Archive for January, 2009

Fingerprints Are Tuned to Amplify Vibrations and Send Info to the Brain

By Nina Bai | January 30, 2009 5:50 pm

fingerprintFingerprints are for more than a good grip; they also allow fingers to feel fine textures, according to a new study. As fingers move across a surface, the intricate geography of the finger tips, known as epidermal ridges, help select and amplify just the right vibrations to convey information from the skin to the brain. Neuroscientist Ellen Lumkin compares the ridges on fingers to the cochlea in the ear. “Like the cochlea is a frequency analyzer for sounds, the fingertips are frequency analyzers for fingers,” says Lumpkin [Science News] Fingerprints help filter out the tactile equivalent of white noise.

When a finger sweeps over a finely textured surface, such as a cotton sleeve or a wooden coffee table, the interaction sends a large range of vibrations into the skin. Specialized sensors called Pacinian fibers, the tips of nerve fibers, detect only a select few of the vibrations — those right around 250 hertz — before sending the signal to the brain, where the touch sensation is processed [Science News]. But since Pacinian fibers are located relatively deep—about 2 millimeters—under the skin, researchers guessed that fingerprints help magnify the vibrations.

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BPA Won't Leave Public-Health Conversation—or Your Body

By Eliza Strickland | January 30, 2009 5:22 pm

baby bottlesA new study has found higher than expected levels of a controversial plastics chemical in people who had fasted for 24 hours. This surprised researchers because the chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), was thought to be ingested when trace amounts leaked from plastic food containers and bottles, and researchers thought it quickly passed through the system.

The finding suggests that exposure to BPA may come from many different sources, not just food products, or that the body doesn’t metabolize the chemical as fast as has been thought, the researchers said…. “What this study shows is that either we are getting exposed to a lot more BPA than we thought, or it’s hanging around longer than we thought, or both,” said lead researcher Dr. Richard W. Stahlhut [HealthDay News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Study Shows Stem Cell Infusions Are the 1st Therapy to Reverse MS

By Eliza Strickland | January 30, 2009 4:00 pm

neuronInfusions of stem cells taken from multiple sclerosis patients’ own bone marrows have shown great promise in rolling back symptoms of the disease. In a small study, researchers found that 81 percent of the participants still showed some improvement three years after the treatment, and the rest of the patients had not deteriorated. “All therapies to date … have focused on slowing the progression of disease,” said [lead researcher] Richard Burt…. “What this actually did is that it reversed disability. This is the first time we have turned the tide on this disease” [Chicago Sun-Times].

In multiple sclerosis, or MS, the patients’ immune systems turn on their own central nervous systems, stripping the protective myelin sheaths from nerve fibers and leading to problems with vision, balance, and coordination. The researcher team tested the new treatment on 21 patients in the early stages of the disease, when symptoms alternately flare up and recede. Burt and his colleagues had previously tried using stem cells to reverse this process in patients with advanced stages of the disease, with little success. “If you wait until there’s neuro-degeneration, you’re trying to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped,” says Burt. What you really want to do is stop the autoimmune attack before it causes nerve-cell damage, he adds [New Scientist].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Will Dog Cloning Become Mainstream as the Price Drops?

By Eliza Strickland | January 30, 2009 10:40 am

cloned puppyA Florida couple has just received a genetic copy of their beloved and deceased golden Labrador Sir Lancelot, naming the three-month-old puppy Lancelot Encore. The couple paid $155,000 for one of the first commercially cloned dogs in the world, and say the money was well spent. “He was a wonderful dog,” said Nina Otto, 66. “Money wasn’t an object. We just wanted our wonderful, loving dog back” [ABC News]. The project was masterminded by the California biotech company BioArts.

Lancelot Encore joins a handful of other dogs cloned either commercially or as a proof of concept, and the latest success seems to indicate that researchers have thoroughly overcome the scientific barriers to cloning man’s best friend. Canines are considered one of the more difficult mammals to clone because of their reproductive cycle that includes difficult-to-predict ovulations [Reuters]. Now the fate of the fledging pet cloning industry is largely dependent on whether dog lovers think that clones are worth the high price tag. However, just yesterday another cloning company announced a new technique that could reduce the cost of dog cloning to about $50,000 within three years.

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Serotonin Changes Locusts From Shy Loners to Swarming Pests

By Eliza Strickland | January 30, 2009 8:52 am

locustsLocusts are prompted to band together in enormous, destructive swarms by the same brain chemical that is linked to happiness in humans. A fascinating new study has found that locusts that are about to swarm experience a sudden surge of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that’s targeted by antidepressant drugs. “Here we have a solitary and lonely creature, the desert locust. But just give them a little serotonin, and they go and join a gang,” observed Malcolm Burrows [AP], one of the study’s authors.

Researchers say the findings may lead to methods to block the formation of locust swarms. These infestations, which can cover hundreds of square miles and involve billions of vegetation-munching insects, can devastate agriculture and cost tens of millions of dollars to control [The New York Times].

Because locusts usually avoid each other, it’s only dire circumstances that bring them together in buzzing hordes. For instance, unpredictable desert rains cause vegetation blooms, which in turn makes locust populations skyrocket. But as the rains abate and fertile land shrivels up, locusts crowd together in the remaining green patches. Eventually, the swarm trigger goes off and the locusts take to the skies—”a strategy of desperation driven by hunger,” [National Geographic News], says coauthor Stephen Rogers. When they make that behavior shift they also change appearance dramatically, going from light green to dark brown.

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Common Household Chemical Linked to Female Infertility

By Nina Bai | January 29, 2009 5:33 pm

babyA chemical found in common household products and cosmetics has been linked to a decrease in fertility in women, according to a new study. Researchers examined more than 1,000 pregnant women and found that those exposed to higher levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) had experienced more difficulty getting pregnant. PFCs are used to make textiles and leather resistant to water, dirt or oil. They are also found in personal care products such as nail polish, dental floss or facial moisturizer. The chemicals resist breakdown and tend to persist in the environment and in the body for decades [Bloomberg]. “If this finding can be replicated, one would have to look for other chemicals to replace these,” [Washington Post] said lead researcher Jorn Olsen. Although experts caution that the correlation doesn’t prove causation, many manufacturers have already taken steps to cut back on PFCs.

Data for the study was taken from 1,240 women in the Danish Birth Cohort when they were six to 12 weeks pregnant. If they reported that it took them longer than 12 months to get pregnant or if they used drugs designed to increase their chances of conceiving, they were considered to have infertility. This is a generally accepted definition of infertility by experts in the field [ABC News]. The women were divided into four groups based on levels of two types of PFCs, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), found in their blood. Compared to women in the group with the lowest levels of PFOS, women with higher levels took from 70 percent to 134 percent longer to conceive. For PFOA, women with higher levels took from 60 percent to 154 percent longer to conceive. The researchers accounted for factors such as age and economic and social factors, although they admit that they lacked information on other factors that could influence fertility such as timing and frequency of intercourse and sperm quality.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Ancient Agriculture Trick, Not Hi-Tech Engineering, Is Best Climate Defense

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 5:26 pm

geoengineering smallSunshades in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from our planet. Dumping iron into the oceans to encourage algae blooms that would take up carbon dioxide. Painting every rooftop white. These are just a few of the geoengineering schemes that have been suggested to artificially alter the planet’s climate and counteract global warming.

Now researchers have helpfully ranked 17 proposals on their possible efficacy, saying that it’s past time to take a hard look at the ambitious ideas. “There is a worrying feeling that we’re not going to get our act together fast enough,” says [coauthor Tim] Lenton, referring to international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have reached a “social tipping point” and are starting to wonder which techniques might complement emissions cuts, he says [New Scientist]. The study, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, didn’t include an analysis of costs and environmental impacts.

Lenton says there has been too much hype and not enough analysis regarding geoengineering schemes, so he decided to start by asking a straightforward question. At the most basic level, earth’s surface temperature is governed by a balance between incoming Solar radiation and outgoing terrestrial radiation [Physics World]. The researchers examined how each of the geoengineering schemes would sway that balance, either by reflecting away solar radiation or reducing carbon dioxide that traps heat in the atmosphere. They found that a few proposed technologies could have a planet-wide cooling impact, but say those would be extremely hard to pull off.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Darwin's Anti-Slavery Views May Have Guided His Theory of Evolution

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 2:16 pm

Wedgwood medallionCharles Darwin‘s theory of evolution may have been shaped by his abhorrence of slavery as much as by his keen observations of Galapagos finches, a new book argues. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, notes that slavery propaganda of the time often claimed that different races belonged to different species, a notion that Darwin’s work obliterated. The book suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs [BBC News]. Published to coincide with Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species this year, the book is likely to stir up a new debate over Darwin’s motives.

Many members of Darwin’s extended family were deeply devoted to the abolitionist cause, including his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, who founded a chinaware company and produced cameos distributed by anti-slavery campaigners; the medallions bore the legend “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Darwin’s mother and wife were Wedgwoods and anti-slavery was what Darwin called a “sacred cause”. He was taught to see the oppressed black as a “brother”. This explains why, when he went to Edinburgh University at 16, he could apprentice himself to a freed Guyanese slave to learn the art of bird preservation without thinking it [beneath his dignity] [Times Online]. Darwin later described that former slave as one of his intimate friends.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World

Mars Rover's Temporary "Amnesia" and Paralysis Puzzle NASA

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 10:45 am

Spirit roverJust weeks after NASA celebrated the Spirit rover‘s fifth anniversary on Mars, the robotic explorer suffered a mysterious glitch that caused it to freeze in place for a day. The rover couldn’t tell NASA what had gone wrong or even what it did for that stretch of time, and it even lost track of the sun. “We don’t have a good explanation yet for the way Spirit has been acting for the past few days,” said JPL team leader Sharon Laubach. “Our next steps will be diagnostic activities” [BBC News].

The glitch came last Sunday, which marked Spirit’s 1,800th Martian day, or sol, on the planet. NASA sent the rover its driving directions for the day and Spirit acknowledged receiving them, but then it failed to move. More strangely, the Spirit had no memory of what it had done for that part of Sol 1800. The rover did not record actions, as it otherwise always does, to the part of its computer memory that retains information even when power is turned off, the so-called nonvolatile memory. “It’s almost as if the rover had a bout of amnesia,” said John Callas, the project manager for the rovers [The New York Times]. When NASA directed the rover on Monday to photograph the sun to establish its orientation, Spirit did so but reported that the sun was not in its “expected location.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Mars rovers, NASA, robots

First Ever Weather Report From an Exoplanet: Highs of 2240 Degrees

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 8:51 am

exoplanet weatherFor the first time, researchers have watched weather conditions shift on a planet outside our solar system, and say the temperature spikes are out of this world. Normally, the planet is a toasty 980 degrees [Fahrenheit] or so. But in the few hours it whips around its sun the planet gets zapped with mega-heat, pushing the thermometer closer to 2,240 degrees…. When it comes closest to its star, it becomes one giant “brewing storm” [AP].

The gas giant, known as HD 80606b, lies about 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, and has an extremely elliptical orbit. When it’s closest to its sun, it is barely more than 300,000 miles away – not much more distant than our cold moon is from us. But when the planet is farthest away from its sun and coolest, it’s nearly 70 million miles away. That would be like some object flying somewhere far out between the orbits of Earth and Venus [San Francisco Chronicle]. One complete orbit around its sun takes 111 days.

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