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Telepresence: Robots Invade Hospitals – “Doctors Can Be Anywhere, Anytime”

Telepresence: Robots Invade Hospitals –  “Doctors Can Be Anywhere, Anytime” | Amazing Science |

A disembodied human face hangs atop a robot chassis next to a Redmond, Oregon hospital bed (not pictured). The doctor on the screen is 20 miles distant, in Bend. But from there he is able to assess the patient and determine whether she should be moved to a better equipped hospital in Bend or further afield.


The doctor’s name is Dr. Kevin Sherer, the volunteer patient Anita Boucher, and together they recently performed a test run using an InTouch Health RP-7i telepresence robot nicknamed Roda (robotic office diagnostic assistant).


Dr. Sherer can pilot Roda down the hall with a joystick, turn its camera to check vitals, and interact with the patient by way of the screen atop Roda’s chassis. In addition to telepresence capabilities—and with the help of a nurse placing a special stethoscope—he can remotely check the patient’s heart beat over headphones.


Although they haven’t had a chance to make full use of Roda’s capability, Daniel Davis of St. Charles Redmond told Singularity Hub most medical equipment with USB connectivity can be transmitted to doctors. And according to Davis, those early tests using volunteer mock patients went well, winning over even the skeptics. Since then, the robot has been put to good use, including at least one midnight visit.

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Siegfried Holle's curator insight, July 4, 2014 8:45 AM

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Deep-ocean microbe is closest living relative of complex cells

Deep-ocean microbe is closest living relative of complex cells | Amazing Science |

Scientists have discovered a microorganism that may bridge the gap between simple and complex cellular life forms. The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, will have far-reaching implications in our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth, including humans.

It’s one of the most significant, and most vexing, splits in life’s history. About 
2 billion years ago, the prokaryotes, relatively simple single-celled organisms that include bacteria and archaea, gave rise to the more elaborate eukaryotes, the lineage that ultimately spawned multicellular life forms such as fungi, plants, and animals like us. Now, researchers combing through muck from the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean have identified an archaeon that is the closest living relative of eukaryotes so far discovered.

The microbe, informally dubbed Loki and described this week in Nature, has set off a buzz among evolutionary biologists. “It tells us something very important about the origin of eukaryotes,” says Eugene 
Koonin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland. “The ancestor of eukaryotes was a highly complex organism related to other archaea.” The deep-sea microbe “looks like a potential transitional form” that preserves one of the evolutionary steps between archaea and eukaryotes, adds evolutionary cell biologist Mark Field of the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom.

Unlike prokaryotes, eukaryotes sport organelles such as power-generating mitochondria and—in plants and some protists—light-capturing chloroplasts. Moreover, they stow DNA inside a nucleus that’s enclosed by a membrane, and their cells feature other internal structures built of membranes, such as the Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, and the endoplasmic reticulum.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts, researchers agree, are descended from formerly free-living prokaryotes that took up residence in other ancient cells. But the identity of the organism that captured and tamed those microbes remains unclear. Molecular evidence suggests that archaea are the closest relatives of eukaryotes. Researchers have disagreed, however, about whether eukaryotes branched off from a simpler prokaryote before archaea emerged—the traditional three-domain view of life—or evolved later, directly from archaea

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After The Nepal Earthquake, Everest Is A Little Shorter

After The Nepal Earthquake, Everest Is A Little Shorter | Amazing Science |

The world’s tallest mountain is a little shorter after the newly-named Gorka earthquake that hit Nepal in late April, 2015.

The Nepal earthquake that hit just before noon on Saturday, April 26, 2015 officially has a name: it’s the Gorkha earthquake. The sudden slip of the tectonic plates during the earthquake literally reshaped the land. In a continent-continent collision like this one, the area closest to the fault rupture is uplifted, while the previously-buckled plate interior slaps flat, subsiding in the release of stress. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite tracked both uplift [blue] and subsidence [yellow], recording elevation changes of up to 1 meter, and a horizontal north-south shift of up to 2 meters.

They’ve used the same data to createinterferograms of how the region has changed in consecutive measurements before and after the earthquake. Each coloured fringe represents about 10 centimeters of displacement. Overall, Kathmandu is little taller and Mount Everest is a tiny bit shorterthan it was a month ago. Poor weather not only made things a little bit more miserable on the ground, but also limited the utility of fly-overs from NASA’s satellite network.

In related news, as part of efforts to increase access to hazard mitigation and risk reduction research, the Seismological Society of America has temporarily opened access to their collection of articles on tectonics, structure, and earthquake history of the Himalayas.

Check out more ways satellite imagery has been used in the response to the Gorkha earthquake on the American Geophysical Union’s Trembling Earth.

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Rare African plant (Pandanus candelabrum) signals diamonds beneath the soil

Rare African plant (Pandanus candelabrum) signals diamonds beneath the soil | Amazing Science |

There’s diamond under them thar plants. A geologist has discovered a thorny, palmlike plant in Liberia that seems to grow only on top of kimberlite pipes—columns of volcanic rock hundreds of meters across that extend deep into Earth, left by ancient eruptions that exhumed diamonds from the mantle. If the plant is as choosy as it seems to be, diamond hunters in West Africa will have a simple, powerful way of finding diamond-rich deposits. Prospectors are going to “jump on it like crazy,” says Steven Shirey, a geologist specializing in diamond research at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

Miners have long known that particular plants can signal ore-bearing rocks. For example,Lychnis alpina, a small pink-flowering plant in Scandinavia, and Haumaniastrum katangense, a white-flowered shrub in central Africa, are both associated with copper. That’s because the plants are especially tolerant to copper that has eroded into soils from the mother lodes.

But the new plant, identified as Pandanus candelabrum, is the first indicator species for diamond-bearing kimberlite, says Stephen Haggerty, a researcher at Florida International University in Miami and the chief exploration officer of Youssef Diamond Mining Company, which owns mining concessions in Liberia. Haggerty suspects that the plant has adapted to kimberlite soils, which are rich in magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. “It sounds like a very good fertilizer, which it is,” says Haggerty, who has published the discovery in the June-July issue of Economic Geology.

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Orchid (Phalaenopsis equestris) genome sequenced and analyzed

Orchid (Phalaenopsis equestris) genome sequenced and analyzed | Amazing Science |

The lab of Yves Van de Peer (VIB Department of Plant Systems Biology) can add an extra genome paper to its long list. Together with colleagues from Asia, they sequenced,  annotated, and dissected the Phalaenopsis genome. Without a doubt one of the most famous house plants after the Sanseveria.

Orchids demonstrate astonishing evolutionary adaptations. Think for example of the flowers that sometimes mimic insects to attract pollinators. They are renowned for their diversity in specialized reproductive and ecological strategies. And that makes orchids extremely exciting to study on a genomic level. The new insights we gathered can also be used to start up new and more efficient breeding initiatives, for example using marker-assisted breeding.

Phalaenopsis equestris has a moderately large genome of 1 Gb with approximately 30,000 predicted genes, which is a fairly typical number for an angiosperm. Interestingly, the intron length is greater than expected. The assembled genome contains 29,431 predicted protein-coding genes and there is evidence for an orchid-specific paleo-polyploidy event that preceded the radiation of most orchid clades, and gene duplication might have contributed to the evolution of CAM photosynthesis in P. equestris.

The scientists find expanded and diversified families of MADS-box C/D-class, B-class AP3and AGL6-class genes, which might contribute to the highly specialized morphology of orchid flowers.

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A group of unusual black holes is consuming excessive amounts of matter at a rapid rate

A group of unusual black holes is consuming excessive amounts of matter at a rapid rate | Amazing Science |
Astronomers have known for some time that supermassive black holes − with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun and residing at the centers of galaxies − can gobble up huge quantities of gas and dust that have fallen into their gravitational pull. As the matter falls towards these black holes, it glows with such brilliance that they can be seen billions of light years away. Astronomers call these extremely ravenous black holes "quasars."

This new result suggests that some quasars are even more adept at devouring material than scientists previously knew.

"Even for famously prodigious consumers of material, these huge black holes appear to be dining at enormous rates, at least five to ten times faster than typical quasars," said Bin Luo of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, who led the study.

Luo and his colleagues examined data from Chandra for 51 quasars that are located at a distance between about 5 billion and 11.5 billion light years from Earth. These quasars were selected because they had unusually weak emission from certain atoms, especially carbon, at ultraviolet wavelengths. About 65% of the quasars in this new study were found to be much fainter in X-rays, by about 40 times on average, than typical quasars.

The weak ultraviolet atomic emission and X-ray fluxes from these objects could be an important clue to the question of how a supermassive black hole pulls in matter. Computer simulations show that, at low inflow rates, matter swirls toward the black hole in a thin disk. However, if the rate of inflow is high, the disk can puff up dramatically, because of pressure from the high radiation, into a torus or donut that surrounds the inner part of the disk.

"This picture fits with our data," said co-author Jianfeng Wu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "If a quasar is embedded in a thick donut-shaped structure of gas and dust, the donut will absorb much of the radiation produced closer to the black hole and prevent it from striking gas located further out, resulting in weaker ultraviolet atomic emission and X-ray emission."
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Researchers Create Lens to Turn Smartphone into Microscope - for 3 Cents

Researchers Create Lens to Turn Smartphone into Microscope - for 3 Cents | Amazing Science |

Researchers at the University of Houston have created an optical lens that can be placed on an inexpensive smartphone to amplify images by a magnitude of 120, all for just 3 cents a lens. Wei-Chuan Shih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH, said the lens can work as a microscope, and the cost and ease of using it – it attaches directly to a smartphone camera lens, without the use of any additional device – make it ideal for use with younger students in the classroom. It also could have clinical applications, allowing small or isolated clinics to share images with specialists located elsewhere, he said.

In a paper published in the Journal of Biomedical Optics, Shih and three graduate students describe how they produced the lenses and examine the image quality. Yu-Lung Sung, a doctoral candidate, served as first author; others involved in the study include Jenn Jeang, who will start graduate school at Liberty University in Virginia this fall, and Chia-Hsiung Lee, a former graduate student at UH now working in the technology industry in Taiwan.

The lens is made of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a polymer with the consistency of honey, dropped precisely on a preheated surface to cure. Lens curvature – and therefore, magnification – depends on how long and at what temperature the PDMS is heated, Sung said.

The resulting lenses are flexible, similar to a soft contact lens, although they are thicker and slightly smaller.

“Our lens can transform a smartphone camera into a microscope by simply attaching the lens without any supporting attachments or mechanism,” the researchers wrote. “The strong, yet non-permanent adhesion between PDMS and glass allows the lens to be easily detached after use. An imaging resolution of 1 (micrometer) with an optical magnification of 120X has been achieved.”

Conventional lenses are produced by mechanical polishing or injection molding of materials such as glass or plastics. Liquid lenses are available, too, but those that aren’t cured require special housing to remain stable. Other types of liquid lenses require an additional device to adhere to the smartphone.

MATsolutions's curator insight, May 5, 1:22 PM

Researchers at the University of Houston have developed cheap lenses that can turn a smartphone into a microscope. The lenses, which can be made for as little as three cents a piece, amplify images by a magnitude of 120. The lenses attach to smartphones without any supporting mechanisms, and can easily be removed when necessary. 

Primary applications for these lenses are educational - researchers say students can use them as microscopes, sharing images easily by text message. The low cost of production means that if they are broken, replacements will also be cheap. The graduate students at UH have started a crowdfunding campaign to fund the development of these lenses in bulk, and you can donate on Indiegogo to help their cause. 

Diane Johnson's curator insight, Today, 9:50 AM

Wow! How handy is this!

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Horribly bleak study sees ‘empty landscape’ as large herbivores vanish at startling rate

Horribly bleak study sees ‘empty landscape’ as large herbivores vanish at startling rate | Amazing Science |

They never ate anybody — but now, some of planet Earth’s innocent vegetarians face end times. Large herbivores — elephants, hippos, rhinos and gorillas among them — are vanishing from the globe at a startling rate, with some 60 percent threatened with extinction, a team of scientists reports. The situation is so dire, according to a new study, that it threatens an “empty landscape” in some ecosystems “across much of the planet Earth.” The authors were clear: This is a big problem — and it’s a problem with us, not them.

“Growing human populations, unsustainable hunting, high densities of livestock, and habitat loss have devastating consequences for large, long-lived, slow-breeding, and, therefore, vulnerable herbivore species,” reads “Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores” in Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As if humanity’s bottomless appetite for land and meat weren’t enough, organized crime and the endless hunt for body parts from elephants and rhinos is also a major factor in Africa and southern Asia, the study said. Between 2002 and 2011 alone, the number of forest elephants in central Africa declined by 62 percent. Some 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012. And the western black rhinoceros in Africa was declared extinct in 2011.

“This slaughter is driven by the high retail price of rhinoceros horn, which exceeds, per unit weight, that of gold, diamonds, or cocaine,” according to the study. This slaughter and its consequences are not modest, the article said. In fact, the rate of decline is such that “ever-larger swaths of the world will soon lack many of the vital ecological services these animals provide, resulting in enormous ecological and social costs.”

Herbivores, it turns out, don’t just idle about munching on various green things. They play a vital role as “ecosystem engineers,” the paper said — expanding grasslands for plant species, dispersing seeds in manure, and, in the ultimate sacrifice, providing food for predators.

Diane Johnson's curator insight, Today, 7:35 AM

Connections to ESS human impact

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Lava Lake on Jupiter Moon Io Revealed in Remarkable Detail

Lava Lake on Jupiter Moon Io Revealed in Remarkable Detail | Amazing Science |
The two mirrors of an Arizona telescope reveal heat rising from the horseshoe-shaped Loki lava lake on the moon Io.

For the first time ever, researchers on Earth have been able to capture detailed images of the heat rising from an active volcano on another body in the solar system. Using its twin 8.4-meter mirrors, the Large Binocular telescope observatory in Arizona managed to spy on a large lava lake on Jupiter’s moon Io, located some 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) away.

The innermost moon of the gas giant, which is slightly larger than Earth’s own moon, is considered the most geologically active body in the entire solar system. At least 300 volcanic structures dot its surface. The largest of these features is a volcanic pit named after Loki, the Norse trickster god. The depression is filled with a sulfur-encrusted lake measuring around 125 miles (200 kilometers) across.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft first discovered Io’s volcanism back on March 5, 1979, when it barnstormed the Jovian moon and snapped dramatic images of a giant, nearly 200-mile-tall plume (300 kilometers) rising into space, later revealed to be emanating from Loki.

The new high-resolution infrared images of Loki produced by the Large Binocular Telescope show an active horseshoe-shaped lava lake with multiple bright spots, representing heat rising from the lake surface. That exceptional detail is thanks to the telescope’s ability to digitally stitch together its two mirrors, giving an image like that of one single optical unit spanning nearly 75 feet (23 meters) across.

“In this way, for the first time we can measure the brightness coming from different regions within the lake,” explained Al Conrad, the lead of the study and a Scientist at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO) in a press statement.

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Weather could be controlled using lasers

Weather could be controlled using lasers | Amazing Science |
Scientists are attempting to control the weather by using lasers to create clouds, induce rain and even trigger lightning.

Professor Jean-Pierre Wolf and Dr Jerome Kasparian, both biophotonics experts at the University of Geneva, have now organised a conference at the WMO next month in an attempt to find ways of speeding up research on the topic. They said: “Ultra-short lasers launched into the atmosphere have emerged as a promising prospective tool for weather modulation and climate studies.

“Such prospects include lightning control and laser-assisted condensation.”

There is a long history of attempts by scientists to control the weather, including using techniques such as cloud seeding.

This involves spraying small particles and chemicals into the air to induce water vapour to condense into clouds.

In the 1960s the United States experimented with using silver iodide in an attempt to weaken hurricanes before they made landfall. The USSR was also claimed to have flown cloud seeding missions in an attempt to create rain clouds to protect Moscow from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

More recently the Russian Air force has also been reported to have used bags of cement to seed clouds.

Before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese authorities used aircraft and rockets to release chemicals into the atmosphere.

Other countries have been reported to be experimenting with cloud seeding to prevent flooding or smog.

However, Professor Wolf, Dr Kasparian and their colleagues believe that lasers could provide an easier and more controllable method of changing the weather. They began studying lasers for their use as a way of monitoring changes in the air and detecting aerosols high in the atmosphere.

Experiments using varying pulses of near infra-red laser light and ultraviolet lasers have, however, shown that they cause water to condense. They have subsequently found the lasers induce tiny ice crystals to form, which are a crucial step in the formation of clouds and eventual rainfall.

In new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Wolf said the laser beams create plasma channels in the air that caused ice to form.

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Researchers captured the first 3-D video of a living algal embryo turning itself inside out

Researchers captured the first 3-D video of a living algal embryo turning itself inside out | Amazing Science |

Researchers have captured the first 3D video of a living algal embryo (Volvox sp.) turning itself inside out, from a sphere to a mushroom shape and back again. The results could help unravel the mechanical processes at work during a similar process in animals, which has been called the "most important time in your life."

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have captured the first three-dimensional images of a live embryo turning itself inside out. The images, of embryos of a green alga called Volvox, make an ideal test case to understand how a remarkably similar process works in early animal development.

Using fluorescence microscopy to observe the Volvox embryos, the researchers were able to test a mathematical model of morphogenesis - the origin and development of an organism's structure and form - and understand how the shape of cells drives the process of inversion, when the embryo turns itself from a sphere to a mushroom shape and back again. Their findings are published today (27 April) in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The processes observed in the Volvox embryo are similar to the process of gastrulation in animal embryos - which biologist Lewis Wolpert called "the most important event in your life." During gastrulation, the embryo folds inwards into a cup-like shape, forming the primary germ layers which give rise to all the organs in the body. Volvox embryos undergo a similar process, but with an additional twist: the embryos literally turn themselves right-side out during the process.

Gastrulation in animals results from a complex interplay of cell shape changes, cell division and migration, making it difficult to develop a quantitative understanding of the process. However, Volvox embryos complete their shape change only by changing cell shapes and the location of the connections between cells, and this simplicity makes them an ideal model for understanding cell sheet folding.

In Volvox embryos, the process of inversion begins when the embryos start to fold inward, or invaginate, around their middle, forming two hemispheres. Next, one hemisphere moves inside the other, an opening at the top widens, and the outer hemisphere glides over the inner hemisphere, until the embryo regains its spherical shape. This remarkable process takes place over approximately one hour.

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After stroke, brain learns to see again

After stroke, brain learns to see again | Amazing Science |

Once thought irreversible, vision loss sometimes associated with stroke may be treatable. By doing a set of vigorous visual exercises on a computer every day for several months, patients who had gone partially blind as a result of suffering a stroke were able to regain some vision. Some patients even were able to drive again.

“We were very surprised when we saw the results from our first patients,” says Krystel Huxlin, the neuroscientist and associate professor who led the study of seven patients at the University of Rochester’s Eye Institute. “This is a type of brain damage that clinicians and scientists have long believed you simply can’t recover from. It’s devastating, and patients are usually sent home to somehow deal with it the best they can.”

The results are a cause for hope for patients with vision damage from stroke or other causes, says Huxlin. The work also shows a remarkable capacity for “plasticity” in damaged, adult brains. It shows that the brain can change a great deal in older adults and that some brain regions are capable of covering for other areas that have been damaged.

Huxlin studied seven people who had suffered a stroke that damaged an area of the brain known as the primary visual cortex or V1, which serves as the gateway to the rest of the brain for all the visual information that comes through our eyes. V1 passes visual information along to dozens of other brain areas, which process and make sense of the information, ultimately allowing us to see.

Patients with damage to the primary visual cortex have severely impaired vision – they typically have a difficult or impossible time reading, driving, or getting out to do ordinary chores like grocery shopping. Patients may walk into walls, oftentimes cannot navigate stores without bumping into goods or other people, and they may be completely unaware of cars on the road coming toward them from the left or right.

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Cloud of quantum particles can have several temperatures at once

Cloud of quantum particles can have several temperatures at once | Amazing Science |

The air around us consists of countless molecules, moving around randomly. It would be utterly impossible to track them all and to describe all their trajectories. But for many purposes, this is not necessary. Properties of the gas can be found which describe the collective behaviour of all the molecules, such as the air pressure or the temperature, which results from the particles' energy. On a hot summer's day, the molecules move at about 430 meters per second, in winter, it is a bit less.

This statistical view (which was developed by the Viennese physicist Ludwig Boltzmann) has proved to be extremely successful and describes many different physical systems, from pots of boiling water to phase transitions in liquid crystals in LCD-displays. However, in spite of huge efforts, open questions have remained, especially with regard to quantum systems. How the well-known laws of statistical physics emerge from many small quantum parts of a system remains one of the big open questions in physics.

Scientists at the Vienna University of Technology have now succeeded in studying the behaviour of a quantum physical multi-particle system in order to understand the emergence of statistical properties. The team of Professor Jörg Schmiedmayer used a special kind of microchip to catch a cloud of several thousand atoms and cool them close to absolute zero at -273°C, where their quantum properties become visible.

The experiment showed remarkable results: When the external conditions on the chip were changed abruptly, the quantum gas could take on different temperatures at once. It can be hot and cold at the same time. The number of temperatures depends on how exactly the scientists manipulate the gas. "With our microchip we can control the complex quantum systems very well and measure their behaviour", says Tim Langen, leading author of the paper published in Science. There had already been theoretical calculations predicting this effect, but it has never been possible to observe it and to produce it in a controlled environment.

The experiment helps scientists to understand the fundamental laws of quantum physics and their relationship with the statistical laws of thermodynamics. This is relevant for many different quantum systems, maybe even for technological applications. Finally, the results shed some light on the way our classical macroscopic world emerges from the strange world of tiny quantum objects.

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Ulcer-causing Helicobacter bacteria induce stomach stem cell to grow

Ulcer-causing Helicobacter bacteria induce stomach stem cell to grow | Amazing Science |
The ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori can directly interact with stomach stem cells, causing the cells to divide more rapidly, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The increased cell division was observed in mice, but the findings could explain why H. pylori is a risk factor for gastric cancer in humans, the researchers said.

They used 3-D microscopy to identified colonies of the bacteria deep within human stomach glands, where stem cells and precursor cells that replenish the stomach's lining reside.

One of every two people has H. pylori in their stomachs. It's one of the few organisms capable of surviving the harsh acidic environment. While the majority of people remain asymptomatic, in about 15 percent of those infected the bacteria causes painful ulcers, and in another 1 percent the bacteria contribute to stomach cancer, the third-most lethal cancer worldwide.

Although the infection can be successfully treated with antibiotics, those who develop cancer are often unaware of their condition until the tumor is large enough to interfere with stomach functions. "The bacteria will be brewing for many years, and when the cancer starts to cause symptoms it may be too late," said Manuel Amieva, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology.

The researchers came up with the idea of sampling stomach tissues removed during weight-loss surgery. These samples came from healthy stomachs, in which H. pylori was not actively causing ulcers or cancer. After identifying tissue infected with particular strains of H. pylori, they used confocal microscopy to reconstruct 3-D images of the glands from four stomachs with H. pylori. All four showed colonies of the spiral-shaped bacteria clustered about two-thirds of the way into the gland, where fast-dividing precursor cells reside.

Unexpectedly, the researchers found a smaller number of bacterial colonies at the base of the glands, where the stem cells reside. When they went back to their mouse models, they discovered about 30 percent of the glands colonized by H. pylori had bacteria at the base of the glands.

H. pylori affects stem cells.

This unanticipated finding shed light on how H. pylori could influence cells to turn cancerous. Cancer is thought to develop slowly as the cell acquires mutations in the DNA that override cellular controls and increase cell proliferation. Even though H. pylori had been shown to manipulate cellular controls, the mature stomach's epithelial cells don't live long enough to acquire mutations.

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Astronomers find most distant galaxy ever

Astronomers find most distant galaxy ever | Amazing Science |

Astronomers have located the most distant galaxy ever measured in the universe, some 13.1 billion light-years from Earth. The galaxy, called EGS-zs8-1, is one of the brightest and most massive objects in the early universe, the scientists report in the journal Astrophysical Journal LettersThe finding pushes back the cosmic frontier of galaxy exploration to a time when the universe was only 5 per cent of its present age of 13.8 billion years. The galaxy existed so long ago, it appears to be only 100 million years old.

The team of astronomers from Yale and the University of California, Santa Cruz say that EGS-zs8-1 is still forming stars rapidly, about 80 times faster than our galaxy, the Milky Way, which has a star formation rate of one star per year.

"It has already grown more than 15 per cent of the mass of our own Milky Way today," says Pascal Oesch, lead author of the study from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. "But it had only 670 million years to do so. The universe was still very young then."

Only a handful of galaxies currently have accurate distances measured in this very early universe. "Every confirmation adds another piece to the puzzle of how the first generations of galaxies formed in the early universe," says study co-author Pieter van Dokkum of Yale.

"Only the most sensitive telescopes are powerful enough to reach to these large distances." The galaxy was first spotted in images from NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes.

Calculating its exact distance from Earth was possible using the MOSFIRE instrument on the W.M. Keck Observatory's 10-meter telescope in Hawaii, researchers say.

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Scientists tune X-rays with tiny mirrors

Scientists tune X-rays with tiny mirrors | Amazing Science |

The secret of X-ray science – like so much else – is in the timing. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have created a new way of manipulating high-intensity X-rays, which will allow researchers to select extremely brief but precise X-ray bursts for their experiments.

The new technology, developed by a team of scientists from Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) and the Advanced Photon Source (APS), involves a small microelectromechanical system (MEMS) mirror only as wide as a few hairs.

MEMS are microscale devices fabricated using silicon wafers in facilities that make integrated circuits. The MEMS device acts as an ultrafast mirror reflecting X-rays at precise times and specific angles.

“Extremely compact devices such as this promise a revolution in our ability to manipulate photons coming from synchrotron light sources, not only providing an on-off switch enabling ultrahigh time-resolution studies, but ultimately promising new ways to steer, filter, and shape X-ray pulses as well,” said Stephen Streiffer, Associate Laboratory Director for Photon Sciences and Director of the Advanced Photon Source. “This is a premier example of the innovation that results from collaboration between nanoscientists and X-ray scientists.”

The device that the Argonne researchers developed essentially consists of a tiny diffracting mirror that oscillates at high speeds. As the mirror tilts rapidly back and forth, it creates an optical filter that selects only the X-ray pulses desired for the experiment. Only the light that is diffracted from the mirror goes on to hit the sample, and by adjusting the speed at which the MEMS mirror oscillates, researchers can control the timing of the X-ray pulses.

According to Argonne nanoscientist Daniel Lopez, one of the lead authors on the paper, the device works because of the relationship between the frequency of the mirror’s oscillation and the timing of the positioning of the perfect angle for the incoming X-ray. “If you sit on a Ferris wheel holding a mirror, you will see flashes of light every time the wheel is at the perfect spot for sunlight to hit it. The speed of the Ferris wheel determines the frequency of the flashes you see,” he said.

“The Argonne team’s work is incredibly exciting because it creates a new class of devices for controlling X-rays,” added Paul Evans, a professor of materials science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They have found a way to significantly shrink the optics, which is great because smaller means faster, cheaper to make, and much more versatile.”

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UNC researchers create DNA repair map of the entire human genome

UNC researchers create DNA repair map of the entire human genome | Amazing Science |

The new experimental assay can help scientists find the precise locations of repair of DNA damage caused by UV radiation and common chemotherapies. The invention could lead to better cancer drugs or improvements in the potency of existing ones.

When the common chemotherapy drugs cisplatin or oxaliplatin hit cancer cells, they damage DNA so that the cells can’t replicate. But the cells have ways to repair the DNA. The cancer drugs aren’t as effective as patients need. Researchers at the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed a method for finding where this DNA repair happens throughout all of human DNA.

The findings, published in the journal Genes & Development, offers scientists a potential way to find and target the proteins cancer cells use to circumnavigate therapy. The benefit of this new method could be more effective and better tolerated classes of cancer therapeutics.

The research, led by Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, marks the first time scientists have been able to map the repair of DNA damage over the entire human genome.

“Now we can say to a fellow scientist, ‘tell us the gene you’re interested in or any spot on the genome, and we’ll tell you how it is repaired,’” said Sancar, co-senior author and member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Out of six billion base pairs, pick out a spot and we’ll tell you how it is repaired."

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Chemists cook up three atom-thick electronic sheets on a transparent silica wafer

Chemists cook up three atom-thick electronic sheets on a transparent silica wafer | Amazing Science |
Making thin films out of semiconducting materials is analogous to how ice grows on a windowpane: When the conditions are just right, the semiconductor grows in flat crystals that slowly fuse together, eventually forming a continuous film.

This process of film deposition is common for traditional semiconductors like silicon or gallium arsenide – the basis of modern electronics – but Cornell scientists are pushing the limits for how thin they can go. They have demonstrated a way to create a new kind of semiconductor thin film that retains its electrical properties even when it is just atoms thick.

Three atom-thick layers of molybdenum disulfide were cooked up in the lab of Jiwoong Park, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology and member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science. The films were designed and grown by postdoctoral associate Kibum Kang and graduate student Saien Xie. Their work is published online in Nature, April 30.

“The electrical performance of our materials was comparable to that of reported results from single crystals of molybdenum disulfide, but instead of a tiny crystal, here we have a 4-inch wafer,” Park said.

Molybdenum disulfide, which is garnering worldwide interest for its excellent electrical properties, has previously been grown only in disjointed, “archipelago”-like single crystal formations, Park said. But making smooth, flat, ultrathin sheets, like paper, is the ultimate goal, and the bridge to actual devices.

The researchers pulled off the feat by tuning the growth conditions of their films using a technique called metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD). Already used widely in industry, but with different materials, it starts with a powdery precursor, forms a gas and sprinkles single atoms onto a substrate, one layer at a time.

Park’s group systematically optimized the technique to make the films, tweaking conditions and temperatures not unlike experimenting in the kitchen. They found that their crystals grew perfectly stitched together, but only with a little bit of hydrogen and in completely dry conditions, for example. In addition to advanced optical imaging techniques, researchers led by co-author David Muller, professor of applied and engineering physics and director of Cornell’s Kavli Institute, contributed advanced transmission electron microscopy to test and characterize the quality of the films as they went along.
Alison Winn's curator insight, Today, 6:32 AM

An exciting development.

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Widespread existence of perchlorates makes liquid briny water on Mars possible

Widespread existence of perchlorates makes liquid briny water on Mars possible | Amazing Science |
Data collected on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover and analyzed by University of Arkansas researchers indicate that water, in the form of brine, may exist under certain conditions on the planet’s surface.

The finding, published in the May 2015 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, is based on almost two years of weather data collected from an impact crater near the planet’s equatorial region. Vincent Chevrier, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, and Edgard G. Rivera-Valentin, a former Doctoral Academy Fellow at the center who is now a scientist at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, were members of the team that analyzed the data as part of a grant from NASA.

“What we demonstrated is that under specific circumstances, for a few hours per day, you can have the right conditions to form liquid brines on the surface of Mars,” Chevrier said.

The existence of briny water may explain a phenomenon observed by Mars orbiters called “recurring slope lineae,” which are dark streaks on slopes that appear and grow during the planet’s warm season.

Water is also necessary for the existence of life as we know it, and on Earth, organisms adapt and thrive in extremely briny conditions. Chevrier, however, believes that conditions on Mars are too harsh to support life.

“If we combine observations with the thermodynamics of brine formation and the current knowledge about terrestrial organisms, is it possible to find a way for organisms to survive in Martian brines? My answer is no,” he said.

Mars is cold, extremely dry, and has 200 times lower atmospheric pressure than Earth. Any pure water on the surface would freeze or boil away in minutes. If it sounds alien for water to both freeze and boil, that’s because it is alien to Earth, but not so much for Mars because of the planet’s very low atmospheric pressure.

However, in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander identified perchlorate salts in polar soil samples. Perchlorates are rare on Earth, but they are known to absorb moisture from the atmosphere and lower the freezing temperature of water. The widespread existence of perchlorates makes liquid water possible on Mars.
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Researchers probe chemistry, topography and mechanics with one single instrument

Researchers probe chemistry, topography and mechanics with one single instrument | Amazing Science |

The probe of an atomic force microscope (AFM) scans a surface to reveal details at a resolution 1,000 times greater than that of an optical microscope. That makes AFM the premier tool for analyzing physical features, but it cannot tell scientists anything about chemistry. For that they turn to the mass spectrometer (MS).

Now, scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have combined these cornerstone capabilities into one instrument that can probe a sample in three dimensions and overlay information about the topography of its surface, the atomic-scale mechanical behavior near the surface, and the chemistry at and under the surface. This multimodal imaging will allow scientists to explore thin films of phase-separated polymers important for energy conversion and storage. Their results are published in ACS Nano, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

"Combining the two capabilities marries the best of both worlds," said project leader Olga Ovchinnikova, who co-led the study with Gary Van Berkel, head of ORNL's Organic and Biological Mass Spectrometry Group. "For the same location, you get not only precise location and physical characterization, but also precise chemical information."

Added Van Berkel, "This is the first time that we've shown that you can use multiple methods through the atomic force microscope. We demonstrated for the first time that you could collect diverse data sets together without changing probes and without changing the sample."

The new technique for functional imaging allows probing of regions on the order of billionths of meters, or nanometers, to characterize a sample's surface hills and valleys, its elasticity (or "bounciness") throughout deeper layers, and its chemical composition. Previously, AFM tips could penetrate only 20 nanometers to explore a substance's ability to expand and contract. Adding a thermal desorption probe to the mix allowed scientists to probe deeper, as the technique cooks matter off the surface and removes it as deep down as 140 nanometers. The MS's precise chemical analysis of compounds gave the new technique unprecedented ability to characterize samples.

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Mammoth genomes provide recipe for creating Arctic elephants

Mammoth genomes provide recipe for creating Arctic elephants | Amazing Science |
Unlike their elephant cousins, woolly mammoths were creatures of the cold, with long hairy coats, thick layers of fat and small ears that kept heat loss to a minimum. For the first time, scientists have comprehensively catalogued the hundreds of genetic mutations that gave rise to these differences. 

The research reveals how woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) evolved from the ancestor they share with Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). It could even serve as a recipe for engineering elephants that are able to survive in Siberia.

“These are genes we would need to alter in an elephant genome to create an animal that was mostly an elephant, but actually able to survive somewhere cold,” says Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz who was not involved in the latest research. As fanciful as it sounds, such an effort is at a very early stage in a research lab in Boston, Massachusetts.

In the latest study, Vincent Lynch, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, and his team describe how they sequenced the genomes of three Asian elephants and two woolly mammoths (one died 20,000 years ago, another 60,000 years ago) to a very high quality. They found about 1.4 million DNA letters that differ between mammoths and elephants, which altered the sequence of more than 1,600 protein-coding genes. The study was posted on the biology preprint server on 23 April1.

The mammoth genomes also contained extra copies of a gene that controls the production of fat cells and variations in genes linked to insulin signaling, which are in turn linked to diabetes and diabetes prevention. And several of the genes that differ between mammoths and elephants are involved in sensing heat and transmitting that information to the brain.

The team ‘resurrected’ the mammoth version of one of the heat-sensing genes, which encodes a protein called TRPV3 that is expressed in skin and also regulates hair growth. They spliced the gene sequence into the genomes of human cells in the lab and exposed them to different temperatures, revealing that the mammoth TRPV3 protein is less responsive to heat than the elephant version is. The result chimes with a previous finding that mice with a deactivated version of TRPV3 are more likely to spend time in colder parts of their cage compared with normal rodents, and boast wavier hair.

The next step, says Lynch, is to insert the same gene into elephant cells that have been chemically programmed to behave like embryonic cells, and so can be turned into a variety of cell types. Such induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells could then be used to examine expression of mammoth proteins in different tissues. Lynch's team also plans to test the effects of other mammoth mutations in iPS cells.

Similar work is already being carried out in the lab of George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Using a technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 that allows genes to be easily edited, his team claims to have engineered elephant cells that contain the mammoth version of 14 genes potentially involved in cold tolerance — although the team has not yet tested how this affects the elephant cells. Church plans to do these experiments in “organoids” created from elephant iPS cells.

The work, says Church, is a preamble to editing an entire woolly mammoth genome — and perhaps even resurrecting the woolly mammoth, or at least giving an Asian elephant enough mammoth genes to survive in the Arctic. The second option would be easier to do because it would require fewer mutations than the first option. A 16-square-kilometre reserve in north Siberia, known as Pleistocene Park, has even been proposed as a potential home for such a population of cold-tolerant elephants.

However, whether anyone would want to do such a thing is a different question, says Lynch, and Shapiro agrees. In her book, she outlines the innumerable hurdles that stand in the way of breeding genetically modified ‘woolly elephants’ — from the ethics of applying reproductive technologies to an endangered species to the fact that the field of elephant reproductive biology is still immature.

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Germ Line Engineering with CRISPR Leads to Designer Human Embryos

Germ Line Engineering with CRISPR Leads to Designer Human Embryos | Amazing Science |

How easy would it be to edit a human embryo using CRISPR? Very easy, experts say. “Any scientist with molecular biology skills and knowledge of how to work with embryos is going to be able to do this,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who in 2012 co-discovered how to use CRISPR to edit genes.

To find out how it could be done, I visited the lab of Guoping Feng, a biologist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, where a colony of marmoset monkeys is being established with the aim of using CRISPR to create accurate models of human brain diseases. To create the models, Feng will edit the DNA of embryos and then transfer them into female marmosets to produce live monkeys. One gene Feng hopes to alter in the animals is SHANK3. The gene is involved in how neurons communicate; when it’s damaged in children, it is known to cause autism.

Feng said that before CRISPR, it was not possible to introduce precise changes into a primate’s DNA. With CRISPR, the technique should be relatively straightforward. The CRISPR system includes a gene-snipping enzyme and a guide molecule that can be programmed to target unique combinations of the DNA letters, A, G, C, and T; get these ingredients into a cell and they will cut and modify the genome at the targeted sites.

But CRISPR is not perfect—and it would be a very haphazard way to edit human embryos, as Feng’s efforts to create gene-edited marmosets show. To employ the CRISPR system in the monkeys, his students simply inject the chemicals into a fertilized egg, which is known as a zygote—the stage just before it starts dividing.

Feng said the efficiency with which CRISPR can delete or disable a gene in a zygote is about 40 percent, whereas making specific edits, or swapping DNA letters, works less frequently—more like 20 percent of the time. Like a person, a monkey has two copies of most genes, one from each parent. Sometimes both copies get edited, but sometimes just one does, or neither. Only about half the embryos will lead to live births, and of those that do, many could contain a mixture of cells with edited DNA and without. If you add up the odds, you find you’d need to edit 20 embryos to get a live monkey with the version you want.

That’s not an insurmountable problem for Feng, since the MIT breeding colony will give him access to many monkey eggs and he’ll be able to generate many embryos. However, it would present obvious problems in humans. Putting the ingredients of CRISPR into a human embryo would be scientifically trivial. But it wouldn’t be practical for much just yet. This is one reason that many scientists view such an experiment (whether or not it has really occurred in China) with scorn, seeing it more as a provocative bid to grab attention than as real science. Rudolf Jaenisch, an MIT biologist who works across the street from Feng and who in the 1970s created the first gene-modified mice, calls attempts to edit human embryos “totally premature.” He says he hopes these papers will be rejected and not published. “It’s just a sensational thing that will stir things up,” says Jaenisch. “We know it’s possible, but is it of practical use? I kind of doubt it.”

Among other problems, CRISPR can introduce off-target effects or change bits of the genome far from where scientists had intended. Any human embryo altered with CRISPR today would carry the risk that its genome had been changed in unexpected ways. But, Feng said, such problems may eventually be ironed out, and edited people will be born. “To me, it’s possible in the long run to dramatically improve health, lower costs. It’s a kind of prevention,” he said. “It’s hard to predict the future, but correcting disease risks is definitely a possibility and should be supported. I think it will be a reality.”

Elsewhere in the Boston area, scientists are exploring a different approach to engineering the germ line, one that is technically more demanding but probably more powerful. This strategy combines CRISPR with unfolding discoveries related to stem cells. Scientists at several centers, including Church’s, think they will soon be able to use stem cells to produce eggs and sperm in the laboratory. Unlike embryos, stem cells can be grown and multiplied. Thus they could offer a vastly improved way to create edited offspring with CRISPR. The recipe goes like this: First, edit the genes of the stem cells. Second, turn them into an egg or sperm. Third, produce an offspring.

Some investors got an early view of the technique on December 17, at the Benjamin Hotel in Manhattan, during commercial presentations by OvaScience. The company, which was founded four years ago, aims to commercialize the scientific work of David Sinclair, who is based at Harvard, and Jonathan Tilly, an expert on egg stem cells and the chairman of the biology department at Northeastern University (see “10 Emerging Technologies: Egg Stem Cells,”May/June 2012). It made the presentations as part of a successful effort to raise $132 million in new capital during January.

During the meeting, Sinclair, a velvet-voiced Australian whom Time last year named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” took the podium and provided Wall Street with a peek at what he called “truly world-changing” developments. People would look back at this moment in time and recognize it as a new chapter in “how humans control their bodies,” he said, because it would let parents determine “when and how they have children and how healthy those children are actually going to be.”

The company has not perfected its stem-cell technology—it has not reported that the eggs it grows in the lab are viable—but Sinclair predicted that functional eggs were “a when, and not an if.” Once the technology works, he said, infertile women will be able to produce hundreds of eggs, and maybe hundreds of embryos. Using DNA sequencing to analyze their genes, they could pick among them for the healthiest ones.

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Mammals Harbor At Least 320,000 Undiscovered Viruses

Mammals Harbor At Least 320,000 Undiscovered Viruses | Amazing Science |

Humans have been playing defense against viruses for much of history. Think about it, -people mainly take action against a virus once it has already become a threat. Just recently, researchers have switched tactics and taken the offensive. A team of scientists lead by Simon Anthony of Columbia University released a study this month in the journal mBio estimating the number of novel viruses in all mammalian species to be 320,000. Anthony and his colleagues' estimate of mammalian viruses is the first ever to be statistically supported. With this information scientists may discover potentially dangerous viruses before they transition from wildlife to humans.

Roughly 70% of all new viruses infecting humans originated in other animals. Viruses that originate in mammals are particularly hazardous because they are easily transferable to people; their exposure to other mammalian species allows them to skillfully "navigate our own warm-blooded bodies." The knowledge of just how many viruses may be lurking in mammals helps scientists assess the threat viruses pose to society. In order to calculate the number of viruses, scientists studied one species of flying fox (a type of bat) known as Pteropus giganteus. Found in Bangladesh, the flying fox is a known carrier of multiple viruses, such as Nipah, and was therefore well-suited for the study. Scientists repeatedly took biological samples - 1,900 in all - from bat populations over a five year span. From those samples fifty-five different viruses from nine viral families were identified. Only five of the viruses found were previously known to scientists! Calculating that another three unknown viruses were not accounted for in the study, the researchers estimated that flying foxes alone harbor 58 viruses. If all 5,486 known species of mammals carried 58 different viruses, then the total number of undiscovered mammalian viruses is at least 320,000.

To clarify, 320,000 viruses is a very rough estimate. The scientists assumed that every mammal carries 58 viruses based on their findings with flying foxes. The problem with this figure is that flying foxes, and bats in general, are virus friendly animals. The lifestyle factors that predispose bats to be good viral carriers are living in large communities, long distance travel and dispersal throughout the world. It is unlikely that the remaining 5,485 other mammals also carry exactly 58 viruses. Scientists are not sure by what factor the estimate could be off. Dr. Anthony explains "it is very likely that 320,000 viruses under-estimates the actual number of viruses, but we have no way of knowing by how much. It is for this very reason that we need to expand and repeat these systematic studies, and only then will we be able to refine our estimations with greater confidence." This study is significant because it presents the first statistically supported estimate of mammalian viruses.

Before now, some scientists speculated there to be millions of undiscovered mammalian viruses. Only 320,000 mammalian viruses is a much more reassuring and manageable number than ten million. Now that the number of estimated viruses has dropped from the millions to hundred thousands, identifying each one is feasible. The researchers' goal is to track down every single mammalian virus and catalogue it. Dr. Anthony predicts that all mammalian viruses can be identified over a 10 year period for a mere $6.3 billion. You may not think of $6.3 billion as a small amount, but in comparison to the cost of pandemics it's not too outlandish. The SARS outbreak alone cost $16 billion dollars. For just $1.2 billion the scientists estimate that 85% of mammalian viruses can be identified.

Eric Vincill's curator insight, May 1, 7:42 AM

"....Think about it, -people mainly take action against a virus once it has become a threat."   Very interesting article on viral-mammalian interactions that we are just now starting to identify

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No more science fiction: 3D holographic images are here to stay

No more science fiction: 3D holographic images are here to stay | Amazing Science |

The research efforts in nanotechnology have significantly advanced development of display devices. Graphene, an atomic layer of carbon material that won scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, has emerged as a key component for flexible and wearable displaying devices. Owing to its fascinating electronic and optical properties, and high mechanical strength, graphene has been mainly used as touch screens in wearable devices such as mobiles. This technical advance has enabled devices such as smart watches, fitness bands and smart headsets to transition from science fiction into reality, even though the display is still 2D flat.

But wearable displaying devices, in particular devices with a floating display, will remain one of the most significant trends in the industry, which is projected to double every two years and exceed US$12 billion in the year of 2018.

In a paper, published in Nature Communications, we show how our technology realizes wide viewing-angle and full-color floating 3D display in graphene based materials. Ultimately this will help to transform wearable displaying devices into floating 3D displays.

A graphene enabled floating display is based on the principle of holography invented by Dennis Gabor, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971. The idea of optical holography provides a revolutionary method for recording and displaying both 3D amplitude and phase of an optical wave that comes from an object of interest.

The physical realization of high definition and wide viewing angle holographic 3D displays relies on the generation of a digital holographic screen which is composed of many small pixels. These pixels are used to bend light carrying the information for display. The angle of bending is measured by the refractive index of the screen material – according to the holographic correlation.

The smaller the refractive index pixels, the larger the bending angle once the beam passes through the hologram. This nanometer size of pixels is of great significance for the reconstructed 3D object to be vividly viewed in a wide angle. The process is complex but the key physical step is to control the heating of photoreduction of graphene oxides, derivatives of graphene with analogous physical structures but presence of additional oxygen groups. Through a photoreduction process, without involving any temperature increment, graphene oxides can be reduced toward graphene by absorbing a single femtosecond pulsed laser beam.

During the photoreduction, a change in the refractive index can be created. Through such a photoreduction we are able to create holographically-correlated refractive index pixel at the nanometer scale. This technique enables the reconstructed floating 3D object to be vividly and naturally viewed in a wide angle up to 52 degrees.

This result corresponds to an improvement in viewing angles by one-order-of-magnitude compared with the current available 3D holographic displays based on liquid crystal phase modulators, limited to a few degrees. In addition, the constant refractive index change over the visible spectra in reduced graphene oxides enables full-color 3D display.

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Deep Learning Machine Solves the Cocktail Party Problem

Deep Learning Machine Solves the Cocktail Party Problem | Amazing Science |
Separating a singer’s voice from background music has always been a uniquely human ability. Not anymore.

The cocktail party effect is the ability to focus on a specific human voice while filtering out other voices or background noise. The ease with which humans perform this trick belies the challenge that scientists and engineers have faced in reproducing it synthetically. By and large, humans easily outperform the best automated methods for singling out voices. A particularly challenging cocktail party problem is in the field of music, where humans can easily concentrate on a singing voice superimposed on a musical background that includes a wide range of instruments. By comparison, machines are poor at this task.

Today, that looks to be changing thanks to the work of Andrew Simpson and pals at the University of Surrey in the U.K. These guys have used some of the most recent advances associated with deep neural networks to separate human voices from the background in a wide range of songs. Their approach showcases the huge advances that have been made in recent years in machine learning and neural networks. And it paves the way for a more general solution to the famous cocktail party problem which should allow, among other things, the vocals to be easily separated from the music they accompany.

The method these guys use is relatively straightforward. They start with a database of 63 songs that are available as a set of individual tracks that each contain a different instrument or voice, as well as the fully mixed version of the song. Simpson and co divide each track into 20-second segments and create a spectrogram for each that shows how the frequencies in the sound vary over time. The result is a kind of unique fingerprint that identifies the instrument or voice.

They also create a spectrogram of the fully mixed version of the song. This is essentially all of the component spectrograms added together.

The task of picking out a voice from this mixture is essentially the task of separating the voice’s unique spectrogram from the other spectrograms that are present. Simpson and co trained their deep convolutional neural network to do exactly that. They used 50 of these songs to train the network while keeping the remaining 13 to test it on. In total that generated more than 20,000 spectrograms for training purposes.

The task for the neural network was simple. As an input, they gave it the fully mixed spectrogram and expected it to produce, essentially, the vocal spectrogram as the output. The task in this kind of machine learning is one of parameter optimization. Their deep neural network has a billion parameters that need to be tuned in a way that produces the desired output. This process of optimization—or learning—occurs by iteration. So the network begins with these parameters set randomly and then gradually improves the settings each time it scans through the database, which it did over a hundred iterations.

Having found a good setup for the network, Simpson and co then gave it the 13 songs it had not seen before to test how well it could separate the vocals from the mix. The outputs turned out to be impressive. “These results demonstrate that a convolutional deep neural network approach is capable of generalizing voice separation, learned in a musical context, to new musical contexts,” say the team.

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Is the universe a hologram? New calculations show that this may be fundamental feature of space itself

Is the universe a hologram? New calculations show that this may be fundamental feature of space itself | Amazing Science |

At first glance, there is not the slightest doubt: to us, the universe looks three dimensional. But one of the most fruitful theories of theoretical physics in the last two decades is challenging this assumption. The "holographic principle" asserts that a mathematical description of the universe actually requires one fewer dimension than it seems. What we perceive as three dimensional may just be the image of two dimensional processes on a huge cosmic horizon.

Up until now, this principle has only been studied in exotic spaces with negative curvature. This is interesting from a theoretical point of view, but such spaces are quite different from the space in our own universe. Results obtained by scientists at TU Wien (Vienna) now suggest that the holographic principle even holds in a flat spacetime.

Gravitational phenomena are described in a theory with three spatial dimensions, the behavior of quantum particles is calculated in a theory with just two spatial dimensions - and the results of both calculations can be mapped onto each other. Such a correspondence is quite surprising. It is like finding out that equations from an astronomy textbook can also be used to repair a CD-player. But this method has proven to be very successful. More than ten thousand scientific papers about Maldacena's "AdS-CFT-correspondence" have been published to date.

For theoretical physics, this is extremely important, but it does not seem to have much to do with our own universe. Apparently, we do not live in such an anti-de-sitter-space. These spaces have quite peculiar properties. They are negatively curved, any object thrown away on a straight line will eventually return. "Our universe, in contrast, is quite flat - and on astronomic distances, it has positive curvature", says Daniel Grumiller.

However, Grumiller has suspected for quite some time that a correspondence principle could also hold true for our real universe. To test this hypothesis, gravitational theories have to be constructed, which do not require exotic anti-de-sitter spaces, but live in a flat space. For three years, he and his team at TU Wien (Vienna) have been working on that, in cooperation with the University of Edinburgh, Harvard, IISER Pune, the MIT and the University of Kyoto. Now Grumiller and colleagues from India and Japan have published an article in the journal Physical Review Letters, confirming the validity of the correspondence principle in a flat universe.

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