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Computer modelling: Brain in a box - €1 billion to model the entire human brain

Computer modelling: Brain in a box - €1 billion to model the entire human brain | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Henry Markram wants €1 billion to model the entire human brain. Sceptics don't think he should get it.

 

Markram's ambitions fit perfectly with those of Patrick Aebischer, a neuroscientist who became president of the EPFL in 2000 and wanted to make the university a powerhouse in both computation and biomedical research. Markram was one of his first recruits, in 2002. “Henry gave us an excuse to buy a Blue Gene,” says Aebischer, referring to a then-new IBM supercomputer optimized for large-scale simulations. One was installed at the EPFL in 2005, allowing Markram to launch the Blue Brain Project: his first experiment in integrative neuroscience and, in retrospect, a prototype for the HBP.

 

Part of the project has been a demonstration of what a unifying model might mean, says Markram, who started with a data set on the rat cortex that he and his students had been accumulating since the 1990s. It included results from some 20,000 experiments in many labs, he says — “data on about every cell type that we had come across, the morphology, the reconstruction in three dimensions, the electrical properties, the synaptic communication, where the synapses are located, the way the synapses behave, even genetic data about what genes are expressed”.

 

By the end of 2005, his team had integrated all the relevant portions of this data set into a single-neuron model. By 2008, the researchers had linked about 10,000 such models into a simulation of a tube-shaped piece of cortex known as a cortical column. Now, using a more advanced version of Blue Gene, they have simulated 100 interconnected columns.

 

The effort has yielded some discoveries, says Markram, such as the as-yet unpublished statistical distribution of synapses in a column. But its real achievement has been to prove that unifying models can, as promised, serve as repositories for data on cortical structure and function. Indeed, most of the team's efforts have gone into creating “the huge ecosystem of infrastructure and software” required to make Blue Brain useful to every neuroscientist, says Markram. This includes automatic tools for turning data into simulations, and informatics tools such as http://channelpedia.net — a user-editable website that automatically collates structural data on ion channels from publications in the PubMed database, and currently incorporates some 180,000 abstracts.

 

The ultimate goal was always to integrate data across the entire brain, says Markram. The opportunity to approach that scale finally arose in December 2009, when the European Union announced that it was prepared to pour some €1 billion into each of two high-risk, but potentially transformational, Flagship projects. Markram, who had been part of the 27-member advisory group that endorsed the initiative, lost no time in organizing his own entry. And in May 2011, the HBP was named as one of six candidates that would receive seed money and prepare a full-scale proposal, due in May 2012.

 

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20,000+ FREE Online Science and Technology Lectures from Top Universities | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

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‘Cobots’ - robots that work side-by-side with humans - enhance robotic manufacturing and throughput

‘Cobots’ - robots that work side-by-side with humans - enhance robotic manufacturing and throughput | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Manufacturers have begun experimenting with a new generation of “cobots” (collaborative robots) designed to work side-by-side with humans. To determine best practices for effectively integrating human-robot teams within manufacturing environments, a University of Wisconsin-Madison team headed by Bilge Mutlu, an assistant professor of computer sciences, is working with an MIT team headed by Julie A. Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics.


Their research is funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its National Robotics Initiative program.

Cobots are less expensive and intended to be easier to reprogram and integrate into manufacturing. For example, Steelcase owns four next-generation robots based on a platform called Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics.


Each Baxter robot has two arms and a tablet-like panel for “eyes” that provide cues to help human workers anticipate what the robot will do next.


“This new family of robotic technology will change how manufacturing is done,” says Mutlu. “New research can ease the transition of these robots into manufacturing by making human-robot collaboration better and more natural as they work together.”


Mutlu’s team is building on previous work related to topics such as gaze aversion in humanoid robots, robot gestures, and the issue of “speech and repair.” For example, if a human misunderstands a robot’s instructions or carries them out incorrectly, how should the robot correct the human?


On Rethink Robotics’ blog, founder and chairman Rodney Brooks notes “three exciting and significant trends taking place right now” that he thinks will begin to gain some very real traction in 2015:


  • We will begin to see large-scale deployment of collaborative and intelligent robots in manufacturing.
  • This will be a breakout year for robotics research.
  • Emerging technology will be designed to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.


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Genome-wide search in C.elegans reveals that >750 worm genes are involved in long-term memory

Genome-wide search in C.elegans reveals that >750 worm genes are involved in long-term memory | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

A new Princeton University study has identified more than 750 genes involved in long-term memory in the worm — part of research aimed at finding ways to retain cognitive abilities during aging, including compounds.


The new study, published in the journal Neuron, included many genes that had not been found previously and that could serve as targets for future research, said senior author Coleen Murphy, an associate professor of molecular biology at Princeton and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.


The researchers then scanned the genomes of both trained worms and non-trained worms, looking for genes turned on by CREB. The researchers detected 757 CREB-activated genes in the long-term memory-trained worms, and showed that these genes were turned on primarily in worm cells called the AIM interneurons. They also found CREB-activated genes in non-trained worms, but the genes were not turned on in AIM interneurons and were not involved in long-term memory. CREB turns on genes involved in other biological functions such as growth, immune response, and metabolism. Throughout the worm, the researchers noted distinct non-memory (or “basal”) genes in addition to the memory-related genes.


“There is a pretty direct relationship between CREB and long-term memory,” Murphy said, “and many organisms lose CREB as they age.” By studying the CREB-activated genes involved in long-term memory, the researchers hope to better understand why some organisms lose their long-term memories as they age.


Worms are a perfect system in which to explore that question, Murphy said. The worm Caenorhabditis elegans has only 302 neurons, whereas a typical mammalian brain contains billions of the cells. “Worms use the same molecular machinery that higher organisms, including mammals, use to carry out long-term memory,” said Murphy. “We hope that other researchers will take our list and look at the genes to see whether they are important in more complex organisms.”


The next step, said Murphy, is to find out what these newly recognized long-term memory genes do when they are activated by CREB. For example, the activated genes may strengthen connections between neurons.

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Global ENIGMA consortium finds that common genetic variants influence human brain structures

Global ENIGMA consortium finds that common genetic variants influence human brain structures | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

In the largest collaborative study of the brain to date, about 300 researchers in a global consortium of 190 institutions identified eight common genetic mutations that appear to age the brain an average of three years. The discovery could lead to targeted therapies and interventions for Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and other neurological conditions.


Led by the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), an international team known as the Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta Analysis (ENIGMA) Network, pooled brain scans and genetic data worldwide to pinpoint genes that enhance or break down key brain regions in people from 33 countries.


This is the first high-profile study since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched its Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) centers of excellence in 2014. The research was published Wednesday, Jan. 21, in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.


“Our global team discovered eight genes that may erode or boost brain tissue in people worldwide,” said Paul Thompson, Ph.D., Keck School of Medicine of USC professor and principal investigator of ENIGMA. ” Any change in those genes appears to alter your mental bank account or brain reserve by 2 or 3 percent. The discovery will guide research into more personalized medical treatments for Alzheimer’s, autism, depression and other disorders.”


The study could help identify people who would most benefit from new drugs designed to save brain cells, but more research is necessary to determine if the genetic mutations are implicated in disease. The ENIGMA researchers screened millions of “spelling differences” in the genetic code to see which ones affected the size of key parts of the brain in magnetic resonance images (MRIs) from 30,717 individuals.


The MRI analysis focused on genetic data from seven regions of the brain that coordinate movement, learning, memory and motivation. The group identified eight genetic variants associated with decreased brain volume, several found in over one-fifth of the world’s population.  People who carry one of those eight mutations had, on average, smaller brain regions than brains without a mutation but of comparable age; some of the genes are implicated in cancer and mental illness.


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Randal Koene – The Neuroscientist Who Wants To Upload The Mind To A Computer

Randal Koene – The Neuroscientist Who Wants To Upload The Mind To A Computer | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

RANDAL KOENE IS RECRUITING TOP NEUROSCIENTISTS TO HELP HIM MAKE HUMANS LIVE FOREVER


While the first upload of a human brain remains decades—if not centuries— away, proponents believe humanity may be far closer to reaching another key technological milestone: a preservation technique that could store a brain indefinitely without damaging its neurons or the trillions of microscopic connections between them.


“If we could put the brain into a state in which it does not decay, then the second step could be done 100 years later,” says Kenneth Hayworth, a senior scientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “and everyone could experience mind uploading first hand.”


To promote this goal, Hayworth cofounded The Brain Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit that is offering a $106,000 technology prize to the first scientist or team to rise to that challenge. He says the first stage of the competition—the preservation of an entire mouse brain—may be won within the year, an achievement that would excite many mainstream neuroscientists, who want to map the brain’s circuitry to better understand memory and behavior.


Current preservation methods (aside from cryonics, which has never successfully been demonstrated to preserve the brain’s wiring) involve pumping chemicals through the body that can fix proteins and lipids in place. The brain is then removed and immersed in a series of solutions that dehydrate naturally occurring water and replace it with a plastic resin. The resin prevents chemical reactions that cause decay, preserving the brain’s intricate architecture. But in order for all of the chemicals to fully permeate brain tissue, scientists must first slice the organ into sections 100 to 500 microns thick—a process that destroys information stored in connections made along those surfaces.


Shawn Mikula, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, developed a protocol that appears to safeguard all of the brain’s synapses. It preserves the extracellular space in the brain so that the chemicals can diffuse through myriad layers of the whole organ. Then, if the brain is sliced and analyzed at a future date, all of its circuitry will remain visible. Hayworth is currently using electron microscopy to examine the mouse brains sent to him as proof of principle. (In order to win the technology prize, the protocol must also be published in a peer-reviewed journal.) So far, Hayworth says, Mikula’s technique seems effective.


If immortality is defined as brain preservation via plastination, Mikula says, then it’s a reasonable extrapolation of his research results. But as for actually uploading it to a computer: “Who can predict these things? Science is modern-day magic,” Mikula says, “and in the absence of a strong argument against the future feasibility of mind uploading, anything is possible.”

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UC Berkeley physicists calculate quantum speed limit

UC Berkeley physicists calculate quantum speed limit | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

University of California, Berkeley, scientists have proved a fundamental relationship between energy and time that sets a "quantum speed limit" on processes ranging from quantum computing and tunneling to optical switching.


The energy-time uncertainty relationship is the flip side of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which sets limits on how precisely you can measure position and speed, and has been the bedrock of quantum mechanics for nearly 100 years. It has become so well-known that it has infected literature and popular culture with the idea that the act of observing affects what we observe.


"This is the first time the energy-time uncertainty principle has been put on a rigorous basis - our arguments don't appeal to experiment, but come directly from the structure of quantum mechanics," said chemical physicist K. Birgitta Whaley, director of the Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center and a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry. "Before, the principle was just kind of thrown into the theory of quantum mechanics."


The new derivation of the energy-time uncertainty has application for any measurement involving time, she said, particularly in estimating the speed with which certain quantum processes - such as calculations in a quantum computer - will occur.


"The uncertainty principle really limits how precise your clocks can be," said first author Ty Volkoff, a graduate student who just received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley. "In a quantum computer, it limits how fast you can go from one state to the other, so it puts limits on the clock speed of your computer."

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Germanene: European Scientists Synthesize New Cousin of Graphene

Germanene: European Scientists Synthesize New Cousin of Graphene | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Scientists from Spain, Germany and France managed to synthesize graphene's cousin - an atom-thin, ordered, two-dimensional material named germanene. Germanene does not exist in nature and is made up of a single layer of germanium atoms. It is expected to exhibit impressive electrical and optical properties and could be widely integrated across the electronics industry in the future.


First proposed in 2009, the material has, up until now, remained elusive. Since then, graphene has been developed further whilst other two-dimensional materials, such as graphene’s silicon cousin – silicene, have been synthesized.


Much like silicene, the proposed method for synthesizing germanene is to deposit individual atoms of germanium onto a substrate under high temperatures and in an ultra-high vacuum.


“Following our synthesis of graphene’s other cousin, silicene, we thought it natural to try and produce germanene in the same way, by depositing germanium onto a silver substrate. This attempt failed, so I decided to switch to a gold substrate,” said Prof Guy Le Lay of Aix-Marseille University, who is the senior author of a paper published in the New Journal of Physics.


After depositing the germanium atoms onto a gold substrate, Prof Le Lay’s team was able to confirm that the material was in fact germanene. The material was also observed under a scanning tunneling microscope, which revealed the characteristic honeycomb structure of a 2D material.


The scientists said the unique properties of germanene could make it a robust two-dimensional topological insulator, particularly up to room temperature, opening up the possibility of using the material in quantum computing.


“An important aspect of our study is that we have increased the lego of 2D materials that we can use to build a whole host of artificial solid materials with a wide range of differing properties,” said co-author Prof Angel Rubio of the University of the Basque Country.

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The language of T lymphocytes deciphered, the 'Rosetta Stone' of the immune system

The language of T lymphocytes deciphered, the 'Rosetta Stone' of the immune system | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

How can our immune system defend us against aggressors so diverse such as viruses, parasites, fungi and tumors? The secret lies in the large number of clones of T and B lymphocytes, each of which expresses a particular specific receptor. Until a few years ago, deciphering the complexity of this vast repertoire was considered impossible. Today, thanks to the development of new methods for DNA sequencing (Next Generation Sequencing, NGS), it is possible to obtain millions of sequences that represent the "identity card" of T lymphocytes. But how is it possible to use this data to trace back to the specificity of the single clones, and how can we understand their function?


This question has now been answered by a study published Jan. 23 in the journal Science and conducted by a group of researchers led by Federica Sallusto from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine of Bellinzona (Università della Svizzera italiana). The study describes a new approach that allows deciphering the language of T lymphocytes, which are cells of the immune system that protect us from pathogens and tumours. Combining methods of Next Generation Sequencing with in vitro stimulation and analysis of specific T cells, the researchers were able for the first time to establish a complete catalogue of the immune response to pathogens and vaccines. In particular, they have catalogued all the clones that respond to a particular microorganism, determining their specificity and their functional properties, for example their ability to produce inflammatory mediators (cytokines) or to migrate to different tissues.


The research results are surprising from many points of view. First, the repertoire of specific T lymphocytes is very broad and includes thousands of clones, each characterised by a different receptor. A second unexpected result is that, within the same clone, the cells can become specialised to perform different functions and to migrate to different tissues.


According to Federica Sallusto, "using this new approach we can rapidly decipher the language of T lymphocytes, that is, their identity, specificity and function, and we can do it for the thousands of clones that mediate the immune response against microbes and vaccines. In this way we discovered that when a naive T cell recognizes a pathogen and proliferates in order to eradicate it, the progeny cells may undergo different fates, such as acquiring the ability to produce different types of cytokines or to migrate to different tissues of the organism. This extreme flexibility of T lymphocytes represents a new element that explains how the human immune system is able to respond to attacks with different weapons and on several fronts."

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Early human ancestors used their hands like modern humans

Early human ancestors used their hands like modern humans | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Some of the morphological characteristics of the human hand are different from that of other primates enabling us to grab objects with precision and use them exerting a force. Yet, how did our early human ancestors use their hands? This question was long debated among scientists. Anthropologists from the University of Kent, working with researchers from University College London, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, have produced the first research findings to support archaeological evidence for stone tool use among fossil Australopiths three to two million years ago and found that Australopithecus africanus used their hands the way modern humans do.


The distinctly human ability for forceful precision (e.g., when turning a key) and power “squeeze” gripping (e.g., when using a hammer) is linked to two key evolutionary transitions in hand use: a reduction in arboreal climbing and the manufacture and use of stone tools. However, it is unclear when these locomotory and manipulative transitions occurred.


Matthew Skinner and Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Kent used new techniques to reveal how fossil species were using their hands by examining the internal spongey structure of bone called trabeculae. Trabecular bone remodels quickly during life and can reflect the actual behaviour of individuals in their lifetime. “Over time these structures adapt in a way that enables them to handle the daily loads in the best way possible“, says Dieter Pahr of the Institute of Lightweight Design and Structural Biomechanics at the Vienna University of Technology where special computer algorithms for the analysis of the computer tomography images of the bones had been developed.


The researchers first examined the trabeculae of hand bones of humans and chimpanzees. They found clear differences between humans, who have a unique ability for forceful precision gripping between thumb and fingers, and chimpanzees, who cannot adopt human-like postures. This unique human pattern is present in known non-arboreal and stone tool-making fossil human species, such as Neandertals.


The research shows that Australopithecus africanus, a three to two million-year-old species from South Africa traditionally considered not to have engaged in habitual tool manufacture, has a human-like trabecular bone pattern in the bones of the thumb and palm (the metacarpals) consistent with forceful opposition of the thumb and fingers typically adopted during tool use. “This new evidence changes our understanding of the behaviour of our early ancestors and, in particular, suggests that in some aspects they were more similar to humans than we previously thought”, says Matthew Skinner of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Kent.

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First Human Protein Atlas and major protein analysis published

First Human Protein Atlas and major protein analysis published | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The Human Protein Atlas, a major multinational research project supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, recently launched (November 6, 2014) an open source tissue-based interactive map of the human protein. Based on 13 million annotated images, the database maps the distribution of proteins in all major tissues and organs in the human body, showing both proteins restricted to certain tissues, such as the brain, heart, or liver, and those present in all. As an open access resource, it is expected to help drive the development of new diagnostics and drugs, but also to provide basic insights in normal human biology.


In the Science article, "Tissue-based Atlas of the Human Proteome", the approximately 20,000 protein coding genes in humans have been analysed and classified using a combination of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and antibody-based profiling, says the article's lead author, Mathias Uhlén, Professor of Microbiology at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the director of the Human Protein Atlas program. The analysis shows that almost half of the protein-coding genes are expressed in a ubiquitous manner and thus found in all analysed tissues.


Approximately 15% of the genes show an enriched expression in one or several tissues or organs, including well-known tissue-specific proteins, such as insulin and troponin. The testes, or testicles, have the most tissue-enriched proteins followed by the brain and the liver. The analysis suggests that approximately 3,000 proteins are secreted from the cells and an additional 5,500 proteins are located to the membrane systems of the cells.


"This is important information for the pharmaceutical industry. We show that 70% of the current targets for approved pharmaceutical drugs are either secreted or membrane-bound proteins," Uhlén says. "Interestingly, 30% of these protein targets are found in all analysed tissues and organs. This could help explain some side effects of drugs and thus might have consequences for future drug development." The analysis also contains a study of the metabolic reactions occurring in different parts of the human body. The most specialised organ is the liver with a large number of chemical reactions not found in other parts of the human body.

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Australia's Great Barrier Reef could decline to less than 10 percent if ocean warming continues

Australia's Great Barrier Reef could decline to less than 10 percent if ocean warming continues | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The coverage of living corals on Australia's Great Barrier Reef could decline to less than 10 percent if ocean warming continues, according to a new study that explores the short- and long-term consequences of environmental changes to the reef.


Environmental change has caused the loss of more than half the world's reef building corals. Coral cover, a measure of the percentage of the seafloor covered by living coral, is now just 10-20 percent worldwide. The Great Barrier Reef, once thought to be one of the more pristine global reef systems, has lost half of its coral cover in only the last 27 years. Overfishing, coastal pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions leading to increased temperatures and ocean acidification, as well as other human impacts are all affecting the delicate balance maintained in coral reef ecosystems.


Now, in a new study that aims to project the composition of the future Great Barrier Reef under current and future environmental scenarios, researchers found that in the long term, moderate warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius would result in a high probability of coral cover declining to less than 10 percent, a number thought to be important for maintaining reef growth.


In the short term, with increasing temperatures as well as local man-made threats like coastal development, pollution, and over-fishing, the study found that corals—tiny animals related to jellyfish—would be over-run by seaweed which would, in effect, suffocate them. In the longer term, interactions among reef organisms would lead to dominance by other groups, including sponges and soft corals known as gorgonians.


The study, now in pre-print online in the journal Ecology, uses a multivariate statistical model and includes quantitative surveys of 46 reef habitats over 10 years of data from 1996-2006.

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Telomere extension turns back aging clock in cultured human cells, study finds

Telomere extension turns back aging clock in cultured human cells, study finds | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Researchers delivered a modified RNA that encodes a telomere-extending protein to cultured human cells. Cell proliferation capacity was dramatically increased, yielding large numbers of cells for study.


A new procedure can quickly and efficiently increase the length of human telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are linked to aging and disease, according to scientists at the Stanford University School of MedicineTreated cells behave as if they are much younger than untreated cells, multiplying with abandon in the laboratory dish rather than stagnating or dying.


The procedure, which involves the use of a modified type of RNA, will improve the ability of researchers to generate large numbers of cells for study or drug development, the scientists say. Skin cells with telomeres lengthened by the procedure were able to divide up to 40 more times than untreated cells. The research may point to new ways to treat diseases caused by shortened telomeres.


Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of the strands of DNA called chromosomes, which house our genomes. In young humans, telomeres are about 8,000-10,000 nucleotides long. They shorten with each cell division, however, and when they reach a critical length the cell stops dividing or dies. This internal “clock” makes it difficult to keep most cells growing in a laboratory for more than a few cell doublings.


“Now we have found a way to lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides, turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life,” said Helen Blau, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford and director of the university’s Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology. “This greatly increases the number of cells available for studies such as drug testing or disease modeling.”


“This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” said Blau. “There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment.” Blau and her colleagues became interested in telomeres when previous work in her lab showed that the muscle stem cells of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy had telomeres that were much shorter than those of boys without the disease. This finding not only has implications for understanding how the cells function — or don’t function —  in making new muscle, but it also helps explain the limited ability to grow affected cells in the laboratory for study.

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Self-cleaning sensor that can be cleaned with UV light

Self-cleaning sensor that can be cleaned with UV light | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Scientists in Italy have engineered a cheap and simple electrochemical sensor that cleans itself when exposed to ultraviolet light. Their system offers a route towards self-cleaning electrodes with myriad environmental and biomedical sensing applications – from detecting pollutants in water to monitoring medications in blood.


Open any book on chemical or biological sensors and you’ll find a lot of content on electrochemical devices. This prevalence is testament to the importance and advantages of electrode-based sensing; and electrodes containing nanomaterials are becoming increasingly popular, owing to their high surface-to-volume ratio, which can improve their sensitivity and lower costs.


However, nanomaterial-based electrodes are very difficult to keep clean, hindering their application in environmental and biomedical sensing. River water, for example, contains species that can foul electrochemical sensors and prevent their reuse. In another example, dopamine – an important neurotransmitter, particularly in Parkinson’s disease – fouls sensors during its electroanalytical detection, preventing reusability.


To solve the fouling problem, Luigi Falciola and his team at the University of Milan have engineered an electrochemical sensor with a photoactive top layer of titania that can be directly cleaned with ultraviolet light and repeatedly reused to detect dopamine. The titania covers a highly ordered distribution of silver nanoparticles (the actual sensing tool), arrayed on a bottom layer of silica.


Self-cleaning surfaces based on titania are an increasingly common part of our everyday lives, from self-cleaning windows, cars and cements to self-sterilising medical devices. These applications all clean using the same basic chemistry: ultraviolet light – from sunlight or an artificial source – induces photocatalysis at a titania coating, which breaks down organic foulants. Falciola’s team have incorporated the same principle in their sensor.


‘There are a few previous examples of self-cleaning electrodes, but our device is simpler and also probably cheaper to make,’ explains Falciola.

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Exotic, gigantic molecules - predicted since 1970 - fit inside each other like Russian nesting dolls

Exotic, gigantic molecules - predicted since 1970 - fit inside each other like Russian nesting dolls | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

University of Chicago scientists have experimentally observed for the first time a phenomenon in ultracold, three-atom molecules predicted by Russian theoretical physicist Vitaly Efimov in 1970.


In this quantum phenomenon, called geometric scaling, the triatomic molecules fit inside one another like an infinitely large set of Russian nesting dolls. “This is a new rule in chemistry that molecular sizes can follow a geometric series, like 1, 2, 4, 8…,” said Cheng Chin, professor in physics. “In our case, we find three molecular states in this sequence where one molecular state is about 5 times larger than the previous one.”

Chin and four members of his research group published their findings Dec. 9, 2014, in Physical Review Letters.


“Quantum theory makes the existence of these gigantic molecules inevitiable, provided proper—and quite challenging—conditions are created,” said Efimov, now at the University of Washington. The UChicago team observed three molecules in the series, consisting of one lithium atom and two cesium atoms in a vacuum chamber at the ultracold temperature of approximately 200 nanokelvin, a tiny fraction of a degree above absolute zero (minus 459.6 degrees Fahrenheit).


Given an infinitely large universe, the number of increasingly larger molecules in this cesium-lithium system also would extend to infinity. This remarkable idea stems from the exotic nature of quantum mechanics, which conforms to different laws of physics than those that govern the universe on a macroscopic scale.


“These are certainly exotic molecules,” said Shih-Kuang Tung, the postdoctoral scholar, now at Northwestern University, who led the project. Only under strict conditions could Tung and his colleagues see the geometric scaling in their Efimov molecules. It appears that neither two-atom nor four-atom molecules can achieve the Efimov state. “There’s a special case for three atoms,” Chin said.


Efimov’s reaction to the research was twofold: “First, I am amazed by the predictive power of the quantum theory,” he said. “Second, I am amazed by the skill of the experimentalists who managed to create those challenging conditions.”

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Antarctic translucent fish lives in a wedge of water hidden under 740 meters of ice, 850 kilometers from sunlight

Antarctic translucent fish lives in a wedge of water hidden under 740 meters of ice, 850 kilometers from sunlight | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Stunned researchers in Antarctica have discovered fish and other aquatic animals living in perpetual darkness and cold, beneath a roof of ice 740 meters thick. The animals inhabit a wedge of seawater only 10 meters deep, sealed between the ice above and a barren, rocky seafloor below—a location so remote and hostile the many scientists expected to find nothing but scant microbial life.


A team of ice drillers and scientists made the discovery after lowering a small, custom-built robot down a narrow hole they bored through the Ross Ice Shelf, a slab of glacial ice the size of France that hangs off the coastline of Antarctica and floats on the ocean. The remote water they tapped sits beneath the back corner of the floating shelf, where the shelf meets what would be the shore of Antarctica if all that ice were removed. The spot sits 850 kilometers from the outer edge of the ice shelf, the nearest place where the ocean is in contact with sunlight that allows tiny plankton to grow and sustain a food chain.


“I’m surprised,” says Ross Powell, a 63-year old glacial geologist from Northern Illinois University who co-led the expedition with two other scientists. Powell spoke with me via satellite phone from the remote location on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where 40 scientists, ice drillers and technicians were dropped by ski-mounted planes. “I’ve worked in this area for my whole career,” he says—studying the underbellies where glaciers flow into oceans. “You get the picture of these areas having very little food, being desolate, not supporting much life.” The ecosystem has somehow managed to survive incredibly far from sunlight, the source of energy that drives most life on Earth. The discovery provides insight into what kind of complex but undiscovered life might inhabit the vast areas beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves—comprising more than a million square kilometers of unexplored seafloor.


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Switching graphene nanoribbons from conductive to semiconducting

Switching graphene nanoribbons from conductive to semiconducting | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Theoretical physicists at Rice University have figured out how to custom-design graphene nanoribbons by controlling the conditions under which the nanoribbons are pulled apart to get the edges they need for specific mechanical and electrical properties, such as metallic (for chip interconnects, for example) or semiconducting (for chips).


The new research by Rice physicist Boris Yakobson and his colleagues appeared this month in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal NanoscalePerfect (pristine) graphene is conductive and looks like chicken wire, with each six-atom unit forming a hexagon, with edges that are zigzags like this: /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ .


Turning the hexagons 30 degrees makes the edges “armchairs,” with flat tops and bottoms held together by the diagonals, making the nanoribbons both semiconducting and more stable.


The researchers used density functional theory, a computational method to analyze the energetic input of every atom in a model system, to learn how thermodynamic and mechanical forces would accomplish the goal.


Their study revealed that heating graphene to 1,000 kelvin and applying a low but steady force along one axis will crack it in such a way that fully reconstructed 5–7 rings will form and define the new edges. Conversely, fracturing graphene with low heat and high force is more likely to lead to pristine zigzags.

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Researchers make the first magnetic graphene

Researchers make the first magnetic graphene | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
Graphene has many desirable properties. Magnetism alas is not one of them. Magnetism can be induced in graphene by doping it with magnetic impurities, but this tends to disrupt graphene's electronic properties. Now physicists have found a way to induce magnetism in graphene while also preserving graphene's electronic properties. They have accomplished this by bringing a graphene sheet very close to a magnetic insulator -- an electrical insulator with magnetic properties.


Now a team of physicists at the University of California, Riverside has found an ingenious way to induce magnetism in graphene while also preserving graphene's electronic properties. They have accomplished this by bringing a graphene sheet very close to a magnetic insulator -- an electrical insulator with magnetic properties.


"This is the first time that graphene has been made magnetic this way," said Jing Shi, a professor of physics and astronomy, whose lab led the research. "The magnetic graphene acquires new electronic properties so that new quantum phenomena can arise. These properties can lead to new electronic devices that are more robust and multi-functional."


The finding has the potential to increase graphene's use in computers, as in computer chips that use electronic spin to store data. The magnetic insulator Shi and his team used was yttrium iron garnet grown by laser molecular beam epitaxy in his lab. The researchers placed a single-layer graphene sheet on an atomically smooth layer of yttrium iron garnet. They found that yttrium iron garnet magnetized the graphene sheet. In other words, graphene simply borrows the magnetic properties from yttrium iron garnet.


Magnetic substances like iron tend to interfere with graphene's electrical conduction. The researchers avoided those substances and chose yttrium iron garnet because they knew it worked as an electric insulator, which meant that it would not disrupt graphene's electrical transport properties. By not doping the graphene sheet but simply placing it on the layer of yttrium iron garnet, they ensured that graphene's excellent electrical transport properties remained unchanged.


In their experiments, Shi and his team exposed the graphene to an external magnetic field. They found that graphene's Hall voltage -- a voltage in the perpendicular direction to the current flow -- depended linearly on the magnetization of yttrium iron garnet (a phenomenon known as the anomalous Hall effect, seen in magnetic materials like iron and cobalt). This confirmed that their graphene sheet had turned magnetic

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Swarm of microprobes to head for Jupiter

Swarm of microprobes to head for Jupiter | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Orbiting and flyby probes of planets in our solar system have provided astronomers with a lot of information about the "surface" of the outer planets and the moons that orbit those planets. However, probing deep within their atmospheres requires penetrating the dense clouds to obtain meaningful data. Spacecraft weighing more than 300 kilograms fall too slowly, which has the net effect of reducing how much data they transmit because the relay needs to be further away.


Much smaller probes, made possible by the miniaturization of electronics, cameras and other instruments, would survive the fall through Jupiter's atmosphere for much longer without a parachute, according to John Moores of the Centre for Research in the Earth and Space Sciences (CRESS), at York University, Toronto, and colleagues there and at the University of Toronto. "Our concept shows that for a small enough probe, you can strip off the parachute and still get enough time in the atmosphere to take meaningful data while keeping the relay close and the data rate high," Moores explains.


Tiny satellites that weigh less than one kilogram, known as micro, nano and cube satellites, are already used in Earth orbit for a wide range of applications. There are limitations to how much solar power such small satellites can gather and regulations preclude the use of plutonium-powered thermoelectric generators. Micro satellites also require substantial infrastructure to gather their data signals. The team suggests that the presence of the European Space Agency (ESA) JUICE orbiter in the Jovian system set to begin in 2030 might facilitate a tandem mission that carried micro satellites to the planet. The mission platform has been named SMARA for SMAll Reconnaissance of Atmospheres and gets its name from the wind-borne fruit of the maple tree, the samara.


The SMARA mission may help address various aspects of planetary science. For instance, given that more than two-thirds of the total mass of the solar system, not including the Sun, forms Jupiter, its study is important for understanding the nature of the solar nebula from which our sun and all its planets formed. Additionally, Jupiter is under constant bombardment from small bodies, such as asteroids, and again, understanding its atmosphere would shed new light on the nature of these. The planet's atmosphere may even represent a historical record of impacts again providing information about the composition of the solar system.


Additionally, Jupiter's is the deepest of all the planetary atmospheres in the solar system and so offers an exciting laboratory for understanding flow dynamics, cloud microphysics and radiative transfer under conditions that are very different from those we see on Earth and the other terrestrial planets.


Also, Jupiter is the closest of the gas giants but there are now known to be many more similar planets orbiting other stars. Studying our nearest gas giant neighbor in close-up detail might allow us to understand the gas giants of distant stars with greater clarity. NASA's robotic Galileo probe, which orbited Jupiter in 1995, had no camera, so the swarm of microprobes would represent a first look at Jupiter with resolution greater than 15 kilometers per pixel.

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A new type of imager for cancer diagnosis: Prototype for first traceable PET-MR phantom

A new type of imager for cancer diagnosis: Prototype for first traceable PET-MR phantom | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

As cancer diagnostic tools, a new class of imagers – which combines positron-emission tomography (PET) with magnetic resonance imaging (MR or MRI) – has shown promise in the few years since these hybrid machines have been commercially available. But to thoroughly assess PET-MR scanners' clinical performance, researchers will need to calibrate the machines in a way that is traceable to a national standard.


Aiding that effort, a collaboration of NIST scientists from PML's Radioactivity and Magnetics groups has created a prototype of the world's first traceable phantom, or calibration standard, for a dedicated PET-MR imager. PET-MR scanners may become an alternative in some cases to the commonly used PET-CT scanners, which combine PET's radioactive tracer-sensitive capabilities with the anatomical detail of x-ray computed tomography (CT). Though research is still needed to identify the best role for PET-MR, one advantage is minimizing patients' exposure to the ionizing radiation of a CT scan.


To build their prototype, the NIST team adapted a phantom that had been developed for MRI calibrations. Nicknamed "Phannie," the original MRI phantom consists of a plastic sphere about the size of a person's head filled with grids of smaller plastic spheres containing salt solutions that become magnetized in a magnetic field. The new phantom prototype includes a small, calibrated amount of fluorine-18 (F-18), a radionuclide that shows up in PET images.


In initial studies carried out using NIST's PET-CT scanner, the researchers found that the PET imaging data were accurate to within 1.5%, which is good enough for most applications, though the team hopes eventually to increase this accuracy to less than 1%.


The next iteration of the prototype should be built and tested within a year and will feature a more robust and user-friendly design, including sturdier walls and an improved filling system that will make it easier and faster to introduce the radioactive solutions. The future model may also include calibrated samples of solid, longer-lived radioactive sources for tests that can further monitor PET scanner performance.

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Scientists Turn Pure Metal into Glass

Scientists Turn Pure Metal into Glass | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Metallic glasses are unique in that their structure is not crystalline as it is in most metals, but rather is disordered, with the atoms randomly arranged. They are sought for various commercial applications because they are very strong and are easily processed.


Prof Mao’s method of creating metallic glass involved developing and implementing a novel technique – a cooling nano-device under in-situtransmission electron microscope. This technique enabled Prof Mao and his colleagues to achieve an unprecedentedly high cooling rate that allowed for the transformation of liquefied elemental metals tantalum (Ta) and vanadium (V) into glass.


“This is a fundamental issue explored by people in this field for a long time, but nobody could solve the problem,” said Prof Mao, who is the senior author of apaper describing the new technique in the journal Nature.


“People believed that it could be done, and now we’re able to show that it is possible.”

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Aragoscope is space telescope system that could achieve 1,000 times higher resolution than Hubble Telescope

Aragoscope is space telescope system that could achieve 1,000 times higher resolution than Hubble Telescope | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

A new space telescope concept, named the Aragoscope after French scientist Francois Arago who first detected diffracted light waves around a disk, could allow scientists to image space objects like black hole “event horizons” and plasma swaps between stars, said Cash of CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy. The novel telescope system also could point toward Earth and image objects as small as a rabbit, giving it the ability to hunt for lost campers in the mountains, he said. The Aragoscope could provide images up to 1,000 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. 

A conventional space telescope is pointed at an opaque disk along an axis to a distant target. The disk boosts the resolution of the system with no loss of collecting area. It can be used to achieve the diffraction limit based on the size of the low cost disk, rather than the high cost telescope mirror. One can envision affordable telescopes that could provide 7 centimeter resolution of the ground from geosynchronous orbit or images of the sky with one thousand times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.


“Quite frankly, our New Worlds starshade project overlaps with the architecture we want to use for the Aragoscope, so we feel we are in pretty good shape going into Phase Two,” said Cash. The Aragoscope would be parked in a geostationary orbit 25,000 miles high that follows Earth’s rotation, making it appear motionless from the ground.

“Traditionally, space telescopes have essentially been monolithic pieces of glass like the Hubble Space Telescope,” said CU-Boulder doctoral student Anthony Harness of the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, who is working with Cash on the project. “But the heavier the space telescope, the more expensive the cost of the launch. We have found a way to solve that problem by putting large, lightweight optics into space that offer a much higher resolution and lower cost.”

The opaque space disk would be made of a strong, dark, plastic-like material (think Hefty Bag) that could be launched in a compressed fashion like a parachute, then unfurled in orbit. The space shield would be tethered to the telescope at distances from tens to hundreds of miles depending on the size of the disk, said Harness.

“The opaque disk of the Aragoscope works in a similar way to a basic lens,” said Harness. “The light diffracted around the edge of the circular disk travels the same path length to the center and comes into focus as an image.” Since image resolution increases with telescope diameter, being able to launch such a large, yet lightweight disk would allow astronomers to achieve higher-resolution images than with smaller, traditional space telescopes, he said. 

Cash and Harness said they hope to conduct an astronomical demonstration of the Aragoscope concept in the lab using a 1-meter disk placed several meters from a telescope. The light source would be fixed about 5 or 10 meters behind the disk.

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4-Year-Old Australian Boy Receives World’s First Version of an Artificial Pancreas

4-Year-Old Australian Boy Receives World’s First Version of an Artificial Pancreas | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

In 2013 alone, over 79,000 children around the globe were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: an autoimmune disorder that affects the amount of insulin produced by the pancreas. Receiving insulin therapy through a traditional pump or injections can require a lot of work to ensure blood sugar levels are safe, particularly during the night. A tremendous step forward has been made in the treatment of this disease when a 4-year-old boy from Australia was fitted with the world’s first commercially-available artificial pancreas which automatically regulates his insulin levels. With the device managing insulin output, diabetics who typically test their blood sugar up to eight times a day will need to do so less frequently.


Xavier Hames from Perth received the device from Princess Margaret Hospital for Children, where he has been receiving treatment for his diabetes since he was 22 months old. This is also where clinical trials for the device have been ongoing for several years. Xavier is the first person to receive the pump commercially, which is available for AUS$10,000 (US$8,100).


The artificial pancreas features a sensor that reads blood sugar levels and communicates to the pump, which is connected to the body underneath the skin to administer the insulin. Unlike traditional pumps, this new technology does not deliver a constant stream of insulin to the body. Instead, the artificial pancreas uses an algorithm to track blood sugar levels over time, predicting when insulin is no longer required. This reduces the risk of dangerously low blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycemia.


Symptoms of a hypoglycemic attack can be mild and include sweating or fatigue, but in more serious cases, weakness, temporary unconsciousness, organ damage, coma, or death can occur. These typically happen while the person is sleeping (and therefore not eating) because the insulin is still working in their body, bringing their blood sugar to dangerously low levels. Diabetics often have to wake up several times each night in order to monitor their blood sugar.


"The majority of hypoglycemic attacks occur at night when a person is asleep and they might not be able to react or recognize the attack," Professor Tim Jones from Princess Margaret Hospital told The West Australian. "This device can predict hypoglycemia before it happens and stop insulin delivery before a predicted event. This, coupled with the fact that the pump automatically resumes insulin when glucose levels recover, is a real medical breakthrough.”


It is not clear exactly when Xavier was fitted with the pump, but his mother has already said that she expects it to greatly impact his day-to-day life. Because the pump stops administering insulin automatically, Xavier (and his parents) will be able to sleep more soundly when he would normally be at risk for hypoglycemia. Additionally, it will also allow him to act more like a kid and occasionally indulge in high carbohydrate foods such as pasta or snack foods. The device is also waterproof, meaning that Xavier can wear it in the bathtub or while swimming.

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First-of-its-kind tube laser created for on-chip optical communications

First-of-its-kind tube laser created for on-chip optical communications | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Nanophotonics, which takes advantage of the much faster speed of light compared with electrons, could potentially lead to future optical computers that transmit large amounts of data at very high speeds. Working toward this goal, researchers in a new study have developed a tiny laser 100 micrometers long and 5 micrometers in diameter—right at the limit of what the unaided human eye can see. As the first rolled-up semiconductor tube laser that is electrically powered, it can fit on an optical chip and serve as the light source for future optical communications technology.


A team of engineers, M. H. T. Dastjerdi, et al., at McGill University in Montreal have reported their development of the tiny laser in a recent issue of Applied Physics LettersFuture optical chips will require many vital components, such as modulators (which convert electrical signals into optical ones), photodetectors (which do the reverse), and waveguides (which control the path of light). Another essential requirement is, of course, the light itself, which may come from a micro- or nano-scale laser that can be integrated with the other components onto a silicon (Si) platform.


Although many different types of micro-sized lasers have been studied over the past several years, one promising candidate is a laser made from rolled-up semiconductor tubes. These lasers are fabricated by straining 2D nanomembranes on a substrate, and then selectively releasing parts of the nanomembranes so that they roll up into tiny tubes that act as optical cavities. The rolled-up tube lasers have an advantage over most other types of small lasers in that their optical emission characteristics can be precisely tailored using standard photolithography processes. They can also be easily transferred onto a Si platform, allowing for seamless integration with other chip components.


"In contrast to electrically injected devices, optically pumped devices require additional light sources (lasers, LEDs) to operate that take additional space on the chip and add a significant level of complexity," Zetian Mi, Associate Professor at McGill University, told Phys.org. "Therefore, optically pumped light sources are not practical for integrated chip-level optical communication systems."


As the researchers explain, fabricating electrically powered rolled-up tube lasers is difficult because the very thin nanomembranes make the process of injecting charge carriers into the laser very inefficient. To overcome this problem, the researchers designed the laser to lie horizontally on top of two supporting pieces connected to the electrodes in a U-shaped mesa design. In this formation, charge carriers are injected into the laser cavity from the sides. By circumventing the thin membrane walls, this lateral carrier injection scheme emits light from the center of the tube laser, significantly increasing injection efficiency.

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UCI and fellow scientists find a way to unboil eggs and speed up refolding by a factor of thousands

UCI and fellow scientists find a way to unboil eggs and speed up refolding by a factor of thousands | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

UC Irvine and Australian chemists have figured out how to unboil egg whites – an innovation that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the $160 billion global biotechnology industry, according to findings published today in the journal ChemBioChem.


“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” said Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry. “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order.”


Like many researchers, he has struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that have a wide range of applications but which frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes when they are formed, rendering them useless.


“It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is,” Weiss said. “The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material.”


But older methods are expensive and time-consuming: The equivalent of dialysis at the molecular level must be done for about four days. “The new process takes minutes,” Weiss noted. “It speeds things up by a factor of thousands.”


To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material. That’s half the process; at the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses. The scientists then employ a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine designed by Professor Colin Raston’s laboratory at South Australia’s Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form.


“This method … could transform industrial and research production of proteins,” the researchers write in ChemBioChemFor example, pharmaceutical companies currently create cancer antibodies in expensive hamster ovary cells that do not often misfold proteins. The ability to quickly and cheaply re-form common proteins from yeast or E. coli bacteria could potentially streamline protein manufacturing and make cancer treatments more affordable. Industrial cheese makers, farmers and others who use recombinant proteins could also achieve more bang for their buck.


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After smallpox and rinderpest, Guinea Worm 3rd disease-causing organism to become extinct

After smallpox and rinderpest, Guinea Worm 3rd disease-causing organism to become extinct | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The Guinea worm is inching ever closer to extinction, but unlike just about every other endangered species, no one is going to try to save it, least of all scientists. On the contrary, the worm’s disappearance would mark the scouring of a disease from the face of the earth—a feat humanity’s only been able to celebrate twice before, with the end of smallpox in 1980 and of the cattle disease rinderpest in 2011. Polio, despite the fact that a vaccine’s been around for more than half a century, has managed to hang on by its microscopic threads.


The Guinea worm is a parasite that enters the human body when the unwitting host-to-be drinks water contaminated with tiny water fleas in which Guinea worm larvae lurk. Once ingested, the fleas die and the Guinea worm larvae enter the host’s abdominal cavity and, unbeknownst to the host, begin maturing into a worm or worms that grow up to three feet in length. After about a year a painful blister forms on the host’s skin accompanied by itching and a burning sensation. Within about 10 to 15 days, one or more worms erupt from the person’s skin in a painful and drawn-out process. The emergence can occur from different parts of the body, including the roof of the mouth, the genitals, or the eye sockets, but around 90 percent of the worms emerge from the lower legs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).


While the disease rarely kills, it can leave the host debilitated and weakened for a short or long period of time. Thanks in large part to the work of the Carter Center, the incidence of Guinea worm disease (also known as dracunculiasis, which is Latin for “affliction with little dragons”) has plummeted in recent years, falling from an estimated 3.5 million cases worldwide in the mid-1980s to just 148 in 2013 and 126 in 2014, according to the WHO.


How has such success been achieved? It’s taken the concerted effort of all involved—the scientists who have figured out how to contain it, community organizers who have helped spread the word on preventative solutions, and the people in areas where Guinea worm disease has been a big problem who are implementing the necessary changes to keep the parasite at bay.

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Giant atmospheric rivers add mass to Antarctica’s ice sheet

Giant atmospheric rivers add mass to Antarctica’s ice sheet | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Extreme weather phenomena called atmospheric rivers were behind intense snowstorms recorded in 2009 and 2011 in East Antarctica. The resulting snow accumulation partly offset recent ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet, report researchers from KU Leuven.   


Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow water vapour plumes stretching thousands of kilometres across the sky over vast ocean areas. They are capable of rapidly transporting large amounts of moisture around the globe and can cause devastating precipitation when they hit coastal areas.

Although atmospheric rivers are notorious for their flood-inducing impact in Europe and the Americas, their importance for Earth’s polar climate – and for global sea levels – is only now coming to light.


In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by Irina Gorodetskaya of KU Leuven’s Regional Climate Studies research group used a combination of advanced modelling techniques and data collected at Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth polar research station in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land to produce the first ever in-depth look at how atmospheric rivers affect precipitation in Antarctica.


The researchers studied two particular instances of heavy snowfall in the East Antarctic region in detail, one in May 2009 and another in February 2011, and found that both were caused by atmospheric rivers slamming into the East Antarctic coast.   


The Princess Elisabeth polar research station recorded snow accumulation equivalent to up to 5 centimetres of water for each of these weather events, good for 22 per cent of the total annual snow accumulation in those years.


The findings point to atmospheric rivers’ impressive snow-producing power. “When we looked at all the extreme weather events that took place during 2009 and 2011, we found that the nine atmospheric rivers that hit East Antarctica in those years accounted for 80 per cent of the exceptional snow accumulation at Princess Elisabeth station,” says Irina Gorodetskaya.

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