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Researchers have carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms

Researchers have carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms | Amazing Science |

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms. This has allowed them to map the evolutionary history of eukaryotic genes in unprecedented detail - giving insight into the mechanisms of evolution in the very earliest forms of life.

Their paper, which is published in Nature, builds upon the work of famous palae-ontologist Stephen Jay Gould who suggested that even though evolution is usually a slow process, it can sometimes take great jumps forward in a relatively short space of time. This theory was called 'punctuated equilibrium'.

The team, including the Faculty of Life Sciences' Professor James McInerney, wanted to look at the different ways in which eukaryotic and prokaryotic life evolved to see if there were any clues to how evolution could do these great leaps forward. Traditional models had shown that lateral gene transfer (LGT) (the flow and swapping of genes between two individuals) happened in prokaryotes and thus helped explain the enormous diversity they have compared to eukaryotes. The team therefore asked: could LGT in eukaryotes explain these great leaps forward?

The project lead, Professor Bill Martin of the University of Dusseldorf explained the results: "The big surprise of the study was that eukaryotes, don't engage in this kind of continuous gene swapping nearly as much [as prokaryotes] – though when they do, it's a really, really important event and in early evolution, it corresponded to the origin of organelles. These events were huge evolutionary leaps."

Organelles are parts of the cell that scientists can use to help differentiate between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells. Eukaryotes crucially have structures like mitochondria and chloroplasts, mini-factories that work in the cell to provide energy for the organism. Research has shown that both mitochondria and chloroplasts evolved from two cells coming together to share genes and form a 'hybrid' organism.

Importantly the team's computer model has shown that after this initial hybrid-forming stage, the organism starts to lose some of its newly acquired genetic information. Professor McInerney explains: "It's like in a game of chess. The cells starts out with two full sets of genes, one from each symbiotic partner, all lined up at either end of the board.

"But during evolution, the pieces are removed from the board one by one, so that at the end of the game almost no pieces are left, and from those that are left one tries to reconstruct how the game went, retracing the moves back in time."

The team's research has therefore shown that these evolutionary great leaps forward can take place when prokaryotes and eukaryotes mix their genes together in an endosymbiotic event. This evidence gives strong support to the theory of punctuated evolution and can explain the origins of complex life here on Earth.

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Brain scans better forecast math learning in kids than do skill tests, study finds

Brain scans better forecast math learning in kids than do skill tests, study finds | Amazing Science |

Brain scans from 8-year-old children can predict gains in their mathematical ability over the next six years, according to a new study from the Stanford University School of MedicineThe research tracked 43 children longitudinally for six years, starting at age 8, and showed that while brain characteristics strongly indicated which children would be the best math learners over the following six years, the children’s performance on math, reading, IQ and memory tests at age 8 did not.

The study, published online Aug. 18 in The Journal of Neuroscience, moves scientists closer to their goal of helping children who struggle to acquire math skills. “We can identify brain systems that support children’s math skill development over six years in childhood and early adolescence,” said the study’s lead author, Tanya Evans, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“A long-term goal of this research is to identify children who might benefit most from targeted math intervention at an early age,” said senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Mathematical skills are crucial in our increasingly technological society, and our new data show which brain features forecast future growth in math abilities.”

At the start of the study, the children received structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans. None of the kids had neurological or psychiatric disorders, and their intelligence fell in a range considered normal for their age. The scans were conducted while the children lay quietly in the scanner; the scans measured brain structure and intrinsic functional connections between brain regions, and were not tied to performance on any particular math task.

The 8-year-olds also took standardized tests (given outside the scanner) to measure IQ, as well as reading, math and working-memory skills. All of the children returned for at least one follow-up assessment of these skills before age 14, and many children had other additional follow-ups.

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For the First Time, Radio Astronomers Find a Link Between Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) and Two Galaxies Colliding

For the First Time, Radio Astronomers Find a Link Between Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) and Two Galaxies Colliding | Amazing Science |

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are among the most dramatically explosive events in the universe. They’re often dubbed the largest explosions since the Big Bang (it’s pretty hard to quantify how big the Big Bang was, but suffice it to say it was quite large). There are two classes of GRBs: long-duration and short-duration. Long-duration GRBs (which interest us today) are caused when extremely massive stars go bust.

The most massive stars burn through their fuel much faster, and die out much more quickly than smaller stars. Therefore, long-duration GRBs should only be seen in galaxies with a lot of recent star formation. All the massive stars will have already died in a galaxy which isn’t forming new stars. Lots of detailed observations have been required to confirm this connection between GRBs and their host galaxies. It’s, in fact, one of the main pieces of evidence for the massive-star explanation.

The authors of a recent paper studied the host galaxy of a long-duration GRB with an additional goal in mind. Rather than just show that this galaxy is forming lots of stars, they wanted to look at its gas to explainwhy it’s forming so many stars. So, they went looking for neutral hydrogen gas in the galaxy. Neutral gas is a galaxy’s fuel for forming new stars. Understanding the properties of the gas should tell us about the way in which the galaxy is forming stars.

Hot, ionized hydrogen is easy to observe, because it emits a lot of light in the UV and optical ranges. This ionized hydrogen is found right around young, star-forming regions, and so has been seen in GRB hosts before. But the cold, neutral hydrogen – which makes up most of a galaxy’s gas – is much harder to observe directly. It doesn’t emit much light on its own, but one of the main places it does emit is in the radio band: the 21-cm line. For more information on the physics involved, see this astrobite page, but suffice it to say that pretty much all neutral hydrogen emits weakly at 21 cm.

This signal is weak enough that it hasn’t been detected in the more distant GRB hosts. Today’s authors observed the host galaxy of the closest-yet-observed GRB (980425), which is only 100 million light-years away: about 50 times farther away than the Andromeda galaxy. This is practically just next-door, compared to most GRBs. This close proximity allowed them to make the first ever detection of 21-cm hydrogen emission from a GRB host galaxy.

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Why we’re smarter than chickens: Brain-specific exon skipping might be partly to blame

Why we’re smarter than chickens: Brain-specific exon skipping might be partly to blame | Amazing Science |

Toronto researchers have discovered that a single molecular event in our cells could hold the key to how we evolved to become the smartest animal on the planet. Benjamin Blencowe, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre and Banbury Chair in Medical Research, and his team have uncovered how a small change in a protein called PTBP1 can spur the creation of neurons – cells that make the brain – that could have fuelled the evolution of mammalian brains to become the largest and most complex among vertebrates. The study is published in the August 20 issue of Science (

Brain size and complexity vary enormously across vertebrates, but it is not clear how these differences came about. Humans and frogs, for example, have been evolving separately for 350 million years and have very different brain abilities. Yet scientists have shown that they use a remarkably similar repertoire of genes to build organs in the body. So how is it that a similar number of genes, that are also switched on or off in similar ways in diverse vertebrate species, generate a vast range of organ size and complexity?

The key lays in the process that Blencowe’s group studies, known as alternative splicing (AS), whereby gene products are assembled into proteins, which are the building blocks of life. During AS, gene fragments – called exons – are shuffled to make different protein shapes. It’s like LEGO, where some fragments can be missing from the final protein shape.

AS enables cells to make more than one protein from a single gene, so that the total number of different proteins in a cell greatly surpasses the number of available genes. A cell’s ability to regulate protein diversity at any given time reflects its ability to take on different roles in the body. Blencowe’s previous work showed that AS prevalence increases with vertebrate complexity. So although the genes that make bodies of vertebrates might be similar, the proteins they give rise to are far more diverse in animals such as mammals, than in birds and frogs.

And nowhere is AS more widespread than in the brain. “We wanted to see if AS could drive morphological differences in the brains of different vertebrate species,” says Serge Gueroussov, a graduate student in Blencowe’s lab who is the lead author of the study. Gueroussov previously helped identify PTBP1 as a protein that takes on another form in mammals, in addition to the one common to all vertebrates. The second form of mammalian PTBP1 is shorter because a small fragment is omitted during AS and does not make it into the final protein shape. Could this newly acquired, mammalian version of PTBP1 give clues to how our brains evolved?

PTBP1 is both a target and major regulator of AS. PTBP1’s job in a cell is to stop it from becoming a neuron by holding off AS of hundreds of other gene products. Gueroussov showed that in mammalian cells, the presence of the second, shorter version of PTBP1 unleashes a cascade of AS events, tipping the scales of protein balance so that a cell becomes a neuron. What’s more, when Gueroussov engineered chicken cells to make the shorter, mammalian-like, PTBP1, this triggered AS events that are found in mammals.

“One interesting implication of our work is that this particular switch between the two versions of PTBP1 could have affected the timing of when neurons are made in the embryo in a way that creates differences in morphological complexity and brain size,” says Blencowe, who is also a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics. As scientists continue to sift through countless molecular events occurring in our cells, they’ll keep finding clues as to how our bodies and minds came to be.

“This is the tip of an iceberg in terms of the full repertoire of AS changes that likely have contributed major roles in driving evolutionary differences,” says Blencowe.

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DNA And Protein Self-Assemble Into Biodegradable Solar Antenna

DNA And Protein Self-Assemble Into Biodegradable Solar Antenna | Amazing Science |

A new light-harvesting antenna complex could pave the way for making biologically based solar cells. Challa V. Kumar and his team at the University of Connecticut made the biodegradable antenna from DNA, modified bovine serum albumin (BSA), and four fluorescent dyes.

Kumar reported the research Monday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston during a session sponsored by the Division of Analytical Chemistry.

The antenna is inexpensive to make because it doesn’t require complicated assembly procedures: The components arrange themselves. Each dye binds to a specific site on the DNA or protein. One dye binds to the minor groove of the DNA double helix; the other three bind to specific sites on the albumin. The dye-loaded protein in turn binds to the negatively charged DNA because the researchers chemically modified the albumin to be positively charged. The resulting DNA-protein matrix holds the dyes close enough, but not too close, for efficient energy transfer between the dyes.

In the resulting “bucket brigade,” the dyes transfer excitation energy from one to the next until it reaches the lowest energy acceptor dye. With the current set of dyes, the antenna absorbs blue light and then emits mostly red. The overall efficiency of the antenna in converting blue to red photons is only 23%. But that efficiency is still remarkable for a system that involves energy transfer between four dye molecules and has a relatively inefficient final dye that sets an upper limit of 39% for the whole antenna, Kumar said. The team plans to find a more efficient final dye.

The complex acts as an antenna that amplifies energy capture relative to the final dye alone, which can absorb blue light and emit red. The multiple dyes allow the antenna to capture a wider range of wavelengths and thus more energy that can be funneled to the final dye. Excitation with blue light results in 2.3 times more red emission with the entire antenna than with the final dye alone, Kumar said.

The antenna also functions efficiently after exposure to 80 °C for more than 169 days, which mimics the harsh conditions under which solar cells operate. “It’s a very intriguing idea to use DNA as a matrix for dye-associated BSA,” commented Ishita Mukerji, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Wesleyan University who studies DNA-protein interactions. The complex “has a lot of promise for making an antenna for solar cells.”

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Genetically Engineered Pigs Could Be The Organ Donors Of The Future

Genetically Engineered Pigs Could Be The Organ Donors Of The Future | Amazing Science |

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services more and more people are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant each year. At this time 122,407 people need a new organ for survival. The statistics look pretty grim because on average 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant and every 10 minutes a new person is added to the national transplant waiting list.

Scientists are looking to find an alternative tissue source and it seems that they are close to finding one. The research is called xenotransplantation research and it is making good progress. Xenografts (tissue or organs that are transplanted into or grafted from an organism of one species into an organism of another species) are not new because a very common example of this is the use of pig heart valves in humans. But the new research takes it a step further and tries to get more pig organs available for humans.

A peer reviewed paper has just recently been published in the Journal of the International Xenotransplantation Association where the researchers show that they were able to keep a pig kidney alive in a baboon for 136 days which is a record for a life-supporting organ graft survival to date. The researchers also claim that they were able to keep a pig heart alive in a baboon for 945 days, but that research hasn’t been published yet.

The researchers have reported that they were able to achieve this by humanizing the pigs with adding as many as five human genes to them. This is being done to diminish and even stop organ rejection in the organism that is accepting the new organ. Organ rejection is one of the biggest problems with animal organ transplants because it sets of a very strong immune response and the scientists hope to prevent such a response with the use of genetically modified animals. Bruno Reichart, a professor at the University of Munich, called the survival of these pig hearts “a major breakthrough.”

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Quantum 'keys' keep secrets safe from code breakers

Quantum 'keys' keep secrets safe from code breakers | Amazing Science |

Alexander Sergienko and other physicists are using quantum mechanics to keep encrypted messages safe from code breakers. Here's how it works:

Each “bit” of the key is encoded in the polarization of a single photon—essentially, the direction in which the light particle is “waving.” It can be up, down, or anything in between. In this case, though, each photon is prepared set in only one of two “bases”—horizontal/vertical, where horizontal might represent a one and vertical a zero; or tilted at an angle, with 45 degrees up representing one and 45 degrees down representing zero.

Sergienko maps out how it works using three characters well known to physics students: Alice, who’s sending the message; Bob, who is receiving it; and Eve, an eavesdropper out to covertly intercept it. To read out the state of each incoming photon, Bob has to pick the correct base. Alice can’t tell him the bases in advance, so he guesses randomly. Later, Alice reports the bases she used for each photon, and Bob throws away the readings for which he picked the wrong base. The result: Bob and Alice end up with identical, random strings of ones and zeros that they can use as a fresh key for their future communications.

If eavesdropper Eve tries to intercept photons traveling from Alice to Bob, Bob will notice a shortage of incoming photons. Eve could attempt to hide the theft by copying the polarization of each stolen photon and sending it on to Bob, but the laws of quantum mechanics, which make it impossible to perfectly “clone” the quantum state of a photon, get in her way, so she is bound to make mistakes that betray her presence. So, not only do Alice and Bob have truly random keys in hand, they also have the ultimate security against eavesdroppers: the laws of physics.

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With BioDirect, Monsanto Hopes RNA Sprays Can Someday Deliver Drought Tolerance and Other Traits to Plants

With BioDirect, Monsanto Hopes RNA Sprays Can Someday Deliver Drought Tolerance and Other Traits to Plants | Amazing Science |
Monsanto is learning how to modify crops by spraying them with RNA rather than tinkering with their genes.

Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked a panel of experts to help it decide how to regulate RNA insecticides, including sprays as well as those incorporated into a plant’s genes. In an 81-page letter to the agency, Monsanto lobbied against any special rules. It said RNA products should actually be spared safety tests it called irrelevant, including those designed to assess whether they were toxic to rodents and whether they could cause allergies, as well as in-depth studies of what happens to the molecules in the environment. Only proteins cause allergies, Monsanto said. And when the company doused dirt with RNA, it degraded and was undetectable after 48 hours.

Monsanto's own company research probably won’t ever satisfy critics. The National Honey Bee Advisory Board told the EPA that using RNA interference at this point would put natural systems at “the epitome of risk” and could be as regrettable as our earlier embrace of DDT. “We are decades away from enough scientific understanding to allow sustainable and predictable use of this technology under field conditions,” they said. The beekeepers worry that pollinators could be hurt by unintended effects. They made the point that the genomes of many insects aren’t yet known, so scientists can’t predict whether their genes will match an RNA target.

The EPA’s advisors, in their report last year, agreed that there was little evidence of a risk to people from eating RNA. But is there some kind of ecological risk? This question they found harder to answer. Monsanto paints RNA as safe and quick to disappear, yet the aim is to make it lethal to insects and weeds, and the company wants to develop longer-lasting formulations. How long? In Hunter’s trees the molecules persisted for months. What’s more, Monsanto’s own discoveries have underscored the surprising ways in which double-stranded RNA can move between species.

These unfolding discoveries suggest that complex biology is at work, leading the EPA’s advisors to say that the “potential scale” of RNA used in agriculture “warrants exploration of the potential for unintended ecological effects.” RNA may be natural. But introducing large amounts of targeted RNA molecules into the environment is not. The advisory panel concluded that “knowledge gaps make it difficult to predict” exactly what problems might arise.

Yet the biggest challenge to RNA sprays, Nitzan Paldi told me, isn’t going to come from regulators. The real problem can be summarized in a single word: Monsanto. “For half the world, that is enough to know it’s evil,” he says. “Monsanto is introducing a new technology, full stop. But Monsanto is also the best way to make this real. For the scientifically literate, this is the dream molecule.”

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High Pressure Compound Makes Superconductor at 203 kelvin (-70˚C)

High Pressure Compound Makes Superconductor at 203 kelvin (-70˚C) | Amazing Science |

Hydrogen sulfide—the chemical compound that emits a powerful rotten egg smell—is a superconductor with enormous potential. The compound conducts electricity with no resistance at temperatures as high as 203 kelvin (–70 °C), physicists reported in Nature this week.That means hydrogen sulfide is the highest-temperature superconductor known to man, besting the previous record-holder by about 40 ºC. And that matters because it’s a big step toward finding a room temperature superconductor, which could revolutionize electronics, making everyday electricity generation and transmission vastly more efficient.

Superconductors — materials that can channel electric current with no resistance — were first discovered in the early 20th century. They’re used in some of the most important technologies of the modern world, from MRI machines and particle accelerators to microwave ovens and mobile phones. But there’s one persistent problem: It takes extraordinarily low temperatures and lots of energy to form these magical materials. And some of the highest-temperature superconductors are unusual, expensive substances. An exotic, copper-containing class of compounds called “cuprates” can superconduct at 164 K (–109 °C) if first subjected to very high pressures.

Now, cuprates have to take a backseat to something much more pedestrian. When Mikhail Eremets and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany squeezed tiny amounts of hydrogen sulfide to almost 1.6 million times atmospheric pressure, the common material was transformed. It became superconductive at temperatures that actually exist (albeit in places no one would ever want to live) on the surface of the Earth. That’s a first, and it could mean that an entire class of perfectly natural, hydrogen-bearing compounds are good candidates for high-temperature superconductivity.

Some scientists are thrilled at the news: Igor Mazin of the Naval Research Laboratory, calls hydrogen sulfide “the holy grail of superconductors.” Others are keeping their shirts on until the find is independently confirmed. According to Nature News, a group at Osaka University has so far been able to reproduce the electrical but not the magnetic properties of a superconductor in hydrogen sulfide, while others groups have yet to confirm any superconductivity at all.

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New internet routing method allows users to avoid sending data through undesired countries

New internet routing method allows users to avoid sending data through undesired countries | Amazing Science |
Censorship is one of the greatest threats to open communication on the Internet. Information may be censored by a user's country of residence or the information's desired destination. But recent studies show that censorship by countries through which the data travels along its route is also a danger.

Now, computer scientists at the University of Maryland have developed a method for providing concrete proof to Internet users that their information did not cross through certain geographic areas. The new system offers advantages over existing systems: it is immediately deployable and does not require knowledge of—or modifications to—the Internet's routing hardware or policies.

"With recent events, such as censorship of Internet traffic, suspicious 'boomerang routing' where data leaves a region only to come back again, and monitoring of users' data, we became increasingly interested in this notion of empowering users to have more control over what happens with their data," says project lead Dave Levin, an assistant research scientist in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

This new system, called Alibi Routing, will be presented on August 20, 2015, at the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Data Communication (ACM SIGCOMM) conference in London. Levin teamed with associate professor Neil Spring and professor Bobby Bhattacharjee, who have appointments in UMD's Department of Computer Science and UMIACS, on the paper.

Information transmitted over the Internet, such as website requests or email content, is broken into packets and sent through a series of routers on the way to its destination. However, users have very little control over what parts of the world these packets traverse.

Some parts of the world have been known to modify data returned to users, thus censoring content. In 2012, researchers demonstrated that Domain Name System (DNS) queries that merely pass through China's borders are subject to the same risk as if the requests came from one of the country's own residents.

To evaluate their Alibi Routing method, the researchers simulated a network with 20,000 participants and selected forbidden regions from the 2012 "Enemies of the Internet" report published by Reporters Without Borders—China, Syria, North Korea and Saudi Arabia—as well as the three other countries with the highest number of Internet users at the time of the study—the United States, China and Japan.

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Horses Smile and Pout Just Like Humans, Study Says

Horses Smile and Pout Just Like Humans, Study Says | Amazing Science |

Horse faces share some surprising similarities to human faces, shows a curious new study published in the journal PLOS ONEAfter dissecting a horse head, analyzing its musculature, and scrutinizing 15 hours of horse video footage, a group of researchers managed to map out every possible facial expression a horse could make. It turns out our faces are a lot more similar than we think.

“Horses and humans are distantly related and have such differently shaped faces that I personally thought there would be really no similarities,” says study author Jennifer Wathan, a PhD candidate in social cognition and communication in horses at the University of Sussex in the U.K. “But there was a surprising amount of similarities.”

For the first time, Wathan and her colleagues created a full map of a horse face using a technique called the Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS). It’s a tool for objectively measuring facial movement, without letting subjective interpretations of facial expressions get in the way.

Humans have a FACS (we make 27 separate facial movements), and so do chimpanzees (they make 13) and dogs (16 for them). But horses had even more: 17 facial movements in total. “Most people who have horses know they are expressive and use their ears a lot, but I’ve got to admit, I was really surprised by the extent to which they use their face,” Wathan says. “They’ve got a huge facial repertoire.”

Humans also pull the corners of their lips back—also known as smiling—sort of like horses do. “It seems to be part of the submissive gesture,” she says, and younger horses tend to do it to older horses. Finally, both humans and horses widen their eyes in fear.

Findings like these can help us understand the evolution of complex communication between species—and they may suggest that using complex facial expressions to communicate is an ancient ability we shared with our last common ancestor with horses, or that the ability has evolved under the social pressure to communicate with important social partners, Wathan says.” Horses, like us, have a rich social life where effective communication would be to their advantage, she says.

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Do they read, even if they can't write?

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How aging cripples the immune system

How aging cripples the immune system | Amazing Science |

Aging cripples the production of new immune cells, decreasing the immune system’s response to vaccines and putting the elderly at risk of infection, but antioxidants in the diet may slow this damaging process.

That’s a new finding by scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), published in an open-access paper in the journal Cell Reports. The problem is focused on an organ called the thymus, which produces T lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) — critical immune cells that must be continuously replenished so they can respond to new infections. “The thymus begins to atrophy rapidly in very early adulthood, simultaneously losing its function,” said TSRI Professor Howard Petrie“This new study shows for the first time a mechanism for the long-suspected connection between normal immune function and antioxidants.”

Scientists have been hampered in their efforts to develop specific immune therapies for the elderly by a lack of knowledge of the underlying mechanisms of this process. To explore these mechanisms, Petrie and his team developed a computational approach for analyzing the activity of genes in two major cell types in the thymus — stromal cells and lymphoid cells — in mouse tissues, which are similar to human tissues in terms of function and age-related atrophy. The team found that stromal cells were specifically deficient in an antioxidant enzyme called catalase. That resulted in elevated levels of the reactive oxygen byproducts of metabolism, which cause accelerated metabolic damage.*

Taken together, the findings provide support for the “free-radical theory” of aging, which proposes that reactive oxygen species (such as hydrogen peroxide), produced during normal metabolism (and from other sources) cause cellular damage that contributes to aging and age-related diseases. Free radicals are especially reactive atoms or groups of atoms that have one or more unpaired electrons.  Besides those produced in the body as a by-product of normal metabolism, they can also be introduced from an outside source, such as tobacco smoke or other toxins.

Other studies have suggested that sex hormones, particularly androgens such as testosterone, play a major role in the aging process. But according to the researchers, those studies have failed to answer the key question: why does the thymus atrophy so much more rapidly than other body tissues?

“There’s no question that the thymus is remarkably responsive to androgens,” Petrie noted, “but our study shows that the fundamental mechanism of aging in the thymus, namely accumulated metabolic damage, is the same as in other body tissues. However, the process is accelerated in the thymus by a deficiency in the essential protective effects of catalase, which is found at higher levels in almost all other body tissues.”

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'Natural' selection of robots: On the origin of (robot) species

'Natural' selection of robots: On the origin of (robot) species | Amazing Science |

Researchers have observed the process of evolution by natural selection at work in robots, by constructing a ‘mother’ robot that can design, build and test its own ‘children’, and then use the results to improve the performance of the next generation, without relying on computer simulation or human intervention.

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have built a mother robot that can independently build its own children and test which one does best; and then use the results to inform the design of the next generation, so that preferential traits are passed down from one generation to the next.

Without any human intervention or computer simulation beyond the initial command to build a robot capable of movement, the mother created children constructed of between one and five plastic cubes with a small motor inside.

In each of five separate experiments, the mother designed, built and tested generations of ten children, using the information gathered from one generation to inform the design of the next. The results, reported in the open access journal PLOS One, found that preferential traits were passed down through generations, so that the ‘fittest’ individuals in the last generation performed a set task twice as quickly as the fittest individuals in the first generation.

“Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on,” said lead researcher Dr Fumiya Iida of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who worked in collaboration with researchers at ETH Zurich. “That’s essentially what this robot is doing – we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species.”

For each robot child, there is a unique ‘genome’ made up of a combination of between one and five different genes, which contains all of the information about the child’s shape, construction and motor commands. As in nature, evolution in robots takes place through ‘mutation’, where components of one gene are modified or single genes are added or deleted, and ‘crossover’, where a new genome is formed by merging genes from two individuals.

In order for the mother to determine which children were the fittest, each child was tested on how far it travelled from its starting position in a given amount of time. The most successful individuals in each generation remained unchanged in the next generation in order to preserve their abilities, while mutation and crossover were introduced in the less successful children.

The researchers found that design variations emerged and performance improved over time: the fastest individuals in the last generation moved at an average speed that was more than twice the average speed of the fastest individuals in the first generation. This increase in performance was not only due to the fine-tuning of design parameters, but also because the mother was able to invent new shapes and gait patterns for the children over time, including some designs that a human designer would not have been able to build.

“One of the big questions in biology is how intelligence came about – we’re using robotics to explore this mystery,” said Iida. “We think of robots as performing repetitive tasks, and they’re typically designed for mass production instead of mass customization, but we want to see robots that are capable of innovation and creativity.”

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Scientists warn of the risk from air pollution over the megacities of West Africa

Scientists warn of the risk from air pollution over the megacities of West Africa | Amazing Science |
New research warns of the risks posed by the increasing air pollution over the cities of West Africa – amid fears it could have an impact on human health, meteorology and regional climate.

Human activity in Africa significantly contributes to air pollution. However, no detailed data regarding country-by-country pollutant emissions in the continent was available until now. To remedy this scientists mapped these emissions in Africa for 2005, before estimating them for 2030, using three scenarios. The researchers showed that the climate change models used by the IPCC underestimate Africa's emissions, which could account for 20-55% of global anthropogenic emissions of gaseous and particulate pollutants by 2030.

The atmosphere above West Africa is still one of the least studied and understood on the planet, despite its central role for the health and economic wellbeing of a large and increasing population. Rapidly expanding cities such as Lagos in Nigeria, Accra in Ghana and Abidjan in Ivory Coast are producing large amounts of harmful aerosols and gaseous pollutants.

Scientists say human health, food security and the climate of the region is at risk and there is an urgent need for better observations and models to quantify the magnitude and characteristic of these impacts.

The region's climate is characterized by a sensitive monsoon system which controls winds, temperature, clouds and most importantly rain. Changes in air pollutants may be causing changes in the solar heating and clouds, which in turn may lead to changes the rainfall and temperature. As the population of the region grows these changes may intensify, the scientists say.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, is part of a EU-funded research project which is led by Professor Peter Knippertz from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and also involves the University of Leeds and other European and African institutions.

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Sadly, Not All Waterworlds Can Host Life

Sadly, Not All Waterworlds Can Host Life | Amazing Science |
A waterworld the temperatures on which are outside a specific range will become hotter if it's warm and colder if it's cold.

During its formation, Venus was in the Solar System’s habitable zone – much like Earth is now. Scientists think its surface contained liquid water, and its atmosphere was somewhat like Earth’s. Maybe there was life, too. However, as the levels of carbon dioxide kept increasing, its atmosphere became opaque, trapping most of the heat reflected by its surface, and Venus heated up to the point where its oceans boiled away. Today, life on the planet’s waterless surface is considered unlikely, except perhaps by those who’ve read a November 2014 study involving supercritical carbon dioxide, and those who believe in Hell.

Why can’t this be the case on alien worlds possessing water as well? Discoveries made since the mid-1990s – especially by the Kepler space telescope and probes in the Jovian and Saturnian systems – have unearthed a variety of worlds that could, or do, have liquid water on or below the surface. On Earth, life has been found wherever liquid water has been found, so liquid water on other planets and moons gets scientists excited about the possibility of alien life. Recent discoveries of a subsurface ocean on Europa and possibly on some other moons of Jupiter and Saturn have even prompted NASA to plan for a probe to Europa in the mid-2020s.

A study published (not free - paywall!) in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society applies the brakes on that excitement to some extent. A kind of exoplanet which scientists think could host lots of liquid water—some 100-times the amount of water on Earth, in fact— are the so-called ‘waterworlds‘. They would have oceans so deep and wide that, according to the study, their effects on themselves and the planet’s climate would be incomparable to that on Earth – and altogether might not be hospitable to life the way we know liquid water can usually be.

The study’s authors write, “One important consequence is, for example, the formation of high-pressure water ice at the bottom of the ocean, which prevents the immediate contact of the planetary crust with the liquid ocean.” This in turn mutes the carbon-silicate cycle, a recycling of carbon and silicon compounds on the ocean floor that determines how much carbon dioxide is released from the oceans into the atmosphere.

The authors calculate that on an (at least) Earth-sized waterworld in the habitable zone of its star, there can be 25-100 Earth oceans for temperatures ranging from the freezing point of water to just beyond the boiling point. So a colder planet, say at 0° C, would have a smaller ocean and lesser liquid water to be able to absorb the carbon dioxide (and its absorptive capabilities can’t ‘power up’ without the carbon-silicate cycle). Yet, at lower temperatures the oceans are able to dissolve more gases, even as the pressure exerted by the gas on the ocean’s surface is higher. So a colder planet with a smaller ocean will dissolve more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – turning the planet even cooler.

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MIT researchers invent process for 3D-printing complex transparent glass forms

MIT researchers invent process for 3D-printing complex transparent glass forms | Amazing Science |

An additive-manufacturing glass-printing process called G3DP (Glass 3D Printing) has been developed by researchers in the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with the Glass Lab at MIT.

The platform is based on a dual heated-chamber concept. The upper chamber acts as a Kiln Cartridge (a thermally insulated heater) operating at about 1900°F to melt the glass, while the lower chamber serves to anneal (form) the structures. The molten material gets funneled through an alumina-zircon-silica nozzle, which extrudes the material onto a build platform, where it cools and hardens. By tuning the form, transparency, and color variation, the process can drive, limit, or control light transmission, reflection and refraction in the final material.

The G3DP project was created in collaboration between the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, the Mechanical Engineering Department, the MIT Glass Lab, and the Wyss Institute.

A selection of Glass pieces will appear in an exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City in 2016.  An “Additive Manufacturing of Optically Transparent Glass” patent application was filed on April 25, 2014.

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Meteorite Impacts Can Create DNA Building Blocks

Meteorite Impacts Can Create DNA Building Blocks | Amazing Science |

The emergence of life's building blocks on the prebiotic Earth was the first crucial step for the origins of life. Extraterrestrial delivery of intact amino acids and nucleobases is the prevailing hypothesis for their availability on prebiotic Earth because of the difficulties associated with the production of these organics from terrestrial carbon and nitrogen sources under plausible prebiotic conditions. However, the variety and amounts of these intact organics delivered by meteorites would have been limited. Previous shock–recovery experiments have demonstrated that meteorite impact reactions could have generated organics on the prebiotic Earth.

A new study shown that meteorite impacts on ancient oceans may have created nucleobases and amino acids. Researchers from Tohoku University, National Institute for Materials Science and Hiroshima University discovered this after conducting impact experiments simulating a meteorite hitting an ancient ocean. A new study shown that meteorite impacts on ancient oceans may have created nucleobases and amino acids. Researchers from Tohoku University, National Institute for Materials Science and Hiroshima University discovered this after conducting impact experiments simulating a meteorite hitting an ancient ocean. 

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Illumina wants to enable any developer with a computer to start a genomics company

Illumina wants to enable any developer with a computer to start a genomics company | Amazing Science |

The CEO of the world’s leading DNA sequencing company says he knows how to finally get consumers interested in their genomes: by creating an enormous app store for genetic information. 

Recently, Illumina said that along with Warburg Pincus and Sutter Hill Ventures it was investing $100 million in a new company called Helix to make consumer genomics part of the Internet mainstream. Illumina’s CEO, Jay Flatley, said in an interview that Helix will subsidize the cost of decoding people’s genomes in hopes of spurring the creation of consumer apps that will draw on the DNA data repeatedly. “You saw what happened with the Apple app store: it just unleashed the consumer side because apps are so cheap to make,” says Flatley, who will be chairman of the new company.

Flatley says that when Helix goes live next year it will sequence and store consumers’ DNA, then sell them pay-as-you-go access to it through the apps, which will be offered by partners, the first of which are LabCorp and the Mayo Clinic. Profits will get shared, in a model similar to the one for Apple’s app store. If Helix succeeds, it will operate the largest sequencing laboratory of any kind, Flatley predicts.

Everyone is trying to unlock the value of the genome, most of all Illumina (see“50 Smartest Companies 2014”). The San Diego-based company, whose sleek-looking sequencing machines are also said to be inspired by Apple’s designs, is the big winner so far. It dominates the market and last year sold $1.8 billion of DNA sequencing machines, chemicals, and tests. The more sequencing happens, the better for Illumina.

So how do you get consumers to participate? The idea behind Helix is to make it pay-as-you-go. Here’s how it might work. Say you download an app from a Helix partner to find out if you have a specific genetic variant, for example the “speed gene,” known to be possessed by many athletes (nicely described here by 23andMe). And imagine that app costs $20. You send in a spit sample; Helix will return just that information to you through the app.

But Helix will sequence much more of your genome, says Flatley. He says Helix will do “an exome plus” – that is, decode all your genes and a few more key spots, but not parts of the genome without clear medical relevance. That will cost Helix perhaps $500. But then, if you order a new app that draws on your genes, Helix will already have your DNA information, ready to be quickly served up.

“We are betting on the consumer coming back and asking for more, and then you don’t have to sequence a second time,” says Flatley. In contrast, if you wanted to sign up for both and 23andMe, two different companies offering genetic genealogy, you’d have to get tested twice.

Flatley says Helix will be a “neutral” player, storing DNA and serving it up to any app on the platform. Like Apple’s app store, which takes a 30 percent cut of every copy of Angry Birds that is sold, revenue will be shared by Helix and by app makers, although Flatley didn’t say what the percentages would be. He did describe one important twist: whichever affiliate (say, the Mayo Clinic) first convinces a consumer to send in a spit sample will also get paid each time that person’s genome is accessed again, by any other app. That’s basically a bounty for dragging people into the genome age.

Storing thousands or millions of genomes could also put Helix in a good position as biologists make more discoveries about what genetic information is good for. “As the science gets better and better the content is going to be better, and the consumer will be charged for that,” says Flatley.

Illumina’s prior foray into apps wasn’t a big success. It launched a system called BaseSpace—an app store for researchers—that didn’t really take off. Scientists tell me it does a little of everything, but nothing very well. But times change. Now everyone is anticipating an explosion of consumer activity around genomics, cloud computing, and apps (see “Google Wants to Store Your Genome” and “Apple Has Plans for Your DNA”). To succeed, Helix may need a killer app.

The Mayo Clinic is working on one app related to educating people about DNA, the organization confirmed, and Flatley says other early apps could be “educational, to do with nutrition, or sports-related.” It sounds like lightweight stuff. There are reasons for that. To dispense real diagnostic information an app maker would probably need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—something that would take time to obtain. Flatley says he’s been talking to the FDA about Helix.

Right now, the most important consumer-facing uses of genetics are in cancer predisposition testing, genealogy, and carrier screening. The genealogy tests tell you to whom you are related, your ethnic origins, and how much Neanderthal DNA you have. Carrier screening is about what’s next: when you are ready to have a baby, you can check whether you and your partner share dangerous disease mutations.

Companies offering these types of consumer tests, such as 23andMe and Counsyl, have spent millions building out labs, analytical software, or just paying Illumina to analyze the DNA. With Helix, says Flatley, companies won’t have to invest in starting a laboratory anymore. Instead, he says, any developer with a computer will be able to start a genomics company.

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What's that bird? Merlin Bird ID app identifies it in your picture

What's that bird? Merlin Bird ID app identifies it in your picture | Amazing Science |

At one time or another, everyone asks the question, “What is that bird?” Finding the answer can be remarkably challenging. Part of the mission of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is to help people find that answer. Bird lovers at the Cornell lab know it is hard to figure out the name of the bird you saw when sorting through a massive field guide, using search engines, and other resources.

Merlin is designed to be a birding coach for beginning and intermediate bird watchers. Merlin asks you the same questions that an expert birder would ask to help solve a mystery bird sighting. Notice that date and location are Merlin’s first and most important questions. It takes years of experience in the field to know what species are expected at a given location and date. Merlin shares this this knowledge with you based on more than 70 million sightings submitted to eBird from birders across the United States and Canada.

Merlin also asks you to describe the color, size, and behavior of the bird you saw. Because no two people describe birds exactly the same way, Merlin presents a shortlist of possible species based on descriptions from Cornell Lab experts as well as thousands of bird enthusiasts who helped “teach” Merlin by participating in online activities. They’ve contributed more than 3 million descriptors to help Merlin match your input with the most likely birds. When you identify a species and click “This is My Bird,” Merlin also saves your record to help improve its future performance.

The Cornell Lab launched Merlin with 285 species most commonly encountered in North America. Their goal is to add more species and more features to keeping improving Merlin’s accuracy through time. High on our wish list is a prompt enabling you to give Merlin a hint about the shape or type of bird you saw (e.g., songbird, shorebird, raptor).

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Russian Scientists Create Artificial Brain that can Educate Itself

Russian Scientists Create Artificial Brain that can Educate Itself | Amazing Science |

Russian scientists are one step closer to crafting full artificial intelligence. A physical model of a brain has been designed, with the ability to educate itself. Tomsk State University in western Siberia housed an international team of scientists who “built mathematical and computer models of the human brain,” said the head of the laboratory, Professor FIT Vladimir Syryamkin.

“After that it was designed radio-electronic device comprising perceptrons. It is capable of handling various information (video, audio, etc.) Now we are working to establish the basic system robotic system, which is an intelligent control center.” Though, full brain replication isn’t an easy task, as scientists need to copy 100 million neurons in the brain and one trillion compounds.

“This physical model is capable of self-learning and life experience. This mechanism is both simple and complex. The artificial medium of natural intelligence takes external stimuli such as light, sound, etc. Through trial and error, he tries to find a solution that helps to avoid the impact of the stimulus. For example, when exposed to a bright light source will first try to look away, if it does not help, move away from him. As long as the brain will not find the right solution, its neurons (perceptrons) will be in an excited state. When the artificial intelligence that decision will, he will remember it and will be used in similar situations,” reads the press release.

The main developer Vladimir Shumilov believes, “In the end, an artificial brain should be analogous to the biological model. We have a tremendous amount of work, but a very important step has been taken – we were able to reveal the secret of brain neural network. In our physical model, as in the human brain, the formation of new neural connections and damping existing. In humans, it is the process of forgetting.”

The team hopes its artificial intelligent brain will have medical applications, like helping drug correction for patients with various dementias. Additionally, the scientists hope to integrate their AI brain into robotic systems and neurocomputers.

Lucile Debethune's curator insight, August 20, 2015 10:16 AM

Dans le même mouvement que d'autre recherche, à la fois sur la modélisation du cerveau, sur l'autoapprentissage des IA... et lutter contre les démences 

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Scientists Explain Why Greenwich Prime Meridian Moved 102 Meters Since 1884

Scientists Explain Why Greenwich Prime Meridian Moved 102 Meters Since 1884 | Amazing Science |

The ‘Prime Meridian’ that’s been running through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, UK, since 1884 is now located 335 feet (102 meters) east of its historic spot. Dr Ken Seidelmann from the University of Virginia and his colleagues investigated the cause of this apparent discrepancy.

In 1884, the International Meridian Conference recommended that Earth’s prime meridian “to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time-reckoning throughout the globe” pass through the “center of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich.”

This instrument – named the Airy Transit Circle for its designer, British Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell Airy – is a nineteenth-century telescopic device for measuring star positions, and could be used for determining local time. Today, tourists visiting its meridian line must walk east approximately 335 feet before their satellite-navigation receivers indicate zero longitude.

Why? Because newer technologies – primarily the superb accuracy of GPS, which uses satellites to precisely measure grid coordinates at any point on the Earth’s surface – replaced the traditional telescopic observations used to measure the Earth’s rotation.

“With the advancements in technology, the change in the prime meridian was inevitable. Perhaps a new marker should be installed in the Greenwich Park for the new prime meridian,” said Dr Seidelmann, who is a co-author of the paper published in the Journal of Geodesy.

Dr Seidelmann and co-authors concluded that a slight deflection in the natural direction of gravity at Greenwich is responsible for the offset, along with the maintenance of continuity of astronomical time. According to the team, the 335-foot offset can be attributed to the difference between two conventional methods of determining coordinates: astronomical versus geodetic, which refers to a set of reference points used to locate places on the Earth.

Their difference is known as ‘deflection of the vertical,’ and high-resolution global gravitational models confirm that the east-west component of this deflection is of the proper sign and magnitude at Greenwich to account for the entire shift. Because our planet is not perfectly round, and because different locations on Earth have different terrain features affecting gravitational pull, traditional ways to measure longitude have built-in variations, or errors, based on the specific location where measurements are taken.

The observations were based on a vertical determined from a basin of mercury and were dependent on local conditions.

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Polyera announces truly flexible display

Polyera announces truly flexible display | Amazing Science |

Polyera today announced the release of the Wove™ Band, the world's first flexible display product. The Wove Band features a flexible display which can either be flat or wrap around a wrist. Submissions for free developer units will open in September with the first units shipping in December to a select group of artists and developers. A commercial launch is planned for mid-2016. Additional details will be available at The Wove Band is made possible by Polyera Digital Fabric Technology™ and E Ink® flexible electronic ink film.

Polyera Digital Fabric Technology™ is a unique set of materials, tools, and know-how designed to enable the production of flexible electronic products at scale. This platform is the result of 10 years of development, spanning fundamental science, engineering, and design.

Most attempts at making flexible displays have relied on traditional electronics materials, such as silicon, being deposited on plastic substrates. This approach allows the creation of products with fixed curved screens, but the brittleness of these electronics layers makes them unsuitable for products which are dynamically flexible such as the Wove Band.  Polyera Digital Fabric Technology, by contrast, uses proprietary electronic materials to enable displays that are flexible, robust, and can be manufactured in traditional display fabrication plants with minimal capital investment. The Polyera Digital Fabric Technology platform also addresses the integration of these displays into end products, by incorporating proprietary engineering and design solutions.

The Wove Band will feature a flexible, low-power touch display combining Polyera Digital Fabric Technology with E Ink's flexible and reflective electronic ink film. E Ink's film has been proven in production and used in millions of displays. The bi-stable nature of E Ink's electronic ink allows displays to consume no energy while holding a static image. The combination of Polyera's and E Ink's technologies enables the Wove Band to have a display which is both large and always-on, while consuming less power than smartwatches with far smaller displays. 

Beyond the Wove Band, Polyera is actively working on a variety of flexible electronics components, such as flexible OLED displays, flexible sensors and flexible logic circuits, which will enable devices delivering unprecedented form factors and experiences.

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New Molecule That Mimics Exercise May Help Diabetics

New Molecule That Mimics Exercise May Help Diabetics | Amazing Science |

Diabetes mellitus is a disease that affects an estimated 390 million people worldwide, with that figure expected to rise by over 50% by 2035. This potentially deadly ailment results in the failure of glucose to reach the interior of cells to be processed for energy, and is most commonly found in two closely linked forms. In type 1 diabetes (DM1), the pancreas ceases to produce insulin, the hormone responsible for triggering cellular glucose uptake. In type 2 diabetes (DM2), the issue is that the cells become insensitive to the presence of insulin. While DM1 is most commonly caused by an autoimmune response, DM2 is generally, but not always, caused by poor diet and obesity.

Exogenous insulin is required for the control of DM1, whereas medication for DM2 centres on drugs that serve to lower blood sugar, and increase cellular uptake. Roughly two-thirds of DM2 sufferers are put on at least one drug, with the most common being metformin. One job that metformin does well is to reduce glucose production in the liver, which is up-regulated in diabetes, primarily as a response to low intracellular glucose levels. Metformin’s other mechanism, the increased cellular uptake of blood sugars, is not fully understood. However, the mechanism most favoured by theorists is the increased activation of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), and there is some evidence to support this.

The formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the end goal of all energy systems, and it is the breakdown of this molecule that allows the body to function. ATP is eventually cleaved to ADP, and then AMP (Adenosine diphosphate and monophosphate, respectively) before being re-phosphorylated back to ATP. AMPK is a heterotrimeric enzyme that plays a key role in the regulation of many catabolic (energy producing) processes, including cellular glucose uptake. Activation of AMPK is primarily triggered by an increase in the AMP:ATP ratio, which is essentially an indicator of cellular starvation. It is believed that mysterious metformin activates AMPK by increasing the concentration of cytosolic AMP.

Now, new research at the University of Southampton, England, has uncovered another potential pathway to AMPK activation. For now, they are simply calling this molecule ‘compound 14’. This compound acts by inhibiting a cellular enzyme known as ATIC; the effect of this is the build up of a molecule called ZMP (an analogue of AMP). It would seem that this increase in ZMP initiates the same reaction as an increase in AMP; activation of AMPK. So, it appears that compound 14 causes a very similar response to metformin, but possibly via a slightly different mechanism. In this new study, two groups of mice, one normal weight and one obese, were given compound 14, daily for one week. While the weight and blood sugar of the standard mice remained stable, as it was before drug administration, the obese mice lost approximately 5% body weight, matched by a coinciding drop in blood sugar levels. This shows great promise for compound 14, which will now enter the next stage of its trials, a study of long term effects.

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Search for Immortality: Google Says Humans Could Live to be 500 Years Old

Search for Immortality: Google Says Humans Could Live to be 500 Years Old | Amazing Science |

Google has invested in taxi firms, smart thermostats and even artificial intelligence but it is also setting its sights on immortality - or at least increasing our lives five-fold. In an interview with Bloomberg, Google Ventures' president Bill Maris said he thinks it's possible to live to 500 years old. And this will be helped by medical breakthroughs as well as a rise in biomechanics. Bill Maris has $425 million to invest this year, and the freedom to invest it however he wants. He's looking for companies that will slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life.

He has already sank money into genetics firms and cancer diagnostic startups and said: 'We have the tools in the life sciences to achieve anything that you have the audacity to envision. I just hope to live long enough not to die.' Mr Maris has advised Aurolab in the development of a hydrophobic acrylic lens for cataract blindness, and helped develop Google’s Calico project.

Calico is a research and development company set up in 2013 by Google and Apple to tackle 'aging and associated diseases.'

Google co-founder Larry Page said the project would focus on 'health, wellbeing and longevity' and last September Calico partnered with AbbVie to open a research centre into neurodegeneration and cancer. Although these firms are focused on extending life naturally, there is also a group that believes machines will be the key to extending lives beyond 120 - an age that has been quoted as the 'real absolute limit to human lifespan'.

Maris has a team of 70, most of whom are in the room this day or patched in by phone or video. The group includes the fund’s 17 investing partners, who are in charge of finding startups. Among the investing partners are Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite; Rich Miner, co-founder of Android; and David Krane, employee No. 84 at Google.

The mood in the room is casual. Some staffers sit cross-legged on the floor; others curl up on soft felt couches. There are a lot of jokes. One partner starts his presentation with a slide entitled “Secret Project”—which most people in the room already know about—and concludes it with a doctored-up photo of Maris’s head superimposed on the body of someone playing tambourine. It’s a jab at the boss, who married the singer-songwriterTristan Prettyman last August and recently went on tour with her. Everyone laughs. Maris smiles, but immediately he’s back to business. “Time is the one thing I can’t get back and can’t give back to you,” he says, turning to an agenda on the screen behind him.

“I know you’re all aware of the conference happening this week,” Maris says. An hour away in San Francisco, JPMorgan Chase is hosting its annual health-care confab, nicknamed the Super Bowl of Health Care.

Thousands of pharmaceutical executives and investors have gathered for what has become a huge part of the industry’s dealmaking. Most of Google Ventures’ life sciences startups are attending. One,Foundation Medicine, which uses genetic data to create diagnostic oncology tools, is generating huge buzz this year. In January, Roche Holding announced plans to take a majority stake in the company, in a transaction valued at $1 billion. The stock more than doubled the next day. Google Ventures has a 4 percent stake in the company.

For Maris, Foundation Medicine represents the beginning of a revolution. “The analogy I use is this,” he says, holding up his iPhone 6. “Even five years ago, this would have been unimaginable. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone on this.”

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What Makes a Human Brain Unique? Experiment compares the way monkey and human brains process abstract information

What Makes a Human Brain Unique? Experiment compares the way monkey and human brains process abstract information | Amazing Science |

Neuroscientists have identified an area of the brain that might give the human mind its unique abilities, including language. The area lit up in human, but not monkey, brains when they were presented with different types of abstract information.

The idea that integrating abstract information drives many of the human brain's unique abilities has been around for decades. But a paper published in Current Biology, which directly compares activity in human and macaque monkey brains as they listen to simple auditory patterns, provides the first physical evidence that a specific area for such integration may exist in humans. Other studies that compare monkeys and humans have revealed differences in the brain’s anatomy, for example, but not differences that could explain where humans’ abstract abilities come from, say neuroscientists.

“This gives us a powerful clue about what is special about our minds,” says psychologist Gary Marcus at New York University. “Nothing is more important than understanding how we got to be how we are.”

A team of researchers headed by Stanislas Dehaene at the INSERM Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris, looked at changing patterns of activation in the brain as untrained monkeys and human adults listened to a simple sequence of tones, for example three identical tones followed by a different tone (like the famous four-note opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony: da-da-da-DAH).

The researchers played several different sequences with this structure—known as AAAB—and other sequences to the subjects while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The fMRI technique picks up changes in blood flow in the brain that correlate with regional brain activity.

The team wanted to know whether the subjects of both species could recognize two different features of the sequences: the total number of tones, indicating an ability to count, and the way the tones repeat, indicating an ability to recognize this type of algebraic pattern.

In both monkeys and humans, an area of the brain, part of which has been associated with numbers, lit up in the fMRI scanner when the subjects identified a change in the number of tones. Both species also registered the repetition pattern in specific brain areas, which are known to be equivalent in humans and monkeys. But only the human brains showed a unique response to the combined changes in number and sequence, in the form of intense activation in an additional brain area called the inferior frontal gyrus.

“It is like the monkey recognizes a pattern but does not realize it is interesting and take it no further—only humans take it on to the next level of analysis,” says Marcus. The inferior frontal gyrus is a part of the cortex that is greatly expanded in humans compared with monkeys. Moreover, the inferior frontal gyrus in humans contains the Broca’s area, which processes language. And when Dehaene’s team read sentences to the humans, the language areas activated in each individual overlapped with those activated by the tone sequences.

But abstract information integration may be significant beyond language. “We had expected that humans have brain areas that put together information,” says cognitive biologist Tecumseh Fitch from the University of Vienna.“This type of computation may turn out to be also relevant to other characteristics that make humans unique, like music appreciation.”

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