was described as an important breakthrough because it does not destroy embryos in creating the type of stem cell that can morph into any other type of cell in the body.

The technique involves transplanting an individual's DNA into an egg cell that has been stripped of genetic material, a variation of a method called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Read more at Discovery News

May 23, 2013

What the Smallest Infectious Agents Reveal About Evolution

Radically different viruses share genes and are likely to share ancestry, according to research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Virology Journal this week. The comprehensive phylogenomic analysis compares giant viruses that infect amoeba with tiny viruses known as virophages and to several groups of transposable elements. The complex network of evolutionary relationships the authors describe suggests that viruses evolved from non-viral mobile genetic elements and vice versa, on more than one occasion.

The recent discovery of virophages inside the giant viruses, which in turn infect amoeba, has led to speculation about their origin and their relationship to other viruses and small transposable genetic elements. To try to answer this question a research team including Eugene Koonin from the NIH and Didier Raoult from URMITE compared the genetic material from virophages, such as the Mavirus, Sputnik, or OLV (which was isolated from an Antarctic organic lake), to eukaryotic self replicating transposable elements known as Polintons or Mavericks.

Eugene Koonin explains: "Between the known virophages there are six conserved genes, arranged in a similar way. Five of these have counterparts in the Polintons, but their sequence and arrangement are sufficiently different to discount suggestions that Polintons evolved directly from a Maviruse-like ancestor. Rather our data suggests that Maviruses have evolved from a fusion between a Politon/Maverick-like transposable element and an unknown virus."

Including information about other viruses and virus-like elements: adenoviruses that infect animals and are one of the causes of the common cold; certain bacteriophages that infect bacteria; transpovirons which infect giant viruses; and a Tetrahymena transposable element (Tlr1), the virus "evolutionary tree" appears as a network of swapped genes.

Read more at Science Daily

The Secret Lives (and Deaths) of Neurons

As the human body fine-tunes its neurological wiring, nerve cells often must fix a faulty connection by amputating an axon -- the "business end" of the neuron that sends electrical impulses to tissues or other neurons. It is a dance with death, however, because the molecular poison the neuron deploys to sever an axon could, if uncontained, kill the entire cell.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine have uncovered some surprising insights about the process of axon amputation, or "pruning," in a study published May 21 in the journal Nature Communications. Axon pruning has mystified scientists curious to know how a neuron can unleash a self -destruct mechanism within its axon, but keep it from spreading to the rest of the cell. The researchers' findings could offer clues about the processes underlying some neurological disorders.

"Aberrant axon pruning is thought to underlie some of the causes for neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism," said Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology at UNC and the study's senior author. "This study sheds light on some of the mechanisms by which neurons are able to regulate axon pruning."

Axon pruning is part of normal development and plays a key role in learning and memory. Another important process, apoptosis -- the purposeful death of an entire cell -- is also crucial because it allows the body to cull broken or incorrectly placed neurons. But both processes have been linked with disease when improperly regulated.

The research team placed mouse neurons in special devices called microfluidic chambers that allowed the researchers to independently manipulate the environments surrounding the axon and cell body to induce axon pruning or apoptosis.

They found that although the nerve cell uses the same poison -- a group of molecules known as Caspases -- whether it intends to kill the whole cell or just the axon, it deploys the Caspases in a different way depending on the context.

"People had assumed that the mechanism was the same regardless of whether the context was axon pruning or apoptosis, but we found that it's actually quite distinct," said Deshmukh. "The neuron essentially uses the same components for both cases, but tweaks them in a very elegant way so the neuron knows whether it needs to undergo apoptosis or axon pruning."

In apoptosis, the neuron deploys the deadly Caspases using an activator known as Apaf-1. In the case of axon pruning, Apaf-1 was simply not involved, despite the presence of Caspases. "This is really going to take the field by surprise," said Deshmukh. "There's very little precedent of Caspases being activated without Apaf-1. We just didn't know they could be activated through a different mechanism."

In addition, the team discovered that neurons employ other molecules as safety brakes to keep the "kill" signal contained to the axon alone. "Having this brake keeps that signal from spreading to the rest of the body," said Deshmukh. "Remarkably, just removing one brake makes the neurons more vulnerable."

Read more at Science Daily

Stephen Hawking Gets Superhero Treatment in New Comic

A new comic book gets its action from the tremendous ideas of cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Living legend Stephen Hawking has already achieved superhero status in the eyes of many science geeks, and now his ideas are being honored in comic book form.

"Stephen Hawking: Riddles of Time & Space" (Bluewater) details the life story of the physicist, from his early days at Cambridge and struggles with a body-wrecking disease to his academic achievements and current fame.

Hawking, 71, is widely considered one of the greatest scientific minds since Albert Einstein, and he has greatly enriched our understanding of the universe over the past several decades. His work with fellow cosmologist Roger Penrose helped unite Einstein's general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Hawking also studied black holes, with a groundbreaking theory that the cosmic monsters do actually emit a faint glimmer of radiation.

But his life has been marked by physical challenges. At age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with the motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease eventually robbed him of his mobility and later his ability to speak; today, Hawking uses a speech-generating device controlled by the muscles in his cheek.

"The very concept of making an engaging comic book where the protagonist is essentially immobile is a pretty tall order, but I think the key to us keeping it exciting was being able to get inside his mind (one of the greatest of our time) and show some of his most abstract concepts in a visual and dynamic way," artist Zach Bassett said in a statement.

One page detailing Hawking's ideas about black holes puts the scientist into conversation with Einstein, picturing him as Michelangelo's Adam reaching out to Einstein as God.

"Additionally, we got several chances to tip our hat to many famous artistic icons of pop culture, as well as famous people that he's met, taken inspiration from or even inspired himself," Bassett added. Hawking has been featured on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "The Simpsons," "Futurama" and "The Big Bang Theory."

Read more at Discovery News

Can Life's Fingerprint Be Found On Super-Earths?

NASA is preparing the TESS observatory (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) to follow-up on the successes of the planet-hunting Kepler observatory by identifying nearby exoplanets that pass in front of, or “transit,” their stars. A small sample of these worlds will be singled out for further scrutiny if they lie within the habitable zone of the parent star. The habitable zone is the distance from a star where temperatures on a world may allow liquid water to exist on the planetary surface.

Kepler showed us an incredible diversity among planetary systems, and that small planets like Earth greatly outnumber bloated Jupiter-class worlds. But the Kepler planets are typically over 1,000 light-years away, so understanding the environments of these worlds is technologically out of the question — at least for the foreseeable future.

It is a reasonable prediction that the first transiting candidate planet to look for the chemical signature of life will be a world orbiting a nearby red dwarf star. There are about 90 red dwarfs within just 20 light-years of Earth, but only seven sun-like stars.

A transiting planet will allow for measuring the fraction of starlight passing through its atmosphere as well as recording the difference in light from the system when the planet passes behind its star.

TESS’ survey should at least find a few nearby transiting worlds within reach of doing a chemical inventory with NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope. At the very least, Webb would have a shot at providing evidence for an ocean on a planet.  This would further narrow down the candidates for more detailed studies.

Kepler’s survey found a number of super-Earths, planets several times Earth’s mass, and therefore too small to be gassy so-called ice giants like Uranus and Neptune. But what might the spectral fingerprint of a nearby super-Earth look like? And could we unequivocally deduce the planet is inhabited to everyone’s satisfaction?

Astrobiologists are now modeling super-Earth atmospheres for planets orbiting in the habitable zone of red dwarf stars. It’s time to begin to try and understand and predict the expected signature of an alien biosphere.

A set of models developed by J. L. Grenfell of the Zentrum fur Astronomie und Astrophysik, Technische Universitat Berlin, and colleagues, start out with the assumption the planet is blanketed with life (unlike Mars where apparently nothing survives on the surface). This would likely require that the target world be several billion years old to allow for the evolution of life to expand, diversify, and significantly modify the planet’s atmosphere.

Life on any planet would use chemical reactions to extract energy, store it, and release certain gases as a byproduct of their metabolism. On Earth the biggest chemical signature of metabolism is oxygen produced by photosynthesis. Other strong signals would come from the presence of ozone and nitrous oxide. Other biotracers, carbon dioxide and methane (already detected on and exoplanets by the Hubble Space Telescope) can also be produced by non-biological processes.

The researchers find that ozone levels can vary widely given other conditions on the super-Earths. In particular ultraviolet radiation from a red dwarf star is anemic. Without UV radiation to break apart certain gasses a red dwarf planet might have a higher concentration of biosignature gasses, as well as a smoggy sky.

The model also looks at surface gravities that could be as high as three times that of Earth’s. This might inhibit the movement of biogases from the planet’s surface into the higher stratosphere. What’s missing in the models are such critical but unknown variables are whether the planet has a shielding magnetic field, or plate tectonic for recycling atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide that otherwise might build up to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect.

The bottom line is that super-Earth atmospheres will be complicated and messy and will probably not look like anything that unequivocally settles the question of habitability. This will spur the far-future goal of building interstellar probes to visit the nearest habitable planet candidates.

Read more at Discovery News

May 22, 2013

Neanderthal Moms Breastfed for 7 Months

Neanderthal babies appear to have spent their days much like human infants, with one major difference: They were weaned earlier, according to a new study.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature, suggests that Neanderthals lived faster and died younger than their human counterparts. That probably happened due to environmental constraints, such as cold temps and food sources, which influenced population growth and everything associated with it.

“Weaning is critical to developmental and reproductive rates,” wrote lead author and University of Sydney researcher Christine Austin. “Early weaning can have detrimental health effects but enables shorter inter-birth intervals, which influences population growth.”

Researchers made the determinations after studying Neanderthal teeth. The scientists also looked at the teeth of human children and macaques for comparison.

The shift from weaning to solid food is locked into the structure of the tissues that exist in  the tooth and in its roots. The evidence remains even if baby teeth are lost and replaced with permanent ones. In this study, the researchers analyzed a young Neanderthal’s first molar tooth.

The element barium, found in enamel, turns out to vary with the big dietary changes. Barium’s distribution in tooth enamel rises during breastfeeding and drops quickly when the individual is weaned.

Barium levels indicate that the Neanderthal youth was breastfed exclusively for seven months, followed by seven months of supplementation. Breastfeeding then ceased and the individual began to eat, presumably with some help from its mother, parents or multiple relatives.

Read more at Discovery News

Herb Doctor Jailed for Phony Cancer Cures

A prominent Los Angeles doctor who claimed that specially-prepared herbal supplements could treat a wide variety of diseases including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease — with a success rate as high as 80 percent — has been convicted and sentenced to prison.

Christine Daniel, a Pentecostal minister, sold her miracle cures through her San Fernando Valley clinic and on the Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) show Praise the Lord. In September 2011 Daniel was convicted of several crimes including wire fraud, tax evasion and witness tampering. Last week Daniel was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison and ordered to repay over $1 million that she took from clients.

According to a story on Yahoo News, some of her patients died of treatable forms of cancer within 3 to 6 months after taking the supplements. Chemical tests showed the treatments contained beef extract flavoring and a sunscreen preservative.

Herbs can’t treat or cure cancer, of course. But this case shows how the chronically ill can be exploited by fraud artists and unethical alternative medicine practitioners. Prosecutors also explained that Daniel’s status as a minister and association with TBN enhanced her credibility. Many fundamentalist churches advice their members to avoid modern medicine in favor of prayer and herbs.

From Discovery News

Neanderthal Greek Paradise Found

Anthropologists have discovered a beautiful Greek waterfront paradise once inhabited by generations of Neanderthals up to 100,000 years ago, according to a new study.

This particular population was based at what is known as The Kalamakia Middle Paleolithic Cave site on the Mani peninsula of southern Greece.

Previously, only one other Neanderthal tooth suggested that the now-extinct hominids settled in Greece.

Katerina Harvati, head of paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen’s Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironments, studied the remains and identified multiple Neanderthals representing a child, a teen and both male and female adults. It is unclear if all were related.

The Neanderthals chose a scenic place to live, with the Mani area to this day drawing tourists.

"The site is currently very close to the sea," said Harvati, lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution. "During glacial times the sea level was lower, so there likely would have been a coastal plain exposed in front of the site. This habitat would be ideal for the kinds of animals that humans hunted."

Fallow deer and ibex were two such animals eaten by Neanderthals and, later, modern humans. The Neanderthals seemed to have a particular fondness for tortoise meat. The shells -- from shellfish too -- mostly were all recycled into tools, such as implements for scraping.

Dental wear suggests that the Neanderthals enjoyed a varied diet consisting of seafood, meat and plants. Studies on Neanderthals from other locations suggest they were primarily carnivorous, but it appears they just took advantage of whatever foods were available.

The remains further suggest that Neanderthals inhabited caves whenever possible, perhaps cave-hopping along the western coast of the Mani peninsula.

"The identification of Neanderthal teeth and bones representing numerous individuals at Kalamakia Cave supports the common occurrence of this human species in southern Greece," Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, told Discovery News.

He added, "This is not unexpected, given their presence along the Mediterranean coastal area from Gibraltar through Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia and in Israel, Syria and other parts of the Middle Eastern Levant. I expect Harvati's new fieldwork project to recover additional fossils from Greek sites, which have not yet produced human remains, and I hope to see more complete specimens in the future."

Read more at Discovery News

How Our Brains Miss the Obvious

In the house of alleged Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro, multiple padlocks kept interior doors shut, windows were nailed shut, and guests weren't allowed upstairs or in the basement.

In retrospect, some question why visitors didn't notice that something was amiss over the 10 years that three women were allegedly held captive there before their recent escape. But psychologists say few people would: We are so focused on the task on hand that it's easy to miss aberrant details.

In fact, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons found that half of people watching a video failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit walking through a basketball game when they were told to count the number of passes among team members. Still, we think we notice things.

"We have a bias to believe that we will notice all the important things," said Chabris, a professor at Union College and co-author with Simons of "The Invisible Gorilla".

In another experiment, Chabris and Simons staged a fake fight along a path and had subjects run past while chasing someone.

“Many did not notice [the fight],” Chabris said. “The thing you think is salient -- people fighting -- should grab your attention, but if you’re chasing a suspect it’s shockingly easy to miss things that in retrospect seem obvious.”

So, padlocks on doors in a grimy house? It's entirely plausible that a neighbor going to borrow an egg, for instance, wouldn't see them.

"You're not going over there with the task of looking for something unusual," Chabris said.

Our brains form fast, general categorizations of our surroundings, said Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"The world is terribly confusing; there's too much happening at the same time -- visually, auditorily, everything -- and the way we cope is by categorizing," she said. "We process the minimum we need in order to behave properly. Things that are aberrant blend in."

Plus, humans are able to focus inwardly while performing outward tasks, such as walking to the grocery store.

"We can walk down the street and think about a grocery list," she said. "Our minds are interested in more interesting things than just walking around the world. We aren't aware of how much we're missing."

Our minds tend to play another trick with 20/20 hindsight, Chabris said. We may think certain signs were clues now, but cluttered, dirty houses, and even heavily locked doors, don't necessarily mean that someone is breaking the law.

"There's a line between being a kidnapper and being eccentric," Chabris said. "Whether those things are really signs that a heinous 10-year kidnapping is underway ... of all the people in the world with lots of locks on doors or grimy, unkempt interiors or even cardboard tents in their living rooms -- or all three -- how many are kidnappers or serial rapists?"

Of course, close friends and family might notice unusual behavior more than casual acquaintances.

Read more at Discovery News

Violent Galactic Clash May Solve Cosmic Mystery

The mother of all cosmic collisions has been spotted between two galaxies containing a total of 400 billion stars, igniting the birth of 2,000 new stars per year!

This incredible event was first spotted by the recently-retired Hershel infrared space observatory, a mission managed by the European Space Agency with significant NASA participation. Follow-up observations by NASA’s Hubble and Chandra space telescopes, plus ground-based telescopes such as the Keck Observatory, confirmed that this was one epic intergalactic smash-up.

But this isn’t just morbid fascination with a beautiful galactic train wreck some 11 billion light-years away, these observations may help us understand a cosmic mystery that has been hanging over astronomy for some time.

By looking deep into the furthest most reaches of the universe, we look back further and further in time. As this galactic merger — called HXMM01 — is located 11 billion light-years away, we are actually witnessing an event that occurred when the universe was just 3 billion years old. It is well known that at this epoch of universal evolution that the universe contained large, red elliptical galaxies populated with old stars. Were these large galaxies slowly built via the merger of lots of small galaxies, or through rapid clashes of large galaxies?

With the help of HXMM01, it appears the latter may be true.

“We’re looking at a younger phase in the life of these galaxies — an adolescent burst of activity that won’t last very long,” said Hai Fu of the University of California, Irvine, lead author of the study published in the May 22 online issue of Nature.

“These merging galaxies are bursting with new stars and completely hidden by dust,” said co-author Asantha Cooray. “Without Herschel’s far-infrared detectors, we wouldn’t have been able to see through the dust to the action taking place behind.”

Indeed, mergers were common in the early history of the cosmos, but what sets HXMM01 apart is the huge quantity of dust contained within the colliding galaxies, the rapid star formation and the sheer size of the two galaxies colliding. Comparing HXMM01′s star formation rate with our galaxy’s star formation rate of only 2-3 newborn stars per year, 2,000 stars per year makes this merger a veritable stellar breeding ground!

Read more at Discovery News

May 21, 2013

Origins of Human Culture Linked to Rapid Climate Change

Rapid climate change during the Middle Stone Age, between 80,000 and 40,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age, sparked surges in cultural innovation in early modern human populations, according to new research.

The research, published this month in Nature Communications, was conducted by a team of scientists from Cardiff University's School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Barcelona.

The scientists studied a marine sediment core off the coast of South Africa and reconstructed terrestrial climate variability over the last 100,000 years.

Dr Martin Ziegler, Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: "We found that South Africa experienced rapid climate transitions toward wetter conditions at times when the Northern Hemisphere experienced extremely cold conditions."

These large Northern Hemisphere cooling events have previously been linked to a change in the Atlantic Ocean circulation that led to a reduced transport of warm water to the high latitudes in the North. In response to this Northern Hemisphere cooling, large parts of the sub-Saharan Africa experienced very dry conditions.

"Our new data however, contrasts with sub-Saharan Africa and demonstrates that the South African climate responded in the opposite direction, with increasing rainfall, that can be associated with a globally occurring southward shift of the tropical monsoon belt."

Linking climate change with human evolution

Professor Ian Hall, Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: "When the timing of these rapidly occurring wet pulses was compared with the archaeological datasets, we found remarkable coincidences.

"The occurrence of several major Middle Stone Age industries fell tightly together with the onset of periods with increased rainfall."

"Similarly, the disappearance of the industries appears to coincide with the transition to drier climatic conditions."

Professor Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum commented, "The correspondence between climatic ameliorations and cultural innovations supports the view that population growth fuelled cultural changes, through increased human interactions."

The South African archaeological record is so important because it shows some of the oldest evidence for modern behavior in early humans. This includes the use of symbols, which has been linked to the development of complex language, and personal adornments made of seashells.

Read more at Science Daily

NASA Launching Experiment to Examine the Beginnings of the Universe

When did the first stars and galaxies form in the universe? How brightly did they burn their nuclear fuel?

Scientists will seek to gain answers to these questions with the launch of the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment (CIBER) on a Black Brant XII suborbital sounding rocket between 11 and 11:59 p.m. EDT, June 4 from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Jamie Bock, CIBER principal investigator from the California Institute of Technology, said, "The first massive stars to form in the universe produced copious ultraviolet light that ionized gas from neutral hydrogen. CIBER observes in the near infrared, as the expansion of the universe stretched the original short ultraviolet wavelengths to long near-infrared wavelengths today. CIBER investigates two telltale signatures of first star formation -- the total brightness of the sky after subtracting all foregrounds, and a distinctive pattern of spatial variations."

"The objectives of the experiment are of fundamental importance for astrophysics, to probe the process of first galaxy formation, but the measurement is also extremely difficult technically," he noted.

This will be the fourth flight for CIBER on a NASA sounding rocket. The previous launches were in 2009, 2010, and 2012 from the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. After each flight the experiment or payload was recovered for post-calibrations and re-flight.

For this flight CIBER will fly on a larger and more powerful rocket than before. This will loft CIBER to a higher altitude than those previously obtained, thus providing longer observation time for the instruments. The experiment, which will safely splash down in the Atlantic Ocean more than 400 miles off the Virginia coast, will not be recovered.

CIBER previously flew on two-stage Black Brant IX sounding rockets. Bock said, "The collection of data from the three flights allows us to compare data and rigorously test sources of potential systematic error from both the instrument and astrophysical foregrounds. We have been through the end-to-end process in analyzing our data, so we understand the benefits of going with a non-recovered Black Brant XII. We also know the performance of the instrument very well from these flights and that makes us confident going forward with this more capable but final flight."

The 70-foot tall four-stage Black Brant XII rocket will carry CIBER to an altitude of about 350 miles. According to Bock, "This flight is pioneering a new direction in the astrophysics program in that we are flying our instrument on a non-recovered Black Brant XII. The XII gives us a significantly higher trajectory, providing about 560 seconds of flight time above 250 km (155 miles) altitude, compared with 250 seconds on standard Black Brant IX flights out of White Sands."

"Our experience in the near-infrared waveband is that we see appreciable emission from the atmosphere up to 250 km. The higher trajectory allows us to do some new things that are not possible on a Black Brant IX. For example, we expect to have enough independent images of the sky to directly determine the in-flight gain of the infrared cameras, which will allow us to measure background fluctuations in single exposures. This gives us a much more direct way to compare with satellite data than the statistical combinations we have had to use to date. The higher trajectory of course comes with a price in that the payload is not recovered," he said.

Read more at Science Daily

Wine Grapes Aged for Centuries

Vintners age the best wines, and it seems the grape vine itself took ages to domesticate.

Genetic analysis suggests grapes were probably first cultivated in southwest Asia during the Neolithic, approximately 8,000 years ago. However, archeological evidence suggests thousands of years passed during which many cultivated grape vines in Europe still produced smaller grapes and lower yields than the thoroughly domesticated grape subspecies, Vitis vinifera vinifera.

The remnants of grapes grown in southern France under the Roman Empire provide evidence that domestication of the plant proceeded slowly in the region between 50 BC and 500 AD. At 17 sites in two wine producing regions of ancient France, winery waste showed a mixture of wild-type and domesticated grapes. Over centuries, a greater proportion of the grape showed signs of being artificially selected for greater size and productivity. The study was published in PLOS ONE.

The archeologists used preserved grape seeds to determine the vines degree of domestication. Domesticated grapes tend to have more elongated seeds than their wild cousins, Vitis vinifera sylvestris, as well as other shape and flavor differences. Grape growers weren’t breeding their grapes for seed shape, though. The shape came as a result of selectively growing vines with larger, more oval fruits, which also had elongated seeds, according to the study. However, the authors noted other unknown pressures also may have driven changes in grapes as they were domesticated.

Greeks first planted grapes in southern France around their colony named Massalia (now Marseille) in approximately 600 BC. The Greeks made a fortune trading their wine with the Celts to the north. However grape cultivation changed dramatically after Romans overtook the region and started making wine from the conquered grapes.

Retired Roman soldiers settled down in southern France, or Gallia Narbonensis as they called it. Those soil-working soldiers developed a wine export industry that reached as far away as India, where Roman wine containers have been found.

From the first century AD until the collapse of the Roman Empire, grapes’ gradual movement towards domestic characteristics may have resulted from grape growers using different propagation techniques to replant and expand their vineyards.

As opposed to starting anew from seed, farmers may have been making greater use of cuttings and grafting to preserve and reproduce a desired vine’s growth habits and productivity. Grapes grown from seed don’t always maintain their parents’ fruit quality, since the dice roll of sexual reproduction alters their genetic composition.

The slow centuries of grape domestication may prove to be a boon for the vines, according to a study published in PNAS. During their long domestication, domesticated grapes were repeatedly fertilized by wild grapes from different regions. This resulted in a diverse set of genes in the domesticated vine. Grapes’ DNA diversity could hold genetic resistance to diseases as well as give grapes the biological flexibility to be adapted to the planet’s changing climate.

Read more at Discovery News

Neanderthals: Extinction by BBQ?

Humans today eat gorillas and chimpanzees, so why would our prehistoric ancestors flinch at sitting down to a nicely roasted Neanderthal?

That's the shocking new hypothesis being raised by anthropologists in Spain, who wonder if our closest extinct relative was exterminated in the same way as 178 other large mammals, so-called megafauna, which are suspected of going at least partially by the hand of hungry human hunters.

"Except in its native Africa, in the other continents Homo sapiens can be considered as an invasive alien species," write researchers Policarp Hortolà and Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain. They published their hypothesis in the May issue of the journal Quaternary International.

Today, there are endless cases of invasive species decimating native species all over the world. So perhaps at the end of the Pliestocene, it was the same when humans spread into Europe and Asia, where Homo neanderthalensis was just another big, slow-reproducing mammal.

"We think that modern humans, who occupied a similar ecological niche as Neanderthals, but with more evolved technology, in their colonization of the new European territories directly competed with Neanderthals for the food and other natural resources," wrote Martínez-Navarro in an emailed response to Discovery News.

There are other examples of very similar species overlapping and eventually one of them getting pushed out, explained Martínez-Navarro, especially involving carnivores out of Africa.

The African species of saber-toothed tiger, for example, spread into Eurasia around 1.8 million years ago and lead to the demise of a very closely related species there. And the arrival of the African spotted hyena into Eurasia matches the extinction of the giant short-facet hyena about 800,000 years ago.

Of course, this is only suggestive, and not hard evidence that Homo sapiens followed the same pattern as other African predators.

"The only manner to test it is to find direct evidences of modern human eating marks on Neanderthal remains, such as cut or broken marks on bones in ... artifacts made by modern humans," explained Martínez-Navarro.

So far, the evidence is not quite there, said paleo-ecologist J.R. Stewart of Bournemouth University in the U.K.

"This is interesting because in actual fact, the Neanderthal remains with cut marks are generally found in deposits full of Neanderthal artifacts and not with human artifacts," Stewart said. "This suggests they were eaten by Neanderthals."

That doesn't disprove the hypothesis, either, it just means we'll have to see if any evidence is found to back it up.

Read more at Discovery News

May 20, 2013

Earth's Iron Core Is Surprisingly Weak

Researchers have used a diamond anvil cell to squeeze iron at pressures as high as 3 million times that felt at sea level to recreate conditions at the center of Earth. The findings could refine theories of how the planet and its core evolved.

Through laboratory experiments, postdoctoral researcher Arianna Gleason, left, and Wendy Mao, an assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences and of photon science, determined that the iron in Earth's inner core is about 40 percent as strong as previously believed.

The massive ball of iron sitting at the center of Earth is not quite as "rock-solid" as has been thought, say two Stanford mineral physicists. By conducting experiments that simulate the immense pressures deep in the planet's interior, the researchers determined that iron in Earth's inner core is only about 40 percent as strong as previous studies estimated.

This is the first time scientists have been able to experimentally measure the effect of such intense pressure -- as high as 3 million times the pressure Earth's atmosphere exerts at sea level -- in a laboratory. A paper presenting the results of their study is available online in Nature Geoscience.

"The strength of iron under these extreme pressures is startlingly weak," said Arianna Gleason, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, and lead author of the paper. Wendy Mao, an assistant professor in the department, is the co-author.

"This strength measurement can help us understand how the core deforms over long time scales, which influences how we think about Earth's evolution and planetary evolution in general," Gleason said.

Until now, almost all of what is known about Earth's inner core came from studies tracking seismic waves as they travel from the surface of the planet through the interior. Those studies have shown that the travel time through the inner core isn't the same in every direction, indicating that the inner core itself is not uniform. Over time and subjected to great pressure, the core has developed a sort of fabric as grains of iron elongate and align lengthwise in parallel formations.

The ease and speed with which iron grains in the inner core can deform and align would have influenced the evolution of the early Earth and development of the geomagnetic field. The field is generated by the circulation of liquid iron in the outer core around the solid inner core and shields Earth from the full intensity of solar radiation. Without the geomagnetic field, life -- at least as we know it -- would not be possible on Earth.

"The development of the inner core would certainly have some effect on the geomagnetic field, but just what effect and the magnitude of the effect, we can't say," said Mao. "That is very speculative."

Gleason and Mao conducted their experiments using a diamond anvil cell -- a device that can exert immense pressure on tiny samples clenched between two diamonds. They subjected minute amounts of pure iron to pressures between 200 and 300 gigapascals (equivalent to the pressure of 2 million to 3 million Earth atmospheres). Previous experimental studies were conducted in the range of only 10 gigapascals.

"We really pushed the limit here in terms of experimental conditions," Gleason said. "Pioneering advancements in pressure-generation techniques and improvements in detector sensitivity, for example, used at large X-ray synchrotron facilities, such as Argonne National Lab, have allowed us to make these new measurements."

In addition to intense pressures, the inner core also has extreme temperatures. The boundary between the inner and outer core has temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Simultaneously simulating both the pressure and temperature at the inner core isn't yet possible in the laboratory, though Gleason and Mao are working on that for future studies. (For this study, Gleason mathematically extrapolated from their pressure data to factor in the effect of temperature.)

Read more at Science Daily

How Penguins Lost Their Ability to Fly

Penguins lost their ability to fly millions of years ago, and now a new study explains why -- the birds became lean and mean diving machines, trading flight for such skills.

The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points out that good flippers don’t fly very well.

"Once penguins gave up flight, changes to wing structure and overall body size and shape probably followed rapidly because flying no longer placed constraints to body form," co-author Robert Ricklefs told Discovery News.

"Note that penguins are much more at risk of predation in the water than they are on land, and so there has been strong selection to make their swimming and diving as efficient as possible," added Ricklefs, who is a professor of biology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Ricklefs, lead author Kyle Elliott and their team at first wondered why the ubiquitous black and white birds lost their ability to fly millions of years ago, given how beneficial flying can be. Emperor penguins laboriously walk over 32 miles between their rookeries and the sea. The journey takes them several days, which could be reduced to just a few hours if they could fly. Why then don’t they?

To solve the mystery, the researchers focused on birds-- especially the murre -- that both fly and dive. The scientists equipped 41 such wild-caught birds with equipment to measure avian energy expenditure. In doing so, the researchers came up with a new world’s record. Murres and pelagic cormorants turn out to have the highest expenditure ever recorded for any flying animal.

"The costs are incurred in providing lift in air," Ricklefs explained, adding that overcoming drag in the air is also energy costly to the birds.

While murres can both fly and dive, there appears to be a threshold where one activity overtakes the other in evolution. If a bird needs to fly more, it will lose more of its diving and swimming ability. Conversely, if a bird greatly relies upon swimming and diving for its hunting and survival, then it will tend to lose its flight skills. In the case of penguins, those skills completely disappeared, with the wings evolving into marine mammal-type flippers.

The study also sheds light on what prehistoric flying penguins looked and acted like.

"The flying ancestors of penguins were probably not much different in general appearance than murres and their relatives, and probably behaved in much the same way," Ricklefs said.

The findings could help explain how other birds lost their ability to fly. There is a flightless cormorant in the Galapagos Islands, and steamer ducks of the southern oceans are also flightless.

The reasons for flightlessness are different for ostriches and emus, which do not dive. These big birds instead traded flight for running ability. It’s likely that the ancestors of ostriches and emus did not have to migrate. They perhaps lived in the southern continents with relative few predators. Running with their powerful legs sufficed, versus needing to rely upon flight to take them up and away.

Tony Diamond of the University of New Brunswick, James Lovvorn at Southern Illinois University, and Daniel Roby of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife all told Discovery News that they agree with the conclusions of the new study.

Read more at Discovery News

Edward Scissorhands Fossil Found

An Edward Scissorhands-like fossil has emerged from a national park in Canada,  British researchers reported.

Found in the valley of the Stanley Glacier, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, the newly discovered species features the body structure of a 505 million-year-old sea creature with scissor-like claws.

“When I first saw the pair of isolated claws in the fossil records of this species I could not help but think of Edward Scissorhands,” David Legg, who made the discovery while working on his Ph.D. at Imperial College London, said in a statement.

Legg, who detailed the finding in the Journal of Palaeontology, decided to name the new species Kooteninchela deppi (pronounced Koo-ten-ee-che-la depp-eye) in honor of Johnny Depp’s starring role in the 1990 cult movie.

Directed by Tim Burton, the movie was about an artificial man named Edward, built by an inventor who died before giving him hands. This meant he was left with a set of blades in the place of fingers.

“Even the genus name, Kootenichela, includes the reference to this film as ‘chela’ is Latin for claws or scissors. In truth, I am also a bit of a Depp fan,” Legg said.

An ancestor to lobsters and scorpions, Kooteninchela deppi roamed the sea about 270 million years before dinosaurs actually began to appear.

Less than two inches long with an elongate, multi-segmented body and millipede-like legs, the creature boasted large compound eyes similar to that of a fly. These eyes were located on top of movable stalks called peduncles, helping the creature to more easily search for food and look out for predators.

Over half a billion years ago, the cost of British Columbia in Canada was located much closer to the equator and the sea temperature would have been much warmer than it is today.

Living in very shallow seas among wild sponges, the tiny creature — a hunter or scavenger — used its multiple legs to scuttle along the sea floor. According to Legg, its large Edward Scissorhands-like claws and the long spines that enhanced them helped to grab prey or scour the sea floor for creatures hiding there.

Belonging to a group called the “great-appendage” arthropods, or megacheirans, in reference to the enlarged pincer-like frontal claws that they share, Kooteninchela deppi is helping researchers to understand more about life on Earth during the Cambrian period, when nearly all modern animal types emerged.

Read more at Discovery News

Could Humans Be Cloned?

The news that researchers have used cloning to make human embryos for the purpose of producing stem cells may have some people wondering if it would ever be possible to clone a person.

Although it would be unethical, experts say it is likely biologically possible to clone a human being. But even putting ethics aside, the sheer amount of resources needed to do it is a significant barrier.

Since the 1950s when researchers cloned a frog, scientists have cloned dozens of animal species, including mice, cats, sheep, pigs and cows.

In each case, researchers encountered problems that needed to be overcome with trial and error, said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at the biotech company Advanced Cell Technology, which works on cell therapies for human diseases, and has cloned animals.

With mice, researchers were able to use thousands of eggs, and conduct many experiments, to work out these problems, Lanza said. "It’s a numbers game," he said.

But with primates, eggs are a very precious resource, and it is not easy to acquire them to conduct experiments, Lanza said.

In addition, researchers can't simply apply what they've learned from cloning mice or cows to cloning people.

For instance, cloning an animal requires that researchers first remove the nucleus of an egg cell. When researchers do this, they also remove proteins that are essential to help cells divide, Lanza said. In mice, this isn't a problem, because the embryo that is ultimately created is able to make these proteins again. But primates aren't able to do this, and researchers think it may be one reason that attempts to clone monkeys have failed, Lanza said.

What's more, cloned animals often have different kinds of genetic abnormalities that can prevent embryo implantation in a uterus, or cause the fetus to spontaneously abort, or the animal to die shortly after birth, Lanza said.

These abnormities are common because cloned embryos have just one parent rather than two, which means that a molecular process known as "imprinting" does not occur properly in cloned embryos, Lanza said. Imprinting takes place during embryo development, and selectively silences certain genes from one parent or the other.

Read more at Discovery News

May 19, 2013

Reading Rock to Understand How Climate Change Unfolds

What happened the last time a vegetated Earth shifted from an extremely cold climate to desert-like conditions? And what does it tell us about climate change today?

John Isbell is on a quest to coax that information from the geology of the southernmost portions of the Earth. It won't be easy, because the last transition from "icehouse to greenhouse" occurred between 335 and 290 million years ago.

An expert in glaciation from the late Paleozoic Era, Isbell is challenging many assumptions about the way drastic climate change naturally unfolds. The research helps form the all-important baseline needed to predict what the added effects of human activity will bring.

Starting from 'deep freeze'

In the late Paleozoic, the modern continents were fused together into two huge land masses, with what is now the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, called Gondwana. During the span of more than 60 million years, Gondwana shifted from a state of deep freeze into one so hot and dry it supported the appearance of reptiles. The change, however, didn't happen uniformly, Isbell says.

In fact, his research has shaken the common belief that Gondwana was covered by one massive sheet of ice which gradually and steadily melted away as conditions warmed. Isbell has found that at least 22 individual ice sheets were located in various places over the region. And the state of glaciation during the long warming period was marked by dramatic swings in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

"There appears to be a direct association between low CO2 levels and glaciation," he says. "A lot of the changes in greenhouse gases and in a shrinking ice volume then are similar to what we're seeing today."

When the ice finally started disappearing, he says, it did so in the polar regions first and lingered in other parts of Gondwana with higher elevations. He attributes that to different conditions across Gondwana, such as mountain-building events, which would have preserved glaciers longer.

All about the carbon

To get an accurate picture of the range of conditions in the late Paleozoic, Isbell has traveled to Antarctica 16 times and has joined colleagues from around the world as part of an interdisciplinary team funded by the National Science Foundation. They have regularly gone to places where no one has ever walked on the rocks before.

One of his colleagues is paleoecologist Erik Gulbranson, who studies plant communities from the tail end of the Paleozoic and how they evolved in concert with the climatic changes. The information contained in fossil soil and plants, he says, can reveal a lot about carbon cycling, which is so central for applying the work to climate change today.

Documenting the particulars of how the carbon cycle behaved so long ago will allow them to answer questions like, 'What was the main force behind glaciation during the late Paleozoic? Was it mountain-building or climate change?'

Another characteristic of the late Paleozoic shift is that once the climate warmed significantly and atmospheric CO2 levels soared, the Earth's climate remained hot and dry for another 200 million years.

"These natural cycles are very long, and that's an important difference with what we're seeing with the contemporary global climate change," says Gulbranson. "Today, we're seeing change in greenhouse gas concentrations of CO2 on the order of centuries and decades."

Ancient trees and soil

In order to explain today's accelerated warming, Gulbranson's research illustrates that glaciers alone don't tell the whole story.

Many environmental factors leave an imprint on the carbon contained in tree trunks from this period. One of the things Gulbranson hypothesizes from his research in Antarctica is that an increase in deciduous trees occurred in higher latitudes during the late Paleozoic, driven by higher temperatures.

What he doesn't yet know is what the net effect was on the carbon cycle.

While trees soak in CO2 and give off oxygen, there are other environmental processes to consider, says Gulbranson. For example, CO2 emissions also come from soil as microbes speed up their consumption of organic matter with rising temperatures.

"The high latitudes today contain the largest amount of carbon locked up as organic material and permafrost soils on Earth today," he says. "It actually exceeds the amount of carbon you can measure in the rain forests. So what happens to that stockpile of carbon when you warm it and grow a forest over it is completely unknown."

Another unknown is whether the Northern Hemisphere during this time was also glaciated and warming. The pair are about to find out. With UWM backing, they will do field work in northeastern Russia this summer to study glacial deposits from the late Paleozoic.

Read more at Science Daily

Frogs, Salamanders and Climate Change

By day, insects provide the white noise of the South, but the night belongs to the amphibians. In a typical year, the Southern air hangs heavy from the humidity and the sounds of wildlife. The Southeast, home to more than 140 species of frogs, toads and salamanders, is the center of amphibian biodiversity in our nation. If the ponds and swamps are the auditorium for their symphonic choruses, the scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey's Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, or ARMI, have front-row seats.

Amphibians, which rely on water for part or all of their life cycle, must adjust to often atypical weather. Some years bring heavy deluges, such as the region's notorious hurricanes, and others bring the transformations that come with drought. Amphibians around the world seem to be experiencing the worst declines documented among vertebrates. While habitat loss is the number one reason for population declines, research suggests that disease, invasive species, contaminants and perhaps other factors contribute to declines in protected areas.

And then there's climate change, another stressor for amphibians to contend with. Climate change projections indicate that rainfall will increasingly come in pulses, with greater deluges and longer periods of drought. Scientists have long suspected that climate change is an important factor in amphibian declines, and resource managers are asking whether conservation measures might help species persist or adapt in a changing climate. Three recent U.S. Geological Survey studies offer some insight into the issue.

Why amphibians?

Amphibians, which are declining throughout the world, play an important role in ecological systems. They eat small creatures, including mosquitos, and they are food themselves for larger creatures, such as birds and snakes. Because amphibians are the middle of the food chain -- and sensitive to environmental disruption because of their aquatic or semi-aquatic lives -- their existence is often used as an indication of ecosystem health.

Scientists in ARMI, a program started by Congress in 2000 in response to concerns about amphibian declines, have been working to unravel the ups and downs of amphibian populations to support effective conservation and resource management decisions. To do this, ARMI scientists and field crews monitor the status of amphibians, research the causes of declines, and scientifically evaluate projects undertaken to sustain these species and their habitats across the country.

Pond life -- it's not easy being green!

ARMI scientists looked at a range of amphibian species found in the Southeast and posed the question, "What will happen to their populations under a scenario of changes in rainfall patterns -- more deluges alternating with droughts -- which is being predicted by current climate models?"

It turns out that understanding how climate affects amphibians requires "thinking like the ponds" in which they live. Amphibians have unique life cycles -- most alternate between living in water as juveniles, to maturing and dispersing on land, then returning to water again as adults to mate and lay eggs.

When USGS scientists reviewed what was known about amphibian responses to rainfall, it turned out that both extremes in rainfall -- drought and heavy rainfall events -- can decrease the number of amphibians. The amphibians' response depends on a balance between these two key factors. If ponds dry up while aquatic juveniles are developing, survival of the next generation is lowered. However, if a deluge occurs at that time, nearby pools that often contain fish will be physically connected with the pools containing juvenile amphibians, and the fish will eat the juveniles.

In essence, the study showed that extreme rainfall events are key to predicting amphibian responses to climate, because such events affect the amount and timing of water in ponds that they depend on. The full review of species' responses was published in March 2013 edition of the journal Biology.

Drought and declining salamanders

Knowing that each species responds to droughts and deluges based on the particulars of their biology, scientists set out to test just how these dynamics played out in the southeastern U.S. by looking at larval mole salamanders in small isolated ponds in St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge, Florida.

Larval mole salamanders have a similar life cycle to the flatwoods salamander, a federally threatened species found on the refuge. Because it is difficult to study the flatwoods salamander directly, and mole salamanders are ecologically similar, scientists study the mole salamander instead, knowing that whatever affects them will likely impact the flatwoods salamander as well.

In the four years of the study, drought consistently decreased salamander occupancy in ponds. To support young salamanders, rain has to fill a pond during the breeding season and then the pond has to stay filled long enough for larvae to transform into the next life stage. Therefore, scientists confirmed that drought did indeed cause short-term declines in mole salamanders -- suggesting that the listed flatwoods salamander may face a similar fate under climate change.

The results of the mole salamander study are published in the April 2013 edition of the journal Wetlands.

Can habitat conservation make a difference for frogs and toads?

To answer this question, USGS scientists examined whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program was helping address the problem. The Wetlands Reserve Program is a voluntary USDA program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. To assess the potential benefit of WRP restoration to amphibians, in this case, frogs and toads, USGS scientists surveyed 30 randomly selected WRP sites and 20 nearby agricultural sites in the Mississippi Delta in northwest Mississippi.

Read more at Science Daily