Europe against GMO crops! Please, sign the Avaaz petition! I already did.
It's us who decide, not Monsanto!!!

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Space news for the end of the year, 2008

Today:

  1. Gamma-Ray Evidence Suggests Ancient Mars Had Oceans
  2. Mysterious Source of High-Energy Cosmic Radiation Discovered
  3. 'Firefly' to scout Earth's puzzling gamma blasts
  4. Hopes rise for liquid water on Saturn moon
Most of them are short but very exciting, like the last one for example. Enjoy!

Gamma-Ray Evidence Suggests Ancient Mars Had Oceans

(PhysOrg.com) -- An international team of scientists who analyzed data from the Gamma Ray Spectrometer onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey reports new evidence for the controversial idea that oceans once covered about a third of ancient Mars.
"We compared Gamma Ray Spectrometer data on potassium, thorium and iron above and below a shoreline believed to mark an ancient ocean that covered a third of Mars' surface, and an inner shoreline believed to mark a younger, smaller ocean," said University of Arizona planetary geologist James M. Dohm, who led the international investigation.

Mars Odyssey's GRS, or Gamma Ray Spectrometer, led by William Boynton of UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, has the unique ability to detect elements buried as much as 1/3 meter, or 13 inches, below the surface by the gamma rays they emit. That capability led to GRS' dramatic 2002 discovery of water-ice near the surface throughout much of high-latitude Mars.

Results from Mars Odyssey and other spacecraft suggest that past watery conditions likely leached, transported and concentrated such elements as potassium, thorium and iron, Dohm said. "The regions below and above the two shoreline boundaries are like cookie cutouts that can be compared to the regions above the boundaries, as well as the total region."

The younger, inner shoreline is evidence that an ocean about 10 times the size of the Mediterranean Sea, or about the size of North America, existed on the northern plains of Mars a few billion years ago. The larger, more ancient shoreline that covered a third of Mars held an ocean about 20 times the size of the Mediterranean, the researchers estimate.

Scientists studying spacecraft images have a hard time confirming "shoreline" landforms, the researchers said, because Mars shorelines would look different from Earth's shorelines. Earth's coastal shorelines are largely a direct result of powerful tides caused by gravitational interaction between Earth and the moon, but Mars lacks a sizable moon. Another difference is that lakes or seas on Mars could have formed largely from giant debris flows and liquefied sediments. Still another difference is that Mars oceans may have been ice-covered, which would prevent wave action.source

My comment: Isn't it lovely how Mars turns from Red Planet to Blue Planet in our understanding? Can you imagine the planet with its oceans flowing. And if two planets in our Solar System have oceans, imagine how many more outside it have them.

Mysterious Source of High-Energy Cosmic Radiation Discovered

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists announced Wednesday the discovery of a previously unidentified nearby source of high-energy cosmic rays. The finding was made with a NASA-funded balloon-borne instrument high over Antarctica.

Researchers from the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) collaboration, led by scientists at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, published the results in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature. The new results show an unexpected surplus of cosmic ray electrons at very high energy -- 300-800 billion electron volts -- that must come from a previously unidentified source or from the annihilation of very exotic theoretical particles used to explain dark matter.

"This electron excess cannot be explained by the standard model of cosmic ray origin," said John P. Wefel, ATIC project principal investigator and a professor at Louisiana State. "There must be another source relatively near us that is producing these additional particles."

According to the research, this source would need to be within about 3,000 light years of the sun. It could be an exotic object such as a pulsar, mini-quasar, supernova remnant or an intermediate mass black hole.

"Cosmic ray electrons lose energy during their journey through the galaxy," said Jim Adams, ATIC research lead at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "These losses increase with the energy of the electrons. At the energies measured by our instrument, these energy losses suppress the flow of particles from distant sources, which helps nearby sources stand out."

The scientists point out, however, that there are few such objects close to our solar system.

An alternative explanation is that the surplus of high energy electrons might result from the annihilation of very exotic particles put forward to explain dark matter.

The 4,300-pound ATIC experiment was designed to be carried to an altitude of about 124,000 feet above Antarctica using a helium-filled balloon about as large as the interior of the New Orleans Superdome. The goal was to study cosmic rays that otherwise would be absorbed into the atmosphere. source


ВръзкаMy comment: I wouldn't go for the dark energy explanation, simply because it's way too easy. It's just another name for the unknown. If you ask me, this should have a very physical explanation and I wonder what it might be.

'Firefly' to scout Earth's puzzling gamma blasts

Nov. 24, 2008

When space shuttle astronauts dispatched NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Telescope into orbit in 1991, scientists figured they would learn more about supernovas, black holes and other phenomena that blast off high-energy rays.

They never expected to uncover gamma ray flashes coming from Earth itself.

"Occasionally they saw these very strange events," said NASA's Doug Rowland, with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "They were very short, relatively weak compared to supernova events and they seemed to be coming from the Earth.

Other than manmade nuclear explosions there had been no known sources of terrestrial gamma rays, Rowland said.

Follow-up studies confirmed the discovery and left scientists scrambling for an explanation. A new mission, called Firefly, is being developed to test the leading theory: terrestrial gamma ray flashes are caused by lightning.

"So far there's just circumstantial evidence," Rowland told Discovery News.

The idea is that strong electrical fields over lightning are producing ions and electrons out of neutral gas and blasting them into space. The flashes last for just a fraction of a second, but they are very strong — up to 30 times more powerful than a cosmic ray.

The research is not just an academic curiousity. Allan Weatherwax, a Firefly co-investigator with New York's Siena College, points out that high energy electrons associated with the flashes could be a source of the charged particles that end up impacting spacecraft and satellites orbiting Earth.

The science instruments will be incorporated into a football-sized spacecraft known as CubeSat and launched as a secondary payload in 2010 or 2011. Firefly will cost about $1 million for a three-year mission.

Firefly is being designed to simultaneously track lightning strikes and gamma ray flashes to determine what relationship, if any, exists, and what types of lightning trigger the bursts.

© 2008 Discovery Channel source

My comment: I think it's very unlikely that those gamma emissions come from lightening. Obviously lightening is very high voltage, but still, I don't think it can produce such a rush of particles to be seen from the space. I think it's something more fancy, like aliens for example. If they used something to travel trough space, it is likely that it will involves exotic particles. Sure, it sounds little crazy, but why not? We have a Blue Mars, the possibility of intelligent extra-terrestrials grows with every new research we make.

Hopes rise for liquid water on Saturn moon

ET Nov. 26, 2008

WASHINGTON - Astronomers looking at the spectacular supersonic plumes of gas and dust shooting off one of Saturn's moons say there are strong hints of liquid water, a key building block of life.

Their research, appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, adds to the growing push to explore further the moon Enceladus as one of the solar system's most compelling places for potential life.

Using images from NASA's Cassini probe, astronomers had already figured that the mysterious plumes shooting from Enceladus' icy terrain contain water vapor. New calculations suggesting the gas and dust spew at speeds faster-than-sound make the case for liquid, said study lead author Candice Hansen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Her team calculated the plumes travel more than 1,360 mph.

Other planetary scientists, such as Andrew Ingersoll at the California Institute of Technology, said the research is good, but that it is possible to achieve such speeds with ice particles and at cooler temperatures. So Hansen hasn't proven her case yet, he and other scientists said.

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, may have a liquid ocean beneath its frozen surface. But Enceladus, thought responsible for producing one of Saturn's rings, is more accessible, Hansen said. source

My comment: Well, I can't say much here. It makes sense to have water on those moons, because their planets are big, they emit heat, they have tidal force and they protect them from flying bombs. It's just the obvious place for water and for life.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Neandertals Special, 2008

Today:

  1. Alpine melt reveals ancient life
  2. Prehistoric pelvis offers clues to human development
  3. Climate change wiped out cave bears 13 millennia earlier than thought
  4. Did Neanderthal cells cook as the climate warmed?
  5. Ancient road found in cave

Alpine melt reveals ancient life

By Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, Berne

Melting alpine glaciers are revealing fascinating clues to Neolithic life in the high mountains.

Everyone knows the story of Oetzi the Ice Man, found in a glacier on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. Oetzi was discovered at an altitude of over 3,000m.

He lived in about 3,300 BC, leading to speculation that the Alps may have had more human habitation than previously suspected.

Now, more dramatic findings from the 2,756m Schnidejoch glacier in Switzerland have confirmed the theory. A Swiss couple found a piece of wood that was examined and dated and turned out to be an arrow quiver made of birch bark, dating from about 3000 BC.

Unique findings

"Finds in the Alps are very rare anyway," explains Albert Hafner, chief archaeologist with the canton of Berne. "But this is unique; we don't know of a quiver like this anywhere else in the world."

At first, the news of the find was kept quiet; historians feared treasure hunters on the Schnidejoch as the ice melted. But teams of archaeologists went up, and more and more artefacts were discovered.

"We now have the complete bow equipment, quiver and arrows," says Mr Hafner "And we have, surprisingly, a lot of organic material like leather, parts of shoes and a trouser leg, that we wouldn't normally find."

And the finds are not confined to 3000 BC. Some of the leather found, and a fragment of a wooden bowl, date from 4500 BC, older even than Oetzi, making them the oldest objects ever found in the Alps.

And from later periods, a Bronze Age pin has been discovered, as well as Roman coins and a fibula, and items dating from the early Middle Ages.

What fascinates scientists about the age of the finds is that they correspond to times when climate specialists have already calculated the Earth was going through an especially warm period, caused by fluctuations in the orbital pattern of the Earth in relation to the Sun.

At these times, historians now speculate, the high mountain regions became accessible to humans.

For Martin Grosjean, the leather items found on the Schnidejoch, dated at over 5,000 years old, are proof, if any more were needed, that the Earth is now warming up.

"The leather is the jewel among the finds," he says. "If leather is exposed to the weather, to sun, wind and rain, it disintegrates almost immediately.

"The fact that we still find these 5,000-year-old pieces of leather tells us they were protected by the ice all this time, and that the glaciers have never been smaller than in the year 2003 and the years following."

Scientists and archaeologists from all over the world attended the conference in Berne to hear about the Schnidejoch findings, and present research of their own.

Patterns have begun to emerge: researchers in Canada's Yukon region have found evidence of Neolithic farming and domesticated animals at high altitudes.

Again, they correspond with the calculations climatologists have made about the Earth's warmer periods. source

My comment: I love such findings that cross-link different sciences. I mean what a better way to check your theory than to confirm it trough a totally unrelated way. In the case with the glaciers, this is pretty obvious. So, now that we know the Earth is warming for a fact, maybe we could be a little bit smarter on the issue. But back on the subject. It looks like the global warming is doing us a favour, because we keep on discovering older and older artefacts. Too bad we cannot find those that the water covered. But it's ok, we may do it when the weather gets colder.

Prehistoric pelvis offers clues to human development

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Discovery of the most intact female pelvis of Homo erectus may cause scientists to reevaluate how early humans evolved to successfully birth larger-brained babies. "This is the most complete female Homo erectus pelvis ever found from this time period," said Indiana University Bloomington paleoanthropologist Sileshi Semaw.

A reconstruction of the 1.2 million-year-old pelvis discovered in 2001 in the Gona Study Area at Afar, Ethiopia, that has led researchers to speculate early man was better equipped than first thought to produce larger-brained babies. The actual fossils remain in Ethiopia.

Reconstructing pelvis bone fragments from the 1.2 million-year-old adult female, Semaw and his co-workers determined the early ancestor's birth canal was more than 30 percent larger than earlier estimates based on a 1.5-million-year-old juvenile male pelvis found in Kenya. The new female fragments were discovered in the Gona Study Area in Afar, Ethiopia, in 2001 and excavation was completed in 2003.

Scientists also were intrigued by other unique attributes of the specimen, such as its shorter stature and broader body shape more likely seen in hominids adapted to temperate climates, rather than the tall and narrow body believed to have been efficient for endurance running.

Early humans became taller and narrower over time, scientists believe, partly due to long distance running and to help them maintain a constant body temperature. One consequence, however, is that a narrower pelvis would have been less accommodating to producing larger-brained offspring.

But rather than a tall, narrow hominid with the expected slight pelvic region, Semaw and the Gona researchers found evidence of a hominid ready to produce offspring with a much larger brain size. source

My comment: Again, underestimated. Of course, this finding is important. Obviously. What is intriguing for me is that archaeologists judge for our evolution only by male skeletons which is obviously wrong since the women bear the babies. Weird...

Clues to why modern humans migrated...

November 21 2008, By Shaun Smillie

70 000 years ago, the inhabitants of a cave started to produce some of the first examples of jewellery and developing new technologies that were to give them an edge in years to come.

It wasn't an isolated event, across the African continent, the same thing was happening among bands of hunter gatherers from the Western Cape to Morocco.

What sparked this, no one knows, but it was so dramatic that some believe it might originally have been caused by a sudden change in the structure of our ancestor's brains.

That cave is Sibudu Cave, situated near Tongaat, in KwaZulu Natal, and it is here that an international team of scientists are unearthing the clues to this event and are trying to make sense of it all.

What they found in the cave were minute seashells that were likely strung together to make a necklace, bone arrowheads and the residues of what is possibly the earliest example of glue and also unknown finely-crafted stone tools .

To archaeology professor Lyn Wadley of Wits University this haul reveals the earliest workings of what she calls complex cognitive behaviour.

In these artefacts, dug from the bottom of the cave are the signs of some of humans' earliest known attempts at making jewellery.

"We now know that these beads are 70 000 years old.

These changes happened in the space of about 5 000 years, an extraordinary short period of time, in the span of evolution.

For these Australian scientists, what has come out of Sibubu cave could help explain what motivated the first modern humans to migrate out of Africa, about 80 000 years ago, and later island hop from Asia to Australia.

The team has also found traces of red ochre which could have been used to paint ornaments.

With the help of a microscope the academics found traces of residue on some of the stone tools. It turned out to be plant gum mixed with red ochre, and was probably glue which required high cognitive capacity.

Earlier this year Dr Lucinda Backwell of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research revealed that Sibubu Cave had produced what was believed to be the first bone arrow head, aged between 65 000 and 62 000 years.

The arrowheads may have been used for hunting blue duiker and plains game, then found close to the cave.

Again Wadley stressed that making such arrowheads and figuring out the technology that goes with manufacturing bows would have required a leap in thinking.

The team was even able to ascertain through studying burnt charcoal what these early humans were using for firewood and that the bones they found was smashed so as to get at the nutritious marrow inside.

A microscopic study of the sediments in the cave revealed seeds that suggested that bundles of reeds were used as early mattresses.

Similar artefacts have been found in Morocco and at other archaeological sites in South Africa and Wadley believes these developments occurred independently of each other. source

My comment: A sudden change of the brain. I wonder who has ever seen something like this. Not only that, but it was a sudden group change of the brain, because it happened all over the world. Whatever. This research only gives a good idea when the actual progress of human specie started, nothing else.

The enigma of Lake Ontario's 11,000-year-old footprints


Nov 23, 2008 ,
In the fall of 1908, while building a waterworks tunnel east of Hanlan's Point in Toronto Bay, a work crew came across 100 footprints in a layer of blue clay. The prints appeared to have been left by people wearing moccasins – 11,000 years ago.

It was an astounding discovery, perhaps the first evidence of human habitation on Lake Ontario, but few recognized its significance.

"It looked like a trail ...," city inspector W. H. Cross told the Toronto Evening Telegram about what he saw that November day. "You could follow one man the whole way. Some footprints were on top of the others, partly obliterating them. There were footprints of all sizes, and a single print of a child's foot, three and a half inches..."

He went on to describe the way the clay had shot up under the imprints of the heels, how the prints appeared to be heading north, and how he had tried to lift a piece of the clay to preserve the prints, but it broke away in his hand.

The group – likely a family, judging by the different sized prints – could have been walking from a hunting camp on the shore of Lake Ontario to what is now downtown Toronto. Back then, the shoreline would have been more than a kilometre further south.

The story is told in a new book, Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years, which, unlike most others that look at Toronto's past, begins at the very beginning, before recorded history. Tragically, the prints were not preserved. The tunnel workers were in a hurry to complete the job, and simply poured concrete over the clay.

Though it seems shocking that a find of such potential importance was unceremoniously buried, a similar attitude toward the archaeological history of First Nations people prevails, he says.

Without seeing the prints, it's difficult to evaluate their authenticity, Williamson says, though there's no reason to believe that Cross and company were exercising a hoax.

Hunters pursuing caribou, mastodon or mammoth were known to inhabit the shoreline, then a landscape of spruce forest and tundra, similar to Canada's sub Arctic. source

My comment: What's important here is the attitude, much of which I see even today, home. It's sad to see international culture heritage being destroyed by idiots. But it's just as sad to see history destroyed by well-paid smart people. So...

Climate change wiped out cave bears 13 millennia earlier than thought

Enormous cave bears, Ursus spelaeus, that once inhabited a large swathe of Europe, from Spain to the Urals, died out 27,800 years ago, around 13 millennia earlier than was previously believed, scientists have reported.

The new date coincides with a period of significant climate change, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, when a marked cooling in temperature resulted in the reduction or loss of vegetation forming the main component of the cave bears' diet.

In a study published in Boreas, researchers suggest it was this deterioration in food supply that led to the extinction of the cave bear, one of a group of 'megafauna' – including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer and cave lion – to disappear during the last Ice Age.

They found no convincing evidence of human involvement in the disappearance of these bears. The team used both new data and existing records of radiocarbon dating on cave bear remains to construct their chronology for cave bear extinction.

The pair also concluded, from evidence on skull anatomy, bone collagen and teeth, that these extinct mammals were predominantly vegetarian, eating a specialised diet of high-quality plants. Compared with other megafaunal species that would also become extinct, the cave bear had a relatively restricted geographical range, being confined to Europe, which may offer an explanation as to why it died out so much earlier than the rest.

The brown bear, with which Ursus spelaeus shares a common ancestor, was spread throughout Europe and much of northern Asia and has survived to the present day.

Cave bears were heavily built animals, with males growing up to around 1000kg. The maximum recorded weight of both Kodiak bears and polar bears – the largest bears living today – is 800kg, with averages of around 500kg. source

My comment: Why this is important?Because it shows the massive effect that the Glacial Maximum had on the species on Earth. Imagine what its melting caused.

Did Neanderthal cells cook as the climate warmed?

Neanderthals may have gone extinct because their cells couldn't cope with climate change, according to a new hypothesis presented at a genetics conference this month.

Metabolic adaptations to Ice Age Europe may have proved costly to Neanderthals after the continent's climate started to change, says Patrick Chinnery, a molecular biologist at Newcastle University, UK.

He and colleague Gavin Hudson identified potentially harmful mutations in the newly sequenced Neanderthal mitochondrial genome. In particular, the researchers found genes that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and deafness.

The extinction of Neanderthals, close relatives of modern humans, some 25,000 years ago remains unexplained.

Chinnery and Hudson suggest that mutations in mitochondria helped Neanderthals cope with the cold weather, but that when the climate started fluctuating between warm and cold periods, they were at a disadvantage.

In all cells, from yeast to human, a mitochondrion's main job is to produce the energy that powers cells - this takes the form of a chemical called ATP.

Mutations that sap this efficiency would generate heat instead - a potentially useful trick for Neanderthals who are known to have had adaptations to cold weather, Chinnery says. However, a warmer and less climatically stable habitat could have spelled trouble for Neanderthals with such mutations.

Perhaps the Neanderthals' mitochondrial DNA adapted them to the cold, and they couldn't cope when the climate started to change, he says.

However, with only a single Neanderthal DNA sequence decoded so far, that hypothesis remains provisional. source

My comment: I'd say precisely what the article pointed out - with our mitochondria coming only from our mothers and so prone to mutations trough out our life, it's hard to say whether what they found was common for all the Neanderhals or just for some of them or only for 1 of them. But it's an interesting theory, of course. Though, if the problem was the inner thermostat, wouldn't they just die out at once and not gradually. Because some of their traits are kept even now in some populations.

Ancient road found in cave

(26-11-2008)

HA NOI — Traces of a road used by ancient people 21,000 years ago have just been discovered at the Xom Trai Cave in the northwestern province of Hoa Binh’s Lac Son District.

Scientists from the Centre for Southeast Asian Prehistory recently made the discovery during an on-going preservation project at the site.

The Xom Trai Cave represents a typical residence of the Hoa Binh civilisation (from 34,100 years ago until 2,000 BC) in the ancient Muong Vang region, which is today’s Tan Lap Commune, Lac Son District in Hoa Binh Province.

The cave was discovered in 1974 and went through various stages of excavation in 1981, 1982, 1986 and 2004. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism listed it as a national archaeological relic in 2005.

The Hoa Binh Museum has co-ordinated with the centre to preserve the relic since 2004. Since then, researchers have discovered traces of approximately six metres of a road at the south end of the cave’s mouth. The ancient pathway lies 60-70cm deeper than the Hoa Binh civilisation layer. The traces are believed to date back 8,000-9,000 years ago and remain in good preserved condition.

Another four metres below the Hoa Binh civilisation layer, a route presumed to be used by the earliest cave dwellers has also been discovered. The route had been hidden by several layers of stones and debris that have fallen over time due to landslides and other geological events. Also, portions of the route have been covered by hard water resulting from rain water and local limestone.

One month ago, researchers discovered 10m of another route linking the cave’s mouth to the foot of the mountain.

The excavation has also uncovered a tomb from about 17,000 years ago. The remains were buried in the typical style of the Hoa Binh civilisation, leaning towards the right with legs folded. The body’s hips were placed over 25cm of coal and the tomb was covered with soil and large stones. An oval pestle, two carving tools and a horn pointed hook were buried with the remains.

Many human bones had been found scattered about the cave before the complete tomb was discovered. source

My comment: Ok, I can't but wonder, what the hell did people use roads in caves? I mean, where are they going to? That's so odd.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

The miracle of RNA

This is an article from NY Times that I edited a little for you since it was quite long. It speaks of very promising new genetic therapy using RNA for blocking or activating certain genes. While it obviously has many flaws to perfect, it looks like some drugs using RNA are getting to human trial tests which is a huge improvement. The only thing that bothers me is that the only way to bring that double-straned RNA into the cell is trough repressing the immune reaction of the body. And if that type of RNA is really viral, I cannot be suspicious toward the process. I simply don't approve when we try to put into our body something that is meant to stay out by removing its natural defences to the thing. Yeah, we're doing it with good purpose, but things often go wrong and the body should have a way to fight whatever we do to it. Ok, it might be little bit paranoid. I just think we shouldn't mess with out immune system in a weakening way, because it's very VERY useful.

The Promise and Power of RNA

By ANDREW POLLACK, November 10, 2008

The level of cholesterol in human body is controlled by the levels of a protein called PCSK9.

But a powerful new approach, called RNA interference, may help decreasing it. Instead of mopping up a protein after it has been produced, as a conventional drug would do, RNA interference turns off the faucet, halting production of a protein by silencing the gene that contains its recipe.

In monkeys, a single injection of a drug to induce RNA interference against PCSK9 lowered levels of bad cholesterol by about 60 percent, an effect that lasted up to three weeks. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, the biotechnology company that developed the drug, hopes to begin testing it in people next year.

The drug is a practical application of scientific discoveries that are showing that RNA, once considered a mere messenger boy for DNA, actually helps to run the show. The classic, protein-making genes are still there on the double helix, but RNA seems to play a powerful role in how genes function.

RNA interference, or RNAi, discovered only about 10 years ago, is attracting huge interest for its seeming ability to knock out disease-causing genes. There are already at least six RNAi drugs being tested in people, for illnesses including cancer and an eye disease.

And while there are still huge challenges to surmount, that number could easily double in the coming year.

RNA and DNA are strands made up of the chemical units that represent the letters of the genetic code. Each letter pairs with only one other letter, its complement. So two strands can bind to each other if their sequences are complementary.

Genes, which contain the recipes for proteins, are made of DNA. When a protein is to be made, the genetic code for that protein is transcribed from the DNA onto a single strand of RNA, called messenger RNA, which carries the recipe to the cell’s protein-making machinery. Proteins then perform most functions of a cell, including activating other genes.

But scientists are now finding that a lot of DNA is transcribed into RNA without leading to protein production. Rather, the RNA itself appears to be playing a role in determining which genes are active and which proteins are produced.

Much attention has focused on micro-RNAs, which are short stretches of RNA, about 20 to 25 letters long. They interfere with messenger RNA, reducing protein production.

More than 400 micro-RNAs have been found in the human genome, and a single micro-RNA can regulate the activity of hundreds of genes, said David P. Bartel, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a result, Dr. Bartel said, the activity of more than half the genes in the human genome is affected by micro-RNA.

Indeed, scientists have found that some micro-RNAs contribute to the formation of cancer and others help block it.

Other studies have found micro-RNAs important for the proper formation and functioning of the heart and blood cells.

Scientists are also finding other types of RNA, some of which may work differently from micro-RNA. By now, there are so many types of RNA that one needs a scorecard to keep track.

Besides micro-RNA (miRNA), the new ones include small interfering RNA (siRNA), piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNA), chimeric RNA, and promoter-associated and termini- associated long and short RNAs. They join an existing stable that included messenger RNA (mRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA), and small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA), which all play roles in protein production.

Scientists do not know what all the newly discovered RNA is doing. Some of it may be just a nonfunctional byproduct of other cellular processes.

And there is still uncertainty over how big a role RNA plays. Some scientists say proteins are like a light switch, turning genes on and off, while RNA usually does fine tuning, like a dimmer.

Despite the remaining mysteries, researchers and companies are moving rapidly to exploit the latest findings. While micro-RNAs are getting some attention, the biggest effort is on RNA interference.

RNA interference is induced when a short snippet of double-stranded RNA — called a small interfering RNA, or siRNA — enters a cell. The cell treats it much like a micro-RNA it might make on its own. That results in the silencing of a gene that corresponds to the inserted RNA.

Scientists believe that RNA interference evolved as a way to fight viruses, since double-stranded RNA is rare outside viruses.

Given that the sequences of genes are now known, it is fairly straightforward to synthesize a small interfering RNA that can serve as a drug to silence a gene. Still, there has not yet been a truly convincing demonstration that such drugs will work in people.

One risk is that the small RNA snippets might silence genes beyond the intended target. And that could mean that a drug based on these snippets would have unwanted side effects.

But the biggest challenge is getting the RNA into the cells where it is needed. Double-stranded RNA is rare outside viruses, so the cell is not likely to welcome it.

Chemical changes can be made to RNA to make it more stable and to avoid setting off the immune system. And the RNA can be inserted into little globules of fat or attached to polymers to help it get through the bloodstream and enter cells.

One shortcoming of RNA interference is that it can only turn genes off. But to treat some diseases, like those in which the body makes too little of a protein, it might be desirable to turn genes on or to increase their activity levels.

In one of the latest surprises in this field, scientists have found that RNA can do this too. They have discovered what they call RNA activation, or RNAa. The molecules that perform it are called either small activating RNAs (saRNA) or antigene RNAs (agRNA).source

Thursday, 25 December 2008

The story of life, 2008

Today:

  1. Without enzyme, biological reaction essential to life takes 2.3 billion years
  2. New life beneath sea and ice
  3. Mineral kingdom has co-evolved with life
  4. Could life have started in a lump of ice?
Yeah, as the title claims, this one will be focused on life and its origin. You can read my comments under the articles and Merry Christmas from me!

Without enzyme, biological reaction essential to life takes 2.3 billion years

All biological reactions within human cells depend on enzymes. Their power as catalysts enables biological reactions to occur usually in milliseconds.

In 1995, Wolfenden reported that without a particular enzyme, a biological transformation he deemed "absolutely essential" in creating the building blocks of DNA and RNA would take 78 million years.

"Now we've found a reaction that – again, in the absence of an enzyme – is almost 30 times slower than that," Wolfenden said. "Its half-life – the time it takes for half the substance to be consumed – is 2.3 billion years, about half the age of the Earth. Enzymes can make that reaction happen in milliseconds."

The reaction in question is essential for the biosynthesis of hemoglobin and chlorophyll, Wolfenden noted. But when catalyzed by the enzyme uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase, the rate of chlorophyll and hemoglobin production in cells "is increased by a staggering factor, one that's equivalent to the difference between the diameter of a bacterial cell and the distance from the Earth to the sun."

"This enzyme is essential for both plant and animal life on the planet," Wolfenden said. "

Knowing how long reactions would take without enzymes allows biologists to appreciate their evolution as prolific catalysts, Wolfenden said. It also enables scientists to compare enzymes with artificial catalysts produced in the laboratory.

"Without catalysts, there would be no life at all, from microbes to humans," he said. "It makes you wonder how natural selection operated in such a way as to produce a protein that got off the ground as a primitive catalyst for such an extraordinarily slow reaction."

Wolfenden has carried out extensive research on enzyme mechanisms and water affinities of biological compound. His work has also influenced rational drug design, and findings from his laboratory helped spur development of ACE inhibitor drugs, now widely used to treat hypertension and stroke. Research on enzymes as proficient catalysts also led to the design of protease inhibitors that are used to treat HIV infection. source

My comment: If you check the numbers in the article, you'd know why it qualified for my blog. I mean, the difference is simply stunning. I wonder how life came up with something so marvellous to speed up its own evolution. I guess it's unevitable at some point, because organisms that use enzymes will have a huge advantage over those that don't have them. But it's simply amazing. And the work that the dr. Wolfenden has done...awesome.

New life beneath sea and ice

Scientists have long known that life can exist in some very extreme environments. But Earth continues to surprise us. At a European Science Foundation and COST meeting in Sicily in October, scientists described apparently productive ecosystems in two places where life was not known before, under the Antarctic ice sheet, and above concentrated salt lakes beneath the Mediterranean.

In the last decade, scientists have discovered lakes of liquid water underneath the Antarctic ice sheet. So far we know of about 150 lakes, but this number will probably increase. These lakes occur as a result of geothermal heat trapped by the thick ice, melting it from underneath, and the great pressure from the ice above, which lowers the melting point of water.

Christner has examined microbial life in ice cores from such lakes. Based on accumulating measurements of microbes in the subglacial environment, he calculates that the concentration of cell and organic carbon in the Earth's ice sheets, or 'cryosphere', may be hundreds of times higher than what is found in all the planet's freshwater systems.

Beneath the Mediterranean lurks a similar surprise. Michail Yakimov of the Institute of the Coastal Marine Environment, Messina, Italy is a project leader for the European Science Foundation's EuroDEEP programme on ecosystem functions and biodiversity in the deep sea. His team studies lakes of concentrated salt solution, known as anoxic hypersaline basins, on the floor of the Mediterranean. They have discovered extremely diverse microbial communities on the surfaces of such lakes.

The anoxic basins, so called because they are devoid of oxygen, occur below 3,000 m beneath the surface and are five to ten times more saline than seawater. Despite the harsh conditions, hypersaline brines have been shown to possess a wide range of active microbial communities. Yakimov's team has already identified more than ten new lineages of bacteria and archaea (these are ancient bacteria-like organisms), which they have named the Mediterranean Sea Brine Lake Divisions.

The research shows that these microbes largely live by sulphide oxidation. Like the communities at hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, they can survive independently of sunlight and oxygen. But they are an important store for organic carbon. source

My comment: We had a similar article before. I find it amazing how adaptive life is to all kinds of harsh conditions. I mean, the cold conditions are acceptable, but the saline one are really odd. And obviously, those bacteria have no problem with it. I think it would be quite interesting if we can obtain samples from what lurks beneath (though, that might be dangerous if you think about it) to see how evolution went there, how they are different and how they are similar to us and how they got where they are on the first place.

Mineral kingdom has co-evolved with life

(PhysOrg.com) -- Evolution isn't just for living organisms. Scientists at the Carnegie Institution have found that the mineral kingdom co-evolved with life, and that up to two thirds of the more than 4,000 known types of minerals on Earth can be directly or indirectly linked to biological activity.

All the chemical elements were present from the start in the Solar Systems' primordial dust, but they formed comparatively few minerals. Only after large bodies such as the Sun and planets congealed did there exist the extremes of temperature and pressure required to forge a large diversity of mineral species.

As the Solar System took shape about 60 different minerals made their appearance. Larger, planet-sized bodies, especially those with volcanic activity and bearing significant amounts of water, could have given rise to several hundred new mineral species. Mars and Venus, which Hazen and coworkers estimate to have at least 500 different mineral species in their surface rocks, appear to have reached this stage in their mineral evolution.

However, only on Earth—at least in our Solar System—did mineral evolution progress to the next stages. Unique to Earth, plate tectonics created new kinds of physical and chemical environments where minerals could form, and thereby boosted mineral diversity to more than a thousand types.

What ultimately had the biggest impact on mineral evolution, however, was the origin of life, approximately 4 billion years ago. "Of the approximately 4,300 known mineral species on Earth, perhaps two thirds of them are biologically mediated," says Hazen. Many important minerals are oxidized weathering products, including ores of iron, copper and many other metals.

Microorganisms and plants also accelerated the production of diverse clay minerals. In the oceans, the evolution of organisms with shells and mineralized skeletons generated thick layered deposits of minerals such as calcite, which would be rare on a lifeless planet. source

My comment: Ok, this article isn't what I thought it would be, but still, it's quite interesting how life affected minerals on Earth. And if life played such a big role for the evolution of the cristals, could they really have some affinity with life? That could explain the obsession for some stones and ores humans have.

Could life have started in a lump of ice?

The universe is full of water, mostly in the form of very cold ice films deposited on interstellar dust particles, but until recently little was known about the detailed small scale structure. Now the latest quick freezing techniques coupled with sophisticated scanning electron microscopy techniques, are allowing physicists to create ice films in cold conditions similar to outer space and observe the detailed molecular organisation, yielding clues to fundamental questions including possibly the origin of life.

The ESF workshop's main focus was on ice in space, usually formed at temperatures far lower than even the coldest places on earth, between 3 and 90 degrees above absolute zero (3-90K). At low temperatures, ice can form different structures at the mesoscale (molecule scale) than under terrestrial conditions, and in some cases can be amorphous in form, that is like a glass with the molecules in effect frozen in space, rather than as crystals. For ice to be amorphous, water has to be cooled to its glass transition temperature of about 130 K without ice crystals having formed first. To do this in the laboratory requires rapid cooling, which Cartwright and colleagues achieved in their work with a helium "cold finger" incorporated in a scanning electron microscope to take the images.

Most intriguingly, ice under certain conditions produces biomimetic forms, meaning that they appear life like, with shapes like palm leaves or worms, or even at a smaller scale like bacteria. This led Cartwright to point out that researchers should not assume that lifelike forms in objects obtained from space, like Mars rock, is evidence that life actually existed there.

On the other hand the existence of lifelike biomimetic structures in ice suggests that nature may well have copied physics. It is even possible that while ice is too cold to support most life as we know it, it may have provided a suitable internal environment for prebiotic life to have emerged. source

My comment: Ok, this was interesting and long. And little propaganda-ish. Or whatever the word is. It's indeed interesting that some biological shapes form naturally in ice, though I have no idea what it may mean. It's kind of too easy to think that life rode ice chunks across the Universe and filled whatever form it has in hand. It's more likely that life and ice have simlar reason to share those forms. But it's weird in any case. Good spent European money!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Creatures special, 2008

Today:

  1. Superglue from the sea: Synthetic sea worm glue may mend shattered knee, face bones
  2. Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes
  3. Experimental TB drug explodes bacteria from the inside out
  4. Scientists put sex origin mystery to bed
  5. Tiny sacs released by brain tumor cells carry information that may guide treatment
A rather lazy one. Because I'm in lazy mood. And I don't see that much enthusiasm on my posts anyway. In any case, the first 3 articles are the most interesting, because they offer new opportunities and well, perspectives. I mean a slug stealing genes of its food is quite fun, right?

Superglue from the sea: Synthetic sea worm glue may mend shattered knee, face bones

Sandcastle worms live in intertidal surf, building sturdy tube-shaped homes from bits of sand and shell and their own natural glue. University of Utah bioengineers have made a synthetic version of this seaworthy superglue, and hope it will be used within several years to repair shattered bones in knees, other joints and the face.In lab tests using cow bone pieces from groceries, the synthetic sea-worm glue – a first-generation prototype – performed 37 percent as well as commercial superglue.

Stewart expects the synthetic worm glue will be tested on animals within a year or two, and will be tested and used on humans in five to 10 years.

The synthetic sandcastle worm glue would not be used to repair large fractures such as major leg and arm bones, for which rods, pins and screws now are used, but for small fractures and facesl.

The synthetic glue also can carry drugs, so it could be used to deliver pain killers, growth factors, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicines or even stem cells to sites where bone fragments are glued, "simultaneously fixing the bone and delivering potent drugs or even genes to the spots where they are needed," Stewart says.

Stewart is seeking to patent the synthetic sea worm glue so it can be licensed to an outside company that would develop it as a product. He hopes to make better versions that have more bonding power, are biocompatible in the human body and biodegradable.

The study involved Phragmatopoma californica, the sandcastle worm, which lives in vaguely sandcastle-like colonies of tube-shaped homes on the California coast.

The adult worm is an inch or so long, and an eighth-inch in diameter. But they build tubes several inches long, using sand grains and shell fragments.

The sea worm's glue is made from two proteins – one acidic or negatively charged, the other basic or positively charged – that are natural polymers, or compounds with a repeating, chain-like structure. The glue also contains positively charged ions of calcium and magnesium.

In the natural worm glue, each protein polymer's "backbone" is made of polyamide, which has "side chains" of other chemicals attached to the backbone. source

My comment: Sounds very cool. Though, I think that scientist is somewhat over-excited. The new glue is obviously very good, but between this and usable there is a difference. And time. And money. But imagine if it can be used to fix broken bones instead of waiting for months to heal.

Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes

  • 17:24 24 November 2008

Elysia chlorotica is a lurid green sea slug, with a gelatinous leaf-shaped body, that lives along the Atlantic seaboard of the US. What sets it apart from most other sea slugs is its ability to run on solar power.

Mary Rumpho of the University of Maine, is an expert on E. chlorotica and has now discovered how the sea slug gets this ability: it photosynthesises with genes "stolen" from the algae it eats.

She has known for some time that E. chlorotica acquires chloroplasts - the green cellular objects that allow plant cells to convert sunlight into energy - from the algae it eats, and stores them in the cells that line its gut.

Young E. chlorotica fed with algae for two weeks, could survive for the rest of their year-long lives without eating, Rumpho found in earlier work.

But chloroplasts only contain enough DNA to encode about 10% of the proteins needed to keep themselves running. The other necessary genes are found in the algae's nuclear DNA.

In their latest experiments, Rumpho and colleagues sequenced the chloroplast genes of Vaucheria litorea, the alga that is the sea slug's favourite snack. They confirmed that if the sea slug used the algal chloroplasts alone, it would not have all the genes needed to photosynthesise.

They then turned their attention to the sea slug's own DNA and found one of the vital algal genes was present.

One possibility is that, as the algae are processed in the sea slug's gut, the gene is taken into its cells as along with the chloroplasts. The genes are then incorporated into the sea slug's own DNA, allowing the animal to produce the necessary proteins for the stolen chloroplasts to continue working.

Another explanation is that a virus found in the sea slug carries the DNA from the algal cells to the sea slug's cells. However, Rumpho says her team does not have any evidence for this yet.

In another surprising development, the researchers found the algal gene in E. chlorotica's sex cells, meaning the ability to maintain functional chloroplasts could be passed to the next generation.

Greg Hurst of Liverpool University in the UK says that DNA jumping from one species to another is not unheard of but that normally the DNA does not appear to function in the new species.

It is unlikely humans could become photosynthetic in this way. "Our digestive tract just chews all that stuff up - the chloroplasts and the DNA," she adds. source

My comment: Ok, first, I find it odd that the algae DNA is found in the slug sex cells, because if it could transfer the ability to photosynthesise then it wouldn't need to eat the algae to survive and it would just implement those genes as a part of the specie. In any case, it's very interesting research. You can't but wonder if we really cannot use vegetables in the same manner. Yeah, they say we just chew them, but I don't think someone traced the human digestion down to genes. And what's even more important, what if we get genes from our food, then, what do we do about GM food?

Experimental TB drug explodes bacteria from the inside out

An international team of biochemists has discovered how an experimental drug unleashes its destructive force inside the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB). The finding could help scientists develop ways to treat dormant TB infections, and suggests a strategy for drug development against other bacteria as well.

One-third of the world's population is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tb), the bacteria that cause TB and cannot healed in its latent state. Dr. Barry and his colleagues have now given a candidate TB drug PA-824.

Previously, Dr. Barry and his collaborators found that M. tb mutants lacking a specific bacterial enzyme were resistant to PA-824, but at that time, they did not know the function of the enzyme.

A key element of the research is how two bacterial components- an enzyme called Ddn and a cofactor- interact with PA-824 trough production of nitric oxide (NO) gas.

NO gas is produced naturally by certain immune system cells after they engulf M. tb or other bacteria. This is one way that people with healthy immune systems can contain M. tb infection. However, this natural immune response is not always enough to completely rid the body of TB bacteria. In essence, PA-824 performs similarly to the NO-producing immune cells--but the drug's effect is more specific and triggered only after it enters the bacteria.

The non-dividing M. tb bacteria characteristic of latent TB infections are walled off by immune cells that aggregate around the bacteria to form a body called a granuloma. Oxygen levels are low inside granulomas. In their latest research, the scientists observed that NO-generation during PA-824 metabolism is greatest when oxygen levels are low. This observation suggests how PA-824 may work against non-dividing M. tb.

PA-824 was originally designed to work best under aerobic, or oxygenated, conditions. With this new understanding of how the bacterial enzyme and cofactor act on PA-824 under low-oxygen conditions, Dr. Barry says, scientists can design drugs with a chemical structure similar to PA-824 but optimize them from the start to behave best under low-oxygen conditions.

Because humans have neither the bacterial cofactor nor any enzymes equivalent to Ddn, PA-824 has no effect on human cells. Conversely, many bacteria have enzymes in the same family as Ddn. Thus, says Dr. Barry, it is possible to envision new kinds of NO-generating drugs designed to interact with enzymes associated with other disease-causing bacteria as well.source

My comment: Nice. Especially if this mechanism can be used to fight other bacteria too. If you think about it, we're so incapable to fight with bacteria. People die from bacterial infections much more than anything else (yeah, probably after the heart and blood diseases, but they are common only for the rich part of the world). Bacteria get more and more adapted to our antibiotics and thus harder and harder to kill. It's very probable that soon we'll face a major biological war, we against microbes. And we're very unfit to go into that war. This discovery may prove very useful in the fight.

Scientists put sex origin mystery to bed

By Jeanna Bryner,Nov. 26, 2008

We all came from hermaphrodites, organisms with both male and female reproductive organs. And though the origin traces back more than 100 million years, biologists have scratched their heads over how and why the separate male and female sexes evolved.

Now, research on wild strawberry plants is providing evidence for such a transition and the emergence of sex, at least in plants.

The study showed that two genes located at different spots on a chromosome can cast strawberry offspring as a single sex, a hermaphrodite or a neuter (neither male nor female, and essentially sterile). The researchers suspect the two genes could be responsible for one of the earliest stages of the transition from asexual to sexual beings.

The plants in the research each have two proto-sex chromosomes. Two spots on each proto-sex chromosome contain sex-determining genes, one that controls sterility and fertility in males and another that does the same in females.

Offspring that inherit both fertility versions are hemaphrodites and can self-breed, while plants that inherit one fertility and one sterility version become either male or female. (A female would result from a sterile male and fertile female combination of genes.) Those that get both sterility versions of the genes are considered neuters and can't reproduce, so they ultimately die out.

While the two sex-determining genes are close to one another on the proto-sex chromosomes, the researchers say they are not completely linked. That's why the strawberry offspring can get such a wild mix of the genes.

On our sex chromosomes, for instance, this mixing and matching is not possible (or at least very rare), because the female chromosome is one unit and so is the male sex chromosome. source

My comment: Ok, I'm not quite sure what was the important thing here, but it sounds quite cool how the strawberries procreate.

Tiny sacs released by brain tumor cells carry information that may guide treatment

Microvesicles – tiny membrane-covered sacs – released from glioblastoma cells contain molecules that may provide data that can guide treatment of the deadly brain tumor. In their report in the December 2008 Nature Cell Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers describe finding tumor-associated RNA and proteins in membrane microvesicles called exosomes in blood samples from glioblastoma patients. Detailed analysis of exosome contents identified factors that could facilitate a tumor's growth through delivery of genetic information or proteins, or signify its vulnerability to particular medications.

Many types of cells release exosomes as part of normal cell-to-cell communication, and several types of tumors are known to shed exosomes containing proteins that can alter the cellular environment to favor tumor growth. The current investigation is believed to be the first to carefully analyze the contents of exosomes shed from glioblastoma cells and characterize their contents. source

My comment: Again, not much to comment. It's simply fascinating how complex the body is and how much more we should understand in order to make it heal.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

The ancients and their secrets, 2008

Today:

  1. Call for promotion of Saraswati basin
  2. Scholar finds Mayans' buried highway through hell
  3. More of ancient Amazon civilization unearthed
  4. Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul
What would you think if you copy-paste few articles and they turn out to have A LOT in common? Well, I feel precisely like this now. All of those articles ring a bell in my head, a bell that will turn to a melody soon. I hope you like the selection.

Call for promotion of Saraswati basin


An international conference on the Vedic River Saraswati and Hindu civilisation held at the India International Centre, New Delhi, between October 24 and October 26, 2008 has demanded that the government of India develop the Saraswati river basin.

The conference wanted the government to promote the river basin as a national heritage site to promote pilgrimage and heritage tourism.

The conference arrived at the consensus that the River Saraswati played a great role in the lives of the people of Vedic India for millennia. The achievements of the people of the Saraswati region were extraordinary. The great Vedas, the Vedic Sanskrit language and the cultural symbols and practices that originated on the banks of the river were indelibly associated with the collective consciousness of the people of India, leading to a continuum of Hindu civilisation over thousands of years.

It observed that extensive research conducted in recent years by different scholars removed any lingering doubt about the existence of the great river and the associated civilisation which constituted the roots of Hindu culture and abiding tradition. This research also conclusively established that the great and geographically vast civilisation represented by the early Hakra ware (Harappan bricks) communities, followed by the early, middle and mature Harappan phases of development and the highly-evolved Saraswati civilisation were in fact one and the same.

The Vedic river already stands rejuvenated above the ground in Haryana and parts of Rajasthan.
The conference opined that the rejuvenation of River Saraswati would benefit millions of people of India across various states - Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. It recommended that impetus be given to carry forward the archaeological explorations intensively along the Saraswati River basin and in associated areas to its east. source
My comment: If you read the source, you'll find that it's full of happy rhetoric but that's not so important. I read a book on the civilisation of Ind-Sarasvati and I am very convinced this civilisation need much more exposure and research than even those proud scientists on the conference realise. Especially when I connect it with certain Orphic practices I found in Wikipedia that related to the Vedas way too much. I will probably blog about this at some point after my research on the subject is one.

Scholar finds Mayans' buried highway through hell

TZIBICHEN CENOTE, Mexico (AP) — Legend says the afterlife for ancient Mayas was a terrifying obstacle course in which the dead had to traverse rivers of blood, and chambers full of sharp knives, bats and jaguars.

Now a Mexican archaeologist using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish Inquisition says a series of caves he has explored may be the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.

The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatan peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba, described in ancient mythological texts such as the Popol Vuh.

Archaeologists have long known that the Maya regarded caves as sacred and built structures in some.

But De Anda's team introduced "an extremely important ingredient" by using historical records to locate and connect a series of sacred caves, and link them with the concept of the Mayan road to the afterworld, said archaeologist Bruce Dahlin of Shepherd University, who has studied other Maya sites in the Yucatan.

The group explored walled-off sacred chambers that can only be entered by crawling along a floor populated by spiders, scorpions and toads.

To find Xibalba, De Anda spent five years combing the 450-year-old records of the Inquisition trials the Spaniards held against Indian "heretics" in Mexico.

The Mayas used the sinkhole caves, known as cenotes, as places of worship and depositories for sacrificed humans. Many cenotes still contain pools that supply villages with water. The best-known is the broad, circular pool at the ruins of Chichen Itza.

The cenotes De Anda found were drier, better hidden and farther from villages. They seem to have had a special religious significance because even as the Maya were forced to convert to Christianity, they still traveled long distances to worship there.

Among De Anda's discoveries are a broad, perfectly paved, 100-yard underground road, a submerged temple, walled-off stone rooms and the "confusing crossroads" of the legends.

At the center of one of the underground lakes, De Anda's team found a collapsed and submerged altar with carvings indicating it was dedicated to the gods of death.

Bats are depicted in the ancient texts, and visitors have to duck to avoid swarms of them. There's the "chamber of roasting heat" which indeed leaves visitors soaked in sweat. Cool currents of surface air penetrating some caves feel almost frigid, just like the legend's "chambers of shaking cold."

While De Anda has not yet encountered a specific "jaguar chamber," jaguar bones have been found in at least one cave.

Subterranean "roads" interrupted by deep pools of water may signify the rivers of blood and pus. source

My comment:Now, it's not profoundly smart to drop dead people into water sources, but I doubt the Mayan did that anyway. The caves that the article describe are quite interesting, but I find even more interesting why they needed a paved road to hell or even to heaven. This is where it get REALLY weird. For me, those roads led to somewhere, somewhere important, not just to the journey of finding your immortal soul- something that is undoubtedly important, but let's get realistic, they wouldn't pave roads for that. Another relations to Orphism that had similar practice of going underground to experience the transition between the words. You know about the legends that the Atlants are still hiding under the Earth. How about that?

More of ancient Amazon civilization unearthed

By KURT STANTON

A Japanese scholar leading a multiyear archaeological project in Bolivia says his team has found a small human skeleton well over 1,000 years old in this year's excavation, the first discovery of its kind in that country.

"The well-preserved skeleton was very small in size, about 70 cm tall, with a disproportionately large head, but it had characteristics of an adult," Katsuyoshi Sanematsu, a professor of anthropology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said in a recent interview.

The dating analysis of a carbon sample extracted from a neck bone showed that the skeleton dates back to around 700 A.D.

Also found at the loma were ceramic dolls, coins, pieces of pottery with a design of a three-stepped platform, ceramic spinning wheels and other tools, Sanematsu said.

"The three-stepped platform design, or three 'pachas,' has its origin in the Andean civilization and indicates there was an interchange of cultures between the Andean highland and the Amazon," he said.

"The large quantity of pieces of pottery found, together with numerous animal bones and apple snails, indicate there used to exist at the site an ancient society with a considerable population," he said.

Also, there are canals, waterways, reservoirs and "terraplens" (ancient roads or dikes) around the loma that form a complex water system built by the ancients, Sanematsu said.

The carbon dating show that the upper part of Loma Chocolatalito was inhabited approximately from 100 to 1200 A.D. source

My comment: I believe I have a follow-up article on that in a coming post, thought I'm not entirely sure. In any case, just notice how small that woman is, in comparison with some rather large skeletons or foots that were found on Earth. Isn't it strange?

Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul

November 17, 2008

In a mountainous kingdom in what is now southeastern Turkey, there lived in the eighth century B.C. a royal official, Kuttamuwa, who oversaw the completion of an inscribed stone monument, or stele, to be erected upon his death. The words instructed mourners to commemorate his life and afterlife with feasts “for my soul that is in this stele.

University of Chicago archaeologists who made the discovery last summer in ruins of a walled city near the Syrian border said the stele provided the first written evidence that the people in this region held to the religious concept of the soul apart from the body. By contrast, Semitic contemporaries, including the Israelites, believed that the body and soul were inseparable, which for them made cremation unthinkable, as noted in the Bible.

Circumstantial evidence, archaeologists said, indicated that the people at Sam’al, the ancient city, practiced cremation. The site is known today as Zincirli (pronounced ZIN-jeer-lee).

Other scholars said the find could lead to important insights into the dynamics of cultural contact and exchange in the borderlands of antiquity where Indo-European and Semitic people interacted in the Iron Age.

The writing is in a script derived from the Phoenician alphabet and a Semitic language that appears to be an archaic variant of Aramaic.

“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.”

A translation of the inscription by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at Chicago, reads in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”

Dr. Pardee said the word used for soul, nabsh, was Aramaic, a language spoken throughout northern Syria and parts of Mesopotamia in the eighth century. But the inscription seemed to be a previously unrecognized dialect. In Hebrew, a related language, the word for soul is nefesh.

In addition to the writing, a pictorial scene chiseled into the well-preserved stele depicts the culture’s view of the afterlife. A bearded man wearing a tasseled cap, presumably Kuttamuwa, raises a cup of wine and sits before a table laden with food, bread and roast duck in a stone bowl.

In other societies of the region, scholars say, this was an invitation to bring customary offerings of food and drink to the tomb of the deceased. Here family and descendants supposedly feasted before a stone slab in a kind of chapel. Archaeologists have found no traces there of a tomb or bodily remains.

Joseph Wegner, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the research, said cult offerings to the dead were common in the Middle East, but not the idea of a soul separate from the body — except in Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, Dr. Wegner noted, the human entity has separate components. The body is important, and the elite went to great expense to mummify and entomb it for eternity. In death, though, a life force or spirit known as ka was immortal, and a soul known as ba, which was linked to personal attributes, fled the body after death.

They found no signs of a burial in the city’s ruins. At other ancient sites on the Turkish-Syrian border, cremation urns have been dated to the same period. So the archaeologists surmised that cremation was also practiced at Sam’al.

Dr. Stager of Harvard said the evidence so far, the spread of languages and especially the writing on stone about a royal official’s soul reflected the give-and-take of mixed cultures, part Indo-European, part Semitic, at a borderland in antiquity.

source

My comment: I'd like to point out first, that the belief in the soul is apart from the body isn't only a part of Egyptian beliefs, but also of Thracian at the time. I know I repeat that word all over the post, but it should tell you how important I find it. Also, the Indian culture beliefs in immortality of the soul, so one should ask where this belief came- from the East-India or from the west- Balkans or Egypt.


Thursday, 18 December 2008

Agriculture of the future

Today:

  1. Agriculture goes urban and high-tech
  2. Plant Tweak Could Let Toxic Soil Feed Millions
Two very interesting articles. I actually thought they were more, but I probably have deleted something. Anyway, I think you'll appreciate them, since they both offer a new insights and opportunities for agriculture. On principle, I'm not such a fan of farmers, but those are science related and really interesting so...enjoy!

Agriculture goes urban and high-tech

The program run by the California State Polytechnic University agriculture professor Terry Fujimoto is part of a growing effort to use hydroponics -- a method of cultivating plants in water instead of soil -- to bring farming into cities, where consumers are concentrated.

Because hydroponic farming requires less water and less land than traditional field farming, Fujimoto and researchers-turned-growers in other U.S. cities see it as ideal to bring agriculture to apartment buildings, rooftops and vacant lots.

Supporters point to the environmental cost of trucking produce from farms to cities, the loss of wilderness for farmland to feed a growing world population insecure food chains as reasons for establishing urban hydroponic farms.

However, the expense of setting up the high-tech farms on pricey city land and providing enough year-round heat and light could present some insurmountable obstacles.

The roots of hydroponically produced fruits and vegetables can dangle in direct contact with water or be set in growing media such as sponges or shredded coconut shells. Most commercial operations pump water through sophisticated sensors that automatically adjust nutrient and acidity levels in the water.

The country's largest hydroponic greenhouse is Eurofresh Inc.'s 274-acre operation in southeastern Arizona, where more than 200 million pounds of tomatoes were produced in 2007.source

My comment: That's not so bad for a space station and also for countries where soil is scarcity. However, this technology must go with a complete water recycling technology, because water is much more scarce than soil. Also, notice how they served the production in hospitals. That's somewhat odd, after all they can load the plants with pretty much anything the want and if the production is too small to be controlled, that makes those patients simply test subjects.

Plant Tweak Could Let Toxic Soil Feed Millions

By Brandon Keim,October 02, 2008

Thanks to a genetic breakthrough, a large portion of Earth's now-inhospitable soil could be used to grow crops -- potentially alleviating one of the most pressing problems facing the planet's rapidly growing population.

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside made plants tolerant of poisonous aluminum by tweaking a single gene. This may allow crops to thrive in the 40 to 50 percent of Earth's soils currently rendered toxic by the metal.

Aluminum toxicity is a very limiting factor, because among agriculturally important plants, there are no mechanisms for aluminum tolerance.

In an effort to salvage currently infertile land, scientists have tried to understand the basic mechanisms of aluminum toxicity, and to find resistant food crops, but with little success. Larsen's research, published Thursday in Current Biology, could change that.

He identified a gene in Arabidopsis -- a flower used as a model organism in basic plant research -- that affects plants' sensitivity to aluminum. When the gene is modified, seedlings that would normally have died in aluminum-rich soils instead flourished.

There's no guarantee that the tweak will prove successful and safe -- but if it does, it could provide food for millions.

The gene appears to produce an enzyme that -- when exposed to aluminum -- stops cell division, preventing roots from growing.

Developing resistant plants may not be easy. Though defusing AlATR protected the plants' roots, it made their leaves more sensitive to radiation. But Larsen suggests a workaround: Engineer plants that express the modified gene only in their roots, not their leaves.

Kochian said that genetic engineering may not even be necessary. In so-called smart breeding, farmers use genome sequencing to identify plants with the best AlATR alleles, then breed those to create resistant strains.

Larsen is currently trying to patent the technique, and said that he'll make it available to researchers in the developing world. source

My comment: Ok, this is very interesting and probably important, but I have one question. Why plants won't grow in this soil? We know how they do it, by this gene, but we don't know why. What is the evolutionary advantage that lead to such genes. Aluminium for example is toxic to humans, what if that aluminium would pass from the plant to the production and kill or damage humans?It makes sense after all - those crops were made to feed humans and this is a nice mechanism to ensure they will grow in non-toxic soils- if the soil is toxic, the plant simply dies.