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EPFL delivers a multi-functional educational robot for slightly over $100

EPFL delivers a multi-functional educational robot for slightly over $100 | Amazing Science |
Thymio II is a new educational robot designed by Swiss research institute EPFL.


In the past year alone, Swiss research institute EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne/Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) has brought us things such as a mini ionic motor for satellites, “nano velcro” that removes pollutants from water, and a system that allows paralyzed rats to walk again. While none of these items will ever likely be available to regular consumers, now there is a piece of EPFL-developed technology that you can get your hands on. It’s an open-source educational robot known as Thymio II, and it only costs a little over 100 bucks!


Unlike some other educational ‘bots such as NAO or Zeno, Thymio II is not humanoid in form – if anything, it looks a little like a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. Although its variable-speed wheels are intended primarily for allowing it to scoot around, they can also be connected to user-supplied moving parts such as arms, propellers, winches, or just about anything else.


Besides those wheels, however, it also features a microphone and speaker, a 3-axis accelerometer, five proximity sensors, two ground sensors, a temperature sensor, and 39 LEDs which allow its body to illuminate in different colors.


It can accept programming via a USB connection (which is also used to charge its lithium-polymer battery) or a memory card slot. Programming is created using EPFL’s robotics-specific ASEBA language.


Thymio II is available now, at a price of 99 Swiss francs (US$106)

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DNA data offer evidence of unknown extinct human relative

DNA data offer evidence of unknown extinct human relative | Amazing Science |

Traces of long-lost human cousins may be hiding in modern people’s DNA, a new computer analysis suggests. People from Papua New Guinea (shown) and Australia carry small amounts of DNA from extinct human relatives. New research suggests that the DNA may not come from Neandertals or Denisovans, but from a third, previously unknown extinct hominid.


People from Melanesia, a region in the South Pacific encompassing Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands, may carry genetic evidence of a previously unknown extinct hominid species, Ryan Bohlender reported October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. That species is probably not Neandertal or Denisovan, but a different, related hominid group, said Bohlender, a statistical geneticist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “We’re missing a population or we’re misunderstanding something about the relationships,” he said.

This mysterious relative was probably from a third branch of the hominid family tree that produced Neandertals and Denisovans, an extinct distant cousin of Neandertals. While many Neandertal fossils have been found in Europe and Asia, Denisovans are known only from DNA from a finger bone and a couple of teeth found in a Siberian cave (SN: 12/12/15, p. 14).


Bohlender isn’t the first to suggest that remnants of archaic human relatives may have been preserved in human DNA even though no fossil remains have been found. In 2012, another group of researchers suggested that some people in Africa carry DNA heirlooms from an extinct hominid species (SN: 9/8/12, p. 9).


Less than a decade ago, scientists discovered that human ancestors mixed with Neandertals. People outside of Africa still carry a small amount of Neandertal DNA, some of which may cause health problems (SN: 3/5/16, p. 18). Bohlender and colleagues calculate that Europeans and Chinese people carry a similar amount of Neandertal ancestry: about 2.8 percent. Europeans have no hint of Denisovan ancestry, and people in China have a tiny amount — 0.1 percent, according to Bohlender’s calculations. But 2.74 percent of the DNA in people in Papua New Guinea comes from Neandertals, and another 3 to 6 percent stems from Denisovans, Bohlender calculated.

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Oldest Known Squawk Box Suggests Dinosaurs Likely Did Not Sing

Oldest Known Squawk Box Suggests Dinosaurs Likely Did Not Sing | Amazing Science |

The oldest known vocal organ of a bird has been found in an Antarctic fossil of a relative of ducks and geese that lived more than 66 million years ago during the age of dinosaurs.


The discovery of the Mesozoic-era vocal organ—called a syrinx—and its apparent absence in non-avian dinosaur fossils of the same age indicate that the organ may have originated late in the evolution of birds and that other dinosaurs may not have been able to make noises similar to the bird calls we hear today, according to findings published in Nature on Oct 12. Birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs and are considered living dinosaurs by scientists.

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Microsoft’s quest for a topological quantum computer

Microsoft’s quest for a topological quantum computer | Amazing Science |

The race is on build a ‘universal’ quantum computer. Such a device could be programmed to speedily solve problems that classical computers cannot crack, potentially revolutionizing fields from pharmaceuticals to cryptography. Many of the world's major technology firms are taking on the challenge, but Microsoft has opted for a more tortuous route than its rivals.


IBM, Google and a number of academic labs have chosen relatively mature hardware, such as loops of superconducting wire, to make quantum bits (qubits). These are the building blocks of a quantum computer: they power its speedy calculations thanks to their ability to be in a mixture (or superposition) of ‘on’ and ‘off’ states at the same time.


Microsoft, however, is hoping to encode its qubits in a kind of quasiparticle: a particle-like object that emerges from the interactions inside matter. Some physicists are not even sure that the particular quasiparticles Microsoft are working with — called non-abelian anyons — actually exist. But the firm hopes to exploit their topological properties, which make quantum states extremely robust to outside interference, to build what are called topological quantum computers. Early theoretical work on topological states of matter won three physicists the Nobel Prize in Physics on 4 October, 2016.


The firm has been developing topological quantum computing for more than a decade and today has researchers  writing software for future machines, and working with academic laboratories to craft devices.

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Mitochondrial diseases

Mitochondrial diseases | Amazing Science |

Mitochondrial diseases are a group of genetic disorders that are characterized by defects in oxidative phosphorylation and caused by mutations in genes in the nuclear DNA (nDNA) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that encode structural mitochondrial proteins or proteins involved in mitochondrial function.


Mitochondrial diseases are the most common group of inherited metabolic disorders and are among the most common forms of inherited neurological disorders. One of the challenges of mitochondrial diseases is the marked clinical variation seen in patients, which can delay diagnosis. However, advances in next-generation sequencing techniques have substantially improved diagnosis, particularly in children. Establishing a genetic diagnosis allows patients with mitochondrial diseases to have reproductive options, but this is more challenging for women with pathogenetic mtDNA mutations that are strictly maternally inherited.


Recent advances in in vitro fertilization techniques, including mitochondrial donation, will offer a better reproductive choice for these women in the future. The treatment of patients with mitochondrial diseases remains a challenge, but guidelines are available to manage the complications of disease. Moreover, an increasing number of therapeutic options are being considered, and with the development of large cohorts of patients and biomarkers, several clinical trials are in progress.

Via MBN Comunicación
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Zika Virus Infection Alters Human and Viral RNA

Zika Virus Infection Alters Human and Viral RNA | Amazing Science |

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have discovered that Zika virus infection leads to modifications of both viral and human genetic material. These modifications — chemical tags known as methyl groups — influence viral replication and the human immune response. The study is published October 20 by Cell Host & Microbe.


“I’m excited about this study because it teaches us something new about the human immune system,” said senior author Tariq Rana, PhD, professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “But these findings are also something researchers should keep in mind as they are designing new Zika virus vaccines and treatments that target the viral genome — some approaches won’t work unless they take methylation into account.”


In human cells, RNA is the genetic material that carries instructions from the DNA in a cell’s nucleus out to the cytoplasm, where molecular machinery uses those instructions to build proteins. Cells can chemically modify RNA to influence protein production. One of these modifications is the addition of methyl groups to adenosine, one of the building blocks that make up RNA. Known as N6-methyladenosine (m6A), this modification is common in humans and other organisms.


In contrast to humans, the entire genomes of some viruses, including Zika and HIV, are made up of RNA instead of DNA. These viruses hijack the host’s cellular machinery to translate its RNA to proteins. Rana and his team previously discovered that m6A plays an important role in HIV infection. “After that, we decided to investigate m6A RNA in Zika virus as well, since we didn’t want to miss out on this important information the way we missed it for 30 years of HIV research,” Rana said.


When Zika virus infects a human cell, Rana’s team found, the cell modifies viral RNA with m6A as a means to get rid of the infection. RNA tagged with m6A is a beacon for human enzymes that come along and destabilize it. In addition, they found that this host response to Zika viral infection also induced specific m6A modifications on human RNA. These human RNA changes were not present in the absence of Zika virus.

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space

Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space | Amazing Science |

Welcome to Asgardia! Today, an international group of researchers, engineers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs announced the creation of a nation in space, named after the city of the skies ruled over by Odin in Norse mythology. Although Asgardia does not yet have any land, it is attracting citizens. Anyone can sign up on the nation’s website. Asgardia would allow space entrepreneurs to flourish, and protect Earth, too.


The idea behind the initiative, organizers say, is to create a new legal framework for the peaceful exploitation of space free of the control of Earth-bound nations (governance by Norse deities being preferable, obviously). The nation-building effort is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian space scientist and engineer who in 2013 founded the Aerospace International Research Center (AIRC) in Vienna, known mostly for publishing the space journal Room. Ashurbeyli told a press conference in Paris today: “The scientific and technological component of the project can be explained in just three words—peace, access, and protection.”


The protection component comes in the form of a satellite, scheduled to be launched in 2017, which will provide a “state-of-the-art protective shield for all humankind from cosmic manmade and natural threats to life on Earth such as space debris, coronal mass ejections, and asteroid collisions.” A bold plan, because the combined might of the world’s space agencies and military have yet to figure out how to prevent their own satellites colliding with each other, let alone protect Earth from a rock the size of a city. And it is not clear whether the organizers have the financing or technical capability to launch their own satellite.


The initiative appears to be an effort to sidestep the oversight of the United Nations’s Outer Space Treaty, which gives nations the duty of overseeing any space activities undertaken from its territory, whether by government bodies, commercial companies, or nonprofit organizations. The nation then takes responsibility for any damage that launchers and satellites may cause both in space and anywhere on Earth. “By creating a new Space Nation, private enterprise, innovation and the further development of space technology to support humanity will flourish free from the tight restrictions of state control that currently exist,” the project said in a statement. It’s not yet clear, however, what kind of governmental oversight, democratic or otherwise, is provided for in the Asgardian constitution—or whether the nation even has one.


Asgardia is not yet recognized by any other nation, nor by the United Nations, and it is not clear how, not having its own territory to launch from, it will be able to loft a satellite without it coming under some other nation’s control as described by the Outer Space Treaty. 

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‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it

‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it | Amazing Science |

Cornell researchers have developed an interactive prototyping system that prints a wire frame of your design as you design it. You can pause anywhere in the process to test or measure and make needed changes, which will be added to the physical model still in the printer.


In conventional 3-D printing, a nozzle scans across a stage depositing drops of plastic, rising slightly after each pass to build an object in a series of layers. With the On-the-Fly-Print system, the nozzle instead extrudes a rope of quick-hardening plastic to create a wire frame that represents the surface of the solid object described in a computer-aided design (CAD) file and allows the designer to make refinements while printing is in progress.

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Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA

Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA | Amazing Science |

The basics of genetic inheritance are well known: parents each pass half of their DNA to their offspring during reproduction. This genetic recipe is thought to contain all of the information that a new organism needs to build its body. But recent research has shown that, in some species, parents' life experiences can alter their offspring. Being underfed, exposed to toxins or stricken by disease can cause changes in a parent's gene expression patterns, and in some cases, these changes can be passed down to the next generation. However, the mechanisms that cause this effect—known as non-genetic inheritance—are a mystery.


New research from the University of Maryland provides a surprising possible explanation. For the first time, developmental biologists have observed molecules of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)—a close cousin of DNA that can silence genes within cells—being passed directly from parent to offspring in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Importantly, the gene silencing effect created by dsRNA molecules in parents also persisted in their offspring.


The work, published October 17, 2016 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the mechanisms for non-genetic inheritance might be simpler than anyone had suspected. "This is the first time we've seen a dsRNA molecule passing from one generation to the next," said Antony Jose, an assistant professor in the UMD Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics and senior author on the study. "The assumption has been that dsRNA changes the parent's genetic material and this altered genetic material is transmitted to the next generation. But our observations suggest that RNA is cutting out the middle man."


Jose and his team, including graduate student and lead author Julia Marré and former research technician Edward Traver, introduced dsRNA marked with a fluorescent label into the circulatory system of C. elegans worms. They then watched as these fluorescent RNA molecules physically moved from the parent's circulatory system into an egg cell waiting to be fertilized.

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In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells

In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells | Amazing Science |

For the first time, researchers have grown eggs entirely in a lab dish. Skin-producing cells called fibroblasts from the tip of an adult mouse’s tail have been reprogrammed to make eggs, Japanese researchers report online October 17 in Nature. Those eggs were fertilized and grew into six healthy mice.


The accomplishment could make it possible to study the formation of gametes — eggs and sperm — a mysterious process that takes place inside fetuses. If the feat can be repeated with human cells, it could make eggs easily available for research and may eventually lead to infertility treatments.

“This is very solid work, and an important step in the field,” says developmental biologist Diana Laird of the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. But, she cautions, “I wouldn’t want patients who have infertility to think this can be done in humans next year,” or even in the near future.


Stem cells reprogrammed from adult body cells have been coaxed into becoming a wide variety of cells. But producing eggs, the primordial cells of life, is far trickier. Egg cells are the ultimate in flexibility, able to create all the bits and parts of an organism from raw genetic instructions. They are far more flexible, or potent, than even the embryonic-like stem cells from which the researchers created them.


Making eggs in a dish is such a difficult task that it required a little help from ovary cells that support egg growth, stem cell researcher Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, and colleagues found. The team had previously reprogrammed stem cells to produce primordial germ cells, the cells that give rise to eggs. But they had to put those cells into mice to finish developing into eggs in the ovary (SN: 11/3/12, p. 14).

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“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization

“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization | Amazing Science |
For widemouthed, musical midshipman fish, melatonin is not a sleep hormone — it’s a serenade starter.

In breeding season, male plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) spend their nights singing — if that’s the word for hours of sustained foghorn hums. Males dig trysting nests under rocks along much of North America’s Pacific coast, then await females drawn in by the crooning.

New lab tests show that melatonin, familiar to humans as a possible sleep aid, is a serenade “go” signal, says behavioral neurobiologist Ni Feng of Yale University.

From fish to folks, nighttime release of melatonin helps coordinate bodily timekeeping and orchestrate after-dark biology. The fish courtship chorus, however, is the first example of the hormone prompting a launch into song, according to Andrew Bass of Cornell University. And what remarkable vocalizing it is.

The plainfin midshipman male creates a steady “mmm” by quick-twitching specialized muscles around its air-filled swim bladder up to 100 times per second in chilly water. A fish can extend a single hum for about two hours, Feng and Bass report October 10 in Current Biology. That same kind of super-fast muscle shakes rattle-snake tails and trills vocal structures in songbirds and bats.
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Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities

Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities | Amazing Science |

A combination of stability and abundance may be what gives allergy-triggering dust mite proteins their sneeze-inducing power, says a new study by scientists at Duke University and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Of the thousands of proteins that make up your common house dust mite, only about two dozen trigger the miserable sniffling, sneezing and itching of an allergic reaction. Why people consistently develop allergies to some proteins, be they in dust mites, pollen, cat dander or cockroaches, but not to the large number of other proteins in the environment has been a long standing question for allergen researchers.


To tackle this question, the researchers employed a new technique that makes it possible to measure of the stability allergens and non-allergens in the dust mite on a large scale. "Interestingly the allergens weren't just more abundant, and they weren't just more stable, they were both more abundant and more stable," said Michael Fitzgerald, professor of chemistry at Duke University and a co-author on the study. "This helps us understand at a fundamental level why certain proteins are allergenic."


The results may lead to new allergy treatments or be used to predict when proteins that are artificially added to our environments, such as those used in food, medicine or other consumer products, have the potential to become allergenic.


The study appears online on Oct. 19, 2016 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.


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Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input

Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input | Amazing Science |

The DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) being developed by Google's parent company, Alphabet, can now intelligently build on what's already inside its memory, the system's programmers have announced. Their new hybrid system – called a Differential Neural Computer (DNC) – pairs a neural network with the vast data storage of conventional computers, and the AI is smart enough to navigate and learn from this external data bank.


“These models can learn from examples like neural networks, but they can also store complex data like computers,” wrote DeepMind researchers Alexander Graves and Greg Wayne. Much like the brain, the neural network uses an interconnected series of nodes to stimulate specific centers needed to complete a task. In this case, the AI is optimizing the nodes to find the quickest solution to deliver the desired outcome. Over time, it’ll use the acquired data to get more efficient at finding the correct answer.


The two examples given by the DeepMind team further clear up the process:

  1. After being told about relationships in a family tree, the DNC was able to figure out additional connections on its own all while optimizing its memory to find the information more quickly in future searches.
  2. The system was given the basics of the London Underground public transportation system and immediately went to work finding additional routes and the complicated relationship between routes on its own.


Instead of having to learn every possible outcome to find a solution, DeepMind can derive an answer from prior experience, unearthing the answer from its internal memory rather than from outside conditioning and programming. This process is exactly how DeepMind was able to beat a human champion at ‘Go’ — a game with millions of potential moves and an infinite number of combinations.


Depending on the point of view, this could be a serious turn of events for ever-smarter AI that might one day be capable of thinking and learning as humans do. Or, it might be time to start making plans for survival post-Skynet.

Via Fernando Gil
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Physicists find atomic nucleus with a proton ‘bubble’ in the middle

Physicists find atomic nucleus with a proton ‘bubble’ in the middle | Amazing Science |

Scientists have found the first experimental evidence that an atomic nucleus can harbor bubbles. The unstable isotope silicon-34 has a bubble-like center with a paucity of protons, scientists report October 24 inNature Physics. This unusual “bubble nucleus” could help scientists understand how heavy elements are born in the universe, and help scientists find new, ultraheavy stable isotopes.


In their quirky quantum way, protons and neutrons in a nucleus refuse to exist in only one place at a time. Instead, they are spread out across the nucleus in nuclear orbitals, which describe the probability that each proton or neutron will be found in a particular spot. Normally, due to the strong nuclear force that holds the two types of particles together, nuclei have a fairly constant density in their centers, regardless of the number of protons and neutrons they contain. In silicon-34, however, some scientists predicted that one of the proton orbitals that fills the center of the nucleus would be almost empty, creating a bubble nucleus. But not all theories agreed. “This was the reason for doing the experiment,” says coauthor Olivier Sorlin, a nuclear physicist at the National Large Heavy Ion Accelerator, GANIL, in Caen, France. “Some people didn’t believe that it would exist.”


In pursuit of the bubble nucleus, the scientists smashed silicon-34 nuclei into a beryllium target, which knocked single protons out of the nuclei to create aluminum-33. The resulting aluminum-33 nuclei were in excited, or high-energy, states and quickly dropped down to a lower energy by emitting photons, or light particles. By observing the energy of those photons, Sorlin and colleagues could reconstruct the orbital of the proton that had been kicked out of the nucleus.


The scientists found that they ejected few protons from the central orbital that theorists had predicted would be empty. While the orbital can theoretically hold up to two protons, it held only 0.17 protons on average. In silicon-34, the central proton density is about half that of a comparable nucleus, the scientists calculated, after taking into account other central orbitals that contain normal numbers of protons. The density of neutrons in silicon-34’s center, however, is normal.

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The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate – or is it?

The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate – or is it? | Amazing Science |

Five years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three astronomers for their discovery, in the late 1990s, that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace. Their conclusions were based on analysis of Type Ia supernovae – the spectacular thermonuclear explosions of dying stars – picked up by the Hubble space telescope and large ground-based telescopes. It led to the widespread acceptance of the idea that the universe is dominated by a mysterious substance named 'dark energy' that drives this accelerating expansion.


Now, a team of scientists led by Professor Subir Sarkar of Oxford University's Department of Physics has cast doubt on this standard cosmological concept. Making use of a vastly increased data set – a catalogue of 740 Type Ia supernovae, more than ten times the original sample size – the researchers have found that the evidence for acceleration may be flimsier than previously thought, with the data being consistent with a constant rate of expansion.


The study is published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. Professor Sarkar, who also holds a position at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, said: 'The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe won the Nobel Prize, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. It led to the widespread acceptance of the idea that the universe is dominated by "dark energy" that behaves like a cosmological constant – this is now the "standard model" of cosmology.


'However, there now exists a much bigger database of supernovae on which to perform rigorous and detailed statistical analyses. We analysed the latest catalogue of 740 Type Ia supernovae – over ten times bigger than the original samples on which the discovery claim was based – and found that the evidence for accelerated expansion is, at most, what physicists call "3 sigma". This is far short of the 5 sigma standard required to claim a discovery of fundamental significance.


'An analogous example in this context would be the recent suggestion for a new particle weighing 750 GeV based on data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It initially had even higher significance – 3.9 and 3.4 sigma in December last year – and stimulated over 500 theoretical papers. However, it was announced in August that new data shows that the significance has dropped to less than 1 sigma. It was just a statistical fluctuation, and there is no such particle.'

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The limits to human lifespan must be respected

The limits to human lifespan must be respected | Amazing Science |
Lengthening our lives will come at a cost.


A study published online in Nature uses demographic data to reveal a lifespan that human beings cannot exceed, simply by virtue of being human. It’s like running, as an accompanying News and Views article points out. Elite athletes might shave a few milliseconds off the world record for the 100-meter sprint, but they’ll never run the same distance in, say, five seconds, or two. Human beings are simply not made that way. The same is true for longevity. The consequences of myriad factors related to our genetics, metabolism, reproduction and development, all shaped over millions of years of evolution, means that few humans will make it past their 120th birthdays. The name of Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, is likely to remain as long in the memory in the Methuselah stakes as that of Usain Bolt on the Olympic track.


Maximum lifespan is a bald measure of years accumulated. It is not the same as life expectancy, which is an actuarial measure of how long one is expected to live from birth, or indeed from any given age. Life expectancy at birth has increased in most countries over the past century, not because people have longer lifespans, but mainly because infectious disease does not kill as many infants as it once did. Factors such as poverty and warfare conspire to decrease life expectancy. Although life expectancy at birth has risen steadily for both men and women in France since 1900, for example, there are dramatic and poignant drops that coincide with the two world wars.


In Britain in the early twentieth century, many children still died from infectious diseases, and men would die shortly after retiring from physically demanding jobs. The National Health Service was the political response. It has become, in some ways, the victim of its own success. People live longer than they did even a few decades ago, and die (eventually) of different (and more expensive) complaints. As any beginning medical student is soon taught, gerontology is far from a dying discipline. So if we owe our increases in life expectancy to better public health, nutrition, sanitation and vaccination, is it not fair to ask whether more-effective treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s might also yield dividends in maximum lifespan? Will 120th birthday parties become routine, outmatched by a small yet increasing number of sesquicentenarians? The demographic data say no. People are living longer, and the population as a whole is greying, but the rate of increase in the number of centenarians is slowing, and might even have peaked.

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Gene-edited CRISPR-Cas9 mushroom escapes US regulation

Gene-edited CRISPR-Cas9 mushroom escapes US regulation | Amazing Science |

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not regulate a mushroom genetically modified withthe gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9. The long-awaited decision means that the mushroom can be cultivated and sold without passing through the agency's regulatory process — making it the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government.


“The research community will be very happy with the news,” says Caixia Gao, a plant biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing, who was not involved in developing the mushroom. “I am confident we'll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.”


Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in University Park, engineered the common white button (Agaricus bisporus) mushroom to resist browning. The effect is achieved by targeting the family of genes that encodes polyphenol oxidase (PPO) — an enzyme that causes browning. By deleting just a handful of base pairs in the mushroom’s genome, Yang knocked out one of six PPO genes — reducing the enzyme’s activity by 30%.


The mushroom is one of about 30 genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to sidestep the USDA regulatory system in the past five years. In each case, the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has said that the organisms — mostly plants — do not qualify as something the agency must regulate. Once a crop passes the USDA reviews, it may still undergo a voluntary review by the US Food and Drug Administration.


Several of the plants that bypassed the USDA were made using gene-editing techniques such as the zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) and transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN) systems. But until now, it was not clear whether the USDA would give the same pass to organisms engineered with science’s hottest new tool, CRISPR–Cas9.

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Was Venus the first habitable planet in our solar system?

Was Venus the first habitable planet in our solar system? | Amazing Science |

Its surface is hot enough to melt lead and its skies are darkened by toxic clouds of sulphuric acid. Venus is often referred to as Earth’s evil twin, but conditions on the planet were not always so hellish, according to research that suggests it may have been the first place in the solar system to have become habitable.


The study, due to be presented this week at the at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Pasadena, concludes that at a time when primitive bacteria were emerging on Earth, Venus may have had a balmy climate and vast oceans up to 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) deep. Michael Way, who led the work at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, said: “If you lived three billion years ago at a low latitude and low elevation the surface temperatures would not have been that different from that of a place in the tropics on Earth,” he said.


The Venusian skies would have been cloudy with almost continual rain lashing down in some regions, however. “So while you might get nice sunsets you would have mostly overcast skies during the day and precipitation,” Way added.


Crucially, if the calculations are correct the oceans may have remained until 715m years ago - a long enough period of climate stability for microbial life to have plausibly sprung up. “The oceans of ancient Venus would have had more constant temperatures, and if life begins in the oceans - something which we are not certain of on Earth - then this would be a good starting place,” said Way.


Other planetary scientists agreed that, despite the differing fates of the two planets, early Earth and Venus may have been similar.

Via Kathy Bosiak
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70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen

70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen | Amazing Science |

About 71% of the Earth is covered in water. Most of that is in oceans, rivers, and lakes, but some is frozen in the Earth's two ice sheets. Those ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica, only contain 2% of the world's total water supply, but a whopping 70% of the Earth's fresh water.


Scientists estimate that if the Antarctic Ice Sheet—the larger of the two—melted, sea level would rise by around 60 meters (200 feet). Not only that, but it could affect the weather: a study showed that less sea ice in the Arctic causes rainier summers in western Europe, and another study suggests that it's causing more extreme heat waves in the United States and elsewhere. And counterintuitively, melting ice also causes more melting ice.


A 2016 study found that a shrinking in the Greenland Ice Sheet causes what are known as "blocking events," where high-pressure systems park themselves on top of one area for days or even weeks. This brings warm, moist air that heats the surface below and causes even more ice to melt. Explore the relationship between polar ice and climate change in the videos below.

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Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem

Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem | Amazing Science |

So you're moving into your new apartment, and you're trying to bring your sofa. The problem is, the hallway turns and you have to fit your sofa around a corner. If it's a small sofa, that might not be a problem, but a really big sofa is sure to get stuck. If you're a mathematician, you ask yourself: What's the largest sofa you could possibly fit around the corner? It doesn't have to be a rectangular sofa either, it can be any shape.


This is the essence of the moving sofa problem. Here are the specifics: the whole problem is in two dimensions, the corner is a 90-degree angle, and the width of the corridor is 1. What is the largest two-dimensional area that can fit around the corner?


The largest area that can fit around a corner is called—I kid you not—the sofa constant. Nobody knows for sure how big it is, but we have some pretty big sofas that do work, so we know it has to be at least as big as them. We also have some sofas that don't work, so it has to be smaller than those. All together, we know the sofa constant has to be between 2.2195 and 2.8284.

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Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch | Amazing Science |

As data demands continue to grow, scientists predict that it's only a matter of time before today's telecommunication networks reach capacity unless new technologies are developed for transporting data. A new technique could help avert this bandwidth crunch by allowing light-based optical networks to carry more than one hundred times more data than is possible with current technologies.


Laser light comes in many different shapes, or spatial modes. However, today's optical networks use just one spatial mode to carry information, limiting the amount of data that can be transmitted at one time. Researchers led by Andrew Forbes, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, developed a technique known as spatial multiplexing that reshapes a laser beam into many spatial modes that can each carry information.


In a paper presented at the OSA Laser Congress in Boston, the researchers demonstrate optical communication with more than 100 spatial modes by combining their new spatial multiplexing approach with wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), which uses different wavelengths of light to carry information.


"We created 35 spatial modes encoded in three different wavelengths, producing 105 total modes," said Carmelo Rosales-Guzmán, research fellow and first author of the paper. "Our new method might serve as the basis for future communication technologies."


The researchers demonstrated that their technique can transmit data with 98 percent efficiency in a laboratory free-space optical network, which uses light to transmit information over the air. The scientists say the approach should also work in optical fibers, the basis for fiber-optic communications.

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Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved

Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved | Amazing Science |

Australian engineers have created a new quantum bit which remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved, dramatically expanding the time during which calculations could be performed in a future silicon quantum computer. 


The new quantum bit, made up of the spin of a single atom in silicon and merged with an electromagnetic field - known as 'dressed qubit' - retains quantum information for much longer that an 'undressed' atom, opening up new avenues to build and operate the superpowerful quantum computers of the future. The result by a team at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW), appears today in the online version of the international journal, Nature Nanotechnology.


"We have created a new quantum bit where the spin of a single electron is merged together with a strong electromagnetic field," said Arne Laucht, a Research Fellow at the School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications at UNSW, and lead author of the paper. "This quantum bit is more versatile and more long-lived than the electron alone, and will allow us to build more reliable quantum computers."


Building a quantum computer has been called the 'space race of the 21st century' - a difficult and ambitious challenge with the potential to deliver revolutionary tools for tackling otherwise impossible calculations, such as the design of complex drugs and advanced materials, or the rapid search of massive, unsorted databases.


Its speed and power lie in the fact that quantum systems can host multiple 'superpositions' of different initial states, which in a computer are treated as inputs which, in turn, all get processed at the same time.


"The greatest hurdle in using quantum objects for computing is to preserve their delicate superpositions long enough to allow us to perform useful calculations," said Andrea Morello, leader of the research team and a Program Manager in the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology (CQC2T) at UNSW.

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Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell

Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell | Amazing Science |
Pain can jump from one mouse to another, presumably through chemicals detected by the nose.


Pain is contagious, at least for mice. After encountering bedding where mice in pain had slept, other mice became more sensitive to pain themselves. The experiment, described online October 19 in Science Advances, shows that pain can move from one animal to another — no injury or illness required.  


The results “add to a growing body of research showing that animals communicate distress and are affected by the distress of others,” says neuroscientist Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal of the University of California, Berkeley.


Neuroscientist Andrey Ryabinin and colleagues didn’t set out to study pain transfer. But the researchers noticed something curious during their experiments on mice who were undergoing alcohol withdrawal. Mice in the throes of withdrawal have a higher sensitivity to pokes on the foot. And surprisingly, so did these mice’s perfectly healthy cagemates. “We realized that there was some transfer of information about pain” from injured mouse to bystander, says Ryabinin, of Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland.


When mice suffered from alcohol withdrawal, morphine withdrawal or an inflaming injection, they become more sensitive to a poke in the paw with a thin fiber — a touchy reaction that signals a decreased pain tolerance. Mice that had been housed in the same cage with the mice in pain also grew more sensitive to the poke, Ryabinin and colleagues found. These bystander mice showed other signs of heightened pain sensitivity, such as quickly pulling their tails out of hot water and licking a paw after an irritating shot.


The results are compelling evidence for the social transmission of pain, says neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam.

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Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope

Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope | Amazing Science |

A new type of atomic force microscope (AFM) uses nanowires as tiny sensors. Unlike standard AFM, the device with a nanowire sensor enables measurements of both the size and direction of forces. Physicists at the University of Basel and at the EPF Lausanne have described these results in the recent issue of Nature Nanotechnology.


Nanowires are extremely tiny filamentary crystals which are built-up molecule by molecule from various materials and which are now being very actively studied by scientists all around the world because of their exceptional properties.


The wires normally have a diameter of 100 nanometers and therefore possess only about one thousandth of a hair thickness. Because of this tiny dimension, they have a very large surface in comparison to their volume. This fact, their small mass and flawless crystal lattice make them very attractive in a variety of nanometer-scale sensing applications, including as sensors of biological and chemical samples, and as pressure or charge sensors.


The team of Argovia Professor Martino Poggio from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel has now demonstrated that nanowires can also be used as force sensors in atomic force microscopes. Based on their special mechanical properties, nanowires vibrate along two perpendicular axes at nearly the same frequency. When they are integrated into an AFM, the researchers can measure changes in the perpendicular vibrations caused by different forces. Essentially, they use the nanowires like tiny mechanical compasses that point out both the direction and size of the surrounding forces.


The scientists from Basel describe how they imaged a patterned sample surface using a nanowire sensor. Together with colleagues from the EPF Lausanne, who grew the nanowires, they mapped the two-dimensional force field above the sample surface using their nanowire "compass". As a proof-of-principle, they also mapped out test force fields produced by tiny electrodes.


The most challenging technical aspect of the experiments was the realization of an apparatus that could simultaneously scan a nanowire above a surface and monitor its vibration along two perpendicular directions. With their study, the scientists have demonstrated a new type of AFM that could extend the technique's numerous applications even further.

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Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs

Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs | Amazing Science |

Researchers have used quantum computing tech to miniaturize a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, making it small enough to pick up the structure of single biomolecules without damaging them or losing information in the process. This could make it a key tool for drug discovery and other biotech research.


Scientists at the University of Melbourne, lead by Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, used atomic-sized quantum bits (usually used inside quantum computers), to act as quantum sensors to image each atom that makes up more complicated bio-molecules. "By using quantum sensing to image individual atoms in a bio-molecule, we hope to overcome several issues in conventional biomolecule imaging," Prof Hollenberg said.


Current techniques involve using a crystal of the molecule that needs to be imaged, and X-ray diffraction to pick up the molecule's average structure. Both parts of this can lead to important information getting dropped in the process. Some bio-molecules can't be crystallized either, according to the news release.


"In a conventional MRI machine large magnets set up a field gradient in all three directions to create 3D images; in our system we use the natural magnetic properties of a single atomic qubit," says University of Melbourne PhD researcher Mr. Viktor Perunicic. In short, atomic quantum bits make great nano sensors.


"The construction of such a quantum MRI machine for single molecule microscopy could revolutionize how we view biological processes at the molecular level, and could lead to the de

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Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art

Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art | Amazing Science |

Threatened forest icon may be a hybrid of two extinct species.


The European bison (Bison bonasus) may be the continent’s largest land mammal, but its origins have long been a mystery. Hunted for millennia and pushed into the wild corners of Europe as agriculture expanded, the bison — also known as wisent — were reduced to just a few zoo specimens by the late 1920s. Today, a semi-wild population roams Białowieża Forest, near the Poland–Belarus border, where they slip between hornbeams and mighty oaks, their curly coats and horns lending an aura of the Pleistocene to the ancient forest. It took a reach into the past using ancient DNA and cave art to unveil the wisent’s origin story. Researchers published the species’ family tree on 19 October in Nature Communications1.


The team took almost a decade to complete their work. Much of the analysis used ancient mitochondrial DNA derived from 65 bison specimens ranging from 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until technological advances made it possible to examine nuclear DNA that researchers were able to produce a coherent family tree.


According to the team’s analysis, the wisent is a hybrid of two extinct animals: the steppe bison (Bison priscus), the Eurasian ancestor of the American bison, and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern cattle. The steppe bison went extinct more than 11,000 years ago and the last aurochs was shot in 1627. From the DNA evidence researchers estimate that hybridization took place 120,000 or more years ago. In most cases, hybrid animals are less fertile and fit than their parents. But in this case, a whole new species seems to have taken flight.

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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