Feb 27, 2015

The Legless Amphibian That Eats Its Mother’s Skin

That’s no earthworm—it’s a vertebrate, specifically a kind of amphibian called a caecilian. But you can call it an earthworm if you want. I’m not gonna stop you.
Perhaps the most contentious title out there is “World’s Greatest Mom.” My mother probably thinks she is, but so too does her mother, and I think they could both make pretty strong cases. But the sacrifices that human moms make pale in comparison to what’s going on in nature. There’s a bug, for instance, whose young devour their mother from the inside out. And one species of deep-sea octopus looks after her eggs for an incredible four and a half years, then perishes.

One amphibian, though, goes about things a little more creepily: A caecilian (pronounced suh-SILL-ee-in) momma lets her kids eat her skin. Like, a lot of it. They’ve even got specialized baby teeth to more efficiently strip her skin away.

That alone is enough to win the caecilian a spot in this column, but pretty much everything about the caecilian is goofy. First of all, they have no legs, not even vestigial traces of limbs (they look just like that giant space slug that almost ate the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars—in fact I’d be surprised if the monster wasn’t inspired by caecilians). They reproduce in pretty much every way imaginable. Et cetera, et cetera.

The 200 or so species of caecilians range from just a few inches long to over 3 feet, and they live in tropical habitats all over the world, rummaging around in the leaf litter or burrowing or even taking to the water. Many species have tiny eyes, or their eye sockets are covered with bone, since peepers don’t do you no good nohow when you’re underground. It makes more sense for the structure to atrophy away over evolutionary time—an eye that isn’t there can’t get infected. Same goes for the legs. It takes a whole lot of valuable time and energy and resources to build those things.

So what caecilians are sensing their world with instead of eyes is “a so-called tentacle, which is usually in front of the eye, but behind the nostrils,” says zoologist Thomas Kleinteich of Germany’s Kiel University. “So this is chemosensory reception. They can actually smell their environment and use this when they are burrowing in the ground.”

When it comes to sex, caecilians have opted for some serious diversification. Some species lay eggs, while others give birth to live young, while still other aquatic varieties go through a larval stage. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that there’s only 200 species of caecilians. Compare this to the thousands upon thousands of species of frog, which typically go with the lay-eggs-add-sperm-develop-into-a-tadpole strategy, though there are a few exceptions.

As far as looking after the young goes—and caecilians all seem to do this to some degree—they have a couple of options for feeding. If you’re laying big eggs, you can pack a lot of yolk in there for them to feed on, then stand guard as they develop. Or…well, this brings us back to the skin thing. “What some species do is actually they have less yolk in the eggs,” says Kleinteich, “and then the juveniles hatch at a premature stage. They don’t actually catch prey, so the first thing they eat is, they scrape off the skin of the females.”

And here you were thinking I was a dum-dum for suggesting the space worm from Star Wars had to have been inspired by the caecilians. You can keep thinking I’m a dum-dum for plenty of other reasons, though.
Other scientists described this approach rather dramatically in a 2008 paper. “Feeding behaviour is quite frenetic with the young frequently tearing pieces of skin by spinning along their long axes and sometimes struggling over the same piece of skin. The mother remains calm during this activity. When the mother has been peeled, the young continue to search for and eat fragments of skin on the substrate.”

The female caecilian’s skin is uniquely adapted to handle being a smorgasbord. Breeding females’ skin is packed with energy-rich lipids (fatty acids), and is constantly replaced so the juveniles have a steady source of food. The frantic feeding event takes only 7 minutes, but just a day and a half later, the skin has regrown and the young can chow down once again. Adorably, juvenile caecilians have baby teeth just like us, only theirs look a bit like shovels—shovels that dig out their mother’s skin.

Not to be outdone, in species where the young develop within their mother, they’ll…gnaw on her uterus. This “stimulates the aggregation of what’s called uterine milk,” says Kleinteich. “Basically, the female keeps producing uterus epithelial cells, which are then scraped off by the developing fetuses in the uterus.” Charming.

This Ichthyophis sp. is one weird-looking bumblebee.
As caecilians mature, though, they lose those baby teeth and grow extremely sharp, conical chompers and become opportunistic hunters. Small varieties probably snap up insects and earthworms (scientists don’t know much about their diets), while bigger species can tackle fish and other amphibians. They’re not the speediest of predators, but they’re voracious.

Caecilians themselves look quite tasty, on account of essentially being squirming tubes of flesh. So some of them have gone and evolved toxic mucus on their skin. And in case you were considering getting one for a roommate, some are apparently so toxic that they’ve reportedly killed other creatures they’ve shared tanks with. “There’s glands in the skin of course for mucus production to keep the skin wet,” says Kleinteich, “but there’s also glands in the skin for toxins and antibiotics to keep bacteria and fungi away.”

Read more at Wired Science

Scientists Are Wrong All the Time, and That’s Fantastic

On February 28, 1998, the eminent medical journal The Lancet published an observational study of 12 children: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive development disorder in children. It might not sound sexy, but once the media read beyond the title, into the study’s descriptions of how those nasty-sounding symptoms appeared just after the kids got vaccinated, the impact was clear: The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine can cause autism.

This was the famous study by Andrew Wakefield, the one that many credit with launching the current hyper-virulent form of anti-vaccination sentiment. Wakefield is maybe the most prominent modern scientist who got it wrong—majorly wrong, dangerously wrong, barred-from-medical-practice wrong.

But scientists are wrong all the time, in far more innocuous ways. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s great.

When a researcher gets proved wrong, that means the scientific method is working. Scientists make progress by re-doing each other’s experiments—replicating them to see if they can get the same result. More often than not, they can’t. “Failure to reproduce is a good thing,” says Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch. “It happens a lot more than we know about.” That could be because the research was outright fraudulent, like Wakefield’s. But there are plenty of other ways to get a bum result—as the Public Libary of Science’s new collection of negative results, launched this week, will highlight in excruciating detail.

You might have a particularly loosey-goosey postdoc doing your pipetting. You might have picked a weird patient population that shows a one-time spike in drug efficacy. Or you might have just gotten a weird statistical fluke. No matter how an experiment got screwed up, “negative results can be extremely exciting and useful—sometimes even more useful than positive results,” says John Ioannidis, a biologist at Stanford who published a now-famous paper suggesting that most scientific studies are wrong.

The problem with science isn’t that scientists can be wrong: It’s that when they’re proven wrong, it’s way too hard for people to find out.

Negative results, like the one that definitively refuted Wakefield’s paper, don’t make the news. Fun game: Bet you can’t name the lead author of that paper. (It’s okay, neither could we. But keep reading to find out!) It’s way easier for journalists to write a splashy headline about a provocative new discovery (guilty) than a glum dismissal of yet another hypothesis, and scientific journals play into that bias all the time as they pick studies to publish.

“All of the incentives in science are aligned against publishing negative results or failures to replicate,” says Oransky. Scientists feel pressure to produce exciting results because that’s what big-name journals want—it doesn’t look great for the covers of Science and Nature to scream “Whoops, we were wrong!”—and scientists desperately need those high-profile publications to secure funding and tenure. “People are forced to claim significance, or something new, extravagant, unusual, and positive,” says Ioannidis.

Plus, scientists don’t like to step on each other’s toes. “They feel a lot of pressure not to contradict each other,” says Elizabeth Iorns, the CEO of Science Exchange. “There’s a lot of evidence that if you do that, it’ll be negative for your career.”

When the politics of scientific publishing prevent negative results from getting out there, science can’t advance, and potentially dangerous errors—whether due to fraud or an honest mistake—go unchecked. Which is why lots of scientific publications, including PLOS, have recently begun to emphasize reproducibility and negative results.

Big-name journals have said they want to make data more transparent and accessible, so scientists can easily repeat analyses. Others, like the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine, are devoted to publishing only negative results. PLOS One’s collection of negative, null, and inconclusive papers, called The Missing Pieces, is now putting the spotlight on papers that contradict previous findings. PLOS thought—and we agree—it’s time to give them the attention they deserve. Negative results, step up:

Vaccines and Autism. Wakefield’s 1998 study reported a possible link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and the onset of autism in children with gastrointestinal problems. More than 20 studies have since ruled out any connection, but they didn’t focus on children with gastrointestinal problems. So in 2008, researchers led by Mady Hornig conducted a case study that did. Again, they found no evidence linking the vaccine with autism.

Psychic Ability. In 2011, Daryl Bem, a psychologist at Cornell, conducted nine experiments that seemed to suggest people could be psychic. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so researchers replicated one of the experiments three times in 2012. As the newer paper states, “all three replication attempts failed to produce significant effects and thus do not support the existence of psychic ability.” Bummer.

Priming and Performance. In a highly cited study from 2001, John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale, found that people who were exposed to words like “strive” or “attain,” did better on a cognitive task. Researchers did two experiments in 2013 to reproduce the original findings. They could not.

Read more at Wired Science

The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress

The original image is in the middle. At left, white-balanced as if the dress is white-gold. At right, white-balanced to blue-black.
Not since Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern has one blue dress been the source of so much consternation.

(And yes, it’s blue.)

The fact that a single image could polarize the entire Internet into two aggressive camps is, let’s face it, just another Thursday. But for the past half-day, people across social media have been arguing about whether a picture depicts a perfectly nice bodycon dress as blue with black lace fringe or white with gold lace fringe. And neither side will budge. This fight is about more than just social media—it’s about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.

Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.” (Neitz sees white-and-gold.)

Usually that system works just fine. This image, though, hits some kind of perceptual boundary. That might be because of how people are wired. Human beings evolved to see in daylight, but daylight changes color. That chromatic axis varies from the pinkish red of dawn, up through the blue-white of noontime, and then back down to reddish twilight. “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.” (Conway sees blue and orange, somehow.)

We asked our ace photo and design team to do a little work with the image in Photoshop, to uncover the actual red-green-blue composition of a few pixels. That, we figured, would answer the question definitively. And it came close.

In the image as presented on, say, BuzzFeed, Photoshop tells us that the places some people see as blue do indeed track as blue. But…that probably has more to do with the background than the actual color. “Look at your RGB values. R 93, G 76, B 50. If you just looked at those numbers and tried to predict what color that was, what would you say?” Conway asks.

So…kind of orange-y?

“Right,” says Conway. “But you’re doing this very bad trick, which is projecting those patches on a white background. Show that same patch on a neutral black background and I bet it would appear orange.” He ran it through Photoshop, too, and now figures that the dress is actually blue and orange.

The point is, your brain tries to interpolate a kind of color context for the image, and then spits out an answer for the color of the dress. Even Neitz, with his weird white-and-gold thing, admits that the dress is probably blue. “I actually printed the picture out,” he says. “Then I cut a little piece out and looked at it, and completely out of context it’s about halfway in between, not this dark blue color. My brain attributes the blue to the illuminant. Other people attribute it to the dress.”

Even WIRED’s own photo team—driven briefly into existential spasms of despair by how many of them saw a white-and-gold dress—eventually came around to the contextual, color-constancy explanation. “I initially thought it was white and gold,” says Neil Harris, our senior photo editor. “When I attempted to white-balance the image based on that idea, though, it didn’t make any sense.” He saw blue in the highlights, telling him that the white he was seeing was blue, and the gold was black. And when Harris reversed the process, balancing to the darkest pixel in the image, the dress popped blue and black. “It became clear that the appropriate point in the image to balance from is the black point,” Harris says.

Read more at Wired Science

Leonard Nimoy, Spock of 'Star Trek,' Dies at 83

Leonard Nimoy has died at the age of 83 at his Los Angeles home. In a statement, his wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, said that he had he sadly succumbed end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an illness he had been battling for the past year.

Famed for his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock in the "Star Trek" original series and Star Trek movies, Nimoy is an inspiration to millions, building a huge fan base over the years. He was also a world-renowned director, photographer, poet and singer.

But of all his artistic roles, I will forever remember his role as the logical and often confounding Spock. His starship adventures with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the Starship Enterprise crew underscored my childhood and, by appearing in eight of the Star Trek movies — from 1979's “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to 2013's “Star Trek: Into Darkness” — I’ve realized that Nimoy’s science fiction work has been with me all my life.

For me, I will always remember his stellar acting role in “The Search for Spock,” the second of a three-movie arc of Star Trek movies that Nimoy also directed. In the movie, the crew of the Starship Enterprise, having mourned the loss of Spock and other crewmembers at the hands of Kirk’s nemesis, Kahn, embark on a voyage to the experiment-gone-wrong planet Genesis to retrieve Spock’s body. The Genesis device had resurrected Spock.

According to the New York Times, Nimoy admitted to developing a “mystical identification” with his character Spock, being the lone alien on the starship’s bridge. But he also expressed ambivalence to always being attached to his most famous creation, writing, in his 1977 autobiography, “In Spock, I finally found the best of both worlds: to be widely accepted in public approval and yet be able to continue to play the insulated alien through the Vulcan character.”

Due to Star Trek’s immense popularity in the late 1970s, science fiction received a huge dose of science fact when NASA named one of its brand new Space Shuttle fleet “Enterprise.” During a famous photo shoot in front of the atmospheric test vehicle, the cast of Star Trek, including Nimoy, DeForest Kelley (Dr. “Bones” McCoy), George Takei (Mr. Sulu), James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) joined Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and NASA administrator James D. Fletcher at the Shuttle’s Palmdale, Calif., manufacturing facilities.

Thirty-five years later, in April 2012, Nimoy was in New York to welcome Space Shuttle Enterprise to the city after the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.

“This is a reunion for me,” Nimoy said during a ceremony after Enterprise’s touchdown at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “Thirty-five years ago, I met the Enterprise for the first time.

“When this ship was first built, it was named Constitution,” Nimoy said. “‘Star Trek’ fans can be very persuasive. They sent a lot of letters to president Gerald Ford and the president logically decided that the ship should be named after our spaceship Enterprise.”

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 26, 2015

Rogue Owl Terrorizing Dutch Town

The northern Dutch town of Purmerend has advised residents to arm themselves with an umbrella when going out at night after a mysterious spate of bloody rogue owl attacks.

Over the last three weeks, the European eagle owl has silently swooped on dozens of residents of the usually peaceful town, with many victims requiring hospital treatment.

The latest aerial assault on Tuesday evening saw two members of a local athletics club attacked, with one runner requiring stitches for six head wounds caused by the nocturnal bird of prey's talons.

The club has cancelled all training until further notice.

Residents and workers at Prinsenstichting home for the handicapped have been left terrified following at least 15 attacks, spokeswoman Liselotte de Bruijn told AFP.

"During the day there's no problem, but at night we now only venture outside armed with umbrellas, helmets and hats, anything really, to protect ourselves," said De Bruijn.

"The problem is that you don't hear the owl before it strikes. Its claws are razor-sharp," she said.

"We hope the city will soon catch this rogue bird."

Purmerend city council said it was trying to find a solution.

"We want to catch the owl as our city's residents are in danger," it said on its website, noting however that the European eagle owl is a protected species that requires special permission to be trapped.

"These procedures can still take some time. Meanwhile, we are advising people to stay away from the owl," the city said, telling night strollers in the area to shield themselves with umbrellas.

Gejo Wassink of the Netherlands' OWN owl foundation said the bird's behaviour was unusual.

"Either the owl was reared in captivity and released into the wild and now associates humans with food -- meaning it's not really 'attacking' people."

"Or it may have heightened hormone levels as the breeding season starts, which influences its behaviour and makes it defend its territory," Wassink told AFP, saying the bird "appears to be a female".

Read more at Discovery News

First Film of Surgery and Use of Anesthesia Identified

An 1899 film showing a rather gory surgical procedure has been confirmed as being the oldest known surviving film of a surgery as well as the oldest known film showing the use of anesthesia.

The film was loaded to YouTube some time ago where it was largely forgotten, but it’s gaining attention now due to the new research that supports the film’s importance. The study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Anesthesia History, notes that multiple film libraries in Europe have confirmed the film’s historical significance.

The movie was made by filmmaker Eugenio Py not long after the invention of motion pictures by the French bothers August Marie Louis Lumière and Louse Lumière, according to author Adolfo Venturini, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.

Venturini, who is also director of the Museum and Historical Library of the Association of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Reanimation of Buenos Aires, explained that the 1899 film shows a male patient having a lung cyst removed. The procedure took place at the old Hospital de Clínicas in Buenos Aires.

Argentine surgeon Alejandro Posadas (1870–1902) performed the surgery, assisted by medical students. One of these assistants, Rodolfo Santiago Roccatagliata, administered anesthesia by sporadically dropping it from a bottle into a mask placed over the patient’s face.

“It is likely that anesthesia was performed with chloroform and (a) hand mask ‘chloroform cone’,” Venturini said. “This handmade mask was widely used in the countries of the New World. At this time period in the Americas, young surgical house officers and medical students were expected to be able to fold their own cones, from a variety of textiles, around a stiff paper or cardboard conical shell.”

Read more at Discovery News

See How Sahara Dust Jets to the Amazon in 3-D

The Amazon rainforest exists in part due to an atmospheric pipeline of dust from the Sahara Desert. And if that pipeline were to dry up or be diverted, massive biological changes could occur across the jungle.

New research published on Tuesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters uses satellite data to create the first three-dimensional look at how dust makes its way across the Atlantic. The findings provide researchers with another clue about how the fate of one of the wettest places on the planet is tied to that of one of the driest.

Winds whipping across the desert and surrounding semi-arid areas kick dust high into the atmosphere for the start of a 6,000-mile trip to the Amazon basin every year. The new research uses recent satellite data covering the period from 2007 to 2013 to show just how massive the dust plume is.

The biggest pulses of dust come in winter and fall when an estimated 27.7 teragrams of dust make the Atlantic crossing. Teragrams not your thing? That’s 182 million tons or equivalent of 498 Empire State Buildings in the estimation of Hongbin Yu, lead author of the new study. Of that, nearly 28 million tons (or 75 Empire State Buildings, if you will) land in the Amazon.

“There have been studies linking dust with the Amazon basin, but how much dust is transported is unknown. It’s been unknown for awhile. You can use a model but models have large uncertainties,” Yu, an atmospheric scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said.

By observing multiple years, Yu’s results show the year-to-year variability in dust transport. In particular, they reveal that when the semi-arid region south of the Sahara, known as the Sahel, has an above normal rainy season during the summer, winter and spring dust transport tends to be lower.

Some research has shown that climate change could mean a wetter Sahel. That could have a downwind effect on the Amazon, which itself is projected to dry out as the world warms.

Kátia Fernandes, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said that this aspect of the study showed one of the main advantages of looking at multiple years in this context. She added that the study was “an important addition to the collection of satellite information available for climate and ecosystem studies.”

Why so much ado about dust in the wind? Because it contains phosphorus, a crucial nutrient that plants need to grow. Amazon soils run a phosphorus deficit as high as 90 percent, with rainfall and rivers washing it out to sea regularly.

Decomposing leaves and plants help recycle some of the phosphorus already in the Amazon, but dust provides a key outside source of the nutrient.

“In the long-term, if you don’t have this then it will keep losing phosphorus. Biodiversity could change or we could see other plant adaptation mechanisms,” Yu said.

Dust and other small particles known as aerosols can also influence weather around the globe, including the Atlantic hurricane season and speed ice melt in Greenland.

The data to create the new 3-D view of dust comes from NASA’s CALIPSO satellite. The satellite has lidar, a laser-based technology, aboard to provide a cross section view of clouds, dust and other particles that get stirred up in the atmosphere.

Circling the globe provides the third dimension to give scientists a view of Sahara dust and its transport to the Amazon basin.

Read more at Discovery News

'Big Brain' Gene Found in Humans, Not Chimps

A single gene may have paved the way for the rise of human intelligence by dramatically increasing the number of brain cells found in a key brain region.

This gene seems to be uniquely human: It is found in modern-day humans, Neanderthals and another branch of extinct humans called Denisovans, but not in chimpanzees.

By allowing the brain region called the neocortex to contain many more neurons, the tiny snippet of DNA may have laid the foundation for the human brain's massive expansion.

"It is so cool that one tiny gene alone may suffice to affect the phenotype of the stem cells, which contributed the most to the expansion of the neocortex," said study lead author Marta Florio, a doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular biology and genetics at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. Still, it's likely this gene is just one of many genetic changes that make human cognition special, Florio said.

An expanding brain

The evolution from primitive apes to humans with complex language and culture has taken millions of years. Some 3.8 million ago, Australopithecus afarensis, the species typified by the iconic early human ancestor fossil Lucy, had a brain that was less than 30 cubic inches (500 cubic centimeters) in volume, or about a third the size of the modern human brain. By about 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus was equipped with a brain that was roughly twice as big as that of Australopithecus. H. erectus also showed evidence of tool and fire use and more complex social groups.

Once anatomically modern humans, and their lost cousins the Neanderthals and Denisovans, arrived on the scene, the brain had expanded to roughly 85 cubic inches (1.4 liters) in volume. Most of this growth occurred in a brain region called the neocortex.

"The neocortex is so interesting because that's the seat of cognitive abilities, which, in a way, make us human — like language and logical thinking," Florio told Live Science.

The neocortex is so large because it is jam-packed with neurons, or brain cells. But what genetic changes ushered in this explosion of neurons?

Single gene

To understand that question, Florio, along with her thesis advisor, Dr. Wieland Huttner, a neurobiologist also at the Max Planck Institute, were studying one type of neural progenitor cell, a stem cell that divides and then forms brain cells during embryonic development. In mice, these cells divide once, and then make neurons. But in humans, these same types of cells divide many times over before forming a huge number of neurons.

Florio isolated this pool of cells, and then analyzed the genes that were turned on in both mice and humans at a stage of peak brain development. (The researchers looked at this process in both 13-week gestation human fetuses whose tissue had been donated by women after abortions and in mice at 14 days gestation.)

The researchers found that a particular gene, called ARHGAP11B, was turned on and highly activated in the human neural progenitor cells, but wasn't present at all in mouse cells. This tiny snippet of DNA, just 804 letters, or bases, long, was once part of a much longer gene, but somehow this fragment was duplicated and the duplicated fragment was inserted into the human genome.

Then the team inserted and expressed (turned on) this DNA snippet in the brains of mice. Though mice normally have a tiny, smooth neocortex, the mice with the gene insertion grew what looked like larger neocortices; these amped-up brain regions contained loads of neurons and some even began forming the characteristic folds, or convolutions, found in the human brain, a geometry that packs a lot of dense brain tissue into a small amount of space. (The researchers did not check to see if the mice actually got smarter, though that is a potential avenue of future research, Florio said).

Read more at Discovery News

Heads Up! Human Head Transplant in the Works

An Italian doctor is moving forward with plans to transplant a human head to another body, reported New Scientist.

Sergio Canavero, from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, told New Scientist that he will announce his project officially in June at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons’ annual meeting.

Canavero has been talking about moving the head of one person to the body of another since 2013 and has presumeably been thinking about it, and its medical and ethical hurdles, far longer.

The first successful head transplant took place in 1970, when the head of a monkey was attached to the body of another by Robert White at Wast Western Reserve University School of Medicine, New Scientist said.

The monkey lived for nine days, until the body rejected the head. Because the spinal column wasn’t attached, though, it couldn’t move. But times have changed, Canavero said.

“I think we are now at a point when the tehcnical aspects are all feasible,” Canavero told New Scientist.

Canavero’s biggest challenge would be to fuse the two spinal cords. He would rely on a substance called polyethylene glycol to do that. The chemical is known to “encourage the fat in cell membranes to mesh,” said New Scientist. Cleanly cutting the cords of both bodies would be key to success, he said.

The new person would then be held in a coma for four months to encourage healing. Canavero said. The candidate could be up and walking after about a year of physiotherapy, he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 25, 2015

Hippos Related to Whales, Fossil Reveals

An ancient relative of the hippopotamus likely swam from Asia to Africa some 35 million years ago, long before the arrival of the lion, rhino, zebra and giraffe, suggests a new study.

Analysis of the previously unknown, long-extinct animal also confirms that cetaceans -- the group to which whales, dolphins and porpoises belong -- are in fact the hippo's closest living cousins.

"The origins of the hippopotamus have been a mystery until now," says study co-author Fabrice Lihoreau, a palaeontologist at France's University of Montpellier.

"Now we can say that hippos came from anthracotheres" -- an extinct group of plant-eating, semi-aquatic mammals with even-toed hooves.

Until now, the oldest known fossil of a hippo ancestor dated from about 20 million years ago, while cetacean remains aged 53 million years have been found.

Scientists had long lumped hippos with the Suidae family of pigs based on palaeontological finds, but DNA later suggested they were the kin of whales instead.

Yet the huge age gap between hippos and cetaceans in the fossil record left experts stumped.

"It meant that either we have never found ancestors of hippos, or we didn't recognise them among the mammal fossils we already had," says Lihoreau.

Now the remains of a 28-million-year-old animal discovered in Kenya has provided an important piece of the puzzle, according to a study in the journal Nature Communications.

Named Epirigenys lokonensis ('epiri' means hippo in the Turkana language and Lokone after the discovery site), it was about the size of a sheep, weighing in at 100 kilograms, which is about a twentieth the size of today's 'common hippopotamus', a sub-Saharan giant.

It may have spent much of its time immersed in water.

E. lokonensis was not a direct forefather of today's hippo, belonging instead to a side branch. But it lived much closer in time to the ancestor from which they both branched off, thus allowing for inferences to be drawn about the ancient animal.

Dental analysis led the team to conclude that E. lokonensis and the hippo both came from an anthracothere forefather, which migrated from Asia to Africa about 35 million years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Prehistoric Crocodile Paradise Discovered in Peru

Northeastern Peru was a crocodile paradise 13 million years ago, as researchers have found the remains of seven different croc species that simultaneously thrived at the once swampy and food-filled site.

The discovery, reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the largest known number of crocodile species to have ever co-existed in one place at any time in Earth’s history.

“We uncovered this special moment in time when the ancient mega-wetland ecosystem reached its peak in size and complexity, just before its demise and the start of the modern Amazon River system,” lead author Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi said in a press release.

“At this moment,” he continued, “most known caiman groups co-existed: ancient lineages bearing unusual blunt snouts and globular teeth along with those more generalized feeders representing the beginning of what was to come.”

The site was so croc-rich because it was also a mollusk haven then, although many of the snails, clams and other small creatures wound up as dinner for the crocodiles.

In the paper, Salas-Gismondi and his team describe the seven croc species, three of which are new to science. The “strangest,” they say, was Gnatusuchus pebasensis. It had globe-shaped teeth and used its snout to shovel through mud bottoms, digging for mollusks.

They also mention the crocodile Paleosuchus, which had a longer and higher snout shape that was suitable for catching a variety of prey, like fish and other active swimming vertebrates.

Today the site is home to a vast rain forest, so the fossils shed light on the region’s swampy past.

Read more at Discovery News

Pharaoh Brutally Killed in Battle, Analysis Shows

Pharaoh Senebkay, one of the earliest kings of a forgotten Abydos Dynasty, was brutally killed in battle more than 3,600 years ago, says a study that has reconstructed, blow by blow, the king’s last moments.

The research identified 18 wounds on the pharaoh’s bones. It also established that Senebkay is the earliest Egyptian pharaoh to have died in battle.

Woseribre Senebkay was unknown to history until last year, when a University of Pennsylvania expedition led by archaeologist Josef Wegner, working with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, found his remains in a four-chambered tomb at South Abydos in Sohag province, about 300 miles south of Cairo.

Texts in the burial, which dates to about 1650 B.C., during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, identified the pharaoh as the “king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay.”

Although ancient robbers had ripped apart the pharaoh’s mummy, researchers led by Wegner, associate director of Egyptian archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, were able to recover and reassemble his skeleton.

The team has now completed a full forensic analysis of the remains.

“The work confirms the earlier estimates of the king’s height at 1.72 to 1.82 m (5’9″ to 6 feet), but indicates that he died at an earlier age, 35-40 years, than initially thought,” Wegner said in a statement.

Most importantly, it emerged that Senebkay suffered a shocking number of wounds before he died in a vicious assault from multiple assailants.

“The king’s skeleton has 18 wounds that penetrated to the bone. The trauma includes major cuts to his feet, ankles, and lower back. Multiple blows to Senebkay’s skull show the distinctive size and curvature of battle axes used during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period,” Wegner said.

According to the researchers, the angle and direction of Senebkay’s wounds indicate he was in an elevated position — possibly on horseback or on a chariot — when he was attacked and killed.

“His assailants first cut his lower back, ankles and feet to bring him to the ground and then finished him with axe blows to the skull,” Wegner said.

He noted that, although use of horseback riding in warfare was not common until after the Bronze Age, the Egyptians appear to have been mastering the use of horses during the Second Intermediate Period.

“Horseback riding may have played a growing role in military movements during this era even before the full advent of chariot technology in Egypt,” he said.

Indeed, analysis of Senebkay’s pelvis and leg bones indicate he spent much of his life as a horse rider.

Senebkay, whose name means “my spirit is healthy,” appears to belong to a short-lived kingdom, the Abydos Dynasty dating ca. 1650-1600 BC. At that time central authority collapsed, giving rise to several small kingdoms.

Read more at Discovery News

'Witchcraft' Used to Fight Sex Trafficking in Africa

The British government is using a powerful new tool in its efforts to end sex trafficking and slavery in Africa: witchcraft — or at least belief in magic.

“The Independent” newspaper recently revealed an innovative method to help West African women who have been forced into sex trafficking:
“Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner is examining radical new plans to prosecute sex traffickers by ‘reversing’ the juju spells that terrorize many of their victims into staying silent. More than 100 Nigerian women were identified last year as having been trafficked into sexual slavery with their obedience ensured by magic rituals that threaten them with infertility or death if they reveal what has happened to them.” 
“The level of terror instilled by juju led British police to spend two years trying to dispel the fears of women so they could give evidence in the first case of its kind in Europe, in 2011.”

The victims are often reluctant to testify in court against those who abducted and forced them into prostitution, in part because of fear of magical retribution. Kevin Hyland, England’s first anti-slavery commissioner has been in contact with anti-trafficking officials in Nigeria who have located witch doctors believed to have placed curses on the victims and forced them to remove the curse or face criminal prosecution.

Using magic — or, more accurately, belief in magic — as a way to stem human trafficking is not only a novel idea, but likely a very effective one. Belief in the power of magic is very strong throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, and many live under the (real or perceived) threat of magical retribution, and the fear that witch doctors — or those who hire them — have power over their fortunes, health and lives. In some cases belief in magic helps spread AIDS in Africa.

Measures that fail to address the victims’ underlying belief system are unlikely to be successful because to the extent that a problem is psychosomatic, the root of the problem will be ignored. It is not helpful for a psychologist to simply tell an obsessive-compulsive sufferer, for example, that he doesn’t have to open and close his front door seven times before entering his home; he will still feel the compulsion to do so regardless of any arguments or evidence that it’s unnecessary.

Disordered thoughts and compulsions can be dampened by medication, but at the end of the day what’s needed to address the root of the problem is a new way of framing or understanding the issue. If the Nigerian women truly believe that they have been cursed, no amount of denying or debunking — especially by foreign British doctors — will convince them otherwise: You have to fight fire with fire, or magic with magic.

Curses and Placebos

Belief in the power of curses is a form of placebo effect, which only works if the patient believes it’s effective. The power of the placebo is strong indeed; it can give pain medications a boost, and even enhance athletic performance; recent research revealed that runners who (wrongly) believed that they were performing with doped blood run faster than they thought they could.

Belief in curses and evil spirits caused singer Olivia Newton-John to have a blessing or cleansing ritual performed on a Florida home she was selling; she was concerned that potential buyers might be scared off by the spirit of a man who’d committed suicide there.

While the idea of curses may seem antiquated or confined to the poor and superstitious Third World, that is not the case. Plenty of wealthy and educated Americans believe in curses, and in fact it is not unusual for self-proclaimed psychics to con their clients into believing that a curse has been placed upon them, and that the psychic can help remove the curse — for a fee, of course.

Read more at Discovery News

Baby Universe Spawned Weirdly Monstrous Black Hole

Astronomers have discovered an out-of-place supermassive black hole -- 12 billion times more massive than the sun -- that inexplicably formed when the universe was less than 900 million years old.

Such behemoths are typically found in the more modern universe, which presumably offers more feeding material. Black holes are regions of space so dense with matter that not even photons of light can escape their gravitational fists. They are detected as they pull and consume nearby stars and dust, creating a cosmic zoo of detectable phenomenon, such gas jets and rapidly spinning accretion disks.

“Before this discovery the most massive black hole known within 1 billion years after the Big Bang was around 5 billion solar mass, less than half the mass of the new detection,” Bram Venemans, research staff scientist with Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

The discovery, reported in this week’s Nature, presents a serious challenge to theories about how black holes grew in the early universe.

Scientists previously estimated young black holes started off with between 100 and 100,000 times the mass of the sun and grew from there by sucking in interstellar matter and/or merging with other black holes.

“It may require either very special ways to grow the black hole within a very short time, or the existence of a huge seed black hole when the first generation of stars and galaxies formed,” lead researcher Xue-Bing Wu, with China’s Peking University in Beijing, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Neither explanation fits with current theories.

“A very interesting aspect of this work is that the results hint that in the early universe the supermassive black holes and their host galaxies did not co-evolve,” said astronomer Akos Bogdan, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved in the research.

It is unlikely the black hole’s host galaxy would be as big as what calculations based on current theories would conclude. “This would suggest that -- at least in this case -- the black hole is growing faster than the galaxy, questioning the often assumed co-evolution of galaxies and their central black holes through cosmic time,” added Venemans.

The newly found black hole resides in an extremely bright quasar that existed when the universe was about 857 million years old – about 6 percent of the universe’s current 13.8-billion-year age.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 24, 2015

Dozens of Mysterious New Craters Found in Siberia

More sinkholes have been spotted by satellite in Siberia, prompting calls for urgent research to confirm what's caused them. One of the large craters, referred to as B2, is surrounded by 20 smaller craters, reported the Siberian Times.

'I would compare this with mushrooms: when you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around," Professor Bogoyavlensky, deputy director of the Moscow-based Oil and Gas Research Institute, told the Siberian Times. "I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more."

Researchers say the craters are likely formed after a gas explosion, but no one has seen what's caused them -- only the result. The crater researchers call B2 is located near one of Russia's largest gas fields.

Last summer, scientists speculated that the craters formed after permafrost melted, collecting under the surface, followed by an explosion of methane gas. Some researchers expressed concern that climate change will make formation of the permafrost sinkholes more common.

"Years of experience has shown that gas emissions can cause serious damage to drilling rigs, oil and gas fields and offshore pipelines," Bogoyavlensky said. "We cannot rule out new gas emissions in the Arctic and in some cases they can ignite."

From Discovery News

Deepest Ocean Water Teems With Life

A few years ago, film director James Cameron spent hours scouring the world’s deepest ocean canyon for any sign of life. He found a few bizarre animals, but it turns out the real action in the Mariana Trench happens beyond the reach of a submersible’s camera.

Researchers from Japan discovered microscopic bacteria thrive in the canyon called Challenger Deep, which is the lowest point on Earth’s surface and the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, the team reports today (Feb. 23) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In particular, they found an unusual community of bacteria there called heterotrophs, or microbes that cannot produce their own food and must eat what they find in the water.

Cameron found that larger life forms were scarce compared to shallow ocean waters. However, the heterotrophic life in Challenger Deep’s waters was relatively abundant, similar to that in untreated well water, said lead study author Takuro Nunoura, a microbiologist with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC).

The average depth of the ocean floor is about 13,120 feet (4,000 meters); its deepest point is in the western Pacific’s Mariana Trench, where the Challenger Deep canyon bottoms out at more than 36,000 feet (nearly 11,000 m) below sea level. All kinds of microscopic life are found in the seafloor at this depth, from bacteria and archaea to yeast and viruses, according to this and other studies.

The heterotrophs in the Challenger Deep likely derive food from sinking particles, such as dissolved fecal pellets or dust, or possibly from geologic processes such as earthquake-triggered landslides, which could send organic-rich sediments tumbling into the canyon’s depths, the researchers said.

“These big slope collapses are rare accidents in terms of human life spans, but they happen very frequently on a geologic timescale, and the release of organic compounds could continue for a very long time,” Nunoura told Live Science.

Recent studies in the Challenger Deep by a separate team also reported that the sediments there host more microbes than the nearby vast, deep ocean floor — called the abyssal plains.

The research team measured the abundance of life and the temperature, salinity and chemistry of seawater from the surface waters above the Mariana Trench to the bottom of the Challenger Deep with a remotely operated vehicle. They found the ocean’s microbial diversity varied with depth. Genetic-fingerprinting techniques identified different microbes based on certain genes, and also indicated the relative abundance of different species.

The ocean’s invisible life was found at all depths, but microbes were most abundant near the surface and on the ocean floor, where they can find the most food. The ocean was stratified into layers, with a warm, salty layer on top and a colder, less salty layer starting about 1,300 feet (400 m) below the surface. The deepest water was about 1 degree Celsius (34 degrees Fahrenheit).

Read more at Discovery News

Using Jupiter as an Alien World Analog

Owing to its size, fascinating chemistry and system of varied moons, Jupiter is one of the most studied planets in the solar system, though many mysteries remain. But a new study has taken a look at the gas giant from a whole different perspective — as an alien, living far beyond the solar system, would see it.

At first it may not seem obvious what a team of astrophysicists at the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands in Tenerife are doing. As Jupiter passed between the sun and its largest moon Ganymede, the researchers, headed by Pilar Montañés-Rodríguez, studied the faint light reflecting off the moon’s surface.

When Jupiter blocks the sunlight from Ganymede’s perspective, some of that sunlight is filtered and scattered through the gas giant’s atmosphere. This scattered light therefore carries some information about what Jupiter’s atmosphere contains.

Now, if we were an alien in a neighboring star system and we saw Jupiter pass in front of the sun, we might want to zoom in on Jupiter to measure the scattered light so we can understand what Jupiter is made of. But from Earth’s perspective, Jupiter never passes between us and the sun, so we can never hope to study the scattered light passing through Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. (Indeed, the only planet with an atmosphere that passes between the sun and Earth is Venus, but the next Venus transit doesn’t occur until the year 2125.)

This is where Ganymede comes in.

During partial eclipse events, as Jupiter blocks sunlight from directly hitting Ganeymede, Montañés-Rodríguez’s team zoomed in on the moon and detected the very faint reflected light that had already passed through Jupiter’s atmosphere and bounced off Ganymede. They are basically using Ganymede as a reflector, allowing us a view of Jupiter we wouldn’t otherwise have ever seen.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile, and the William Herschel Telescope at the La Palma Observatory in Spain’s Canary Islands, the researchers were able to tease-out valuable spectroscopic information from this reflected light, building a picture of Jupiter’s atmospheric composition. And even though Jupiter may be pretty well studied, the team made an unexpected discovery about the solar system’s largest world.

Within the spectroscopic data appears to be some evidence of water ice, a factor that may prove controversial, says Montañés-Rodríguez, as Jupiter is thought to contain very little water. Perhaps this discovery suggests that cometary impacts on Jupiter deposited a layer of water ice that has, until now, evaded detection.

But key to this research is to use Jupiter as an analog exoplanet. As we know — more or less — what the planet is made of, its chemical composition and atmospheric stratification, the researchers hope to use the reflected light from Ganymede during Jovian eclipse events to build a profile of what information the scattered sunlight through a massive planet’s atmosphere contains. By comparing the Jupiter data with exoplanet transit events, we can better understand the signal of refracted and scattered starlight through these alien worlds’ atmospheres.

“It’s an extremely clever idea and spectacularly carried out,” said astronomer Sara Seager, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Read more at Discovery News

Octopus Nabs Crab on Land in Striking Footage

As the saying goes, in life sometimes you're the octopus and sometimes you're the crab. OK, so that's not a terribly common saying -- perhaps instead we could say that sometimes you're shooting video of a crab and an octopus jumps out of the water to eat your subject.

That's what happened in Yallingup, western Australia to Porsche Indrisie. Ms. Indrisie was "randomly filming" a yellow crab in a rock pool, she wrote on her Youtube account, when a crafty octopus lurking just underneath the surface noticed the potential meal at the water's edge and sprang into action.

As seen in the footage below, the octopus pounces on the crab unawares -- steering clear of the crab's claws -- and then drags it backward across the rocks and into the water, where the shell-shocked crustacean doubtless becomes lunch for the multi-armed predator.

How soft octopi kill hard crabs, a regular feature of their diet, is fascinating and grisly. As displayed in this video from Howstuffworks, an octopus first reels in a crab with its suckered arms. Then it bites the crab with its beak, paralyzes it with venom, and gorges on the unlucky creature's innards. All that's left after the meal is an empty shell that used to have a crab in it.

Sometimes, in life, you're the crab that should have been more careful.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 23, 2015

Mysterious, Wavelike Cloud Hugs Grand Tetons

A bizarre sheet of clouds embraced the highest peak in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming last week, enchanting even the park's most seasoned visitors.

The clouds looked like a billowing handkerchief or an ocean’s wave crashing into the mountain. The clouds were so strange they even surprised park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

"I've lived here for almost 40 years, and honestly, I've never seen something last that long and take so many different shapes," Skaggs told Live Science.

Skaggs first spotted the clouds on her morning drive to work. "I watched it the whole drive up and then stood there for about 20 minutes before coming into the building because I couldn't leave it," Skaggs said.

In the late morning, Skaggs was once again pulled from work to watch the majestic clouds. But this time, she grabbed a camera and snapped the above photo of their unique shape. The clouds finally dissipated in the afternoon, she said.

Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, thinks the formations are lenticular clouds. These clouds form when waves of moist, fast-moving air run into the surface of a mountain. The mountain’s jagged topography forces the air upward, which cools and condenses the air, transforming it into a cloud.

They can look like one large, lens-shaped cloud (often mistaken for a UFO); stacks of pancakes atop one another; or an undulating wave, like the one last week.

"These mountains definitely have a magical, spiritual aura about them,” Skaggs said. Their jagged peaks rise as high as 13,775 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level. But without any foothills to obstruct the view, they stand mighty and tall. The Teton Range is part of the Rocky Mountains, which stretch more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) across western North America, from British Columbia, Canada, to New Mexico.

From Discovery News

Dolphins Swam into Mediterranean 18,000 Years Ago

Bottlenose dolphins moved into the Mediterranean, once too salty to harbor much marine life, at the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago, a new study finds.

"It is quite likely that the bottlenose dolphin hasn't actually been in the Mediterranean for long, in terms of the evolutionary time frame," said Andre Moura, one of the study's researchers and a lecturer of life science at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom.

During the last ice age, the Mediterranean was saltier and shallower than it is today, making it a difficult place for marine creatures to live, the researchers said. Even if bottlenose dolphins living in the Atlantic Ocean had ventured into the Mediterranean during that time, they would have been hard-pressed to find food that could survive in such a salty environment.

"Bottlenose are mammals; they're very big," Moura told Live Science. "They need a lot of food to survive and do well."

As glaciers from the last ice age melted into the Mediterranean, the sea became less salty. When fish and other sea creatures moved in, hungry bottlenose dolphins quickly followed, Moura said.

But Moura and his colleagues wanted to learn more than the dolphins' Mediterranean arrival date. Bottlenose dolphins in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, especially in the Adriatic Sea next to Italy, are often killed as bycatch by the fishery industry, said Stefania Gaspari, the study's lead author and a researcher of population genetics at the University of Florence.

"It is crucial to know if, for example, the Adriatic Sea is populated by a single population of bottlenose dolphins or by more than one population," Gaspari told Live Science in an email.

If the Mediterranean has multiple dolphin groups, then it could lose some of its genetic diversity, a large detriment, if a group of dolphins were to die in a region such as the Adriatic Sea, she said.

To investigate, the researchers analyzed tissue samples containing DNA and mitochondrial DNA (genetic material inherited from mothers) from 194 adult bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus).

They compared their results with data on North Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from previous studies. All of the dolphins were related: The bottlenose dolphins in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Sea likely represent a single metapopulation, a large population of animals with regional subgroups that interbreed, the analysis showed.

Each subpopulation preferred a specific area, such as deep open water or a stretch of shallow coastal water. Dolphins that live in deep water are more likely to join coastal populations if the area supports more dolphins, Moura said.

But this source of new dolphins has a limit, he said: If a subpopulation on the coast goes extinct, then the deep-water dolphins will likely try to recolonize the area. Whatever led to the demise of the first subpopulation — overfishing or pollution, for example — may also harm the new colonizers, Moura noted.

For this reason, conservation efforts should focus more on the environment than on the dolphin itself, Moura said.

Read more at Discovery News

Mummified Monk Sits Inside Ancient Buddha Statue

Researchers at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands made a shocking discovery when they imaged an ancient Chinese statue and found a nearly 1,000-year-old mummy inside.

Sitting in the lotus position, the mummy fits within the statue perfectly.

"On the outside, it looks like a large statue of Buddha," the museum said in a release. "Scan research has shown that on the inside, it is the mummy of a Buddhist monk who lived around the year 1100."

Glowing through the statue's golden cast, the human skeleton is believed to belong to Buddhist master Liu Quan, a member of the Chinese Meditation School.

To further investigate the mummy, the researchers took the statue to the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort and carried out an endoscopy and additional CT scans.

They found out that Liu Quan's internal organs had been removed and replaced with scripts covered in Chinese writing.

The museum speculates Liu Quan may have "self-mummified" in order to become a "living Buddha."

Practiced mainly in Japan, self-mummification was a grueling process that required a monk to follow a strict 1,000-day diet of nuts and seeds in order to strip the body of fat. A diet of bark and roots would follow for another 1,000 days.

At the end of this period, the monk began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Japanese varnish tree, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates. The tea caused profuse vomiting as well as a rapid loss of bodily fluids, possibly making the body too poisonous to be eaten by bacteria and insects.

A living skeleton, the monk was then placed in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, which was equipped with an air tube and a bell.

Never moving from the lotus position, the monk would ring the bell each day to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the monk was presumed dead, the air tube removed and the tomb sealed.

After another 1,000 days the tomb would be opened to check whether the monk had been successfully mummified. Of the hundreds of monks that tried this horrifying process, only a few dozen actually became self-mummified and venerated in temples as a Buddha.

Read more at Discovery News

Star Quadruplets Spied Growing Inside Stellar Womb

New observations of a star-forming nebula have revealed four stellar embryos, providing clues as to how multiple star systems evolve.

The majority of stars in our galaxy come in pairs, triplets or even quadruplets, but our sun appears to be a loner. This fact poses an interesting question: if our star is alone, and yet contains a rich multiplanetary system, how do planetary systems evolve in multi-star systems?

In a new study published in the journal Nature this week, Alyssa Goodman, professor of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), reports on the discovery of four embryonic stars slowly forming 825 light-years from Earth. Previously known to contain one protostar, the molecular cloud located in the constellation Perseus apparently contains more stellar siblings.

One of the biggest puzzles in understanding the evolution of multi-star systems is how they formed; did they spawn from the same stellar nursery as true fraternal twins would or did the stars come from different locations only to be gravitationally captured later in their lives? According to theoretical models both ideas are viable.

By studying the radio emissions from the molecular cloud, Goodman’s team discovered “several filamentary gas structures in which they detected three other concentrations,” writes a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory news release.

The researchers believe that these gas concentrations, which are two-to-three times more massive than the known protostar, are collapsing under mutual gravity. In other words, stellar quadruplets are coalescing and three of these newly-detected star embryos will likely undergo nuclear fusion in their cores, becoming baby stars, in roughly 40,000 years time. In cosmic timescales, this particular stellar womb is teetering on the edge of giving birth.

Most interesting is the scale of the region. The system measures only 10,000 astronomical units (AU) across — where 1 AU is the average distance between the Earth and sun. For scale, all four stellar embryos would fit easily within the boundaries of our solar system, where the outermost boundary is the Oort Cloud, a hypothetical region containing billions of cometary nuclei surrounding our sun. The inner Oort Cloud’s outermost boundary is 20,000 AU from the sun.

Their close proximity means that all four stars are gravitationally interacting and velocity measurements confirms this possibility.

Read more at Discovery News

What Black Hole Winds Tell You about Galaxies

This illustration shows gusts of charged particles streaming in all directions from a black hole at the center of a galaxy.
Black holes suck. Their gravitational pull is so powerful that black holes famously grab anything near them in space—even light. But black holes also, it turns out, blow. If they’re gobbling up any nearby matter, black holes actually stream charged subatomic particles. And that, astronomers now say, has huge consequences for the life of nearby stars and the shape of whole galaxies.

Supermassive black holes like the ones at the center of some galaxies are surrounded by gas and dust spiraling into the maw. As all that stuff gets pulled in, the pieces rub against each other. That friction becomes energy, radiation that turns the atoms of the dust-disc into charged particles. All that stuff then rushes outward at speeds approaching a third of the speed of light. “We’ve known for a while now that every galaxy like the Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its heart, and we also know there’s a connection between the mass of the black hole and the mass of the galaxy,” says Fiona Harrison, an astronomer at Caltech who worked on the new research. “But it’s a mystery why. One hypothesis is that through blows like this, black holes can actually affect galaxies on large scales.”

That expanding bubble of ions packs a serious punch—like about 10 trillion suns’ worth. It blows away the random bits of gas and dust always hanging around a galactic core. But gas and dust are the raw materials for building new stars. Once it’s gone: No more new stars.

Harrison and her colleagues were looking at x-ray data from a black hole 2 billion light years away, in the heart of a quasar unpoetically called PDS 456. Earlier observations from a space telescope called XMM-Newton, in orbit between Earth and the moon, revealed the wind, but blowing more narrowly. Adding in data from a telescope in low-Earth orbit, NuSTAR, showed the wind blowing outward in every direction. The scientists had never seen that before. “We’re trying to tell the narrative story of galaxy formation,” says Roger Blandford, an astrophysicist at Stanford University. “We understand quite a lot of the physics, but it has to be guided by observations. This is a good measurement that will help along the way.”

From Wired Science

Feb 22, 2015

Newborn neurons in adult brain may help us adapt to environment

The discovery that the human brain continues to produce new neurons in adulthood challenged a major dogma in the field of neuroscience, but the role of these neurons in behavior and cognition is still not clear. In a review article published by Cell Press February 21st in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Maya Opendak and Elizabeth Gould of Princeton University synthesize the vast literature on this topic, reviewing environmental factors that influence the birth of new neurons in the adult hippocampus, a region of the brain that plays an important role in memory and learning.

The authors discuss how the birth of such neurons may help animals and humans adapt to their current environment and circumstances in a complex and changing world. They advocate for testing these ideas using naturalistic designs, such as allowing laboratory rodents to live in more natural social burrow settings and observing how circumstances such as social status influence the rate at which new neurons are born.

"New neurons may serve as a means to fine-tune the hippocampus to the predicted environment," Opendak says. "In particular, seeking out rewarding experiences or avoiding stressful experiences may help each individual optimize his or her own brain. However, more naturalistic experimental conditions may be a necessary step toward understanding the adaptive significance of neurons born in the adult brain."

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that environmental influences have a profound effect on the adult brain in a wide range of mammalian species. Stressful experiences, such as restraint, social defeat, exposure to predator odors, inescapable foot shock, and sleep deprivation, have been shown to decrease the number of new neurons in the hippocampus. By contrast, more rewarding experiences, such as physical exercise and mating, tend to increase the production of new neurons in the hippocampus.

The birth of new neurons in adulthood may have important behavioral and cognitive consequences. Stress-induced suppression of adult neurogenesis has been associated with impaired performance on hippocampus-dependent cognitive tasks, such as spatial navigation learning and object memory. Stressful experiences have also been shown to increase anxiety-like behaviors that are associated with the hippocampus. In contrast, rewarding experiences are associated with reduced anxiety-like behavior and improved performance on cognitive tasks involving the hippocampus.

Although scientists generally agree that our day-to-day actions change our brains even in adulthood, there is some disagreement on the adaptive significance of new neurons. For instance, the literature presents mixed findings on whether new neurons generated under a specific experimental condition are geared toward the recognition of that particular experience or if they provide a more naive pool of new neurons that enable environmental adaptation in the future.

Gould and her collaborators recently proposed that stress-induced decreases in new neuron formation might improve the chances of survival by increasing anxiety and inhibiting exploration, thereby prioritizing safety and avoidant behavior at the expense of performing optimally on cognitive tasks. On the other hand, reward-induced increases in new neuron number may reduce anxiety and facilitate exploration and learning, leading to greater reproductive success.

"Because the past is often the best predictor of the future, a stress-modeled brain may facilitate adaptive responses to life in a stressful environment, whereas a reward-modeled brain may do the same but for life in a low-stress, high-reward environment," says Gould, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University.

However, when aversive experiences far outnumber rewarding ones in both quantity and intensity, the system may reach a breaking point and produce a maladaptive outcome. For example, repeated stress produces continued reduction in the birth of new neurons, and ultimately the emergence of heightened anxiety and depressive-like symptoms.

"Such a scenario could represent processes that are engaged under pathological conditions and may be somewhat akin to what humans experience when exposed to repeated traumatic stress," Opendak says.

Read more at Science Daily

The Hills Have Ice... on Mars, That Is

Scientists have been hunting for evidence of water on Mars ever since they started looking at the Red Planet through telescopes. But Mars does have water, and lots of it; solid water in the form of ice locked up in its polar caps and buried under its surface. And, if observations made by ESA’s Mars Express are indicative of similar processes seen on Earth, these ancient hills may also hide hidden deposits of ice.

The image above shows an oblique view of the southernmost tip of a long chain of hills in Mars’ northern hemisphere called Phlegra Montes, generated from data acquired by the High Resolution Stereo Camera aboard ESA’s Mars Express. The resolution is about 15 meters (50 feet) per pixel.

These rounded hills are thought to have once been covered by thick glaciers during a Martian ice age a few hundred million years ago. Like Earth, Mars’ rotational axis has a “wobble” that affects its global climate over long periods. While there are no glaciers in Mars’ mid-latitudes today, geologic evidence indicates there once were – and the shape of the surface around Phlegra Montes hints that there could still be ice just 20 meters underground.

Aprons of debris surrounding some of the hills resemble those found in glacial regions on Earth, where subsurface ice causes material to slump downhill.

The search for water on Mars is important to scientists who are trying to figure out how Mars may have gone from a warmer, wet world to the cold dry one we see today. Learning where the water has gone and how much of it is remains liquid or is now frozen solid is part of that process.

In addition, future long-term human exploration of Mars will rely on knowledge of where any potential sources of water might be found.

Launched aboard a Russian Soyuz/Fregat rocket on June 2, 2003, Mars Express has been in orbit at Mars since Dec. 25, 2003.

Read more at Discovery News