If Mars Once Hosted Life, How Would We Know?

By Sarah Scoles | November 5, 2014 9:00 am

mars

Despite a few press-stopping false alarms and a long-standing sci-fi fascination, there’s no evidence of biology — microscopic, trilobitish, or creepily humanoid — on Mars.

But that hasn’t stopped the Curiosity rover from running around saying “This spot would have been habitable” and “That spot definitely has water.” And it hasn’t stopped astronomer Nathalie Cabrol from searching for the ever-elusive “biosignatures”: evidence, like geological graffiti, that proclaims “LIFE WUZ HERE.”

But it isn’t as easy as finding a spray-painted tag. First of all, the life almost certainly isn’t alive anymore. And second of all, it probably hasn’t been alive for a long time. Around 3.5 billion years ago, Mars changed from being a relatively nice place into the frozen radiation-zapped desert it is today. It was never San Juan, but it does seem to have had a milder climate, water oceans, and a thick, protective atmosphere. If this young sub-Caribbean Mars was home to life, that life may have left its mark. The problem is that we aren’t totally sure what that mark might look like.

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

From the Brink of Extinction, Some Frogs Defy the Odds

By Robin Moore | November 4, 2014 9:00 am
The Variable Harlequin Frog is just one of the so-called Lazarus frogs rediscovered in recent years.

The Variable Harlequin Frog is just one of the so-called Lazarus frogs rediscovered in recent years.

In 2003, two young biology students called Justin Yeager and Mark Pepper were in Costa Rica studying poison dart frogs when their guide presented them with a pair of beautiful orange-yellow and black frogs. They were left speechless, because in front of them was a species that was no longer meant to exist.

The Variable Harlequin Frog, Atelopus varius, had disappeared from cool streams across Costa Rica and Panama in the early 1990s, leaving not even a corpse to mark its existence. Its vanishing, alongside myriad other frogs including the famed golden toad, was later attributed to the wave-like spread of a pandemic pathogen – a fungus responsible for the greatest disease-driven loss of biodiversity in our times – against a backdrop of a changing climate and dwindling and damaged habitats.

In the wake of such carnage, was the variable harlequin frog a lone survivor? Could it increase our understanding of the current mass extinction and help us stem the hemorrhaging of life from our planet?

The harlequin frog, it would turn out, was not alone. Five years after its rediscovery herpetologist Robert Puschendorf was crashing through the dry forests of north Australia when he found a small population of Armored Mist Frog, Litoria lorica, living with the very same chytrid fungus that was believed to have wiped it out 17 years previously. The following year in New South Wales the Yellow-spotted Bell Frog, Litoria castanea, hopped back to life after 30 years without trace. Back in the Americas, Lazarus frogs were reappearing in Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica, years and even decades after they were thought to have been wiped out.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

What It Was Like to Capture the Hubble Space Telescope

By K. Megan McArthur | November 3, 2014 10:00 am
astronaut Megan McArthur in the 3rd floor suit-up facility (located in the O&C building) about four hours from launch: 11 May 2009

Astronaut Megan McArthur in the suit-up facility about four hours from launch, 11 May 2009. Image by Michael Soluri, Infinite Worlds

It’s a beautiful October morning in Houston, but I am grumpy and bleary-eyed as I make my way into Mission Control. I’ve just come off a string of Orbit 1 shifts (midnight to 0800) working as CAPCOM in the International Space Station Mission Control Center. (CAPCOM is the call sign for the astronaut on the ground who speaks to the crews that are in space.) Now I’ve slam-shifted back to daylight hours to work as CAPCOM during a simulation of the rendezvous planned for an upcoming shuttle mission.

I see my friend Ray J in the parking lot, and he waves me over. Ray J is a pilot in the astronaut class ahead of mine. We’ve flown dozens of training flights together in the T-38, and he is a good friend and mentor. And he is always smiling, even at 0645. We chat for a minute, which mainly involves me complaining about my schedule, and then he asks, “So, have you talked to Scooter lately?” I raise my eyebrows at him. Scooter is way senior to me, a flown guy, a space shuttle commander. Of course I haven’t talked to Scooter. Scooter sometimes stops by the office I share with Mike Massimino because they flew on the last Hubble mission together, but it’s not like he’s coming there to shoot the breeze with me. So I say, “No. Why do you ask?” “Oh,” says Ray J nonchalantly, “I was just wondering how he’s doing.”

That was weird, I think as I head into Mission Control. But then I forget all about it and spend the next ten hours working the simulation. That evening, as I’m propped up on the couch at home trying to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime, my phone rings. It’s Steve Lindsey, the chief of the Astronaut Office. This is definitely weird. Why is he calling me at home? This can’t be good.

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

This High-Tech Floating Laboratory Will Be a Spaceship for the Sea

By David Warmflash | October 29, 2014 2:40 pm
SeaOrbiter

Credit: SeaOrbiter/ Jacques Rougerie

It’s being called a starship Enterprise for the water, and not merely for its futuristic shape. SeaOrbiter, designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie, is envisioned as a high-tech moving laboratory, carrying scientists on long treks through an environment not inherently friendly to human life.

At the moment, the craft is still on the drawing board. Construction is planned to begin later this year, and if funding allows, to be completed in 2016. Initial funding has been provided by the French government, several companies, and a crowd-funding campaign.

When operational, the craft is intended to be a sort of Swiss Army knife of aquatic research. Designers say it will hunt for underwater archaeological remains and new life forms, investigate ocean chemistry, and map vast swathes of the ocean floor while providing unprecedented capability for sending aquanauts continually on deep dives.

But its concepts borrow heavily from a different kind of exploration in recent human history: space exploration. And though it may physically resemble the Enterprise, there’s a more useful comparison closer to home in the International Space Station (ISS). Like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will advance basic science. Like the ISS, technology developed for the ship will improve everyday technology here on land. And finally, like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will allow humans to live long-term in an environment never before possible – effectively expanding human colonization to new places.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What It Will Take to Become an Interstellar Civilization

By Sarah Scoles | October 28, 2014 1:07 pm

starship

The new movie “Interstellar” is set in a not-so-distant future, but distant enough that they’ve managed to build something still elusive in 2014: a spaceship that can travel between solar systems. Such starships have been a technological mainstay in science fiction for decades, but they remain a crazily complicated proposition in everything from propulsion to human reproduction.

Still, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Last month, a bunch of rocket scientists, microbiologists and entrepreneurs gathered in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center to discuss—in level and serious tones—how to become a spacefaring civilization. The meeting is called the 100-Year Starship symposium, and it’s brought brains together once a year since 2011 to figure out what we need to do now if we want to have an interstellar spacerocket a century from now.

The group has made progress defining the challenges and pointing their noses toward solutions, but much work remains (like, say, building a starship). To quote Contact, it “sounds less like science and more like science fiction.”

Nonetheless, the 100-Year Starship adherents—backed by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—keep plugging away. At their most recent gathering, 7 major hurdles emerged from their three days of discussion. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Why Most of Your Body Is Younger Than You Are

By Curt Stager | October 23, 2014 4:51 pm

shatteredWhen you take a sip of water it doesn’t just slake your thirst. It literally becomes you. The water that runs down your gullet will, within minutes and without processing of any kind, become some of the dominant fluid in your veins and your flesh. Most of your blood is simply tap water with cells, salts, and organic molecules floating in it. Some of the rubbery squishiness of your earlobe poured out of a bottle or a can just a short time ago. And much of the moisture in your eyes only recently fell from rainclouds.

Your mouth is the portal through which water normally enters your body, but you are quite a leaky vessel. A hydrogen isotope study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that the sedentary men under examination consumed and lost about seven pints of body water per day, with four pints leaving through urine and two or three pints through sweat and breath moisture. Vigorous exercise can boost non-urine water losses to one or two pints per hour.

Now let’s see what logic can do with those facts. Nearly two-thirds of your weight comes from water, and your body is an eddy in a stream of that common fluid. Surely the liquid that you slurp from a fountain is not alive, and you don’t consider it murder to stomp on a puddle of water. Therefore most of you is not alive at all, nor is it even permanent or unique enough to merit a personal name.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

Is Thalidomide the Next Big Cancer Drug?

By Victoria Forster, Newcastle University | October 20, 2014 1:18 pm

pills-question cancer drug

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Innovative new drugs to treat cancer frequently make the headlines, either due to great success or controversy, as pharmaceutical companies get lambasted for selling the drugs at too high a price for state systems to afford.

But alongside this high-budget pharmaceutical research is a different tactic being quietly waged in the background: investigating old, inexpensive drugs, originally designed for a variety of maladies, to see whether they might be able to treat cancer – essentially, repurposing old for new.

Repurposing Drugs in Oncology (ReDO), the international organization aimed at promoting work in this area, defines repurposing as “the use of existing and well-characterized non-cancer drugs as new treatments for cancer.” ReDO believes that such drugs “may represent an untapped source of novel therapies.” Current candidates include diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory pain relief medication; clarithromycin, an antibiotic; and cimetidine, an antacid prescribed for stomach ulcers.

Cancers are increasingly being treated on the basis of the mutations that cause them, rather than where they are located. Seemingly distinct and unrelated cancers can arise due to the same genetic defect. Developing new drugs that target these mutations in a way that largely spares healthy cells is far from serendipitous and involves complex mathematical modelling and tens of thousands of laboratory hours to achieve even a prototype drug. All of this costs time and money.

Some researchers are shunning this process and instead turning to well-established drugs to improve cancer treatment. And it is an approach that is paying dividends.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Why Do Volcanic Eruptions Come in Clusters?

By Robin Wylie | September 25, 2014 3:29 pm
Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Earth seems to have been smoking a lot recently. Volcanoes are currently erupting in Iceland, Hawaii, Indonesia and Mexico. Others, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, erupted recently but seem to have calmed down. Many of these have threatened homes and forced evacuations. But among their less-endangered spectators, these eruptions may have raised a question: Is there such a thing as a season for volcanic eruptions?

Surprisingly, this may be a possibility. While volcanoes may not have “seasons” as we know them, scientists have started to discern intriguing patterns in their activity.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

How Close Are We to Star Trek Propulsion?

By David Warmflash | September 17, 2014 8:30 am

warpdrive

It’s popular to talk about how the original Star Trek, set in the 23rd century, predicted many devices that we’re using already here in 2014. It started with communicators that manifested as flip-open cell phones that many already consider too primitive, moved through computers that talk and recognize human voices and provide instant translation (all of which are constantly improving), to medical applications such as needle-free injection, anti-radiation drugs, and a medical tricorder.

But looking at the more exotic Star Trek technologies, it’s harder to find credible reports that we’re close to a Trek-like world. This is true for Star Trek’s transporter: Despite some success in “quantum teleportation,” which could have applications for computers and possibly communication technology, no experts are saying that this is about to lead to a technology for beaming humans or any other objects from place to place.

It’s also true for space travel. Star Trek depicted a world where people would move between planets and star systems (at least nearby systems) frequently and very swiftly. The United Federation of Planets contains worlds separated by dozens of light-years, which ordinary Earthlings regularly traverse over time periods measured in days to weeks.

Clearly that’s one aspect of Star Trek technology that is far from being a reality in the present day. But the topic isn’t just in the realm of sci-fi: Scientists are taking various approaches to try to create the next generation of space propulsion, beyond the chemical rockets that require most of the mass of the ship to be fuel.

If we want spaceflight to become routine for humans as aviation did, we’ll need major innovations. Are any just around the corner?

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

Instead of Poppies, Engineering Microbes to Make Morphine

morphine

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The past few decades have seen enormous progress being made in synthetic biology – the idea that simple biological parts can be tweaked to do our bidding. One of the main targets has been hacking the biological machinery that nature uses to produce chemicals. The hope is – once we understand enough – we might be able to design processes that convert cheap feedstock, such as sugar and amino acids, into drugs or fuels. These production lines can then be installed into microbes, effectively turning living cells into factories.

Taking a leap in that direction, researchers from Stanford University have created a version of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that contains genetic material of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), bringing the morphine microbial factory one step closer to reality. These results published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology represent a significant scientific success, but eliminating the need to grow poppies may still be years away.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
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