Archive for August, 2010

California Pushes Ahead With Massive Solar Thermal Projects

By Andrew Moseman | August 27, 2010 1:14 pm

blytheCalifornia’s aggressive energy rules require its utilities to hit an ambitious target: 20 percent of their electricity should come from renewable sources by the end of this year. They’re not going to make it. But because of the drive for renewables, they are close to building some of the biggest solar power projects in the country—including one that would be the biggest ever.

The Beacon Solar Energy Project received the seal of approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC) this week. Beacon will be a 250-megawatt plant built north of Los Angeles near Mojave, California, and would cover more than 2,000 acres.

Beacon is solar thermal: Rather than converting sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal projects use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun, creating steam to turn turbines.

California hasn’t issued a license for this kind of big “solar thermal” power plant in about 20 years. But in the coming months, the energy commission will vote on eight other, large-scale solar projects that the state needs to meet its renewable energy goals. [San Francisco Chronicle]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Is an Ant Colony's Caste System Determined by Epigenetics?

By Joseph Calamia | August 27, 2010 1:00 pm

antWhat does it take to be a long-living queen? Change your gene expression, say researchers who analyzed both worker ant and queen ant genes in two ant species–making the humble bug the second social insect (after the bee) to get sequenced.

Their results appear today in Science and suggest that epigenetic changes–molecular switches that alter gene expression–may mean the difference between the queen’s long life, and the workers’ short one. Epigenetic changes don’t actually modify the underlying genetic code, instead they’re carried out by mechanisms that act like on and off switches for genes. That could explain how a queen and worker ant can have the same genetic blueprints but very different lives.

“Ants are extremely social creatures and their ability to survive depends on their community in a very similar way to humans,” says [co-author Danny] Reinberg, who is also a member of the NYU Cancer Institute. “Whether they are workers, soldiers or queens, ants seem to be a perfect fit to study whether epigenetics influences behavior and aging.” [Arizona State University]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

MIT Invents a Swarm of Sea-Skimming, Oil-Collecting Robots

By Andrew Moseman | August 27, 2010 10:25 am

swarmbotEarlier this week, DISCOVER brought you oil-cleaning bacteria. Today, we bring you oil-cleaning bots.

This weekend in watery Venice, Italy, MIT scientists will demonstrate a creation called Seaswarm, a fleet of autonomous swimming bots intended to skim the water’s surface; each bot would drag a sort of mesh net to collect the crude sitting there. According to their creators, the machines will be able to find oil on their own and talk to one another to compute the most efficient way to tidy it up.

The Seaswarm robots, which were developed by a team from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water [CNN].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

When Caterpillars Attack, Tobacco Plants Use Their Own Spit Against Them

By Andrew Moseman | August 26, 2010 5:25 pm

Tobacco-hornwormIf you’re a tobacco hornworm caterpillar, your own spit can come back to bite you: That plant you tried to eat for dinner can use your own saliva to summon larger animals that might like to make you their dinner.

According to a study in Science, the tobacco plant has evolved a clever defense against hungry insects—it calls in the insects’ predators for help:

When a leaf is wounded, plants immediately release a “bouquet” of distress chemicals known as green leaf volatiles (GLVs) into the air. GLVs are formed when long fatty acid chains in the cell membranes are chopped up into six-carbon molecules as a result of damage. These molecules can exist in two different shapes, or isomers, depending on the position of a double bond between two of the carbons [The Scientist].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

The Eyes Have It: Lab-Made Corneas Restore Vision

By Joseph Calamia | August 26, 2010 4:57 pm

biosyntheticSix patients’ eyes have connected with “biosynthetic” replacement corneas, growing nerves and cells into the fakes as if they were real human tissue. With more trials and improvements in implant technique, researchers say the biosynthetic corneas might replace the expensive, rejection-prone, and scarce cadaver corneas that are currently used in transplants. This is good news for people who have lost vision due to inflamed or scarred corneas, and who are hoping to bring the world back into focus.

The findings appeared yesterday in Science Translational Medicine. The corneas allowed six out of a total of ten trial patients with advanced keratoconus, a condition which causes corneal scarring, to see just as well as if they had a traditional cadaver cornea replacement. Natural corneas, which refract light coming into the eye and help it to focus, consist of parallel strands of collagen; the biosynthetic corneas used collagen made in a lab by the biotech company Fibrogen.

“This study … is the first to show that an artificially fabricated cornea can integrate with the human eye and stimulate regeneration,” said May Griffith of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, who led the study. “With further research, this approach could help restore sight to millions of people who are waiting for a donated human cornea for transplantation.” [Reuters]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

Astronomers Find 2 Giant Exoplanets Locked in an Endless Dance

By Andrew Moseman | August 26, 2010 4:19 pm

Kepler2planetsThe two newest planets spied by the Kepler space telescope are locked in a forever back-and-forth.

When Kepler’s scientists saw a star 2,000 light years away dim slightly, they knew there was the chance it was the telltale signature of a planet passing in front. But when the calculations were done and the confirmation came in, they found a surprise—what they’d seen was actually two planets transiting in front of the star.

NASA says it’s the first time they’ve ever caught such a sight, and today the scientists officially announced the finding with a study in Science. While other studies have found multiple planets around a single star–in fact, it happened earlier this week–those studies have used different planet-detection techniques like the wobble method.

The two worlds, both gas giants, do more than orbit the same star on the same plane, though. They push and pull each other in a motion that keeps the two exoplanets close to arithmetic celestial perfection. Kepler-9B, the larger, orbits the star in 19.24 days on average, the astronomers saw. Kepler-9c, the smaller, completes a revolution in an average of 38.91 days. But every time the scientists checked, 9b’s orbit was getting 4 minutes longer, while 9c’s shrank by 39 minutes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Behemoth Black Holes Were Born in Violent Galactic Collisions

By Joseph Calamia | August 26, 2010 11:39 am
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If you want to make a supermassive black hole quickly, collide young, massive proto-galaxies. After running the numbers on a supercomputer, that’s what researchers have recently concluded. Their simulation shows that a collision between massive gas clouds could make a black hole “from scratch” in a relatively short time.

Supermassive black hole truly are super massive–possibly billions of times the mass of our sun. They also appear to be super old; some estimates say they formed less than a billion years after the Big Bang. Thus the puzzle, how do you get so big so quickly?

The paper which appeared online yesterday in Nature (with associated letter) modeled the collision of two gas clouds that formed into a unstable gas disk, which channeled gas into its center. Eventually this dense center collapsed in on itself to make the black hole king. (See simulations of the proto-galaxies colliding, above.)

“It has been perplexing how such black holes with masses billions of times the mass of the sun could exist so early in the history of the universe,” astronomer Julie Comerford of University of California Berkeley, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an e-mail to Wired.com. “These simulations are an important advance in understanding how those supermassive black holes were built up so quickly.” [Wired]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space

Scientist Smackdown: Are Solar Neutrinos Messing With Matter?

By Andrew Moseman | August 26, 2010 10:52 am

SunSDOThe sun is breaking the known rules of physics—so said headlines that made the rounds of the Web this week.

That claim from a release out about a new study by researchers Jere Jenkins and Ephraim Fischbach of Purdue, and Peter Sturrock of Stanford. The work suggests that the rates of radioactive decay in isotopes—thought to be a constant, and used to date archaeological objects—could vary oh-so-slightly, and interaction with neutrinos from the sun could be the cause. Neutrinos are those neutral particles that pass through matter and rarely interact with it; trillions of neutrinos are thought to pass through your body every second.

In the release itself, the researchers say that it’s a wild idea: “‘It doesn’t make sense according to conventional ideas,’ Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, ‘What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.’”

Could it possibly be true? I consulted with Gregory Sullivan, professor and associate chair of physics at the University of Maryland who formerly did some of his neutrino research at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan, and with physicist Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Physics & Math

Stem Cell Decision Fallout: What's Next, and Who Were the Plaintiffs?

By Andrew Moseman | August 25, 2010 5:42 pm

test tubes220Stem cell work will go on. But the shape of its long-term future is a mystery.

A court ruling yesterday that said the federal government can’t fund embryonic stem cell research even if no money goes to destroying embryos has thrown the field into confusion. Today, though, NIH head Francis Collins says that while the government can’t fund new projects (at least until the legal dispute is resolved), researchers in the middle of federally funded projects can continue.

The Justice Department said yesterday it will appeal the injunction issued Monday by a federal judge in Washington. Collins said that if the decision stands, it puts in jeopardy a fast-moving area of science that offers potential treatments for spinal cord injury, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as help in screening new drugs. “This decision has just poured sand into this engine of discovery,’’ he said [Boston Globe].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

How Many Tiny Frogs Can Dance on the Tip of a Pencil?

By Andrew Moseman | August 25, 2010 3:21 pm

TinyfrogBehold its minute majesty.

The micro frog’s moniker is Microhyla nepenthicola. It grows to just a half-inch long or less. It lives in pitcher plants, and it’s the smallest Old World frog species ever found. (The only smaller frog in the entire world is found in Cuba.)

Dr Indraneil Das of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the sub-species had originally been mis-identified in museums. “Scientists presumably thought they were juveniles of other species, but it turns out they are adults of this newly-discovered micro species,” he said [Reuters].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
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