May 28, 2016

Doubling down on Schrödinger's cat

Yale physicists have given Schrödinger's cat a second box to play in.
Yale physicists have given Schrödinger's famous cat a second box to play in, and the result may help further the quest for reliable quantum computing.

Schrödinger's cat is a well-known paradox that applies the concept of superposition in quantum physics to objects encountered in everyday life. The idea is that a cat is placed in a sealed box with a radioactive source and a poison that will be triggered if an atom of the radioactive substance decays. Quantum physics suggests that the cat is both alive and dead (a superposition of states), until someone opens the box and, in doing so, changes the quantum state.

This hypothetical experiment, envisioned by one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics in 1935, has found vivid analogies in laboratories in recent years. Scientists can now place a wave-packet of light composed of hundreds of particles simultaneously in two distinctly different states. Each state corresponds to an ordinary (classical) form of light abundant in nature.

A team of Yale scientists created a more exotic type of Schrödinger's cat-like state that has been proposed for experiments for more than 20 years. This cat lives or dies in two boxes at once, which is a marriage of the idea of Schrödinger's cat and another central concept of quantum physics: entanglement. Entanglement allows a local observation to change the state of a distant object instantaneously. Einstein once called it "spooky action at a distance," and in this case it allows a cat state to be distributed in different spatial modes.

The Yale team built a device consisting of two, 3D microwave cavities and an additional monitoring port -- all connected by a superconducting, artificial atom. The "cat" is made of confined microwave light in both cavities.

"This cat is big and smart. It doesn't stay in one box because the quantum state is shared between the two cavities and cannot be described separately," said Chen Wang, a postdoctoral associate at Yale and first author of a study in the journal Science, describing the research. "One can also take an alternative view, where we have two small and simple Schrodinger's cats, one in each box, that are entangled."

The research also has potential applications in quantum computation. A quantum computer would be able to solve certain problems much faster than classical computers by exploiting superposition and entanglement. Yet one of the main problems in developing a reliable quantum computer is how to correct for errors without disturbing the information.

"It turns out 'cat' states are a very effective approach to storing quantum information redundantly, for implementation of quantum error correction. Generating a cat in two boxes is the first step towards logical operation between two quantum bits in an error-correctible manner," said co-author Robert Schoelkopf, Sterling Professor of Applied Physics and Physics, and director of the Yale Quantum Institute.

Read more at Science Daily

Antarctic fossils reveal creatures weren't safer in the south during dinosaur extinction

A study of more than 6,000 marine fossils from the Antarctic shows that the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs was sudden and just as deadly to life in the polar regions.

Previously, scientists had thought that creatures living in the southernmost regions of the planet would have been in a less perilous position during the mass extinction event than those elsewhere on Earth.

The research, published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved a six-year process of identifying more than 6,000 marine fossils ranging in age from 69- to 65-million-years-old that were excavated by scientists from the University of Leeds and the British Antarctic Survey on Seymour Island in the Antarctic Peninsula.

This is one of the largest collections of marine fossils of this age anywhere in the world. It includes a wide range of species, from small snails and clams that lived on the sea floor, to large and unusual creatures that swam in the surface waters of the ocean. These include the ammonite Diplomoceras, a distant relative of modern squid and octopus, with a paperclip-shaped shell that could grow as large as 2 metres, and giant marine reptiles such as Mosasaurus, as featured in the film Jurassic World.

With the marine fossils grouped by age, the collection shows a dramatic 65-70% reduction in the number of species living in the Antarctic 66 million years ago -- coinciding exactly with the time when the dinosaurs and many other groups of organisms worldwide became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

James Witts, a PhD student in the University's School of Earth and Environment and lead author of the new research paper said: "Our research essentially shows that one day everything was fine -- the Antarctic had a thriving and diverse marine community -- and the next, it wasn't. Clearly, a very sudden and catastrophic event had occurred on Earth.

"This is the strongest evidence from fossils that the main driver of this extinction event was the after-effects of a huge asteroid impact, rather than a slower decline caused by natural changes to the climate or by severe volcanism stressing global environments."

The study is the first to suggest that the mass extinction event was just as rapid and severe in the polar regions as elsewhere in the world.

Previously, scientists had thought that organisms living near the Poles were far enough away from the cause of the extinction to be badly affected -- whether this was an asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico, where a giant buried impact crater is found today, or extreme volcanism in the Deccan volcanic province in India. Furthermore, it had been proposed that animals and plants in the polar regions would have been more resilient to global climatic changes associated with an asteroid impact as a result of living in environments that were always strongly seasonal. For example, life near the Poles has to adapt to living in darkness for half of the year and to an irregular food supply.

Professor Jane Francis from the British Antarctic Survey, a co-author of the study, said: "These Antarctic rocks contain a truly exceptional assemblage of fossils that have yielded new and surprising information about the evolution of life 66 million years ago. Even the animals that lived at the ends of the Earth close to the South Pole were not safe from the devastating effects of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period."

While some previous studies have suggested that the demise of the dinosaurs and other groups was gradual, many scientists argue that the dinosaur fossil record in particular is patchy, and cannot compete with marine fossils in terms of quantity and biodiversity.

Read more at Science Daily

May 27, 2016

Alternative odor receptors discovered in mice

This visual abstract depicts the discovery that chemosensory receptors in a subset of mammalian olfactory sensing neurons are structurally distinct from GPCRs, and multiple subtypes are expressed per neuron, implying an unexpected mechanism for olfactory detection and decoding.
Smell in mammals turns out to be more complex than we thought. Rather than one receptor family exclusively dedicated to detecting odors, a study in mice reports that a group of neurons surrounding the olfactory bulb use an alternative mechanism for catching scents. These "necklace" neurons, as they're called, use this newly discovered olfactory detection system to respond to odors that elicit instinctive responses, such as pheromones and the smell of seeds and nuts. Harvard researchers report the finding May 26 in Cell.

"Our work suggests that mammalian mechanisms for smell are not monolithic in terms of mechanism or logic, but rather can take many forms and can be mediated by multiple types of receptors," says senior author Sandeep Robert Datta, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. "These findings revise our canonical view of how animals probe the chemical environment."

Nobel Prize-winning work back in 1991 showed that, in mammals, each sensory neuron in the main olfactory system expresses one type of G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR), which is specialized to detect a specific type of odor. The pattern of activity of all sensory neurons in the olfactory system allows us to distinguish between different odors present in the environment. This one-GPCR-per-neuron pattern also exists in the vomeronasal olfactory system, which is specialized for recognizing pheromones, suggesting a common and general logic for processing smell. Yet, a third olfactory system consisting of necklace neurons, so-called due to the unique circular pattern of their projections to the brain, also responds to diverse odors. It has not been clear which receptors are expressed by these neurons and what role they play in odor perception.

In the new study, Datta and his team discovered that necklace neurons in mice do not express GPCRs, unlike all other types of olfactory sensory neurons in mammals. Rather, these neurons express the MS4A class of proteins, which were previously not known to play a role in odor perception. Moreover, each necklace neuron expresses multiple types of MS4A receptors, in stark contrast to the one-receptor-per-neuron rule that organizes insect and other mammalian olfactory systems. These receptors respond to fatty acids that are specifically found in nuts and seeds, as well as a pheromone known to be aversive to mice.

"This discovery strongly suggests that the brain must be interpreting information from these receptors using a very different strategy from the one used by the brain to discriminate most odors," Datta says. "We speculate--but don't have the evidence to back this idea yet--that the MS4As are used as a kind of alert system for the brain, letting it know that something of real importance is out there in the world, but not telling the brain explicitly what that thing is."

By analyzing differences between Ms4a genes across mammalian species, the researchers found that the evolution of these genes preceded the advent of the mammalian receptors for taste and for pheromones. "The fact that the MS4As have been preserved for at least 400 million years suggests that these receptors play a crucial role in enabling animals to interact with the olfactory environment," Datta says.

In humans, MS4A receptors have previously been found in the intestines, lung cells, and even sperm cells. Based on the pattern of expression of MS4A receptors in different tissues, and the type of odors they detect, Datta suspects that MS4A molecules represent an ancient mechanism for sensing ethologically salient small molecules in the environment. "It is possible that this is the main function of the MS4As across species, and that the olfactory function of the MS4As is actually more recently evolved," Datta says.

For now, it is not clear whether MS4As in humans serve as odor receptors. In future studies, Datta and his team will examine whether MS4A proteins act as a primordial odor receptor across species. "This would be incredibly interesting, as it would suggest that many animals have a kind of hidden nose we were unaware of buried within their main olfactory system," Datta says.

Read more at Science Daily

Astronomers find giant planet around very young star

This false-color image from a sub-millimeter interferometric telescope shows the circumstellar disk of gas and dust that surrounds star CI Tau.
In contradiction to the long-standing idea that larger planets take longer to form, U.S. astronomers today announced the discovery of a giant planet in close orbit around a star so young that it still retains a disk of circumstellar gas and dust.

"For decades, conventional wisdom held that large Jupiter-mass planets take a minimum of 10 million years to form," said Christopher Johns-Krull, the lead author of a new study about the planet, CI Tau b, that will be published in the Astrophysical Journal. "That's been called into question over the past decade, and many new ideas have been offered, but the bottom line is that we need to identify a number of newly formed planets around young stars if we hope to fully understand planet formation."

CI Tau b is at least eight times larger than Jupiter and orbits a 2 million-year-old star about 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. Johns-Krull and a dozen co-authors from Rice, Lowell Observatory, the University of Texas at Austin, NASA and Northern Arizona University made the peer-reviewed study available online this week.

Earth and the sun are more than 4 billion years old, and while the 3,300-plus catalog of exoplanets includes some older and some younger than Earth, the obstacles to finding planets around newly formed stars are varied and daunting, Johns-Krull said. There are relatively few candidate stars that are young enough, bright enough to view in sufficient detail with existing telescopes and still retain circumstellar disks of gas and dust from which planets form. Stars so young also are often active, with visual outbursts and dimmings, strong magnetic fields and enormous starspots that can make it appear that planets exist where they do not.

CI Tau b orbits the star CI Tau once every nine days. The planet was found with the radial velocity method, a planet-hunting technique that relies upon slight variations in the velocity of a star to determine the gravitational pull exerted by nearby planets that are too faint to observe directly with a telescope. The discovery resulted from a survey begun in 2004 of 140 candidate stars in the star-forming region Taurus-Auriga.

"This result is unique because it demonstrates that a giant planet can form so rapidly that the remnant gas and dust from which the young star formed, surrounding the system in a Frisbee-like disk, is still present," said Lisa Prato of Lowell Observatory, co-leader of the young planet survey and a co-author on the paper. "Giant planet formation in the inner part of this disk, where CI Tau b is located, will have a profound impact on the region where smaller terrestrial planets are also potentially forming."

Additional team members were Patrick Hartigan, Naved Mahmud, Wei Chen, Wilson Cauley and Joshua Jones, all of Rice; Christopher Crockett and Brian Skiff of Lowell Observatory; Daniel Jaffe, Jacob McLane and Gregory Mace of the University of Texas at Austin; and Charles Beichman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Cauley is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan University, and Crockett now writes for Science News.

The team observed CI Tau dozens of times from the University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas; the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.; the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the Keck II telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and the Kitt Peak National Observatory's 2.1- and 4-meter telescopes in southern Arizona.

Initial optical radial velocity data from McDonald Observatory confirmed that a planet might be present, and the team added photometry measurements from Lowell and five years of infrared observations from Hawaii, Kitt Peak and McDonald to rule out the possibility that the optical signal resulted from starspots or another masking phenomenon.

Johns-Krull said the team has examined about half of the young stars in the Taurus-Auriga survey sample, and the data from several of these suggest that more planets may be found.

Read more at Science Daily

Number of habitable planets could be limited by stifling atmospheres

Rendering of a possible alien Exo-planet. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
New research has revealed that fewer than predicted planets may be capable of harboring life because their atmospheres keep them too hot.

When looking for planets that could harbor life, scientists look for planets in the 'habitable zones' around their stars - at the right distance from the stars to allow water to exist in liquid form. Traditionally, this search has focused on looking for planets orbiting stars like our Sun, in a similar way to Earth.

However, recent research has turned to small planets orbiting very close to stars called M dwarfs, or red dwarfs, which are much smaller and dimmer than the Sun. M dwarfs make up around 75 per cent of all the stars in our galaxy, and recent discoveries have suggested that many of them host planets, pushing the number of potentially habitable planets into the billions.

This month, both the TRAPPIST and Kepler planet-hunting telescopes have announced the discovery of multiple near-Earth-sized planets orbiting M dwarf stars, some within the habitable zones.

New research from Imperial College London and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, has revealed that although they orbit smaller and dimmer stars, many of these planets might still be too hot to be habitable.

The scientists suggest that some of the planets might still be habitable, but only those with a smaller mass than Earth, comparable to Venus or Mars.

Dr James Owen, Hubble Fellow and lead author of the study from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, said: "It was previously assumed that planets with masses similar to Earth would be habitable simply because they were in the 'habitable zone'. However, when you consider how these planets evolve over billions of years this assumption turns out not to be true."

It was known previously that many of these planets are born with thick atmospheres of hydrogen and helium, making up roughly one percent of the total planetary mass. In comparison, the Earth's atmosphere makes up only a millionth of its mass. The greenhouse effect of such a thick atmosphere would make the surface far too hot for liquid water, rendering the planets initially uninhabitable.

However, it was thought that over time, the strong X-ray and ultraviolet radiation from the parent M dwarf star would evaporate away most of this atmosphere, eventually making the planets potentially habitable.

The new analysis reveals that this is not the case. Instead, detailed computer simulations show that these thick hydrogen and helium envelopes cannot escape the gravity of planets that are similar to or larger in mass than the Earth, meaning that many of them are likely to retain their stifling atmospheres.

However, all is not lost, according to the researchers. While most of the M dwarf planets that are Earth-mass or heavier would retain thick atmospheres, smaller planets, comparable to Venus or Mars, could still lose them to evaporation.

Read more at Science Daily

Close encounters of a tidal kind could lead to cracks on icy moons

A new model developed by University of Rochester researchers could offer a new explanation as to how cracks on icy moons, such as Pluto's Charon, formed.

Until now, it was thought that the cracks were the result of geodynamical processes, such as plate tectonics, but the models run by Alice Quillen and her collaborators suggest that a close encounter with another body might have been the cause.

Astronomers have long known that the craters visible on moons were caused by the impact of other bodies, billions of years ago. But for every crash and graze, there would have been many more close encounters. By devising and running a new computer model, Quillen, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester, has now shown that the tidal pull exerted by another, similar object could be strong enough to crack the surface of such icy moons. Quillen also thinks that "it might even offer a possible explanation for the crack on Mars, but that's much harder to model."

Icy moons exhibit what is know as brittle elastic behavior, which Quillen says most resembles "silly putty."

"If you take silly putty and throw it on the floor it bounces -- that's the elastic part," said Quillen. "But if you pull on it rapidly and hard enough, it breaks apart."

To simulate the behavior, Quillen modeled the icy moons as if their interior was made up of many bodies connected by springs (an N-body problem with springs). While N-body problems are often used to understand the effect of gravity on planets and stars, N-body problems had never been used to model the inside of an astronomical body, in this case the moons. Other models for icy moons used what are known as "rubble pile models."

"I was inspired by computer graphics code in how to model the icy moons," said Quillen. "The inside of the moons is similar to how blood splatter is modeled in games and the outer, icy crust is similar to modeling clothes and how they move. But I had to ensure the code matched the underlying physics!"

To ensure her model took into account the right properties for the materials that make up the moons, she worked with earth sciences Professor Cynthia Ebinger.

"I jumped at the opportunity to consider a novel alternative to plate tectonics, the governing theory to explain earthquakes, volcanoes and moving plates on Earth," said Ebinger. "My role was to provide some checks and balances to Alice's modeling and the choice of model parameters."

In the paper, to be published by the journal Icarus, Quillen states that "strong tidal encounters" may be responsible for the cracks on icy moons such as Charon, Saturn's Dione and Tethys, and Uranus' Ariel.

The key factor in determining if a crack is going to occur is the strain rate, the rate of pull from another body that would have caused the moons to deform at a rate that the top, icy layer could not sustain -- leading to cracks.

Read more at Science Daily

May 26, 2016

High altitude archaeology: Prehistoric paintings revealed

The paintings at the Abri Faravel. Two groups of roughly parallel lines, and two animals facing one another. (a) Normal light image; (b) Zoom of paintings -- colours enhanced with DStretch with the YBR matrix.
Archaeologists at the University of York have undertaken pioneering scans of the highest prehistoric paintings of animals in Europe.

Studying the rock paintings of Abri Faravel, a rock shelter in the Southern French Alps 2,133m above sea level, archaeologists used car batteries to power laser and white-light scanners in a logistically complex operation.

Producing virtual models of the archaeological landscape, researchers have now published the scans in Internet Archaeology -- an online, open-access journal.

Abri Faravel was discovered fortuitously in 2010. The rock shelter has seen phases of human activity from the Mesolithic to the medieval period, with its prehistoric rock paintings known to be the highest painted representations of animals (quadrupeds) in Europe.

The study of Abri Faravel and its paintings is part of a wider collaborative project between the University of York and the Centre Camille Jullian, Aix-en-Provence, France. Undertaking research in the Parc National des E?crins, the long-running study investigates the development of human activity over the last 8,000 years at high altitude in the Southern Alps.

Research conducted so far includes the excavation of a series of stone animal enclosures and human dwellings considered some of the most complex high altitude Bronze Age structures. Artefacts found in Abri Faravel also include Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools, Iron Age hand-thrown pottery, a Roman fibula and some medieval metalwork.

However, the paintings are the most unique feature of the site, revealing a story of human occupation and activity in one of the world's most challenging environments from the Mesolithic to Post-Medieval period.

Dr Kevin Walsh, Senior Lecturer in York's Department of Archaeology and project lead, said: "After years of research in this valley, the day we discovered these paintings was undeniably the highlight of the research programme.

"Whilst we thought that we might discover engravings, such as in the Vallée des Merveilles to the south-east, we never expected to find prehistoric paintings in this exposed area that affords so few natural shelters.

Read more at Science Daily

Supermassive black holes in 'red geyser' galaxies cause galactic warming

An international team of scientists, including the University of Kentucky's Renbin Yan, have uncovered a new class of galaxies, called "red geysers," with supermassive black hole winds so hot and energetic that stars can't form.

Over the last few billion years, a mysterious kind of "galactic warming" has caused many galaxies to change from a lively place where new stars formed every now and then to a quiet place devoid of fresh young stars. But the mechanism that produces this dramatic transformation and keeps galaxies quiet has been one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in galaxy evolution.

"These galaxies have the necessary ingredients for forming new stars but they are not doing it -- why?" said Yan, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at UK.

Researchers compare it to having deserts in densely clouded regions; rain and vegetation would be expected, not a barren landscape. Yan and astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) are solving the mystery in a study published today in Nature, announcing the discovery of the red geysers.

Red geysers are old galaxies hosting low-energy supermassive black holes which drive intense interstellar winds. These winds suppress star formation by heating up the ambient gas found in galaxies and preventing it from cooling and condensing into stars.

Yan, also the survey scientist for the survey called Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA), was working with the international team, including lead author Edmond Cheung of the University of Tokyo, to study hundreds of galaxies when they caught a supermassive black hole blasting away at the cold gas in its host galaxy.

"With MaNGA's technological upgrade to the Sloan Foundation Telescope, we can make detailed maps of galaxies ten to a hundred times faster than we could just ten years ago," Yan said.

Yan and his team at MaNGA are mapping the details of 10,000 nearby galaxies -- the largest survey yet of its kind -- with the goal to understand the galaxies' life cycles. Unlike previous SDSS surveys, they are not only mapping the centers of galaxies where supermassive black holes live, but the outer edges of the galaxies as well, which allowed them to discover the red geyser galaxy.

The winds powered by these supermassive black holes could come and go quickly. It is difficult to catch the moment they show up. "Since MaNGA studies so many galaxies, our snapshots can reveal even the quickest changes to galaxies," Yan said. "And that's how we found Akira."

"Akira," an example of a red geyser galaxy nicknamed by Cheung, has a companion galaxy that called "Tetsuo." Akira is pulling gas away from Tetsuo, which fuels Akira's supermassive black hole. The winds driven by the black hole are the reason that Akira is currently a red geyser galaxy.

Read more at Science Daily

Some Sharks Worry While Others Take Risks

Yes, sharks got personality too.

Striking personality differences have just been observed in Port Jackson sharks, which are relatively common sharks in the waters off of southern Australia, including near Port Jackson.

The study, published in the Journal of Fish Biology, adds to the growing body of evidence that shark individuals of many, if not all, species are distinct, unique beings just as no two humans are exactly the same.

"Over the past few decades, personality research has shown that nearly 200 species of animals demonstrate individual personality," lead author Evan Byrnes of Macquarie University said in a press release. "Personality is no longer considered a strictly human characteristic, rather it is a characteristic deeply ingrained in our evolutionary past."

Personality in humans helps to define who we are and how likely we are to respond to certain situations. Some people tend to be bold risk takers, for example, while others are often more wary and careful. Prior research suggests that such inclinations are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Many aspects of behavior are relatively stable and predictable over time, and it is these general consistencies that define someone's personality.

The researchers designed trials to test the sharks' boldness, which is a measure of the propensity to take risks, but it also influences individual health through its correlation with stress hormones and more. Seventeen juvenile male and female Port Jackson sharks were caught at different locations within their habitat for the study.

 At first the sharks were introduced to a tank where they were provided with shelter, and timed to see how long it took for each shark to emerge from their refuge box into a new environment.

For the second test, the researchers held each shark with two hands from underneath for just a minute before release. Byrnes and co-author Culum Brown then noted how quickly the sharks recovered from this bit of stress.

Read more at Discovery News

Mars to Make Closest Approach in 11 Years

This Monday evening (May 30) at 5:35 p.m. EDT, Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth since Oct. 5, 2005.

Last Sunday morning (May 22), Mars reached opposition with the sun, meaning the Red Planet, Earth and the sun were all arrayed in a straight line. But the moment did not mark Mars' closest approach to Earth.

This Monday evening (May 30) at 5:35 p.m. EDT (2135 GMT), Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth since Oct. 5, 2005: 0.50321377 astronomical units (AU), or 46,762,695 miles (75,279,709 kilometers). (One AU is the average distance from Earth to the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million km.)

Opposition and closest Earth approach occur on different days because the orbit of Mars is elliptical. When opposition occurred May 22, Mars was still approaching Earth on its orbital track, and will not reach minimum distance to Earth until May 30. After 5:35 p.m. EDT on that date, Mars will begin to recede from Earth.

The graphic shows how Mars would appear viewed with a superb telescope at the exact instant of closest approach. The landing site of NASA's Opportunity rover is just rotating out of sight on the Red Planet's eastern limb, and the solar system's highest volcano, Olympus Mons, is just coming into view on the western limb. Mars' Valles Marineris, far larger and deeper than Earth's Grand Canyon, is close to the center of the disk, and the dusky Acidalia Planitia is high to the north, close to the small north polar cap.

What can you see with an ordinary amateur telescope? Very little, I'm afraid. You might see a hint of the polar cap, and a few dusky shadings. Astronomers studying Mars from Earth use a slightly different terminology. Acidalia Planitia is known as the Mare Acidalium, the dark area to the southeast of the Valles Marineris as the Mare Erythraeum, and the dark area just south of Marineris is called Solis Lacus. These older names are, like the "seas" and "lakes" on the moon, imaginary bodies of water on a dry world.

When lighting conditions are exactly right, Olympus Mons can be spotted by keen-eyed observers on Earth, but the mighty Valles Marineris has never been seen from here (although the huge canyon complex has been mapped in detail by satellites in orbit around Mars).

 Regular observers of Mars soon become familiar with the normal patterns of light and dark on its surface, known as "albedo markings." If you observe Mars over a few hours, you will see these markings appear to move slowly across the disk, as Mars rotates just slightly more slowly than Earth, a full rotation taking 24 hours, 37 minutes and 23 seconds. Because of Mars' slightly longer day, if you observe Mars at the same time on successive nights, the markings will seem to move.

Sometimes the albedo markings seem to change shape. Usually this is caused by gigantic dust storms sweeping across the face of Mars. Recently, British amateur astronomer Damian Peach reprocessed a number of old images made of Mars in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, using modern image-processing techniques. Peach's work revealed amazing detail not visible in the original images, and some of this detail has shown clear changes from back then to modern times. It is thought that these changes result from the shifting sands of Mars over the decades.

Read more at Discovery News

May 25, 2016

Armored Dino's Best Defense Was a Nose for Trouble

An early armored dinosaur that lived in what is now Texas lacked the weaponized tail of a famous cousin, but it made up for it with a sense of smell that found food and sniffed out trouble.

The dino, Pawpawsaurus campbelli, lived around 100 million years ago, and researchers have reported their findings on the first-ever CT scans on the animal’s skull.

The famous cousin was Ankylosaurus, the one with the sheet of thick bone running along its back, culminating in a club at the end of its tail — the better to swat away its foes:

Pawpawsaurus lived some 35 million years before that sturdy-backed creature. It was armored similarly – bony plates along its back and even on its eyelids — but, alas, it had no club on the end of its tail.

All hope was not lost, however. It turns out the animal may have gotten by with a little help from its nose.

The CT scans allowed the researchers to use software to reconstruct the Pawpawsaurus’ skull and then study its sense of hearing and smell.

They found that Pawpawsaurus didn’t have a sense of smell as sharp as Ankylosaurus, but it was good enough to get by – better, say the researchers, than some other predators of its day.

“Pawpawsaurus in particular and the group it belonged to – Nodosauridae – had no flocculus, a structure of the brain involved with motor skills, no club tail, and a reduced nasal cavity and portion of the inner ear when compared with the other family of ankylosaurs,” said study co-author Paulina-Carabajal in a statement.

“But its sense of smell was very important, as it probably relied on that to look for food, find mates and avoid or flee predators,” the scientist from the Biodiversity and Environment Research Institute in Argentina added.

The researchers noted the key contribution of CT scanning technology in their study.

“CT imaging has allowed us to delve into the intricacies of the brains of extinct animals, especially dinosaurs, to unlock secrets of their ways of life,” said study co-author and Southern Methodist University vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs.

“We can observe the complete nasal cavity morphology with the CT scans,” added Paulina-Carabajal.

Read more at Discovery News

Strange Fossil Hints at Life After Mass Extinction

A fossil from a newly discovered animal that didn’t look like it was supposed to has given scientists a window into the evolutionary period just after the worst mass extinction event the planet has ever known.

The new species, an ichthyosaur named Sclerocormus parviceps, was a marine reptile dating to the Lower Triassic, and it looked nothing like other ichthyosaurs scientists have studied.

Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that lived at the same time as Earth’s earliest dinosaurs. Most had dolphin-like forms – strong tail fin, long telltale snout and sleek body. But the new animal had a stubby snout and a long tail — sans the big fin at the end.

Stranger still, ichthyosaurs typically had ample teeth for catching food, but Sclerocormus parviceps had no teeth at all. The researchers think its snout was built for sucking in food like a needle drawing blood.

The fossil dates to the time just after the Permian-Triassic event, which took out nearly all marine species and the vast majority of terrestrial vertebrates. Scientists had thought it was slow going for marine reptiles rebounding from that period, with evolutionary processes unfolding slowly.

However, the new fossil, looking nothing like its ancient relatives, challenges those notions.

“Sclerocormus tells us that ichthyosauriforms evolved and diversified rapidly at the end of the Lower Triassic period,” said study co-author Olivier Rieppel, of The Field Museum, in a statement.

“We don’t have many marine reptile fossils from this period,” Rieppel added, “so this specimen is important because it suggests that there’s diversity that hasn’t been uncovered yet.”

Fossil Shows Pre-Dino Reptile Giving Birth

Rieppel said the new reptile offered a peek at real-world evolution in action.

“Darwin’s model of evolution consists of small, gradual changes over a long period of time, and that’s not quite what we’re seeing here,” he said. “These ichthyosauriforms seem to have evolved very quickly, in short bursts of lots of change, in leaps and bounds.”

Read more at Discovery News

DNA Captured From 2,500-Year-Old Phoenician

Researchers have sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome of a 2,500-year-old Phoenician, showing the ancient man had European ancestry.

This is the first ancient DNA to be obtained from Phoenician remains.

Known as “Ariche,” the young man came from Byrsa, a walled citadel above the harbor of ancient Carthage. Byrsa was attacked by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus “Africanus” in the Third Punic War. It was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C.

Ariche’s remains were discovered in 1994 on the southern flank of Bursa hill when a man planting trees fell into the ancient grave.

Analysis of the skeleton revealed the man died between the age of 19 and 24, had a rather robust physique and was 1.7 meters (5’6″) tall. He may have belonged to the Carthaginian elite, as he was buried with gems, scarabs, amulets and other artifacts.

Now genetic research carried out by a team co-led by Lisa Matisoo-Smith at New Zealand’s University of Otago has shown the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup — known as U5b2cl — that likely links his maternal ancestry to the North Mediterranean coast, probably on the Iberian Peninsula.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings provide the earliest evidence of the European mitochondrial haplogroup U5b2cl in North Africa, dating its arrival to at least the late sixth century BC.

“U5b2cl is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there,” Matisoo-Smith said.

She noted that mitochondrial group was found in two ancient hunter-gatherers recovered from an archaeological site in north-western Spain.

“While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa via Phoenician and Punic trade networks,” Matisoo-Smith said.

The haplogroup is very rare in modern populations today. In Europe, it appears at levels of less than 1 percent.

“Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche’s mitochondrial genetic makeup most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern-day individual from Portugal,” she added.

On the contrary, mitochondrial DNA of 47 modern Lebanese people showed none were of the U5b2cl lineage.

Thought to have originated from what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were seafarers and traders who spread their culture across the Mediterranean and west to the Iberian Peninsula where they established settlements and trading posts. The city of Carthage in Tunisia, North Africa, was first established as a Phoenician port and later became the center for Punic trade.

Read more at Discovery News

Elaborate Neanderthal Structure Found

Circular heated structures built by Neanderthals have been discovered deep inside a cave in France and are now among the world's oldest known human-made constructions, a new study has found.

The structures, dated to around 176,000 years ago and described in the journal Nature, provide evidence that Neanderthals were clever about using fire, had complex spatial organizational abilities, and explored at least one extensive cave system. They additionally indicate that humans began occupying caves much earlier than previously thought; until now the oldest formally proven cave use dated back only 38,000 years (Chauvet).

The site where the constructions were found -- Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France -- was only just discovered in 1990 by scientist and spelunker François Rouzaud.

"Bruniquel Cave's entry had collapsed, such that it remained untouched for millennia," project leader Jacques Jaubert, a professor of prehistory at the University of Bordeaux, told Discovery News, explaining why the cave took so long to find.

Rouzaud had hoped to investigate Bruniquel Cave further, but he died in 1999 while exploring another French cave, Foissac in Aveyron. Access to Bruniquel was restricted after its 1990 discovery until 2013, when the new research began.

While investigating the cave, Jaubert and his team found that it includes at least six structures built by Neanderthals using nearly 400 stalagmites and stalagmite fragments. The paper focuses on two of the constructions that are circular-shaped and large, with one being 22 feet wide and the other just over 7 feet wide.

The stalagmites were stacked in layers to form ringed "walls." The materials were red, black and cracked in places, providing evidence for hearth fires that the researchers believe were built above ground, rather than directly on the cave floor. A burnt bear bone, along with bits of char, was also found.

Jaubert and his team wrote: "Based on most Upper Paleolithic cave incursions, we could assume that they represent some kind of symbolic or ritualistic behavior, but could they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge? Future research will try to answer these questions."

Given the depth and darkness of the cave, Jaubert said it is at least clear that Neanderthals were controlling fire for lighting, in addition to using it for heating and possibly other purposes.

The researchers conclude that modern humans did not build the structures since there is no evidence for Homo sapiens in the region at the time they were constructed. Neanderthals, on the other hand, were known to be in Europe and Asia then.

The scientists suspect that the Neanderthals at Bruniquel Cave left behind tools and possibly other items, but Jaubert said that such likely objects would have been "covered with thick calcite, leaving them frozen for eternity." Time will tell if future excavations within the cave can recover additional artifacts.

Marie Soressi, an archaeologist at Leiden University, wrote a separate "News & Views" piece, also published in Nature, about the discoveries.

Soressi believes that the newly found structures "are the oldest directly dated constructions attributed to Neanderthals, and the first ones for which we can be confident of that attribution."

She added, "Only further discovery of underground structures will help to establish whether these structures were opportunistic ones relating to an accidental underground visit, or whether they were part of regular and planned Neanderthal activities."

Soressi suspects that greater evidence for Neanderthal culture could be lacking simply due to poor preservation. If it were not for a fortuitous series of events, including the natural closure of Bruniquel Cave's entrance for thousands of years, the Neanderthal-built structures would not have been preserved.

Jaubert thinks that the new research, along with other recent finds, is blurring the line between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Read more at Discovery News

Collapsing Cosmic Clouds Birth Black Hole Monsters

At the heart of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, lies a supermassive black hole, millions of times bigger than the sun, but how these monsters got their start has been a mystery.

One idea is that the black holes began by pulling in gas from surrounding areas. Another option is that they formed as smaller black holes merged together.

Now, observations from a trio of space telescopes suggest a third mechanism for birthing black holes — the collapse of gas clouds.

“We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps,” astronomer Fabio Pacucci, with the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, said in a press release.

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” added astronomer Andrea Ferrara, also with SNS. “Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

Using computer models and observations made by the Hubble, Chandra X-ray and Spitzer infrared space telescopes, astronomers found two strong candidates for black hole seeds, both of which matched the predicted red color, seen by Hubble and Spitzer, as well as the X-ray profile predicted from Chandra.

Distance measurements indicate they may have formed with the universe was less than 1 billion years old.

“These objects were found in the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey-South surveys. The next steps will involve getting more data on these two intriguing objects as well as extending the analysis to other surveys to look for more direct-collapse black hole candidates,” NASA said in a press release.

From Discovery News

May 24, 2016

Mummy of Egyptian Noblewoman Found

One of the two wooden coffins containing the mummy of Sattjen.
Spanish archaeologists have discovered the 3,800-year-old mummy of Lady Sattjeni, a leading figure from the Middle Kingdom, authorities at the Ministry of Antiquities announced on Tuesday.

Sattjeni’s family was just below pharaoh Amenemhat III (1800-1775 B.C.) in the hierarchy of Elephantine, an island in the center of the Nile at Aswan. Her sons Heqaib III and Ameny-Seneb ruled there at the end of the Twelfth Dynasty.

According to Mahmoud Afify, head of the Ancient Egyptian archaeology division the Ministry of Antiquities, the discovery is historic as it helps reconstruct the family tree of the governors of Elephantine.

Sattjeni’s mummy was found in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa, near the modern city of Aswan, by a team of Jaén University, Spain, led by Egyptologist Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano.

“The body was originally wrapped in linen and deposited in two wooden coffins made of Lebanon cedar,” Nasr Salama, general director of Aswan and Nubia areas, said.

Over Sattjeni’s face, the archaeologists also found remains of her cartonnage mask.

“The inner coffin was in extremely good condition. This will even allow us to date the year in which the tree was cut,” the ministry said in a statement.

Jiménez explained that Lady Sattjeni was the daughter of the nomarch Sarenput II, the owner of the finest and largest tomb at Qubbet el-Hawa. After the death of all the male members of her family, she held the dynastic rights in the government of Elephantine.

The Spanish researchers, who have been digging in the necropolis since 2008, had previously brought to light several other burials, including that of Sattjeni’s eldest son Heqaib III.

From Discovery News

5,000-Year-Old Beer Recipe Had Secret Ingredient

A stove fragment from the Mijiaya site that was probably used to heat the fermenting grain mash during the beer-brewing process.
Barley might have been the “secret ingredient” in a 5,000-year-old beer recipe that has been reconstructed from residues on prehistoric pots from China, according to new archaeological research.

Scientists conducted tests on ancient pottery jars and funnels found at the Mijiaya archaeological site in China’s Shaanxi province. The analyses revealed traces of oxalate — a beer-making byproduct that forms a scale called “beerstone” in brewing equipment — as well as residues from a variety of ancient grains and plants. These grains included broomcorn millets, an Asian wild grain known as “Job’s tears,” tubers from plant roots, and barley.

Barley is used to make beer because it has high levels of amylase enzymes that promote the conversion of starches into sugars during the fermenting process. It was first cultivated in western Asia and might have been used to make beer in ancient Sumer and Babylonia more than 8,000 years ago, according to historians.

The researchers said it is unclear when beer brewing began in China, but the residues from the 5,000-year-old Mijiaya artifacts represent the earliest known use of barley in the region by about 1,000 years. They also suggest that barley was used to make beer in China long before the cereal grain became a staple food there, the researchers noted.

Surprising ingredient

The prehistoric brewery at the Mijiaya site consisted of ceramic pots, funnels and stoves found in pits that date back to the Neolithic (late Stone Age) Yangshao period, around 3400 to 2900 B.C., said Jiajing Wang, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in California and lead author of a new paper on the research, published today (May 23) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wang told Live Science that the discovery of barley in such early artifacts was a surprise to the researchers.

Barley was the main ingredient for beer brewing in other parts of the world, such as in ancient Egypt, she said, and the barley plant might have spread into China along with the knowledge of its special use in making beer.

“It is possible that when barley was introduced from western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the grain was a good ingredient for beer brewing,” Wang said. “So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the knowledge associated with the crop.”

The ancient art of beer

The Mijiaya site was discovered in 1923 by Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, Wang said. The site, located near the present-day center of the city of Xi’an, was excavated by Chinese archaeologists between 2004 and 2006, before being developed for modern residential buildings.

After the full excavation report was published in 2012, Wang’s co-author on the new paper, archaeologist Li Liu of Stanford, noticed that the pottery assemblages from two of the pits could have been used to make alcohol, mainly because of the presence of funnels and stoves.

Wang said that some Chinese scholars had suggested several years ago that the Yangshao funnels might have been used to make alcohol, but there had been no direct evidence until now.

In the summer of 2015, the Stanford researchers traveled to Xi’an and visited the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, where the artifacts from the Mijiaya site are now stored.

The scientists extracted residues from the artifacts, and their analysis of the residues turned out to prove their hypothesis: that “people in China brewed beer with barley around 5,000 years ago,” Wang said.

Reconstructing the recipe

The researchers found yellowish remnants in the wide-mouthed pots, funnels and amphorae that suggested the vessels were used for beer brewing, filtration and storage. The stoves in the pits were probably used to provide heat for mashing the grains, according to the archaeologists.

The beer recipe used a variety of starchy grains, including barley, as well as tubers, which would have added starch for the fermentation process and sweetness to the flavor of the beer, the researchers said.

Wang and her co-authors wrote that barley had been found in a few Bronze Age sites in the Central Plain of China, all dated to around or after 2000 B.C. However, barley did not become a staple crop in the region until the Han dynasty, from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, the researchers said.

“Together, the lines of evidence suggest that the Yangshao people may have concocted a 5,000-year-old beer recipe that ushered the cultural practice of beer brewing into ancient China,” the archaeologists wrote in the paper. “It is possible that the few rare finds of barley in the Central Plain during the Bronze Age indicate their earlier introduction as rare, exotic food.”

“Our findings imply that early beer making may have motivated the initial translocation of barley from western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China before the crop became a part of agricultural subsistence in the region 3,000 years later,” the researchers wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Stonehenge: Easier Done Than Said

How did prehistoric Britons manage to move Stonehenge’s stones? Each rock weighed an average of 25 tons and stood as tall as 30 feet, and the first tractor was still five millennia away, so clearly they must have endured great pains to build the monument, right?

Much of the mystery around the site comes from the questions of how Stonehenge was built and why. A recent experiment by archaeologists at University College London provides a hint to that first part anyway.

As back-breaking a task as building a monument of dump truck-sized stones without the aid of modern machinery might seem, the demonstration held in London’s Gordon Square suggests it wasn’t that difficult at all.

Last week, University College London doctoral candidate Barney Harris put out a call for volunteers to see how many people it would take to pull a stone about half the size as the smallest rock at Stonehenge, which is about one metric ton. Harris anticipated it would take a team of at least 15 people to move the stone, and as many as 40 to 50 to lift it.

Instead, 10 people were able to get the stone going at a rate of roughly 10 feet (3 meters) every five seconds, or around one mile (1.6 kilometers) per hour. A team twice the size would be able to move a small piece of Stonehenge.

Devoting the kind of human capital needed for what may appear to be a frivolous effort for a Neolithic society isn’t all that far-fetched considering settlements in the area at the time numbered in the thousands, so there were plenty of other members of the society to carry on with the more life-sustaining activities, such as farming, hunting or child-rearing.

Made of rope, a wooden track and a sycamore sled, the design of the rig used in the experiment mirrors others found throughout the ancient world. “We know that pre-industrialized societies like the Maram Naga in India still use this kind of sledge to construct huge stone monuments,” Harris told The Telegraph. “And similar y-shaped sleighs have been found dating back to 2000 B.C. in Japan which we know were used to move megaliths.”

Recreating even at a small scale how the rocks used at Stonehenge were transported can provide researchers an estimate of how long it took to complete the entire site.

Beginning around 5,000 years ago, the first stones were lain at Stonehenge. The monument was built in two phases with two different kinds of stones. The largest stones are called sarsens, a local sandstone, placed around 2400 B.C. The circle of rocks at the center, known as bluestones, were erected 500 years earlier, around 2900 B.C.

Read more at Discovery News

Loss of Y Chromosome Linked to Alzheimer's

About one in five men over age 80 lose the Y chromosome from their blood cells, and this condition has now been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers said.

The condition known a loss of Y, or LOY, is the most common genetic mutation acquired during a man’s lifetime.

Previous research has shown LOY can raise the likelihood of cancer and is more frequently found in smokers.

Now, researchers say the condition may serve as a predictive biomarker for a wider range of health problems.

For the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics — led by Lars Forsberg and Jan Dumanski of Uppsala University in Sweden, along with colleagues Britain, France, the United States and Canada — researchers examined cases of LOY in more than 3,200 men with an average age of 73.

Around 17 percent showed LOY in blood cells.

Those who had been already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s had a higher degree of LOY, they found.

Also, those who had not yet been diagnosed with dementia but had LOY were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s in subsequent years.

“Having loss of Y is not 100 percent predictive that you will have either cancer or Alzheimer’s,” cautioned Forsberg.

Some men with LOY in the study lived with no symptoms well into their 90s.

“But in the future, loss of Y in blood cells can become a new biomarker for disease risk and perhaps evaluation can make a difference in detecting and treating problems early.”

According to Chris Lau, professor in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the study sheds little light on why Alzheimer’s risk may be elevated in these men.

Read more at Discovery News

Mystery Plumes: Did the Sun Bruise Mars?

In recent years, the Red Planet has been doing something quite weird and scientist are stumped.

On a handful of occasions bizarre “plumes” have been observed protruding from Mars’ upper atmosphere. A 2012 event was spotted by amateur astronomers and the phenomenon persisted for several days. Even the Hubble Space Telescope has been witness to a plume.

At first it was assumed some form of high-altitude cloud may be to blame, or maybe a storm kicked up dust into the upper atmosphere. But each hypothesis had its flaws and planetary scientists were left confused.

Now, European Space Agency scientists heading the Mars Express mission have studied this Martian oddity and found pretty strong evidence that the plumes aren’t produced by the planet’s weather; they’re likely sparked by space weather.

Interactions between the sun and planetary environments are well known. As highly energized particles from the solar wind hit Earth’s global magnetic field, for example, they can get trapped in the magnetosphere and funneled to high latitude regions. This influx of solar wind ions will collide with high-altitude atmospheric gases, causing them to glow, creating auroras. Where ever there’s a magnetic field and an atmosphere, the sun can kick off a dazzling lightshow and we’ve seen auroras throughout the solar system, including Jupiter, Saturn and even Venus.

The 2012 plume as seen by amateur astronomers.
But solar interactions are not limited to auroras. When Earth is hit by coronal mass ejections — basically bubbles of magnetized plasma ejected from the sun’s lower atmosphere — the entire planet’s magnetic configuration can feel its effects, setting up powerful electrical currents through the atmosphere and energizing our ionosphere.

Mars, however, does not possess a global magnetic field to deflect the worst the sun can throw at it. When a CME hits Earth, the magnetosphere protects the atmosphere, but on Mars, lacking this magnetic shield, it suffers atmospheric erosion. Though it is thought Mars once had a thicker atmosphere, over billions of years, the constant flow of solar wind particles have stripped it away. Mars’ atmosphere is, literally, leaking into space.

If space weather has such a powerful influence on Mars’ atmospher loss, could it also be to blame for these odd plumes? Mars Express scientists have turned to their veteran Mars orbiter for answers.

The 2012 Mars plume made world headlines and Mars Express was there collecting data of the local space environment. Did a space weather event occur around the time the plume was observed?

“Our plasma observations tell us that there was a space weather event large enough to impact Mars and increase the escape of plasma from the planet’s atmosphere,” said David Andrews of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in an ESA news release. “But we were not able to see any signatures in the ionosphere that we can categorically say were due to the presence of this plume.”

There is circumstantial evidence that Mars’ ionosphere — an upper layer of the atmosphere filled with charged particles, or ions — was in some way influenced by a space weather event, such as the impact of a CME. But because of the plume’s location, it is a challenge acquire additional observations of the event, so just because there is some evidence a CME-triggered event is at play, it’s circumstantial at best.

Now scientists are looking over archival data in the hope of finding occasions when a plume occurred during a CME hit. In 1997, for example, a Mars plume was spotted by Hubble and at around the same time, a fast CME was recorded as hitting Earth. Unfortunately there was no information from any Mars mission as to how that CME impacted the Red Planet’s atmosphere, if it affected it at all.

Read more at Discovery News

May 23, 2016

Squid - 'Weeds of the Sea' - on the Rise

Squid, octopus and cuttlefish are on the rise, finds new research on these animals, which are collectively known as cephalopods.

Nicknamed the “weeds of the sea,” these animals have experienced impressive population growth over the past 60 years and at a time when many fish species have been declining in numbers, according to the new study, which is published in the journal Current Biology.

“Our analyses showed that cephalopod abundance has increased since the 1950s, a result that was remarkably consistent across three distinct groups,” lead author Zoë Doubleday, a researcher at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and School of Biological Sciences, said in a press release.

“Cephalopods are often called ‘weeds of the sea’ as they have a unique set of biological traits, including rapid growth, short lifespans and flexible development,” Doubleday continued. “These allow them to adapt to changing environmental conditions (such as temperature) more quickly than many other marine species, which suggests that they may be benefiting from a changing ocean environment.”

What sparked the research was an observed decline of a species that’s iconic down under: the giant Australian cuttlefish.

Doubleday explained that researchers started to notice fewer of these cuttlefish at the cephalopod’s world-renowned breeding ground in South Australia’s Spencer Gulf.

The scientists compiled a global-scale database of cuttlefish, as well as squid and octopus. Not only did the study reveal that the giant Australian cuttlefish is already making a major comeback, but also that most other related animals have been increasing in numbers over the past six decades.

Like weeds taking over a garden, however, the news isn’t all good.

Co-author Bronwyn Gillanders said large-scale changes to the marine environment, brought about by human activities, could be driving the global increase in cephalopods.

Read more at Discovery News

Iconic Art Shows Disease Unknown for a Century

Science's most famous picture, Joseph Wright's "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," contains the accurate representation of a skin rash that is indicative of a disease recognized more than a century later, according to a new study of the iconic painting.

Depicting an 18th century scientific demonstration of the properties of the vacuum, the 1768 painting may also feature the first ever picture of dermatomyositis. This is a rare inflammatory disease of the muscle, skin and blood vessels that was clinical described in the last decades of the 19th century.

The painting, currently on a National Gallery loan to Tate Britain, is widely recognized as an artistic milestone that reflects the Enlightenment era where modern society's exposure to science had been initiated. It portrays a wizard-Iike scientist, surrounded by spectators, pumping air out of flask containing a poor cockatoo.

The candlelit scene shows the moment when the bird will either die or be allowed to revive by the demonstrator, who looks straight out of the picture and doesn’t appear to be emotionally connected to the dying bird.

“Additionally two young lovers fail to notice the experiment due to their intoxication with each other, whilst a father consoles his two horrified children who cannot bear to experience the death of the bird despite the scientific lesson,” Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, wrote in the journal Clinical Rheumatology.

But aside from containing a prominent metaphor of the role of scientists and the different attitudes around scientific facts, Wright's masterpiece may now be celebrated for its representation of real-life pathology.

“When we look at the painting with much higher detail, it is clear the father character has a skin rash that is consistent with the disease of dermatomyositis,” Ashrafian told Discovery News. “The dermatopathology on the hand is most characteristic of Gottron’s papules, which is indicative of dermatomyositis."

This diagnosis is also consistent with the rash on the subjects other hand and face.

Such red bumps overlying the knuckles of the fingers were first described by German dermatologist Heinrich Adolf Gottron in 1931, some 163 years after Wright's depiction in "The Air Pump."

Dermatomyositis is a systemic inflammatory neuromuscular disorder that was first described a bit earlier, in 1891, by Heinrich Unverricht.

“The depiction of the disease is so clear and accurate in the painting that it must have reflected the actual existence of an underlying disease in the portrayed father character,” Ashrafian said.

The finding remarks Wright's skill in painting exactly what he saw, but also adds a powerful metaphor.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells

Ancient, magical spells of love, subjugation and sex: It may sound like a “Game of Thrones” episode, but these evildoings are also found on two recently deciphered papyri from Egypt dating to around 1,700 years ago.

One spell invokes the gods to “burn the heart” of a woman until she loves the spell caster, said Franco Maltomini of the University of Udine in Italy, who translated the two spells. Another spell, targeted at a male, uses a series of magical words to “subject” him, forcing him to do whatever the caster wants.

The two spells were not targeted at a specific person. Rather, they were written in such a way that the person who cast the spell would only need to insert the name of the person being targeted — sort of like an ancient “Mad Libs.”

Researchers date the two spells to the third century A.D., but the names of the ancient spell writers are unknown. The spells are written in Greek, a language widely used in Egypt at the time.

Archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered the spells in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, more than 100 years ago, among a haul of hundreds of thousands of papyri. Over the past century, scientists have gradually studied and translated the papyri. Many of them are now owned by the Egypt Exploration Society and are housed and studied at the University of Oxford in England.

Maltomini is part of a larger group of editors and contributors from multiple institutions who analyzed and translated the most recent batch of these magical texts, which will be published in an upcoming volume of “The Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” a series a books devoted to publishing the papyri from Oxyrhynchus.

A love spell

The deciphered love spell invokes several gnostic gods. (Gnosticism was an ancient religion that incorporated elements of Christianity.) It says that the spell caster should burn a series of offerings in the bathhouse (the names of the offerings didn’t survive degradation) and write a spell on the bathhouse’s walls, which Maltomini translated as follows:

“I adjure you, earth and waters, by the demon who dwells on you and (I adjure) the fortune of this bath so that, as you blaze and burn and flame, so burn her (the woman targeted)whom (the mother of the woman targeted) bore, until she comes to me…”

Then, the spell names several gods and magical words. It goes on to say, “Holy names, inflame in this way and burn the heart of her…” until she falls in love with the person casting the spell.

Read more at Discovery News

Solar Superflares Set Stage for Life on Earth

Scientists may have cracked a 40-year-old mystery about how early Earth grew warm enough for water to pool on its surface — a condition believed to be necessary for life – despite meager warming from a young sun.

The key, says a team of NASA astronomers, is a phenomena known as superflares, which are massive and frequent solar flares that blasted high-energy particles toward baby Earth and its sibling planets.

Computer models show that near-daily deluges of energetic particles streaming from the sun would have compressed Earth’s magnetic bubble and caused gaps to open over the polar regions.

The particles could then penetrate into the atmosphere, setting off a cascade of chemical reactions that created the extremely potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, as well as hydrogen cyanide, an essential compound for life, a study published in this week’s Nature Geoscience shows.

Earth would have grown warm enough for liquid water as far back as 4 billion years ago, the study shows.

The first signs of microbial life appear as fossilized rock dating back to about the same time.

Scientists have tried for decades to solve the so-called “faint young sun” paradox, an issue raised by astronomers Carl Sagan and George Mullen  in 1972.

“It’s perplexing because it is unclear why Earth was not permanently glaciated under the less luminous sun,” Cornell University’s Ramses Ramirez writes in a related commentary in Nature Geoscience.

The new theory extrapolates data collected by the Kepler space telescope, whose primary mission was to look for planets orbiting sun-like stars.

Temporary dips in the amount of light coming from target stars could be caused by planets flying across the face of their parent stars, relative to Kepler’s line of sight. But the changes also could be caused by other events, including, it turns out, superflares.

“Kepler observed the superflares of young stars, resembling our sun at the time when life started on Earth … We used these as proxies,” astrophysicist Vladimir Airapetian, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Discovery News.

The superflares turn out to be three times more powerful than the biggest flare in recent history, the so-called Carrington event in 1859, which caused Northern Lights auroras as far south as Miami.

“A very, very conservative number is that one of these events occurred every single day, and each event lasts for two or three days, so that suggests the Earth was under constant attack from these powerful coronal mass ejections,” Airapetian said.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMS, release massive amounts of solar particles and electromagnetic radiation into space.

Ramirez, for one, already is putting Airapetian’s theory to test by using the atmospheric chemistry data in another computer model.

Read more at Discovery News

May 22, 2016

Rich coral communities discovered in Palamós Submarine Canyon in the Northwestern Mediterranian Sea

A scientific team has found in La Fonera canyon, also known as the Palamós canyon in the Northwestern Mediterranian Sea, deep-water coral communities, a marine ecosystem which is very vulnerable to human activity.

The findings are explained in an article published in the magazine PLOS ONE signed by the researchers Galderic Lastras, Miquel Canals and Anna Sánchez Vidal, from the Research Group on Marine Geosciences (GRC) from the Faculty of Geology of the UB, together with Enric Ballesteros (Blanes Centre for Advanced Studies, CEAB-CSIC) and Josep-Maria Gili (Institute of Marine Sciences, ICM-CSIC).

Cold-water corals, known for ages by the Norwegian fishermen, have been observed in different latitudes around the world, and are considered to be the cold-water "cousins" of the coral reefs from tropical regions. These kind of corals create fragile and branched colonies, which boost marine biodiversity related to their relation to the life cycle of lots of marine organisms.

Deep cold-water coral colonies in the Mediterranean

The first cold-water coral communities discovered in the Iberian Peninsula were found in 2010 in the Avilés canyon, in the Cantabrian Sea. In the west Mediterranean sea, teams of the University of Barcelona and CSIC had found living colonies in Cap de Creus canyon, a scientific finding that represents one of the best documented examples of this kind of deep ecosystem in all the Mediterranean.

It is estimated that the new communities which were discovered by the research team in La Fonera canyon -- at 130-370 m water depth- lie around 400,000 square metres. Video images testifying the discovery were obtained using a submarine remotely operated vehicle (ROV). In this specific submarine habitat, the most abundant species are Madrepora oculata corals (white coral) and Dendophyllia cornigera (yellow coral). "These new habitats expand the cold-water coral province of the northwest Mediterranea to the south even more than before: they had been seen in the Cap de Creus canyon and other canyons in the Gulf of Lion" said the teacher Galderic Lastras, main author of the article and member of the GRC on Marine Geosciences.

Preserving a habitat threatened by human activity

La Fonera canyon, outside the Catalan coast waters, shows a very abrupt terrain, with great depths near the coast. The north part of the canyon, where trawling is usually done, shows a softer terrain compared to the southern part, which is more abrupt. Like Professor Miquel Canals -head of Research Group on Marine Geosciences of the UB- said, "Trawling greatly modifies the submarine terrain so the landscape goes from having a cliff terrain to having a benthic terrain shape, following isobathic or level curves."

These cold-water coral communities have been found in the most harbour-like northern areas. They show clear symptoms of human impact. "The bigger coral colonies are in areas which are inaccessible for trawling, like vertical walls and abrupt areas, where there is also Corallium rubrum (red coral). However, these coral colonies are usually shattered with fishing gears and plastics or partially covered by sediment, especially the ones closer to areas where trawling is practised" warns Galderic Lastras.

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Chemists settle longstanding debate on how methane is made biologically

The chemical reaction that a biological catalyst uses to make methane involves the rare-in-nature methyl radical, unusual because it is based on carbon.
Like the poet, microbes that make methane are taking chemists on a road less traveled: Of two competing ideas for how microbes make the main component of natural gas, the winning chemical reaction involves a molecule less favored by previous research, something called a methyl radical.

Reported today in the journal Science, the work is important for understanding not only how methane is made, but also how to make things from it.

"Methane is an interesting substance because it's both a fossil fuel and a potentially renewable fuel that can come from microbes," said study lead Stephen Ragsdale of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "In addition, detailed knowledge of the chemical steps involved in making methane could lead to major breakthroughs in designing energy efficient catalysts for converting methane into liquid fuels and other chemicals."

This study demonstrates one of a very few known instances of nature using a highly reactive methyl radical in its biological machinations.

"We were totally surprised," said computational chemist Simone Raugei, a coauthor at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "We thought we'd find evidence for other mechanisms."

Origins story

More than 90 percent of methane is (and has been) generated by microbes known as methanogens, which are members of the archaea, a group of microbes that are similar to bacteria. To make the gas, methanogens use a particular protein known as an enzyme. Enzymes aid chemical reactions in living organisms like synthetic catalysts do in industrial chemical conversions. Also, the enzyme can run the reaction in reverse to break down methane for energy consumption.

Scientists know a lot about this microbial enzyme. It creates the burnable gas by slapping a hydrogen atom onto a molecule called a methyl group. A methyl group contains three hydrogens bound to a carbon atom, just one hydrogen shy of full-grown methane.

To generate methane, the enzyme pulls the methyl group from a helper molecule called methyl-coenzyme M. Coenzyme M's job is to nestle the methyl group into the right spot on the enzyme. What makes the spot just right is a perfectly positioned nickel atom, which is largely responsible for transferring the last hydrogen.

How the nickel atom does this, however, has been debated for decades in the highly complex world of chemical reactions. Different possible paths create different fleeting, ephemeral intermediate molecules, but the reaction happens too fast for scientists to distinguish between them.

The path chemists have most sided with involves the nickel atom on the enzyme directly attacking the methyl group and stealing it from coenzyme M. The methyl-nickel molecule exists temporarily, until the methyl in its turn steals a hydrogen atom from another molecule in the enzyme's workspace, coenzyme B, and becomes methane.

Many experiments lend support for this idea, which creates an intermediate methyl-nickel molecule.

A second possibility, according to a much smaller group of supporters, is via a methyl radical. Radicals (aka free radicals) are unstable molecules that have an unpaired electron. They can do a lot of damage by breaking down weaker bonds in molecules.

It's that unpaired electron that causes problems. Bonds between atoms routinely involve two electrons, like a pair of ballroom dancers. The unpaired electron will do everything in its power to find a second, just as a single dancer in search of a partner will cut into another couple.

In this path to methane, the nickel atom bonds to a sulfur atom in coenzyme M rather than the methyl group. This knocks the methyl away and sends it off sans an electron. Hungry and irritated, the methyl radical immediately snags a hydrogen atom from coenzyme B, generating methane.

Process of elimination

To find out which mechanism was correct, the UM-PNNL team of researchers came up with a way to rule out one or the other. The first thing they had to do was slow down the reaction. They slowed it down a thousand times by hobbling the second half of the path to methane, after the intermediate came alive. Doing so let the intermediate build up.

Then, they performed a biochemical analysis called electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy at the University of Michigan that allowed them to distinguish between the two intermediate molecules. If the reaction created the methyl-nickel molecule, methyl-nickel would show up as a blip on their EPR system. If the reaction created a methyl radical that sauntered off, the molecule remaining with the protein -- nickel bound to coenzyme M -- would not register at all.

The team found no blip in the EPR profile of the post-reaction products, making the most likely intermediate the methyl radical. But, to be sure, the team performed additional biochemical analyses that ruled out other potential molecules. They also performed another biochemical test and showed that the structure of the major intermediate was the nickel stuck to coenzyme M, the expected result if the reactions took the methyl radical path.

"The impact of radicals on living matter, such as biological material, can be devastating, and involvement of a methyl radical, one of the most unstable radicals, is truly surprising," said Raugei, "For this to happen and make methane 100 percent of the time, the protein has to perform and control this reaction with an extremely high degree of precision, placing that methyl radical specifically beside only one atom -- the hydrogen atom bound to the sulfur of coenzyme B."

Energy block

To further substantiate their results, the team modeled the reaction computationally. They zoomed in on the action within the enzyme, known as methyl-coenzyme M reductase.

"We found that the methyl radical required the least amount of energy to produce, making that mechanism the frontrunner yet again," said Bojana Ginovska, a computational scientist on the PNNL team.

In fact, one of the other intermediates required three times as much energy to make, compared to the methyl radical, clearly putting it out of the running.

Modeling the reaction computationally also allowed the team to look inside the reductase. Experiments showed that the reaction happens faster at higher temperatures and why: Parts of the protein that helped move the reaction along would move the nickel closer to the methyl-coenzyme M. Shorter distances allowed things to happen faster.

The team used high performance computing resources at two DOE scientific user facilities: EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL, and NERSC, the National Energy Research Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The results might help researchers, including Ragsdale and Raugei, learn to control methane synthesis -- either in the lab or in bacteria that make it in places like the Arctic -- and how to break it down.

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