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

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Our glorious past-reality strikes back

Today:

  1. 1.5 million-year-old fossil humans walked on modern feet (Video)
  2. Maritime Archaeologist at Helm of Modern Journey to Ancient Egyptian Land
  3. Archaeologists find earliest known domestic horses
  4. Found in Iraq: "King Tut"
  5. Copper Age began earlier than believed, scientists say
Apologies for the delay of this post, but I had a hell of a week.

1.5 million-year-old fossil humans walked on modern feet (Video)

February 26th, 2009

Ancient footprints found at Rutgers' Koobi Fora Field School show that some of the earliest humans walked like us and did so on anatomically modern feet 1.5 million years ago.

The footprints were discovered in two 1.5 million-year-old sedimentary layers near Ileret in northern Kenya. These rarest of impressions yielded information about soft tissue form and structure not normally accessible in fossilized bones. The Ileret footprints constitute the oldest evidence of an essentially modern human-like foot anatomy.

To ensure that comparisons made with modern human and other fossil hominid footprints were objective, the Ileret footprints were scanned and digitized.

The authors of the Science paper reported that the upper sediment layer contained three footprint trails: two trails of two prints each, one of seven prints and a number of isolated prints. Five meters deeper, the other sediment surface preserved one trail of two prints and a single isolated smaller print, probably from a juvenile.

In these specimens, the big toe is parallel to the other toes, unlike that of apes where it is separated in a grasping configuration useful in the trees. The footprints show a pronounced human-like arch and short toes, typically associated with an upright bipedal stance. The size, spacing and depth of the impressions were the basis of estimates of weight, stride and gait, all found to be within the range of modern humans.

Based on size of the footprints and their modern anatomical characteristics, the authors attribute the prints to the hominid Homo ergaster, or early Homo erectus as it is more generally known. This was the first hominid to have had the same body proportions (longer legs and shorter arms) as modern Homo sapiens. Various H. ergaster or H. erectus remains have been found in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, with dates consistent with the Ileret footprints.

Other hominid fossil footprints dating to 3.6 million years ago had been discovered in 1978 by Mary Leakey at Laetoli, Tanzania. These are attributed to the less advanced Australopithecus afarensis, a possible ancestral hominid. The smaller, older Laetoli prints show indications of upright bipedal posture but possess a shallower arch and a more ape-like, divergent big toe. source

My comment: I've talked about this before. Just imagine, humans with approximately the same body as ours, roamed on Earth 1.5 MILLION years ago. Let's see, for around 5000 years we got from the wheel to spaceships. 1.5 Million/5000=3000! Or in the worst case, if we say that those homo erectus needed say .5 million years to evolve to the wheel phase, that's still 2000 times the time in which our civilisation developed. Or even if we say, they need 1 million years to evolve, we still have at least 100 times the period we took to become who we are. That means that in the mean time, 100 civilisations as ours may have existed. Of course, that's oversimplification, but still-we have only the bones of those hominids, we don't know what was their brain like!

Maritime Archaeologist at Helm of Modern Journey to Ancient Egyptian Land

March 4th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Ancient Egyptians may be best known for building pyramids, but internationally renowned maritime archaeologist Cheryl Ward wants the world to know that they were pretty good sailors, too.

She ought to know. Ward, an associate professor of anthropology at The Florida State University, and an international team of archaeologists, shipwrights and sailors recently built a full-scale replica of a 3,800-year-old ship and sailed it on the Red Sea to re-create a voyage to a place the ancient Egyptians called God’s Land, or Punt.

“This project has demonstrated the extraordinary capability of the Egyptians at sea,” Ward said. “Many people, including my fellow archaeologists, think of the Egyptians as tied to the Nile River and lacking in the ability to go to sea.

The project grew out of the 2006 discovery of the oldest remains of seafaring ships in the world in manmade caves at Wadi Gawasis, on the edge of the Egyptian desert. The Egyptians used the site to assemble and disassemble ships built of cedar planks and to store the planks, stone anchors and coils of rope until the next expedition -- one that obviously never came. Civil unrest and political instability after the Middle Kingdom period (2040-1640 BC) likely put a halt to further exploration, and the caves were long forgotten, Ward said.

Ward, who serves as principal investigator for maritime archaeology at Wadi Gawasis, determined that the wooden planks found in the caves were nearly 4,000 years old. Based on the shipworms that had tunneled into the planks, she hypothesized that the ships had weathered a long voyage of up to six months, likely to the fabled southern Red Sea trading center of Punt.

Scholars had long known that Egyptians traveled to Punt, but they debated its exact location and whether the Egyptians reached Punt by land or by sea. Some had thought the ancient Egyptians did not have the naval technology to travel long distances by sea, but the findings at Wadi Gawasis confirmed that Egyptians sailed a 2,000-mile round trip voyage to Punt, located in what is today Ethiopia or Yemen, Ward said.

Along the way, Ward enlisted the FSU Master Craftsman Program to build small-scale models of the ship to help her to refine details of the plank shape and layout.

By October 2008, the 66-foot-long by 16-foot-wide ship, which Ward dubbed the Min of the Desert, was completed using the techniques of the ancient Egyptians -- no frames, no nails and planks that were designed to fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. After immersing the ship in the Nile to permit the timbers to swell closed around the wood fastenings, mounting the rigging and testing the steering system, they transported the complete ship by truck to the Red Sea -- rather than carry it piece by piece across the desert as the ancient Egyptians would have done.

In late December, the 24-person international crew set sail on the Red Sea. Political limitations as well as an abundance of modern-day pirates along the southern end of the route kept the crew from leaving Egyptian waters, and the voyage ended after seven days and about 150 miles into what would have been a 1,000-mile trip to Punt. But the weeklong voyage provided a new appreciation for the skills and ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians, Ward said, noting that the crew was surprised at how fast the ship was able to travel -- approximately 6 knots, or 7 mph.

She said that it probably took about a month to sail to Punt and two months to return.source

My comment: I'm not going to comment on the many "if"s in the article-where Punt was, how they got there, but I find the approach adorable. You don't speculate, like archaeologists do, you build the ship and check how it's sailing. And it sails all right. I'm not surprised that Egyptians could sail, I'm surprised this surprises someone. I'm reading right now about the ancient maps that showed the Earth as seen from 10 000 years ago. Someone made that maps. I'm not saying that it was the Egyptians, only that they had the knowledge how to sail and probably used it.

Archaeologists find earliest known domestic horses

March 5th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- An international team of archaeologists has uncovered the earliest known evidence of horses being domesticated by humans. The discovery suggests that horses were both ridden and milked. The findings could point to the very beginnings of horse domestication and the origins of the horse breeds we know today.

The researchers have traced the origins of horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan circa 5,500 years ago. This is about 1,000 years earlier than thought and about 2,000 years earlier than domestic horses are known to have been in Europe. Their findings strongly suggest that horses were originally domesticated, not just for riding, but also to provide food, including milk.

Their findings show that in the fourth millennium BC horses in Kazakhstan were being selectively bred for domestic use. They also show horses were being harnessed, possibly for riding, and that people were consuming horse milk.

Analysis of ancient bone remains showed that the horses were similar in shape to Bronze Age domestic horses and different from wild horses from the same region. This suggests that people were selecting wild horses for their physical attributes, which were then exaggerated through breeding.

The team used a new technique to search for 'bit damage' caused by horses being harnessed or bridled. The results showed that horses had indeed been harnessed, suggesting they could have been ridden.

Using a novel method of lipid residue analysis, the researchers also analysed Botai pottery and found traces of fats from horse milk. Mare's milk is still drunk in Kazakhstan, a country in which horse traditions run deep, and is usually fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink called 'koumiss'. While it was known that koumiss had been produced for centuries, this study shows the practice dates back to the very earliest horse herders.

The steppe zones, east of the Ural Mountains in Northern Kazakhstan, are known to have been a prime habitat for wild horses thousands of years ago. They were a commonly hunted animal. This may have set the stage for horse domestication by providing indigenous cultures with access to plentiful wild herds and the opportunity to gain an intimate knowledge of equine behaviour. Horses appear to have been domesticated in preference to adopting a herding economy based upon domestic cattle, sheep and goats. Horses have the advantage of being adapted to severe winters and they are able to graze year round, even through snow. Cattle, sheep and goats need to be to be provided with winter fodder, and were a later addition to the prehistoric economies of the region. source

My comment: You probably won't feel so touched by this article, but the Koumiss is very characteristical for the Bulgarian tribes living in Asia. And that's why, although they call it the Botai culture, they are actually what has left from the path of Bulgarians back home(ok, not today's Bulgarians, but the Bulgars). That's a long time, but anyway, the point is that scientists are slowly discovering that forgotten and ignored culture and even if they won't call it like this, it doesn't matter. The past must be known. And by the way, they still consume Koumiss there and eat horses. Which is kind of disgusting, but well, it's a harsh land.

Found in Iraq: "King Tut"

Feb 12, 2009, 16:48 GMT

Dohuk, Iraq - A Kurdish archaeological expedition announced on Thursday that it had found a small statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen in northern Iraq, a Kurdish news agency reported.

Hassan Ahmed, the director of the local antiquities authority, told the Kurdish news agency Akanews that archaeologists had found a 12-centimeter statue of the ancient Egyptian king in the valley of Dahuk, 470 kilometres north of Baghdad, near a site that locals have long called Pharaoh's Castle.

He said archaeologists from the Dahuk Antiquities Authority believe the statue dates from the mid-14th Century BC.

Ahmed said the statue of Tutankhamen showed 'the face of the ancient civilization of Kurdistan and cast light on the ancient relations between pharaonic Egypt and the state of Mitanni.'

The kingdom of Mittani occupied roughly the same territory spanning Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran in the 14th Century BC that many Kurds now hope will one day form an independent Kurdistan. source

My comment: Yeah, right, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran will join in independent Kurdistan. Some people are quire ridiculous, but that's not so important. Let them dream, as long as they don't change the history, like Macedonians do, it's safe. Though, you never know when someone of them would get the support of some "benefactor". Anyway, I find this kingdom for very interesting and I would love to know what kind of language they had and how it relates to the Thracian language. Because, if Greeks said Thracians are the most numbreous people on world after the Indus, one would ask-where did they live?Because currently, Thrakia is only considered to be on the Balkans, and mostly Bulgaria. And that's a very small piece of land for so many people. (note, I'm not saying that independent Kurdistan should be replaced by Trakia-no way. It's about the history, not about current politics!)

Copper Age began earlier than believed, scientists say

Europe News

Oct 7, 2008, 14:47 GMT

Belgrade - Serbian archaeologists say a 7,500-year-old copper axe found at a Balkan site shows the metal was used in the Balkans hundreds of years earlier than previously thought.

The find near the Serbian town of Prokuplje shifts the timeline of the Copper Age and the Stone Age's neolithic period, archaeologist Julka Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic told the independent Beta news agency.

'Until now, experts said that only stone was used in the Stone Age and that the Copper Age came a bit later. Our finds, however, confirm that metal was used some 500 to 800 years earlier,' she said.

The Copper Age marks the first stage of humans' use of metal. It is thought to have started in about the 4th millennium BC in southeastern Europe and earlier in the Middle East.

Archaeologists at the Plocnik site also found furnace and melting pots with traces of copper, suggesting the site may have been an important metal age center of the Balkans.

'All this undeniably proves that human civilization in this area produced metal in the 5th millennium BC,' archaeologist Dusan Sljivar told Beta.

The Plocnik site was discovered in 1927 and first excavations began a year later when first neolithic items were found. It is part of the Vinca culture, Europe's biggest prehistoric civilization.

Vinca culture flourished from 6th to 3rd millennium BC in present-day Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Its name came from the village Vinca on the Danube river, some 14 kilometers downstream from Belgrade.source

My comment: Go figure why the culture is named after a Serbian village, when most of the artefacts are found in Bulgaria. Oh, well, politics. The important part is that this is the first sign that Thracians were much more advanced that people think. I know archaeologists wouldn't call them Thracian, but that's their problem. The magnificent golden treasuries we have back home are Thracian and they are from the same time. Or products of that time. So...

Friday, 24 April 2009

Technology, 02. 2009-Sensual jackets and cool nano-foam.

Today:

  1. Memristor chip could lead to faster, cheaper computers
  2. Latest 3D TV Technology Offers Interactive Control
  3. Carbon Nanotube Artificial Muscles for Extreme Temperatures (+video)
  4. Watch, Listen, and Feel Movies with a Haptics Jacket
  5. Glass you can build with: Metallic glass that's stronger and lasts longer

Memristor chip could lead to faster, cheaper computers

March 17th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The memristor is a computer component that offers both memory and logic functions in one simple package. It has the potential to transform the semiconductor industry, enabling smaller, faster, cheaper chips and computers.

A University of Michigan electrical engineer has taken a step toward this end by building a composed of nanoscale memristors that can store up to 1 kilobit of information.

Previously, only a few had been demonstrated, rather than such a large-scale array, due to reliability and reproducibility issues. While 1 kilobit is not a huge amount of information, the researchers consider it a leap that will make it easier to scale the technology so it can store much more data.

"We demonstrated CMOS-compatible, ultra-high-density arrays based on a silicon memristive system. This is an important first step." said Wei Lu, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. CMOS stands for . It is the technology used in modern microchips.

The density of a memristor-based memory chip could be at least an order of magnitude—a factor of 10—higher than current transistor-based chips. Such high density circuits can also be very fast, Lu says. You could save data to a memristor memory three orders of magnitude faster than saving to today's flash memory, for example.

Another benefit of memristor memory is that it's not volatile, as today's DRAM memory is. DRAM, which stands for dynamic random access memory, is part of your computer's quick-access memory that helps the machine run faster. DRAM is overwritten multiple times a second because it fades with time. Memristor memory would not have to be overwritten. It is more stable.

Lu says memristors could open the door to universal memory. And because of how densely they can be crammed onto , memristors also offer hope for robust biologically-inspired logic circuits. Each neuron in the human brain is connected to 10,000 other neurons through synapses, Lu says. Engineers can't achieve that kind of connectivity with today's transistor-based circuits. But memristor circuits could potentially overcome this problem. source

My comment: For you Peter Hamilton fans :) An for those who don't know what I'm referring to, it's very simple. In one of his books, you can read that about the simultaneous development of two technologies that changed the world-the discovery of say wormhole drive and the discovery of chips big enough to write all the humans memories. Thus, when one gets old, you can clone a new body and just transfer the personality stored the chip into the new body-a practical immortality! So, these memristors could serve that purpose one day. Isn't this cool!

Latest 3D TV Technology Offers Interactive Control

March 19th, 2009 By Lisa Zyga

(PhysOrg.com) -- Three-dimensional TV is now closer than ever to becoming a reality for consumers. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Tokyo and Hitachi, Ltd., have presented a 3D TV system that captures a live scene in real time and reproduces it on an autostereoscopic display. The system also offers interactive control, allowing viewers to adjust viewing parameters such as cropping a scene and reproducing an appropriate amount of depth.

“The greatest advantage of our system is to provide of the ,” lead author of the study Yuichi Taguchi, a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo, told PhysOrg.com. “The interactive control is essential for reproducing a dynamic 3D scene with desirable conditions, which depend on the contents of the scene, the viewer's preference, and the specifications.”

The 3D , called TransCAIP, captures a live scene using an array of 64 video cameras that are all connected via Ethernet cables to one PC, which converts images from all the video cameras into images for the display. Each contains a built-in HTTP server, which sends motion JPEG sequences to the PC.

The PC then converts the 64 input views captured by the cameras to an “ image” made of 60 views, which correspond to the viewing directions of the display. Using an image-based rendering technique, the PC converts the images in real-time, and then arranges the pixels to produce the integral photography image. The entire process, called light , is implemented on the single PC in real-time, requiring a few hundred milliseconds per frame.

Like all autostereoscopic displays, the new 3D TV system doesn’t require viewers to wear special glasses. Instead, the display reproduces various viewpoint images, allowing viewers to see a different image in each eye or by moving their head (the parallax effect). Although the basic principles of autostereoscopic 3D displays were developed more than a century ago, only with recent technological advances has it been possible to actually build autostereoscopic displays since they require such a large number of light rays (the resolution of a view times the number of viewpoints).

The researchers’ conversion method, which converts the different viewpoint layouts between the input and output devices, also offers advantages. For one thing, it enables viewers to control the viewing parameters based on their individual preferences or to help sharpen a scene. Using only the software, viewers can control the amount of depth on the display as well as choose a smaller viewing angle to view only a targeted location. Also, the light field conversion technique doesn’t require the capture system to have large lenses or long imaging distances, as some existing systems do.

As the researchers explain, the main technical challenge for their 3D TV system is the fast and flexible conversion of the input images from the 64 cameras to the 60 images in the integral photography format. In this study, their light field conversion method shows that real-time conversion is possible. In the future, the researchers plan to improve the visual quality of the system, such as by reducing blur and other unwanted artifacts caused by depth reproduction.source

My comment: That is so exciting! I honestly cannot imagine something cooler than such auto3D device. Just imagine being able to stop the scene and explore the details any way you want! Of course, that will require a complete change of the way movies are made and stores(obviously, the amount of information for any frame will be 60 times larger, so well, that makes a lot more information into one dvd or whatever they will use). The article said it will happen in 5-10 years time but I so hope it comes sooner. It's simply absolutely gorgeous. I'm starting to save money from now :)

Carbon Nanotube Artificial Muscles for Extreme Temperatures

March 20th, 2009
(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the UT Dallas Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute have demonstrated a fundamentally new type of artificial muscle, which can operate at extreme temperatures where no other artificial muscle can be used -- from below the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196° C) to above the melting point of iron (1538° C).

Once actuated (or put into motion) in a certain direction, these new can elongate 10 times more than natural muscles and at rates 1,000 times higher than a natural muscle. In another direction, when densified, they can generate thirty times the force of a natural muscle having the same cross-sectional area. While natural muscles can contract at about 20 percent per second, the new artificial muscles can contract at about 30,000 percent per second.

These artificial muscles are carbon nanotube aerogel sheets made by a novel solid-state process developed at UT Dallas. Sometimes called frozen smoke, aerogel is a low-density solid-state material derived from a gel in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with gas. are comprised mostly of air. The starting material is an array of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes manufactured under a chemical heat process. Because of the special arrangement of these nanotube arrays, which are called forests because they look like a bamboo forest, the carbon nanotubes can be pulled into sheets at speeds of up two meters per second. The sheets have such low density that an ounce would cover an acre.

When scientists apply a voltage to the carbon nanotube aerogel sheets, the nanotubes repulse, or push away from one another, which in effect works the muscle. These transparent sheets have strange properties that are important for muscle operation. While having about the density of air, in one direction, they have higher specific strength (strength/density) than a steel plate. When stretched in another direction, they provide rubber-like stretchability, but by a mechanism quite different than for ordinary rubber. Because of their nanoscale and microscale structure, they amplify a percent stretch in the nanotube orientation direction to a percent 15 times larger than the percent they contract laterally.

In addition, because no other artificial muscle can actuate at such extreme low and high temperatures, applications for these muscles might develop for use in space exploration, where a hostile environment prohibits use of any other actuating material. source

My comment: Check the video from NewScientist: . Also a stunning report! Just see it on the video, it's like a magic, but it's not. It's pure science! Again, can't wait to see what will come out of this. Just imagine having an arm implant with such muscles! Quite scary, huh :)

Watch, Listen, and Feel Movies with a Haptics Jacket

March 23rd, 2009 by Lisa Zyga
PhysOrg.com) -- Sometimes you may feel a shiver go up your spine as you're watching a chilling movie scene, but a new jacket can actually give you a real shiver. The haptics jacket, designed by scientists at Philips Electronics, can enable movie viewers to feel movies through a sense of touch, in an attempt to provide full emotional immersion in a film.

Paul Lemmens, a Philips senior scientist, explains that the isn't meant to make viewers feel the actual punches and blows that the actors are receiving on the screen. Rather, the intentions are more subtle. The jacket's purpose is to make viewers feel anxiety and other emotions through signals such as sending a shiver up the viewer's spine, creating tension in the limbs, and creating a pulse on the chest to simulate a rapid heartbeat.

To produce these sensations, the jacket contains 64 independently controlled actuators, which can cycle on and off 100 times per second. Because of the way the brain perceives touch, only eight actuators on each arm placed six inches apart are enough to cover sensations on the entire arm. The system uses such a small amount of current that two AA batteries could provide power for an hour if 20 motors were operating simultaneously.

The jacket can respond to signals encoded in a DVD, or it can be controlled on the fly, adding another element of reality to entertainment. source

My comment: As said in the source site, just imagine what that can do for an adult movie. Oh! I'd gladly have one of those. Because it's quite smart actually-we really are very sensitive to touch, so, using such device can give a whole new perspective to movie-making.

Glass you can build with: Metallic glass that's stronger and lasts longer

March 24th, 2009
(PhysOrg.com) -- The normal structure of metals is crystalline. Glass, on the other hand, is amorphous. But it's possible to make amorphous forms of metal, metallic glasses, which can be remarkably strong, having many properties equal to or better than their crystalline metal cousins. The catch is that bulk metallic glasses are highly susceptible to fatigue, a severe problem for their use as structural materials.

Now researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley, working with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, have solved the fundamental problem of poor in bulk metallic glasses. The results are alloys that are not only stronger than high-strength steel and aluminum alloys but more resistant to fatigue as well.

Since fatigue is the most widespread mechanism of degradation in metallic structures, low fatigue resistance has impeded the adoption of metallic glasses as structural materials.

"While it has been often thought the fatigue limit was the cyclic stress needed to initiate a crack in a material, there are always small cracks present," Ritchie says. "The fatigue limit is actually the cyclic stress needed to get such a small crack propagating."
In crystalline materials there are many barriers to crack propagation, including grain boundaries, inclusions, and other microstructural obstacles. But metallic glasses have no crystalline structure, so no such barriers exist. "If a crack is present, there's nothing to stop it from propagating," says Ritchie.

Johnson's group at Cal Tech had developed a metallic glass alloy named DH3, made from five elements - roughly a third zirconium, a third titanium, and the remainder niobium, copper, and beryllium. In bulk samples of DH3 the researchers induced a second phase of the metal, which took the form of narrow pathways of permeating the metallic glass in dendritic (treelike) patterns; its growth was carefully controlled by processing a partially molten liquid-solid mixture.

The resulting dendritic phase acts as a local arrest point to any crack that begins to propagate in the glass.

"The process of blocking these shear bands is important not just for fatigue but for toughness as well," Launey says. " What this study shows is that it is their separation that is critical; the spacing of these arrest points has to be small enough to arrest any crack before it becomes large enough to cause catastrophic failure."

So good, in fact, that toughness, ductility, and fatigue resistance - all intimately related properties - of the DH3 alloy improved to the point that the bulk metallic glass was not only stronger than many structural metal alloys but had a fatigue limit more than 30 percent higher than ultra-high-strength steel and aluminum-lithium alloys.source

My comment: Yes, that means even more ugly metal buildings. But on the positive side, it also means tougher spaceships! Or even planes. Although the alloy is made of quite expensive materials, I guess they can overcome that eventually.


Monday, 20 April 2009

GOCE is here!

I'm very happy to paste this article exactly on Easter. It's about GOCE-the European project I'm so proud of. I hope you enjoy the happy news, but even if you don't, I consider it a great feat to have this mission ready to go for many reasons. Adn happy Easter, everyone!

GOCE's 'heart' starts beating

April 8th, 2009
GOCE's highly sensitive gradiometer instrument has been switched on and is producing data. Forming the heart of GOCE, the gradiometer is specifically designed to measure Earth's gravity field with unprecedented accuracy.

"We are very pleased with what we have seen from the gradiometer from the moment it was switched on. All accelerometer sensor heads are working in very good health and provide meaningful data," Project Manager Danilo Muzi said.

The gradiometer consists of three pairs of identical ultra-sensitive accelerometers, each mounted to point in orthogonal directions to allow the simultaneous measurement of the spatial variations of the .

With the switching on of the gradiometer, all systems on the have now been activated. The satellite's sophisticated electric ion propulsion system was switched on last week and continues to operate normally.

In order to get the maximum performance from the gradiometer, GOCE was designed to provide a highly stable and undisturbed environment. However, GOCE has to orbit Earth close enough to measure the tiny differences in gravity, which forces it to endure significant drag from the uppermost layers of the atmosphere.

The atmospheric drag is compensated for by the ion engine, which is able to deliver between 1 and 20 milliNewtons of thrust (the force equivalent to our exhaling).

GOCE was injected into orbit at an altitude of 283 km on 17 March. Since then, it has been freefalling at a rate of 150 to 200 m a day and will continue to do so until it enters 'drag-free mode' at an altitude of 273 km.

At this altitude, the satellite will actively compensate for the effect of air drag and its payload will undergo a further six weeks of commissioning and calibration. Mission operations are scheduled to start in summer 2009.

"With the ion engine and the gradiometer working, we have started to tune the satellite and its instruments," GOCE System Manager Michael Fehringer said.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is a highly exciting time for everyone involved in the mission," GOCE Mission Manager Rune Floberghagen added.

Data from GOCE will be used to create an extremely accurate map of Earth's gravity field. Together with altimetry data from missions, such as ESA's Envisat, the GOCE gravity map will allow scientists to measure sea-surface height more accurately and understand sea-level change and ocean circulation better. source

Friday, 17 April 2009

Brain bussiness-memory and sleep revealed! 03.2009

Today:

  1. Regions of the brain can rewire themselves
  2. Neuroscientists map intelligence in the brain
  3. Ants on the brain
  4. Workhorse immune molecules lead secret lives in the brain
  5. Sleep: Spring cleaning for the brain?
The last one is the most practical, but each of them is quite interesting if you're interested in brain's bussiness.

Regions of the brain can rewire themselves

March 9th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen have succeeded in demonstrating for the first time that the activities of large parts of the brain can be altered in the long term.

The breakthrough was achieved through the experimental stimulation of in the hippocampus. Using a combination of functional magnetic resonance tomography, microstimulation and electrophysiology, the scientists were able to trace how large populations of nerve cells in the forebrain reorganize. This area of the is active when we remember something or orient ourselves spatially. The insights gained here represent the first experimental proof that large parts of the brain change when learning processes take place.

Scientists refer to the characteristic whereby synapses, nerve cells or entire areas of the brain change depending on their use as neuronal plasticity. It is a fundamental mechanism for learning and . When a nerve cell A permanently and repeatedly stimulates another nerve cell B, the synapse is altered in such a way that the signal transmission becomes more efficient. This learning process, whose duration can range from a few minutes to an entire lifetime, was intensively researched in the hippocampus.

The scientists working with Nikos Logothetis, Director at the for , have researched this phenomenon systematically for the first time. It emerged from the experiments that the reinforcement of the stimulation transmission generated in this way was maintained following experimental stimulation.

"We succeeded in demonstrating long-term reorganization in nerve networks based on altered activity in the synapses," explains Dr. Santiago Canals. The changes were reflected in better communication between the brain hemispheres and the strengthening of networks in the limbic system and cortex. While the cortex is responsible for, among other things, sensory perception and movement, the limbic system processes emotions and is partly responsible for the emergence of instinctive behavior. source

My comment: I find the way the brain work simple awesome. If you think about it-the more you use something, the better the connection between neurons becomes, thus, you can think more efficiently about it. Here, however it's interesting that obviously, the process of learning involve some type of emotion-not only your thought flow better after you have learnt something, you feel better doing it. And all this, while changing the very structure of the brain! This is sooo cool!

Neuroscientists map intelligence in the brain

March 11th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have conducted the most comprehensive brain mapping to date of the cognitive abilities measured by the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), the most widely used intelligence test in the world. The results offer new insight into how the various factors that comprise an "intelligence quotient" (IQ) score depend on particular regions of the brain.

All of the (241 test-subjects) patients had some degree of cognitive impairment from events such as strokes, tumor resection, and traumatic brain injury, as assessed by testing using the WAIS. The WAIS test is composed of four indices of , each consisting of several subtests, which together produce a full-scale IQ score. The four indices are the index, which represents the ability to understand and to produce speech and use language; the perceptual organization index, which involves visual and spatial processing, such as the ability to perceive complex figures; the index, which represents the ability to hold information temporarily in mind; and the processing speed index.

The researchers first transferred the brain scans of all 241 patients to a common reference frame, an approach pioneered by neuroscientist Hanna Damasio of the University of Southern California, a coauthor of the study. Using a technique called voxel-based symptom-lesion mapping (a voxel is the three-dimensional analog of a pixel), Adolphs and his colleagues then correlated the location of brain injuries with scores on each of the four WAIS indices.

With the exception of processing speed, which appears scattered throughout the brain, the lesion mapping showed that the other three cognitive indices really do depend on specific brain regions.

For example, lesions in the left frontal cortex were associated with lower scores on the verbal comprehension index; lesions in the left frontal and parietal cortex were associated with lower scores on the working memory index; and lesions in the right parietal cortex were associated with lower scores on the perceptual organization index.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study revealed a large amount of overlap in the brain regions responsible for verbal comprehension and working memory, which suggests that these two now-separate measures of cognitive ability may actually represent the same type of intelligence, at least as assessed using the WAIS.

The converse--using brain-scan results to predict the IQ of patients as measured by the Weschler test--may also be possible. source

My comment: That experiment is so cool! Seriously, it shows something very important-first, it localise each type of intelligence with specific brain region and that lesions can hamper their manifestation. Though, it would be even better to see the extent to which different lesions prevent this type of intelligence. The other cool thing is that the processing speed is equally well spread in the brain, which might not be surprising but still, it's good to see it measured. And that means that the speed of thinking shouldn't depend of the brain architecture, probably only on the neural pathways already existing in the brain. And as we saw in the previous article, brain architecture can be easily altered. Which is to say that our brains are much more universal than some people want us to believe.

Ants on the brain

February 25th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Colonies of social insects such as ants and bees could collectively make decisions using mechanisms similar to those used in primate brains, according to new research from the University of Bristol.

Animals constantly make decisions, such as whether a predator is approaching or where they should establish a new home. These kinds of problems require a trade-off between speed and accuracy when making such decisions, and confront organisms at all levels of biological complexity.

By analysing models from neuroscience and insect socio-biology, Dr James Marshall from the University of Bristol and colleagues show how colonies of house-hunting social insects could collectively compromise between the speed and accuracy of decision-making, using mechanisms similar to those used by neurons in the primate brain.

The results, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, draw the first formal parallels between decision-making circuits in the primate visual cortex and social insect colonies. Both ‘systems’ make choices that reflect an optimal compromise between speed and accuracy of decision-making, by assessing competing streams of evidence. source

My comment: I have some problems understanding decision-making. From personal experience, I find this almost a mystical process. For example, recently I was lied with the bill for something. At first, I decided "ok, let it go, it's not a big deal". And in the next moment I just went and took my money back. And I have no idea when exactly I decided-it was like an internal push to make something, but it wasn't concious because I had the same information all the time, I reached a conclusion in my mind and then I did totally opposing it. So, I have no idea how one decides anything. Not that this article help me understands it, but colectivism is always fun.

Workhorse immune molecules lead secret lives in the brain

March 30th, 2009

Molecules assumed to be in the exclusive employ of the immune system have been caught moonlighting in the brain - with a job description apparently quite distinct from their role in immunity.

Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of biology, and her colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that members of a large family of proteins critical to immune function (collectively known as HLA in humans and MHC molecules in mice) also play a role in the brain. "We think that this family of molecules has an important role in and ," Shatz said. Surprisingly, the absence of one or another of them in the brain can trigger improved motor learning, although perhaps at the expense of other learning ability.

The proteins in question sit like jewel cases on the outer surfaces of most cells in the body, displaying fragments of the cell's innards, called peptides, to best advantage for window-shopping by roving inspectors called T-cells. When a T-cell "sees" a peptide with an aberrant chemical sequence - a sign of possible infection or cancer - it can attack the aberrant cell directly or alert the , which responds with a vengeance.

It was long thought that MHC molecules are found on the surfaces of only when the brain suffers injury or infection. But that picture was altered several years ago when a group led by Shatz compared gene expression in normally reared mice and another group that had been deprived of . In particular, they looked at a region of the brain that processes visual input. "Completely unexpectedly, we found that one of the genes needing input from the eye in order to be expressed encodes an MHC molecule," said Shatz.

She and her colleagues then showed that knocking out the expression of most MHC molecules in a brain region that processes visual stimuli caused developmental abnormalities in the circuitry of the mouse's visual system. "That implied indirectly that at least some MHC molecules were needed" for normal tuning up of brain circuits needed for vision, Shatz said, "but which ones?" There are about 60 in the mouse genome - and even more in the human genome.

The researchers found that two of those molecules in particular - called "K" and "D" - were expressed in the cerebellum, a brain structure critical to motor learning. It's believed that by detecting and reporting differences between intended and executed acts, cerebellar circuitry guides the body toward ever better piano recitals or tennis games. Practice makes perfect.

In the new study, the Shatz laboratory looked at mice's ability to learn how to keep from falling off a rotating rod called a rotarod. First author Mike McConnell, a postdoctoral researcher now at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., put two batches of mice - normal ones, and bioengineered mice that lacked the "K" and "D" proteins - through their paces on the rotarod without knowing which batch was which. He noticed that one batch was consistently superior at learning the task. A week later he retested them, with the same results. After another three-month rest, the early winners continued to excel while the slower group had to relearn the rotarod routine pretty much from scratch.

When the identity of the two mouse groups was revealed, it turned out that the good learners were the mutant mice.

Shatz said. "It implies that, normally, these molecules are putting a brake on the nervous system's ability to alter its circuitry in response to changing experiences. When you take the MHC molecules away, you remove the brake."

In the wild state, motor performance - running from predators, chasing down meat - is a nice thing to have. "Several other forms of learning besides motor learning - cognitive learning, spatial learning, recognition - don't take place in the cerebellum. There may be tradeoffs between one kind of learning and another - you're better able to escape but don't know exactly what to do in the next environment you encounter after running away - as well as between learning ability and circuit stability. More-easily altered circuitry might also be more prone to epilepsy."

The Stanford researchers have found other MHC molecules expressed in other types of neurons in other parts of the brain. "These molecules keep showing themselves to be important in limiting how much circuits can change by strengthening or weakening connections between nerve cells. We think they're going to figure as important players in many neurological disorders," Shatz said, noting a tantalizing if still controversial link between immune function and developmental brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. source

My comment:Hmmm. I don't have much to say, the article says it all. But I find it quite fascinating how the brain is such a magnificent machine. And everything makes sense, we just don't know it yet.

Sleep: Spring cleaning for the brain?

April 2nd, 2009
(PhysOrg.com) -- If you've ever been sleep-deprived, you know the feeling that your brain is full of wool.

Now, a study published in the April 3 edition of the journal Science has molecular and structural evidence of that woolly feeling — proteins that build up in the brains of sleep-deprived and drop to lower levels in the brains of the well-rested. The proteins are located in the , those specialized parts of neurons that allow cells to communicate with other neurons.

researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health believe it is more evidence for their theory of "synaptic homeostasis." This is the idea that synapses grow stronger when we're awake as we learn and adapt to an ever-changing the environment, that sleep refreshes the brain by bringing synapses back to a lower level of strength. This is important because larger synapses consume a lot of energy, occupy more space and require more supplies, including the proteins examined in this study.

Sleep — by allowing synaptic downscaling — saves energy, space and material, and clears away unnecessary "noise" from the previous day, the researchers believe. The fresh brain is then ready to learn again in the morning.

The researchers — Giorgio Gilestro, Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli, of the Center for Sleep and Consciousness — found that levels of proteins that carry messages in the synapses (or junctions) between neurons drop by 30 to 40 percent during sleep.

"We know that sleep is necessary for our brain to function properly, to learn new things every day, and also, in some cases, to consolidate the memory of what we learned during the day," says Cirelli, associate professor of psychiatry. "During sleep, we think that most, if not all, synapses are downscaled: at the end of sleep, the strongest synapses shrink, while the weakest synapses may even disappear."

The confocal microscope views show this happening in all three major areas of the fruit-fly brain, which are known to be very plastic (involved in learning).

Because sleep performs the same function in the brains of species as diverse as fruit flies and rats, Cirelli says it was likely conserved by evolution because it is so important to an animal's health and survival.

The Wisconsin laboratory has pioneered ways of studying sleep in different species, including fruit flies.

Flies were deprived of sleep for as long as 24 hours. Researchers then dissected their brains and measured the levels of four pre-synaptic proteins and one post-synaptic protein. All levels rose progressively during periods of wakefulness and fell after sleep. Other experiments confirmed that the changes in protein levels were not caused by exposure to light and darkness or by the stimulation itself, but by sleep and waking. They also used confocal microscopy and an antibody that specifically recognizes BRP to measure the expression of this protein in many fly-brain areas.source

My comment: This one is the coolest! Because it goes so well with my own experience. It makes great sense that the brain gets over-filled (overflow error, lol) and sleep helps it dissipate the tension and the impressions. And it only shows how IMPORTANT sleep actually is. Which everyone who had the bad luck to get insomnia will tell you.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Drugs special-cool new stuff in medicine, 03.2009

Edition:

  1. Technique tricks bacteria into generating their own vaccine
  2. Antibiotic combination defeats extensively drug-resistant TB
  3. AIDS: Microbicide gel 'highly encouraging' in lab tests
  4. Small molecules block cancer gene
  5. Vaccine to prevent colon cancer being tested in patients

Technique tricks bacteria into generating their own vaccine

February 23rd, 2009

Scientists have developed a way to manipulate bacteria so they will grow mutant sugar molecules on their cell surfaces that could be used against them as the key component in potent vaccines.

Any resulting vaccines, if proven safe, could be developed more quickly, easily and cheaply than many currently available vaccines used to prevent bacterial illnesses.

Most vaccines against bacteria are created with polysaccharides, or long strings of sugars found on the surface of bacterial cells. The most common way to develop these vaccines is to remove sugars from the cell surface and link them to proteins to give them more power to kill bacteria.

Polysaccharides alone typically do not generate a strong enough antibody response needed to kill bacteria. But this new technique would provide an easy approach to make a small alteration to the sugar structure and produce the polysaccharide by simple fermentation.

Peng George Wang, Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Ohio State University and senior author of the study said: "All we need to do is ferment the bacteria, and then the polysaccharides that grow on the surface of the cell already incorporate the modification."

In vaccines, polysaccharides linked with carrier proteins are injected into the body. That sets off a process that causes the release of antibodies that recognize the sugars as an unwanted foreign body. The antibodies then remain dormant but ready to attack if they ever see the same polysaccharides again - which would be a signal that bacteria have infected the body.

Escherichia coli was used as a model for the study. Wang and colleagues used one of the existing monosaccharides present on the E. coli cell surface polysaccharides, called fucose, to generate this new modification. They manipulated the structure of the fucose to create 10 different analogs, or forms of the sugar in which just one small component is changed.

The scientists then manually introduced these altered forms of fucose to a solution in which bacterial cells were growing, and the bacterial cells absorbed the altered fucose as they would normal forms of the sugar. The presence of these altered forms of fucose then altered the properties of the polysaccharides that grew on the surface of the cells.

"This way, we don't have to do anything to modify the polysaccharides. We let bacteria do it for us," Wang said.

Wang said the approach is likely to be applicable to many different kinds of bacteria. But each type of pathogen must be tested individually with the alteration of sugars unique to its surface.

"If you want to prevent one type of bacteria, you have to find something very unique for this bacteria because different microbes have different characteristics," he said. "You have to find the oddest thing on the cell surface. It has to be on surface because what the body sees first is the surface."source

My comment:Not too much to say here. I hate bacterial infections enough to be happy of any new way to produce vaccines. And this new method is quite exciting! I wish them much luck.

Antibiotic combination defeats extensively drug-resistant TB

February 26th, 2009

A combination of two FDA-approved drugs, already approved for fighting other bacterial infections, shows potential for treating extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), the most deadly form of the infection.

TB is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb). An estimated one-third of the world's population is infected with TB. Active disease develops in approximately 10 percent of infected people over a lifetime ─ particularly those with weak immune systems such as infants, the elderly, and people infected with HIV. Globally, cases of active TB have increased significantly since the 1980s due to the AIDS pandemic and the emergence of Mtb strains resistant to standard antibiotic treatment.

In the Science paper, Einstein researchers and collaborators at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, describe a two-drug combination that inhibited both the growth of susceptible laboratory strains and 13 XDR-TB strains isolated from TB patients in laboratory culture medium. The drugs truly work in tandem: one of them (clavulanate) inhibits a bacterial enzyme, β-lactamase, which normally shields TB bacteria from the other antibiotic (meropenem, a member of the β-lactam class of antibiotics).

The idea of inhibiting β-lactamase to make β-lactam antibiotics effective isn't new ─ which is why β-lactamase inhibitors, such as clavulanate, already exist. The strategy finally proved effective against XDR-TB because Einstein researchers conducted a detailed, methodical investigation of the β-lactamase enzyme to find the ideal combination of β-lactamase inhibitor and β-lactam antibiotic. β-lactam antibiotics include penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered and one of the safest.

Amoxicillin/clavulanic acid and meropenem have excellent safety profiles and are FDA-approved for adult and pediatric use.

In parts of Asia, 70 percent of new TB cases are multi-drug resistant, meaning they don't respond to the two antibiotics most commonly used against TB. Recently, an even greater health threat has emerged: extensively drug-resistant (XDR) bacteria that resist at least four of the drugs used to treat TB and can prove deadly. The cure rate for patients infected with XDR-TB ranges from 12 percent to 60 percent.

XDR-TB is still rare in the United States ─ 83 cases were documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1993 and 2007. However, worldwide, the figures are much larger and on the rise. In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated a half-million people were infected with multi-drug resistant TB, and in some countries the percentage of XDR-TB cases is growing. In the only global TB study to date, the WHO reported in 2008 that 15 percent of multi-drug resistant TB cases in Ukraine, for example, were XDR-TB.

Current TB therapy requires four antibiotics that must be taken for at least six months.

Currently, clavulanate is not commercially available, except in combination with β-lactam antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. This combination of clavulanate and amoxicillin has been used against other types of bacteria to inhibit β-lactamase activity and make β-lactams more effective. But it has rarely been used against TB, which is why the β-lactamase inhibitor/β-lactam approach had not been comprehensively analyzed until now.

Additionally, as part of a joint collaboration between Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, a separate trial slated for 2009 will test the potency of the drug combination in a smaller number of TB patients. If the results are successful and funding is available, a trial involving a larger number of XDR-TB patients will be conducted. Montefiore researchers chose South Africa for the clinical studies because of its disproportionately high number of XDR-TB cases. In some areas of South Africa, one in four TB cases is extensively drug resistant. source

My comment: This news is of course wonderful. What makes me kind of curious is the high rite of XDR-TB in Africa. Because people often claim the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is due to the increased use of antibiotics. Well, that certainly cannot be the case in Africa where medicaments are still not vastly used. Then how will they explain this mutation! (As for Ukraine-it's quite obvious why the big number-Chernobil!)

AIDS: Microbicide gel 'highly encouraging' in lab tests

March 4th, 2009

The dogged search for a vaginal gel to thwart the AIDS virus earned some good news on Wednesday as scientists announced that a cheap, commonly-used compound shielded monkeys from a lethal cousin of HIV.

They cautioned that a long road lies ahead before the microbicide can be verified as safe and effective for humans but hailed the outcome as a tremendous boost.

A cream that blocks or kills the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a cornerstone of efforts in the fight against AIDS. It would be especially useful for women in sub-Saharan Africa, at risk from coercive sex from HIV-infected partners.

But the quest has suffered many blows. They include two trials that, dismayingly, found women who used a prototype gel ran a greater risk of HIV than those who used a dummy lookalike.

In a study published in Nature, researchers at the University of Minnesota tested a compound called glycerol monolaurate (GML).

GML exists naturally in the human body but is already licensed as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent in cosmetics and toiletries and as an emulsifier in foods.

Their hunch was that GML interferes with signalling processes in the immune system, thus blocking HIV's rampage at a key stage. When the virus enters the body, defence systems unleash a cascade of orders, dispatching so-called T immune cells to the site of the infection. It is these cells that are then hijacked by HIV and turned into virus-making mini-factories, enabling the agent to proliferate throughout the bloodstream.

"Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, halting the body's natural defence system might actually prevent transmission and and rapid spread of the infection," said chief investigator Ashley Haase.

The team gave a vaginal application of GML gel to five rhesus macaque monkeys and exposed them and a comparison group of five other animals to two large doses of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) -- the monkey equivalent of HIV.

Over the next two weeks, four of the control group contracted SIV. But none of the GML-treated group showed any acute infection, even though they were given up to two further shots of the virus.

GML, said the paper, breaks a "vicious cycle" of immune-system signalling and inflammatory response in the cervix and vagina.

Each dose of GML used in the experiment cost less than one US cent (0.75 of a euro cent).

He added that the compound had been repeatedly tested as safe and had no effect on beneficial vaginal bacteria.

Last month, scientists reported the first positive trial of a microbicide, a formula called PRO 2000, but said it reduced the risk of infection only by around 30 percent.

This is only half of the minimum benchmark for success. Availability of a microbicide that is 60 percent effective would avert two and a half million infections over three years, according to a 2003 mathematical study. source

My comment: This would be, of course, cool, but let's not get over enthusiastic, because most of the rapes occur without previous warning, so the woman cannot know when she'll have sex in order to put some gel prior to the intercourse. And obviously she can put the gel all day all year, because even the cost of .75$ is still quite much for Africa. But still, it sounds great.

Small molecules block cancer gene

March 10th, 2009

Finding molecules that block the activity of the oncogene Stat 3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription) required screening literally millions of compounds, using computers that compared the structure of the cancer-causing gene to those of the small molecules, said a Baylor College of Medicine researcher in a report that appears in the current online issue of the journal PLoS One .

It was worth the effort, said Dr. David J. Tweardy, professor of medicine and molecular and cellular biology and chief of the division of infectious diseases at BCM, because it could point the way to better treatment of breast and other cancers, as well as , asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.

In other words, Tweardy and his colleagues identified an area on the Stat3 molecule that was important to its activity. Stat3 actually is critical in keeping malignant cells alive in the majority of cancers.

Once Tweardy and his colleagues had identified a critical "pocket" on Stat3, they used the computer to look for that would fit in that pocket and block the ability of Stat3 to maintain the cancer cell. That screen of nearly 1 million small molecules identified three likely compounds.

Assays of these compounds showed that they did halt the activity of Stat3 in the laboratory. With that information, Tweardy and his colleagues then screened another 2.47 million compounds for similarity to the original three.

They found another three. While five of the six had some activity in stopping Stat3, one - called 188 - was most effective. Three of the six worked to induce programmed cell death or apoptosis in breast cancer cell lines.

"It induced death in those that depend for their survival on Stat3," said Tweardy.

Tweardy and his colleagues are now looking at second generation compounds that promise to be even more effective against Stat3. source

My comment: Quite cool, right! This one is really exciting, because it really offers a way to kill cancer. And it's all based on something so simple. I like it a lot :)

Vaccine to prevent colon cancer being tested in patients

March 19th, 2009

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have begun testing a vaccine that might be able to prevent colon cancer in people at high risk for developing the disease. If shown to be effective, it might spare patients the risk and inconvenience of repeated invasive surveillance tests, such as colonoscopy, that are now necessary to spot and remove precancerous polyps.

Colon takes years to develop and typically starts with a polyp, which is a benign but abnormal growth in the intestinal lining, explained principal investigator Robert E. Schoen, M.D., M.P.H. Polyps that could become cancerous are called adenomas.

In a novel approach for , the Pitt vaccine is directed against an abnormal variant of a self-made cell protein called MUC1, which is altered and produced in excess in advanced adenomas and cancer. Vaccines currently in use to prevent cancer work via a different mechanism, specifically by blocking infection with viruses that are linked with cancer.

"By stimulating an against the MUC1 protein in these , we may be able to draw the immune system's fire to attack and destroy the ," Dr. Schoen said. "That might not only prevent progression to cancer, but even polyp recurrence."

According to co-investigator Olivera Finn, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Immunology at Pitt's School of Medicine, MUC1 vaccines have been tested for safety and in patients with late-stage and pancreatic cancer.

"Patients were able to generate an immune response despite their cancer-weakened immune systems," she noted. "Patients with advanced adenomas are otherwise healthy and so they would be expected to generate a stronger immune response. That may be able to stop precancerous lesions from transforming into malignant tumors."

About a dozen people have received the experimental vaccine so far, and the researchers intend to enroll another 50 or so into the study.

People who develop advanced adenomas undergo regular surveillance with colonoscopy so that recurrent polyps, which are common, can be removed before matters get worse, Dr. Schoen said.

"Immunotherapy might be a good alternative to colonoscopy because it is noninvasive and nontoxic," he noted. "And, it could provide long-term protection."source

My comment: Now, that's also very cool. Although I generally hate unnecessary vaccines, this one is quite cool, because it can be applied only to people with hight risk factor and it can spare them the colonoscopy that is quite unpleasant and some people even say it's dangerous.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Planets special, 03.2009

Today:

  1. NASA Spacecraft Falling For Mars
  2. NASA and ESA prioritize outer planet
  3. The lower atmosphere of Pluto revealed
  4. Gullies on Mars show tantalizing signs of recent water activity
  5. Mountain on Mars may answer big question
If you're a sci fi fan, you simply cannot stay unimpressed by the following news. It would be so cool to be able to visit all the places in the Solar System (though, it's pretty big if you think about it, we can't even visit the all of the places on Earth) and explore them and discover their secrets. Oh, well, maybe next decade :)

NASA Spacecraft Falling For Mars

February 13th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Launched in September of 2007, and propelled by any one of a trio of hyper-efficient ion engines, NASA's Dawn spacecraft passed the orbit of Mars last summer. At that time, the asteroid belt (where Dawn's two targets, asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres reside), had never been closer. In early July the spacecraft began to lose altitude, falling back towards the inner solar system. Then on October 31, 2008, after 270 days of almost continuous thrusting, the ion drive turned off.

A gravity assist is the use of the relative movement and gravity of a planet or other celestial body to alter the path and speed of a spacecraft, typically in order to save fuel, time and expense. A spacecraft traveling to an outer planet (or in this case asteroid) will decelerate because the incessant tug of the sun's gravity slows it down. By flying a spacecraft close by a large planet and its large gravity field, some of the planet's speed as it orbits the sun is transferred to the spacecraft. In Dawn's case, it is using the Red Planet's tremendous angular momentum (the speed at which Mars orbits the sun) to give it a little extra oomph.

"A big oomph actually," said Rayman. "The gravity of Mars will change Dawn's path about the sun, enlarging its elliptical orbit and sending the probe farther from the sun. It will also change Dawn's orbital plane by more than 5 degrees. This is important because Dawn has to maneuver into the same plane in which Vesta orbits the sun."

If Dawn had to perform these orbital adjustments on its own with no Mars gravitational deflection, it would have required the spacecraft to fire up its engines and change velocity by more than 5,800 miles per hour (9,330 kilometers per second). Such velocity changes would have required Dawn to carry an extra 230 pounds (104 kilograms) of xenon fuel.

But the Mars gravity assist is not the final hurdle on Dawn's road to the asteroid belt. The subsequent 30 months include more than 27 months of blue-green tinged ion thrusting to successfully rendezvous with Dawn's first target -Vesta.

Dawn's 4.8-billion-kilometer (3-billion-mile) odyssey includes orbiting asteroid Vesta in 2011 and the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. These two giants of the asteroid belt have been witness to much of our solar system's history. By using Dawn's instruments to study both objects for several months, scientists can more accurately compare and contrast the two. Dawn's science instrument suite will measure geology, elemental and mineral composition, shape, surface topography, geomorphology and tectonic history, and will also seek water-bearing minerals. In addition, the Dawn spacecraft's orbit characteristics around Vesta and Ceres will be used to measure the celestial bodies' masses and gravity fields. source

My comment: Lovely! One can only be amazed how we, on Earth, manage to drive a mission around Mars and away to the outer edge of the Solar system. I know we can do it, but still, it's great to see it in action. Enjoy!

NASA and ESA prioritize outer planet missions

February 18th, 2009

At a meeting in Washington last week, NASA and ESA officials decided to first pursue a mission to study Jupiter and its four largest moons, and plan for another mission to visit Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and Enceladus.

The proposed projects are grand endeavours that set the stage for future planetary science research. These outer-planet flagship missions could eventually answer questions about how our Solar System formed and whether habitable conditions exist elsewhere in the Solar System.

The missions, called the Europa Jupiter System Mission and the Titan Saturn System Mission, are the result of the merger of separate NASA and ESA mission concepts. Based on studies and stringent independent assessment reviews, the US Europa Jupiter System Mission, called Laplace in Europe, was the technically more feasible to implement first. However, ESA's Solar System Working Group concluded that the scientific merits of both missions could not be separated. The group declared, and NASA agreed, that both missions should move forward for further study and implementation.

"The decision means a win, win situation for all parties involved," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Although the Jupiter system mission has been chosen to proceed to an earlier flight opportunity, a Saturn system mission clearly remains a high priority for the science community."

Both agencies will need to undertake several more steps and detailed studies before officially moving forward.

The Europa Jupiter System Mission will use two robotic orbiters to conduct unprecedented detailed studies of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. NASA will build one spacecraft, initially named Jupiter Europa Orbiter. ESA will build the other spacecraft, initially named Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter. The two spacecraft are scheduled to launch in 2020 on two separate launch vehicles from different launch sites. They will reach the Jupiter system in 2026 and spend at least three years conducting research.

Europa, with its putative ocean, is a unique target to study habitability around the gas giant. Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System, is the only moon known to have its own internally-generated magnetic field and is also suspected to have a deep undersurface water ocean. Scientists long have sought to understand the causes of the magnetic field. Io, the most volcanically active body in the Solar System, and Callisto, whose surface is heavily cratered and ancient, providing a record of events from the early history of the Solar System, are also key targets of the Jupiter System Mission.

The Titan Saturn System Mission would consist of a NASA orbiter and an ESA lander and research balloon. The complex mission poses several technical challenges requiring significant study and technology development. NASA will continue to study and develop those technologies.

ESA's Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration will manage the European contribution to the Jupiter mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will manage NASA's contributions to the projects for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. source

My comment: Well, it was more logical for Europe to lead the missions to Europa, but maybe now, there's more symmetry. In any case, I'm glad they choose to proceed with both of the missions, because they are so important! Can't wait to see them in action.

The lower atmosphere of Pluto revealed

March 2nd, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- "With lots of methane in the atmosphere, it becomes clear why Pluto's atmosphere is so warm," says Emmanuel Lellouch, lead author of the paper reporting the results.

Pluto, which is about a fifth the size of Earth, is composed primarily of rock and ice. As it is about 40 times further from the Sun than the Earth on average, it is a very cold world with a surface temperature of about minus 220 degrees Celsius!

It has been known since the 1980s that Pluto also has a tenuous atmosphere, which consists of a thin envelope of mostly nitrogen, with traces of methane and probably carbon monoxide. As Pluto moves away from the Sun, during its 248 year-long orbit, its atmosphere gradually freezes and falls to the ground. In periods when it is closer to the Sun — as it is now — the temperature of Pluto's solid surface increases, causing the ice to sublimate into gas.

Until recently, only the upper parts of the atmosphere of Pluto could be studied. By observing stellar occultations, a phenomenon that occurs when a Solar System body blocks the light from a background star, astronomers were able to demonstrate that Pluto's upper atmosphere was some 50 degrees warmer than the surface, or minus 170 degrees Celsius. These observations couldn't shed any light on the atmospheric temperature and pressure near Pluto's surface. But unique, new observations made with the CRyogenic InfraRed Echelle Spectrograph (CRIRES), attached to ESO's Very Large Telescope, have now revealed that the atmosphere as a whole, not just the upper atmosphere, has a mean temperature of minus 180 degrees Celsius, and so it is indeed "much hotter" than the surface.

In contrast to the Earth's atmosphere, most, if not all, of Pluto's atmosphere is thus undergoing a temperature inversion: the temperature is higher, the higher in the atmosphere you look. The change is about 3 to 15 degrees per kilometre. On Earth, under normal circumstances, the temperature decreases through the atmosphere by about 6 degrees per kilometre.

The reason why Pluto's surface is so cold is linked to the existence of Pluto's atmosphere, and is due to the sublimation of the surface ice; much like sweat cools the body as it evaporates from the surface of the skin, this sublimation has a cooling effect on the surface of Pluto. In this respect, Pluto shares some properties with comets, whose coma and tails arise from sublimating ice as they approach the Sun.

The CRIRES observations also indicate that methane is the second most common gas in Pluto's atmosphere, representing half a percent of the molecules. "We were able to show that these quantities of methane play a crucial role in the heating processes in the atmosphere and can explain the elevated atmospheric temperature," says Lellouch.

Two different models can explain the properties of Pluto's atmosphere. In the first, the astronomers assume that Pluto's surface is covered with a thin layer of methane, which will inhibit the sublimation of the nitrogen frost. The second scenario invokes the existence of pure methane patches on the surface. source

My comment: Another fascinating story. If you only consider how far Pluto is from Earth, it's absolutely cool that we're able to measure the gradient in its atmosphere. At least I'm awed, even though I'm an astrophysicist. People do so much cool stuff lately, it's hard to keep up with everything that's going on.

Gullies on Mars show tantalizing signs of recent water activity

(PhysOrg.com) -- Planetary geologists at Brown University have found a gully fan system on Mars that formed about 1.25 million years ago. The fan offers compelling evidence that it was formed by melt water that originated in nearby snow and ice deposits and may stand as the most recent period when water flowed on the planet.

Gullies are known to be young surface features on Mars. But scientists studying the planet have struggled with locating gullies they can conclusively date. In a paper that appears on the cover of the March issue of Geology, the Brown geologists were able to date the gully system and hypothesize what water was doing there.

The gully system shows four intervals where water-borne sediments were carried down the steep slopes of nearby alcoves and deposited in alluvial fans, said Samuel Schon, a Brown graduate student and the paper's lead author.

The finding comes on the heels of discoveries of water-bearing minerals such as opals and carbonates, the latter of which was announced by Brown graduate student Bethany Ehlmann in a paper in Science in December. Those discoveries build on evidence that Mars was occasionally wet far longer than many had believed, and that the planet may have hosted a warm, wet environment in some places during its long history.

However, the finding of a gully system, even an isolated one, that supported running water as recently as 1.25 million years ago greatly extends the time that water may have been active on Mars. It also adds to evidence of a recent ice age on the planet when polar ice is believed to have been transported towards the equator and settled in mid-latitude deposits, said James Head III, professor of geological sciences at Brown, who first approximated the span of the martian ice age in a Nature paper in 2003.

"We think there was recent water on Mars," said Head, who with Brown postdoctoral researcher Caleb Fassett is a contributing author on the paper. "This is a big step in the direction to proving that."

The gully system is located on the inside of a crater in Promethei Terra, an area of cratered highlands in the southern mid-latitudes. The eastern and western channels of the gully each run less than a kilometer from their alcove sources to the fan deposit.

The team determined that ice and snow deposits formed in the alcoves at a time when Mars had a high obliquity (its most recent ice age) and ice was accumulating in the mid-latitude regions. Sometime around a half-million years ago, the planet's obliquity changed, and the ice in the mid-latitudes began to melt or, in most instances, changed directly to vapor. Mars has been in a low-obliquity cycle ever since, which explains why no exposed ice has been found beyond the poles. source

My comment: Another "Cool!". What more can I say.

Mountain on Mars may answer big question

March 4th, 2009

The Martian volcano Olympus Mons is about three times the height of Mount Everest, but it's the small details that Rice University professors Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan are looking at in thinking about whether the Red Planet ever had - or still supports - life.

Using a computer modeling system to figure out how Olympus Mons came to be, McGovern and Morgan reached the surprising conclusion that pockets of ancient water may still be trapped under the mountain. Their research is published in February's issue of the journal Geology.

The scientists explained that their finding is more implication than revelation. "What we were analyzing was the structure of Olympus Mons, why it's shaped the way it is," said McGovern.

In modeling the formation of Olympus Mons with an algorithm known as particle dynamics simulation, McGovern and Morgan determined that only the presence of ancient clay sediments could account for the volcano's asymmetric shape. The presence of sediment indicates water was or is involved.

Olympus Mons is tall, standing almost 15 miles high, and slopes gently from the foothills to the caldera, a distance of more than 150 miles. That shallow slope is a clue to what lies beneath, said the researchers. They suspect if they were able to stand on the northwest side of Olympus Mons and start digging, they'd eventually find clay sediment deposited there billions of years ago, before the mountain was even a molehill.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has in recent years found abundant evidence of clay on Mars. This supports a previous theory that where Olympus Mons now stands, a layer of sediment once rested that may have been hundreds of meters thick.

Morgan and McGovern show in their computer models that volcanic material was able to spread to Olympus-sized proportions because of the clay's friction-reducing effect, a phenomenon also seen at volcanoes in Hawaii.

What may be trapped underneath is of great interest, said the researchers. Fluids embedded in an impermeable, pressurized layer of clay sediment would allow the kind of slipping motion that would account for Olympus Mons' spread-out northeast flank - and they may still be there.

Thanks to NASA's Phoenix lander, which scratched through the surface to find ice underneath the red dust last year, scientists now know there's water on Mars. So Morgan and McGovern feel it's reasonable to suspect water may be trapped in pores in the sediment underneath the mountain. source

My comment:That's why I so love modelling. Because it lets you peak into the kitchen of the Universe. Now all we need is a thermal and seismic picture of the planet. Can you even imagine that under that volcano may be there's a layer of mud?! Maybe even full of bacterias! Maybe even underground cities :P Ok, it's late here, I'm off to bed. But today's post will definitely make my dreams go sci fi!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Cool and I mean cool new technologies in video

This will be only a video edition, I hope you like it as much as I did.

First:

Students at the MIT Media Lab have developed a wearable computing system that turns any surface into an interactive display screen. The wearer can summon virtual gadgets and internet data at will, then dispel them like smoke when they're done.

Pattie Maes of the lab's Fluid Interfaces group said the research is aimed at creating a new digital "sixth sense" for humans. source

More:




The same gadget, a new video (coming from NS).
This soap below is absolutely cool, even if somewhat chubby and ugly.


But imagine it as an Iphone.(source)
And now the coolest. Wanna fly over the water. Try this!


Isn't it gorgeous? (source)