Category: Top Posts

How Scientists Detect Nuclear Explosions Around the World

By Carl Engelking | January 6, 2016 4:34 pm
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(Credit: CUTWORLD/Shutterstock)

The world was literally shaken before news broke that North Korea detonated what leaders in the Hermit Kingdom claimed was a hydrogen bomb Tuesday morning local time.

Officials and experts around the world quickly cast doubt on that claim, as the amount of energy produced by the explosion was likely too small to be that of a hydrogen bomb. Instead, early evidence suggests North Korea may have instead detonated a boosted-fission bomb, which produces a smaller explosive yield. It will likely take several more days to determine what kind of nuclear device Pyongyang actually detonated. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

The Limits of Fight-or-Flight Training

By Ben Thomas | January 5, 2016 11:30 am
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(Credit: Adam Ziaja/Shutterstock)

The soldiers at Checkpoint 56 ordered the woman to stop.

She was Palestinian, the soldiers were Israeli, and this checkpoint divided the Israeli and Palestinian-controlled sections of Hebron on the West Bank. The checkpoint’s metal detector had gone off when the woman walked through. The soldiers ordered her to raise her veil. She refused.

Then she pulled a knife. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

3 Implications of Memory-Boosting Devices

By Ben Thomas | December 22, 2015 3:18 pm
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Scientists are only beginning to advance memory-enhancing technology research, but even in this early stage, there are questions that deserve consideration. (Illustration credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

In fall, DARPA announced a major success in its Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program. Researchers implanted targeted electrical arrays in the brains of a few dozen volunteers — specifically in brain areas involved in memory.

The researchers found a way to read out neural “key codes” associated with specific memories, and then fed those codes back into the volunteers’ brains as they tried to recall lists of items or directions to places. While the results are still preliminary, DARPA claims that the RAM technique has already achieved “promising results” in improving memory retrieval.

Intriguing as this implant is, it’s only the latest in an ongoing series of neurological techniques and gizmos designed to boost and sharpen memory. The effects and implications of these systems raise questions that are worth consideration. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, Top Posts

How GMOs Will Let Astronauts Live on Mars

By Sarah Scoles | December 18, 2015 11:57 am
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(Credit: NASA)

Don’t panic, future astronauts, but GMOs will probably accompany you on your adventures to deep space.

Scientists hope to genetically engineer organisms to survive off-Earth and to do some of the dirty work on spaceships and other planets. The field of study is called “space synthetic biology.” And this new frontier in genetic research could be key to opening up the final frontier.

Biology as Technology

Synthetic biology refers, generally speaking, to the work of giving some organism altered or even novel characteristics by changing its genes. Space synthetic biologists genetically alter organisms to make them more space-worthy — resistant to radiation or heat, for instance — and to make them useful to space missions — like turning Martian dirt into concrete. It sounds “out-there,” but microbes already make our planet habitable and pleasant.

“We’re breathing oxygen that was biologically produced,” says Lynn Rothschild, the head of the synthetic biology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “I’m wearing cotton that was biologically produced.”

We’re not going to take sheep on space missions, she clarifies, but we could take the capabilities of oxygen- and cotton-making plants and put them into the DNA of more portable life, like yeast. “Start looking at biology as technology,” she says, a “genetic hardware story” that could infuse all aspects of space missions.

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A petri dish with specimens lit by LED lights at an Ames Research Center laboratory. (Credit: NASA)

Rothschild advises the Stanford-Brown team in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, where her groups have, among other things, made wires using DNA as a template; created a biodegradable drone; and taken genes from extreme bacteria and inserted them into E. coli to create hybrid organisms that resist extreme pH, temperature, and dryness. They called it the Hell Cell.

Such bio-based technology, according to a November report from a team led by Amor Menezes California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences in Berkeley, requires 26-85 percent less mass than “abiotic” (non-living) systems. For instance, a spaceship could carry a habitat to Mars, like the Apollo missions did to the moon, but no one wants to live in a tin can, and also that tin can is heavy.

“Think in analogy with early long-term travel on Earth,” says Rothschild, like pilgrims to North America. “They didn’t bring houses. They learned to live off the land.”

Jobs for Microbes…in Space

Future astronauts will have to live off of inhospitable land and also spaceships, which have no land. Menezes’s report sets forth a plan for those astronauts, suggesting directions the research could go. The microbes we use for terrestrial composting and waste treatment, for instance, produce nitrous oxide, which is spaceship go-juice. We could genetically engineer those microbes to do their duties in space, with different oxygen requirements and faster reaction capabilities but the same basic chemistry. Just by pooping and making trash, then, astronauts could create the raw material for fuel.

Once those refuse-creating colonists arrive on Mars, they could use carried-on microbes to mine the materials for building their new homes. Microbes that make acid could dissolve the Martian rock that surrounds metals, leaving just “the resource.” Or we could engineer microbes to dissolve the resource itself, so that it flows out and can then be reconstituted into a colonial outpost.

Construction companies on Mars could take the “regolith,” or surface material, and bind it together using natural glue, like mussel foot protein (engineered for optimal performance on Mars). Scientists could also make microbes that chew on the regolith and spit out calcium or iron to make “biocement.”

Leftovers!

Poop processing, manufacturing, and construction all leave behind useful byproducts, like methane, which could help keep the colony’s lights on. The outpost, while electrified, wouldn’t have many frills. But scientists do have to ensure astronauts’ basics: air, water, and food, indefinitely.

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The six major challenges for space synthetic biology. (Credit: Hugo Teixeira via Royal Society Interface)

Menezes recommends that we develop space-friendly microbes that can turn byproducts of wastewater treatment into food (yum!). While the food doesn’t have to be Michelin-star-quality, it does have to qualify as “nutrient-dense biomass that supplements astronaut dry-food while being versatile in flavor and texture.”

If the walls of a ship or colony were alive (it’s not creepy), the microbes could up-cycle carbon dioxide into oxygen and would — bonus! — shield astronauts from radiation. Not only does radiation zap our DNA with cancerous mutations, it also makes medicines expire faster.

Engineering the Medicine Cabinet

People will still get sick in space, so synthetic biologists are also working on bio-based medical care. Microorganisms and plants could be engineered to make medicines and to shift the microbiome — the community that lives in symbiosis with each of us — back into order.

“If astronauts could grow their medicine in algae I think that would be super cool,” says Josiah Zayner, a space synthetic biologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who was not an author on the paper, “but I think it would take a lot of money and resources to make this happen.”

But what if the ship or colony were even more alive, Menezes wonders, full of biosensors and biological control systems? If it sounds a little too Battlestar Galactica-Cylon for comfort, don’t worry yet, says Zayner. “Honestly, I think this is just their ‘out there’ idea,” he says. “Systems that they are describing have not really been invented yet. They lost me at ‘hybrid robot version of tumor killing bacteria.’”

Me too.

But it’s not that out there, contends Menezes.

“The space cybernetics grand challenge essentially calls for implementing control systems ideas into biological systems,” he says — the same control systems that put people on the moon and let Curiosity rove on Mars. But with biology. Integrating the two with technology will “take some time,” he continues, but “complete and tested space synthetic biology systems should be ready within a couple of decades, and if not in time for the first U.S. human Mars expedition, certainly by the second or third one.”

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An artist’s rendering of Martian living quarters covered with soil to shield the crew from the sun’s radiation. (Credit: NASA)

But even a cybernetic ship or colony with living walls, algae gardens, and nutrient-dense biomass isn’t quite enough for a self-sustaining, long-lived Martian habitat. To create that, we either need to make Mars a planet like Earth — or we need to make a miniature Earth on Mars.

To “terraform” a planet is to Earthify it. But “paraterraforming” is the more realistic step down: turning a smaller, contained space into a self-sustaining, human-friendly place. In the case of Mars, this would be a habitable spot surrounded by god-awful instant-death desert. Scientists would have to engineer an entire ecosystem that creates what astronauts need to eat, drink, breathe, and stay healthy, sane, and productive. All while recycling their waste products and keeping their environment cut off from the aforementioned god-awful instant-death desert — using microbes.

“This, I think should be the number-one research goal before missions to Mars,” says Zayner.

Reality Check

And the missions to Mars are what Menezes’ report looks toward.

“All of this is coming from the viewpoint of making it to Mars in the next 20 years and not from the viewpoint of what synthetic biology will be doing in 20 years,” says Zayner, “because that is extremely hard to plan for.” And it depends on the available of both cash and people to do the job.

Zayner also cautions that any life-based space systems will need to be tested and built years before they appear on a crewed capsule or a colony on the Red Planet. As a result, the bleeding-edge technology that exists when a Mars mission launches probably won’t be part of that Mars trip — well-characterized, older technology likely will be. That’s true in any space mission, which engineers blueprint and begin building many years before launch.

But Menezes says the gap between prototype and practical use is shrinking, largely because the space industry is no longer run entirely by a government.

“Just yesterday, I learned that there was a recent project that went from concept idea to actual space deployment within six months,” he says. “Although this timeline is atypical at the moment, with the advent of commercial space ventures, it is now possible to partner to quickly test and characterize fruitful ideas in space.”

But after the ship launches with its promising technology, problems could arise on Mars, too. The regolith that we might use for construction contains perchlorates, salts that can be toxic to humans. Toxic bricks do not an ideal colony build.

“Perchlorates are certainly a problem at the moment,” says Menezes. But we could figure out how to deal with those, and, in our initial attempts at exploiting Mars’s resources, use Mars’s air instead of its land. “For instance, 95 percent of the Mars atmosphere is carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide will be the primary carbon source for the microbes.”

While making our own special-snowflake space biology sounds sci-fi, non-fictional scientists are working to make the concepts nonfictional, too. To engineer organisms that will be useful on other planets, they first look to our own world and its biology. And in altering and organizing those biological beasts into useful space systems, scientists will also learn how to make life better back on Earth.

“The possibilities of space synthetic biology are truly endless, yet each of them has immense importance back on Earth,” says Menezes.

Synthetic biological solutions to space problems in medicine, food, and carbon dioxide can address similar issues on Earth: personalized medicine, agriculture for growing populations, and fixing our carbon-dioxide-laden atmosphere. And while paraterraformed spaces give astronauts a safe place to sleep, the technologies can also help us learn to live sustainably on Earth. A Martian colony would be the ultimate zero-waste green space, whose ethos every earthling should get behind.

“I find the notion of doing ‘far-out space stuff’ that is simultaneously a priority on Earth really captivating and compelling,” says Menezes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars, space exploration

Stonehenge Wasn’t the First ‘Second-Hand’ Prehistoric Monument

By Mike Parker Pearson, University College London | December 11, 2015 2:59 pm
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(Credit: Fulcanelli/Shutterstock)

I led the team of researchers that discovered that Stonehenge was most likely to have been originally built in Pembrokeshire, Wales, before it was taken apart and transported some 180 miles to Wiltshire, England. It may sound like an impossible task without modern technology, but it wouldn’t have been the first time prehistoric Europeans managed to move a monument.

Archaeologists are increasingly discovering megaliths across the continent – albeit a small number so far – that were previously put up in earlier monuments. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

How Terrorist Attacks Influence Mental Health

By Daniel Antonius, The State University of New York | December 4, 2015 11:26 am
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A growing body of research examines the psychological aftermath of terrorist attacks, such as the coordinated attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. (Credit: Stacey Newman / Shutterstock.com)

On November 13 2015, a series of coordinated attacks in Paris left 130 people dead. A week later, armed gunmen stormed a hotel in Mali, seizing hostages while also firing indiscriminately at guests, killing 27 people. And this week a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, left 14 dead. While the motive is not known, the FBI has assigned counterterrorism agents to the case, sparking public speculation that the shooting may have been an act of terrorism.

You could spend hours every day watching, reading and listening to news related to these events. This level of exposure can significantly influence your worldviews and how you live your life. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

Beyond Mars: The Distant Future of Space Exploration

By David Warmflash | December 3, 2015 12:19 pm
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An artist’s rendering of a multifunction Mars base. (Credit: NASA/Glenn Research Center)

Louis Friedman has always balanced his optimistic vision for the future of human space exploration with a dose of reality, and his tempered outlook courses through his new book, Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars, in which he charts the distant future of human space travel.

Friedman is optimistic that human space exploration will continue well into the future. However, here’s that dose of reality from Friedman: humans will never venture beyond Mars, at least not in any historically significant way. Once humans tame Mars, how will humanity continue to explore cosmic frontiers, and to what end? Space travel, according to Friedman, will be an act more focused on transporting our minds — with the help of new technologies — rather than our bodies. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars, space exploration

The Psychological Benefits of Thanksgiving Rituals

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(Credit: Brian Chase/Shutterstock)

When Americans gather together around a table groaning with favorite dishes on the fourth Thursday of November, what are we doing beyond filling our bellies with turkey and pie? We convened four experts in the psychology of family traditions and shared meals for a roundtable discussion about what ritual means in the context of Thanksgiving. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

5 Extreme Examples of Evolutionary Prowess

By Marla Broadfoot | November 25, 2015 11:00 am
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An illustration of the water bear. (Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock)

Hidden among us are survivors – living, breathing beings that have pulled off some pretty remarkable feats in order to live another day. They can be found ambling through the moss beneath our feet, drifting in our oceans and our streams, even stuck in the local pet store or on the subway. You just have to know where to look.

These creatures give clues into how we could withstand extreme conditions, regrow damaged tissue or missing limbs, turn back the hands of time, guard ourselves from illness, and perhaps even achieve humankind’s most elusive goal – immortality. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Taming the New Frontiers in Gene Editing

By Sarah Scoles | November 17, 2015 1:10 pm

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The world’s most powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, gives humans the ability to swap out sections of the genome with less money and time than ever before. That’s a lot of power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

But right now, most of the world doesn’t have regulations about what scientists — and someday, hobbyists — can and can’t do to the double helix. In China, scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 to modify human embryos. And that has left the rest of the world a little nervous. Read More

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