Archive for May, 2009

Mice With a Human Language Gene Have Altered Squeaks and Brain Structure

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 5:12 pm

lab mouseResearchers have endowed lab mice with the human version of a gene involved in language, and while the mice didn’t exactly sit up and start reciting poetry about cheese, they did show some intriguing differences in both their vocal patterns and brain structure.

Mice have their own form of the gene, called FOXP2, but they and all other animals lack key changes found only in humans and our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals. Some researchers speculate that these differences may help explain why humans are the only animal able to communicate with complex languages, and not simple grunts, barks or songs [New Scientist]. By tweaking the gene in mice and changing it to the human form, researchers hoped to get a clue as to how our early hominid ancestors were changed by the new form of the gene.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain

At the National Ignition Facilty, Let the Nuclear Fusion Begin! Hopefully.

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 2:18 pm

NIF target chamberLuminaries gathered today at a lab in Livermore, California to toast the opening of the National Ignition Facility, a massive physics experiment aiming to recreate the reaction that takes place in the hearts of stars: nuclear fusion. “Bringing Star Power to Earth” reads a giant banner that was recently unfurled across a building the size of a football stadium [The New York Times]. Scientists are now ready to begin firing the world’s most powerful laser, comprised of 192 separate beams, at a target the size of a match head. Yet for all the celebration and hoopla, doubters note that there’s no guarantee that the fusion researchers will achieve their goal.

The project’s director, Ed Moses, said that getting to the cusp of ignition (defined as the successful achievement of fusion) had taken some 7,000 workers and 3,000 contractors a dozen years, their labors creating a precision colossus of millions of parts and 60,000 points of control, 30 times as many as on the space shuttle. “It’s the cathedral story,” Dr. Moses said…. “We put together the best physicists, the best engineers, the best of industry and academia” [The New York Times]. The project has also cost at least $3.5 billion. NIF’s researchers will spend the next year gradually increasing the energy of the laser beams, and say serious ignition experiments will begin next year.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

In the Permian Period, Erupting Super-Volcanoes May Have Killed Half the Planet

By Allison Bond | May 29, 2009 1:31 pm

volcanoThe explosion of a volcano located in present-day China might have caused a mass extinction 260 million years ago, adding more evidence that volcanoes might have been to blame for some of the world’s most catastrophic die-offs. Because the eruptions occurred in a shallow sea the researchers were able to study both the volcanic rock and the overlying layer of sedimentary rock containing fossilized marine life [AP], giving researchers a better picture of how the explosion altered the balance of life.

The injection of hot lava in a sea would have produced a massive cloud formation that could spread around the world, cooling the planet and producing acid rain [AP], according to the study, which was published in Science and led by paleontologist Paul Wignall. Based on analysis of the volcanic and sedimentary rock at the eruption site, the scientists hypothesized that ash and lava spewed from a sea covering the volcano, showering plants and animals with atmospheric carbon. “When fast flowing, low viscosity magma meets shallow sea it’s like throwing water into a chip pan there’s spectacular explosion producing gigantic clouds of steam” [Telegraph], says Wignall.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

A Safer Way to Transform Skin Cells Into Stem Cells Brings Medical Trials Closer

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 10:52 am

iPS cellsResearchers have found a new way to reprogram human skin cells to act like multipurpose stem cells, and say their safe technique produces stem cells that are ready for medical use. If the researchers are right, clinical trials on the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can turn into virtually any cell type and potentially be used to treat disorders ranging from spinal cord injury to diabetes, could start within two years [Nature News].

Many experts say that reprogrammed skin cells have several advantages over embryonic stem cells, for reasons both societal and medical. Using adult cells dodges the ethical controversy involved in taking cells from embryos, and it also raises the possibility that patients’ own cells could be used in their medical treatment, negating the chance that the cells would be rejected by their bodies. But reprogramming cells is still a scientific frontier, and researchers have struggled to find safe ways to accomplish the feat.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

In the Arctic Oil & Gas Lottery, Russia Looks Like a Big Winner

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 9:16 am

arcticAs global warming gradually melts away the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the oil and gas deposits buried in that inaccessible region are becoming a lot less theoretical to the five northern nations with claims to those riches. “For better or worse, limited ­exploration prospects in the rest of the world ­combined with technological advances make the Arctic increasingly attractive for ­development,” said Paul Berkman, … who specialises in the politics of the Arctic [The Guardian]. Now, a new study has estimated how much oil and gas may lie beneath the Arctic seabed, declaring that it contains about 30 percent of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.

Researchers estimate that the Arctic holds about about 83 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, but say that’s not enough to challenge the dominance of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states. Meanwhile, the researchers say that the Arctic’s estimated 1,550 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is concentrated in marine territory claimed by Russia, ensuring that Russia will continue to be the world’s largest producer of gas. “These findings suggest that in the future the … pre-eminence of Russian strategic control of gas resources in particular is likely to be accentuated and extended,” said Donald L. Gautier, lead author of the study [AP].

Russia has not been shy about pressing its claim to the polar region: In 2007 two Russian civilian mini-submarines descended to the seabed to collect geological and water samples and drop a titanium canister containing the Russian flag [AP]. The other four northernmost nations — Canada, the United States, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland) — have also sought some jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Your Belly Button Is a Lush Oasis for Bacteria, and That's a Good Thing

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 5:19 pm

skin bacteriaResearchers are singing a song of praise for armpits, groins, and all the other moist parts of the body that polite society prefers not to contemplate.

On the microbial level, a person’s underarms are akin to lush rain forests brimming with diversity—and that’s a good thing—according to a new “topographic map” of human skin. Most of our skin is like an arid desert, said study co-author Julia Segre… “But as you walk through this desert you encounter an oasis, which is the inside of your nose,” she said. “You encounter a stream, which is a moist crease. [These] areas are like habitats rich in diversity” [National Geographic News]. In the new study, the researchers cataloged the bacteria distributed across human skin, and note that a better understanding of these native bacteria of the epidermis may help doctors promote skin health and fight skin diseases.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: bacteria, biodiversity, skin

A Novel Suggestion for Combating Cancer: Don't Try to Cure It

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 3:56 pm

chemotherapyWhat if we stopped trying to cure cancer, and learned how to live with it? That’s the provocative question asked by  mathematical oncologist Robert Gatenby in an essay published in Nature (subscription required). Gatenby argues that by trying to eradicate tumors with heavy doses of chemotherapy, doctors sometimes end up selecting for drug-resistant cancer cells that can spread rapidly once treatment is halted. Instead, he suggests giving patients moderate doses that aim to stabilize the tumor and prevent its growth.

If doctors were guided by this principle, it would change treatment fundamentally, Gatenby says. “Your whole goal is to keep the tumor stable…. With a mouse ovarian cancer model, if you treat it with a very high dose, the tumor goes away. It looks like you’ve cured it. But a couple weeks later it comes back and starts killing animals. This is a standard outcome. What we did is use smaller doses of drugs and applied them when necessary. We were able to keep tumors stable and mice alive indefinitely” [Wired], he says.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: cancer

The Dilemma of the Dinosaur Stance: How Did They Hold Their Heads?

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 2:29 pm

sauropodThe lumbering, long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods are a staple of natural history museums and gift shops, but a new debate has broken out that challenges the poses of the museums’ life-sized replicas and the toy shops’ plastic figurines. The mighty sauropods Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus are commonly positioned with their long necks stretched before them, but a controversial new study argues that they actually stretched their necks up to the treetops. If sauropods did indeed hold their heads aloft like giraffes, some would have stood almost 50 feet tall.

For the new study, published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, paleontologist Mike Taylor and his colleagues took the straight-forward approach of studying the x-rays of 10 different groups of vertebrate animals. Says Taylor: “Unless sauropods carried their heads and necks differently from every living vertebrate, we have to assume the base of their neck was curved strongly upwards. In some sauropods this would have meant a graceful S-curve to the neck, and a look different from the recreations we are used to seeing today” [The Australian].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: birds, dinosaurs

Can Sight Be Restored With Stem Cells Grown on Contact Lenses?

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 10:49 am

eyeThree patients with severe damage to the corneas of their eyes have achieved dramatic improvements in their vision thanks to contact lenses coated with their own stem cells. While the study was extremely small and the results are quite preliminary, the unequivocal improvement seen in the three patients has given doctors hope that the treatment may work for many patients with damaged corneas. Two of the three patients were legally blind in the treated eye; they can now read big letters on the eye chart. The third could read the top few rows of the chart but is now able to pass the vision test for a driving license [The Australian].

The cornea is the transparent layer that covers the eye – but it can lose transparency, damaging sight. In the most serious cases, people can need cornea grafts or transplants. Corneal disease can be caused by genetic disorders, surgery, burns, infections or chemotherapy. In this study, all three patients had damage to the epithelium – the layer of cells covering the front of the cornea [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

For the First Time, Astronomers Observe the Phases of a Red-Hot Exoplanet

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 9:07 am

exoplanet phasesFour hundred years ago, Galileo observed the phases of Venus as the planet orbited our sun and caught its light in different ways, helping to disprove the idea that all celestial bodies twirled around the Earth. Now, the professional descendants of Galileo have observed the phases of an exoplanet for the first time, observing the distant planet in the act of orbiting a foreign star.

The planet, CoRoT-1b, is about 1,600 light years away from Earth, and was discovered about 2 years ago. It’s a “hot Jupiter,” a class of exoplanets that are the size of Jupiter but orbit very closely to their stars (CoRoT-1b orbits its star in just 36 hours). Hot Jupiters are expected to be tidally locked, with one side always facing their stars, the other permanently dark (our own moon is tidally locked with the Earth, only showing its “near side” to us) [SPACE.com].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
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