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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Researchers Develop DNA-based Method For Authenticating Premium Chocolate

Researchers Develop DNA-based Method For Authenticating Premium Chocolate | Amazing Science |
The taste of a rich, thick morsel of luxurious premium chocolate can be the ultimate experience for some people. But how do you know you are getting what you paid for? Until now, chocolate connoisseurs relied on just their taste buds.

A new study, published in the American Chemical Society’s (ACM) Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, reports that a method to authenticate the varietal purity and origin of cacao beans — the source of chocolate’s main ingredient, cocoa—has been developed for the first time.

Lower-quality cacao beans often get mixed in with premium varieties on their way to becoming chocolate bars, truffles, sauces and liqueurs, said Dapeng Zhang, postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. However, the stakes for policing the chocolate industry are high because it’s a multi-billion dollar global enterprise. In some areas, being a chocolatier is as much an art form as a business. Conservation also plays a role in knowing whether products are truly what the confectioners claim them to be in that the ability to authenticate rare varieties would encourage growers to maintain cacao biodiversity rather than depend on the most abundant and easiest to grow plants.

Using genetic testing, researchers have discovered ways to verify the authenticity of many other crops, such as cereals, fruits, olives, tea and coffee. However, these methods are not suitable for cacao beans, leading Zhang and his team to address the challenge of finding alternative methods.

The team applied the most recent developments in cacao genomics to identify a small set of DNA markers known as SNPs (pronounced “snips”). These SNPs make up unique fingerprints of different cacao species. The team found that the technique works on single cacao beans and can also be scaled up to handle large samples quickly.

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Neuroscientists find the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds

Neuroscientists find the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds | Amazing Science |

Imagine seeing a dozen pictures flash by in a fraction of a second. You might think it would be impossible to identify any images you see for such a short time. However, a team of neuroscientists from MIT has found that the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds — the first evidence of such rapid processing speed.

That speed is far faster than the 100 milliseconds suggested by previous studies. In the new study, which appears in the journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, researchers asked subjects to look for a particular type of image, such as “picnic” or “smiling couple,” as they viewed a series of six or 12 images, each presented for between 13 and 80 milliseconds.

“The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at,” says Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study.

This rapid-fire processing may help direct the eyes, which shift their gaze three times per second, to their next target, Potter says. “The job of the eyes is not only to get the information into the brain, but to allow the brain to think about it rapidly enough to know what you should look at next. So in general we’re calibrating our eyes so they move around just as often as possible consistent with understanding what we’re seeing,” she says.

After visual input hits the retina, the information flows into the brain, where information such as shape, color, and orientation is processed. In previous studies, Potter has shown that the human brain can correctly identify images seen for as little as 100 milliseconds. In the new study, she and her colleagues decided to gradually increase the speeds until they reached a point where subjects’ answers were no better than if they were guessing. All images were new to the viewers.

The researchers expected they might see a dramatic decline in performance around 50 milliseconds, because other studies have suggested that it takes at least 50 milliseconds for visual information to flow from the retina to the “top” of the visual processing chain in the brain and then back down again for further processing by so-called “re-entrant loops.” These processing loops were believed necessary to confirm identification of a particular scene or object.

However, the MIT team found that although overall performance declined, subjects continued to perform better than chance as the researchers dropped the image exposure time from 80 milliseconds to 53 milliseconds, then 40 milliseconds, then 27, and finally 13 — the fastest possible rate with the computer monitor being used.

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Storing data as DNA – as easy as ACTG?

Storing data as DNA – as easy as ACTG? | Amazing Science |

iSGTW recently interviewed Ewan Birney, associate director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), regarding his keynote talk at the EUDAT 2nd Conference. In this interview, Birney raised the exciting prospect of using DNA as an organic data storage device. But could DNA storage really replace tapes and hard disks for long-term preservation of data?

Deinococcus radiodurans, for example, a bacterial species adapted to survive in extreme conditions, was chosen by Wong and his colleagues to be the host due to its ability to quickly repair spontaneously arising mutations. Unlike hard drives or magnetic tapes, which are vulnerable to physical damage, data stored in bacteria could survive numerous natural disasters and be safely passed on to future generations.

However, the heterologous (artificially inserted) DNA could make the bacterial genome unstable, believesGeoff Baldwin, reader in biochemistry at Imperial College London, UK. “Bacteria are highly evolved organisms with relatively minimal genomes”, says Baldwin. “There is always the issue that maintaining large quantities of heterologous DNA will exert a fitness burden that will favor loss of the additional DNA, which does not bode well for the use of bacteria as a mass data storage device.”

While mutation rates are relatively low (approximately 1 base every 10,000 generations), bacteria's fast replication rate could make long-term data storage problematic. Another issue is that if the inserted DNA is similar to that of the host bacteria, it could interfere with its normal cellular processes. “Ultimately this means that there is not complete freedom to insert any sequence,” says Baldwin. “This can be overcome to some extent depending on the method chosen to encode information, but there always remains the possibility for instability due to unexpected consequences.”

While data storage in bacteria isn't yet sufficiently developed to be used for mass storage, using ‘naked’ DNA could be a more promising alternative. Mammoths and Neanderthals have been found preserved for thousands of years with DNA sequences intact, showing that living cells are not required for DNA itself to remain an efficient, stable data-storage means. Naked DNA is easier to use than bacteria as it doesn't require genetic manipulations to safely insert it into a host.

Birney was part of a team that encoded a record-breaking 700 kilobytes of unique data — including all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets — into naked DNA and retrieved it with 99% accuracy. Translating binary data into a 4-base system often results in long sequences of identical bases, which have a tendency to be misread by DNA-sequencing machines, ultimately degrading the information of the original message. The team came up with an ingenious system that allowed them to encode data with such high fidelity. They used a base-3 encoding system: depending on which base was last encoded, a 0, 1 or 2 would correspond with one of the 3 other bases, ensuring the creation of a sequence void of any repetition.

Despite the current high cost of writing and reading DNA, Christophe Dessimoz, another member of the research team, remains hopeful as to the future use of data storage in DNA. “Our analysis shows that for small quantities of data, it is already economically viable for very long term (1,000 years or more), which is relevant for applications such as storing the location of nuclear sites,” says Dessimoz, who is now based atUniversity College London, UK. “If the current pace of technological development continues, within the next decade DNA-based storage will become economical for applications with time horizons of 50 years or more.”

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Distant quasar illuminates universe’s ‘glue’ for the first time

Distant quasar illuminates universe’s ‘glue’ for the first time | Amazing Science |

Astronomers have discovered a distant quasar illuminating a vast nebula of diffuse gas, revealing for the first time part of the network of filaments thought to connect galaxies in a cosmic web. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led the study, published January 19 in Nature.

Using the 10-meter Keck I Telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the researchers detected a very large, luminous nebula of gas extending about 2 million light-years across intergalactic space.

"This is a very exceptional object: it's huge, at least twice as large as any nebula detected before, and it extends well beyond the galactic environment of the quasar," said first author Sebastiano Cantalupo, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Cruz.

The standard cosmological model of structure formation in the universe predicts that galaxies are embedded in a cosmic web of matter, most of which (about 84 percent) is invisible dark matter. This web is seen in the results from computer simulations of the evolution of structure in the universe, which show the distribution of dark matter on large scales, including the dark matter halos in which galaxies form and the cosmic web of filaments that connect them. Gravity causes ordinary matter to follow the distribution of dark matter, so filaments of diffuse, ionized gas are expected to trace a pattern similar to that seen in dark matter simulations.

Until now, however, these filaments have never been seen. Intergalactic gas has been detected by its absorption of light from bright background sources, but those results don't reveal how the gas is distributed. In this study, the researchers detected the fluorescent glow of hydrogen gas resulting from its illumination by intense radiation from the quasar.

"This quasar is illuminating diffuse gas on scales well beyond any we've seen before, giving us the first picture of extended gas between galaxies. It provides a terrific insight into the overall structure of our universe," said coauthor J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

The hydrogen gas illuminated by the quasar emits ultraviolet light known as Lyman alpha radiation. The distance to the quasar is so great (about 10 billion light-years) that the emitted light is "stretched" by the expansion of the universe from an invisible ultraviolet wavelength to a visible shade of violet by the time it reaches the Keck Telescope. Knowing the distance to the quasar, the researchers calculated the wavelength for Lyman alpha radiation from that distance and built a special filter for the telescope's LRIS spectrometer to get an image at that wavelength.

"We have studied other quasars this way without detecting such extended gas," Cantalupo said. "The light from the quasar is like a flashlight beam, and in this case we were lucky that the flashlight is pointing toward the nebula and making the gas glow. We think this is part of a filament that may be even more extended than this, but we only see the part of the filament that is illuminated by the beamed emission from the quasar."

A quasar is a type of active galactic nucleus that emits intense radiation powered by a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. In an earlier survey of distant quasars using the same technique to look for glowing gas, Cantalupo and others detected so-called "dark galaxies," the densest knots of gas in the cosmic web. These dark galaxies are thought to be either too small or too young to have formed stars.

"The dark galaxies are much denser and smaller parts of the cosmic web. In this new image, we also see dark galaxies, in addition to the much more diffuse and extended nebula," Cantalupo said. "Some of this gas will fall into galaxies, but most of it will remain diffuse and never form stars."

The researchers estimated the amount of gas in the nebula to be at least ten times more than expected from the results of computer simulations. "We think there may be more gas contained in small dense clumps within the cosmic web than is seen in our models. These observations are challenging our understanding of intergalactic gas and giving us a new laboratory to test and refine our models," Cantalupo said.

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How to put mirrors in space big enough to see continents and forests on exoplanets

How to put mirrors in space big enough to see continents and forests on exoplanets | Amazing Science |

Shooting a laser at polystyrene beads, scientists have made a mirror that is held together by light. The creation could be a step towards putting ultra-light mirrors in space that would be big enough to see continents and forests on planets orbiting far-off stars.

Current space telescopes have limited vision because is it costly and complicated to send large, heavy mirrors into orbit. The mirror on NASA's premiere planet hunter, the Kepler space telescope, is just 1.4 metres across and cannot see planets directly. Instead Kepler spots the tiny changes in brightness when a world crosses in front of its host star.

When NASA's James Webb Space Telescope launches in a few years, it will carry the largest mirror yet into space: a 6.5-metre behemoth made of 18 interlocking segments. To fit into the launch vehicle, the mirror itself will have to be folded up and then unfolded in space.

Jean-Marc Fournier of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and his colleagues have revived an old idea for building much larger mirrors by exploiting the force produced when laser beams hit tiny particles. Previous work has used this force to make optical tweezers, which can trap and manipulate a few particles at a time.

In 1979, astronomer Antoine Labeyrie, now at the Collège de France in Paris, suggested that the force could also trap a collection of particles into a flat plane to form a mirror. In theory, shooting two lasers at a central point should cause their optical forces to interfere, creating a stable region where particles line up to make a two-dimensional surface.

Such a mirror would be exceptionally light, relatively inexpensive and even self-repairing, as any particles knocked out by micro-meteors, which are constantly zipping through space, would simply be replaced by others nearby.

With funding from NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts, Fournier's team took a first step towards this goal. They used a single laser to trap 150 micrometre-sized polystyrene beads against a sheet of glass (pictured). Light would normally bounce off a single bead in all directions, but grouping them together produces a flat reflective surface that acts exactly like a mirror, says Fournier.

To prove the mirror worked, the team shot light through a transparent ruler, so that it bounced off the beads and onto a detector. The resulting picture was murky, but they were able to make out an image of the number 8 on the ruler, which wasn't possible when the beads were removed from the glass.

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Google X building 'smart' contact lens to measure glucose levels for diabetics

Google X building 'smart' contact lens to measure glucose levels for diabetics | Amazing Science |

There's no doubt that Google is becoming a full-fledged hardware company, but the latest Google X project is a lot different that tablets and smartphones — the company just announced that it's building a "smart contact lens." However, it's not meant to be a miniaturized version of Glass — it's meant to help diabetes patients keep track of their glucose levels. Inside the lens is a miniaturized wireless chip and glucose monitor that will measure the glucose levels of the wearer's tears.

Google's hoping that it'll be a less painful and invasive way to monitor glucose levels than the typical method of pricking a finger and testing blood droplets multiple times a day. Ideally, the sensor would be able to generate a reading once per second, and Google wants it to act as an early warning device for when glucose levels start dropping — the company imagines putting a minuscule LED light in the lens that could indicate levels dropping above or below a set threshold.

It's not a new idea for co-creator Babek Parviz — back in 2009, Parviz showed Wired a connected contact lens meant to measure vital signs. And while this is new ground for Google, the idea of a connected contact lens for specifically measuring glucose levels isn't new — Microsoft and the University of Washington worked on a similar project back in 2011. Both Parviz and fellow co-founder Brian Otis were at the University of Washington and contributed to that project, as well.

Of course, this project is still a good ways off from being a reality — Google says its working with the FDA and is also looking for other partners who are "experts in bringing products like this to market." The company wants partners to use its technology to develop these lenses and also build apps to make the measurements available to users. There's no word on when this lens might be a reality, or even if it'll work as planned, but it's good to see Google using its engineering prowess to try and solve a long-standing medical problem.

Via Ellen H Ullman, MSW
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Mimosa Pudica Plants Have Long Term Memory And Can Learn Even Without Nerve Cells

Mimosa Pudica Plants Have Long Term Memory And Can Learn Even Without Nerve Cells | Amazing Science |
Biologists have demonstrated that an exotic herb known as Mimosa pudica can learn and remember just as well as it would be expected of animals.

The nervous system of animals serves the acquisition, memorization and recollection of information. Like animals, plants also acquire a huge amount of information from their environment, yet their capacity to memorize and organize learned behavioral responses has not been demonstrated.

In Mimosa pudica—the sensitive plant—the defensive leaf-folding behaviour in response to repeated physical disturbance exhibits clear habituation, suggesting some elementary form of learning. Applying the theory and the analytical methods usually employed in animal learning research, we show that leaf-folding habituation is more pronounced and persistent for plants growing in energetically costly environments.

“Astonishingly, Mimosa can display the learned response even when left undisturbed in a more favorable environment for a month. This relatively long-lasting learned behavioral change as a result of previous experience matches the persistence of habituation effects observed in many animals,” the biologists wrote in a paper published online in the journal Oecologia.

“Plants may lack brains and neural tissues but they do possess a sophisticated calcium-based signally network in their cells similar to animals’ memory processes,” they explained.

The biologists concede that they do not yet understand the biological basis for this learning mechanism, nevertheless their set of experiments has major implications – not least, it radically changes the way we perceive plants and the boundaries between plants and animals, including our definition of learning as a property special to organisms with a nervous system function of a nervous system.

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Prochlorococcus is the smallest genome that can make organic carbon from sunlight

Prochlorococcus is the smallest genome that can make organic carbon from sunlight | Amazing Science |

Marine cyanobacteria — tiny ocean plants that produce oxygen and make organic carbon using sunlight and CO2 — are primary engines of Earth’s biogeochemical and nutrient cycles. They nourish other organisms through the provision of oxygen and with their own body mass, which forms the base of the ocean food chain. 

Now scientists at MIT have discovered another dimension of the outsized role played by these tiny cells: The cyanobacteria continually produce and release vesicles, spherical packages containing carbon and other nutrients that can serve as food parcels for marine organisms. The vesicles also contain DNA, likely providing a means of gene transfer within and among communities of similar bacteria, and they may even act as decoys for deflecting viruses.

In a paper published this week in Science, postdoc Steven Biller, Professor Sallie (Penny) Chisholm, and co-authors report the discovery of large numbers of extracellular vesicles associated with the two most abundant types of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus and Synechoccocus. The scientists found the vesicles (each about 100 nanometers in diameter) suspended in cultures of the cyanobacteria as well as in seawater samples taken from both the nutrient-rich coastal waters of New England and the nutrient-sparse waters of the Sargasso Sea.

Prochlorococcus is the smallest genome that can make organic carbon from sunlight and carbon dioxide and it’s packaging this carbon and releasing it into the seawater around it,” says Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Biology, who is lead investigator of the study. “There must be an evolutionary advantage to doing this. Because the vesicles also contain DNA and RNA, the researchers surmise they could play a role in horizontal gene transfer, a means for developing genetic diversity and sharing ecologically useful genes among the Prochlorococcus metapopulation.

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Gene therapy could be used to treat blindness: Sight restored to partially blind patients

Gene therapy could be used to treat blindness: Sight restored to partially blind patients | Amazing Science |

Surgeons in Oxford have used a gene therapy technique to improve the vision of six patients who would otherwise have gone blind. The operation involved inserting a gene into the eye, a treatment that revived light-detecting cells. The doctors involved believe that the treatment could in time be used to treat common forms of blindness. Prof. Robert MacLaren, the surgeon who led the research, said he was "absolutely delighted" at the outcome.

Mr. Wyatt has a genetic condition known as choroideremia, which results in the light-detecting cells at the back of the eye gradually dying. He was still just about able to see when he had the operation. His hope was that the procedure would stop further deterioration and save what little sight he had left.

He, like another patient in Prof. MacLaren's trial, found that not only did the operation stabilise his vision - it improved it. The other subjects, who were at earlier stages in their vision, experienced improvements in their ability to see at night. Mr. Wyatt is now able to read three lines further down in an optician's sight chart. "I felt that I had come to the edge of an abyss," he said. "I looked down at total blackness. Prof. MacLaren tapped me on the shoulder and said 'come this way, it's possible to see again'."

Another of the patients who underwent the treatment, Wayne Thompson, said he had noticed an immediate effect after the operation. "My color vision improved. Trees and flowers seemed much more vivid and I was able to see stars for the first time since I was 17 when my vision began to deteriorate," he explains. Mr. Thomson said he had spent his life resigned to the fact that he would go blind. "I've lived the last 25 years with the certainty that I am going to go blind and now (after the operation) there is the possibility that I will hang on to my sight," he said.

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Heart attack damage slashed with microparticle therapy

Heart attack damage slashed with microparticle therapy | Amazing Science |

After a heart attack, much of the damage to the heart muscle is caused by inflammatory cells that rush to the scene of the oxygen-starved tissue. But that inflammatory damage is slashed in half when microparticles are injected into the blood stream within 24 hours of the attack, according to new preclinical research from Northwestern Medicine® and the University of Sydney in Australia.

When biodegradable microparticles were injected after a heart attack, the size of the heart lesion was reduced by 50 percent and the heart could pump significantly more blood.

"This is the first therapy that specifically targets a key driver of the damage that occurs after a heart attack," said investigator Daniel Getts, a visiting scholar in microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "There is no other therapy on the horizon that can do this. It has the potential to transform the way heart attacks and cardiovascular disease are treated."

The micoparticles work by binding to the damaging cells -- inflammatory monocytes -- and diverting them to a fatal detour. Instead of racing to the heart, the cells head to the spleen and die. The particles are made of poly (lactic-co-glycolic) acid, a biocompatible and biodegradable substance already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in re-absorbable sutures. A microparticle is 500 nanometers, which is 1/200th size of a hair.

The scientists' study showed the microparticles reduced damage and repaired tissue in many other inflammatory diseases. These include models of West Nile virus, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, peritonitis and a model that mimics blood flow after a kidney transplant.

"The potential for treating many different diseases is tremendous," said investigator Stephen Miller, the Judy Gugenheim Research Professor at Feinberg. "In all these disease models, the microparticles stop the flood of inflammatory cells at the site of the tissue damage, so the damage is greatly limited and tissues can regenerate."

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Ball lightning has been recorded for first time

Ball lightning has been recorded for first time | Amazing Science |
For centuries, people have reported seeing luminous, spherical orbs during storms — a phenomenon known as “ball lightning”.

According to eyewitness reports they last for several seconds, moving through the air before eventually exploding. But meteorologists have always regarded such reports with suspicion, as they’d never been able to observe the phenomenon themselves. Inconsistencies in public reports led those studying these cases starting to think of them like UFO sightings — merely hallucinations, perhaps caused by electromagnetic effects.  Now, however, following years of attempts to replicate ball lightning in the lab, Chinese researchers have finally recorded it in the field.

Jianyong Cen, Ping Yuan, and Simin Xue were using spectrographs and video cameras to observe a thunderstorm near Qinghai in China’s desolate western provinces when they saw something they weren’t expecting. After a bolt of lightning hit the ground, a glowing ball about five metres wide rose up and travelled about 15 metres, before disappearing about 1.6 seconds later. Stunned, the researchers packed up their kit and headed back to their lab, where they discovered that the elements in the ball were the same as those in the local soil — silicon, iron and calcium. They published their results in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Their results lend credence to a theory first laid out in 1999 by John Abrahamson, a chemist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. His theory goes that when lightning strikes the ground, it immediately stores energy in silicon nanoparticles in the soil. The force of the strike then ejects those particles into the air, where they’re oxidised and release that energy as heat and light, glowing briefly.

That doesn’t explain away all the situations where ball lightning has been seen — like on aircraft flying high in the sky. But Abrahamson says that his findings fit the Chinese researchers’ results nicely. “Here’s an observation which has all the hallmarks of our theory,” he told New Scientist. “This is gold dust as far as confirmation goes.”

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Affordable low-cost sonification system to assist the blind

Affordable low-cost sonification system to assist the blind | Amazing Science |

An improved assistive technology system for the blind that uses sonification (visualization using sounds) has been developed byUniversidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) researchers, with the goal of replacing costly, bulky current systems.

How it works: Called Assistive Technology for Autonomous Displacement (ATAD), the system includes a stereo vision processor measures the difference of images captured by two cameras that are placed slightly apart (for image depth data) and calculates the distance to each point in the scene.

Then it transmits the information to the user by means of a sound code that gives information regarding the position and distance to the different obstacles,  using a small audio stereo amplifier and bone-conduction headphones.

“To represent height, the synthesizer emits up to eight different tones,” said co-developer Pablo Revuelta Sanz, who described the system in a doctoral thesis. In addition, the sounds are laterally located, so that something on the left sounds louder on that side, and vice versa.

Six profiles, ranging from one that is very simple, with a sound alarm that only works when one is going to crash into an obstacle, to others that describe the scene with 64 simultaneous sounds can be chosen.”

The prototype system was tested on 28 individuals, including sighted individuals, persons with limited vision, and blind persons. The final system was tested on eight blind persons in real environments.

According to Revuelta, “the aim of the system is to complement a cane or a guide dog, and not in any way replace them.” The estimated price of 250 euros is “very economical compared with other systems that are currently on the market.”


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N.S.A. devises radio into your computer even when not connected to the Internet

N.S.A. devises radio into your computer even when not connected to the Internet | Amazing Science |

The National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks. While most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, the N.S.A. has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet, according to N.S.A. documents, computer experts and American officials.

The technology, which the agency has used since at least 2008, relies on a covert channel of radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted surreptitiously into the computers. In some cases, they are sent to a briefcase-size relay station that intelligence agencies can set up miles away from the target. The radio frequency technology has helped solve one of the biggest problems facing American intelligence agencies for years: getting into computers that adversaries, and some American partners, have tried to make impervious to spying or cyberattack. In most cases, the radio frequency hardware must be physically inserted by a spy, a manufacturer or an unwitting user.

The N.S.A. calls its efforts more an act of “active defense” against foreign cyberattacks than a tool to go on the offensive. But when Chinese attackers place similar software on the computer systems of American companies or government agencies, American officials have protested, often at the presidential level.

Among the most frequent targets of the N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United States Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on American industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, according to officials and an N.S.A. map that indicates sites of what the agency calls “computer network exploitation.”

There is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States. While refusing to comment on the scope of the Quantum program, the N.S.A. said its actions were not comparable to China’s.

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How Self-Replicating Spacecrafts Could Take Over the Galaxy

How Self-Replicating Spacecrafts Could Take Over the Galaxy | Amazing Science |

Back in late 1940's the Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann wondered if it might be possible to design a non-biological system that could replicate itself in a cellular automata environment, what he called a universal constructor. Von Neumann wasn't thinking about space exploration at the time, but other thinkers like Freeman Dyson, Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, and Robert Freitas later took his idea and applied it to exactly that.

The strength of Von Neumann's idea lies in the brute efficiency of exponential growth. Given enough time and patience, a single self-replicating probe (SRP) could produce millions upon millions of offspring; it would be like a massive bubble expanding outward into the Galaxy. Theoretically, these probes could occupy all four corners of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years – even if each probe were to travel at an average cruising speed of one tenth the speed of light.

Physicist Michio Kaku describes Von Neumann probes as "the most mathematically efficient method to explore space:" A Von Neumann probe is a robot designed to reach distant star systems and create factories which will reproduce copies themselves by the thousands. A dead moon rather than a planet makes the ideal destination for Von Neumann probes, since they can easily land and take off from these moons, and also because these moons have no erosion. These probes would live off the land, using naturally occurring deposits of iron, nickel, etc. to create the raw ingredients to build a robot factory. They would create thousands of copies of themselves, which would then scatter and search for other star systems.

In order to work, a von Neumann spacecraft would have to tap into advanced nanotechnology and artificial intelligence — technologies that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are likely to develop. In fact, the device itself would be a molecular assembler, capable of reconstituting matter into copies of itself, which is why SRPs are also referred to as kinematic self-replicating machines.

And indeed, these probes would be remarkably efficient. A recent study published in theInternational Journal of Astronomy pointed out that extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could use the slingshot effect to propel SRPs from star to star. And yes, that's the same method used to propel the Voyager spacecrafts through our solar system from planet to planet. For it to work on a galactic scale, however, SRPs would use slingshot maneuvers around stars, gaining a boost in velocity by extracting energy from each star's motion around the galactic center.

The slingshot effect would carry little-to-no extra cost and result in a 100-fold increase in efficiency; models show that this technique could be used to send probes to every solar system in the galaxy in as little as 10 million years! Adding to the efficiency is the realization that SRPs could replicate on the fly, building duplicates of themselves while they're traveling. The probes would collect matter, like dust and gas, from the interstellar medium as they traverse vast distances.

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Remote-controlled spermbots could be used to fertilize eggs

Remote-controlled spermbots could be used to fertilize eggs | Amazing Science |

Researchers have hijacked sperm cells to create spermbots that can be remotely controlled through magnetic fields, to go to the desired location.

Hijacking sperm cells to create little robots might seem far out, but that's exactly what researchers from the Dresden Institute for Integrative Nanosciences have done. Their "spermbots" consist of live sperm cells in little tubes, that can be magnetically controlled to move in a desired direction until they reach their destination and do their job – they're currently robust enough to even guide a specific sperm cell to an egg cell. The scientists hope that further development will allow the technology to offer a viable alternative to parents trying to have a child through in-vitro fertilization. When perfected, the spermbots could also be used as a safe means for drug delivery and gene manipulation.

One of the major challenges in creating micro robots that can potentially travel within the human body is the issue of a safe fuel source. Nanobots with engines efficient enough to propel themselves through bodily fluids need to carry fuel that's often toxic to the human body, and sometimes these machines can pass through into the cells and affect their functioning. To overcome these problems, the Dresden team began looking at safer alternatives to artificial nano engines.

"We thought of using a powerful biological motor to do the job instead and we came up with the flagella of a sperm cell, which is physiologically less problematic," Professor Oliver G. Schmidt, the Institute's Director, tells Gizmag. "The idea came to us five years ago when I noticed that sperm cells are of similar size to microtubes we can fabricate."

To create biorobots out of sperm cells, the researchers began working with bovine (bull) sperm cells – which are similar in size to human sperm cells. The first step was to create thin conical magnetic tubes capable of trapping sperm cells out of a titanium and iron film. The microtubes are rolled up in a way that makes one end larger than the other, with a diameter that's slightly larger than that of a bull sperm head.

Via Jeff Morris
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Why Einstein will never be wrong?

Why Einstein will never be wrong? | Amazing Science |
One of the benefits of being an astrophysicist is your weekly email from someone who claims to have 'proven Einstein wrong'.

These either contain no mathematical equations and use phrases such as "it is obvious that..", or they are page after page of complex equations with dozens of scientific terms used in non-traditional ways. They all get deleted pretty quickly, not because astrophysicists are too indoctrinated in established theories, but because none of them acknowledge how theories get replaced.

Then in the early 1900s Einstein proposed a different model known as general relativity. The basic premise of this theory is that gravity is due to the curvature of space and time by masses. Even though Einstein's gravity model is radically different from Newton's, the mathematics of the theory shows that Newton's equations are approximate solutions to Einstein's equations. Everything Newton's gravity predicts, Einstein's does as well. But Einstein also allows us to correctly model black holes, the big bang, the precession of Mercury's orbit, time dilation, and more, all of which have been experimentally validated.

So Einstein trumps Newton. But Einstein's theory is much more difficult to work with than Newton's, so often we just use Newton's equations to calculate things. For example, the motion of satellites, or exoplanets. If we don't need the precision of Einstein's theory, we simply use Newton to get an answer that is "good enough." We may have proven Newton's theory "wrong", but the theory is still as useful and accurate as it ever was.

To begin with, Einstein's gravity will never be proven wrong by a theory. It will be proven wrong by experimental evidence showing that the predictions of general relativity don't work. Einstein's theory didn't supplant Newton's until we had experimental evidence that agreed with Einstein and didn't agree with Newton. So unless you have experimental evidence that clearly contradicts general relativity, claims of "disproving Einstein" will fall on deaf ears.

The other way to trump Einstein would be to develop a theory that clearly shows how Einstein's theory is an approximation of your new theory, or how the experimental tests general relativity has passed are also passed by your theory. Ideally, your new theory will also make new predictions that can be tested in a reasonable way. If you can do that, and can present your ideas clearly, you will be listened to. String theory and entropic gravity are examples of models that try to do just that.

But even if someone succeeds in creating a theory better than Einstein's (and someone almost certainly will), Einstein's theory will still be as valid as it ever was. Einstein won't have been proven wrong, we'll simply understand the limits of his theory.

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Could Lichen from Antarctica survive on Mars?

Could Lichen from Antarctica survive on Mars? | Amazing Science |

Humans cannot hope to survive life on Mars without plenty of protection from the surface radiation, freezing night temperatures and dust storms on the red planet. So they could be excused for marveling at humble Antarctic lichen that has shown itself capable of going beyond survival and adapting to life in simulated Martian conditions.

The mere feat of surviving temperatures as low as -51 degrees C and enduring a radiation bombardment during a 34-day experiment might seem like an accomplishment by itself. But the lichen, a symbiotic mass of fungi and algae, also proved it could adapt physiologically to living a normal life in such harsh Martian conditions—as long as the lichen lived under "protected" conditions shielded from much of the radiation within "micro-niches" such as cracks in the Martian soil or rocks.

The lichen chosen for the experiment, called P. chlorophanum, has proven itself a survival champion even before the Mars simulation. Researchers removed lichen samples for testing from its home atop the rocky Black Ridge in Antarctica's North Victoria Land—a frozen, dry landscape not unlike that of many places on Mars.

Similar lichens have shown they can survive exposure to the vacuum of space as well as space radiation. The past experiments conducted by the European Space Agency aboard Russian FOTON satellites and the International Space Station included de Vera as a co-investigator.

The latest Mars simulation experiment did not try to simulate the Martian dust storms that can blanket the entire planet for a month. But de Vera points out that lichen can survive in a resting state for thousands of years on Earth while covered with dust, snow or ice.

Carlos Garcia Pando's comment, January 20, 2014 3:14 AM
Regarding the blanketing due to dust storms, this lichen survives 6 months of dark night every year here on Earth,
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Singularities and Nightmares: Optimism and Pessimism about the Future of Mankind

Singularities and Nightmares: Optimism and Pessimism about the Future of Mankind | Amazing Science |

In order to give you pleasant dreams tonight, let me offer a few possibilities about the days that lie ahead — changes that may occur within the next twenty or so years, roughly a single human generation. Possibilities that are taken seriously by some of today’s best minds. Potential transformations of human life on Earth and, perhaps, even what it means to be human. 
For example, what if biologists and organic chemists manage to do to their laboratories the same thing that cyberneticists did to computers? Shrinking their vast biochemical labs from building-sized behemoths down to units that are utterly compact, making them smaller, cheaper, and more powerful than anyone imagined. Isn’t that what happened to those gigantic computers of yesteryear? Until, today, your pocket cell phone contains as much processing power and sophistication as NASA owned during the moon shots. People who foresaw this change were able to ride this technological wave. Some of them made a lot of money.
Biologists have come a long way already toward achieving a similar transformation. Take, for example, the Human Genome Project, which sped up the sequencing of DNA by so many orders of magnitude that much of it is now automated and miniaturized. Speed has skyrocketed, while prices plummet, promising that each of us may soon be able to have our own genetic mappings done, while-U-wait, for the same price as a simple EKG. Imagine extending this trend, by simple extrapolation, compressing a complete biochemical laboratory the size of a house down to something that fits cheaply on your desktop. A MolecuMac, if you will. The possibilities are both marvelous and frightening.
When designer drugs and therapies are swiftly modifiable by skilled medical workers, we all should benefit.
But then, won’t there also be the biochemical equivalent of “hackers”? What are we going to do when kids all over the world can analyze and synthesize any organic compound, at will? In that event, we had better hope for accompanying advances in artificial intelligence and robotics… at least to serve our fast food burgers. I’m not about to eat at any restaurant that hires resentful human adolescents, who swap fancy recipes for their home molecular synthesizers over the Internet. Would you?

Via Apmel
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Live 3D Organ Holograms Give an Unprecedented View to Surgeons

Live 3D Organ Holograms Give an Unprecedented View to Surgeons | Amazing Science |

An Israeli firm (Real View Imaging) has developed 3D holographic imaging technology that allows doctors to see a patient’s anatomy ”floating” in mid-air during real time medical procedures. The company says successful trials of its system demonstrate that science fiction has become science fact.

To learn more visit:

Via Belinda Suvaal
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For the first time, astronomers discover a black hole orbiting a spinning star

For the first time, astronomers discover a black hole orbiting a spinning star | Amazing Science |
There's a star about 8,500 light-years away that's spinning so fast its surface speed exceeds 620,000 mph. Astronomers are familiar with these kinds of stars, but this one's wholly unique in that it has a rather strange companion: a black hole.

To date, astronomers have catalogued more than 80 of these Be type stars. They're typically members of a binary system, with the companion being a neutron star (collapsed stars that aren't big enough to form black holes). Amazingly, Be stars can spin at these horrendous speeds without breaking-up, producing huge centrifugal forces. The Be star in question, MWC 656, was first discovered in 2010. But Spanish researchers now say there's a black hole spinning around it.

A detailed analysis of its spectrum allowed scientists to infer the characteristics of its companion. "It turned out to be an object with a mass between 3.8 and 6.9 solar masses," said Ignasi Ribas of CSIC at the Institute of Space Sciences. "An object like that, invisible to telescopes and with such large mass, can only be a black hole because no neutron star with more than three solar masses can exist."

The black hole orbits the more massive Be star and is fed by matter ejected from the latter. "The high rotation speed of the Be star causes matter to be ejected into an equatorial disk," said Ignacio Negueruela at the University of Alicante. "This matter is attracted by the black hole and falls on to it, forming another disk, called an accretion disk. By studying the emission from the accretion disk, we could analyze the motion of the black hole and measure its mass."

The astronomers think it's a member of a hidden population of Be stars paired with black holes and that they're more common than previous thought. Unfortunately, they're hard to detect because their black holes are fed from gas ejected by the Be stars without producing much radiation.


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Study Shows Where Alzheimer's Starts and How It Spreads

Study Shows Where Alzheimer's Starts and How It Spreads | Amazing Science |
Using high-resolution fMRI imaging in patients with Alzheimer's disease and in mouse models of the disease, researchers have clarified three fundamental issues about Alzheimer's: where it starts, why it starts there, and how it spreads.

In addition to advancing understanding of Alzheimer's, the findings could improve early detection of the disease, when drugs may be most effective. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“It has been known for years that Alzheimer's starts in a brain region known as the entorhinal cortex,” said co-senior author Scott A. Small, MD, Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology, professor of radiology, and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

“But this study is the first to show in living patients that it begins specifically in the lateral entorhinal cortex, or LEC. The LEC is considered to be a gateway to the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the consolidation of long-term memory, among other functions. If the LEC is affected, other aspects of the hippocampus will also be affected.”

The study also shows that, over time, Alzheimer's spreads from the LEC directly to other areas of the cerebral cortex, in particular, the parietal cortex, a brain region involved in various functions, including spatial orientation and navigation. The researchers suspect that Alzheimer's spreads “functionally,” that is, by compromising the function of neurons in the LEC, which then compromises the integrity of neurons in adjoining areas.

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Directly imaging and analyzing planets around other stars: first light

Directly imaging and analyzing planets around other stars: first light | Amazing Science |

Gemini Planet Imager's first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A.

After nearly a decade of development, construction and testing, the world’s most advanced instrument for directly imaging and analyzing planets orbiting around other stars is pointing skyward and collecting light from distant worlds.

“Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, we were seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect,” says Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team who built the instrument.

For the past decade, Lawrence Livermore has been leading a multi-institutional team in the design, engineering, building and optimization of the instrument, called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), which will be used for high-contrast imaging to better study faint planets or dusty disks next to bright stars.

Astronomers — including a team at LLNL — have made direct images of a handful of extrasolar planets by adapting astronomical cameras built for other purposes. GPI is the first fully optimized planet imager, designed from the ground up for exoplanet imaging deployed on one of the world’s biggest telescopes, the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Probing the environments of distant stars in a search for planets has required the development of next-generation, high-contrast adaptive optics (AO) systems, in which Livermore is a leader. These systems are sometimes referred to as extreme AO.

Macintosh said direct imaging of planets is challenging because planets such as Jupiter are a billion times fainter than their parent stars. “Detection of the youngest and brightest planets is barely within reach of today’s AO systems,” he said. “To see other solar systems, we need new tools.”

And those new tools are installed in the Gemini Planet Imager with the most advanced AO system in the world. In addition to leading the whole project, LLNL also was responsible for the AO system.

Designed to be the world’s “most sophisticated” astronomical system for compensating turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere – an ongoing problem for ground-based telescopes — the system senses atmospheric turbulence and corrects it with a a 2-centimeter-square deformable mirror with 4,000 actuators.

This deformable mirror is made of etched silicon, similar to microchips, rather than the large reflective glass mirrors used on other AO systems. This allows GPI to be compact and stable. The new mirror corrects for atmospheric distortions by adjusting its shape 1,000 times per second with accuracy better than 1 nanometer. Together with the other parts of GPI, astronomers can directly image extra-solar planets that are 1 million to 10 million times fainter than their host stars.

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Natural 3D Counterpart to Graphene Discovered

Natural 3D Counterpart to Graphene Discovered | Amazing Science |

The discovery of what is essentially a 3D version of graphene – the 2D sheets of carbon through which electrons race at many times the speed at which they move through silicon – promises exciting new things to come for the high-tech industry, including much faster transistors and far more compact hard drives. A collaboration of researchers at the U.S Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has discovered that sodium bismuthate can exist as a form of quantum matter called a three-dimensional topological Dirac semi-metal (3DTDS). This is the first experimental confirmation of 3D Dirac fermions in the interior or bulk of a material, a novel state that was only recently proposed by theorists.

“A 3DTDS is a natural three-dimensional counterpart to graphene with similar or even better electron mobility and velocity,” says Yulin Chen, a physicist from the University of Oxford who led this study working with Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) . “Because of its 3D Dirac fermions in the bulk, a 3DTDS also features intriguing non-saturating linear magnetoresistance that can be orders of magnitude higher than the materials now used in hard drives, and it opens the door to more efficient optical sensors.”

Chen is the corresponding author of a paper in Science reporting the discovery. The paper is titled “Discovery of a Three-dimensional Topological Dirac Semimetal, Na3Bi.”

Two of the most exciting new materials in the world of high technology today are graphene and topological insulators, crystalline materials that are electrically insulating in the bulk but conducting on the surface. Both feature 2D Dirac fermions (fermions that aren’t their own antiparticle), which give rise to extraordinary and highly coveted physical properties. Topological insulators also possess a unique electronic structure, in which bulk electrons behave like those in an insulator while surface electrons behave like those in graphene.

“The swift development of graphene and topological insulators has raised questions as to whether there are 3D counterparts and other materials with unusual topology in their electronic structure,” says Chen. “Our discovery answers both questions. In the sodium bismuthate we studied, the bulk conduction and valence bands touch only at discrete points and disperse linearly along all three momentum directions to form bulk 3D Dirac fermions. Furthermore, the topology of a 3DTSD electronic structure is also as unique as those of topological insulators.”

The discovery was made at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), a DOE national user facility housed at Berkeley Lab, using beamline 10.0.1, which is optimized for electron structure studies. The collaborating research team first developed a special procedure to properly synthesize and transport the sodium bismuthate, a semi-metal compound identified as a strong 3DTDS candidate by co-authors Fang and Dai, theorists with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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Dolphins Stay Awake for Two Weeks by Sleeping Only with Half of their Brain

Dolphins Stay Awake for Two Weeks by Sleeping Only with Half of their Brain | Amazing Science |

Unlike land mammals, dolphins sleep with only part of their brains at any time, past research has suggested. Half of their brains rest, while the other half remains "awake," and dolphins regularly switch which side is active. These findings suggest how dolphins can keep on the constant lookout for sharks, investigators added.

"After being awake for many hours or days, humans and other animals are forced to stop all activity and sleep," said researcher Brian Branstetter, a marine biologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego. "Dolphins do not have this restriction, and if they did, they would probably drown or become easy prey."

To see just how mindful dolphins are with just half a brain, researchers tested their ability to scan the environment. Dolphins use echolocation to map the world, a biological form of sonar where they emit clicks and listen for their echoes to probe murky, dark surroundings. Sleep Tight! Snoozing Animals Gallery.

The researchers set up a portable floating pen outfitted with eight modules, each consisting of an underwater sound projector and microphone. When a dolphin scanned any of these modules using echolocation clicks, they could respond with sounds mimicking echoes of those clicks from remote surfaces. Essentially, these modules could behave as "phantom targets" -- illusions that acoustically simulated physical objects.

Katherine Martinez's comment, January 27, 2014 6:51 PM
This article is about how dolphins have half of their brain asleep and the other half active. Dolphins apparently to this to be alerted if any one of them was to prey on. If they did not have this, then they would be easily preyed on or they might even drown. Honestly I can't believe that dolphins can do this. This actually scares me, because animals can do stuff that we can not. It's just so weird to think of a human sleeping with half of the brain asleep. This truly shocked me, because this shows how incredible the brain is. Imagine the stuff we will figure out that animals can do in the future.
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40 maps that explain the world

40 maps that explain the world | Amazing Science |
I've searched wide and far for maps that can reveal and surprise and inform in ways that the daily headlines might not.

Via Seth Dixon, Ness Crouch
Terheck's curator insight, January 26, 2014 5:58 AM

Une sélection de 40 cartes qui permettent de mieux comprendre notre monde.

Jessica Rieman's curator insight, February 11, 2014 2:30 PM

When looking at this map there area few things that stick out to me and not just the colors. Fistly what I founf interesting was that South America in relation to where we live is quite different. For example, The US economic status is High Class at $12195 or more for most of the East and West Coast and then it is dull in the middle. These facts compared to South America where they are mostly upper middle class at around $3946-12185 and a portion of them are the lower middle class which rings in at around $886-3945.

Jake Red Dorman's curator insight, November 13, 2014 2:39 PM

 On map 33, it shows the religious borders map of the different religions that are occupying certain areas of the Middle East. The area of Baghdad and east is mostly Shiite Islam and west of Baghdad is Sunni Islam. What I found to be most interesting is that even though Jerusalem is surrounded by many different religions they still celebrate Judaism. They are religiously protected by its borders. There is some sign of Sunni Islam being practices within their borders but it is mostly dominated by Judaism.