Aug 30, 2014

Five New Monkey Species ID'd in South American Forests

Five new monkey species have just been added to the animal record books, according to a new study.

The primate additions — all saki monkeys from South America — mean that there are now 16 saki monkeys known to science. The monkeys are described in the study, which is published in the journal Neotropical Primates.

All of the monkeys are beneficial to the environment, helping to disperse seeds in their tropical rain forest habitats.

“I began to suspect there might be more species of saki monkeys when I was doing field research in Ecuador,” Laura Marsh, director and co-founder of the Global Conservation Institute, said in a press release. “The more I saw, the more I realized that scientists had been confused in their evaluation of the diversity of sakis for over two centuries.”

The discoveries mark a recent trend of researchers analyzing data on certain animals, only to find that the look-alike individuals represent different species. In this case, the monkeys were thought to be subspecies or just variants of the known different types of sakis.

The five new species are found in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Their ranges extend throughout the Amazon Basin and the Guiana Shield. The monkeys are elusive, and for good reason: humans and other predators like to eat them. In other words, we’ve been killing animals not even knowing what they really were.

“This revision of the genus shows clearly how little we still know about the diversity of the natural world that surrounds us and upon which we ourselves depend so much,” said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and for whom one of the new species, Pithecia mittermeieri, was named.

The other new saki monkeys were named after other prominent primatologists and animal conservationists, such as Alcides Pissinatti and José de Souza e Silva-Júnior. One of the monkeys was also named after Isabel Gramesón Godin, considered “the first woman of the Amazon.” She lived in Colonial Peru (now Ecuador) in the 18th century and was the lone survivor of a grueling, 42-person, 3,000-mile expedition from her city in the Andes, all the way across the Amazon basin to French Guiana.

Read more at Discovery News

Mars Rover Opportunity to Have Memory Wiped

Like any computer on Earth, long-duration space robots’ memories sometimes need to be reformatted. This is certainly the case for NASA’s veteran Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity that has had more than its fair share of computer glitches recently.

So the time has come, according to mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. — the little robot needs a memory wipe.

The decision to reformat Opportunity’s flash memory early next month is prompted by the multiple computer resets the rover has been experiencing. This month alone, Opportunity has had to be rebooted a dozen times, interrupting valuable time that should be taken up with carrying out science near the rim of Endeavour crater.

“Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets,” said JPL’s John Callas, project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project. “The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover.”

Flash memory allows data to be stored from Opportunity’s surface operations even when the rover is in a powered-down down state. Not so dissimilar to the memory that stores photos inside your cellpone or important documents in a memory stick, even flash drives become worn down after continuous use.

Reformatting Opportunity’s flash drive will identify corrupt or damaged cells, flagging them to avoid being used by the rover’s computers, hopefully preventing the unexpected resets that are plaguing the mission.

Five years ago, the team successfully performed a reformat of sister rover Spirit’s memory to stave off the bout of “amnesia” events it was experiencing. Sadly, in 2010, NASA had called off efforts to contact the rover after it became jammed in a sand trap at Gusev Crater months earlier.

Over a decade after landing on the Red Planet in 2004, this will be the first memory reformat for Opportunity, one that NASA engineers are confident will be trouble free.

Before the reformat can begin, Opportunity’s handlers will download all available data from Opportunity’s flash drive and switch it into a mode that does not use flash memory, then the reformat can commence.

From Discovery News

Aug 29, 2014

Breakthrough in light sources for new quantum technology

Electronic circuits are based on electrons, but one of the most promising technologies for future quantum circuits are photonic circuits, i.e. circuits based on light (photons) instead of electrons. First, it is necessary to be able to create a stream of single photons and control their direction. Researchers around the world have made all sorts of attempts to achieve this control, but now scientists at the Niels Bohr Institute have succeeded in creating a steady stream of photons emitted one at a time and in a particular direction. The breakthrough has been published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Photons and electrons behave very differently at the quantum level. A quantum is the smallest unit in the atomic world and photons are the basic units of light and electrons of electrical current. Electrons are so-called fermions and can easily flow individually, while photons are bosons that prefer to clump together. But because information for quantum communication based on photonics lies in the individual photon, it is necessary to be able to send them one at a time.

"So you need to emit the photons from a fermionic system and we do this by creating an extremely strong interaction between light and matter," explains Peter Lodahl, Professor and head of the research group Quantum Photonics at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

Photon canon

The researchers have developed a kind of single-photon cannon integrated on an optical chip. The optical chip consists of an extremely small photonic crystal that is 10 microns wide (1 micron is a thousandth of a millimeter) and 160 nanometers thick (1 nanometer is a thousandth of micron.) Embedded in the centre of the chip is a light source, a so-called quantum dot.

"What we then do is shine laser light on the quantum dot, where there are atoms with electrons in orbit around the nucleus. The laser light excites the electrons, which then jump from one orbit to another and thereby emit one photon at a time. Normally, light is scattered in all directions, but we have designed the photonic chip so that all of the photons are sent through only one channel," explains Søren Stobbe, Associate Professor of the Quantum Photonic research group at the Niels Bohr Institute.

Peter Lodahl and Søren Stobbe explain that it not only works, but also that it is extremely effective. "We can control the photons and send them in the direction we want with a 98.4 percent success rate. This is ultimate control over the interaction between matter and light and has amazing potential. Such a single-photon cannon has long been sought after in the research field and opens up fascinating new opportunities for fundamental experiments and new technologies," they explain.

Read more at Science Daily

Quantum physics enables revolutionary imaging method

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), the Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology (VCQ), and the University of Vienna have developed a fundamentally new quantum imaging technique with strikingly counterintuitive features. For the first time, an image has been obtained without ever detecting the light that was used to illuminate the imaged object, while the light revealing the image never touches the imaged object.

In general, to obtain an image of an object one has to illuminate it with a light beam and use a camera to sense the light that is either scattered or transmitted through that object. The type of light used to shine onto the object depends on the properties that one would like to image. Unfortunately, in many practical situations the ideal type of light for the illumination of the object is one for which cameras do not exist.

The experiment published in Nature this week for the first time breaks this seemingly self-evident limitation. The object (e.g. the contour of a cat) is illuminated with light that remains undetected. Moreover, the light that forms an image of the cat on the camera never interacts with it. In order to realise their experiment, the scientists use so-called "entangled" pairs of photons. These pairs of photons -- which are like interlinked twins -- are created when a laser interacts with a non-linear crystal. In the experiment, the laser illuminates two separate crystals, creating one pair of twin photons (consisting of one infrared photon and a "sister" red photon) in either crystal. The object is placed in between the two crystals. The arrangement is such that if a photon pair is created in the first crystal, only the infrared photon passes through the imaged object. Its path then goes through the second crystal where it fully combines with any infrared photons that would be created there.

With this crucial step, there is now, in principle, no possibility to find out which crystal actually created the photon pair. Moreover, there is now no information in the infrared photon about the object. However, due to the quantum correlations of the entangled pairs the information about the object is now contained in the red photons -- although they never touched the object. Bringing together both paths of the red photons (from the first and the second crystal) creates bright and dark patterns, which form the exact image of the object.

Read more at Science Daily

If Yellowstone Supervolcano Erupts, Ash May Reach NYC

Yellowstone National Park, whose 3,500 square miles are mostly situated in Wyoming, is one of the most popular spots in the nation for nature lovers. But it also happens to sit atop a slumbering volcano with a history of massive eruptions, the most recent of which was at least 70,000 years ago.

Lately, the Internet has been rife with rumors that it's about to blow again, due to what some amateur prognosticators see as disturbing omens -- a March earthquake, an unusual release of helium from the park's hot springs and fumaroles, and bison that have been observed pushing outside the park's boundaries.

The scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey's Yellowstone Volcano Observatory reassure that there isn't anything unusual going on under the park, and that the odds are that it won't erupt for centuries. But when the volcano eventually does blow, they say, it's going to be a gigantic event that will spew enough ash to blanket the Rocky Mountains with a layer that could be several feet thick, and send particles across the entire country, with some even reaching far-away cities such as New York and Washington, D.C.

That prediction, based upon a USGS computer model, is described in a new article in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The scientists calculated that a volume of more than 200 cubic miles (330 cubic kilometers) of ash -- about 850 times the amount spewed by Mount St. Helens in 1980 -- would be released in an umbrella cloud, which would distribute it evenly in all directions.

The cloud would temporarily shut down air travel and disrupt electronic communications across North America, make roads slippery, short out electrical transformers, and cause respiratory problems for people who breathed in the dust. Over the longer term, though, the effects upon livestock and crop production in the Midwest could be worrisome as well. The dust might also temporarily cool global temperatures for a few years in a fashion similar to the Tambora eruption in 1816, which caused snow to fall in the Northeast in June.

Read more at Discovery News

The 100-Foot Sea Critter That Deploys a Net of Death

One of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's ROVs photographed this siphonophore at a depth of 3,770 feet, shattering its sense of privacy.
As far as conjoined twins go, they don’t come more famous than Chang and Eng Bunker, who in the 1800s traveled the world lecturing and generally being gawked at by rubes. They even gave us the term Siamese twins (they were from Siam, which is now Thailand). Eventually they settled down on a farm in North Carolina, married two sisters (uh…), and between them sired 21 children.

The logistics of that seem, well, a bit complicated, if not entirely awkward. There are conjoined twins in our oceans, though, that pull off something far more remarkable. These are the siphonophores, some 180 known species of gelatinous strings that can grow to 100 feet long, making them some of the longest critters on the planet. But instead of growing as a single body like virtually every other animal, siphonophores clone themselves thousands of times over into half a dozen different types of specialized cloned bodies, all strung together to work as a team—a very deadly team at that.

“In a way these specialized bodies function as organs,” said marine biologist Stefan Siebert of Brown University, who studies these glorious creatures with the help of remotely operated vehicles from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Some move the colony, some feed for the colony, some take care of reproduction.” Whereas creatures like you and me have over millennia evolved different parts of our bodies to work as organs, siphonophores have evolved individual bodies themselves into organs. It’s a bit like your liver up and declaring independence from the rest of you, even though it can’t go anywhere.

“Like any other animal,” said Siebert, “siphonophores start off with a single fertilized egg. And this egg develops into a small larva, and at some point this larva will develop its first tentacle, and it has a mouth opening by then.” A stem develops and elongates, and buds begin shooting off of it to grow into functional bodies.

The red feeding bodies of Apolemia lanosa and a bunch of other white stuff that you probably shouldn’t touch unless you were looking to get stung.
Hunting is left to the bodies that dangle tentacles with powerful neurotoxins, snagging small shrimp and such that are unfortunate enough to wander into its curtain of death (or fortunate, really, if they were going for an epic way to die). The prey is enveloped by the feeding body, digested, and dispersed to the rest of the colony by way of the stem. This nutrition is particularly important for the energy-hungry jet propulsion bodies at the front of the critter, which suck water in and squirt it out again to get the siphonophore moving.

Then there are the reproductive bodies, which produce and release sperm and eggs. And the bodies that cover all the other bodies like protective scales, which “can be very rigid, very sturdy,” said Siebert. “Some of the species we see, it’s almost like a tank. It provides a very, very robust shelter.” In addition to dangling stinging tentacles, some varieties of siphonophore are totally covered with stinging cells to protect them from predators, chiefly the majestic ocean sunfish as well as leatherback turtles, which have fairly disturbing spikes in their mouths to keep their gelatinous prey from escaping.

A shot of Apolemia lanosa showing buds that will eventually form into individual bodies.
Now, there is of course the question of exactly how the individual bodies communicate, for instance how the propulsive bodies work together to not only sense their environment, but move en masse—what with not having a brain and all. This is, Siebert says, “an enigma.”

Even though the group that siphonophores belong to, Cnidaria (which also includes true jellyfish), evolved 500 million years ago, their nervous system remains very simple. Siphonophores “have along the stem one long axon, which probably propagates signals from one end of the colony to the other,” Siebert said. “But how they coordinate all this and how the whole colony appears to act as an animal, it’s really not well understood.” It may be a simple way of doing things, but they sure as hell have been doing something right over those half billion years, diversifying all manner of behaviors and physiologies to become one of the oceans’ most prolific organisms.

The glowing lures of this siphonophore mimic a deep-sea copepod, shown in the inset.
One species discovered in 2005 has evolved a particularly sneaky way of luring prey—with actual lures. Among its tentacles are specialized bioluminescent structures, which the siphonophore flicks back and forth. While nearly all deep-sea critters bioluminesce in some way to either communicate with each other or attract prey, the vast majority glow in blue or green, colors that transmit farthest in water. But this species of siphonophore is the first marine invertebrate found to glow red, according to the scientists who discovered it. But why would it put on a red light, other than for the “Roxanne” jokes? Well, its lures look a whole lot like a particular kind of red copepod, a favorite meal for many creatures in the deep. Attack this faux copepod, though, and it’ll be the last thing you do. Indeed, the scientists who first described this species found both the lures and the fish that attacked them in the digestive system of one specimen.

A Portuguese man o’ war, the angry balloon of the sea.
You’re probably better acquainted, though, with a much more dangerous species of siphonophore: the Portuguese man o’ war (technically, they are not true jellyfish, but I’m not about to be the one to break it to them). Far from the elongated body plan of its comrades, the man o’ war has taken the gaseous sack that normally gives young siphonophores a bit of buoyancy and turned it into a massive balloon that floats along the surface.

Unfortunately even for diligent humans doing their damnedest to avoid the man o’ war, its stinger-packed tentacles can become detached in rough seas. “And then they will drift for a while, and all the stinger cells are still active” on the tentacles, said Siebert. “So you can get stung badly even if you don’t see any jellyfish around.” The pain will be excruciating, though stings are rarely deadly. (I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Do not pee on such stings. It doesn’t help at all, and you’ll only end up smelling funny.)

Read more at Wired Science

Aug 28, 2014

Fish That 'Walks' Holds Clues to Animal Evolution

An unusual species of fish that can walk and breathe air shows that these animals may be more capable of adapting to life on land than previously thought, researchers say.

The new findings may help explain how the ancient fish ancestors of humans colonized the land, the researchers said.

The evolution of the ancient fish that switched from living in water to living on land about 400 million years ago is one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the animal kingdom. These first four-limbed animals, the so-called stem tetrapods, ultimately gave rise to amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including the largest animals to ever live on the planet.

When fish started moving onto land, "the fossil record suggests there was a great deal of diversity among fish, and thus a lot of competition between the fish," said lead study author Emily Standen, an evolutionary and comparative biomechanist at the University of Ottawa in Canada. "One can imagine there was a pretty good drive for those fish that could to get out of that environment and make use of opportunities on land."

But just how ancient fish made this shift to terrestrial life still remains largely a mystery. To learn more about what happened when the now-extinct fish tried living on land, scientists investigated the bichir (Polypterus senegalus), a modern African fish that has lungs for breathing air, and stubby fins it can use to pull itself along on land. The bichir possesses many traits similar to ones seen in fossils of stem tetrapods, the researchers said.

The scientists raised groups of juvenile bichir on land for eight months to see whether these fish differed in their anatomy and how they moved on land compared with bichir raised in the water. Researchers wanted to test how life on land might trigger changes in such fish.

Raising the fish on land posed some challenges.

"The number one difficulty we faced was how the heck to keep fish alive on land for months at a time," Standen told Live Science. "I designed and built an aquarium setup that had kept a few millimeters of water on its floor, enough to keep the fish moist. In addition, I used misters, like you see in the lettuce aisle at grocery stores to freshen the vegetables, to keep the fish moist and in a very humid environment that helped them survive."

The researchers discovered the bichir raised on land were dramatically different than those raised in water. The land-raised fish lifted their heads higher, held their fins closer to their bodies, took faster steps and undulated their tails less frequently and had fins that slipped less often than bichir raised in water. These land-based fish also underwent changes in their skeletons and musculature that likely paved the way for their changes in behavior. All in all, these alterations helped bichir move more effectively on land.

"I'm very surprised the fish survived so well on land," said Standen, who conducted this research while she was a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University in Montreal. "That was an initial gamble with this experiment — could the fish even be raised on land?"

These findings reveal the bichir is more plastic — that is, malleable — during its development than previously thought. This plasticity is what made this fish capable of growing up very differently depending on its environment.

Given the anatomical similarities found between the bichir and stem tetrapods, the researchers suggest the animals' common ancestor could have possessed the kind of plasticity seen in the bichir today. If so, "this raises the possibility that plasticity may have also existed in stem tetrapods to facilitate their transition to land," Standen said.

"Fish that had the plasticity to allow them to move out onto land benefited by removing themselves from a very competitive environment into a new habitat of plants and insects supplying shelter and food resources, free of major predation or competition," Standen added. Over time, traits permitted by such plasticity may have proven advantageous enough to evolve into permanent fixtures in these ancient animals, she said.

Uncovering evidence of whether or not stem tetrapods really displayed such plasticity is very challenging. "The best way to find such evidence is to unearth fossils of a single population of these stem tetrapod fishes and look for natural variation in it," study co-author Hans Larsson, a vertebrate paleontologist at McGill University, told Live Science. "If we can, we might be able to find fossils that showed this population demonstrated some degree of plasticity."

Read more at Discovery News

Unique 2000-Year-Old Wooden Toilet Seat Found

Archaeologists excavating a Roman fort in northern England have unearthed a 2,000-year-old wooden toilet seat — the only find of its kind to have survived.

The seat was found in a muddy trench at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, which was a key military post on the northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian’s Wall. It had clearly been well used by soldiers stationing there.

Decommissioned from its original purpose, it was then dumped amongst other rubbish before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.

“We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world, which have included many fabulous Roman latrines, but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat,” Andrew Birley, director of excavations at Vindolanda, said.

The wooden seat has been perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen-free conditions that exist at Vindolanda.

“It is made from a very well-worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable,” Birley said.

Indeed, given the cold climate, the seat would have worked much better than the well-known Roman marble or stone toilet benches.

“Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate — their drains often contain astonishing artifacts,” Birley added.

Discoveries from latrines at Vindolanda have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion and a bronze lamp.

Excavated for decades by the Birley family, Vindolanda has yielded a variety of findings, ranging from worn shoes and socks to jewelry, gold coins and unique objects such as a gladiator's drinking glass.

Vindolanda’s most famous finds, however, are some 400 wooden writing tablets inscribed with official and private correspondences. About the size of a modern postcard, these are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and provide a unique insight into life at the Roman fort.

Once preservation of the wooden seat is complete — the process might take up to 18 months — the artifact will be put on display at the Vindolanda Roman Army Museum, located near the modern village of Bardon Mill.

Read more at Discovery News

'Hobbits of the Arctic' Traced by DNA

The migration of North America's first residents across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago has proved to be one of science's long-standing mysteries. Who arrived first? How was the Arctic region settled? Why did these people leave Eurasia in the first place?

Now researchers have completed the largest-ever genetic analysis of the Arctic peoples using DNA from ancient human remains and comparing it to DNA from contemporary residents of the region from Alaska to Greenland. This new study reveals the history of a strange group of people -- known as the Dorset people or Paleo-Eskimos -- who lived by themselves for more than 4,000 years.

This group of about 2,000 to 3,000 people were not related to Eskimos, Inuit or Native Americans. They were wiped out by the others, either by design or disease about a thousand years ago, before the arrival of Viking raiders from Scandinavia.

"I was surprised that there was no mixing of paleo-Eskimos and (early) Native Americans," said Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen's National Museum of Natural History in Denmark and an author on the study appearing today in the journal Science. "Usually, they might be fighting each other but they also have sex with each other and that doesn’t seem to be the case here. From a genetic point of view, the lack of mixture between those two groups was a big surprise."

This lost tribe of early Arctic residents made simple flaked stone tools, lived in micro-villages of two or three families, followed migrations of seals and caribou. They avoided bigger, stronger, more populated groups, such as the Thule culture that swept from Alaska to Greenland. With so few in number, they were also probably inbred.

"Dorsets were the hobbits of the eastern Arctic, a strange people that we are just getting to know," said William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Dorset people arrived some six thousand years ago from Northeast Asia, probably Siberia. They followed their own wave of migration, separate from the three other waves that archaeologists have until now documented.

Fitzhugh said these small tribes survived for four millennia in the harsh environment of the Arctic tundra. But eventually they became easy prey for the more powerful Thule, who are ancestors of modern-day Inuit.

"The Thule people came with larger villages and dogsleds and boats and had come from a militaristic background," Fitzhugh said. "The Dorsets had no bows and arrows; they were sitting ducks. They were pushed into the fringes or were annihilated."

Their demise came around 1300 to 1400 A.D., before the arrival of Norse seafarers from Europe. After looking at the genetic data, it appears that no living groups are related to this extinct society, the authors say.

Anthropologists and archaeologists say there are still many more questions to answer about who settled North America, the planet's last continent to be colonized by humans.

"The picture that emerges is interesting and supports some of the things we are doing with y- chromosome analysis," said Theodore Schurr, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who was not part of the study. "It does add some nuance to sequence of expansions coming out of the (Siberia) and some clarity of relationship between paleo-Eskimo and neo-Eskimo. It raises some interesting questions about cultural continuity."

Read more at Discovery News

Proto-Planetary Smashup Discovered Around Baby Star

Scientists believe they have spotted a rocky planet in the making around a young, sun-like star 1,200 light years away in the constellation Vela.

The violent process, marked by collisions of asteroids and other proto-planetary bodies, was detected by a dramatic change in telltale infrared radiation emissions coming from warm dust circling the 35 million-year-old star.

Astronomers monitored the star, known as NGC 2547-ID8, with NASA’s Spitzer infrared space telescope between May 25, 2012, and Aug. 23, 2015, taking a 157-day break when the star was behind the sun and not visible. During the gap, the star’s disk of orbiting dust dramatically brightened, then slowly dimmed over the course of a nearly a year.

“The observed sudden brightening and the consequent decay would be very hard to explain, if at all possible, without the occurrence of a new impact,” Huan Meng, a planetary sciences graduate student at the University of Arizona, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Meng and colleagues turned to computer simulations to better understand what they were seeing. The best explanation is that in late 2012, a major collision took place among the star’s orbiting proto-planetary bodies, producing vapor that condensed into a thick cloud of silicate spheres. Later collisions pulverized the small spheres into dust.

The crash is believed to be similar to the one that occurred early in Earth’s history which led to the formation of the moon.

While scientists have discovered brightening in stars’ debris disks before, they did not have real-time observations to rule out other phenomena besides smashing proto-planets as the cause. A super-volcanic explosion on a young terrestrial planet, for example, or the breakup of a comet could brighten up a debris disk, but these events wouldn’t cause variations over time like what was observed around ID8.

“This is the first detection of a planetary impact outside our solar system,” Meng said.

Scientists estimate it takes 10 to 15 giant impacts of planetary embryos to form a rocky Earth-sized world.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 27, 2014

World's Oldest Wine Cellar Fueled Palatial Parties

Israel isn't particularly famous for its wine today, but four thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, vineyards in the region produced vintages that were prized throughout the Mediterranean and imported by the Egyptian elite.

Last summer, archaeologists discovered a rare time capsule of this ancient drinking culture: the world's oldest known wine cellar, found in the ruins of a sprawling palatial compound in Upper Galilee.

The mud-brick walls of the room seem to have crumbled suddenly, perhaps during an earthquake. Whatever happened, no one came to salvage the 40 wine jars inside after the collapse; luckily for archaeologists, the cellar was left untouched for centuries.

Excavators at the site took samples of the residue inside the jars. In a new study published today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers describe what their chemical analysis turned up: biomarkers of wine and herbal additives that were mixed into the drink, including mint, cinnamon and juniper.

Wild nights in Tel Kabri

Archaeologists unearthed the wine cellar in a palatial complex at a site called Tel Kabri in present-day northern Israel, near the borders of Syria and Lebanon. As far back as the Stone Age, the area's springs attracted settlers. During the second millennium B.C., a more centralized Canaanite community of thousands of people popped up around a palace, which likely housed a leader or ruling family who could redistribute wealth and commodities, said Andrew Koh, an archaeologist at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and one of the excavators on the dig.

The compound was at its peak between 1900 B.C. and 1600 B.C. Artifacts and paintings found at the site suggest this community had contact with Egypt, Mesopotamian cultures to the north and east, and the Minoan civilization that arose in Crete.

In July, Koh and colleagues were excavating an area they thought was outside the palace when they found a 3-foot-tall (1 meter) jar they dubbed "Bessie." The team eventually turned up 39 more jars inside a room measuring about 16 feet by 26 feet (5 m by 8 m). All together, the vessels would have held around 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of wine, and the cellar was conveniently located next to a banquet hall.

"What we have is quite substantial — 40 jars — but it's not enough to redistribute to the whole countryside, so we're arguing that this is the personal or palatial wine cellar," Koh told Live Science. "It's for a nuclear kind of in-group, whether it's the family or clan, and it's for local, on-the-spot consumption. But it's still a lot of wine — they must have thrown large parties."

What's in the wine

The residue from all 32 jars sampled in the study contained tartaric acid, one of the main acids in wine. In all but three jars, the researchers found syringic acid, a marker of red wine. The absence of syringic acid in those three jars may indicate that they contained some of the earliest examples of white wine, which got its start later than red wine, Koh said.

The researchers found signatures of pine resin, which has powerful antibacterial properties and was likely added at the vineyard to help preserve the wine. Scientists also found traces of cedar, which may have come from wooden beams used during the wine-pressing process.

The researchers noticed that the cellar's simplest wines, those with only resin added, were typically found in the jars lined up in a row against the wall near the outdoor entrance to the room. But the wines with the more complex additives were generally found in jars near a platform in the middle of the cellar and two narrow rooms leading to the banquet hall next door. Koh and colleagues believe the wine would have been brought from the countryside into the cellar, where a wine master would have mixed in honey and herbs like juniper and mint before a meal.

As for the taste, Koh said the ancient booze may have resembled modern retsina, a somewhat divisive Greek wine flavored with pine resin — described by detractors as having a note of turpentine. (Koh said he and his colleagues usually hear two different kinds of remarks about the ancient wine: Some say, "I would love to drink this wine," while others say, "It must have just tasted like vinegar with twigs in it.")

While the wine wouldn't be what drinkers are used to today, the jars at Tel Kabri likely contained some the finest vintages of the day, Koh said.

"If the Egyptian kings and pharaohs wanted wine from this area, it must have been quite good," Koh said.

Recreating old wine from lost grapes

Based on the fabric of the clay jars, the researchers said the wine came from the local region, though they're still trying to pinpoint where the supplying vineyards may have been located. The scientists do know that one of the most famous vineyards of antiquity, the Bethanath estate, got its start about 1,000 years later, just 9 miles (15 km) away from Tel Kabri.

Koh and colleagues are also hoping DNA tests reveal what kind of grapes were used, which may interest not only archaeologists but also current wine producers.

The Islamic conquest of the 7th century put an end to much of the region's wine culture. It wasn't until the 19th century that Upper Galilee's vineyards experienced a revival, largely thanks to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who imported grapes from Bordeaux, France, that still form the basis of much of Israel's wine culture today, Koh said. But these grapes are perhaps not the best varieties for the region's climate.

Read more at Discovery News

Mystery of Death Valley's Moving Rocks Solved

The first witnesses to an enduring natural mystery are an engineer, a biologist and a planetary scientist who met thanks to a remote weather station.

This odd group has captured the first video footage of Death Valley's sailing stones creeping across Racetrack Playa. For a century, these eerie rocks and their long, graceful trails have stumped visitors and scientists. The boulders of black dolomite appear to move on their own, sliding uphill across the playa's flat lakebed. The trails are the only evidence the rocks move. No one has ever seen them set sail.

Lacking direct evidence, explanations for this geologic puzzle ran the gamut, from Earth's magnetic field to gale-force winds to slippery algae. Now, with video, time-lapse photographs and GPS tracking of Racetrack Playa's moving rocks, the mystery has finally been solved.

Jagged plates of thin ice, resembling panels of broken glass, bulldoze the rocks across the flooded playa, the scientists reveal today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS One. Driven by gentle winds, the rocks seem to hydroplane atop the fluffy, wet mud.

"It's a wonderful Goldilocks phenomenon," said lead study author Richard Norris. "Ponds like this are vanishingly rare in Death Valley, and it may be a decade between heavy enough rain or snowfall events to make a substantial pond," said Norris, a paleobiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

One-in-a-million mystery

Leading theories had already narrowed in on wind, water and ice to propel the playa's rocks. But no one has come up with thin ice before. Models always targeted thick ice sheets, which could float the rocks across the playa like wind-driven icebergs. The ice seen during the study is too thin to pick up anything but pebbles.

"I have to confess I was surprised," said study co-author Ralph Lorenz, who has authored several studies suggesting thick ice carries the playa rocks. "I really expected buoyancy to be required, and it clearly wasn't. The ice was thinner than I thought would be needed. It was amazing to see the process actually happen," said Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A similar phenomenon is at work in colder climates, on a much more massive scale, the researchers said. When frozen lakes and rivers break up in the spring, the ice floes can dislodge big boulders, leaving grooves in the muddy sediment.

In a terrain known for its barren and bizarre geology, Racetrack Playa is one of the strangest. The dry lake is 3 miles long (4.5 kilometers), nearly flat as a tabletop and littered with a few hundred rocks. Some are as small as baseballs, but other boulders weigh as much as 700 lbs. (317 kilograms). Even the largest rocks trail long furrows behind them.

Some trails are short; some stretch twice the length of a football field. Other trails sharply zig and zag, suggesting quick changes in direction. Mysteriously, some trails are missing rocks.

The playa occasionally floods in winter, from rain or melted snow. Sitting at 3,608 feet (1,100 meters) above sea level and ringed by mountains, nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing, sheeting the temporary lake in thin ice or freezing it solid.

A rare combination of water and ice combines to move the rocks, the researchers said. The playa lake needs to be deep enough for floating ice, but shallow enough to leave the rocks exposed. The surface ice should be thin "windowpane" ice, but strong enough to break into big panels that can bully the rocks. Finally, the freezing nights need to be followed by sunny days with light winds, which drive the cracking ice across the lake.

A series of wet winter storms created the perfect conditions from December 2013 through February 2014. Hundreds of rocks scooted across Racetrack Playa five times in 10 weeks.

"Basically, the rocks move for about one minute in a million minutes," Lorenz told Live Science. "You have to be there at the right time, and the right time is generally one of the least hospitable times to be there."

Playa passion

Reaching Racetrack Playa requires a bone-jarring ride down a 28-mile gravel road. The remoteness has never deterred anyone obsessed with solving the riddle of the rocks. The first experiments here started in the 1940s and have never stopped.

A few years ago, two California cousins who grew up with a love of the desert decided to tackle the Racetrack Playa problem. Richard Norris is the biologist and Jim Norris is the engineer. They nabbed rare National Park Service permits to install equipment and sensors in Racetrack Playa.

"It's almost the purest form of doing science, for discovery's sake, rather than because your reputation is tied up in it," Richard Norris said.

In the winter of 2011, with the help of family and friends, the Norris clan lugged 15 imported rocks with motion-activated GPS units built by Jim Norris onto Racetrack Playa. (The Park Service didn't want the natural rocks disturbed.) They also installed a weather station to track wind gusts.

They waited for the rocks to move, but there was never any water.

Two years later, Lorenz, the planetary scientist, saw the weather station and tracked down the team at a research meeting held in Death Valley in November 2013. The Norris group was easy to find — they had matching T-shirts blazed with "Slithering Stones Research Initiative." Over beers, the researchers decided to join forces.

Lorenz has been investigating the sailing stones since 2006. He came to Death Valley to study the dust devils as an analog for conditions on Mars, but he also became fascinated by Racetrack Playa.

Right place, right time

In December 2013, the team hit the jackpot. They discovered the playa was slicked with water three inches (7 cm) deep. Overnight, the pond froze and when the sun rose the next morning and cracked the ice, the rocks set sail. It was all caught on camera.

Hundreds of rocks were in motion, Norris said. "The ice was just crackling and popping and making all these noises across the playa."

Some rocks moved in concert, even though they were hundreds of feet apart, while others creeped independently. The rocks inched along at gridlock speed, about 10 mph (16 km/h), which is equal to a few inches per second (2 to 6 meters per minute). The creeping could barely be detected at a distance.

Read more at Discovery News

What Makes a Supernova Blow?

What makes a massive star go boom? Astronomers have longed suspected it is thermonuclear fusion that destroys the star. Now they have proof: gamma ray emissions detected by Europe’s INTEGRAL satellite show evidence of decayed radioactive isotopes flash-baked in the thermonuclear oven of a freshly made supernova.

The exploded star was found by accident eight months ago in the nearby galaxy M82 (pictured top), located about 11 million light-years from Earth. It turned out to be a particular type of supernovae, known as a “Ia”, which ramp up to maximum brightness in about three weeks and then slowly begin to dim.

At their peak, these types of exploded stars pump out as much energy as 4 billion times the energy of the sun, making them good yardsticks for measuring cosmic distances. It was by using these so-called “standard candles” that astrophysicists in 1998 discovered an unknown force, referred to as dark energy, was speeding up the universe’s expansion.

Scientists theorized that supernova Ia explosions are triggered by the sudden fusion of carbon and oxygen into heavier elements, such as nickel-56, inside a white dwarf star, making it unstable.

“Fusion happens in a flash,” astrophysicist Robert Kirshner, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, writes in an article in this week’s Nature. “A thermonuclear flame rips through the white dwarf, fusing carbon into heavier elements with a sudden release of energy that tears the star apart. Fusion stops yielding energy at the element that has the most tightly bound nucleus — in the case of a white dwarf, nickel-56.”

When the exploded remains of the M82 star were found, astronomers moved quickly to find out if the theoretical predictions were right.

“The last type Ia in our galaxy was in 1604,” lead researcher Eugene Churazov, with Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

He and colleagues used the European Space Agency’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, nicknamed INTEGRAL, to observe the newly found supernova between 50 and 100 days after the explosion. They found a neat chain of chemistry caused by the decay of radioactive nickel isotopes into cobalt and iron. Calculations show the amount of radioactive nickel, the rate of the supernova expansion and the amount of mass produced in the explosion match predictions.

Read more at Discovery News

Fantastically Wrong: The Legend of the Homicidal Fire-Proof Salamander

A salamander relaxing in a fire, just minding its own business, is rudely prodded by a shirtless man. “A salamander lives in the fire, which imparts to it a most glorious hue,” reads the caption. Welcome to the wonderful world of alchemy.
In the first century AD, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder threw a salamander into a fire. He wanted to see if it could indeed not only survive the flames, but extinguish them, as Aristotle had claimed such creatures could. But the salamander didn’t … uh … make it.

Yet that didn’t stop the legend of the fire-proof salamander (a name derived from the Persian meaning “fire within”) from persisting for 1,500 more years, from the Ancient Romans to the Middle Ages on up to the alchemists of the Renaissance. Some even believed it was born in fire, like the legendary Phoenix, only slimier and a bit less dramatic. And that its fur (huh?) could be used to weave fire-resistant garments.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that in addition to disproving the salamander’s powers, Pliny also wrote extensively that it had such powers—and then some. His Natural History, which has survived over the centuries as a towering catalog of everything from mining to zoology, describes the salamander as such: “It is so chilly that it puts out fire by its contact, in the same way as ice does. It vomits from its mouth a milky slaver [saliva], one touch of which on any part of the human body causes all the hair to drop off, and the portion touched changes its color and breaks out in a tetter,” a sort of itchy skin disease.

Medieval bestiaries—encyclopedias that cataloged life on Earth—propagated the myth that salamanders love carrots. Are those carrots? Maybe they’re flames.
Some 500 years later, Saint Isidore of Seville wrote that while other poisonous animals strike their victims individually, the salamander slays “very many at the same time; for if it crawls up a tree, it infects all the fruit with poison and slays those who eat it; nay, even if it falls in a well, the power of the poison slays those who drink it.” He also confirmed that it’s immune to the effects of fire.

So right away the salamander was mythologized as both a miraculous survivor and a menace. Indeed, later on in the 1200s, an English writer told of one laying waste to Alexander the Great’s army simply by swimming in a river they drank from. All told, 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 horses supposedly perished after consuming the salamander’s dirty bath water. Which would be pretty embarrassing, if only it were true.

Now, it was likely Europe’s fire salamander, with its vivid yellow-on-black coloration, that served as the inspiration for the legend, according to Nosson Slifkin in his book Sacred Monsters. As you might assume from its conspicuous colors, this species is in fact quite poisonous, secreting a neurotoxin to deter predators. And if it doesn’t feel like waiting to be attacked, it can actually fire this secretion at its approaching enemies. While the toxin can cause skin irritation in humans, it’s far from capable of poisoning 4,000 soldiers. But it’s likely this poisonous nature was simply scaled up for such myths.

Europe’s glorious fire salamander has bright markings that warn predators that it’s poisonous, and dead eyes that say, “I’m going through a rough patch in my life right now.”
A few centuries later, none other than Leonardo Da Vinci added another curious characteristic to the salamander’s repertoire, claiming it “has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.” The alchemist Paracelsus later confirmed this as its diet, elevating the salamander to the status of one of the four “elementals” that he substituted for the classical elements earth, fire, air, and water—the salamander of course being fire.

Salamanders: The Furry Fire-Proof Heroes of the Working Man

It was a bit earlier, in the Middle Ages, when the legend of the fire-proof salamander picked up another facet: asbestos, a highly fire-resistant mineral with fibers we now know can absolutely devastate our lungs, leading to mesothelioma and other awful diseases. You see, before we foolishly packed our modern buildings with the stuff, in the ancient world it was woven into royal garments. According to Pliny, because it doesn’t burn, it was used to wrap the dead on funeral pyres, resulting in pure ash unsullied by charred fabric.

Curiously, Marco Polo noted “the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth.” He relates the experiences of a Turkish acquaintance in China, where the man dug up “Salamander,” or asbestos as we know it, and processed its fibers into napkins. “When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.”

A comedy of errors led naturalists, including Conrad Gesner in his Historiae Animalium encyclopedia shown here, to depict the salamander as furry. Well, it was amusing for everyone besides the salamander, which prides itself on its diligent shaving regimen.
According to the 17th-century British polymath Sir Thomas Browne, asbestos was known metaphorically as “salamander’s wool,” based on the legendary fireproofing of the critter. But this was misinterpreted as being literal, so medieval bestiaries—the oftentimes vast encyclopedias of life—portrayed the salamander as furry (just furry, not a furry, thankfully).

Far from dismissing the salamander’s powers entirely, Browne goes on to break down its potential for surviving flames or even extinguishing coals, arguing that the critter’s moistness and mucus can indeed protect it from burning up, however briefly. “And therefore some truth we allow in the tradition: truth according unto Galen, that it may for a time resist a flame, or as Scaliger avers, extinguish or put out a coal: for thus much will many humid bodies perform: but that it perseveres and lives in that destructive element, is a fallacious enlargement.” (It’s safe to assume that salamanders do indeed fare somewhat better than creatures that actually have fur, but to my knowledge no modern experiments have been done to confirm this on account of, you know, ethics and all.)

Read more at Wired Science

Aug 26, 2014

Best view yet of merging galaxies in distant universe

An international team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) -- among other telescopes -- has obtained the best view yet of a collision between two galaxies when the Universe was only half its current age.

To make this observation, the team also enlisted the help of a gravitational lens, a galaxy-size magnifying glass, to reveal otherwise invisible detail. These new studies of galaxy HATLAS J142935.3-002836 have shown that this complex and distant object looks surprisingly like the comparatively nearby pair of colliding galaxies collectively known as the Antennae.

"While astronomers are often limited by the power of their telescopes, in some cases our ability to see detail is hugely boosted by natural lenses created by the Universe," explains lead author Hugo Messias of the Universidad de Concepción in Chile and the Centro de Astronomia e Astrofísica da Universidade de Lisboa in Portugal. "Einstein predicted in his theory of General Relativity that, given enough mass, light does not travel in a straight line but will be bent in a similar way to a normal lens."

Cosmic lenses are created by massive structures like galaxies and galaxy clusters, which bend light from objects behind them due to their strong gravity -- an effect called gravitational lensing. The magnifying properties of this effect allow astronomers to study objects that would otherwise be invisible and to directly compare local galaxies with much more remote ones, when the Universe was significantly younger.

For these gravitational lenses to work, however, the foreground lensing galaxy and the one beyond need to be precisely aligned.

"These chance alignments are quite rare and tend to be hard to identify," adds Messias, "but, recent studies have shown that by observing at far-infrared and millimeter wavelengths we can find these cases much more efficiently."

HATLAS J142935.3-002836 (or H1429-0028 for short) is one of these sources and was found in the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (HATLAS). It is among the brightest gravitationally lensed objects in the far-infrared regime found so far, even though we are seeing it at a time when the Universe was just half its current age.

To study this object in further detail, the astronomers started an extensive follow-up campaign using an impressive collection of incredibly powerful telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA, the Keck Observatory, and the VLA, among others.

The Hubble and Keck images revealed a detailed gravitationally induced ring of light around the foreground galaxy. These high resolution images also showed that the lensing galaxy is an edge-on disc galaxy -- similar to our Milky Way -- which obscures parts of the background light due to the large dust clouds it contains.

But this obscuration is not a problem for ALMA and the VLA, since these two facilities observe the sky at longer wavelengths, which are unaffected by dust. Using the combined data, the team discovered that the background system was actually an ongoing collision between two galaxies. From this point on, ALMA and the VLA played a key role in further characterizing this object.

In particular, ALMA traced carbon monoxide, which allows detailed studies of star-formation mechanisms in galaxies. The ALMA observations also allowed the motion of the material in the galaxy to be measured. This was essential to show that the lensed object is indeed an ongoing galactic collision forming hundreds of new stars each year, and that one of the colliding galaxies still shows signs of rotation; an indication that it was a disc galaxy just before this encounter.

The system of these two colliding galaxies resembles a spectacular object that is much closer to us: the Antennae, which is the closest ongoing merger of two spiral galaxies. While the Antennae system is forming stars with a total rate of only a few ten times the mass of our Sun each year, H1429-0028 each year turns more than 400 solar masses of gas into new stars.

Read more at Science Daily

Sleep Disorder Makes People Appear 'Totally Drunk'

If you've ever woken from a deep sleep in a confused state and didn't remember the experience later, you may have a condition known as "sleep drunkenness."

According to a new study, as many as 1 in 7 people may have this disorder, properly known as "confusional arousal," which can lead to confused or inappropriate behavior — such as answering the phone when an alarm goes off — or even violence.

The episodes usually happen when a person is woken suddenly, and people sometimes have no memory of these incidents, said Dr. Maurice Ohayon, a sleep psychiatrist at Stanford School of Medicine and co-author of the study, detailed today (Aug. 25) in the journal Neurology.

"It's like they are totally drunk — they don't know where they are or what they are doing," Ohayon told Live Science.

Confusional arousal is distinct from night terrors and sleepwalking, Ohayon said. It is often seen in children, but has not been well studied in adults.

In the study, the researchers interviewed a random sample of more than 19,000 American adults about their sleep habits and history of confusional arousal, as well as any mental illness and any medications they were taking.

About 15 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced at least one bout of this "sleep drunkenness" in the previous year, more than half of whom said they suffered at least one episode per week. Slightly fewer than 10 percent of those who had had an episode couldn't remember part or all of the experience, and 15 percent of them also had sleepwalking episodes.

Confusional arousal is different from the normal sleepiness that most people feel when they wake up, said Dr. Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved with the research. Most people with sleep grogginess generally remember their experience, but people with sleep drunkenness are not aware of their actions, and attempts to fully wake them usually fail, Manevitz told Live Science.

The unusual grogginess has many different causes, depending on the individual. The researchers found that among those who'd had an episode of sleep drunkenness, 70 percent also had a sleep disorder, and 37 percent had a mental illness. Only 31 percent were taking medication for these disorders, and these were mostly antidepressants.

People suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, panic or post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety seemed more susceptible to the disorder, as did those with sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person briefly stops breathing during sleep, the researchers said.

Read more at Discovery News

Weird Microscopic Structure Found in Mars Meteorite

Scientists have found a strange structure resembling a microbial cell inside a Martian meteorite, but they're not claiming that it's evidence of Red Planet life.

The researchers discovered the microscopic oval object within the Nakhla Mars meteorite, which fell to Earth in Egypt in 1911. While the structure's appearance is intriguing, it most likely formed as a result of geological rather than biological processes, team members said.

"The consideration of possible biotic scenarios for the origin of the ovoid structure in Nakhla currently lacks any sort of compelling evidence," the scientists write in a new study published this month in the journal Astrobiology. "Therefore, based on the available data that we have obtained on the nature of this conspicuous ovoid structure in Nakhla, we conclude that the most reasonable explanation for its origin is that it formed through abiotic processes."

A Cell-like Structure

The hollow ovoid is about 80 microns long by 60 microns wide, researchers said — far larger than most terrestrial bacteria but in the normal size range for eukaryotic Earth microbes (single-celled organisms that possess nuclei and other membrane-bound interior "organelles"). The study team is confident that the object is native to the sample and not the result of terrestrial contamination.

The scientists studied the structure using a number of different techniques, including electron microscopy, X-ray analysis and mass spectrometry. This work revealed that the ovoid is composed of iron-rich clay and contains a number of other minerals.

The researchers run through a number of possible formation scenarios in the new study, eventually concluding that the ovoid most likely formed when materials partially filled in a pre-existing vesicle — a vapor bubble, for example — in the rock.

But this supposition doesn't rule out the possibility that Martian lifeforms had something to do with the structure, team members said.

"Despite the extremely biomorphic overall shape of the ovoid, it is highly unlikely that it itself was an organism," said lead author Elias Chatzitheodoridis, of the National Technical University of Athens in Greece.

"However, it could have been formed directly by micro-organisms, or it could trap organic material that came from elsewhere," Chatzitheodoridis told via email. "That the ovoid is hollow means that there is enough space to accommodate colonies of microorganisms."

Making a firm link to Mars life would require further study and further discoveries, he added.

"We would be happy if we could have found more than one ovoid, with exactly the same texture both in the micro and the nanoscale," Chatzitheodoridis said. "However, we require to open up enough sample in a very careful way. Compelling evidence, though, would be if we could really find many of the same, clearly in a form of a colony, together with chemical and mineralogical biosignatures that are common for terrestrial microbes."

Nakhla is a well-studied meteorite — scientists have spotted possible signs of Mars life within it before —and previous research has mapped out its history in some detail. Nakhla's parent rock apparently crystallized about 1.3 billion years ago, Chatzitheodoridis and his colleagues write in the new study, then experienced two shock events that heated it up considerably.

The first of these shocks likely occurred around 910 million years ago and the second 620 million years ago. This latter event, which was triggered by a nearby meteorite strike on Mars, apparently included the flow of hot water through Nakhla's parent outcrop, the authors write. Finally, about 10 million years ago, another impact blasted Nakhla free of Mars, sending it on a looping trip through space that ended with its arrival at Earth in 1911.

Whether or not the Nakhla ovoid has some connection to Martian life, study of the meteorite can help researchers better understand the Red Planet's past (and, perhaps, present) potential to support life, Chatzitheodoridis said.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Spies Dark Nebula of Stellar Creation

This thick cloud of dust and gas may look like a dark and foreboding corner of our galaxy, but it is actually a region of star birth that exhibits a smorgasbord of stellar phenomena.

One of the more fascinating objects is the star in the center of the frame that appears to be sitting atop a column of smokey material. This is in fact a young stellar object (YSO) — basically a star’s embryo — that is slowly forming from the collapsing gas in its nebula. Called SSTC2D J033038.2+303212, this object has a disk of material seen edge-on that it continues to form from. The YSO seems to be generating its own hot jets of gas that light up the top of the dark nebulous column.

Below the YSO, however, there’s a huge, glowing ball of gas that brightens the scene. This is a reflection nebula — dust and gas that is lit up by numerous bright baby stars cocooned within — called [B77] 63.

Yet amongst the bright stellar birth is the pitch black object that seems to trail from [B77] 63. This dark nebula is called Dobashi 4173 and it blocks all light from any stars it may contain. The stars that overlay the nebula are actually foreground stars between us and Dobashi 4173.

This dramatic view was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) that views the cosmos in ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared light.

From Discovery News

Aug 25, 2014

Zombie ant fungi 'know' brains of their hosts

A parasitic fungus that reproduces by manipulating the behavior of ants emits a cocktail of behavior-controlling chemicals when encountering the brain of its natural target host, but not when infecting other ant species, a new study shows.

The findings, which suggest that the fungus "knows" its preferred host, provide new insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, according to researchers.

"Fungi are well known for their ability to secrete chemicals that affect their environment," noted lead author Charissa de Bekker, a Marie Curie Fellow in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, and Ludwig Maximilian of the University of Munich. "So we wanted to know what chemicals are employed to control so precisely the behavior of ants."

The research focused on a species from the genus Ophiocordyceps -- known as "zombie ant fungi" -- which control their ant hosts by inducing a biting behavior. Although these fungi infect many insects, the species that infect ants have evolved a mechanism that induces hosts to die attached by their mandibles to plant material, providing a platform from which the fungus can grow and shoot spores to infect other ants.

To study this mechanism, the researchers combined field research with a citizen-scientist in South Carolina, infection experiments under laboratory conditions and analysis using metabolomics, which is the study of the chemical processes associated with the molecular products of metabolism.

The scientists used a newly discovered fungal species from North America -- initially called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato while it awaits a new name -- that normally controls an ant species in the genus Camponotus. To test whether a species of fungus that has evolved to control the behavior of one ant species can infect and control others, they infected nontarget hosts from the same ant genus and another genus (Formica).

They found that this obligate killer can infect and kill nontarget ants, but it cannot manipulate their behavior. "The brain of the target species was the key to understanding manipulation," de Bekker said.

The researchers next removed ant brains, keeping the organs alive in special media. The fungus then was grown in the presence of brains from different ant species to determine what chemicals it produced for each brain.

"This was 'brain-in-a-jar' science at its best," said co-author David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology, Penn State. "It was necessary to reduce the complexity associated with the whole, living ant, and just ask what chemicals the fungus produces when it encounters the ant brain.

"You don't get to see a lot of behavior with fungi," he said. "You have to infer what they are doing by examining how they grow, where they grow and most important, what chemicals they secrete."

He explained that fungi are nourished via osmotrophy, by which they secrete compounds that degrade the bigger molecules in their environment into smaller ones that then can be taken up by the fungus. Using metabolomics, the researchers could determine precisely the chemical crosstalk between the fungus and the ant brain it grew alongside.

"We could see in the data that the fungus behaved differently in the presence of the ant brain it had co-evolved with," said de Bekker, whose Penn State co-authors also included Andrew Patterson, assistant professor of molecular toxicology, and Phil Smith, director of the Metabolomics Core Facility.

The researchers found thousands of unique chemicals, most of them completely unknown. This, according to Hughes, is not surprising, since little previous work has mined these fungi for the chemicals they produce.

But what did stand out were two known neuromodulators, guanobutyric acid (GBA) and sphingosine. These both have been reported to be involved in neurological disorders and were enriched when the fungus was grown in the presence of brains of its target species.

"There is no single compound that is produced that results in the exquisite control of ant behavior we observe," de Bekker said. "Rather, it is a mixture of different chemicals that we assume act in synergy.

"But whatever the precise blend and tempo of chemical secretion," she said, "it is impressive that these fungi seem to 'know' when they are beside the brain of their regular host and behave accordingly."

Noted Hughes, "This is one of the most complex examples of parasites controlling animal behavior because it is a microbe controlling an animal -- the one without the brain controls the one with the brain. By employing metabolomics and controlled laboratory infections, we can now begin to understand how the fungi pull off this impressive trick."

The research also is notable, the scientists contend, because it is the first extensive study of zombie ants in North America. Typically assumed to be a tropical phenomenon, they exist in temperate habitats but can be hard to find.

Read more at Science Daily

Taung Child's brain development not human-like? CT scan casts doubt on similarity to that of modern humans

The Taung Child, South Africa's premier hominin discovered 90 years ago by Wits University Professor Raymond Dart, continues to shed light on human origins. By subjecting the skull of the first australopith discovered to the latest technologies in the Wits University Microfocus X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) facility, researchers are now casting doubt on theories that Australopithecus africanus shows the same cranial adaptations found in modern human infants and toddlers -- in effect disproving current support for the idea that this early hominin shows infant brain development in the prefrontal region similar to that of modern humans.

The results have been published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Aug. 25, in an article titled "New high resolution CT data of the Taung partial cranium and endocast and their bearing on metopism and hominin brain evolution."

The Taung Child has historical and scientific importance in the fossil record as the first and best example of early hominin brain evolution, and theories have been put forward that it exhibits key cranial adaptations found in modern human infants and toddlers.

To test the ancientness of this evolutionary adaptation, Dr Kristian J. Carlson, Senior Researcher from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and colleagues, Professor Ralph L. Holloway from Columbia University and Douglas C. Broadfield from Florida Atlantic University, performed an in silico dissection of the Taung fossil using high-resolution computed tomography.

"A recent study has described the roughly 3 million-year-old fossil, thought to have belonged to a 3 to 4-year-old, as having a persistent metopic suture and open anterior fontanelle, two features that facilitate post-natal brain growth in human infants when their disappearance is delayed," said Carlson.

Comparisons with the existing hominin fossil record and chimpanzee variation do not support this evolutionary scenario.

Citing deficiencies in how the Taung fossil material has been recently assessed, the researchers suggest physical evidence does not incontrovertibly link features of the Taung skull, or its endocast, to early prefrontal lobe expansion, a brain region implicated in many human behaviors.

Read more at Science Daily

'Pig Perfume' Stops Dogs From Behaving Badly

Spritzing dogs with a “pig perfume” helps prevent them from barking incessantly, jumping frantically on house guests and from engaging in other unwanted behaviors, according to new research.

The eau de oink, aka “Boar Mate” or “Stop That,” was formulated by Texas Tech scientist John McGlone, who was looking for a way to curb his Cairn terrier Toto’s non-stop barking. One spritz of the pig perfume seemed to do the trick in an instant without harming his dog.

“It was completely serendipitous,” McGlone, who works in the university’s Animal and Food Sciences department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, said in a press release. “One of the most difficult problems is that dogs bark a lot, and it’s one of the top reasons they are given back to shelters or pounds.”

The key ingredient is androstenone, a steroid and pheromone produced by male pigs and released in their saliva and fat. When detected by female pigs in heat, they seem to find the male more attractive. (The females assume a mating stance.) One can imagine that dogs spritzed with the scent should not hang around amorous female pigs, but other than that, the product seems to work, according to McGlone.

Androstenone smells pungent and is not very appealing to humans, but it can have an effect on mammal behavior, he said.

He and his colleagues tested the product on four different groups of barking dogs in separate kennels. The researchers were looking at not only the possible effectiveness of the key ingredient, but also if the spritzing itself (sound and liquid around face) dumbfounded the dogs.

For the study, the first group of dogs simply had a person with another dog stand in front of the kennels. The second group of dogs was sprayed with a placebo that made a startling spritz noise. The third group of dogs was sprayed with the noise and a lower concentration of androstenone in isopropyl alcohol. The fourth group was sprayed with a higher concentration of androstenone in isopropyl alcohol that also made the spritz sound.

In the first group, 25 percent (3 out of 12 dogs) stopped barking. In the second group, 44 percent (4 of 9 dogs) stopped barking. In the third group, sprayed with the lower concentration of the pheromone, 78 percent (7 of 9 dogs) stopped barking. In the fourth group, sprayed with the higher concentration of androstenone, 100 percent (6 of 6 dogs) stopped barking.

“We sprayed it in their nose or toward their head while they were barking…barking and jumping, running back and forth,” McGlone said. “This whole behavior stopped. You could almost see them thinking, ‘What was that?’”

The good news is that the product had no impact on the heart rate/cardio function of the dogs, which was the main side effect that they were worried about. Androstenone, in addition to being a pheromone in pigs, appears to also be an intermone, which refers to a product that is, McGlone explained, a “pheromone in one species and has a behavioral effect in another species, but we do not know if it is a pheromone (naturally produced) in the other species.”

Read more at Discovery News

Cane Toad Personalities Key to Territorial Takeover

Cane toads with the personality to boldly go where no cane toad has gone before pave the way for more timid toads to rapidly take over new territories, say Australian researchers.

First introduced into Queensland in the 1930s, cane toads are now found as far south as Sydney and as far west as Kununurra. Despite originating from the rainforests of South America, the toads have managed to conquer some of the hottest and driest parts of the Australian continent.

To understand why cane toads continue to venture into new and potentially hostile environments, the scientists put cane toads from a recently established population in the Northern Territory through a mix of behavioural tests.

They found that some toads were bold and daring, while others were shy and cautious, they report in the journal PLoS One .

It is this mix of bold and shy personalities that has given the cane toads a foothold in Australia, says study co-author Professor Rick Shine of the University of Sydney.

"It is a pretty amazing situation that most frogs are stay-at-home creatures and don't really move too far from where they live, yet here we have got cane toads romping across the landscape," Shine says.

"But if cane toads were all timid then presumably they would still be sitting in Queensland."

To examine how personality traits varied within a cane toad population, the researchers set up feeding stations in the field using artificial lights to attract both insects as food and wild cane toads.

At some of the feeding stations the researchers placed a single cane toad in a mesh enclosure while the other feeding stations were left empty, allowing the wild toads to choose between an empty foraging site or one with another toad present.

A total of 95 cane toads approached the feeding stations within a two-hour period, with an almost even mix between those happy to eat on their own and those that preferred another toad to be present.

Shine says the presence of another toad in the area provided some of the toads with valuable social cues about the suitability of the area for foraging. But for those toads that fed alone, the social cues weren't needed.

To further test their personalities, the researchers placed each toad into a makeshift shelter in the laboratory and timed how long it took for the toad to leave the shelter and begin exploring its new environment.

They found the cane toads that happily ate on their own left their shelters much quicker than the more social cane toads, which tended to be more timid.

Bold v timid toads

"The bolder toads were happy to waltz out and walk around and the other guys stayed hiding," says Shine.

"It shows that some toads are prepared to leap out there into the unknown while some are scaredy-cats."

Shine believes it is the bold cane toads that venture forth and invade new areas. The shy toads follow on later, using social cues from the bolder toads to guide them. The result is a rapid swell in cane toad numbers in the first few years following the invasion into a new area.

"To boldly go where no toad has gone before is probably the sort of thing that a bolder individual is going to do better than a shy individual."

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 24, 2014

Online screening for rare lung cancer mutation opens door to new kind of clinical trial

In the previous few years, several breakthrough treatments have become available for key subtypes of lung cancer. Patients who may benefit from these treatments can be pre-identified by looking for defined genetic abnormalities in their cancer. For example, patients whose lung cancer is driven by rearrangement of the gene ALK derive significant benefit from the drug crizotinib, which targets this abnormality. Many ongoing clinical trials are now attempting to replicate this success by matching different drugs with specific subtypes of the disease based on the presence of such "predictive biomarkers." However, testing these new drugs in clinical trials requires finding and enrolling patients with what may be very rare molecular subtypes of a disease -- one of the challenges is discovering enough needles in enough haystacks to prove the effectiveness of each biomarker-drug pairing.

The University of Colorado Cancer Center is now taking a novel approach to this problem, reaching out via the internet to expand the pool of patients potentially eligible for just such a biomarker-preselected clinical trial. After completing the interactive online screening questions, eligible patients with advanced lung cancer will be consented via the phone to permit a pre-existing biopsy sample of their lung cancer tissue to be shipped to the CU Cancer Center for trial-specific molecular testing. The testing is designed to identify patients who may have lung cancers driven by alterations in the gene FGFR1. Patients whose tumors turn out to be FGFR1-positive and meet the other trial screening criteria will then be offered treatment for their cancer within a clinical trial at CU Cancer Center using the experimental FGFR1 inhibitor drug ponatinib. Ponatinib is already licensed for treating certain blood cancers, but work by CU scientists in laboratory models suggest it may also be a potent agent in some specific molecular subtypes of lung cancer driven by, among other things, changes in the FGFR1 gene.

"FGFR1 has already been explored by the pharmaceutical industry, with rather limited success, but those approaches used a very different way of looking to see if FGFR1 was driving the lung cancer," says Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, director of the thoracic oncology clinical program at the CU Cancer Center and the trial's principal investigator. "Based on some really innovative work coming out of our own Specialized Program of Excellence in Lung Cancer, the tests we are employing in this trial seem to define a completely separate subtype of lung cancer -- one that has really not been explored before. Now the challenge is in finding enough people whose cancers are positive for our biomarkers to prove whether the markers will predict for clinical benefit from ponatinib."

Having built the infrastructure to allow nationwide molecular prescreening for the trial, Camidge's team plans to also use internet awareness to speed accrual into their trial.

"We know that the vast majority of the U.S. population now routinely uses the internet to find out about medical conditions, so we thought we'd get Dr. Google to help us out," says Camidge. "Several very high profile internet resources for lung cancer patients, including the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (BJALCF) and the Global Resource for Advancing Cancer Education (GRACE) have helped us craft this trial and we are very grateful for their commitment to increase awareness about the opportunity it presents for lung cancer patients who might benefit from the molecular prescreening."

Indeed, Dr Jack West, the CEO of GRACE, co-wrote a position paper with Camidge in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology in 2012 titled "Have Mutation, Will Travel" to highlight the pressing need to transform the way clinical trials are conducted in the new era of molecular diversity.

"While Big Pharma sometimes spends millions of dollars to open biomarker-selected trials at hundreds of different locations to find enough patients, the kind of innovative approaches that are homegrown in university settings will never have the resource to do that," said Dr West. "Regardless of whether the FGFR1-ponatinib pairing works or not, what the Colorado team is trying to do could really change the future of clinical cancer research for the better. Patients are increasingly becoming empowered about their own cancer care. Anything we at GRACE can do to get the word out about the Colorado approach will be a very good thing."

Bonnie Addario, chair and founder of the BJALCF and a ten-year lung cancer survivor herself, is similarly enthusiastic. "If we are going to change the survival rates for lung cancer, we have to stop treating everyone the same. We have to do things differently, and if Dr. Camidge's approach can bring a little bit of Colorado's expertise into easy reach of anyone with a computer, then this is a new way of accelerating the process and much more convenient for the patient. We will do all we can to assist in getting patients involved in this exciting new approach," Addario says.

Over the next 3-5 years the Colorado team plans to screen up to 700 lung cancer patients and optimize the biomarker signatures for predicting benefit from ponatinib over time, tweaking the criteria as they go along based on the emerging results in each group of treated patients.

"Clinical research is very expensive and sources of support for this kind of clinical research, as for everything else, are rather limited," says Camidge. However, Camidge's novel approach has already allowed him to secure several hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from sponsors including the manufacturer of ponatinib, Ariad, from the CU Cancer Center and from the CU Lung Cancer Specialized Program of Excellence in Lung Cancer.

Read more at Science Daily