Archive for February, 2011

In Bird Flu-Swine Flu Hybrids, a Clue to What Makes a Super-Strain

By Andrew Moseman | February 28, 2011 5:45 pm

Swine flu is not gone, and it is not stagnant. Though the public health scare about the 2009 swine flu pandemic subsided, the virus—like avian flu—remains in pockets of animals, shuffling its genes while hidden from the watchful eyes of virus experts. Virologists call this genetic switcheroo “reassortment,” and it’s how new and dangerous strains of flu snuck up on humankind in the past—and how they could do it again. This time, though, virologist Jinhua Liu and colleagues are trying to get a jump on the viruses.

For a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, this team of Chinese researchers simulated what could be a dire situation for humans: swine flu (H1N1) and avian flu (H9N2) together in one animal. When these flu strains are together they can exchange genetic material. So to test what that mixing might produce, Liu’s team swapped genes between the two and created 127 hybrid viruses, testing each on mice.

Eight of these hybrid strains turned out to be more virulent and dangerous in the mice than their parent strains of swine flu and bird flu. [National Geographic]

According to Dutch virologist Ab Osterhaus, we can’t be sure that these eight nasty strains are the ones that would hit humans hardest—animal studies aren’t perfect.

“Mice mirror, to a certain extent, what happens in humans,” he says, but they are not perfect model animals. Liu agrees. He plans to investigate how contagious his new viral blends are in guinea pigs and ferrets—animals whose respiratory system better reflects our own feverish battle with flu. [ScienceNOW]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

News Roundup: Gmail Crashes, Fire Ant Invasions, & Scientists in Space

By Andrew Moseman | February 28, 2011 3:41 pm

  • Who needs a vomit comet? The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado reached a deal with Virgin Galactic to send some of its scientists up on SpaceShipTwo’s suborbital flights, allowing them to conducts tests in weightlessness.
  • Fire ants may have originated in South America, but their home base for invading the world at large is right here in the United States. So says a new study of more than 2,000 fire ant colonies spread around the globe.
  • Gone in a flash: About 150,000 Gmail users woke up to find their mailboxes wiped clean—messages, folders, and all. Google is racing to recover the lost correspondences. In the meantime, this is a reminder of two things. First, you should back up your email. And second, Google is really, really big. Those 150,000 people represent just .08 percent of Gmail users.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journal Roundup, Space, Technology

Who Needs Twitter? Libyan Protesters Covertly Connect on Dating Website

By Andrew Moseman | February 28, 2011 1:29 pm

“May your day be full of jasmine.” “My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence.” “I LLLLLove you.” No, this isn’t the tortured verse of botanically inclined lovesick teens. It’s the coded poetry of revolution.

As uprisings spread across northern Africa this month, protesters lit up social networking sites with updates—even Egypt’s attempt to shut off the Internet couldn’t stop them completely. But in Libya, where the fight is getting hotter and hotter, few people use sites like Facebook or Twitter, and many would be afraid to write there openly. So protest leader Omar Shibliy Mahmoudi found a place where they could speak in code: dating sites.

Mahmoudi – leader of the Ekhtalef, or “Difference,” movement – acted as if he was looking for a wife under the profile name “Where is Miriam?” and sent coded love letters to spur people to revolution. Since men cannot talk to other men on the site, revolutionaries posed as women to make contact with Mahmoudi, taking on names such as “Sweet Butterfly,” “Opener of the Mountain,” “Girl of the Desert” and “Melody of Torture.” [Herald Sun]

Once Mahmoudi connected with his sham love interests on the website (called Mawada), they bantered in cryptic poetry to suss out the other’s feelings. The “jasmine” reference above is a nod of support to the ongoing Jasmine Revolution. The five L’s in “”I LLLLLove you” means that a person has five supporters with them.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Cameras Catch Young Javan Rhinos, Boosting Hopes for a Comeback

By Andrew Moseman | February 28, 2011 10:20 am

Good news for one of the most endangered mammals on the planet: Cameras set up to track the rare Javan rhino in Indonesia have captured images of young calves, showing the species is still breeding.

“This is fantastic news because before these camera trap images surfaced, only 12 other Javan rhino births were recorded in the past decade,” WWF-Indonesia Ujung Kulon programme chief Adhi Hariyadi said. “The population in Ujung Kulon represents the last real hope for the survival of a species that is on the brink of extinction.” [AFP]

Scientists who track the species had feared that perhaps as few as 40 Javan rhinos remained. This video footage recorded in November and December of last year, as well as other observations, suggests that the population is probably a little larger now, but still only about 50.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Promising Cystic Fibrosis Drug Targets the Cause, Not the Symptoms

By Andrew Moseman | February 25, 2011 4:50 pm

A study of an experimental drug from the company Vertex, called VX-770, successfully reduced lung problems in CF patients, and the company hopes to try for approval of the drug later this year. If all goes well, doctors may soon have their first drug to treat the cause of this devastating disease, instead of just combatting the symptoms.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that impairs lung and digestive function. In particular, the normally thin layer of mucus in the lungs thickens up and impairs breathing; this happens because patients have a faulty version of a protein that helps clear mucus.

About 1800 different mutations in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene have been implicated in the disease. The gene encodes a molecular channel that shuttles chloride ions across cellular membranes, and people with two mutated copies develop mucus-filled lungs susceptible to infection. Few patients live to see their 30s. In 1989, CF became the first disease pinned to a specific gene mutation, without the benefit of knowing the protein first. [Nature]

This newest test was a Phase III trail of Vertex’s drug, which was funded in part by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The treatment goes after one major genetic mutations that causes the disease, called G551.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Our Galaxy May Have 50 Billion Exoplanets–and It's Still Making More

By Andrew Moseman | February 25, 2011 1:27 pm


Young. Old. Scalding hot. Icy cold. Terrestrial midgets. Gas giants. As the cavalcade of planets spotted beyond our solar system continues to grow, we get to see worlds of all sorts—and we get to speculate on the staggering number of exoplanets that might inhabit just our own galaxy.

Today’s first piece of otherworldly news involves baby exoplanets. Astronomer Christian Thalmann says his team may have spotted planets in the process of forming around three different stars, the first time scientists have spotted the process in action.

An infant star forms from a collapsing cloud of dust and gas and gathers a dense, flat disk of material that rotates with the star like a record album. The material in the disk will eventually clump up into nascent planets. Theoretical models of planet formation predicted that those protoplanets should suck up more gas and dust with their gravity, clearing a wide gap in the otherwise solid disk. [Wired]

Peering at young stars like T Chamaeleontis (T Cha) LkCa15 and AB Auriga, Thalmann and colleagues saw those telltale gaps in the dusty rings (their study is forthcoming in the Astrophysical Journal Letters). The stars are much like our own sun, so these pictures of infant solar systems could resemble what our own looked like as a baby. But though the stars are nearby in cosmic terms—T Cha lies just 350 light years away—the gaps are faint enough that it’s difficult to tell for certain if newly forming planets, and not the influence of binary stars or other objects, are creating them.

If Thalmann’s team is right, catching the birth of new worlds would be a great scientific coup. Our galaxy, however, isn’t exactly hurting for planets.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

NASA's Space Shuttle & Robot Astronaut Go Up, but Glory Stays Down

By Patrick Morgan | February 25, 2011 12:21 pm

For NASA, this was a week of launches and lack of launches. The space shuttle Discovery successfully blasted off yesterday on its final mission, but NASA’s climate-watching Glory satellite, which was scheduled to launch on Wednesday, is still stuck on the ground.

With an estimated 40,000 viewers at the Kennedy Space Center, Discovery launched at 4:53:24 p.m. ET on Thursday. Its crew of six is bound for the International Space Station, after four months of delay due to fuel tank repairs.

“Discovery now making one last reach for the stars,” the Mission Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared the launch tower. [CBS News]

Also on board is the first ever space-bound humanoid robot: Robonaut 2, or R2. This robot resembles a human from the waist up, and may eventually take on tedious chores and complete station repairs that are too dangerous for humans. At it entered space the robot tweeted (via its earthly handlers): “I’m in space! HELLO UNIVERSE!!!”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

How Turtles Use Earth's Magnetic Field To Navigate Ocean Voyages

By Andrew Moseman | February 25, 2011 10:00 am


From Ed Yong:

In 1996, a loggerhead turtle called Adelita swam across 9,000 miles from Mexico to Japan, crossing the entire Pacific on her way. Wallace J. Nichols tracked this epic journey with a satellite tag. But Adelita herself had no such technology at her disposal. How did she steer a route across two oceans to find her destination?

Nathan Putman has the answer. By testing hatchling turtles in a special tank, he has found that they can use the Earth’s magnetic field as their own Global Positioning System (GPS). By sensing the field, they can work out both their latitude and longitude and head in the right direction.

By testing turtle hatchlings in a tank surrounded by magnets he could control, Putman showed turtles could sense it if he reversed the magnetic field around them and would begin heading in the opposite direction.

For more about the experiment—and how turtles can travel so far at such high stakes with just magnetism to guide them—check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Foxes use the Earth’s magnetic field as a targeting system
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Robins can literally see magnetic fields, but only if their vision is sharp
80beats: Did Earth’s Magnetic Field Have a Fast Flip-Flop?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Found: Ancient Alaskan House—and Remains of a Child Cremated There

By Andrew Moseman | February 24, 2011 5:40 pm


We know the Bering land bridge that appeared between Alaska and Russia at least 14,000 years ago would have allowed ancient people to cross over into America. But what were those people like? Scant evidence has turned up to reveal their lifestyle, but in the journal Science this week archaeologists report a new find—one that’s simultaneously insightful and a portrait of sadness. Ben Potter and colleagues found an 11,500-year-old house that was apparently the scene of the loss of a child, as the fire pit shows the skeletal remains of a person about three years of age.

The bones are the oldest human remains yet discovered in northern North America, and provide a remarkable glimpse into the lives of the earliest North American settlers…. Older human remains and temporary hunting camps and work sites have been found, but longer-term habitations are rare. Yet the child’s young age – it was about 3 years old – and the type of food remains found at the new site, suggest it was the summer home for a group that comprised at least women and young children. [New Scientist]

The place is called Upper Sun River, located in central Alaska. The child has been given the name Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin, or “Upward Sun River Mouth Child.”

Potter … and his colleagues discovered the outlines of the foundation of a circular house, including a scattering of stone tools and animal bones on the floor and traces of posts that may have held up the walls and roof. As the team reports in this week’s issue of Science, the center of the house was taken up with a large circular pit containing the fragmented, partially burnt bones of the child. [ScienceNOW]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins

Google Street View Runs Into Controversies in Switzerland and Israel

By Patrick Morgan | February 24, 2011 4:51 pm

Last year, Google raised the ire of many when it confessed that its city-mapping Street View vehicles unintentionally gathered unencrypted Wi-Fi data as they rolled past people’s abodes. To fix its image and to fend off lawsuits, the company soon tightened its privacy policies and ensured that its Street View cars stopped collecting that information. But the controversies just won’t stop. Google is now trying to convince privacy-conscious Swiss officials to drop the country’s tight Street View restrictions, while security-conscious Israeli officials are concerned that the technology will help terrorists.

Twenty-seven countries have been partially mapped via Street View, a Google product that provides 360-degree panoramic views from ground level. The company creates these images by sending groups of camera-studded vehicles to various parts of the world to snap pictures as they drive.

Although Switzerland is home to one of Google’s largest offices outside the United States, the country has strict privacy laws that have prevented Google from loading new Street View images of Switzerland for the past year. On Thursday, Google petitioned a Swiss court to lift this ban. The search engine company told Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court that its technology automatically conceals the identity of faces and license plates, and that it is no different from rival services.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
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