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Life in Space: Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA To Find Extraterrestrial Life (using Deep Sequencing Methods)

Life in Space: Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA To Find Extraterrestrial Life (using Deep Sequencing Methods) | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
J. Craig Venter may have just started a race to discover alien life on the Red Planet.

 

Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.

 

Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company's "Personal Genome Machine" for a similar task. "We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars," Rothberg said.

 

Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine. "There will be DNA life forms there," Venter predicted, "you just need the right tools to look for them". Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission.

 

Meanwhile, Rothberg's Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or "the search for extraterrestrial genomes." Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent's machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

 

NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won't send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see "The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph"), and there's no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. "The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications," says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. "Venter isn't ahead of anyone else."

 

"The reason to take a device all the way to Mars and not bring back the sample is because of contamination. No one would believe you," says Tessi Kanavarioti, a chemist who carried out early theoretical work on Martian biology and was involved in studying rocks brought back from the moon in the 1970s. Sequencing machines are so sensitive that if a single Earth germ landed on the sample returned from Mars, it might ruin the experiment.

 

Discovering and sequencing extraterrestrial life would be an immense scientific prize. Sequencing could reveal whether life evolved in similar ways on both Earth and Mars or, perhaps, moved between the planets. During a series of massive space collisions around four billion years ago, the two bodies exchanged about a billion tons of rocks and debris. So far, NASA researchers have searched Mars for traces of water—a prerequisite for life as we know it—as well as indirect signs that life might have existed there many eons ago. Since DNA molecules don't survive more than a million years, even on Earth, anyone sending a DNA sequencer to Mars has to believe that living microorganisms will be found there now. Sending a DNA sequencer to Mars would be a "high-risk, high-payoff" experiment. It might very well find nothing, but if DNA were discovered, that would provide nearly irrefutable proof of extraterrestrial life.

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Hundreds of galaxies found hiding behind the Milky Way

Hundreds of galaxies found hiding behind the Milky Way | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Astronomers in Australia have confirmed the discovery of hundreds of galaxies hidden by the Milky Way and a gravitational anomaly known as the Great Attractor.


Until now, the galaxy-rich region of space some 250 million light-years away has been obscured by the stars and dust of the Milky Way. "The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it's very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it," Lister Staveley-Smith, a professor at the University of Western Australia, said in a press release.


A new receiver installed on the Parkes radio telescope has allowed astronomers for the first time to see through the foreground fuzz of the Milky Way's starry dust and into the hidden portions of the Great Attractor region. Previous measurements suggest the Milky Way and several hundred other galaxies are being pulled toward the Great Attractor region by a gravitational force as powerful as a million billion suns. But researchers aren't exactly sure why.


"We know that in this region there are a few very large collections of galaxies we call clusters or superclusters, and our whole Milky Way is moving towards them at more than two million kilometers per hour," Staveley-Smith said. But the new findings -- detailed in the Astrophysical Journal -- have revealed several structures that might offer clues to the nature of the Great Attractor region's magnetism.


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Researchers discover a genetic mutation (SLIC19A3) that prevents diabetes complications 

Researchers discover a genetic mutation (SLIC19A3) that prevents diabetes complications  | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A number of complications are associated with diabetes, but they are more prevalent in some patients than in others. A Finnish study has now revealed two genetic mutations which seem to lower the risk of contracting a diabetic retinal or kidney disease.

The most significant complications of diabetes include diabetic retinal disease, or retinopathy, and diabetic kidney disease, or nephropathy. Both involve damaged capillaries. The biggest risk factor associated with damage to the tiny blood vessels is high blood sugar, although genetic factors are also at play. Experiments conducted on both individual cells and laboratory animals indicate that the presence of vitamin B1 inside the cell can prevent the damage caused by high blood sugar.

Together with Professor Massimo Porta from the University of Turin, Professor Per-Henrik Groop, Principal Investigator of the FinnDiane research project at the University of Helsinki and Folkhälsan Research Centre, and his research group have studied the impact of point mutations on the genes that encode the proteins which transfer vitamin B1 into cells. The research was based on the hypothesis that the studied mutations impact the individual’s capacity to transfer vitamin B1 into cells and consequently the susceptibility for additional complications associated with diabetes.

The research used the world’s most extensive research data set of type 1 diabetes patients, compiled by Groop’s group, in which the patients are characterised based on their genetic profile and the severity of their diabetes complications. The results showed that two of the studied point mutations in the SLC19A3 gene were strongly associated with both retinopathy and the combination of retinopathy and nephropathy; thus, carriers of the genetic variant were less likely to have these complications. The protective effect of the variant remained significant even when other common risk factors were taken into account.

The study was repeated on North American patient data, and the results confirmed that the two variants protect their carriers from the combination of retinopathy and nephropathy. “Based on these results, it seems that the SLC19A3 gene has a role in the development of diabetic nephropathy and diabetic retinopathy. The results also help explain why some patients with type 1 diabetes are more likely to develop complications than others," says Iiro Toppila, the researcher responsible for analysing the data.  “However, further research is needed into the biological effects of point mutations.”

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Tick genome reveals secrets of a successful bloodsucker

Tick genome reveals secrets of a successful bloodsucker | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

With tenacity befitting their subject, an international team of nearly 100 researchers toiled for a decade and overcame tough technical challenges to decipher the genome of the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, contributed primary support to the research, which appears in the online, open-access journal Nature Communications.


“Ticks spread more different kinds of infectious microbes to people and animals than any other arthropod group,” said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “The spiral-shaped bacterium that causes Lyme disease is perhaps the best known microbe transmitted by ticks; however, ticks also transmit infectious agents that cause human babesiosis, anaplasmosis, tick-borne encephalitis and other diseases. The newly assembled genome provides insight into what makes ticks such effective disease vectors and may generate new ways to lessen their impact on human and animal health.”


Catherine A. Hill, Ph.D., of Purdue University, headed the team of investigators. Aside from the logistical challenges of coordinating activities of dozens of workers across many time zones, the researchers’ focus was a creature that is extremely difficult to maintain and that lives a long time — up to two years in the wild and nine months in the lab, Dr. Hill noted. Ixodes ticks have three blood-feeding life stages, and during each one, they feed on a different vertebrate animal. During feeding, ticks ingest blood for hours or days at a time. After mating, adult female ticks rapidly imbibe a large blood meal during which they expand hugely. “Because genes may switch on or off depending on the life stage of the tick, we needed to culture and collect ticks at each stage for analysis. This was not easy to do,” said Dr. Hill.


Another challenge was the sheer size of the tick genome — some 2.1 billion DNA base pairs — and expansive regions where sequences are repeated. “The degree of DNA repetition — approximately 70 percent of the total — made assembling the full genome in the correct order very difficult,” Dr. Hill said. In the end, the team determined the order and sequence of about two-thirds of the total genome. “We determined the sequence for 20,486 protein-coding genes,” she said, “of which 20 percent may be unique to ticks. Those tick-specific genes are like guideposts that say ‘start here’ as we look for new ways to counter infectious ticks.”


Although the latest research represents just a first look at the tick genome, the scientists have already identified genes and protein families that shed light on why Ixodes ticks succeed so well as parasites and hint at the reasons they excel at spreading pathogens, Dr. Hill noted. For example, compared with other blood-feeders, ticks have many more proteins devoted to consuming, concentrating and detoxifying their iron-containing food. Although mosquitoes — which quickly siphon up relatively small amounts of blood through a tube-like mouthpiece — have several proteins dedicated to blood digestion, ticks have many more proteins involved in this process. Other genes code for proteins that help ticks concentrate the blood and rapidly excrete excess water that accompanies large blood meals. Still other genes allow ticks to quickly expand their stiff outer coats to accommodate a 100-fold increase in total body size during blood feeding.


Other peculiarities of the tick’s lifestyle reflected in the genome include genes associated with the multifaceted sensory systems that the parasite uses when “questing” for a host during each of its separate blood-feeding stages. Compared with mosquitoes, ticks appear to have fewer genes used to detect hosts, and, unlike a mosquito’s “smell” receptors, ticks may use “taste” receptors to locate their food sources. Each of the newly identified proteins is a potential target for new, tick-specific interventions, explained Dr. Hill. “The genome gives us a code book to the inner workings of ticks. With it, we can now begin to hack their system and write a counter-script against them.”


In an effort to explain variations in Lyme disease prevalence across the United States, the team also examined genetic diversity within and among I. scapularis populations gathered from five states in the Northeast and Midwest and three in the South. Some have speculated that ticks in the Northeast and Midwest spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease more easily than those in the South, or that the two populations perhaps comprise separate species. The genetic analysis showed that there is only one species of I. scapularis, said Dr. Hill, but subtle genetic differences were detected, and these may help explain some of the variance in the ability of populations to transmit disease and, therefore, affect disease prevalence.

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Cyanobacteria see like tiny little eyeballs

Cyanobacteria see like tiny little eyeballs | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
Biologists discover how bacteria sense light and move towards it: the entire single-cell organism focuses light like a tiny eyeball.


Cyanobacteria, including the Synechocystis species used in the study, are an ancient and abundant lifeform. They live in water and get their energy from photosynthesis - which explains their enthusiasm for bright light. "It has a way of detecting where the light is; we know that because of the direction that it moves. But we were puzzled about this because the cells are very, very small," said study co-author Conrad Mullineaux, from Queen Mary University of London.


The researchers used a laser beam to probe exactly how such focused light affected the bugs' behavior. With the laser beam trained steadily on the centre of a dish, the team shone a bigger, separate light on the Synechocystis cells from one side. This drew the little critters across the surface in the usual way, pulling themselves towards the light with tiny tentacles. The usual bright "image" of the light was visible, focused on their trailing side. But the moment any of the bugs strayed into the laser beam, there was an abrupt about-face. "When they hit it, they bounced off it," Prof Mullineaux said. "As soon as the laser was hitting one side of the cell, the cells moved away. They switched direction."


In other words, bright light focused on one side of the bacterium definitely does drive it to run the other way - which under normal circumstances takes it towards the source of the light. In fact, because some amount of light is hitting the cell from all around, the team says that each microbe will have a "360-degree image" of its surroundings focused on the inside of its cell membrane. That image is very fuzzy - with a resolution of about 21 degrees, compared to the 0.02-degree precision of our eyes - but it is enough for photoreceptor molecules, embedded in the cell membrane, to guide the bug's movement.

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Alcaline ocean on Enceladus - could it harbor life?

Alcaline ocean on Enceladus - could it harbor life? | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
Recently, geochemist Christopher Glein led a team that developed a new approach to estimating the pH of Enceladus' ocean using observational data of the carbonate geochemistry of plume material. This is a classic problem in geochemical studies of Earth (such as rainwater), but scientists can now solve the carbonate problem on an extraterrestrial body thanks to measurements of dissolved inorganic carbon by the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA), and carbon dioxide gas by the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) onboard Cassini.
Glein's team tried to create the most comprehensive chemical model to date of the ocean by accounting for compositional constraints from both INMS and CDA, such as the salinity of the plume. Their model suggests that Enceladus has a sodium, chloride and carbonate ocean with an alkaline pH of 11 or 12, close to the equivalent of ammonia or soapy water. The estimated pH is slightly higher by 1 to 2 units than an earlier estimate based on CDA data alone, but the different modeling approaches are consistent in terms of the overall chemistry of an alkaline ocean.
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Energy-friendly chip for mobile devices can perform powerful artificial-intelligence tasks

Energy-friendly chip for mobile devices can perform powerful artificial-intelligence tasks | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
MIT researchers have developed a new chip designed to implement neural networks. It is 10 times as efficient as a mobile GPU, so it could enable mobile devices to run powerful artificial-intelligence algorithms locally, rather than uploading data to the Internet for processing.


In recent years, some of the most exciting advances in artificial intelligence have come courtesy of convolutional neural networks, large virtual networks of simple information-processing units, which are loosely modeled on the anatomy of the human brain.


Neural networks are typically implemented using graphics processing units (GPUs), special-purpose graphics chips found in all computing devices with screens. A mobile GPU, of the type found in a cell phone, might have almost 200 cores, or processing units, making it well suited to simulating a network of distributed processors.


At the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week, MIT researchers presented a new chip designed specifically to implement neural networks. It is 10 times as efficient as a mobile GPU, so it could enable mobile devices to run powerful artificial-intelligence algorithms locally, rather than uploading data to the Internet for processing.


Neural nets were widely studied in the early days of artificial-intelligence research, but by the 1970s, they’d fallen out of favor. In the past decade, however, they’ve enjoyed a revival, under the name “deep learning.”


“Deep learning is useful for many applications, such as object recognition, speech, face detection,” says Vivienne Sze, the Emanuel E. Landsman Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science whose group developed the new chip. “Right now, the networks are pretty complex and are mostly run on high-power GPUs. You can imagine that if you can bring that functionality to your cell phone or embedded devices, you could still operate even if you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection. You might also want to process locally for privacy reasons. Processing it on your phone also avoids any transmission latency, so that you can react much faster for certain applications.”


The new chip, which the researchers dubbed “Eyeriss,” could also help usher in the “Internet of things” — the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil-engineering structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock would have sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and task coordination. With powerful artificial-intelligence algorithms on board, networked devices could make important decisions locally, entrusting only their conclusions, rather than raw personal data, to the Internet. And, of course, onboard neural networks would be useful to battery-powered autonomous robots.

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'Cannibalism' between stars

'Cannibalism' between stars | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Stars are born inside a rotating cloud of interstellar gas and dust, which contracts to stellar densities thanks to its own gravity. Before finding itself on the star, however, most of the cloud lands onto a circumstellar disk forming around the star owing to conservation of angular momentum. The manner in which the material is transported through the disk onto the star, causing the star to grow in mass, has recently become a major research topic in astrophysics.


It turned out that stars may not accumulate their final mass steadily, as was previously thought, but in a series of violent events manifesting themselves as sharp stellar brightening. The young FU Orionis star in the constellation of Orion is the prototype example, which showed an increase in brightness by a factor of 250 over a time period of just one year, staying in this high-luminosity state now for almost a century.

One possible mechanism that can explain these brightening events was put forward 10 years ago by Eduard Vorobyov, now working at the Astrophysical Department of the Vienna University, in collaboration with Shantanu Basu from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.


According to their theory, stellar brightening can be caused by fragmentation due to gravitational instabilities in massive gaseous disks surrounding young stars, followed by migration of dense gaseous clumps onto the star. Like the process of throwing logs into a fireplace, these episodes of clump consumption release excess energy which causes the young star to brighten by a factor of hundreds to thousands. During each episode, the star is consuming the equivalent of one Earth mass every ten days. After this, it may take another several thousand years before another event occurs.


Eduard Vorobyov describes the process of clump formation in circumstellar disks followed by their migration onto the star as "cannibalism on astronomical scales". These clumps could have matured into giant planets such as Jupiter, but instead they were swallowed by the parental star. This invokes an interesting analogy with the Greek mythology, wherein Cronus, the leader of the first generation of Titans, ate up his newborn children (though failing to gobble up Zeus, who finally brought death upon his father).


With the advent of advanced observational instruments, such as SUBARU 8.2 meter optical-infrared telescope installed in Mauna Kea (Hawaii), it has become possible for the first time to test the model predictions. Using high-resolution, adaptive optics observations in the polarized light, an international group of astronomers led by Hauyu Liu from European Space Observatory (Garching, Germany) has verified the presence of the key features associated with the disk fragmentation model -- large-scale arms and arcs surrounding four young stars undergoing luminous outbursts, including the prototype FU Orionis star itself. The results of this study were accepted for publication in Science Advances.


"This is a major step towards our understanding of how stars and planets form and evolve", says Vorobyov, "If we can prove that most stars undergo such episodes of brightening caused by disk gravitational instability, this would mean that our own Sun might have experienced several such episodes, implying that the giant planets of the Solar system may in fact be lucky survivors of the Sun's tempestuous past".


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Gloop from the deep sea: The unusual secretions of the hagfish

Gloop from the deep sea: The unusual secretions of the hagfish | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

ETH scientists are researching the unusual secretions of the hagfish. Over the next three years, the researchers will try to find out how this natural hydrogel can be harnessed for human use.


This animal has done everything right. It has been around for 300 million years, outlived the dinosaurs and survived the catastrophic meteorite impact, warm phases and glacial periods. Even today, it continues to populate the sea at depths where it eats carrion and hunts prey. The Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) is not really attractive at first glance. In fact, most people probably consider it quite disgusting. Nevertheless, the hagfish – or rather its slime – has caught the attention of a group of ETH researchers at the Laboratory of Food Process Engineering.


The slime of the hagfish is an extraordinary defense mechanism. When a hagfish is attacked by a predator, it secretes a glandular exudate that gels within a split second and forms a massive slime mass – even in cold water. This slime immobilizes vast amounts of water, forming a dilute, viscous and cohesive network. Fish attempting to attack the hagfish may then suffocate on the slime and thus let go of the hagfish.


Preliminary research quickly revealed to the scientists that there had been little examination of the structure of the slime and how it is formed and secreted. The scientific community knows that the natural hydrogel produced by the hagfish has two main components: 15- to 30-cm-long protein threads and mucin, which sits between the threads and makes the slime “slimy”. The protein threads have properties similar to spider silk. According to Kuster, the threads are extremely tear-resistant and elastic, though only when moist.


The slime consists of almost 100 % water and contains just 0.004 % gelling agent. In other words, the weight ratio of gelling agent to water is 26,000-fold, which is over 200 times more than in conventional animal gelatine. Furthermore, very little energy is required for the gelling process.


The ETH researchers were especially fascinated by the fact that the protein filaments have the form of a sphere measuring 150 micrometers in diameter while still in the glands, but once they are part of the slime they extend to threads of several centimeters in length. How the threads unwind from the sphere is not yet understood in depth. "The way the threads coil within the cells is highly specialized and very unusual," says Böni.

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Monstrous high-velocity gas cloud boomerangs back to our galaxy

Monstrous high-velocity gas cloud boomerangs back to our galaxy | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
New Hubble telescope observations suggest that a high-velocity gas cloud was launched from the outer regions of our own galaxy around 70 million years ago. Now, the cloud is on a return collision course and is expected to plow into the Milky Way's disk in about 30 million years. Astronomers believe it will ignite a spectacular burst of star formation then.


Hubble Space Telescope astronomers are finding that the old adage "what goes up must come down" even applies to an immense cloud of hydrogen gas outside our Milky Way galaxy. The invisible cloud is plummeting toward our galaxy at nearly 700,000 miles per hour. Though hundreds of enormous, high-velocity gas clouds whiz around the outskirts of our galaxy, this so-called "Smith Cloud" is unique because its trajectory is well known. New Hubble observations suggest it was launched from the outer regions of the galactic disk, around 70 million years ago. The cloud was discovered in the early 1960s by doctoral astronomy student Gail Smith, who detected the radio waves emitted by its hydrogen.


The cloud is on a return collision course and is expected to plow into the Milky Way's disk in about 30 million years. When it does, astronomers believe it will ignite a spectacular burst of star formation, perhaps providing enough gas to make 2 million suns.


"The cloud is an example of how the galaxy is changing with time," explained team leader Andrew Fox of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "It's telling us that the Milky Way is a bubbling, very active place where gas can be thrown out of one part of the disk and then return back down into another."

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Removing senescent cells makes mice live longer and prosper

Removing senescent cells makes mice live longer and prosper | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Killing worn-out cells helps middle-aged mice live longer, healthier lives, a new study suggests. Removing those worn-out or “senescent” cells increased the median life span of mice from 24 to 27 percent over that of rodents in which senescent cells built up normally with age, Mayo Clinic researchers report online February 3 in Nature. Clearing senescent cells also improved heart and kidney function, the researchers found.


If the results hold up in people, they could lead to an entirely new way to treat aging, says gerontology and cancer researcher Norman Sharpless at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. Most prospective antiaging treatments would require people to take a drug for decades. Periodically zapping senescent cells might temporarily turn back the clock and improve health for people who are already aging, he says. “If this paper is right, I believe it will be one of the most important aging papers ever,” Sharpless says.


Senescent cells are ones that have ceased to divide and do their usual jobs. Instead, they hunker down and pump out inflammatory chemicals that may damage surrounding tissues and promote further aging. “They’re zombie cells,” says Steven Austad, a biogerontologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. ”They’ve outlived their usefulness. They’re bad.”


Cancer biologist Jan van Deursen of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and colleagues devised the strategy for eliminating senescent cells by making the cells commit suicide. A protein called p16 builds up in senescent cells, the researchers had previously discovered. The team hooked up a gene for a protein that causes cells to kill themselves to DNA that helps turn on p16 production, so that whenever p16 was made the suicide protein was also made.


The suicide protein needs a partner chemical to actually kill cells, though. Once mice were a year old — 40 to 60 years old in human terms — the researchers started injecting them with the partner chemical. Mice got injections about every three days for six months. Mice that got the cell-suicide cocktail were compared with genetically engineered mice that were injected with a placebo mix.


Senescent cells were easier to kill in some organs than others, the researchers found. Colon and liver senescent cells weren’t killed, for instance. But age-related declines in the function of organs in which the treatment worked — eyes, fat, heart and kidney —were slowed.


Genetic engineering and regular shots would not be feasible for use in people, but several companies are developing drugs that might clear the zombie cells from humans, Austad says. Some side effects to the treatment in mice also would be important to consider if those drugs are ever used in people. Senescent cells have previously been shown to be needed for wound healing, and mice that got the killing cocktail couldn’t repair wounds as well as those that didn’t get the treatment. Once treatment stopped, the mice were able to heal normally again. That result suggests that people undergoing senescent-cell therapy might need to stop temporarily to heal wounds from surgery or accidents.


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Rapid loss of phytoplankton in the Indian Ocean

Rapid loss of phytoplankton in the Indian Ocean | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

A rapid loss of phytoplankton threatens to turn the western Indian Ocean into an “ecological desert,” a new study warns. The research reveals that phytoplankton populations in the region fell an alarming 30 percent over the last 16 years.


A decline in ocean mixing due to warming surface waters is to blame for that phytoplankton plummet, researchers propose online January 19 in Geophysical Research Letters. The mixing of the ocean’s layers ferries phytoplankton nutrients from the ocean’s dark depths up into the sunlit layers that the mini plants inhabit.


The loss of these microbes, which form the foundation of the ocean food web, may undermine the region’s ecosystem, warns study coauthor Raghu Murtugudde, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland in College Park.


“If you reduce the bottom of the food chain, it’s going to cascade,” Murtugudde says. The phytoplankton decline may be partially responsible for a 50 to 90 percent decline in tuna catch rates over the last half-century in the Indian Ocean, he says. “This is a wake-up call to look if similar things are happening elsewhere.”


In the 20th century, surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean rose about 50 percent more than the global average. Previous investigations into this ocean warming’s impact on phytoplankton suggested that populations had increased. But those studies looked at only a few years of data — not long enough to clearly identify any long-term trend.


Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, Murtugudde and colleagues tracked the microscopic phytoplankton from space. Phytoplankton, like land plants, are tinted green. When the sea surface is filled with phytoplankton, the water takes on a lighter, greener tinge. As the phytoplankton population thins, the water turns darker and bluer.

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Twenty-four new beetle species discovered in Australian rain forests

Twenty-four new beetle species discovered in Australian rain forests | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

As many as twenty-four new species from Australian rainforests are added to the weevil genus Trigonopterus. Museum scientists Dr. Alexander Riedel, State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, Germany, and Rene Tanzler, Zoological State Collection Munich, Germany, have first discovered them among unidentified specimens in different beetle collections. The study is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.


Australia is well known for its extensive deserts and savanna habitats. However, a great number of native Australian species are restricted to the wet tropical forests along the east coast of northern Queensland. These forests are also the home of the recent discoveries.


Most of the weevil species now recognised as new have already been collected in the 80s and 90s of the past century. Since then they had been resting in museum collections until German researcher Alexander Riedel had the opportunity to study them.


“Usually a delay of decades or even centuries occurs between the encounter of a new species in the field and its thorough scientific study and formal naming,” he explains. “This is due to the small number of experts who focus on species discovery,” he elaborates. “There are millions of unidentified insect specimens stored in collections around the world but only few people have the training necessary to identify those of special interest.”

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Absorbing acoustics with soundless spirals

Absorbing acoustics with soundless spirals | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Researchers at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, CNRS, and the University of Lorraine have recently developed a design for a coiled-up acoustic metasurface which can achieve total acoustic absorption in very low-frequency ranges. "The main advantage is the deep-subwavelength thickness of our absorber, which means that we can deal with very low-frequencies - meaning very large wavelengths - with extremely reduced size structure," said Badreddine Assouar, a principal research scientist at CNRS in Nancy, France.


Assouar and Li, a post-doc in his group at the Institut Jean Lamour, affiliated with the CNRS and the University of Lorraine, describe their work this week in Applied Physics Letters from AIP Publishing.


Acoustic absorption systems work by absorbing sound energy at a resonant frequency and dissipating it into heat. Traditional acoustic absorbers consist of specially perforated plates placed in front of hard objects to form air cavities; however, in order to operate at low frequencies, these systems must also be relatively thick in length, which makes them physically impractical for most applications.


To remedy this, Assouar's group, whose previous work consisted of developing coiled channel systems, designed an acoustic absorber in which sound waves enter an internal coiled air channel through a perforated center hole. This forces the acoustic waves to travel through the channel, effectively increasing the total propagation length of the waves and leading to an effective low sound velocity and high acoustic refractive index. This allows them to make the absorber itself relatively thin, while still maintaining the absorptive properties of a much thicker chamber.


This is made possible because the coiled chamber's acoustic reactance - a property analogous to electrical reactance, a circuit's opposition to a change in voltage or current - compensates for the reactance of the perforated hole and allows for impedance matching to be achieved. This causes all of the acoustic energy to be transferred to the chamber, rather than reflected, and to be ultimately absorbed within the perforated hole.


Further applications of such metasurface may deal with the realization of tunable amplitude and phase profile for acoustic engineering, which would allow for the manipulation of an acoustic wave's propagation trajectory for special applications, such as manipulating particles with a vortex wavefront. Future work for Assouar and his group will include developing the sample fabrication process with 3D printing and subsequent performance analyses.


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Chemical nanocages: New technique advances synthetic biology

Chemical nanocages: New technique advances synthetic biology | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Living systems rely on a dizzying variety of chemical reactions essential to development and survival. Most of these involve a specialized class of protein molecules—the enzymes.


In a new study, Hao Yan, director of the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute presents a clever means of localizing and confining enzymes and the substrate molecules they bind with, speeding up reactions essential for life processes.


The research, which appears in the current issue of the journal Nature Communications, could have far-reaching applications in fields ranging from improving industrial efficiencies to pioneering new medical diagnostics, guiding targeted drug delivery and producing smart materials. The work also promises to shed new light on particulars of cellular organization and metabolism.


The technique involves the design of specialized, nanometer-scale cages, which self-assemble from lengths of DNA. The cages hold enzyme and substrate in close proximity, considerably accelerating the rate of reactions and shielding them from degradation.


"We have been designing programmable DNA nanostructures with increasing complexity for many years, and it is now time to ask what can we do with these structures," Yan says. "There are numerous other applications from this emerging technology. Through our interdisciplinary collaborative effort, we here describe the use of designer DNA nanocages to compartmentalize enzymatic reactions in a confined environment. Drawing inspiration from Nature, we have uncovered interesting properties, some unexpected."


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Hydrogels can put stem cells to sleep

Hydrogels can put stem cells to sleep | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Unlike normal cells, stem cells are pluripotent -- they can become any cell type, which makes them powerful potential treatments for diseases such as diabetes, leukemia and age-related blindness. However, maintaining this versatility until the time is right is a major challenge. This week in ACS Central Science, researchers reveal that mimicking a natural process called diapause can halt stem cells, effectively putting them to sleep for up to two weeks.


Recently, scientists have shown that growing pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) on different kinds of surfaces can cause them to differentiate into specific cell types. Based on these observations, Steve Armes, Harry Moore, Irene Canton, Nick Warren and colleagues postulated that the right sort of environment could stop them from differentiating altogether. They were inspired by the fact that certain mammals such as kangaroos can choose to delay gestation, a process known as embryonic diapause, in order to make sure that their offspring are born when conditions are most favorable. Embryos exhibiting diapause are often covered in a soft protective layer of mucus, so the team created very soft hydrogels using a synthetic polymer that mimicked this natural material. When pluripotent stem cells were placed within the hydrogel, the cells essentially stopped growing and differentiating at human body temperature. Cooling turned the gel into a liquid, enabling the stem cells to be easily removed when required. On removal, the cells 'woke up' and began proliferating again within one day. Such hydrogels could be used to store and ship stem cells much more easily and cheaply than at present. Further, the team notes that human embryos also appear to enter diapause when placed in such hydrogels. This suggests that simply creating the right physical environment may be sufficient to delay gestation, which has not previously been observed for human embryos.


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Research Teams Use DNA To Make High-Precision 3-D Nanoparticle Structures

Research Teams Use DNA To Make High-Precision 3-D Nanoparticle Structures | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

DNA strands anchored to the surface of nanoparticles allow researchers to assemble the particles into three-dimensional crystalline lattices. Such control allows researchers to make new materials with desirable properties. In two recent studies, independent teams adapted this approach to gain even more control over assembly.


One team, led by Chad A. Mirkin of Northwestern University, designed “transmutable” DNA-coated nanoparticles that can switch from one lattice structure to another on demand in response to chemical cues (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2212).


To do that, Mirkin’s team coats the nanoparticle surface with DNA that folds back on itself in hairpin loops. The addition of short oligonucleotides complementary to the loops disrupts the hairpins and exposes a DNA recognition sequence that can bind to sequences on other nanoparticles. By using multiple hairpins that bind to different sequences, the researchers can cycle a given nanoparticle mixture between lattice structures by changing which hairpins are opened or closed.


“Until now, all DNA-programmable nanoparticles have been designed to build one particular structure. To get another structure, you must make a whole new batch of nanoparticles with different DNA linkers attached,” says Sharon C. Glotzer, a materials scientist at the University of Michigan. “With this breakthrough, one can embed multiple potential structures into a single batch of identical nanoparticles and then select the desired structure on demand. The nanoparticles are now transmutable.”


The other team, led by Oleg Gang of Brookhaven National Laboratory, made DNA nanoparticle structures with the same crystal lattice as diamond (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2080). Scientists have been trying to make this structure for decades, Gang says. His team succeeded by combining DNA-coated nanoparticles with tetrahedral cages made with DNA origami. Short, single-stranded DNA sequences on the tetrahedron bind to the DNA coating on the particles. One nanoparticle is trapped inside each tetrahedron; four others are attached to the vertices of the tetrahedron, mimicking the geometry of carbon in diamond.


Gang’s strategy marks the first time DNA origami has been combined with DNA-mediated nanoparticle assembly, Glotzer notes. Such an approach will lead to more complex assemblies than are accessible by more traditional approaches alone, she says.


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Man-made global warming effects will play out over next 10,000 years

Man-made global warming effects will play out over next 10,000 years | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

A large group of climate scientists has made a bracing statement in the journal Nature Climate Change, arguing that we are mistaken if we think global warming is only a matter of the next 100 years or so — in fact, they say, we are locking in changes that will play out over as many as 10,000 years.


“The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far,” write the 22 climate researchers, led by Peter Clark, from Oregon State University.

The author names include not only a number of very influential climate scientists in general but several key leaders behind major reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including MIT’s Susan Solomon and Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern in Switzerland.


The researchers’ key contention is that we have been thinking about climate change far too narrowly by only projecting outward to the year 2100, which the research says “was originally driven by past computational capabilities.” Rather, we should consider that the long-term consequences of human emissions for global temperatures and sea level will play out over many millennia.


“It’s a statement of worry,” said Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geoscientist at Oxford University and one of the study’s authors. “And actually, most of us who have worked both on paleoclimate and the future have been terrified by the idea of doubling or quadrupling CO2 right from the get-go.”


“In hundreds of years from now, people will look back and say, yeah, the sea level is rising, it will continue to rise, we live with a constant rise of sea level because of these people 200 years ago that used coal, and oil, and gas,” said Anders Levermann, a sea level rise expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the paper’s authors. “If you just look at this, it’s stunning that we can make such a long-lasting impact that has the same magnitude as the ice ages.”


The key reason for this is that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time before being slowly removed again by natural processes. “A considerable fraction of the carbon emitted to date and in the next 100 years will remain in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of thousands of years,” the study noted. Meanwhile, the planet’s sea levels adjust gradually to its rising temperature over thousands of years.


So what will the world look like in 10,000 years, thanks to us? That really depends on what we do in the next few hundred years with the fossil fuels to which we have relatively easy access. It also depends on whether or not we develop technologies that are capable of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air on a massive scale, comparable to the amount that we’re currently emitting.


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Room-temperature lithium metal battery closer to reality

Room-temperature lithium metal battery closer to reality | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Rechargeable lithium metal batteries have been known for four decades to offer energy storage capabilities far superior to today's workhorse lithium-ion technology that powers our smartphones and laptops. But these batteries are not in common use today because, when recharged, they spontaneously grow treelike bumps called dendrites on the surface of the negative electrode.


Over many hours of operation, these dendrites grow to span the space between the negative and positive electrode, causing short-circuiting and a potential safety hazard.


Current technology focuses on managing these dendrites by putting up a mechanically strong barrier, normally a ceramic separator, between the negative and the positive electrodes to restrict the movement of the dendrite. The relative non-conductivity and brittleness of such barriers, however, means the battery must be operated at high temperature and are prone to failure when the barrier cracks.


But a Cornell team, led by chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Lynden Archer and graduate student Snehashis Choudhury, proposed in a recent study that by designing nanostructured membranes with pore dimensions below a critical value, it is possible to stop growth of dendrites in lithium batteries at room temperature. "The problem with ceramics is that this brute-force solution compromises conductivity," said Archer, the William C. Hooey Director and James A. Friend Family Distinguished Professor of Engineering and director of the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.


"This means that batteries that use ceramics must be operated at very high temperatures – 300 to 400 degrees Celsius [572 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit], in some cases," Archer said. "And the obvious challenge that brings is, how do I put that in my iPhone?" You don't, of course, but with the technology that the Archer group has put forth, creating a highly efficient lithium metal battery for a cellphone or other device could be reality in the not-too-distant future.


Archer credits Choudhury with identifying the polymer polyethylene oxide as particularly promising. The idea was to take advantage of "hairy" nanoparticles, created by grafting polyethylene oxide onto silica to form nanoscale organic hybrid materials (NOHMs), materials Archer and his colleagues have been studying for several years, to create nanoporous membranes.


To screen out dendrites, the nanoparticle-tethered PEO is cross-linked with another polymer, polypropylene oxide, to yield mechanically robust membranes that are easily infiltrated with liquid electrolytes. This produces structures with good conductivity at room temperature while still preventing dendrite growth. "Instead of a 'wall' to block the dendrites' proliferation, the membranes provided a porous media through which the ions pass, with the pore-gaps being small enough to restrict dendrite penetration," Choudhury said. "With this nanostructured electrolyte, we have created materials with good mechanical strength and good ionic conductivity at room temperature."

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What people and their domesticated animals ate 30,000 years ago

What people and their domesticated animals ate 30,000 years ago | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Biogeologists have shown how Gravettian people shared their food 30,000 years ago. Around 30,000 years ago Predmosti was inhabited by people of the pan-European Gravettian culture, who used the bones of more than 1000 mammoths to build their settlement and to ivory sculptures. Did prehistoric people collect this precious raw material from carcasses -- easy to spot on the big cold steppe -- or were they the direct result of hunting for food?

Předmostí I is an exceptional prehistoric site located near Brno in the Czech Republic. Around 30,000 years ago it was inhabited by people of the pan-European Gravettian culture, who used the bones of more than 1,000 mammoths to build their settlement and to ivory sculptures. Did prehistoric people collect this precious raw material from carcasses -- easy to spot on the big cold steppe -- or were they the direct result of hunting for food? This year-round settlement also yielded a large number of canids remains, some of them with characteristics of Palaeolithic dogs. Were these animals used to help hunt mammoths?

To answer these two questions, Tübingen researcher Hervé Bocherens and his international team carried out an analysis of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in human and animal fossil bones from the site. Working with researchers from Brno and Brussels, the researchers were able to test whether the Gravettian people of Předmostí ate mammoth meat and how the "palaeolithic dogs" fit into this subsistence picture.

They found that humans did consume mammoth -- and in large quantities. Other carnivores, such as brown bears, wolves and wolverines, also had access to mammoth meat, indicating the high availability of fresh mammoth carcasses, most likely left behind by human hunters. Surprisingly, the dogs did not show a high level of mammoth consumption, but rather consumed essentially reindeer meat that was not the staple food of their owners. A similar situation is observed in traditional populations from northern regions, who often feed their dogs with the food that they do not like. These results also suggest that these early dogs were restrained, and were probably used as transportation helpers.

These new results provide clear evidence that mammoth was a key component of prehistoric life in Europe 30,000 years ago, and that dogs were already there to help.

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AI: Machine learning helps discover the most luminous supernova in history

AI: Machine learning helps discover the most luminous supernova in history | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
Machine-learning technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory played a key role in the discovery of supernova ASASSN-15lh, an exceptionally powerful explosion that was 570 billion times brighter than the sun and more than twice as luminous as the previous record-holding supernova. This extraordinary event marking the death of a star was identified by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) and is described in a new study published today in Science.


"This is a golden age for studying changes in astronomical objects thanks to rapid growth in imaging and computing technology," said Przemek Wozniak, the principal investigator of the project that created the software system used to spot ASASSN-15lh. "ASAS-SN is a leader in wide-area searches for supernovae using small robotic telescopes that repeatedly observe the same areas of the sky looking for interesting changes."


ASASSN-15lh was first observed in June 2015 by twin ASAS-SN telescopes¾just 14 centimeters in diameter¾located in Cerro Tololo, Chile. While supernovae already rank among the most energetic explosions in the universe, this one was 200 times more powerful than a typical supernova. The event appears to be an extreme example of a "superluminous supernova," a recently discovered class of rare cosmic explosions, most likely associated with gravitational collapse of dying massive stars. However, the record-breaking properties of ASASSN-15lh stretch even the most exotic theoretical models based on rapidly spinning neutron stars called magnetars.


"The grand challenge in this work is to select rare transient events from a deluge of imaging data in time to collect detailed follow-up observations with larger, more powerful telescopes," said Wozniak. "We developed an automated software system based on machine-learning algorithms to reliably separate real transients from bogus detections." This new technology will soon enable scientists to find ten or perhaps even hundred times more supernovae and explore truly rare cases in great detail. Since January 2015 this capability has been deployed on a live data stream from ASAS-SN.


Los Alamos is also developing high-fidelity computer simulations of shock waves and radiation generated in supernova explosions. As explained by Chris Fryer, a computational scientist at Los Alamos who leads the supernova simulation and modeling group, "By comparing our models with measurements collected during the onset of a supernova, we will learn about the progenitors of these violent events, the end stages of stellar evolution leading up to the explosion, and the explosion mechanism itself."


The next generation of massive sky monitoring surveys is poised to deliver a steady stream of high-impact discoveries like ASASSN-15lh. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) expected to go on sky in 2022 will collect 100 Petabytes (100 million Gigabytes) of imaging data. The Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) planned to begin operations in 2017 is designed to routinely catch supernovae in the act of exploding. However, even with LSST and ZTF up and running, ASAS-SN will have a unique advantage of observing the entire visible sky on daily cadence. Los Alamos is at the forefront of this field and well prepared to make important contributions in the future.

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Looking back: Biomedicine 2015 - Baby Engineering, Spray-On GMOs, and Cancer Cures

Looking back: Biomedicine 2015 - Baby Engineering, Spray-On GMOs, and Cancer Cures | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
During 2015, the combination of potent biotechnologies solved problems and created new ones.


Biologists often emphasize how little anyone really knows about the brain, the genome, and the mechanisms behind effective drugs. But this year their tune changed as diverse technologies–gene editing, stem cells, cloning, and DNA databases–coalesced into an immensely powerful toolkit for manipulating life. The message in 2015 seemed to be: “We can do anything.” The technology that stole the headlines was CRISPR, the versatile genetic scissors that make it easy to cut and edit DNA of living cells.


For the year, the number of scientific publications involving the technique doubled to more than 1,200, as scientists use gene editing to engineer extra-muscular dogs, create mosquitoes that can’t spread malaria, and alter plants so easily that companies predict it’s just a matter of years before gene-edited foods hit our dinner plates.

We can do these things, but should we? Social and ethical questions began dogging the CRISPR breakthrough early in the year, when MITTechnology Review toured readers through one emerging debate: the possibility of genetically modifying human embryos in IVF clinics to spare children from inherited disease. With an April publication from China disclosing the first edited human embryos, the debate over whether the technology is a slippery slope to eugenics exploded, and by December many of the world’s top gene-editing scientists had gathered in Washington for a will-we-or-won’t-we debate.

They concluded that we shouldn’t, not yet. It would be “irresponsible” to use CRISPR to make customized babies, the experts declared. In fact, one participant felt that our power to engineer life had outstripped our wisdom. “We are becoming masters of manipulating genes, but our understanding of their function is very limited,” said Klaus Rajewsky of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, in Berlin.

Yet we might know enough to cure some cancers, or solve the shortage of organs for transplant. Companies including Juno Therapeutics this year raised billions to start treating patients with genetically engineered immune cells that they have crafted into a lifesaving new treatment for leukemia. Surgeons in the U.S. smashed records for so-called “xenotransplantation” (transplants between species) by keeping a monkey alive nearly six months with a gene-modified pig kidney.

Gene technology isn’t just more powerful. It’s easier to access. Entrepreneurs started selling do-it-yourself DNA engineering kits to modify bacteria, and in October we told the story of a startup founder, Elizabeth Parrish, who claimed to be the first person to thumb her nose at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and treat herself with anti-aging genes. “I am patient zero,” she declared.

It’s a sign that we are deep into the second generation of biotechnology. That also means some pioneering inventions are being retired. This year, Monsanto’s patents on its original herbicide-resistant soybeans expired (pound for pound, the beans are easily the most important product of the biotech era), allowing farmers to plant “generic GMOs” for the first time. But  Monsanto has new ideas in its pipeline, like genetic sprays that can kill bugs or even change the behavior of plants on contact. Those products rely on RNA interference, which was also used to create the world’s first biotech apple.

A different trend that gained traction was the use of electricity to heal the mind or treat the body. Some call these therapies “electroceuticals.” Doctors began using brain stimulation to treat cocaine addiction,obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other problems once “considered too complex and mysterious” to cure with a simple jolt of electricity. In Cleveland, meanwhile, specialists at Case Western ran wires between the brain of a paralyzed man and the muscles of his arm, allowing him to move the arm with his thoughts. We didn’t forget to check in with the brave volunteers who got us here. We learned how patients who received a previous generation of implants at Case were left without tech support, rendering the devices useless inside their bodies. One far-out scientific pioneer even decided to put an implant in his own brain.

That role Silicon Valley might play in biotechnology is also worth watching. For that, we checked in several times this year with famed Facebook investor Peter Thiel to learn about a cancer-fighting startup he funded and get his views on how drug development could be more efficient if only biotech companies acted a little more like computer startups. Thiel, who thinks there shouldn’t be so much trial and error going on, told us his goal is to “get rid of randomness.”

We also tracked tech companies attempting to disrupt the huge, unhealthy U.S. health-care system. It’s not going too well: consumers don’t trust tech companies with their health data, and wrist-worn devices aren’t too accurate. But tech companies won’t be dissuaded. This year we learned that Apple was in discussions with researchers tocollect people’s DNA data, and a San Francisco startup called Helix, bankrolled with $100 million, said it would launch the first DNA app store for consumers in 2016.

These ideas were part of an emerging boom in consumer use of genomics, which drew in figures like J. Craig Venter. Yet the economics of consumer DNA services remain unclear, partly because DNA predictions aren’t always foolproof or useful. This year, a $699 direct-to-consumer blood test for cancer got a very chilly reception, while pregnancy tests expanded into uncharted territory and sometimesfound cancer by accident. Even better-established cancer tests aren’t proven to really help patients. The leader in tumor DNA testing in the U.S., Foundation Medicine, sold a majority of its shares to Roche, a sign that its future was uncertain.

Making DNA data more useful is the goal of President Obama’s “precision medicine initiative,” a $215 million effort that includes a planned study of the health records and DNA of one million people. Only with big numbers, the government says, will the next wave of links between genes and disease be discovered. Yet big studies could cause big, unexpected problems. In March, the CEO of DeCode Genetics, a subsidiary of Amgen that runs a nationwide gene bank in Iceland, said its database was now so big that it could pinpoint each and every Icelandic woman with a dangerous breast cancer mutation. Yet because of privacy laws, DeCode complained, it is unable to tell them. 
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Americans are ten times more likely to die from firearms than citizens of other nations

Americans are ten times more likely to die from firearms than citizens of other nations | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Gun deaths are a serious public health issue in the United States and the scope of the problem is often difficult to illustrate. A new study published in The American Journal of Medicine lays out the risk in concrete terms. When compared to 22 other high-income nations, Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by a gun than their counterparts in the developed world. Specifically, gun homicide rates are 25 times higher in the U.S. and, while the overall suicide rate is on par with other high-income nations, the U.S. gun suicide rate is eight times higher.


In order to help put America's relationship with guns into perspective, researchers from the University of Nevada-Reno and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed mortality data gathered by the World Health Organization in 2010. Investigators found that despite having similar rates of nonlethal crimes as other high-income countries, the U.S. has much higher rates of lethal violence, mostly driven by extremely higher rates of gun-related homicides.


The study reveals some stark truths about living and dying in the United States. When compared to other high-income nations, as an American you are:

• Seven times more likely to be violently killed

• Twenty-five times more likely to be violently killed with a gun

• Six times more likely to be accidentally killed with a gun

• Eight times more likely to commit suicide using a gun

• Ten times more likely to die from a firearm death overall


Homicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans 15 to 24 years of age, and the third leading cause of death among those 25 to 34 years of age. Investigators found that for these two groups, the risk relative to their counterparts in other developed nations is alarmingly elevated. Americans 15 to 24 years of age are 49 times more likely to die from firearm homicide compared to similarly aged young people in other high-income nations. For those aged 25 to 34, the risk is 32 times higher.

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Largest rocky exoplanet found (half the size of Neptune)

Largest rocky exoplanet found (half the size of Neptune) | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A planet roughly half the size of Neptune might be 100 percent rock, making it the largest known rocky world.


When it comes to big balls of rock, exoplanet BD+20594b might have all other known worlds beat. At roughly half the diameter of Neptune, BD+20594b is 100 percent rock, researchers suggest online January 28 at arXiv.org. The planet seems to defy recent calculations that indicate a planet this large should be gassy (SN: 8/22/15, p. 32).


BD+20594b sits about 500 light-years away in the constellation Aries. The planet is about 16 times as massive as Earth but just a little over twice as wide, making its density about 8 grams per cubic centimeter, Néstor Espinoza, an astrophysicist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, and colleagues report. Earth’s density, by comparison, is 5.5 grams per cubic centimeter. The new rocky planet was discovered in 2015 with the Kepler space telescope, which looks for the silhouettes of planets passing in front of their stars.


BD+20594b is comparable to Kepler 10c, a rocky “mega Earth” reported in 2014 (SN: 7/12/14, p. 10) to be 2.4 times as wide as Earth with a hefty mass (equal to about 17 Earths). Recent measurements indicate, however, that Kepler 10c isn’t quite as “mega” or as rocky as thought — only 14 times as massive as Earth — which means that the planet is probably encased in shell of gas or water. 

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Future of drug delivery in a crystal ball 100 times stronger than liposomes

Future of drug delivery in a crystal ball 100 times stronger than liposomes | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

A Drexel University materials scientist has discovered a way to encapsulate medication to deliver it more effectively inside the body. Until now, crystals have grown in rigid, structured formations (like the snowflake) — with a web of straight lines connecting to making a grid that grows into the crystalline flake.*


But the formation of a crystal is affected by the environment in which it forms. And Christopher Li, PhD, a professor in the College of Engineering and head of the Soft Materials Lab in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, uses this workaround to engineer hollow crystal spheres. He recently reported his finding in Nature Communications(open access).


Li was able to overcome crystal’s edge-forming tendencies by creating a tiny bubble of oil to encase water molecules. When the surfactant bubble was cooled to the appropriate temperature, the molecules inside began to crystalize. But rather than forming an angular web of connections, the molecules, instead, lined up along the interior of the oil bubble — crystallizing in a hollow, spherical shape.


Early tests indicate that Li’s “crystalsome” (named for their similarity to liposomes — tiny bubbles with the same membrane as cells that are being explored for use as biological packages for delivering drug treatments) is a few hundred times stronger than liposomes, making them a sturdier option for medicine encapsulation.

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Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists

Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A new study of ravens' behavior when they think they're being 'spied on' suggests they possess building blocks of humans' own ability to interpret others' thoughts, hopes, and fears.


Recent studies purported to demonstrate that chimpanzees, monkeys and corvids possess a basic Theory of Mind, the ability to attribute mental states like seeing to others. However, these studies remain controversial because they share a common confound: the conspecific’s line of gaze, which could serve as an associative cue. Here, we show that ravens Corvus corax take into account the visual access of others, even when they cannot see a conspecific.


Specifically, we find that ravens guard their caches against discovery in response to the sounds of conspecifics when a peephole is open but not when it is closed. Our results suggest that ravens can generalize from their own perceptual experience to infer the possibility of being seen. These findings confirm and unite previous work, providing strong evidence that ravens are more than mere behavior-readers.


Ravens do spy on each other, it turns out, and they can infer when other birds are snooping on them. New findings, released Tuesday in a study inNature Communications, highlight just how sophisticated – and human-like – ravens' cognitive abilities are.

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